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The Revolution Begins. Main Idea Problems in French society led to a revolution, the formation of a new government, and the end of the monarchy. Objectives: Students will explore the causes of the French Revolution. Students will identify the first events of the French Revolution.

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The Revolution Begins

Main Idea

Problems in French society led to a revolution, the formation of a new government, and the end of the monarchy.


  • Students will explore the causes of the French Revolution.
  • Students will identify the first events of the French Revolution.
  • Students will discover how the French created a new nation.
  • Students will investigate the Reign of Terror, and how did its consequences

Causes of the Revolution

Long-standing resentments against the monarchy

  • Inequalities in society
    • Existing social and political structure
    • Called the Old Order, or ancient régime
  • King at the top and estates under him
    • King Louis XVI, shy and indecisive
    • Unpopular, self-indulgent queen, Marie-Antoinette
    • Rest of French society divided into three classes, called estates

First Estate

Second Estate

Third Estate

  • Roman Catholic clergy
  • One percent of the population
  • Exempt from taxes
  • Owned 10 percent of the land
    • Collected rents and fees
    • Bishops and other clergy grew wealthy
  • Nobility
  • Less than 2 percent of the population
  • Paid few taxes
  • Controlled much wealth
  • Held key positions
    • Government
    • Military
  • Lived on country estates
  • Largest group—97% of the population
  • Bourgeoisie—city-dwelling merchants, factory owners, and professionals
  • Sans culottes—artisans and workers
  • Peasants—poor with little hope, paid rents and fees

The Three Estates

Varied widely in what they contributed in terms of work and taxes


Enlightenment Ideas

A Financial Crisis

  • Inspiring new ideas from Enlightenment philosophers
  • Great Britain’s government limiting the king’s power
  • American colonists rebelled successfully against British king
  • New ideas changed government and society in other countries
  • Severe economic problems affected much of the country
  • France in debt (financing the American Revolution), spending lavishly, borrowing money, and facing bankruptcy
  • Hailstorm and drought ruined harvest; harsh winter limited flour production
  • People hungry and angry; clergy and nobility no help

Further Causes


First Events of the Revolution

By 1789, no group happy

  • Clergy and nobility lost power to monarchy
  • Bourgeoisie resented regulations
  • Poor worse off

Estates General meets

  • Desire for reforms
  • Voting process a problem
  • Third Estate proclaimed themselves National Assembly
  • Tennis Court Oath

Storming of the Bastille

  • King brought in troops
  • People of Paris armed themselves
  • Searching for weapons, a mob stormed the Bastille

Great Fear spread

  • King to punish the Third Estate with foreign soldiers
  • Rumors of massacres
  • Peasants destroyed records and burned nobles’ houses

On the morning of 20 June, the deputies were shocked to discover that the chamber door was locked and guarded by soldiers. Immediately fearing the worst, and anxious that a royal attack by King Louis XVI was imminent, the deputies congregated in a nearby indoor tennis court where they took a solemn collective oath "not to separate, and to reassemble wherever circumstances require, until the constitution of the kingdom is established".


Legislating New Rights

Restrictions on Power

  • Feudal dues eliminated
  • Declaration laid out “liberty, equality, fraternity”
  • Inspired by the English Bill of Rights, American Declaration of Independence, and the writings of Enlightenment philosophers
  • Men are born equal and remain equal under the law
  • The rights did not extend to women
  • Louis tried to protect his throne
  • Angered the common people
  • Prices still high; mob broke into the palace demanding bread
  • Royal family seized; National Assembly took bolder steps
  • Passed laws against the church, clergy, and public employees
  • Some outraged by actions

Creating a New Nation


Foreign Powers

End of Monarchy

  • Austria and Prussia warned against harming monarchs
  • Austrian army defeats French
  • Financial strain of war, food shortages, and high prices
  • King blamed; action demanded
  • August 10, 1792 royal family imprisoned by mob
  • Radical faction took charge with National Convention
  • Monarchy abolished; France declared a republic

Formation of a New Government

In 1791, the Legislative Assembly is formed. Citizens gained broad voting rights, but rights were not universal. Constitution restricted power of king and ended distinctions of birth. King and queen feared they would be harmed.

French revolutionary troops won the Battle of Valmy. New French republic held ground against Europe’s Old Order.





  • Radical Mountain
  • Moderate Girondins
  • The Plain (swing voters)
  • No group had program or plan of action
  • Personal rivalries
  • Marat
    • Sansculottes, advocate of violence
  • Danton
    • Compromiser
  • Robespierre
    • Dedicated radical
  • King put to death by guillotine
  • Europeans reacted with horror
    • Revolution savagery condemned

A Radical Government

In 1792, the radical representatives were in charge of the National Convention. The constitutional monarchy came to a violent end, and France became a republic.


Maximilien Robespierre

"Terror is nothing other than justice, prompt, severe, inflexible"


The Reign of Terror

  • Course of Revolution
  • Revolutionary leaders feared counterrevolution and took drastic actions with accusations, trials, and executions. This period was known as the Reign of Terror.
  • An Outbreak of Civil War
  • Peasants, essentially conservative, only wanted an end to feudal dues.
  • Remaining devoutly Catholic, the Vendée region opposed the Revolution in a civil war. The government put down the counterrevolution to regain control.
  • Accusations and Trials
  • Robespierre used the Revolutionary Tribunal to rid the country of dissent.
  • It started with the Girondists, but soon anyone who had ever criticized the Revolution, or who had connections to the Old Order, was in danger.

An engraving of Robespierre guillotining the executioner after having guillotined everyone else in France

18th century

La Guillotine en 1793 by H. Fleischmann (1908), page 269 Google BooksInternet Archive copy


The Terror’s Victims

After the Terror

  • No one was spared
  • Peasants and laborers affected
  • Danton and Robespierre
  • 40,000 executed in 10 months
  • “Oh Liberty, what crimes are committed in your name!”
  • France started over with new constitution in 1795
  • Voting limited to property owners
  • The Directory established
  • High prices, bankruptcy, and citizens’ unrest continued
  • Power vacuum developed

No Escape from the Terror

  • Death by Guillotine
  • Most common sentence - death by guillotine
  • Condemned paraded through Paris in open carts
  • Mobs watched at scaffold; executions took less than one minute