The French Revolution (French: Révolution française) was a period of radical social and political upheaval in France from 1789 to 1799 that profoundly affected French and modern history, marking the decline of powerful monarchies and churches and the rise of democracy. It was a highly controversial instance of the Atlantic Revolutions of the era. Historian François Aulard writes:
- From the social point of view, the Revolution consisted in the suppression of what was called the feudal system, in the emancipation of the individual, in greater division of landed property, the abolition of the privileges of noble birth, the establishment of equality, the simplification of life… The French Revolution differed from other revolutions in being not merely national, for it aimed at benefiting all humanity.”
Popular resentment of the privileges enjoyed by the clergy, aristocracy and the King’s court at Versailles combined with an economic crisis following the expenses of the Seven Years’ War and the American Revolutionary War and years of bad harvests motivated demands for change, which were couched in terms of Enlightenment ideals and caused the convocation of the Estates-General in May 1789. The first year of the Revolution saw members of the Third Estate proclaiming the Tennis Court Oath in June, the assault on the Bastille in July, the passage of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen in August, and an epic march on Versailles that forced the royal court back to Paris in October. The next few years were dominated by struggles between various liberal assemblies and right-wing supporters of the monarchy intent on thwarting major reforms. A republic was proclaimed in September 1792 and King Louis XVI was executed the next year.
External threats closely shaped the course of the Revolution. The Revolutionary Wars began in 1792 and ultimately featured spectacular French victories that facilitated the conquest of the Italian Peninsula, the Low Countries and most territories west of the Rhine – achievements that had eluded previous French governments for centuries. Internally, popular agitation radicalized the Revolution significantly, culminating in the rise of Maximilien Robespierre and the Jacobins. The dictatorship imposed by the Committee of Public Safety during the Reign of Terror, from 1793 until 1794, caused up to 40,000 deaths inside France, abolished slavery in the colonies, and secured the borders of the new republic from its enemies. The Reign of Terror ended with the overthrow and execution of Robespierre and the other leading Jacobins in the Thermidorian Reaction. The Directory assumed control of the French state in 1795 and held power until 1799. In that year, conventionally seen as the conclusion of the Revolution, Napoleon Bonaparte overthrew the Directory in the coup of 18 Brumaire and established the Consulate. The First Empire under Napoleon emerged in 1804 and spread French revolutionary principles all over Europe during the Napoleonic Wars. The First Empire was militarily defeated by an anti-Napoleonic coalition that in 1815 brought about the restoration of the Bourbons, albeit under a constitutional monarchy, and the reversion to France’s traditional frontiers.
The modern era has unfolded in the shadow of the French Revolution. French society itself underwent an epic transformation as feudal, aristocratic, and religious privileges were overthrown. Old ideas about tradition and hierarchy were abruptly overthrown under the mantra of “Liberté, égalité, fraternité,” although opponents fought furiously against this for more than a century. Globally, the Revolution accelerated the rise of republics and democracies, the spread of liberalism, nationalism, socialism and secularism, the development of modern political ideologies, and the practice of total war. Some of its central documents, like the Declaration of the Rights of Man, expanded the arena of human rights to include women and slaves. The fallout from the Revolution had permanent consequences for human history: the Latin American independence wars, the Louisiana Purchase by the United States, and the Revolutions of 1848 are just a few of the numerous events that ultimately depended upon the eruption of 1789.