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The French

…setting the stage for

France in the 1780s
Around 1780, France fell upon hard times.
Bad weather caused many crops to fail. With
so little wheat from the crops, many of France’s
people could not afford bread. Many people
starved to death.

The ruler of France was King Louis XVI. King

Louis was a weak king who borrowed large
sums of money from his nobles so that he could
have riches and palaces. He often chose to play
games and go hunting rather than govern

The poorest people in France had little power

and paid half of their income to the nobles.
People wanted more liberty and were interested
The King of France, Louis XVI
in democracy and equality.

Because France was in severe debt, the nobles

forced Louis to call an assembly of the nobles,
priests, and peasants. This meeting was called
The Meeting of the Estates
The Estates-General was
made up of three groups, or
estates. The assembly was
called to solve the financial
crisis and pass a new tax law.
Each estate was a social
class. The First Estate was
made up of the priests of the
Roman Catholic Church. The
Second Estate was the
nobles, and the third was the
representatives of the The Estates-General assembly in 1789
peasants. Each estate had
one vote and met in a
separate hall to decide what
their votethe
on peasants
the issuehad their voice, they were not happy. The Third
going torepresented
be. most of the people in France. For every nobleman or
priest in France, there were a hundred commoners. But the Third Estate
together got just one vote, meaning their opinion had no value if the
noblemen and clergy disagreed with them. The Third Estate tried to
change this by suggesting that the estates get one vote for every delegate
The Tennis Court Oath
When King Louis turned
down the commoners’
request for a more equal
assembly, many members
of the Third Estate grew
restless. A priest named
Abbe Sieyes sided with
them. In a passionate
speech, he urged the Third
Estate to name themselves
the National Assembly, and
rule the country on behalf
of the French people. After
a long nighttheof end of thethe
debate, The Third Estate pledges the Tennis Court Oath
Third Estateand the beginning
decided and of a representative government. Three days
later, the priests and nobles shut them out of their meeting room.

This was the last straw for the Third Estate. They broke into an indoor
tennis court and wrote the Constitution of 1791 for their new government.
They pledged that they would remain in the tennis court until it was
finished. To this day, the Tennis Court Oath is known as the beginning of
The Storming of the Bastille
When the King heard what
his subjects had done, he
became afraid. He finally
gave into the peasants’
demands, and ordered the
nobles and priests to join the
National Assembly. Then, he
ordered his Swiss Guard, the
most loyal troops, to protect
him at his palace in Paris. But
the peasants of Paris heard of
the new arrivals too soon.
A French mob storms the Bastille
Rumors began flying about
the city. that
believed Thethe
citizens ofwere
soldiers the coming to massacre them! So, on July 14,
1789, a mob stormed the Bastille, a prison in Paris where hundreds of
prisoners were locked up for petty crimes, never to be seen again. The
mob seized control of the Bastille and its entire armory and gunpowder,
throwing Paris into anarchy.
The March on Versailles
But the peasants were not
content with the liberation of
Paris. King Louis lived in a
palace in Versailles, to the west
of Paris. Angered over the rising
prices of bread caused by the
wheat shortage, 6,000 women
marched to the palace. Upon
reaching it, they broke down the
door and killed two guards. Then
they demanded that the Royal
family return with them to Paris. The women of Paris march on Versailles
Three hours later, King Louis XVI
of France, along
household, left their
his familypalace and returned to Paris as prisoners.
and four
For entireyears, they were kept under armed guard in the Tuileries, the
king’s palace in Paris. But in 1792, the people of Paris declared France a
republic. In a bloody demonstration of the end of the monarchy, radical
revolutionaries beheaded King Louis XVI for treason to his country.
The Reign of Terror
With the execution of the king,
all government collapsed. Many
rival leaders fought for power.
Slowly, a man named Maximilian
Robespierre took power and
ruled France as a dictator.

Robespierre and his followers

created an office called the
Committee of Public Safety. In
theory, this office was supposed
to find enemies of the new
republic and kill them. Instead,
Robespierre used the The execution of Marie Antoinette, Queen of
France, October 16, 1793
commission to eliminate his
of Public enemies,
Safety hadone by one.
executed about 3,000 people. By 1794, members of the
Within a year,
National the Committee
Convention felt that Robespierre was too dangerous. They turned
on him, and had him beheaded. The period of Robespierre’s rule has come
to be known as the Reign of Terror for the terrible happenings of that time.
After his death, the leaders in the National Convention created a new form
of government with powers separated between the legislature and the
The Rise of Napoleon
Only six years later, in 1799, the
people of France received yet
another powerful leader.
Napoleon Bonaparte, who some
consider the greatest military
leader of all time, seized power in
a manner called a coup d’etat or
blow of state. Just a single day
after being granted control of the
entire French army, Napoleon
marched his troops into the
chamber of the national Napoleon grabs the crown in his self-coronation
legislature. He then forced them
Once he rose
to proclaim to consul,
him power, or
leader had more ambitious plans. He sold his
of the American holdings to the United States so he could have more money
state of France.
to take control of Europe. Napoleon was a brilliant military strategist and
won most of his battles. By 1813, he had controlled half of Europe.
However, Britain, Austria, and Russia formed an alliance to oppose him.
Then, people in conquered countries began to oppose Napoleon as well. His
luck started running out when he fought a disastrous campaign in Russia.
The European allies finally defeated the French armies near the village of
Waterloo, in present-day Belgium. Napoleon was exiled to the island of St.
The Growth of Democracy
After the fall of Napoleon, the leaders of five countries, Prussia, Russia,
Austria, Britain, and France, met in Vienna, the capital of Austria. They
called themselves the Congress of Vienna. Their purpose was to redraw
Europe’s political map and decide the fate of France. They adopted a plan
proposed by Prince Klemens von Metternich, the foreign minister of Austria.
In effect, the brother of the old king, Louis XVIII, became the new King of
France. Wisely, he chose to pacify the people by creating a constitutional
monarchy, a democracy with a king as the head of state. Also, the
countries in Europe agreed to never expand at the expense of others, and
this prevented war for the next 50 years.

Some actions in the French Revolution contributed to democracy, while

others did not, such as The Reign of Terror. Although the French Revolution
ended with a victory for conservatives and restored the monarchy,
enlightenment ideas lived on. The ideals of the French Revolution helped
create many other democratic revolutions around the world in the 19th and
20th century.
Image Sources
The Meeting of the Estates General

The Tennis Court Oath


The Storming of the Bastille


The March on Versailles


Reign of Terror

The Rise of Napoleon


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