The French Revolution: Timeline & Major Events

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  • 0:01 What Was the French…
  • 0:52 Timeline
  • 5:43 The Impact
  • 6:48 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, former middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will learn about the French Revolution. We will examine the causes of the French Revolution and highlight the key themes and events associated with it.

What Was the French Revolution?

The French Revolution was a watershed event in modern history. It took place between 1789 and 1799 and resulted in profound political and social change, most noticeably the establishment of the First French Republic and the execution of King Louis XVI. It was a horribly violent affair. Tens of thousands of people were executed during the Reign of Terror (don't worry; we'll talk about this more in a little bit).

When you include the wars spawned by the Revolution, it cost the lives of over 1,000,000 people. The French Revolution came to a close when Napoleon Bonaparte ascended to power at the turn of the century.

Timeline of the French Revolution

King Louis XVI was the King of France throughout the second half of the 18th century. Under his leadership, French involvement in North American affairs (like the French and Indian War and the American Revolution) left the country in a state of near bankruptcy. On top of this, poor harvests, cattle disease, and other internal problems exacerbated France's financial crisis. To deal with this crisis, heavy taxes were imposed, angering the already struggling French peasants and urban poor.

To gather support for a financial reform program, the king called to order the Estates-General. The Estates-General was a general assembly representing the French population. It was composed of three parts: the First Estate (made up of the clergy), the Second Estate (made up of the nobility), and the Third Estate (made up of the common people). Although the Third Estate represented the vast majority of the French population, its vote could essentially be vetoed by the other two Estates, giving the king and the aristocrats in power an advantage.

In May 1789, the Third Estate organized themselves into a new legislative body called the National Assembly. They invited the other two Estates to join them, which to the dismay of the king, they did. Fearful that the king might disband the National Assembly and clamp down on the radicals, the people of Paris took to the streets in rioting and demonstrations.

On July 14, rioters stormed the Bastille fortress, attempting to secure arms and gunpowder. This event has been highly mythologized, and today remains one of the primary symbols of the French Revolution. Jumping on the bandwagon of revolutionary fervor, the lower classes rose up against the nobility. Rioting, looting, and chaos swept the country.

In August 1789, the National Assembly adopted the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. This document outlined universal human rights regardless of class. It did not extend rights to women or slaves, since they were ineligible for citizenship at the time. This important document was partly inspired by the Declaration of Independence and was rooted in Enlightenment thinking. Over the next few years, legislative assemblies worked to reform government. A written constitution was drafted in 1791, making France a constitutional monarchy.

In April 1792, war broke out between France and a coalition of other countries, including Austria and Great Britain. Increasingly, the government was coming under the influence of the Jacobins, a radical, left-wing political faction intent on purging France of conservative elements. Led by Jacobin radicalism, the First French Republic was established in September 1792 by a newly appointed assembly called the National Convention. In January 1793, King Louis XVI was executed by guillotine. His wife, Marie Antoinette, was beheaded nine months later.

The guillotine itself became a symbol of the French Revolution. The years 1793-1794 were particularly violent and are often called the Reign of Terror. During this time, approximately 40,000 people were rounded up and executed for alleged 'counter-revolutionary' activity.

Fed up with the extremism of the Jacobins, a more moderate political group called the Girondins formed a government in which most of the power was concentrated within a five-member executive group called the Directory. The Directory proved to be unpopular with the French people, and increasingly, power was ceded to the military and its leaders. In 1799, young Napoleon Bonaparte staged a coup in which he installed a new government called the Consulate. Within a few years, he disbanded the Consulate and established a dictatorship. Therein lies the end of the tumultuous French Revolution.

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