There were four main causes of the French Revolution of 1789. The first was that the increasingly prosperous elite of wealthy commoners (merchants, manufacturers, and professionals – called the bourgeoisie) resented their exclusion from political power and positions of honor.¹
Secondly, peasants were less willing to support the burdensome feudal system that did not benefit them.¹ Thirdly, French participation in the American Revolution had driven the French government onto the brink of bankruptcy.¹ Lastly, crop failures and economic depression in France made the population restless.¹
Due to general discontent of the current political situation in France, the Estates-General was called to meet. The Estates-General represented the Clergy, the Nobility, and the Third Estate (commoners). Members were elected, 600 for the Third Estate, 300 for the nobility, and 300 for the clergy.¹
A battle broke out as to whether the vote should be done by head, giving power to the Third Estate, or by representation of each Estate. The Third Estate detached itself and declared it to be the National Assembly.¹ The clergy and nobility reluctantly joined.
Out of fear that the King was planning to overthrow the Third Estate, a Parisian crowd overthrew the Bastille, a symbol of royal tyranny.¹
On August 26, 1789, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen was introduced. The declaration outlined the rights of property and the right to resist oppression.¹ When the King refused to sign the declaration, the royal family was seized and taken to Paris.
The new assembly made more than half of the adult population eligible to vote.¹ Church land was confiscated and sold in order to reduce the French national debt. Lastly, the justice system and government departments were headed by elected officials, including all judges.¹
France declared war against Austria in 1792 in order to show that it was not vulnerable.¹ As France began to loose, revolutionaries captured the royal family and imprisoned them; additionally, Parisian crowds broke into the prisons holding aristocrats and massacred them.¹
King Louis XVI was judged by the National Convention, condemned to death for treason, and executed. His queen, Marie-Antoinette was executed nine months later.¹
Robespierre and his political party seized political power and adopted radical economic and social policies. This period was known as The Terror. They introduced government control of prices (known as maximum), taxed the rich, brought national assistance to the poor, and declared education free and compulsory. Terror broke out and over 17,000 innocent people were arrested and killed.¹
Napoleon Bonaparte rose to power and abolished the previous French government and became the leader of France as its “First Consul”.¹ Napoleon began a campaign of expansion that continued even when he declared the revolution over.