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Phases of the French Revolution: Overview & Events

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  • 1:03 Moderate Phase
  • 2:35 A Radical Turn
  • 4:15 The Directory
  • 5:03 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Troolin

Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.

This lesson will provide a brief overview of the primary phases, key events, and main characters of the French Revolution. We will also study the conditions and circumstances leading up to the Revolution.

A Recipe for Revolution

In 1789, France was a mess. Years of expensive wars, bad harvests, class tensions, irresponsible and luxurious nobles, unemployment, food shortages, overpopulation, financial crises, and civil unrest were taking their toll. Combine all of that with Enlightenment ideas, like the right to rebel, natural rights for all men, freedom of thought, and power to the people, and a recipe for revolution quickly emerged.

The triggering event for such a revolution occurred in May of 1789 when King Louis XVI called an assembly of the Estates General. The king was almost bankrupt, and he could only receive more money by meeting with the three estates: the nobles, the clergy, and the Third Estate, or commoners. The members of the Third Estate, however, were fed up with the conditions in France. They wanted change, and they wanted it right away. The assembly gave them the perfect opportunity to push for reform, and before long, the French Revolution began.

The Moderate Phase

The revolution commenced with a so-called moderate phase, at least by comparison with what would happen later. The members of the Third Estate had created so much ruckus that they had been barred from the assembly, but they were not ready to give up. Instead, they met on the tennis court at Versailles on June 20, 1789, took an oath not to disband until they got a new constitution, and eventually formed themselves into the National Constituent Assembly.

Meanwhile, public unrest was growing in Paris, and it overflowed when a mob stormed the Bastille prison on July 14. Paris descended into panic as the Bastille's commander and the city's mayor were beheaded.

The defiant National Constituent Assembly used this unrest to their advantage and obtained its new constitution as well as limitations on the monarchy and the Declaration of the Rights of Man, which proclaimed freedom, natural rights, and government by the people. The Assembly, however, still could not solve the country's economy problems, and conditions continued to deteriorate. Suspicions rose on all sides, especially against the nobility. The king became a prisoner in his own nation, violent uprisings rocked the countryside, and France entered into a war with Austria and Prussia. An elected Legislative Assembly took control of the government in 1791 but didn't do any better than its predecessor. The situation was about to explode.

Events Take a Radical Turn

On August 10, 1792, the Legislative Assembly fell to mob violence, and soon the new National Convention took its place. The Convention was far more radical than the Assembly, and on September 21, it abolished the monarchy and declared France a republic. To emphasize that the monarchy was really defunct, the Convention executed Louis XVI in January of 1793.

Radical leaders like Maximilien de Robespierre and Georges Danton rose to take power. Under their control, France entered a period of radical secularism. The Convention closed Christian churches, set up a new calendar, and opened temples to the 'goddess of reason.'

In March of 1793, the Reign of Terror began when the dictatorial Committee of Public Safety, which had more control over France than the Convention, started executing so-called 'traitors' - in other words, anyone who disagreed with the new regime. Over the next ten months, thousands of people fell to the guillotine.

Finally, in the midst of the chaos, the leaders turned on each other. Factions arose everyone. No one was safe. Danton, with his slightly more moderate views, fell victim first. Even the author of terror, Robespierre himself, was executed in July of 1794.

It was then that people began to wake up and react against the radicals and their Reign of Terror. Frenchmen called for order and security and for another new constitution, which they finally received August of 1795.

The Directory

This new constitution created the Directory, a five-man executive board of dictators. The terror abated a bit, but the Directory proved to be weak and unpopular. Uprisings and attempted coups broke out everywhere, and the army had its hands full trying to control them as well as fight a strenuous war against Austria, Great Britain, Russia, and Turkey.

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