The French Revolution has been portrayed as the main turning point in European political and social history, when the institutions of the "old regime" were destroyed and a new order was created based on individual rights, representative institutions, and a concept of loyalty to the nation rather than the monarch.
In 1786, Charles de Calonne, the controller general of finance, finding himself unable to borrow any more money during the financial crisis in France (one of the immediate causes of the French Revolution), proposed a complete revamping of the fiscal and administrative system of the state. To gain support, Calonne convened an "assembly" of notables" in 1887. This gather of notables, prelates, and magistrates refused to cooperate, and the government's attempt to go it alone brought further disaster.
The meeting of the First, Second, and Third Estate at Versailles to decide on whether voting for the representatives should be by order or by head (each delegate having one vote). The failure of the government to assume leadership at the meeting of the Estates-General created an opportunity for the Third Estate to push its demands for voting by head (since it constituted more than 97 percent of the population).
In response to the First Estate declaring its favor of voting by order, the Third Estate voted to constitute itself a "National Assembly" and decided to draw up a constitution.
Three days after the formation of the National Assembly, the deputies of the Third Estate arrived at their meeting place at Versailles only to find the doors locked. So they moved to a nearby indoor tennis court and swore that they would continue to meet until they have produced a French constitution. These actions constituted the first step in the French Revolution, since the Third Estate had no legal right to act as the National Assembly.
The French king's attempt to take defensive measures by increasing the number of troops at the arsenals in Paris along the roads to Versailles served not to intimidate but rather inflame public opinion. This led to the creation of the Permanent Committee. Needing arms, they invaded the Bastille. It's commander, the marquis de Launay, tried negotiating but failed and surrendered. The Fall of Bastille was considered a great victory in the minds of the Parisians, and it became a popular symbol of triumph over despotism.
A vast panic that spread like wildfire through France. The agrarian revolts served as a backdrop to the Great Fear. Fear of invasion by foreign troops, aided by a supposed aristocratic plot, encouraged the formation of more citizens' militias and permanent committees.
One of the first acts of the National Assembly was to destroy the relics of feudalism or aristocratic privileges. On the night of August 4, 1789, the National Assembly in a session voted to abolish seigneurial rights as well as the fiscal privileges of nobles, clergy, towns, and provinces.
On August 26, 1789, the National Assembly adopted the Rights of Man and the Citizen. This charter of basic liberties reflected the ideas of the major French philosophes of the French Enlightenment and also owed much to the American Declaration of Independence and American state constitutions. The declaration affirmed "the natural and imprescriptible rights of man" to "liberty, property, security, and resistances to oppression". It also affirmed the destruction of aristocratic privileges by proclaiming an end to exemptions from taxation, freedom and equal rights for all men, and access to public office based on talent. The monarchy was restricted and all citizens were to have the right to take part in the legislative process. Freedom of speech and press were coupled with the outlawing of arbitrary arrests.
On October 5, after marching to the city hall to demand bread, crowds of Parisian women numbering in the thousands set off for Versailles to confront the king and the National Assembly. After meeting with a delegation of women, Louis XVI promised them grain supplies for Paris, thinking this would end the protests. But the women's action had forced the Paris National Gaurd to follow their lead and march to Versailles. The crowd insisted on that the royal family return to Paris. On October 6, the king complied and brought his family back to Paris.
In July 1790, the new Civil Constitution of the Clergy was put into effect which secularized the Church. Both bishops and priests of the Catholic Church were to be elected by the people and paid by the state. All clergy were also required to swear on an oath of allegiance to the Civil Constitution. However, since the pope forbade, the Church was now an enemy of the Revolution.
The Legislative Assembly, in which sovereign power was vested, was to sit for two years and consist of 745 representatives chosen by an indirect system of election. Most of the representative were men of property with the clerics and nobles were largely gone.
Upset with the turn of revolutionary events, the king sought to flee France on June 20 and almost succeeded before being recognized, captured at Varennes, and brought back to Paris.
A declaration by Emperor Leopold II of Austria and King Frederick William II of Prussia, who feared that revolution would also spread to their countries, which invited other European monarchs to help the king of France reestablish the the French monarchy. However, the European monarchs were too suspicious of each other to undertake such a plan.
In September 1792, the newly elected National Convention began its sessions. Although it was called to draft a new constitution, it also acted as the sovereign ruling body of France. The National Convention was dominated by lawyers, professionals, and property owners, and included for the first time a handful of artisans. Almost all were intensely distrustful of the king and his activities. Over the concerns of the fate of the king, the National Convention was split into factions. The two most important were the Girondins and the Mountain. Both were members of the Jacobin club.
As a response to the Declaration of Pillnitz, French enthusiasm for war led to the Legislative Assembly to declare war on Austria. Many people in France wanted war. Reactionaries hoped that a preoccupation with war would cool off the Revolution. Leftists hoped that war would consolidate the Revolution at home and spread it to all of Europe.
