The Library of Original Sources, Vol 7


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The French Revolution

To understand the French Revolution it is necessary to realize what was the previous condition of the French people. During the days of feudalism it will be remembered that France was made up of a vast number of estates and that the lord of each estate, while he held his fief from some over-lord, was practically an absolute czar over his own district. When the throne under Louis XIII. got almost complete ascendency over the nobility, the relations between king and baron were indeed changed, but the autocracy of the baron or bishop over his people remained. The power remained the same, but the spirit changed for the worse, for as the splendors of the court demanded the presence of the nobles and residence on their estates was resorted to practically only in case of exile from Versailles, all personal fellow-feeling between the lord and his people disappeared. The feudal powers were executed without mercy. The king owned a fifth of the land. The nobles another fifth. They paid what they pleased to support the state. The priests another fifth: they paid what they pleased. The remaining two-fifths were divided between the cities and the common people. The people supported the state, the nobility, and the church. The taxes were farmed the same as in Roman days, and the farmers-general were hated as thoroughly and as rightly as the Roman publicans had been. The peasant could hardly live or breathe without permission. He could be imprisoned without trial. He had to work the roads. He had to buy seven pounds of salt a year for table use only at the state’s own price. Smuggling meant the galleys. Wild game was sacred. It was the galleys or death for the peasant to kill it. Seed could not be steeped—itmight injure the birds. Weeds could not be hoed out—the young partridges might be disturbed. Manuring was regulated so as not to hurt the flavor of the pheasants. Hay could not be mowed until late—it had to be left as a shelter for the game. The deer and wild boars must be left to range free over the crops. The fields must not be fully fenced—it would interfere with the lord’s hunting. Grain had to be ground at the lord’s mill; bread had to be baked in his oven; both at a high price. There were the regular feudal aids, and all sorts of special assessments and burdens. Justice was in the hands of the lord of the domain, and the courts were hopelessly prejudiced and rotten. The church was rich and intolerant, and although many of the common priests had a sympathy for the masses, yet most of the church dignitaries were at the same time hereditary nobles of the realm, with all the belief in the privileges of their order.


The ideas that eventually led to the Revolution began to take force in France some fifty years, before it. The great advances made by natural and social science helped to bring in the spirit of criticism in government and tolerance and a mild skepticism in religion. The ideas of the Bill of Rights and Locke on natural rights, the supremacy of the people and toleration, and the first revolt against the mercantile theory of trade under Petty and Locke, both had great influence among intelligent Frenchmen of the nobility and Upper middle classes, Voltaire became the champion of toleration, the foe of the hard-bound church system that enveloped France. Montesquieu (1748) gave the impulse to criticism in government that would soon be applied to France. Rousseau took up the English idea of the social contract and argued for the entire supremacy of the people and the equality of all (1752). The Encyclopedists, such as D’Alembert and Diderot, exalted natural science and disparaged the church system, and in political economy helped develop the physiocratic theory of free trade and a tax only on land. All these ideas were at work among the professional classes and the nobility, few of the latter at least realizing whither they led.

The first effect of the reaction caused by these new ideas, was the expulsion, although for political reasons, of the order of Jesuits in 1764.

Ten years later Louis XV. died and Louis XVI. came to the throne (1774). The king was well disposed and seriously tried to find a way to relieve the financial straits of the government and the woes of the people. Turgot, the great disciple of the physiocratic economics, was made minister of finance, and brought forward his famous measuresfor the abolition of privileges and economy in the state. Class interests were against him and he was forced to resign. Jacques Necker, who followed him, adopted only temporary expedients to keep up the credit of the government. About this time the government saw its chance to humble. England by helping the colonies, and the war that followed, though it was successful in freeing the colonies, and in vindicating the Continental theory that a neutral flag should protect the cargo outside a blockade, yet plunged French finances into a deeper exhaustion. Necker was dismissed for a time (1781), and Calonne increased the extravagance of the court, and was finally (1787) compelled to call an assembly of the notables. He wanted to abolish the forced labor on roads, equalize the land-tax, and introduce free-trade in grain. The nobles would not consent and he, too, resigned (1787). In August the same year, the king held a grand lit de Justice,—session of parliament,—to enforce a land and stamp tax. The parliament, before its dismissal, called for the States-General. This was an assemblage of the three estates, representing the nobility, the church and the commons. Its last session had been in 1614, but the idea took with the people and the king promised to call it. In the meantime parliament was recalled from Troyes, and a loan of $80,000,000 forced through, and toleration granted to the protestants. Parliament declared lettres de cachet (involving imprisonment at the pleasure of the king) illegal, and the king in turn took away their right to consent to his decrees. The provincial parliaments were treated the same way. The spirit of resistance was aroused over all France, and the Jacobin (republican) club was organized.

