Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité (Liberty, Equality, Fraternity) – such is the renowned and often cited motto of the modern Republic of France that embodies its very founding principles on the basis of fundamental human rights. Although controversial with regards to its origins in the French Revolution, it nonetheless served as a powerful war cry that rallied hundreds of thousands of French citizens across the nation to overturn the centuries-old monarchy that was seen as oppressive and extravagant in the face of poverty and famines.
For the most part of the two decades prior to 1789, much of the Kingdom of France was severely affected by poor harvests, droughts and uncontrolled inflation. While the treasuries of the royalty and aristocrats were less affected, it was the pockets and livelihood of the common citizen that were most harshly hit. Hunger became rampant, food scarce, and whatever little food that was available to the commoner was more often than not out of his financial reach. The poor became poorer, the hungry hungrier, and the angry angrier. And amidst all these the rich and powerful remained contented with their lavish parties abundant with bread, wine and, according to some in Marie Antoinette’s case, cake.
Poverty among the French masses prior to the French Revolution
As if things weren’t bad enough, France was experiencing a rapid population boom that was placing a strain on its already backward agricultural and grain storage systems. The French monarchy and government were in severe debt, and France’s involvement in the Seven Years’ War and the American Revolution further drained the state’s coffers. In order to sustain the state, government debts were frequently transferred to the common people in the form of various burdensome taxes, and the possibility of extending these taxes to even the previously tax-exempted nobility and Catholic Church seemed impending. Doubtless to say, efforts to introduce taxes to the nobility and the Catholic Church met with strong opposition.
Crops were severely destroyed by a hailstorm in the autumn of 1788, and most of France experienced its worst harvest in decades. The harsh winter later that year brought nothing but hunger and despair to the people, culminating in increasing incidences of rioting. Jacques Necker (1732 – 1804), the newly-appointed Director General of Finance under King Louis XVI (1754 – 1793), did all he could to introduce measures to relieve France’s soaring financial crisis, but to no avail. Suggesting reductions in tax exemptions for the nobility and clergy, and borrowing more money, his ideas did not go down well with the King and his other ministers.
King Louis XVI (1754 - 1793)
Failing to find a solution to France’s deepening economic crisis even after consulting the Assembly of Notables, King Louis XVI summoned the Estates-General, a parliamentary-like general assembly comprising the three French estates of the realm: the clergy (First Estate), the nobility (Second Estate) and the common citizens (Third Estate). Scheduled to meet in May 1789, it was the first time the Estates-General was called for since 1614. Elections for the representatives to the Estates-General were held during spring that year, and the assembly duly opened on 5 May 1789 in Versailles amidst traditional festivities.
The First Estate represented about 100,000 clergy in the Catholic Church, whereby the Church held about 10% of the land and collected tithes from the common citizens. The Second Estate represented approximately 400,000 members of the nobility who collectively owned about 25% of the land and collected rents from the common citizens within their lands. The Third Estate represented the common citizenry, an estimated 95-98% of the French population at that time. The Estates-General of 1789 saw an overall attendance of about 1200 delegates, half of whom were from the Third Estate.
Grand opening of the Estates-General of May 1789
Despite the fact that the Third Estate was given double representation as compared to the other two Estates, its delegates were clearly dissatisfied. Consisting mainly of lawyers, they argued that the Third Estate represented about 95-98% of France’s population and as such, they demanded more representation and influence. To make matters worse, it was announced at the opening of the Estates-General that each Estate, as opposed to each head, was given a single vote. This meant that the Third Estate’s double representation would amount to no real power, as the First and Second Estates traditionally voted together due to their shared family ties and interests.
Demands for greater representation and a change in the voting system were rejected and as a result, delegates of the Third Estate left and formed a new body called the National Assembly, proclaiming themselves an “assembly not of the Estates, but of the People.” They invited delegates of the other two Estates to join, but made it clear that they would proceed to discuss and decide on national matters with or without them. From June 13 onwards, the majority of the clergy (First Estate) and a handful of the nobility (Second Estate) answered the National Assembly’s call to join them, and by June 17, the National Assembly was fully formed. The Assembly held their own meetings independent of the Estates-General.
