In this article, we will see important timelines and events in the french revolution. France had the biggest population in Europe of 26 million citizens in the period going into the later 18th century. The proportion of citizens per province was pre-industrial revolution, a condition that existed overall in Europe and was still in practice from medieval times in many aspects.
The Absolute Monarchical system and the king created a personal position of influence over his or her countries government and population and were associated in what was known as the Ancien Regime. Inequality was rife.
Important Timelines and Events in the French Revolution
Also Read: Role of France in the American Revolutionary War of Independence
The system of taxation in Europe including France, was used by the state in applying a regressive taxation system on its citizens, the largest proportion of the French population of 80%, mostly male citizens of adult working age, whether single or with a family carried the biggest tax burden, whilst the wealthy and nobility including the King and his household remained literally tax exempt.
The conditions that existed under these circumstances, would play a major factor in what would lead to violent reaction and the personalities that would drive and lead the population and its supporters into the Revolution.
French Politics and the Monarchy
The Monarchy in France were absolute rulers. Louis the XVI and the House of Bourbon, had maintained the Feudal and Estates systems from the Middle Ages, through the period of Roman Catholic Church reform and the Renaissance, which in French national terms had little effect, as no new reforms were considered. The government had inadequate ability to service state debt. Rapid population growth rising unemployment and rising food prices affected much of the lower classes in France.
There were three stages of the Estates system practiced in France, that were important to the absolute monarch’s control of society. Feudalism was a social structure based on the king’s ownership of all the land. He rewarded the nobility and clergy with land for their loyalty and service to the crown.
The First Estate was reserved for the king and clergy of the church and were an indivisible part of the Realm, the most senior estate. The king may not have considered himself as part of the First State, but his close association to them would create the impression that both were one and the same.
Land claims to parts of French regions and other parts of Europe, were by heritage or lineage, a leftover social system from the Middle Ages around 1345 - 1787, including alliances with domestic and foreign monarchies during the Spanish and Italian Wars of 1445-1559. The Bourbon Dynasty had established itself in France after the period, with the rule of Louis XVI creating its own complications, rigidity and a lack of change for the French people.
The Estates were essentially owned by the king. The clergy in the First Estate, collected taxes, owned 10% of the land and taxed 10% of agricultural production in France. The First Estate was composed of 100 Bishops, whilst the other lower clergy levels were 30,000 in number across the country.
The annexation of regions elsewhere in Europe, at the beginning of France’s early dominance in Western Europe also brought in much needed revenue to the French economy. France had good periods of economic prosperity in the 16th and 17th centuries, resulting in a strong economy, but not without periods of recession.
The hostilities that shaped France’s association with foreign states such as Austria and other member states of the Holy Roman Empire and France’s own domination in Europe since the early 16th century, put France in an unenviable state of flux on national and matters of foreign affairs, the economy also faltered over time under the Bourbon Dynasty, leading up to the Revolution in the later 18th century. Many states in central Europe viewed France as a volatile enemy from previous experiences.
The second Estate was the nobility and wealthy families. The smallest percentage of the populace were the nobility and wealthy landowners, who made up 20 percent of the French population.
The nobility would allow the peasants to buy land from them and would tax them for the privilege of their tenancy, a system that had not changed or was even considered worth changing by the king. The lords who collected the taxes did not pay tax to the state themselves.
The third estate constituted the general population of France , 80% of the general population. Most citizens were called the Bourgeoisie who toiled on the farms and estates, worked in small businesses, shops and farm produce businesses or were of service to the rich, and the merchants.
The Estates General of 1789
The Etat de’ Generaux – was a summons by suggestion of the Assembly of Notables, an installation conducted by the king in 1787. The Assembly of Notables were the nobility with unquestionable political power.
As the name suggests, the Assembly was constituted of the higher ranked nobles Notables and ecclesiastics, and other senior positioned individuals in French society, all brought together by the King of France during extraordinary circumstances on occasions to consult on matters of the state. Such occasions and the outcomes thereof at the time of calling, were not for the attention of the third Estate.
