The French Revolution

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What are the key events, causes, effects, and key players of the French Revolution?

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The French Revolution occurred in several stages, beginning in 1789 with the overthrow of the Ancien Régime and culminating in 1799 with a military coup led by Napoleon Bonaparte.

There were several causes of the French Revolution. These various causes worked together, each creating opposition to the Ancien Régime in a different social or political group.

First, the Enlightenment had undermined many of the political and religious beliefs underlying the old order. The alliance between "throne and altar" was no longer seen as legitimate, with people coming to doubt the "divine right of kings" and instead seeing consent of the ruled as an essential part of the legitimacy of a regime. Many in France had doubts about Catholicism itself as well. Another major cause was the rise of the wealthy bourgeois, a group that had economic but not political power, and as commoners, were excluded from equal participation in many institutions of power. Financial problems led Louis XVI to raise taxes and other economic problems made basic necessities such as food increasingly unaffordable for the poor and peasants. Because extremely wealthy nobles and the Church were exempt from many forms of taxation, the middle classes were increasingly harmed by the state's effort to raise revenue through taxation. Finally, Louis XVI's centralization of power offended many provincial nobles. 

In May of 1789, Louis XVI convened the Estates-General, originally intended as a path to moderate financial reform. Jacques Necker was a key figure in demanding tax reform. The Estates declared themselves a National Assembly in June, a radical departure from earlier political thinking and power structures, and began to operate as a legitimate legislative body. With the storming of the Bastille on 14 July 1789, the revolution was fully in progress. Two other important dates were:

  • 4 August 1789: Abolition of feudalism and abolition of the formal division of France into three estates. 
  • 26 August 1789: Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, a publication that articulated the ideology and principles of the Revolution. Inspired by the ideals of the American Revolution, this asserted universal human rights and liberties. 

Several other important reforms were the Civil Constitution of the Clergy in 1790 that made members of the clergy into civil servants, as well as other economic and political reforms. On 21 January 1793, Louis XVI, who had attempted to restore his throne with foreign help, was beheaded by guillotine.

The Reign of Terror of 1793 and 1794 was a period in which factions within the National Assembly became increasing radicalized and, under the influence of Maximilien Robespierre and St. Juste, enacted radical measures, including executions of "enemies of the Revolution" and stringent secularization. 

This was followed in 1794, with the more moderate Directoire, a group with oligarchic tendencies. Napoleon's coup of 9 November 1799 marked the end of the Revolution.

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