5.2 The French Revolution - TXT-

AGE 7. The Time of Wigs and Revolutions
5.2 The French Revolution
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AGE 7. The Time of Wigs and Revolutions
5.2 The French Revolution

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What you will learn in 
this lesson
  • How the meeting of the Estates-general ended
  • What the Tennis Court Oath was
  • How, why and when the French Revolution started
  • How the Ancien Regime came to an end
  • What happened to Louis XVI
  • How Robespierre could start the Reign of Terror
  • Why the Directory could not solve the problems
  • How other European countries reacted to the revolution in France

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What is this lesson about?
Several factors led to the French Revolution. First of all, a meeting in the Estates-General ended in a disappointment for the third estate. Their proposal to have the first and second estate pay taxes was overruled by the other two estates. Therefore the third estate decided to establish the National Assembly and called for social equality. Poor and dissatisfied people attacked the Bastille and in the countryside, violence broke out against the landlords. After these events, feudal rights were abolished and everyone in France was made a citizen.

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Word Duty

Revolution: a change from one – often political – system to another, in a relatively short period of time
National Assembly: in 1789, a meeting was established by disappointed members of the third estate; several members of the lower nobility and clergy also joined
Tennis Court Oath: a pledge of the third estate and it’s sympathisers not to break-up the National Assembly until a new constitution for France had been written
The Great Fear: a revolt from peasants against their landlords on the countryside
Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen: in 1789, a declaration was written by the National Assembly, stating that everyone is born free and is equal in the eyes of the law
March on Versailles: in October 1789, thousands of angry people went to the Palace of Versailles for a violent confrontation with the Royal court
Reign of Terror: a period of violence in French Revolution marked by mass executions using the guillotine
Jacobines: a political group that dominated the National Assembly and started the Reign of Terror; Robespierre was one of them
Guillotine: a quick method of execution by beheading
Directoire: a committee which governed France after the Reign of Terror
First Coalition War: a military conflict between France and European countries that did not agree with the French Revolution

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important  people
king Louis XVI (16th)
queen Marie Antoinette
Maximilian Robespierre
Napoleon Bonaparte

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Important dates in this lesson: Only study the yellow dates
1789: May:       King Louis XVI calls for a meeting of the Estates-General
         June:      Tennis Court Oath
         July 14:   Storming of the Bastille
         Aug:        the Great Fear 
                        la Nuit des Sacrifices
                        Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen
         Oct:         March on Versailles
1791: Failed escape of the king
1792: Feb:       start First Coalition War
          Sept:      end of the monarchy
                        reign of Terror
1793: Louis XVI executed
1794: Directoire
1797: end First Coalition War
1798: Napoleon arrives.

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A revolution is a change from one – often political - system to another in a relatively short period of time. The French Revolution in 1789 shows very well how rapidly a state can change politically and socially. But the political upheaval in France did not happen overnight.

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Division and disappointment in the Estates-General

On May 5th, 1789, the Palace of Versailles became the meeting place of the clergy, nobility and the representatives of the third estate of France. The main goal of this meeting was to discuss the taxation system in France. Especially the third estate, mostly represented by lawyers and merchants, hoped to establish equal rights and obligations. They proposed a different economic system in which the clergy and nobility also contributed to the king’s wealth.
The nobility did not agree with the proposal of paying taxes because it would take away one of their privileges. 
Another problem was the voting system, namely that each estate received one vote. The number of representatives did not matter. This meant that despite the fact that the third estate had a lot of representatives, their vote was overridden by the clergy and nobility who combined their votes. The third estate demanded the French king to change this rule. Yet Louis XVI refused to change the voting system in the Estates-General.

  1. what was the goal of the meeting?
  2. what did the 3rd estate want to achieve?
  3. how did the voting system work?
  4. why was this not positive for the 3rd estate?
first estate:         300 representatives
second estate:   300 representatives
third estate:       600 representatives

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The Tennis Court Oath

In June 1789, the disappointed and angry third estate decided to establish a new meeting called the National Assembly. Several members of the nobility and clergy also decided to join.
The National Assembly wanted no more absolute power for the French king and an end to the estates system. They believed in equality for everyone. King Louis XVI did not agree with the National Assembly and decided to send 20,000 soldiers in secret to end the meeting of the Assembly.
The next day, members of the Assembly met in an indoor tennis hall that had enough place for all the representatives. The third estate and its sympathisers pledged not to break-up until a new constitution for France had been written. Their pledge is called the Tennis Court Oath.