The assemblage would include, royal princes, high ranking judges, peers, and archbishops, whose findings would be presented to the king, using their advice for implementing reform edicts. A system like the promulgation of the Acts of Parliament governments use today.
The General Assembly managed the three Estates, (The Monarch and the clergy, Second Estate (the nobility and the wealthy), Third Estate (the workers, peasants and merchants), were represented by the Estates General – Etats Generaux de 1789. The assembly was designed to represent the three Estates, but separately, a sort of parliamentary assemblage of the Kingdom of France, but the ultimate decision process would be advised and acted on between the nobility and ultimately the king, who had the final say.
The Assembly of Notables dated back to the Middle Ages but cannot be called a democratic process as we understand it today, as the commoners were allowed no input from their representatives in the third Estate, as they had very few rights via participation in the system, and its fairness. The lack of equality of the Third Estate was very acutely felt by the commoners.
The General Assembly and the Assembly of Notables held the same level of importance by Louis XVI as it had with previous monarchs, a platform providing advice for the king, some though very little input from the third Estate, and the kings need to promote Notables who impressed him with their ‘zeal’, loyalty, and trustworthiness to the sovereign, being appointed by him based on the sovereign’s preferences.
The First Assembly of Notables and peasants was summoned by the Assembly of Notables on 22 April 1787, it had last been used in 1614.
Charles Alexander de ’Calonne, as a well-respected lawyer and entrepreneur had been appointed in November 1783, as Controller-General of Finances to the Parlement, a position that the king generally endorsed. Calonne was considered favorable where previous ministers had failed in implementing effective economic recovery measures.
His fiscal reforms were key in identifying new taxes, revenue raising projects to increase public confidence and a new administrative centralized plan. Tax reforms were advised by Calonne that would affect the hitherto largely untaxed nobility, the land value tax, being one of these, which was not fully accepted by the parlement, the proposal essentially impeded on the special privileges and interests of the nobility. The main fault lay in the crowns powerlessness to impose Calonne’s broader fiscal reforms. This became a permanent state of procrastination of the need to address socio-political matters.
Calonne’s fiscal plans were well meaning and capable structures to invigorate the French economy, instead it was derided by the parlement, the nobility and the king, and even sectors of the public, violent civil protests followed from a public who had no faith in the authority.
Effigies of Calonne were burned in major cities in protest. Calonne being isolated without support, went into exile in Britain in April of 1787. He did not return until he was pardoned and permitted to re-enter his own country in 1802 by Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte.
There were times when the king would expect his supporting nobility and clergy, namely those who he awarded positions too, who would themselves become unwilling to act in the monarch’s favour and continued to pass all matters onto the Assembly National. Louis was essentially sidestepped by the Assembly.
Often the Estates General would pass on legislative issues susceptible to edicts, to the Assembly as a protest or a diversion from the monarch in case of a veto, or other objections from the clergy and nobility close to the king in the Second Estate. Matters concerning economic reform became hardest hit in the parlement by the resultant indecision and the king’s disagreeable presence.
The involvement and authority of the king was compromised in protest by the Assembly National, as an act of no confidence on any economic matters of state et al all matters.
The Ancien Regime of the Estates system by 1789 had become the last of the Estates General in France, dissolved by Louis XVI in that year. He believed that the Estates held no future power and believed them to be out of date in the kingdom. Louis XVI became a backward element of French society as he dithered and failed to accept proper direct compromises to save France’s economy.
To counter any attempts to remove the voice of the French people, the third Estate in 1789, invited the other two Estates to join them in a union of the National Assembly which they had formed to prevent the third Estate from being dissolved entirely and thus leave 80% of the populace without representation in parlement. One hundred members from the first two estates forming the Assembly - National Assembly. This action went against Louis XVI wishes. The road to the Revolution had begun.
Economic woes and Political uncertainty
France started to go through economic difficulties in the late 1700’s. Funding and supporting the War with the Continental Army in North America after 1775, had run the French economy into recession, with no means of recouping the military and financial costs, which could not be replaced under the conditions that existed in France at the time.
Paris had also very few loan options available to address the economic recession. Unemployment amongst the commoners increased significantly. The agricultural harvest by the late 1780’s was poor leading to a shortage of bread in the cities.
