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The Core Curriculum

Historical Context for the French Revolution

A satirical depiction of a French commoner carrying a nobleman and a member of the clergy on his back, 1789. (Wikipedia Commons) A satirical depiction of a French commoner carrying a nobleman and a member of the clergy on his back, 1789. (Wikipedia Commons) Mid-18th Century France was formally divided into three legal categories known as "Estates."  Included in the First Estate were members of the clergy; in the Second, the nobility; and in the Third, the rest of the population.  Members of the First and Second Estates enjoyed many privileges – among them, immunity from taxation,  a monopoly over offices, and entitlements of various pensions, all of which had the effect of placing a great burden on the Third Estate to support the monarchy and clergy.

By most accounts, the French Revolution began to unfold at the monarchy’s financial crisis. In 1788, King Louis VXI was forced to summon together a representative body, the Estates General, in order to come up with emergency funds. In preparation for the Estates General, various writers and activists began to circulate pamphlets that gave a voice to the many members of the Third Estate. One of the most influential of these pamphlets was written by Joseph Emanuel Sieyès, entitled, "What is The Third Estate?" Almost overnight, the Third Estate came to identify itself with the French nation.

The National Constituent Assembly, one of the first ruling bodies of the newly reconstituted French nation, drafted a document known as the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. It was adopted in full in August of 1789, and was considered a first step toward a French Constitution. The document was prepared and proposed by Marquis de Lafayette, though many other revolutionary figures played prominent roles. A second declaration, known as the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen of 1793, was adopted four years later.

The National Constituent Assembly gave way to the Legislative Assembly in 1791, and the Legislative Assembly, in turn, was replaced by the National Convention. That body created a Committee of Public Safety, compromised of twelve men, and headed by Maximilien Robespierre. As Robespierre grew in power, he became, in effect, the governor of France. His policies were remarkably effective in stabilizing the volatile French economy and in forming a French army, and he had a clear vision of the utopian society. “On the Moral and Political Principles of Domestic Policy” was a speech he gave in defense of these and other views on February 5, 1794. But it was a period marked by extreme violence: in the five months leading up to his speech, 269 people had been executed, and 5,434 were in jail awaiting trial. In light of such a bloody regime, the French citizenry once again revolted, and Robespierre was arrested and guillotined on July 28, 1794.

 

Written by Patrick Comstock, Philosophy and Education, Teachers College, Columbia University

 
Works Consulted:

Lynn Hunt, Jack R. Censer, James A. Leith. “French Revolution: An Overview.” Encyclopedia of the Enlightenment, edited by Alan Charles Kors. Oxford University Press, 2003. Oxford Reference Online

“Robespierre, Maximilien François Marie Isidore de.” Encyclopedia of European Social History, edited by Peter N. Stearns. Detroit: Charles Scribner's Sons, 2001: 300-301

“Sieyès, Emmanuel Joseph.” Encyclopedia of European Social History, edited by Peter N. Stearns. Detroit: Charles Scribner's Sons, 2001: 317-318