One of the most influential events in Western Civilization, the French Revolution had its beginnings in the age of Enlightenment. The Enlightenment centered around the use of reason not only to determine scientific truths, but also to formulate laws and principles that govern the way mankind functions. It was also fueled by the extravagance of Louis XIV, who engaged in war after war and depleted the economy. The condition of the French economy had deteriorated since the reign of Louis XIV. There was much spending during his many wars, and the people were taxed to the very limit. King Louis XVI inherited a country that was a ticking time bomb. Between the extravagance of Louis XIV and the ideas of the Enlightenment, something was bound to happen. The French Revolution sought to create a society organized from the ground up by pure reason, with a utter disregard for any inherited institutions.
Louis XVI was forced to call the Estates-General in 1789 for the first time 175 years. It consisted of the three Estates that comprised the French people: the nobility, the clergy, and the rest. The Third Estate, that which comprised the common people, greatly outnumbered the other two Estates. The Third Estate was upset that did not have more influence, as the First and Second Estates would likely outvote the Third in many matters. Therefore, the Third Estate demanded that Louis change the voting system, incorporating voting by head instead of by Estate. It also demanded that Louis double the number of delegates that it could send to the Estates General. Louis consented to the latter, but he refused to allow voting by head. This was the main change that the Third Estate had wanted, and without it the second one was pointless.
The Third Estate met at a tennis court in June of 1789, and refused to disband until a constitution was established, and the king consented. However, things heated up further with the famous storming of the Bastille on July 14. The people believed that many political prisoners were being held there, so they formed a mob to liberate these prisoners. As it turned out, only seven inmates were being held, and they were mostly common criminals. Then came the night of August 4, at which the nobility were persuaded to give many of their privileges, and the Declaration of the Rights of Man was adopted. The Revolution built up steam with the confiscation of all Church lands in order to pay off some of the enormous debt, and the adoption of a new constitution in 1790 that established a limited monarchy. The clergy were forced to swear an oath of allegiance to the state, and about half refused. Those priests who refused are referred to as “refractory”, while the ones who obliged are referred to as “constitutional”. In 1791 another constitution was established that limited the king’s power even further, allowing him only the authority to temporarily veto a law. This period, from 1789 to 1791 is known as the moderate phase. Things heated up far more in the years to come.
The radical phase saw the slaughter of the king’s royal guard in 1792 and the capture of Paris by a more radical group of revolutionaries. There also occurred the September Massacres, in which 1100 prisoners were killed, including 200 priests and three bishops. Finally, in January of 1793, the king was placed in a sort of mock-trial, was found guilty and was executed. Thus began the infamous “Reign of Terror”, rooting out Catholicism wherever it was found and guillotining anyone who found themselves against the current tide of the revolution. Robespierre, a major figure in the revolution who became increasingly powerful, passed a law that prevented the defense of anyone who went on trial for their life. Finally things went so far out of control there was what is known as the “Thermidorian Reaction”, during which Robespierre himself was executed on the ninth of Thermidor, 1794 (the old month system was abolished by the revolution). The revolution ended with this reaction, paving the way for an emperor to rise out of the ashes and restore order, just as Caesar Augustus had done in Rome over 18 centuries before.
The French Revolution was a period of a great uprooting of old inherited institutions. The revolution was an embodiment of the ideas of the Enlightenment. It proclaimed the use of reason in the belief that society could be organized around it. It completely reorganized the structure of everything, from the political authority to the very month system. It eventually became so radical that the main proponent was executed and the revolution ended. The way was paved for someone to take absolute authority after the unrest and destruction of the Reign of Terror, a general named Napoleon.