The proclamation of the National Assembly was an outright challenge to the authority of the King and the Estates-General. In an attempt to stop the Assembly’s meetings, King Louis XVI ordered the closure of the Salle des États, the venue of the Assembly’s meetings, under the pretext that preparations had to be made for a royal speech in two days. When the delegates of the Assembly arrived for the meeting in the morning of June 20, they were shocked to find out that the doors to the venue were locked and were heavily guarded by soldiers. Fearing an imminent retribution from the King, the Assembly immediately moved to a nearby indoor tennis court. It was here that members of the Assembly solemnly pledged the famous Tennis Court Oath “not to separate, and to reassemble wherever circumstances require, until the constitution of the kingdom is established.”
Pledging of the Tennis Court Oath
King Louis XVI, wanting to show that he was still in control of matters, ordered the remaining members of the Estates-General to join the National Assembly, much against his wishes. The king had no choice but to concede to the demands of the Third Estate, including allowing one vote for each delegate as opposed to each Estate. The National Assembly continued meeting in Versailles with the King presiding over it, and a committee of thirty members was appointed to draft a constitution for France. Shortly after, the National Assembly declared itself the National Constituent Assembly, in which its primary tasks were to establish a constitution for the nation and to legislate laws for the land.
At the same time, the King had given orders to increase the number of troops on standby outside Paris and Versailles, out of fear of the increasing boldness of the Third Estate. This in itself led to more fears among the common people in Paris, and rumours about an impending coup d’etat became widespread. Nonetheless, it was the firing of Jacques Necker, among other factors, that triggered a violent uprising of the common people against the King’s army.
Jacques Necker (1732 - 1804)
Jacques Necker was perceived as a popular minister among the common citizens of France, but his popularity and proposals for financial reforms in the government earned him the enmity of many amongst the royal family and nobility. When Necker published a report on the government’s debts to the public, the King deemed it inaccurate and dismissed him from service with immediate effect on July 11, 1789. Being a popular minister in the eyes of the people, Necker’s dismissal angered the people, perceiving it as a move by the King to stop the National Constituent Assembly and the will of the people.
This public anger, aggravated by worsening inflation and a bleak economic outlook, brought chaos to the streets of Paris as the people rioted and looted business establishments. With soldiers being sent to stop the riots, gun shops were looted for their weaponry and the people were eager to arm themselves against the army. This scramble for weapons culminated in the violent storming of the Bastille on July 14.
The Bastille was a medieval fortress and prison that represented royal authority in Paris. Although the prison contained only seven inmates at that time, it was well-equipped with gunpowder and weapons, and was thus made the prime target of the people. About 30 garrison soldiers guarding the Bastille were killed, along with about 100 civilians. The fall of the Bastille symbolized the victory of the people and is today observed as a national holiday in France, commemorating what is commonly perceived to be the start of the French Revolution.
Storming of the Bastille
Unrest and insurgencies were not only rampant in the capital city of Paris; even in the smaller towns and hamlets, the people were rebelling against paying taxes and submitting to the nobility. Tax offices were destroyed and the grand residences of nobles ransacked for grain and title deeds. In some places, the soldiers surrendered their weapons and joined the people in rebelling against the established authorities, while in others local town authorities were taken over by new leaderships that aligned themselves with the authority of the National Constituent Assembly.
The spreading violence alarmed even the National Constituent Assembly, and upon its advice, Necker was recalled by the King to his position as Director General of Finance. Nonetheless, the damage had been done, and riots continued throughout July and August in a period popularly known as the Great Fear. On August 4, the Assembly officially abolished the centuries-old feudal privileges enjoyed by the Church (First Estate) and the nobility (Second Estate), making it compulsory for them to pay taxes, and dismantling their rights to collect taxes and impose legislations in lands controlled by them. Shortly after, on August 26, the Assembly issued the famous Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, a document inspired by the American Declaration of Independence 1776 which outlines the fundamental rights of every citizen.
Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen
Over the subsequent months, France’s government underwent tremendous revamps. Local and town administrations were reorganized, and the boundaries of provinces were redrawn to make way for more efficient governance. The Church was forced to surrender all the land it previously owned, in addition to heeding new laws on prohibiting monastical vows and many religious orders. The nobility was compelled to adhere to new laws that abolished all aristocratic and hereditary titles. And all newly appointed public officials and clergy were required to sign a pledge of loyalty to the new French nation.
Despite radical voices in the Assembly calling for the complete abolishment of the monarch, the Assembly adopted a system of constitutional monarchy as opposed to absolute monarchy. The first written Constitution of France, proclaimed on September 3, 1791, granted the King powers to block legislations and the ability to appoint ministers. This was not without opposition, especially after a failed attempt by King Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette (1755 – 1793) and the royal family to flee France on the night of June 20, 1791. Although under disguise as servants, the King and his family was recognized and arrested at Varennes before being sent back in humiliating captivity. From then on, many were suspicious of the King’s intents, and they feared foreign conspiracies that may attempt to subdue the Revolution.
King Louis XVI, Queen Marie Antoinette and the royal household being arrested at Varennes
By this time, war became imminent. Austria and Prussia had declared their support for King Louise XVI and agreed to put an end to the French Revolution. In the meantime, although the King has been restored to power under the constitution after pledging to uphold it, fierce debates ensued in the Assembly as to whether France should be made a republic or not. As the National Constituent Assembly dissolved itself to form the new Legislative Assembly under the Constitution of 1791, further debates ensued as to whether France should declare war against its neighbours that opposed the Revolution, since the nation at that time was still suffering from severe economic recession and soaring inflation.
Calls for war against Austria and Prussia prevailed in the Assembly, and the ill-prepared France at that time forced itself into battles in which it suffered severe setbacks initially. At the same time, the King and the Assembly drifted further apart on many matters that they could not come to agreement with. Among others, Maximilien Robespierre (1758 – 1794), a member of the more radical political faction in the Assembly known as the Jacobins, called for the total abolishment of the monarchy. This was supported by an increasing number of voices not only in the Assembly but also among the common citizens of Paris who were increasingly suspicious as to where the King’s allegiance actually lies.
Anger and disillusionment against the King and the constitutional monarchy system culminated in another violent and bloody insurrection on August 10, 1792, this time in the grounds of the Tuileries Palace, the residence of the King and the royal household. Numerous guards assigned to protect the King were killed, and the King decided to seek refuge within the Assembly. The Assembly, however, relied on popular support and was pressured to give in to public sentiment, consequently suspending the monarch and declaring the King a prisoner of the state. At the same time, it also gave in to public demands for the establishment of a new assembly to replace the Legislative Assembly.
The bloody insurrection in Tuileries Palace on August 10, 1792
The new assembly, to be known as the National Convention, was to be a democratically elected assembly and was to be entrusted with the task of writing a new constitution to replace the Constitution of 1791. Elections were held amidst much chaos, and the Convention officially met for the first time on September 21, 1792, with generally the same representatives as those of the Legislative Assembly. The Convention became the new de facto government of France, and in its capacity as government, the monarch was abolished and France was declared a republic.
The National Convention lasted until October 26, 1795, and can generally be divided into three periods. In the first period of the National Convention, the Convention was dominated by a loose and relatively moderate political faction known as the Girondins. The Girondins, although supporting the abolishment of the monarchy, resisted the more radical views and methods of the Jacobins. The initial days of the new National Convention were plagued by a highly divisive question: “Should the King be executed?” Opinions regarding this were divided, with some advocating outright execution or execution under certain conditions while others lobbying for lesser punishments and even clemency. The shocking discovery of several documents comprising King Louis XVI’s personal communications on November 20 turned the tides against him, and a majority in the Convention voted in favour of his execution on charges of “conspiracy against the public liberty and the general safety.” King Louis XVI was thus executed at the guillotine on 21 January 1793 at the Place de la Révolution, now called the Place de la Concorde in Paris.
