French Revolution Timeline: The Ultimate Study Guide

No matter if you're learning about the French Revolution in a high school class or college course or are just a history buff, this timeline of the French Revolution is the most comprehensive outline you'll find.

French Revolution Timeline: The Ultimate Study Guide
Jean-Pierre Houël

The French Revolution, a period of radical political and societal transformation in France that spanned a decade from 1789 to 1799, indelibly shaped the trajectory of modern history. This seismic event, beginning with the financial crisis of the Bourbon monarchy and ending with Napoleon Bonaparte's coup of 18 Brumaire, was driven by socio-economic inequities, Enlightenment ideas, and widespread famine.

Its profound legacy has been a continuous source of study and interpretation, serving as a critical touchstone for discussions on liberty, equality, and fraternity — the fundamental principles that still inform democratic ideals today, not to mention the French Revolution fostered the rise of a middle-class society.

Because of all this, studying the French Revolution has become pretty standard in history classes of all levels, from high school to post-graduate courses. Almost every college in the United States offers a course on the French Revolution of 1789 and AP classes like AP European History covers this topic for high school students. Since so many students will be exposed to and learn about the French Revolution, we at BrokeScholar decided to assemble the most comprehensive outline and timeline of the French Revolution, including dates, events, and overall key terms and concepts, to help you easily master this subject.

Let us begin.

Table of Contents

I. Pre-French Revolution Timeline: 1589-1789
1589-1648: From the First Bourbon King to the Fronde
1648-1715: Absolutism and the Reign of Louis XIV, the “Sun King”
1715-1789: The Last Bourbon Kings
II. Timeline of the French Revolution: 1789-1799
1789-1794: The Outbreak of Revolution and Its Increasingly Radical Course
1795-1799: Stabilizing the Revolutionary Regime
III. Timeline of the Consulate to the Empire to the Restoration: 1799-1815
1799-1804: From Consulate to the First French Empire
1805-1812: Napoleon's Bid for Hegemony

IV. Key Terms and Concepts of the French Revolution

V. Key People of the French Revolution

The Bottom Line on the Timeline of the French Revolution

I. Pre-French Revolution Timeline: 1589-1789

You can’t truly understand the great French Revolution that broke out in 1789 without knowing the history of the so-called Ancien Regime (the “Old Regime”) — the reigning political and social system of pre-revolutionary France. There’s no precise date for the beginning of the Ancien Regime but using the rise of the Bourbon dynasty as rulers of France — in the year 1589 — is a helpful starting point. 

1589-1648: From the First Bourbon King to the Fronde

The years 1589 to 1648 witnessed significant changes in French history, marking the reign of the first Bourbon king, Henry IV, and culminating in a series of civil wars known as the Fronde. This epoch, just before the zenith of the French monarchy under Louis XIV, was rife with political strife, religious tension, and shifting social dynamics. Navigating the complexities of this era provides a richer understanding of the subsequent ascendancy of the absolute monarchy, and sets the stage for the societal transformations that would eventually culminate in the French Revolution.

[Portrait of King Henry IV of France, by Frans Pourbus the Younger. Henry IV is said to have coined the phrase, "A chicken in every pot, every Sunday”]

1589-1610: Reign of Henry IV

The period from 1589 to 1610 was marked by the reign of Henry IV, the first Bourbon king of France, whose tenure was instrumental in transitioning the country from the destructive Wars of Religion towards stability and relative prosperity. Ascending to the throne amid intense religious conflict, Henry IV, initially a Protestant, famously converted to Catholicism to appease his largely Catholic subjects, epitomized in the phrase "Paris is worth a mass." His reign was characterized by pragmatic political decisions, tolerance, and a focus on economic recovery. The Edict of Nantes, granting religious freedoms to Protestants and effectively ending the Wars of Religion, stands out as one of his most notable accomplishments. Additionally, Henry IV’s economic policies, implemented by his able minister, the Duke of Sully, laid the groundwork for a flourishing economy, while infrastructural developments modernized Paris.

August 1, 1589: King Henry III of France (of the House of Valois dynasty) is assassinated by fanatical Dominican friar Jacques Clément. Henry III and the entire kingdom is engulfed in the brutal, lengthy French Wars of Religion (1562-1598) fought mainly by the Catholic League and its Catholic supporters versus the Huguenots (French Protestants, who follow the Calvinist or Reformed church). Henry III was the last king of the Valois dynasty.

August 2, 1589: The Huguenot Henry of Navarre, a distant relative but the heir-presumptive by French Salic law, technically accedes to the French throne as Henry IV — the first king of the House of Bourbon. However, his opponents like the Catholic League and the Duke of Guise do not recognize him.

February 27, 1594: The coronation of Henry IV as King of France takes place at Chartres Cathedral after he abjures Protestantism and converts to Catholicism, not to mention defeated all of his opponents in war. This marks the true start of Bourbon monarchy (although he technically became king in 1589, his Catholic opponents in the French Wars of Religion didn’t recognize him) — the dynasty would last until 1789.

April 1598: The Edict of Nantes is pronounced by Henry IV, putting an end to the Wars of Religion and granting French Protestants religious, political, and civil rights in certain areas of the kingdom. It is an edict of limited toleration and does not recognize Protestantism in France as an official, legitimate religion. Still, it is a seminal step forward that would, unfortunately, be taken back almost 100 years later with the Edict of Fontainebleau in 1685.