France as an Empire with the sovereign as head of state, did not reverse their territorial expansionist ambition’s, endorsing this standpoint with maintained policies of hostility towards other states of the Holy Roman Empire in central Europe leaving the leadership open to future options of military alliances, campaigns, and exploitation in conflict, which cost money, the only deciding factor.
The French seizure of the tiny states of Alsace and Lorraine in the 18th century would become a bitter contestation between France and Prussia, which would lead to war between both nations in the 19th century.
French patriotism among the population was a catalyst for the national will to promote French pride and nationalism, but the king was considered otherwise in the citizens minds. The relationship between the sovereign and his citizens under the circumstances, became vindictive as inequality became the protest of the commoners.
Parliament and the monarchy remained indecisive in the capital Paris, particularly as Louis XVI and his family were self-indulgent and lacked decisiveness in acknowledging but failing to act on critical economic problems and the corrective policy required. The idea of reverting to a constitutional monarchy was muted, Louis himself debating that a move to constitutionality of the monarchy late in the day might be the best option, but the mood amongst 80% of the population became one of abolishing the monarchy altogether.
Louis thought to raise taxes through the Assembly National and parlement, effecting the populace whilst maintaining a tax-free policy on the wealthy as a suitable solution and policy. He remained objectionable to land ownership reform taxes amongst a list of reforms, when presented to him, as did the nobility and senior clergy. This angered the French population even more, with anti-monarchy and government gatherings and protests becoming common in Paris and in other cities, as the gap between the rich and poor widened.
The trivial reforms that were instituted such as the dissolving of the Ancien Regime was even thought too much by Marie-Antoinette, Louis XVI wife who motioned with his younger brother, Comte’ de Artois, a nobleman and future king to remove Jacques Necker the French finance minister at the time, it would be a second time that Necker had been dismissed of the parlement. Necker was a very popular diplomat amongst the third Estate and the French populace and revolutionaries, another was the Comte de Mirabeau. A controversial personality who fell foul of the king in his time, but an aristocrat who was much respected and sympathetic to the revolution as was Jacques Necker.
There were rumours circulating that Louis was to close the Assembly using his Swiss Guard, which drew negative public reaction. As the populace went onto the streets in protest, the king activated the Elite Guardes Francaises, but their command and soldiers refused to go onto the streets to disperse the crowds. Members of the Elite Guardes would soon join the commoners during the Storming of the Bastille in July.
The Storming of the Bastille(14th July, 1789)
Sentiment in Paris was at a fever pitch, and on the 14 July a revolutionary mob stormed the Bastille, a government strong hold and royal fortress, a castle structure by design which was used for vast amounts of weapon and ammunition storage. It was also a prison used by the Paris Government. The fortress was seen as a symbol of the monarchy’s abuse of power as political prisoners were also kept imprisoned there.
Citizens in the mob believed that many prisoners were held inside its walls, it held only 7 prisoners for varying petty misdemeanors at the time of the siege.
The city had been ordered by the King to be protected by the Paris military garrison, of the Gardes Francaises – French Guards and the Mercenary Military units, German, and Swiss mercenary battalions in the French military. The Guards Francaises had many ties to the Paris community which made them sympathetic to the popular cause. But the mercenary battalions were not considered sympathetic to the cause, as they might be used to quell the public will.
The Marques de Lafayette, a veteran commander in the American Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War, was appointed as military commander by the king with the Baron de Beseval of the Swiss Guard. The main garrison for all military units was at an encampment on the Champ de Mars in Paris. Five thousand troops were camped at de Mars as the Royal Army of the king. In the event, few companies were activated to assist at the Bastille and elsewhere in Paris, due in indecision by the senior officers, leaving on the ground decisions to the junior ranks, which might have assisted the governor of the Bastille in concluding the storming of the fortification peacefully should it be needed.
