On 14 July 1789 hundreds of French city workers stormed the Bastille fortress in Paris. This marked the beginning of the French Revolution, which would last for 10 years. The Revolution destroyed the Old Order in France that determined every single person’s position and rights. Workers who had long been denied rights and privileges grew frustrated and angry that the higher classes would never be fair to them. They decided to challenge the ruling order to force change. The Bastille was a symbol of the Old Order and its fall symbolized the collapse of the hated Order. The French Revolution had an impact on the rest of Europe and in many other parts of the world.

Spark Notes on the French Revolution: From the world famous Spark Notes an overview of the French Revolution together with links to additional resources, a quiz and exam type questions. Excellent pop-up glossary that helps explain difficult terms.
The 'thinkquest' site also boasts a great school-oriented section on the French Revolution.

When you read about the French Revolution, you will come across certain important terms and ideas. These will be explained in the topic.

July 1788 - Calling together of the Estates General
17 June 1789 - Third Estate declares itself the National Assembly
14 July 1789 - Storming of the Bastille
Late July 1789 - The Great Fear
4 August 1789 - Nobles surrender their special privileges
20 April 1792 - Legislative Assembly declares war on Austria
21-22 September 1792 - The monarchy is done away with
January 1793 - Louis XVI is guillotined
June 1793 - The Jacobins take power
28 July 1794 - Robespierre is guillotined
1799 - Napoleon seizes power; Revolution ends

Causes What is a Revolution?

Revolution: The overthrow of a government, usually by violence; and a great change in a political, social or economic system.

A revolution is when people rebel against the government or the way other people treat them. They will try to change these things, and try to get into power themselves. In the French Revolution, the common people of France rebelled against the absolute king and the way the rich and socially-important minority exploited and mistreated them. They tried to change the whole social order that made the minority mistreat them.

What caused the French Revolution?

In France, there was a very strict social order that determined your place in society, what you could do for a living, and where you could live. It was called the Ancien Régime or Old Order.

Estates: One of the three social classes in France under the Ancien Regime

The Old Order divided society into three groups or Estates. The first two Estates were very privileged: most of them had big houses and a lot of money, so that they did not have to work. They also did not have to pay taxes. These two Estates were the clergy (those working for the Roman Catholic Church, like priests and monks) and the aristocracy (or nobles). Together, these two classes made up only 2% of all the people in France. The other 98% was the common people, or the Third Estate. They included peasants (farm workers), urban workers and a small group of businessmen and educated people called the bourgeoisie, or middle class.

A Revolutionary poster with the motto of the French Revolution: Unity, Indivisibility of the French Republic, Liberty, Equality andBrotherhood – or death. Source: unknown

The peasants and the urban workers (the masses) were very poor. They had little to eat, and the peasants were not even allowed to hunt for food – they lived on land owned by noblemen, and it was seen as their right alone to hunt and fish. Sometimes they had to get the permission of their landlord to get married, or the landlord chose whom they should marry. They could not leave the land they lived and worked on without permission from their landlord. This was all part of a system called the feudal system, which had existed from the Middle Ages. By the 1780s, things became even worse. The price of food like bread became very high, and the city workers could not afford it. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the king raised the taxes. Not only could they not afford to buy bread, but now they had to pay higher and higher taxes to both the king and the Church!

The bourgeoisie was not as poor as the masses. They were educated and talented, and some of them were even richer than some of the noblemen! But because they were part of the Third Estate, they could not hold high positions in the government, army, or the Church – that was reserved for the Second Estate. They felt this was very unfair – why should some people get good jobs even if they were not the most talented ones, just because they were born into the right Estate?

The Third Estate became so dissatisfied and angry that they were ready to fight against the higher classes and the unfair Old Order. At the beginning of 1789 they became more hopeful – it looked like the king would allow changes and give them a say in their own lives. But by July they realized that the only way their lives would ever get better was to take matters into their own hands. The urban workers in Paris were the first ones to make a move: they stormed the Bastille and took it over. When the peasants heard about it, they also started a revolt in the countryside. The French Revolution had begun.

The King Louis':
The first “Louis” was Charlemagne’s son. With his later namesakes, the Bourbon kings Louis XIII, Louis XIV and Louis XV, absolutism reached a climax. Although the next one, Louis XVI made attempts at reform, the French Revolution broke out during his reign, and he was executed by the revolutionaries in 1793. The name “Louis” was derived from “Clovis”, which was the fourth French monarch (481-511).
Louis XIV, also known as the Sun King, reigned for more than 70 years – the longest reign in European history. Louis XIV inherited the throne when he was only five years old, and until he was old enough to reign by himself, his chief minister Mazarin was in control of the state. Absolute monarchy reached its ultimate height during this time, and the Sun King is today maybe best known for his lavish lifestyle, as epitomised in his famous palace, Versailles. He fought many wars against other European countries, which left the country in great debt. This debt became a huge financial crisis during the reigns of his two successor, especially Louis XVI. It became one of the direct causes of the French Revolution.