As fear of Austria and Prussian invasion grew, a frantic search for scapegoats began which was mainly pointed towards the king. Defeats in war coupled with economic shortages led to renewed political demonstrations, especially against the king. Radical Parisian political groups,declaring themselves an insurrectionary commune, organized a mob attack on the royal palace and Legislative Assembly, took the king captive, and forced the Legislative Assembly to suspend the monarchy and call for a national convention, chosen on the basis of universal male suffrage, to decide on the future form of government.
In September 21, 1792 as its major first step, the National Convention abolished the monarchy and established a republic.
To meet the domestic crisis, the National Convention and the Committee of Public Safety established the "Reign of Terror". Revolutionary courts were organized to protect the Republic from its internal enemies. Victims of the Terror ranged from royalists, such as Queen Marie Antoinette, to former revolutionary Girondins, and thousands of peasants. Many victims were persons who had opposed the radical activities of the sans-culottes (ordinary patriots without fine clothes). In the course of nine months, 50,000 people were guillotined.
The Mountain faction represented the interests of the city of Paris and owed much of its strength to the radical and popular elements of the city, although the members of the Mountain themselves were middle class. The Mountain won out at the beginning of 1793 when the National Convention found the king guilty of treason and sentenced him to death. On January 21, 1793, the king was executed, and the destruction of the old regime complete.
After the execution of Louis XVI, much of Europe became pitted against France. Members of the anti-France coalition were poised for an invasion of France. To meet the foreign crisis and save the Republic from its foreign enemies, the Committee of Public Safety decreed a universal mobilization of the nation. The French Revolutionary government raised an army that numbered 1,169,000.
In 1794, the Committee of Public Safety turned against its radical Parisian supporters, executed the leaders of the revolutionary Paris Commune, and tuned into a docile tool. Many deputies in the National Convention feared that they were not safe while Robespierre was free to act. An anti-Robespierre coalition in the National Convention. eager now to destroy Robespierre before he destroyed them, gathered enough votes to condemn him. Robespierre was guillotined on July 28, 1794, beginning a reaction that brought an end to this radical stage of the French Revolution.
The executive authority established after the end of the radical phase of the Revolution. The Directory consisted of five directors elected by the Council of Elders, council composed of married or widowed members over age forty, from a list presented by the Council of 500, whose function was to initiate legislation. The Directory used the military for its survival which ended up with a coup d'etat in 1799.
The constitution of 1795 reflected a more conservative republicanism and established a national legislative assembly consisting of two chambers: a lower house, known as the Council of 500, whose function was to initiate legislation, and an upper house of 250 members, the Council of Elders, opposed of married or widowed members over age forty which would accept or reject the proposed laws. The 750 members of the two legislative bodies were chosen by electors who had to be owners or renters of property. The electors were chose by active citizens, now defined as all male taxpayers over the age of twenty-one. The executive authority was the Directory.
With the coup of 1799, a new form of the republic was proclaimed with a constitution that established a bicameral legislative assembly elected indirectly to reduce the role of elections. Executive power in the new government was vested in the hands of three consuls. As first consul, Napoleon directly controlled the entire executive authority of government. In 1802, Napoleon was made consul for life, and in 1804, he returned France to monarchy when he crowned himself Emperor Napoleon I.
In 1801, Napoleon made peace with the Catholic Church in order to stabilize his regime. His Concordat with the Church enabled the pope to depose French bishops, hold processions again, and reopen seminaries. Just by signing the Concordat the pope recognized the accomplishments of the Revolution and the church was no longer an enemy of France.
Napoleon's effort to bar British goods from the Continent in the hope of weakening Britain's economy ad destroying its capacity to wage war. However, the system failed. The Allied states resented Napoleon and decided to collaborate with Britain.
The beginning of Napoleon's downfall. As a response to Russia's defection to the Continental System, Napoleon decided to invade Russia. He was successful in entering Russia, but Napoleon's hopes for victory faded. During the retreat of the Russian army back to Russia, they burned down villages to prevent Napoleon's army from finding food and forage. Heat and disease also took their toll of the army, and the vast space of Russian territory led many troops to desert. When the remaining troops reached the city of Moscow, the city was on fire. Lacking food and supplies, Napoleon abandoned Moscow and made the "Great Retreat" across Russia in terrible winter conditions. Only 40,000 of 600,000 troops managed to straggle back to Poland in January 1813.
The military disaster that resulted after the invasion of Russia led to a war of liberation all over Europe, culminating in Napoleon's defeat in April 1814.
After his defeat in April 1814, Napoleon was exiled to the island of Elba where he was allowed to play emperor while the Bourbon monarchy was restored in France.
Napoleon was able to slip back into France and raise another army. He moved to attack the nearest allied forces stationed in Belgium. At Waterloo on June 18, Napoleon met a combined British and Prussian army and suffered a bloody defeat. He was then exiled to Saint Helena.