Necker was recalled in 1788, and the States-General summoned for May 5, 1789. The crops of 1788 were destroyed by hail, and famine was all over the land, while the state was bankrupt and could give no aid.

The States-General, through Necker’s influence, was to be made up of as many members of the third estate (the commons) as of the other two combined. In fact, the clergy returned 291 members, the nobles 270, the commons 557. The cahirs of the orders give a good idea of what each desired the States-General to remedy—the nobles and clergy presented the complaints of their own orders, the third estate demanded equal rights and privileges.

They met at Versailles, May 5, 1787, and immediately the third estate clashed with the others on the question of organizing and votingas three separate or as one parliament of individuals. Slowly the commons began to feel that they were, in the words of Abb Sieyès, the nation, and finally, June 17, 1789, they organized themselves as the National Assembly, and the clergy were persuaded to join them.

The king closed the hall in which they met and bade the two orders convene as separate bodies, but they met in a tennis court and swore to uphold one another and the people of France. Finally part of the nobles, headed by the Duke of Orleans, joined them and the victory of the commons was complete.

The queen’s party tried to mass the troop to the aid of the court, but the king did not wish bloodshed and delayed. On July 12, 1789, the troops tried to disperse one of the crowds in Paris and fired on the people. One of the French guard was among the killed and the whole guard went over to the people’s side. Paris expected an attack from the state troops, a new city government was formed, and a militia collected. The mob seized arms wherever found. On July 14, led partly by the hope of finding arms, partly because it was a political prison, the mob attacked the Bastille. The governor, De Launay, finally thought best to surrender, and the mob murdered him and some of the surviving guards.

The king was willing to accept constitutional limitations on his power, the queen’s party was not. The peasants rose everywhere, and the nobles fled from France. Necker was recalled. The assembly got to work on a new constitution.

The nobles, clergy, cities, all laid down their privileges. The watchword was equality for all. The assembly took up the idea of natural rights that had been first formulated in Roman law, and had been developed anew by Grotius, Puffendorf, the English Whigs, Rousseau, and the American Revolution, and enlarged upon it in the Rights of Man. To us it seems made up of a lot of axioms: it is a telling fact that they were new to feudal France. From this time, 1789, dates the beginning of the end of the old order of things on the continent.

The king and queen accepted the new state of things sulkily and were compelled by the mob to come to Paris to be virtually imprisoned. The center of the Revolution had become the city, the mob had learned its power.

The assembly was still at work on the constitution. France was subdivided anew. Trial by jury was introduced in criminal cases. Thelands of the clergy and church were seized and there were issued assignats based on the value of the land. The monasteries were abolished, and the clergy ordered to take oath to obey the constitution. Most of them opposed the interference of the state, and henceforth the Revolution was worked out by the non-religious classes. All nobility was abolished. The common soldiers even turned out their noble officers.

The king refused to follow the assembly to such radical lengths, but hesitated what to do. Mirabeau, the most influential man of the assembly, openly tried to save some of the royal power, and secretly advised the king to escape to Lyons. Mirabeau died before the escape was attempted, and when it was tried, the court was captured. The king was looked upon by the radicals as a traitor to the people. Robespierre and the Jacobins petitioned for his deposition, but the republicans were dispersed by Lafayette and for a time held in check.

The king signed the new constitution and the old assembly dissolved (Sept. 30, 1791 ). The next day the new assembly was convened. There were a number of factions. The Feuillants supported the king; the Girondists were republican, but supported the new constitution; the Mountain (on the upper seats) included the Jacobins, led outside by Robespierre, and the Cordeliers, led at the club by Danton, both extreme republicans.

