In 1989, at its 200th anniversary, a Chinese philosopher was asked the importance of the French Revolution.  He responded, "Too early to tell."

Assembly of Notables - Called in 1787 to solve France's financial problems created by continued warfare, most recently from American Revolution.  It was planned as a means to circumvent the authority of the Estates-General to levy new taxes.  It failed because Notables did not fully understand the extent of the problem, because the Notables refused to consider an end to their own privileges and tax exemptions, and because the royal family refused to consider crown budgetary restraints.

Estates-General - Called into session at Versailles Palace in May, 1789, for the first time since 1614.  Leaders include Abbot Sieyes, a cleric, and Count Mirabeau, a noble, both of whom, ironically were sent to Versailles to represent the 3rd Estate.  Sieyes wrote a pamphlet, "What is the Third Estate?" (It is the nation!), to explain the need for change.

Cahiers de doleance - grievance books of local communities against the Old Regime and the privileges of the First and Second Estates.
The Great Fear - fear and delusion of local communities that the forces of Louis XVI were going to strike back and crush the revolution.
Tennis Court Oath - oath taken by the Third Estate at Versailles to demand  that they remain in session permanently, as France's National Assembly, until such time as they were able to write and approve a constitution.
Storming the Bastille
- July 14, 1789, Parisian artisans attacked this city prison to release political prisoners (there were none, only common criminals).  Commandant executed and prisoners were released, this became the symbol of the Revolution, and July 14 remains the French National Independence Day.
Reign of Terror -  Dictatorship of the National Convention during the greatest period of foreign threat to the Revolution, 1793-94.  Massive use of the guillotine and public drownings (noyades - Loire River drownings) to keep Frenchmen loyal to the cause.
Committee of Public Safety - Twelve man council which directed France during the Reign of Terror.  Featured Maximilian Robespierre as the most recognizable name.
Thermidorean Reaction - Public outcry against the excesses of the Reign of Terror in July (Thermidor),1794.  Robespierre and his closest colleagues went to the guillotine, and led to a 'white terror' against those who had led the Reign of Terror.  End of the Reign of Terror coincided with a reduction in the foreign threat to the Revolution.
emigres - nobility who escaped the Revolution and traveled across Europe seeking assistance to reverse their fortunes.  Most lost their privileged position along with their wealth and land.
Republic of Virtue - a de-Christianization of France, creating of 'temples of reason' and The Church of the Supreme Being; elimination of the current calendar, creation of twelve months (all renamed) of thirty days each, three weeks of ten days, and a five day festival at the end of the year.  Instead of ' monsieur', 'madame' and 'mademoiselle,'  Frenchmen were to call each other 'citizen'.
Directory - five man executive committee created by the Council of Elders under the new constitution of 1795.  Overthrown by Napoleon Bonaparte (18 Brumaire) and replaced by the three-man Consulate in 1799.  The Directory faced numerous attempts against it, and faced down several coup d'etats (forcible overthrow of government).
National Convention - French Legislature under the 1st Republic

"Liberty, Equality, Fraternity."  These are the watchwords of the French Revolution.  The revolution is about man's desire to be enjoy individual freedom.  It is about man's desire to be equal with other men, to eliminate social status create by birthright and to eliminate the privileges of those in the 1st and 2nd Estates. Finally, the revolution is about the brotherhood of man that exists, in this case among Frenchmen, and that France belongs to all Frenchmen, not to a privileged few.

The importance of the French Revolution cannot be overstated.  It unleashed forces seeking  individual freedom for man that began to spread outward from France across Europe and the globe and continue to spread to this very day.  It unleashed the force of nationalism, the idea that the nation belonged to its citizens, not to any one privileged person or  privileged group.  This powerful force helped to create the nation state system that exists until this day, a force which has withstood the challenges of communism, of fascism, and of internationalism.

The French Revolution has its trigger in financial crisis.  It had been a long since since the nation was on a sound financial footing.  French support for the Americans during the American Revolution seems to be the straw that broke the back of the nation.  This support launched the run-up period to the revolution, as several financial ministers, most notably Jacques Necker, tried in vain to get the deteriorating financial crisis under control.  The refusal of the Assembly of Notables to act in favor of fiscal control because King Louis XVI refused to surrender his royal prerogative, led to the calling of the Estates General in May of 1789, called into session for the first time since 1614.  This sent France into the first phase of the revolution, and led to the creation of a constitutional monarchy and an end to the privilege society.

Levee en Masse - The French went off to war in 1792 united in the belief that their cause was just, that they needed to fight to defend what they had earned in their revolution.  Europe went to war in coalition against France to defend the Old Regime.  The ideas of "Liberty, Equality and Fraternity" threatened their rulers with destruction.  With all of Europe lined up in coalition, France was hard pressed to hold the upper hand on the battlefield.  Declaring emergency powers, the government subjected everyone to military service.  By drafting all the soldiers necessary, the French put the entire nation on a war footing.  Thus the idea of the levee en masse, the entire nation in arms, ready to fight, to defend the Revolution.  This idea gave France the military manpower necessary to defend the nation against the coalition directed against it.


Coffin and Stacey,  Western Civilizations.  Text Chapter 18.


"Liberty, Equality, Fraternity"; Assembly of Notables; Estates-General; Count Mirabeau

Abbot Sieyes; AWhat is the Third-Estate?@; Cahiers de doleance; The Great Fear;

Tennis Court Oath; National Assembly; Storming of the Bastille July 14, 1789;

Tuileries Constitutional Monarchy ADeclaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen@

assignats Civil Constitution of the Clergy Jacobins and Girondins emigres

Mountain and Plain (Marsh) Legislative Assembly Flight of the King

Constituent Assembly Reign of Terror Guillotine Committee of Public Safety

Robespierre Saint-Just Thermidoran Reaction The Directory National Convention


Why did Europe go to war against France in 1792?

Why did Louis XVI call the Estates-General into session in 1789?

What do the watchwords Aliberty, equality, fraternity@ mean to the French Revolution?

French financial minister A)LaFayette B)Jacques Necker C)Cardinal Richelieu D)Cardinal Mazarin E)Count Mirabeau

Ended the Reign of Terror A)Napoleon B)Thermidorean Reaction C)Louis XVI D)Wellington E)National Assembly

Recommended Readings

R. R. Palmer, Twelve Who Ruled

Albert Soboul, A Short History of the French Revolution