Chapter 3: FRENCH REVOLUTION
Third estate - This was about 95% of the population. These
were the common people but there was a lot of difference between
their style of living.
Second estate - Nobility
First Estate - Clergy
Structure of the French Society
French revolution was linked to the American
revolution. It was at a nascent stage while the
American revolution was going on but it had a wider
impact than the French revolution.
Reasons for the French Revolution
The French society was oppressed by the rule of an
extravagant king. The workers had no rights, the
landless peasants could hardly sustain themselves, the
middle class was burdened with high taxes like salt
The French society was divided into three estates:
The two estates were about 5% of the population and were in
control of 40% of the land. They were exempt from almost all
taxes. They received tributes from the king and they considered
work to be beneath them. All top posts of army and administration
belonged to them. However there were members of these two estates
who weren't as prosperous and blamed the other members in their
estates for their misery.
Composition of the Third Estate
These were about 80% of the third estate. The peasants were
free and owned land too but most of them had small land holdings.
The peasants had to survive on 1/3rd or 1/4th of the produce since
the burden of taxation was intolerable. They also had to do forced
labor and work for the feudal lords. The new taxes were
imposed for building community amenities. The system of
agriculture was changed in the 18th century and peasants were no
longer allowed to collect wood from forests or graze in common
pastures. This oppression compounded during times of famine which
turned conditions favorable for starvation and unrest.
The middle class consisted of professionals like doctors,
bankers, traders. They were well off than the peasants and didn't
depend on land. The first two estates were indebted to them. But
the middle class had no social status, constitutional rights,
political freedoms and were often humiliated.
Artisans and Workers
They were the city poor. Their condition too was bad due to
high taxes. The workers were oppressed and had to work for long
hours, they couldn't leave their work without employers consent.
They formed secret societies and went on strikes and rebellion.
The worker population of 5 lakh became the mainstay of the French
Louis XVI was the monarch of France when the revolution broke
out. He was known for spending wealth on pleasures. He showered
gifts on his friends. The state was brought to financial ruin due
to the huge army, countless wars, race for colonies and policies
of the King.
The oppression and misery was present but unless supported by an
intellectual movement which would awaken the people and unite them
on the basis of common ideals, it would have been just a violent
The Philosophers like Voltaire questioned
the church and the clergy for supporting the autocratic order. It
questioned the blind beliefs of people and explained the
rationality behind them. Political thinkers like Montesquieu
and Rousseau put forth ideals of a constitutional
system. Rousseau said that "No system can govern without the
consent of the governed".
Thus the intellectuals gave the ideals on which the French
revolution was established.
Outbreak of the Revolution
The Monarch called at meeting of the three estates for raising
taxes and loans. Each estate met separately. Since the third
estate represented 96% of the population it declared itself as the
National Estate. The king allowed each estate to have only one
vote. The members of the third estate found that the guards didn't
allow them to enter the meeting hall and so they assembled at the
royal tennis court and took the Tennis court oath to form
The king sent the royal guards to break up the assembly
but rumors spread that the leaders of the assembly were to be
arrested. The people were enraged and joined the assembly the
guards too revolted. Bastille prison was a place where
political prisoners were kept it was a sign of the king's
oppression. The protestors broke the prison and set the handful
of prisoners free.
The fall of Bastille was an important event of the
Aftermath of the Fall
The National assembly enacted laws and removed all
discrimination's. It adopted the Declaration of Rights
of Man and citizen. Freedom of speech, equality and
other political rights were given. To the middle class the right
to private property and equitable distribution of taxes were
given. forced labor was removed along with feudalism and
The land of the nobles and clergy was confiscated. The
privileged class fled the country and appealed to foreign rulers
to intervene and restore the old order. The king and queen to
tried to flee the country. But were brought back as traitors.
The Kingdoms of Prussia, Austria and Savoy started to gather
forces to fight the Revolutionaries and restore the old order.
But the French revolutionaries had founded new institutions
based on "Fraternity and equality" and appealed to all to unite
to remove the old order.
The National Assembly became the legislative assembly. The king
and queen were executed and war was declared on England, Spain,
Holland and Hungary. The French were fighting for a new order
and others were for restoring the monarchy. Jacobin a
radical group came to power and they unleashed a
reign of terror in France. They wanted to preserve the
revolution and they started executing "Traitors". In the end the
leader of Jacobin Robespierre was executed and the reign of
Rise of Napoleon Bonaparte
The French Revolution failed and the army rose to power.
Napoleon declared himself to be the Emperor of France. Under his
rule, France fought continuous wars from 1792-1815. These were
the Napoleonic wars with France on one side fighting for the
republic and Rest of Europe on the other hand fighting to
maintain the old order.
The French defeated Prussia, Austria, Malta, Spain but couldn't
regain Italy. The mighty British navy dominated the North Sea.
Soon an alliance of entire Europe fought the French and defeated
them and ousted Napoleon from Paris. His return was foiled at
the Battle of Waterloo. A congress at Vienna decided to restore
the monarchy in France.
However the monarchy was ousted again in 1830 and reemerged to
exit in 1848. Then after a brief return finally in 1871 France
became a republic.
Impact of French Revolution on France and the World
The French revolution gave the world the ideals of "Liberty,
Equality, Fraternity". The idea of a republic came into being
that had people as its pillars.
The workers, farmers and peasants were recognized as important
in the society.
Declaration of Rights was a template to be followed by other
French removed slavery from its colonies. Also the occupation
of Spain and Portugal was a boon for South and Central America
as the colonies of Spain and Portugal were cut off from the
mainland and soon became independent.
Workers were the mainstay of the revolution and soon a new form
of economic order was to emerge that recognized workers rights.