top of page

The French Revolution | Class 9 History

The chapter notes introduce students to the social and economic situation in the 18th century that led to the end of monarchy in France. It also discusses important influences on French society and the spread of liberal ideas in Europe. It sets the stage for Rise of Nationalism in Europe.


The French Revolution

Storming of the Bastille Fort - Breakout of French Revolution

On the morning of 14 July 1789 the king of France had commanded troops to move into the city and rumours spread that he would soon order the army to open fire upon the citizens.

Some 7,000 men and women gathered in front of the town hall and decided to form a peoples’ militia (People’s army) to defend themselves.

They broke into a number of government buildings in search of firearms including the fortress prison in Bastille which was considered a symbol of despotic power of the king.

In an armed fight the people’s army killed the commander of the Bastille Prison and all seven prisoners were freed. The fortress was demolished and its stone fragments were sold in the markets as souvenirs. This event marks the breakout of French Revolution

Why was there distress that led to the protests against the monarchy?

The economic condition in France was not good as it had gone through years of war that had drained its treasury. Moreover, the monarchy had proposed increasing taxes on the common people from the 'Third Estate' rather than cutting down costs of maintaining an extravagant court. This apathy and disconnect of the monarchy to socio-economic realities led to increased distrust and sowed the seeds of the French Revolution.

Socio-Economic Structure in France

French society in the 18th century was divided into three estates, and only members of the third estate paid taxes. This system was also referred to as the Old Regime and had been a part of the feudal system which was prevalent since the middle ages.

About 90% of France’s population consisted of the peasants but only a small number among them owned any land. Around 60% of the land was owned by the Nobles and and Clergy (members of the church)

The members of the first two estates, that is, the clergy and the nobility, enjoyed certain privileges by birth. The most important of these was exemption from paying taxes to the state.

The nobles and clergy also enjoyed feudal privileges wherein the peasants were obliged to give services to their lords in their homes and fields. They were required to serve in the army or participate in building of roads.

Taxes Paid by the Third Estate

Tithes - A tax levied by the church on peasants amounting to 1/10th of their agricultural produce.

Taille - A direct tax paid directly to the state.

In addition, the peasants were required to pay indirect taxes on items of daily consumption as well

Economic Condition of France in years before the French Revolution

Louis XVI of the Bourbon family became the king of France (ascended the throne) in 1774. He became the king at the age of 20 and was married to Austrian princess Marie Antoinette.

Long years of war had drained the French treasury and King Louis XVI found himself with an empty treasury. Moreover, he helped 13 American colonies to gain their independence from the common enemy, Britain.

This added more than a billion livres to a debt that had already risen to more than 2 billion livres.

The lenders had begun to charge 10% interest on loans, which forced the French government to increase its percentage in the budget for interest payments.

Also, there was an added cost of maintaining the extravagant court.

The Struggle To Survive

The rapid increase in France’s population had led to an increase in demand for food grains which resulted in increased prices for staple food such as bread.

The gap between the rich and poor had widened as the increase in wages was not proportional to the rise in prices (inflation). Moreover, draught and hail had led to decrease in the grain produced (reduced harvest)

This led to a situation of subsistence crisis where the basic means of livelihood were endangered for the peasants.

Growing Middle Class and End to Privileges

Earlier only the rich group within the third estate had protested against the increase in taxes and food scarcity. Peasants and workers had lacked the means to carry out the measures required to bring about change in the socio-economic order.

In the 18th century, the expanding overseas trade and manufacture of goods and services had led to the emergence of a new social class termed the middle class.

The educated middle class included merchants, manufacturers, lawyers and administrative officials and did not believe in the concept of privilege by birth. They believed that the social position of a person should be based on merit.

Inspired by Ideas of Thinkers

These ideas envisaging a society based on freedom and equal laws and opportunities for all, were put forward by philosophers such as John Locke and Jean Jacques Rousseau.

John Locke in his book ‘Two Treatises of Government’ challenged the doctrine of the divine and absolute right of the monarchy.

Jean Jacques Rousseau proposed the idea of a government based on the concept of social contract between the people and their representatives in his book ‘The Social Contract’

Montesquieu in his book ‘The Spirit of the Laws’ proposed a division of power within the government between the legislative, the executive and the judiciary which was put into force in the USA after they had gained independence from Britain.

