The French Revolution started in 1789 and lasted until the late 1790s with the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte. The French completely altered their country’s politics, changing age-old ways of life such as their complete monarchy and the system of fuedalism during this period. The French Revolution was fueled by Enlightenment ideals, specifically the ideas of inalienable rights and popular sovereignty, not unlike the American Revolution. The movement had a major role in the development of our modern nation states by demonstrating to the world the power of the will of the people. However, it failed in achieving all of its goals and from time to time it resulted bloodbaths and total destruction.
Prior to the French Revolution, the French were divided into three different social groups. These groups were called “Estates.” The First Estate was comprised of the religious leaders, The Second Estate was comprised of the noble families (which included women), and the Third Estate which was comprised of the commoners (though only the men could vote). While the nobility got all the best jobs and lived lives of luxury, the Third Estate paid the majority of the taxes.
Throughout the revolution, the French Government was in a constant state of confusion. When representatives were refused to be admitted to a government meeting, they met at an indoor tennis court where they established the National Assembly demanding that King Louis XVI give them certain rights. They soon took power and changed names various times during this struggle, first to the Legislative Assembly and then to the National Convention. Finally, a new government was formed after the Reign of Terror. The new government was called the Directory and it ruled until Napoleon came to power.
The Reign of Terror was the darkest time of the French Revolution. It lasted from 1793 to 1794. A man named Maximilien Robespierre was leader of the National Convention and the Committee of Public Safety. He called for a rule of “Terror,” because he wanted to end any opposition to the revolution. During this time, laws were passed to allow for the arrest of anyone suspected of treason. If found guilty they could be executed by guillotine. Among the thousands who were executed included Robespierre’s rivals and Marie Antoniette.
Political clubs resulted in the formation of new political alliances and ideas. Among the clubs created during this times were the Robespierre’s led group known as the Jacobin Club, along with others such as the Feuillants Club, The Pantheon Club and the Cordeliers.
As a result of the French Revolution, the French political and social structure was forever changed. It took power from the Catholic church and ended feudalism and the French monarchy. It also brought to Europe the new French ideals of liberty, equality and brotherhood for the commoner as well as rights for women and the abolishment of slavery. Though the rise of Napoleon ended the revolution, neither the reforms nor the ideas died. Not only do these ideas continue to influence Europe but also the Unites States and the developing world.