Execution of King Louis XVI at the guillotine
The execution of King Louis XVI left the fate of his consort, Marie Antoinette, hanging. Dubbed the “Widow Carpet” at this time, she went into depression and her health quickly deteriorated. Her fate was also debated fiercely in the Convention, and it was not until after the commencement of the second period of the National Convention that her fate was firmly decided. At the same time, the Convention established the Committee of General Defense in January 1793, later to be known as the Committee of Public Safety in March 1793, as the de facto executive branch of the government.
June 2, 1793 marked the commencement of the second period of the National Convention, when the Girondins were overpowered by the more radical Jacobins. Maximilien de Robespierre (1758 – 1794), one of the most prominent and vocal leaders of the Jacobins, assumed control of the Committee of Public Safety and plunged the entire nation into what came to be known as the Reign of Terror.
Maximilien de Robespierre (1758 - 1794)
The Reign of Terror, which lasted for a turbulent 10 months starting from September 1793, saw a series of radical measures and ruthless massacres under the orders of Robespierre and the Committee of Public Safety. Massive de-Christianization efforts were forced upon the general public, in which all elements of Christianity were attempted to be eradicated. Churches were forcibly shut down, members of the clergy were either deported or executed, and both public and private worship were outlawed. In addition, a Revolutionary Calendar was instituted as a substitute to the existing calendar.
The Reign of Terror also saw numerous ‘enemies of the Revolution’ being executed either by the guillotine or summary executions throughout France. Even the slightest suspicion of counter-revolutionary thoughts or actions was enough to justify an execution without trial. Among the victims of the guillotine during this period were numerous Girondins and the “Widow Carpet” Marie Antoinette herself, who was finally executed on 16 October 1793. In total, approximately 50,000 people were executed throughout the country, with the guillotine severing the heads of at least 15,000 of them.
Queen Marie Antoinette (1755 - 1793)
Robespierre’s radical policies and draconian rule incited much hatred and anger against him not only among the common people, but even among the members of the National Convention itself. Members of the Convention plotted against him, and finally on 27 July 1794 he was successfully arrested and guillotined the following day without trial. His death marked the end of the second period of the Convention and the beginning of the final period.
Festival of the Supreme Being held on 8 June 1794 - one of the factors leading to Robespierre's downfall
Dubbed the Thermidorian Reaction (after 9 Thermidor Year II, which is 27 July 1794 according to the French Revolutionary Calendar), the third and final period of the Convention was somewhat a ‘reaction’ or revolt by the people against the excesses of the Reign of Terror. Moderate Girondins who survived the Terror dominated the scene during this period, and the powers of the Committee of Public Safety were dismantled. A new constitution was passed which resulted in a bicameral legislature and a five-member executive branch of the government known as the Directory.
The Directory’s reign was not without crises and unpopularity. Administration under the Directory was plagued with corruption and inefficiency, and the sluggish condition of the nation’s economy continued, resulting in uncontrolled inflation. Civilian uprisings were also brutally repressed with large-scale massacres, and leaders who voiced opposition against the Directory’s policies were either imprisoned or exiled. And it relied heavily on the French army to stabilize and maintain its grip on power.
By the late 1790s, much of the Directory’s power and influence depended solely on the army, effectively ceding power to top generals in the military. Anger and dissatisfaction against the Directory culminated in a coup d’etat on November 9, 1799, staged by none other than the famed Napoleon Bonaparte (1769 – 1821) who, by then, had raised himself to prominence in the French military through his successful campaigns against the foreign enemies of the French Revolution. This marked the end of the French Revolution and the beginning of the Napoleonic Era, with Napoleon declaring himself Emperor of the French.
Napoleon Bonaparte (1769 - 1821)
Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité – it remains controversial to this day whether the motto really had its origins from the French Revolution. Whether or not it actually originated from the French Revolution, be it in part or in its entirety, it is nonetheless the founding principles of today’s Republic of France and the basic building blocks of modern human rights.