French Revolution

The French Revolution began in 1789 and ended in the late 1790s with the ascent of Napoleon Bonaparte. The people rebelled against the French aristocracy and the economic policies of King Louis XVI. The French Revolution helped to shape modern democracies based on popular sovereignty.

Rise of the Third Estate

The two percent of the French population representing the nobility and the clergy held a veto over the Third Estate. The commoners began to mobilize support for equal representation and the abolishment of the noble veto. They wanted voting by person and not by status.

The nobles did not want to give up the privileges they enjoyed under the traditional system.

Tennis Court Oath

The king himself summoned the Estates General to convene at Versailles. The meeting turned into a debate over its voting process.

On June 17, the Third Estate met and formally adopted the title of National Assembly. They took the Tennis Court Oath, vowing not to disperse until constitutional reform had been achieved.

Most of the clerical deputies and some liberal nobles quickly joined them. The king was forced to accept all three orders into the new National Assembly.

The Bastille

Fear and violence spread across the capital, Paris. Rumors of an impending military coup began to circulate. On July 14 rioters stormed the Bastille fortress in an attempt to secure gunpowder and weapons. This event is widely recognized as the start of the French Revolution.

Peasants across France joined the rebellion. Revolting against years of exploitation, they attacked the homes of tax collectors, landlords and the aristocratic elite.

The National Constituent Assembly responded by abolishing feudalism on August 4, 1789.

Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen

The Assembly adopted the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, statement of democratic principles grounded in the philosophical and political ideas of Enlightenment thinkers. It called for a system based on equal opportunity, freedom of speech, popular sovereignty and representative government.

The Reign of Terror

The king and his wife were executed. Conflict within the National Convention brought the French Revolution to an even more violent phase.

In June 1793, the Jacobins seized control of the National Convention and began the the bloody Reign of Terror . For months they killed thousands of their suspected enemies by beheading them.

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