  1. What was the National Assembly and what did they want?
  2. How did the king respond?
  3. What was the tennis court oath?

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With the name 'National Assembly' the third estate wanted to say that this was the legitimate gathering of the people of France and that the Estates-General was not.

The Tennis Court Oath. Members of the lower nobility and clergy joined the third estate. Painting by Jacques-Louis David (1791).

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A violent start of the French Revolution

In 1789, the French people had simply had enough of food scarcities and the social inequality in their country. The ‘arrogance’ of the nobility and the luxurious lifestyle at Versailles made the people even angrier. In July 1789, hundreds of Parisians gathered together and plundered and destroyed food 
depots, hospitals and armouries. On July 14th, they stormed the Bastille, a state prison where the government stored ammunition. The storming of the Bastille is considered the start of the French Revolution.

  1. what happened on July 14th 1789?
  2. Explain briefly who did this and why
  3. What is significent about this event?
Storming of the Bastille. On the right you see the arresting of Bernard de Launay, the governor of the Bastille. Anonymous painting.

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The Great Fear

The outburst of violence did not only reach the streets of Paris. Between July 17th and August 3th 1789, peasants in the countryside revolted against their landlords. This event is called The Great Fear because peasants believed that the higher classes created the famine on purpose, to starve out the poor people. The peasants destroyed the villas and castles of the hated nobility one by one. Hundreds of people were killed in violent confrontations between the rich and poor.

explain what the Great Fear was (who?, why? what? when?)
The rebellious peasants and city workers were sometimes called the Sans Culottes ('without knee breeches'). They got this nickname because they wore trousers, while the nobility could be recognized by their knee breeches.

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La Nuit des Sacrifices

To gain back control over France, the National Assembly decided to take drastic measures. On August 4th and August 5th 1789, ‘La Nuit des Sacrifices’ took place. This was an important event because it heralded the start of a social revolution in France. After the Great Fear, the estates system was abolished.
Now all people of France were equal and everyone was called citoyenne (‘citizen’).  It also ended the absolutism of the French king. The period of time in which the French king had absolute power is known as the Ancien Régime.

  1. who took which 2 measures during La Nuit des Sacrifices?
La Nuit des Sacrifices: End of the Ancien Régime in a symbolic scene. Anonymous (1789).

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Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen

Two weeks later, the National Assembly established the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen
Its motto still resonates in France and all over the world: liberté (‘freedom’), egalité (‘equality’) and fraternité (‘brotherhood’). According to the Declaration everyone is born free and is equal in the eyes of the law. Furthermore, there is freedom of speech and all religions are to be tolerated.
The French Declaration was inspired by the Declaration of Independence in the United States. You learned about this in chapter 4. According to the American Declaration everyone is equal and no one is above the law. This also means all people have to pay taxes. The ideas of enlightened French philosophers like Montesquieu and Voltaire were the basis of this declaration. They stated that all people have natural rights that cannot be taken away from them. The government should honour these rights, otherwise the people are allowed to revolt.

  1. what were the main ideas of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen?
  2. what is the link between this document, the American Revolution, and the Enlightenment?
The motto Egalité, Fraternité, liberté, first used by Maximilien Robespierre in 1790, in a symbolic drawing.

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March on Versailles

The French people were very suspicious of their king. They feared the monarch wanted to restore the old political situation. Because of suspicion and hunger the political situation in France escalated again. In October 1789, the March on Versailles took place. At first, mostly marketplace women demonstrated, wich is why this event is sometimes called ‘The Women’s March on Versailles’.
The women became intertwined with revolutionaries. Eventually thousands of angry people went to the Palace of Versailles for a dramatic confrontation. People broke into the palace and smashed the royal possessions to pieces. The protesters demanded more bread, and wanted King Louis XVI to accept the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. He had to travel to Paris to accept this new document about human and civil rights. Together with his wife, Queen Marie- Antoinette, the king became a prisoner of the third estate.

  1. why did the protesters march to Versailles?
  2. what did they demand from the king?
The March on Versailles was one of the most significant events of the French Revolution. Anonymous work (1789).