These ideas of liberty, equality and fraternity were discussed in common places and among people who could not read or write and helped in spreading of these principles which resulted in anger and protest against the system of privileges.

The news that King Louis XVI had planned to increase the taxes to meet the increased state expenses further fuelled these feelings.

The Outbreak of the Revolution

To increase the taxes, the king had to call a meeting of the Estates General which was a political body that comprised the member representatives of three estates. Only the king could call such a meeting and it was last called in 1614 before it was called again in 1789.

King Louis XVI called the Estates General meeting on 5th May 1789 in the luxurious palace of Versailles in which the first and the second estate had sent 300 representatives each. The members of these estates were seated across each other on the two sides.

The 600 members of the third estate were represented by some of the rich and educated members of the group who had to stand at the back. Peasants, artisans and women were denied entry into the assembly but their demands were represented through letters that the members of the third estate had bought with them.

As put forward by Rousseau, the members of the third state demanded that voting in the Estates General be conducted on the principle of one vote per member as against the practice of one vote for each estate.

When the king rejected this proposal the members of the third estate walked out in protest and assembled in the indoor tennis court in thr grounds of Versailles.

They declared themselves the National Assembly and swore not to disperse till they had framed the constitution of France that limited the powers of the monarchy.

The third estate was led by Mirabeau and Abbé Sieyès.

Who were Mirabeau and Abbé Sieyès?

Mirabeau was born in a noble family but was convinced of the need to do away with a society of feudal privilege. He brought out a journal and delivered powerful speeches to the crowds assembled at Versailles.

Abbé Sieyès, originally a priest, wrote an influential pamphlet called ‘What is the Third Estate’?

The Revolution Starts

It was at this time that the economic hardships for the common French people had become unbearable and the news of the king ordering the troops into Paris had reached the masses that resulted in storming of the Bastille fort by the People’s Military.

In the countryside, rumours spread from village to village that the lords of the manor (land of lords the mansion) had hired bands of brigands who were on their way to destroy the ripe crops. Caught in a frenzy of fear, peasants in several districts seized hoes and pitchforks and attacked chateaux (castle belonging to the nobles)

Recognition to National Assembly

The king, fearful of the revolting population, officially recognised the national assembly and agreed to the principle of check on his powers. - Members of the clergy too were forced to give up their privileges. The assembly passed a decree abolishing the feudal system of obligations and taxes.

Tithes were abolished and lands owned by the Church were confiscated. As a result, the government acquired assets worth at least 2 billion livres.

France Becomes a Constitutional Monarchy

The draft constitution of the National Assembly which was completed in 1791 limited the powers of the monarch and distributed powers among the different institutions of - Executive, Legislature and Judiciary covering France into a constitutional monarchy.

Limited Voting Rights - Franchise

The Constitution of 1791 vested the power to make laws in the National Assembly, which was indirectly elected. That is, citizens voted for a group of electors, who in turn chose the Assembly. Not all citizens, however, had the right to vote.

Who was allowed to vote?

Only men at the age of 25 years who paid taxes equal to 3 days of labourers wage were given the status of active citizens and given the right to vote. The remaining men and women were regarded as passive citizens

Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen

Rights such as the right to life, freedom of speech, freedom of opinion, equality before law, were established as ‘natural and inalienable’ rights, that is, they belonged to each human being by birth and could not be taken away. It was the duty of the state to protect each citizen’s natural rights.

The Political Symbols of French Revolution

Majority of men and women in the 18th century could not read or write.

So images and symbols were frequently used instead of printed words to communicate important ideas.

The painting by Le Barbier uses many such symbols to convey the content of the Declaration of Rights.

The broken chain: Chains were used to fetter slaves. A broken chain stands for the act of becoming free.

The bundle of rods or fasces: One rod can be easily broken, but not an entire bundle. Strength lies in unity.

The eye within a triangle radiating light: The all- seeing eye stands for knowledge. The rays of the sun will drive away the clouds of ignorance.

- Sceptre: Symbol of royal power.

