The French Revolution was basically a war between the king of France and his supporters, and the people of France. From 1789 to 1799, King Louis XVI (16th) was violently overthrown, removed from power and replaced with a government elected by the people. He was eventually executed for treason.
Why study it? Is it significant?
It was a first. A king was overthrown and replaced with a democratic government because people believed they were entitled to rights, freedoms and a government that represented them. It started a chain reaction that led to democratic governments throughout Europe and the Western world in the 19th and 20th centuries.
The French Revolution also affected people everywhere who were living under governments that restricted their freedoms. It inspired them to take action against these conditions. It inspired the anti-slavery movement (because, how can slavery exist if all men are equal?), the movement to win rights and votes for women, and even modern-day freedom movements. The laws, ideas, and role of government developed in France during the early phase of the revolution still inspire people who are oppressed today.
The revolutionaries' first constitution--The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen from 1789—is still one of the finest examples of democratic principles and ideas that a government could have. Many democratic countries have copied its ideas and wording outright!
We can also learn lessons from the violence and bloodshed of the dark side of the revolution. How much violence is acceptable to attain democratic goals? Should freedoms and rights be limited to protect a government?
Historians examine the following four factors, or causes, to understand why revolutions occur. You will examine these four factors as they relate to the causes of the French Revolution.
New Ideas - New ideas represent and lead to changes in how people view the world and their place in it. New ideas can come from people, inventions, development of technology, etc. New ideas lead people to re-examine society and their role in it, and often to desire change accordingly.
- Philosophers such as Hobbes, Locke, Voltaire, Rousseau inspired people to think and to question what was happening.
While new ideas alone would not lead to revolution, the ideas that these philosophers developed and shared with the public would play an important part.
Social Conflict - Various groups in society disagree with one another, which leads to conflict. Disagreements can be based on religion, language, class, gender, relationships between generations, changing roles for men and women, changes in the family structure, etc.
Economic Conditions - People's standard of living can influence a desire for change? If they are poor, hungry or jobless, people are more likely to want change. A high standard of living means the people have access to better education, information and goods and services, which can also cause change.
Political Factors - What type of government does a society have? Do laws need to change to reflect that society? Does the government represent all the people, or are some left out? Are the laws fair to everyone?
Rights and Freedoms
Practice your historical thinking by discussing how our concept of rights has changed or remained the same (continuity and change) over time by focusing on how you and your peers see rights in your own environment: the school.
- How do the rights that the Enlightenment Philosophers promoted affect life within your school environment? Give some examples.
- How do students' expectations of rights—or the rights that they focus on—differ from those of citizens at the time of the French Revolution? Give examples. Why might they differ?
- How do the rights of individual students compare with the rights of the school to maintain a safe environment?
- How should rights change in your school? Why? For example, are student rights respected or ignored by locker searches, restrictions on cell phone use, security cameras, dress codes, nutrition policies or random searches by narcotics dogs? Why or why not? What expectation of privacy should exist in public schools?
Key Events of the Revolution
Events that happened during the ten years of the French Revolution were numerous and complex. Once the king was removed from power, violence and disorder escalated. While some improvements were accomplished at first—increased rights and freedoms, voting, and a more equitable approach to representation in government—there were also some terrible times. From 1793 onwards, the common people were in charge, and they completely changed France.