Events leading up to the Revolution The Meeting of the Estates General

Estates General: An official meeting called by the French king, with representatives from all the Estates.

When the king wanted money, he just increased the taxes of the Third Estate. According to the Old Order, the first two Estates did not have to pay taxes. In the 1780s the king had serious financial troubles, and wanted to solve this by taxing the higher Estates who were resisting this. At the time in France only a special institution with representatives from all the Estates, the Estates General, could vote and decide on raising taxes. However it could only meet on the order of the king. For 175 years no king had done this because they did not want to give the people any say in the governance of the country. When king Louis XVI wanted to tax the higher Estates, they forced him to call a meeting of the Estates General.

The National Assembly met in an indoor tennis court in Versailles. They swore to not break up the meeting until they had drawn up a constitution for France. This oath is known as the “Tennis Court Oath.” Source: www.historywiz.com

When the Estates General met the different Estates argued on how the voting process would work. The bourgeoisie representing the Third Estate wanted the same rights as the Second Estate. They realised that the Second Estate would never give them this and they broke away to form their own group.

The National Assembly

The new group was called the National Assembly. Their goal was to draw up a constitution for France in which the Third Estate could also have voting rights. The Second Estate saw this as an attempt to do away with the Old Order, and forced the king to crush the National Assembly. The king promised to do so.

The Storming of the Bastille

When the National Assembly was formed the masses of peasants and city workers hoped that it would change the Old Order and improve their own lives. When the king threatened to crush the Assembly, they realised that the Second Estate would resist change. They decided to take matters into their own hands.

The storming of the Bastille, July 14 1789. Hundreds of Parisian workers stormed the Bastille fortress, marking the beginning of the French Revolution. Source: www.discoverfrance.net

On 14 July 1789 hundreds of urban (city) workers from Paris stormed the fortress and prison that was called the Bastille. They thought the fortress was full of weapons and they wanted to arm themselves. The fortress was a symbol of the Old Order, and when the masses captured it, it signified the end of the Old Order.

With the storming of the Bastille, the French Revolution officially started.

The First Moderate Stage (1789-1791)

The French Revolution was a fight for freedom from oppression and for equality of all people in France. The motto of the revolutionaries was “Liberty [Freedom], Equality and Fraternity [Brotherhood]”.The events of the Revolution occurred over 10 years and can be divided into 3 stages.

The first was a moderate phase, when the changes achieved were not that big and with not much violence being inflicted. The second stage was more radical with changes taking place and a lot of violence. Members of the aristocracy as well as the king and queen were beheaded at the guillotine. Anyone who did not support the government was killed. This stage ended when the man who was responsible for this “reign of terror” was killed. The third and last stage was again moderate much like the first stage. This stage ended when Napoleon Bonaparte seized power and turned France into a mighty and aggressive empire.

In the countryside, the peasants burned down the manor houses of the aristocracy. Fearing for their lives, the aristocracy fled the country. In the picture, one can see them fleeing with their coaches and horses while the buildings are burning. The event is called The Great Fear. Source: www.historywiz.com

The first stage of the French Revolution started when the urban masses stormed the Bastille. Some of the soldiers who were guarding the Bastille joined them, and they took over the fortress, released the prisoners who were kept there and killed the man in charge of the prison. When the peasants in the countryside heard what had happened in Paris, they

joined in the revolution. They did this by burning the manor houses of their landlords and destroying the feudal registers. These registers were the only proof on paper of the feudal relationship between the peasants and their landlords. When they were destroyed, it was easy for the National Assembly to do away with the feudal rights of the Second Estate. On 26 August 1789 the National Assembly started to create a constitution by drawing up the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (almost like a Bill of Rights). This contained liberal ideas of human rights and how people should be ruled.

But the king was still an absolute ruler, and before the Declaration could be put into practice, the king had to accept it. He did not want to do this, until angry masses marched to his palace at Versailles to demand that he accept the Declaration. Fearing that they would take the palace over like they did with the Bastille, he quickly gave in and accepted the demands. Many nobles had also given in to the demands of the Third Estate, and had given up their feudal rights. Those who refused to do so started to flee from the country in fear of their lives and because they did not want to give up their privileges.

The first stage ended in 1791, when the bourgeoisie's National Assembly was in power.

The March to Versailles. The marchers were mostly women, who did not have bread to feed their families and wanted to demand changes from the king and queen. Source: www.historywiz.com

These are some of the changes they made:

  • The Second Estate lost their special privileges;
  • Basic human rights - like liberty and equality - were accepted;
  • The Church lost its special privileges - tithes were stopped and Church land was taken and sold;
  • The king lost his absolute power;
  • Everybody became equal before the law and had the right to a fair trial;
  • All men above 25 could get voting rights (but they had to earn a certain amount of money before they could get these rights).