- Snake biting its tail to form a ring: Symbol of Eternity. A ring has neither beginning nor end.

- Red Phrygian cap: Cap worn by a slave upon becoming free.

- Blue-white-red: The national colours of France.

- The winged woman: Personification of the law.

- The Law Tablet: The law is the same for all, and all are equal before it.

France Abolishes Monarchy and Becomes a Republic

Although King Louis XVI had signed the constitution, he entered into a secret agreement with the King of Prussia and other neighbouring countries to out an end to the series of events taking place in France.

But before this could happen, the National Assembly declared war on Prussia and Austria which was joined by thousands of volunteers who saw this as a war of people against the aristocracies and kings all over Europe.

Marseillaise, composed by the poet Roget de L’Isle. It was sung for the first time by volunteers from Marseilles as they marched into Paris and so got its name. The Marseillaise is now the national anthem of France.

Large sections of the population were convinced that the revolution had to be carried further, as the Constitution of 1791 gave political rights only to the richer sections of society.

Political clubs became important points to discuss government policies and plan their own actions. One such important club was that of Jacobins which got its name from the former convent of St Jacob in Paris.

Women too formed their own groups and clubs who had also started taking active participation in revolutionary activities.

Who were the members of the Jacobin Club?

The members of the Jacobin club belonged mainly to the less prosperous sections of society. They included small shopkeepers, artisans such as shoemakers, pastry cooks, watch-makers, printers, as well as servants and daily-wage workers. Their leader was Maximilian Robespierre.

How did the Jacobins dress up?

A large group among the Jacobins decided to start wearing long striped trousers similar to those worn by dock workers. This was to set themselves apart from the fashionable sections of society, especially nobles, who wore knee breeches.

These Jacobins came to be known as the sans-culottes, literally meaning ‘those without knee breeches’. Sans- culottes men wore in addition the red cap that symbolises liberty.

Women however were not allowed to do so.

Execution of the King and Declaration of France as a Republic

In 1792, the Jacobins led a group of angered Parisians who stormed the Palace of the Tuileries, massacred the king’s guards and held the king himself as hostage for several hours.

The National Assembly voted to imprison the royal family and extended the right to vote to all men above the age of 21 years regardless of their wealth.

This newly elected assembly was called the Convention and it abolished monarchy and France and declared it a republic.

King Louis XVI was sentenced to death for treason ( Betrayal of one’s own country) and was publicly executed at Place de la Concorde.

Queen Marie Antoinette was also executed shortly after.

Reign of Terror - 1793-1794 (Robespierre’s Rule)

Robespierre followed a policy of severe control and punishment. He executed all those who he saw as ‘enemies’ of the republic. Who were the enemies?

Ex-nobles and clergy, members of other political parties, even members of his own party who did not agree with his methods – were arrested, imprisoned and then tried by a revolutionary tribunal.

If the court found them guilty, they were sentenced to death by guillotine.

What is a Guillotine?

The guillotine is a device consisting of two poles and a blade with which a person is beheaded. It was named after Dr Guillotin who invented it.

Did you know?

The last person to be executed in France was Hamida Djandoubi, who was guillotined on 10 September 1977. Infact, he was also the last person ever executed by guillotine by any government in the world.

Steps taken by Robespierre's Government?

- Issued laws placing a maximum ceiling on wages and prices.

- Meat and bread were rationed

- Peasants were forced to transport their grain to the cities and sell it at prices fixed by the government.

- The use of more expensive white flour was forbidden; all citizens were required to eat the pain d’égalité (equality bread), a loaf made of wholewheat. - Churches were shut down and their buildings converted into barracks or offices.

- Titles of Monsieur (Sir) and Madame (Madam) were to be no longer used and all French men and women were henceforth to be Citoyen and Citoyenne (Citizen).

Due to excesses in policy pursued by Robespierre even his supporters began to demand moderation. He was convicted by a court in July 1794, arrested and on the next day sent to the guillotine.

A Directory Rules France

After the fall of the Jacobin government, the wealthier middle class seized power. They framed a new constitution which:

- Denied voting rights to non-propertied sections.

- Provided for two elected legislative councils.

- The legislature appointed a Directory, an executive made up of five members. It was made so that power is not concentrated in the hands of one person.

