The French Revolution

The fateful French Revolution (1789 – 1799) began under King Louis XVI. Among the contributing factors leading up to the revolution were three things:

  • The salon culture: private home talks about politics and ideas. This is significant because it helped to develop Enlightenment ideas that would later fuel the revolution.
  • Special privileges for the nobility. These privileges were mainly tax exemptions, which caused worse finances for the French government.
  • The major debt crisis. Due to all the wars, and participation in wars, the French were just managing to pay the interest rates of their loans. This alone consumed fifty-percent of their budget.

So, in 1789 the king called a meeting of the Estates General. This was a collection of three parties that voted for laws, taxes, etc…. One party was the 1st Estate, made up of the clergy. Another party was the 2nd Estate, consisting of the nobility. Yet another party was the 3rd Estate, the commoners, in other words the rest of France. In the Estates General, the voting was made by estate (3 votes), instead of by head. This made the voting unfair. Even though the 3rd Estate greatly outnumbered the 1st and 2nd combined, the latter often voted together, making the vote count 2:1.

1st, 2nd, and 3rd estates

1st, 2nd and 3rd Estates with the 3rd Carrying the Other Two


In 1789, for the first time in history the 3rd Estate took sudden charge of the meeting. They outright decided without any legal permission to become a separate assembly: the National Assembly otherwise called the Assembly of the People.

Oath of the Tennis Court

Oath of the Tennis Court

Then, after being thrown out of the main building, they assembled in a tennis court and made an oath (The Oath of the Tennis Court): we will not disperse until we can have a constitution of sorts for France.

Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen 1789

Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen-1789

Then, the National Assembly approved and passed, instead of a constitution (which would come later), the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. This document was directly influenced by Thomas Jefferson who worked together with General LaFayette.

The Catholic Church suffered deeply throughout the French Revolution. In 1789, church lands were confiscated and monastic vows were abolished and forbidden. In 1790 the Civil Constitution of the Clergy was passed. This stated that the clergy’s salaries were to be paid by the government, that priests and bishops would be locally elected, rather than appointed by the pope, and that bishops must give an oath of allegiance to the government. This last would separate the priests into two categories: the juring priests and the non-juring priests (oath givers and non-oath givers).

In 1791, the revolution began to undermine to a greater degree the king’s political powers. The Civil Constitution was written, which stated that there would be a single legislative body and the king would be able to give only a suspensive veto, versus an all-out prohibition. The National Convention was assembled and constant international warfare, to distract the people from the plight, was decided upon.

A year later the king’s guards were killed, Louis was placed under house arrest, under constant guard and not allowed to hear mass.

That same year the September Massacres occurred, cruel and brutal, and then, in 1793 the final blow was dealt: the French king, Louis XVI, was beheaded.

With the absence of a monarch the Reign of Terror began (1793 – 1794).  The Committee of Public Safety was formed by the Convention. The leader was a man named Robespierre. The Law of Suspects was passed and the committee was free to execute all people whom they took to be anti-revolutionary (or rather anti-reign of terror). Two-thirds of the victims were from the former 3rd Estate.

Following was a sweeping de-Christianization of France beginning with the abolition of the churches themselves. (This came from the ideas of the Enlightenment, mainly the idea of the use of reason alone.) The name saint was abolished and clerical dress was forbidden. Priests were no longer distinguished as juring or non-juring. Instead, all were demanded to give up their priesthood. This forced tens of thousands of priests to immigrate to other countries. Italy and Austria refused them, but they were welcomed in Spain, the Papal States and England (a non-Catholic country).

In addition, a new calendar was made. There were twelve thirty-day months and three ten-day weeks (seven day weeks represented the Creation–Catholic). The remaining five days were used for feasting (this makes 365). Time didn’t anymore begin with Christ’s birth (year 0), but with the death of Louis XVI.

However, the Reign of Terror soon got out of hand. Robespierre became a dictator, and soon a former ‘reign-of-terror man’ called Danton was fighting him. Danton was subsequently imprisoned and then executed. At his execution Danton told Robespierre that he too would soon be killed. True to this prophecy, Robespierre was executed shortly after in 9 Thermidor, a month in the new calendar.

Here is a quotation from Robespierre justifying the use of terror:

What is the fundamental principle of the democratic or popular government…? It is virtue… Republican virtue can be considered in relation to the people and in relation to the government; it is necessary in both. When only the government lacks virtue, there remains a resource in the people’s virtue; but when the people themselves are corrupted, liberty is already lost…

If the spring of popular government in time of peace is virtue, the springs of popular government in revolution are at once virtue and terror. Virtue without terror is fatal; terror without virtue is powerless. Terror is nothing other than justice: prompt, severe, inflexible. It is therefore an emanation of virtue… a consequence of the general principle of democracy applied to our country’s most urgent needs.

It has been said that terror is the principle of despotic government. Does your government therefore resemble despotism? Yes, as the sword that gleams in the hands of the heroes of liberty resembles those in the hands of the henchmen of tyranny. Let the despot govern by terror his brutalised subjects; he is right, as a despot. Subdue by terror the enemies of liberty, and you will be right… The government of the revolution is liberty’s despotism against tyranny…


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