The storming of the Bastille is considered the starting point of the French Revolution. The sacking of Jacques Necker, the finance minister by the king, reached Paris in the late afternoon of the 12th of July, many citizens believing this to be a coup by the conservative elements in the nobility, which drove the populace to take action from within Paris by the Sans-Culottes-the active revolutionaries among the citizens, who invaded the Bastille and represented the general citizens call to action. The Sans-Culottes would be joined by several trained soldiers which gave their numbers military experience against the Royal Army.
Deserting soldiers and sympathetic Guards Francaises joined the revolutionary mob trying to gain access to the inner courtyard and building.
The commander of the fortification, Baron Marquis Rene De Launay, resisted opening the gate to the inner courtyard. Negotiations would continue for hours between the crowds’ representatives, two town hall officials from the Hotel De Ville came to the fortress to negotiate. This failed as the demands as set down in a letter by De Launay, that the staff and soldiers of the regular garrison were not to be harmed. These were not accepted , De Launay threatened to blow up all the gunpowder if the fortification should be breached by the now impatient mob.
A battle ensued as the military garrison ordered the crowd to pull back, in the confusion a fire fight broke out between the Sans-Culottes and the troops. Ninety-three citizens and two soldiers in the mob were killed during the fierce battle.
De Launay ended the shooting by relenting and allowed access to the mob. The passage for De Launay would be a violent one as he was beaten up and dragged from the fortification to the Hotel De Ville, his fate was briefly discussed by the vainqueurs, after being beaten further, he was killed and decapitated.
The military encampment at the Champ de Mars played little role directly in quelling civil insurrection at the Bastille and during the riots and assaults on Parisienne civil structure and individual civil servants, except for the actions of the Royal German Cavalry Regiment who met a crowd advancing between the Place de Vendome and the Tuileries Palace in the city, pushing them back preventing a catastrophe.
From atop the Champs Elysees, Charles Eugene, Prince of Lumbesc, as Marshal of the military camp and proprietor of the Royal Allemande-Dragoons, led a cavalry charge against the crowd, dispersing any further protestors at the Place Louis XV, today the Place de la Concorde.
The conflict at the Bastille ended the following morning, the king only being informed of the crises that day,15 July. Citizens and the Sans-Culottes looted any properties and storage places where food, weapons and ammunition were stored in the city before the storming of the Bastille on the 14th of July and many days thereafter.
Citizens or now as they would be called the Sans-Culottes wore the new French national tricolor cockade in their Phrygian caps, had weapons, ammunition and sympathetic French Guardes Francaises in their numbers, who wandered onto and attacked the many estates of nobles close to Paris. Many notables fled the country in fear of their lives to other parts of Europe.
The Tricolor colours were of Red White and Blue which became the new French National colours and eventually the French National Flag. The red and blue stood for the Free French colours of the state and the white represented the king.
The National Constituent Assembly was instituted on 9th July taking over from the initially proposed, Assembly National and was the new voice of the French people. The king and all remaining nobility in France, were reduced to the status of citizens. The status of the parlement and representatives elected there, were mostly revolutionary leaders.
Some conservative nobility would try to form a caucus of opposition to the legislative power of the Constituent Assembly, but the revolution would not countenance matters that pleased the old order.
The Political and socio-economic status in France had remained in the hands of the wealthy and the monarchy for centuries. The motions of Egalite, Fraternite and Liberte, were not a consideration by the ruling Bourbon family, for the future of the people of France through the Middles ages and later.
The French people staged a ‘coup’ both politically and for the sake of equality, something that had been championed by the reformists during the Renaissance in Europe. French society was tied to the Ancien Regime with the connivance of the Church and its bishops to the monarch.
The Church was not a place to consolidate the rights of man as it is today, The Roman Catholic Church sought to maintain by decree and persecution state control through the autocracy of the monarch and the nobility.
The French Revolution started in 1789 and ended in 1799, going through several trial-and-error Legislative Revolutionary Government councils, wretched leadership and The Terror that was meted out with the execution of 16,600 citizens thought to be anti-revolutionaries, whilst Paris and the new Government tried to create a prosperous society. One fraught with its own problems.
France and the functions of the Revolution will be covered in the next project. Where would France be at the end of the civil unrest, and the continuing role the monarch played in French political and civil society.