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French Revolution, cataclysmic political
and social upheaval, extending from 1789 to 1799. The revolution resulted,
among other things, in the overthrow of the monarchy in France and in the
establishment of the First Republic. It was generated by a vast complex
of causes and produced an equally vast complex of consequences.
For more than a century before the accession
of King Louis XVI in 1774, the French government experienced periodic economic
crises resulting from wars, royal mismanagement, and increased indebtedness.
Attempts at reform accomplished little because of opposition from reactionary
members of the nobility and clergy. As the financial crisis worsened under
the rule of Louis, popular demand compelled him to authorize national elections
in 1788 for the Estates-General (an assembly representing clergy, nobility,
and commoners that had last met in 1614).
The Estates-General convened at Versailles
in May 1789. The nobility and clergy immediately challenged the procedure
for voting proposed by the commoners, or third estate. After a six-week
deadlock, the third estate proclaimed itself a National Assembly with sole
power to legislate taxation. The assembly then announced its intentions
to draft a constitution. Some representatives of the nobility and clergy
joined forces with the assembly, which soon renamed itself the National
When Louis, reacting to pressure from
the queen and others, concentrated loyal regiments in Paris and Versailles,
the people of Paris reacted with open insurrection, storming the Bastille
prison on July 14. The Parisian middle class, or bourgeoisie, fearful that
the lower classes would seize power, hastily established a local provisional
government and organized a people's militia, a pattern soon repeated throughout
the nation. In October, as the Constituent Assembly proceeded to draft
a constitution, a large body of Parisians marched on Versailles. Louis
and his family then moved to Paris, where the court and the assembly became
increasingly subject to pressures from the citizens of Paris.
The first draft of the constitution received
the king's approval in July 1790. By the terms of the document, the provinces
were reorganized, hereditary titles were outlawed, trial by jury was ordained,
and restrictions were placed on the power of the Roman Catholic church.
Property qualifications for the vote, however, confined the electorate
to the middle and upper classes. During the 15-month interval before the
completion of the final draft, a trend toward radicalism developed among
the disfranchised section of the population. This process accelerated in
June 1791, when the royal family was apprehended while attempting to flee
The revolutionaries of Paris demanded that
the king be deposed, but moderates in the Constituent Assembly reinstated
the king, hoping to stem radicalism and prevent foreign intervention. The
Constituent Assembly was dissolved, and the new Legislative Assembly, which
met in October, was divided into three groups: a majority without well-defined
political opinions; the supporters of a constitutional monarchy; and a
Republican faction, composed mainly of Girondins, who advocated a federal
republic, and Montagnards, consisting of Jacobins and Cordeliers, who favored
establishment of a highly centralized republic. The Girondins soon emerged
as the most powerful party.
In April 1792 the Legislative Assembly
declared war on the Austrian part of the Holy Roman Empire. Austrian armies
then invaded France. When Sardinia and Prussia joined the war in July,
the assembly declared a national emergency. In August insurgents stormed
the royal residence at the Tuileries. Louis and his family took refuge
with the assembly, which promptly placed him in confinement. Simultaneously,
Montagnards under the leadership of Georges Jacques Danton took control
of the Paris government. They swiftly achieved control of the Legislative
Assembly and called for the creation of a new constitutional convention.
In September a French army checked the
Prussian advance at Valmy. Thereafter, French armies assumed the offensive,
successfully capturing enemy territory. The newly elected National Convention
abolished the monarchy and, in the first major test of strength, a majority
approved the Montagnard proposal that Louis be brought to trial for treason.
The convention found the monarch guilty and sent Louis to the guillotine
in January 1793.
After the king's execution, the Girondins
began to lose influence. Military reverses occurred after war was declared
against Great Britain, the United Netherlands, and Spain. In March the
convention voted to conscript 300,000 men, and peasants in the Vendée
region rebelled. Civil war spread to neighboring areas, and a military
loss to the Austrians resulted in the defection of the leader of the French
In April the convention established the
Committee of Public Safety as the executive office of the republic. After
a Parisian mob forced the arrest of many Girondin delegates, the radical
faction assumed control of the revolution. Leadership of the Committee
of Public Safety passed to Jacobin leader Maximilien Robespierre, who instituted
extreme policies to crush counterrevolutionary activity. From
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Montagnards, French Revolution, Jacobins, French First Republic, Republicanism in France, Maximilien Robespierre, Girondins, Georges Danton, Reign of Terror, The Mountain, National Convention, National Assembly
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