Why wasn’t Directory Successful?

The Directors often clashed with the legislative councils, who then sought to dismiss them. The political instability of the Directory paved the way for the rise of a military dictator, Napoleon Bonaparte.

Did Women Have a Revolution?

Women were active participants in events which brought many important changes in the French Society.

Social and Economic Condition of Women

Most women of the third estate worked as seamstresses or laundresses, sold flowers, fruits and vegetables at the market, or were employed as servants in the houses of rich people to earn a living, but their wages were lower than those of men.

They also had to care for their families, that is, cook, fetch water, queue up for bread and look after the children.

Most of these women did not have access to education.

Only the daughters of nobles or wealthier members of the third estate could study at a convent, after which their families arranged a marriage for them.

What did the women do to get their voices heard?

Started their own political clubs and newspapers - About 60 women’s clubs came up in different French cities.

The Society of Revolutionary and Republican Women was the most famous of them. Main demand was that women enjoy the same political rights as men.

- Voting rights

- Right to be elected to the Assembly and to hold political office.

In the early years of revolutionary government made the following provisions to improve the lives of women:

- Creation of state schools, schooling was made compulsory for all girls.

- Their fathers could no longer force them into marriage against their will. Marriage was made into a contract entered into freely and registered under civil law.

- Divorce was made legal, and could be applied for by both women and men.

- Women could now train for jobs, could become artists or run small businesses.

Women during the Reign of Terror

Closure of women’s clubs and banning their political activities. - Prominent women were arrested and a number of them executed.

The fight for the vote was carried out through an international suffrage movement during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

It was finally in 1946 that women in France won the right to vote

Abolition of Slavery in French Colonies - Under Jacobin Rule

Why was there slave trade?

There was a shortage of labour in French colonies as the Europeans did to want to go to distant and unfamiliar lands in the French Colonies in Caribbean – such Martinique, Guadeloupe and San Domingo

These territories supplied commodities such as tobacco, indigo, sugar and coffee

This shortage of slaves was met with triangular slave trade between Europe, Africa and the Americas.

The Slave Trade

- It began in the 17th Century

- French merchants sailed from the ports of Bordeaux or Nantes to the African coast, where they bought slaves from local chieftains.

- After a 3 month journey to the Caribbean, they were sold to plantation owners.

- Bordeaux and Nantes owed their economic prosperity to the flourishing slave trade.

Abolition of Slavery

The National Assembly held long debates about whether the rights of man should be extended to all French subjects including those in the colonies.

But it did not pass any laws, fearing opposition from businessmen whose incomes depended on the slave trade.

Convention in 1794 legislated to free all slaves in the French overseas possessions.

However Napoleon reintroduced slavery in 1804 through the Napoleonic Code

The plantation owners considered it their right to enslave the African Negros

Slavery was finally abolished in French colonies in 1848.

The Revolution and Everyday Life

After 1789, the revolutionary governments took many steps to spread the ideals of liberty and equality into everyday practice.

- Abolition of Censorship : In the Old Regime all written material and cultural activities – books, newspapers, plays – could be published or performed only after they had been approved by the censors of the king.

Now the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen proclaimed freedom of speech and expression to be a natural right. Newspapers, pamphlets, books and printed pictures flooded the towns of France from where they travelled rapidly into the countryside.

Plays, songs and festive processions attracted large numbers of people. This was one way they could grasp and identify with ideas such as liberty or justice that political philosophers wrote about at length in texts which only a handful of educated people could read.

1804 - The Napoleonic Code

- Napoleon Bonaparte crowned himself Emperor of France

- He conquered neighbouring countries to spread the ideas of liberty and placed members of his family into the newly created kingdoms.

- Initially, many saw Napoleon as a liberator who would bring freedom for the people. But soon the Napoleonic armies came to be viewed everywhere as an invading force and were ultimately defeated in 1815 in the battle of Waterloo.

- He brought a system of uniform weights and measures

- Introduced law for protection of private property - Introduced uniform taxation and currency system.

Tipu Sultan and Rammohan Roy are two examples of individuals from India who responded to the ideas coming from revolutionary France.


bottom of page