Absolute rule: A form of government where the ruler has unlimited power and the people of the country do not have a say in how they are governed.Moderate: average, not extreme.Radical: thorough, drastic, extreme.Feudal registers: Documents in which feudal relationships were recorded - which Peasants "belonged" to which lord, and in which village they lived.Tithe: Ten percent of one’s income or produce paid to the Church, like tax.

The Radical Stage (1792-1794)

After the First Moderate Stage, the bourgeoisie wanted the Revolution to end with them in power. But the rest of the Third Estate and the masses were not satisfied. Although the new constitution said that any man over 25 could get voting rights, voters had to earn a certain amount of money. Most people did not earn enough money to get these rights. They felt that their lives had not really changed, but that now they had a new unfair master. The bourgeoisie had replaced the aristocracy and now dominated the poor people.

Monarch: The highest ruler in a state, usually a king or emperor. In this lesson it means the king.Republic: A state that is not governed by a monarch, but where citizens have a say in how they are governed.

The king then sought help from kings in neighboring countries to get rid of the revolutionaries. Austria and Prussia then attacked France. The French people blamed the king for this, and took all his power away. France did not have a monarch anymore, and became a republic. In January 1793 the French King was killed at the guillotine.

The Jacobins and the Reign of Terror

Maximilien Robespierre, the man who was responsible for the Reign of Terror. Source: www.historywiz.com

The new group that came into power was called the Jacobins. They came from the masses, and wrote a new constitution. Under this constitution all men over 25 years old would have voting rights no matter how much money they had. The Jacobins used violence to stay in power and killed those who did not support or agree with them. The Jacobins became a feared and hated group, and their rule became known as the “Reign of Terror”. They killed the aristocracy in big public displays, so that the other people could see how they dealt with their enemies.

The man who was responsible for these deaths was Maximilien Robespierre. His terror and violence grew so great that even people who did support the Jacobins were killed. Finally, the people decided that they had had enough. Robespierre’s own friends turned against him and on 27 July 1794 Robespierre was killed at the guillotine. The Reign of Terror ended and the Radical Stage of the Revolution was over.

The Second Moderate Stage (1795-1799)

The Reign of Terror had shown that although the Jacobins had saved the republic, the radical way in which they did it was against the ideas of civil freedom (how could people be free if they were killed for disagreeing with the government?) But the Revolution was not finished yet. Once again, the members of the bourgeoisie were in power, and their government was called the Directorate. In 1795 they drew up another constitution, one that re-instated the qualifications for voting rights that were in the first constitution (1791).

Bourgeoisie: A group of people who were part of the Third Estate but were educated, professional and rich, unlike the peasants and urban workers.

During this last moderate phase no major changes were made and the economic problem was not solved. Pressure from the masses from the one side, and from those still supporting a monarchy on the other, continued. The foreign armies were still a threat.

So, while the French government was weak, their only protection from the foreign armies was the army, and unlike their government, the Committee of Public Safety’s war effort was realizing unimaginable success. The generals became more and more powerful and gained more influence within the country.


French armies, especially those led by young general Napoleon Bonaparte, were making progress in nearly every direction. Napoleon’s forces drove through Italy and reached as far as Egypt before facing a deflating defeat. In the face of this rout, and having received word of political upheavals in France, Napoleon returned to Paris. He arrived in time to lead a coup against the Directory in 1799, eventually stepping up and naming himself “first consul” - effectively, the leader of France. With Napoleon at the helm, the Revolution ended, and France entered a fifteen-year period of military rule.

What did the French Revolution mean to the rest of the world?

Even though Napoleon was an autocratic leader, the ideas of the French Revolution did not totally end when he took power. He did not give his people political freedom, but he did keep many of the changes brought about by the Revolution. People were still equal before the law and jobs were open to men with talent raher than depending on their class of birth. After the Revolution, the Old Order was destroyed along with feudal practices. The aristocracy and clergy were no longer the most important people in the country. The bourgeoisie became the group with the most influence.

Today, long after Napoleon’s time, the ideas of the French Revolution have made an impact on how we live. It has especially influenced European countries, the United States of America, Canada and Australia to run democratically. Citizens have a say in how they are governed and can choose who their leaders are. Everyone has equal rights and people are free to express themselves. Many people see the French Revolution as the main event that made these ideas so important. The Revolution ended the Middle Ages with its Old Order and feudal system and ushered in a modern time with democracy and civil freedoms.

Activities: We have put together a series of classroom activities to help students learn how to work from sources, like; maps, cartoons, quotes.

Further reading: Cape Flats Education Fellowship has published a number of "Lectures" delivered during 1955 on the theme: "The French Revolution."(PDF)

Collections in the Archives