Unit VI: The French
Revolution and the
Origins of the French Revolution
Historians of the French Revolution have sought to explain its origins by examining the social, political, and cultural landscape of the eighteenth century. Among the factors leading up to the outbreak of
Revolution in 1789, scholars have emphasized divisions in the social order, the spread of Enlightenment ideas that emphasized liberty and equality, and the economic crises that occurred late in the century. The traditional three orders of society (clergy, nobility, and peasants) seemed less and less relevant over the course of the century as a new class of shopkeepers and merchants became more influential and divisions among nobles became more apparent. The growth of a print culture in France helped the philosophes to spread their ideas, while other writers reprinted these ideas in simplified form for distribution among the masses (who were, however, still largely illiterate). Finally, after several wars had impoverished the royal government, the French economy was hard hit by two bad harvests in 1788-1789.
Historical debates over the origins of the Revolution, therefore, must balance all these factors before reaching any conclusions about what could cause such a tumultuous series of events as those that occurred in France at the end of the eighteenth century.
In 1789, following the meeting of the Third Estate and the announcement that a new constitution for the nation had to be written, shopkeepers and urban laborers joined in the excitement. They attacked an ancient prison-fortress, a symbol of the harshness of the Old Regime. They liberated the eight prisoners inside, seized guns, and murdered the prison's warden. Soon after the capture of the Bastille, the revolutionary government dismantled it and installed a monument to the new republic. Today, the new
Paris Opera House rests on the old site of the Bastille.
*The Symbolic Start of the Revolution
From Claude Cholat. "The
Storming of the
Bastille." Print. Ca. 1789. Musée
Carnavalet, Paris. Photo: AKG
In this depiction of the capture of the Bastille, all the events of the day are compressed into one image. Possibly drawn from the point of view of a shopkeeper and participant in the event, Claude
Cholat, this painting gives an excellent idea of the excitement of the people involved.
Unit VI The French Revolution and the Napoleonic Era
This Declaration helped the revolutionaries to define their ideals and objectives during the first months of the Revolution. It became the preamble for the Constitutions of 1793 and 1795. Moreover, the Declaration
(and more particularly the language of the Declaration) asserted claims to French nationality based on a particular set of rights that would have lasting effects on debates over women's participation, the rights of foreigners, and the place in French society of such groups as black slaves, Jews, and Protestants.
The French Revolutionaries Declare Their Rights
From Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. As reproduced in Translations and Reprints from the
Original Sources of European History, trans. James Harvey Robinson, ed. James Harvey
Robinson, vol. I (Philadelphia: Department of History, University of Pennsylvania, 1897), 6-8.
The representatives of the French people, organized as a National Assembly, believing that the ignorance, neglect, or contempt of the rights of man are the sole cause of public calamities and of the corruption of governments, have determined to set forth in a solemn declaration the natural, unalienable, and sacred rights of man, in order that this declaration, being constantly before all the members of the
Social body, shall remind them continually of their rights and duties; in order that the acts of the legislative power, as well as those of the executive power, may be compared at any moment with the objects and purposes of all political institutions and may