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A failed escape from Paris

In 1791, the French royal family tried to escape from Paris. With loyal troops they wanted to start a counter-revolution. However, the royals were caught in the township of Varennes after being recognised. They seemed to have forgotten that the king’s face was on every coin in France. The National Convention charged Louis XVI with ‘treason’ and classified him as an enemy to the nation. Despite his pleas of innocence, 387 members voted for the death penalty. The king was almost saved, because 334 people voted against his conviction. Eventually Louis XVI was executed on the Place de la Revolution in 1793.

  1. Why did the king want to escape?
  2. What happened to him when he was caught?
Arrival of the French royal family in Paris after flight and capture at Varennes, 25 June 1791. Anonymous work (1791).

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Anonymous French painter
The execution of Louis XVI

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The Reign of Terror

In 1792, the National Assembly officially ended the monarchy, which was replaced by the French Republic with a new government. This started a violent chapter in French history, known as the Reign of Terror. The leader of this movement was Maxime Robespierre. He was a lawyer working in the Estates- General, who was strongly influenced by the Enlightenment thinkers. This made Robespierre a strong opponent of the French monarchy.
Robespierre also believed that everyone who did not agree with the ideals of the revolution should be executed. His fanaticism did not make him very popular. Some people thought he was too extreme, and eventually they proved to be right. Robespierre was supported by a political group called the Jacobines. Soon they dominated the National Assembly and started their Reign of Terror. This led to the death of thousands of people. Still, Robespierre enjoyed great popularity among the people of France. He had a gift for public speaking and could convince people quite easily.

  1. How did France become a Republic?
  2. Who gained more influence in the National Assembly?
  3. What were his ideas?
  4. What were his supporters called?
  5. What was the Reign of Terror?
Maxime Robespierre

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Victims of the guillotine

After the outbreak of the French Revolution, King Louis XVI and his family tried to escape. However, they were caught and brought to Paris. The king and queen were found guilty for treason and were executed on the guillotine in 1793. The guillotine was seen as a painless method of execution because of the quick way of decapitation. During the Reign of Terror thousands of people lost their lives because of this machine. Especially the clergy and aristocracy were prosecuted. It has been estimated that in total about 40,000 people were killed by the guillotine during the French Revolution.

  1. why was the guillotine used to kill people?
  2. which 2 groups were mostly prosecuted?
The motto Egalité, Fraternité, liberté, first used by Maximilien Robespierre in 1790, in a symbolic drawing.

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A new constitution for France

The Reign of Terror ended in 1794 because people were done with all the bloodshed and demanded a more peaceful France. However, the French Revolution did not end peacefully. Maxime Robespierre was executed on the guillotine in 1794 because of his ‘dictatorial behaviour’.
With the death of Robespierre, the Jacobines lost their leader. The political influence of the Jacobines was even more diminished when they were replaced by people with more moderate views. This new group consisted of educated people like doctors and lawyers. Together they established a new government called the Directoire. For the first time in its history, France had a parliament. The Parliament had two chambers: the Council of Five Hundred and the Council of Ancients (250 members). These two councils were the legislative branch, where new laws for France were created. The 750 members appointed five directors: the executive branch.

  1. How and why did the Reign of terror end?
  2. What kind of group took over from the Jacobines?
  3. What was the Directoire and how was it organized?

the execution of Robespierre

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A new leader

Despite the establishment of the Directoire, the common people still had to face high bread prices and starvation. France seemed to be on the brink of a new revolution. Yet escalation was prevented because of the appearance of a new French leader: Napoleon Bonaparte. He was a general who returned to France in 1798 after he had won battles against Italy and Egypt, during the First Coalition War (1792-1797). This war was a military conflict between France and European countries that did not agree with the French Revolution. Countries like Austria, Prussia, Great Britain, Spain and the Dutch Republic feared that the revolutionary ideas would affect them too. The people of France saw General Napoleon as a hero. It turned out he had big plans that would affect France in the decades to come.

  1. Why did the Directoire face yet another revolution?
  2. Who became the new leader and why did people see him as a hero?
  3. Why was the First Coalition War fought?
French revolutionary soldiers in a battle at the First Coalition War. Painting by Horace Vernet (1792).
insert: a young officer named Napoleon Bonaparte

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  1. a committee which governed France after the Reign of Terror
  2. a military conflict between France and European countries that did not agree with the French Revolution
  3. a quick method of execution by beheading
  4. a political group that domintated the National Assembly and started the Reign of Terror
  5. thousands of angry people went to the Palace of Versailles for a violent confrontation with the royal court
  6. a period of violence in the French Revolution marked by mass executions using the guillotine

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