Austria and Prussia declared war against France, demanding the restoration of the nobility. The king’s cabinet was suspected and changed to a Girondist one headed by Roland; the king himself was looked at askance.

The French generals could not be got to move. Marat and the Jacobins charged treachery and called for victims. The king secretly sent abroad for help, and formed a Feuillant cabinet. Then the extremists headed by Danton and the Jacobins forced a new revolution. They overpowered the assembly, deposed and imprisoned the king, established the Commune, and massacred the Swiss guards.

The leading spirits were Danton, Marat, and Robespierre. Lafayette was forced to flee. The massacre of suspected persons went on with horrible persistency. The luck of the French arms changed, and the invading battalions were driven back.

The National Convention decreed the abolition of Royalty, September 21, 1792. The next day was "the first day of the Republic, year I." The king was tried by the Convention and convicted. He was executed January 21, 1793. This step brought practically all Europeagainst the Republic. The Mountain met the issue boldly with a levy of 300,000 men.

Insurrection arose. Dumouriez, the general, tried to march on Paris, but his volunteer soldiers drove him into the Austrian lines. March 10, 1793, the revolt of the Vendee broke out in the west in favor of the priesthood of Brittany. The Girondists threatened to march from the south against the Jacobins. Marat was assassinated by Charlotte Corday, a girl from a Girondist stronghold. But the Mountain under Danton and Robespierre rose superior to all these difficulties. The Girondists were sent to the guillotine. The queen followed. None suspected were spared. The Vendee were subdued. The foreign invading armies were driven back in the south and held in check at the north.

But France had made the mistake that rendered a representative government impossible. The central power was at once legislative, executive, judicial,—supreme, unchecked. There was no separation of powers, and the result was a tyranny. The instrument of terror was the Committee of Public Safety. It condemned secretly, the trial was a farce, and witnesses were later denied altogether.

The most bloodthirsty of the committee were the Hebertists, the most lenient the Dantonists. Robespierre stood between them and disliked them both. Early in 1794 Robespierre, making a combination with Danton, sent the Hebertists to the block because they were atheists (March 24). About two weeks later (April 5) Robespierre sent Danton himself to the guillotine.

For a few months Robespierre was let to reign supreme. One of his first acts was to re-establish the worship of the Divine Being. Atheists were condemned and the massacres kept up, but in July the terrorists combined against him and he fell July 28; 1794. A reaction set in against the wholesale bloodshed. The National Convention regained its powers. It even decreed that two-thirds of the next assembly must be chosen from itself. The citizen guards of Paris rushed to attack it, but were swept down by the cannon of young Bonaparte. The executive power of the government was put in the hands of a Directory of Five. Bonaparte at the end of 1795 was made commander of the army in Italy. The events that followed are a part of the story of Napoleon.

Looking back on the Revolution, we can see that, in spite of its horrible excesses, it did really stand for, develop, and spread, the ideasof equality, fraternity, and the supremacy of the people, and that it undermined the old feudal order of things throughout Europe. It failed at first to develop a permanent representative government for the same reason why the Puritan Revolution at first failed—because its legislative head, left judicial, executive, unchecked, developed into a tyranny, and left the way open for a man with the genius and the power behind it sufficient to seize the arbitrary power the legislature had proved itself unable to wield. But the ideas of the French Revolution, like those of the Puritan Revolution, remained, and as the one had its successors in the Bill of Rights and the American Revolution, so the other has its present representative in the French Republic.


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Chicago: "The French Revolution," The Library of Original Sources, Vol 7 in The Library of Original Sources, ed. Oliver J. Thatcher (Milwaukee, Wisconsin: University Research Extension Co., 1907), 369–374. Original Sources, accessed February 7, 2023,

MLA: . "The French Revolution." The Library of Original Sources, Vol 7, in The Library of Original Sources, edited by Oliver J. Thatcher, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, University Research Extension Co., 1907, pp. 369–374. Original Sources. 7 Feb. 2023.

Harvard: , 'The French Revolution' in The Library of Original Sources, Vol 7. cited in 1907, The Library of Original Sources, ed. , University Research Extension Co., Milwaukee, Wisconsin, pp.369–374. Original Sources, retrieved 7 February 2023, from