September 27, 1601: Birth of Louis XIII

May 14, 1610: Assassination of Henry IV by François Ravaillac, a Catholic zealot who stabbed him in the Rue de la Ferronnerie. His son succeeds to the throne as Louis XIII. The reign of King Louis XIII sees an increasing push toward absolutism, especially during Cardinal Richelieu’s tenure in office until 1642. 

1610-1648: Reign of Louis XIII and Regency

The reign of Louis XIII, stretching from 1610 to 1643, and the Regency for his young son Louis XIV, lasted until he reached majority in 1651, but this period is punctuated by the outbreak of the Fronde in 1648, marking a transformative period in French history that set the stage for the absolute monarchy of "the Sun King", Louis XIV. This era was dominated by significant political figures such as Cardinal Richelieu and Cardinal Mazarin, whose influential policies significantly enhanced royal authority at the expense of the nobility. Their tenures marked the dawn of a stronger, centralised French state, although they were not without their detractors and resulted in considerable societal unrest.

[A portrait of King Louis XIII, second monarch of the Bourbon dynasty and the reigning king in Alexandre Dumas's The Three Musketeers]

May 16, 1610: Proclamation of the regency of Marie de Medici, the wife of Henry IV.

October 17, 1610: Coronation of Louis XIII at Reims Cathedral.

October 27, 1614-February 23, 1615: Last convocation of the Estates-General — the national meeting of the three estates of the realm — until it was called to meet for the first time in almost 200 years in 1789. 

November 25, 1615: Louis XIII marries Anne of Austria in Bordeaux.

December 2, 1626-February 24, 1627: Last convocation of the Assembly of Notables until it was convened for the first time — in roughly 160 years — in 1787.

December 25, 1620: The Huguenots meet in La Rochelle. During this Huguenot general assembly in La Rochelle, the decision was taken to resist the royal threats to them by force and for Huguenots to establish a “State within a State”. This marks the beginning of a series of Huguenot rebellions, lasting from 1620 to 1629.

June 28, 1629: The The peace of Alès is an edict promulgated by the king of France Louis XIII after the siege of Ales. The signing of the edict comes after the surrender of La Rochelle, the last Protestant safe haven in France, after a siege of more than a year which ended in 1628, as well as after the sieges of Privas in May 1629 and Alès the following month, which put an end to the attempts at rebellion in the lower Vivarais. The Huguenot rebellions are brought to an end.

May 14, 1643: Death of Louis XIII and succession of the very young Louis XIV, the eventual “Sun King” and embodiment of absolutism. The 4-year-old Louis XIV is officially king, but his mother — Anne of Austria — serves as regent during his minority. 

1648-1715: Absolutism and the Reign of Louis XIV, the “Sun King”

History professors have various dates delimiting the the Age of Absolutism, but generally seem to settle on roughly 1600 to 1789. This general timeframe works for a number of countries and their histories, such as:

  • The attempts by the Stuart kings of England to rule as absolutist monarchs from 1603 — with the accession of James I to the throne — to 1642 and the outbreak of the English Civil War, pitting Parliamentarians against the absolutist Charles I.
  • The reign of Tsar Peter the Great, who greatly strengthened the tsarist government's powers and military while at the same time "taming" his nobility by codifying their levels of status and all status groups of society in his Table of Ranks of 1722.
  • The Enlightened absolutism of Frederick the Great of Prussia, who had soaked in the lessons of Prussia's history during the tumultuous Thirty Years' War (1618-1648) and understood the necessity of a well-ordered, well-armed state with a powerful central government to counter and eventually integrate the nobility into his absolutist system via the mechanism of being committed officers in the Prussian Army.

And the timeframe, of course, works for the Kingdom of France, with the growth of absolutism occurring most precipitously under the Bourbon dynasty — the dynasty that had emerged from the vicious religious and aristocratic civil conflicts of the Wars of Religion and the same dynasty that was nearly brought to the brink by noble revolt in the form of the Fronde, when both the Nobles of the Robe (noblesse de robe) — e.g. members of the Parlements — and the Nobles of the Sword (noblesse d'épée) — e.g. the discontented princes and nobles like Gaston, Duke of Orleans; Louis II, Prince de Condé; and his brother, Armand, Prince of Conti — rose up against the king's government. 

1648-1653: The Fronde

The Fronde, a series of civil wars that convulsed France from 1648 to 1653, represents a critical juncture in French history, characterized by widespread opposition against the growing centralization of royal power. Triggered by the regency government's attempt to levy high taxes in the face of economic hardship, the Fronde was not merely a rebellion led by high-ranking nobles, but a complex socio-political movement that involved multiple factions, from the Parisian parlement and provincial nobility to urban commoners. This period encapsulates a nation in turmoil, struggling with the contradictions of its feudal past and a future trending towards absolutism.

[A battle between royalist and Frondeur forces in the Paris suburb of the Faubourg Saint-Antoine, July 2, 1652]

May 13, 1648: Beginning in January 1648, the regent and Cardinal Mazarin have been trying to push through the enactment of 7 financial edicts, which customarily must be registered by the Parlement of Paris (the parlements being high courts of appeal as opposed to legislative bodies like the English parliament) in order to be legal and legitimate. These edicts include a tax to be levied on judicial officers of the Parlement of Paris. Not only did the Parlement refuse but on May 13, 1648, the four sovereign courts of France — the Parlement, Chamber of Accounts, Court of Aids, and Grand Council — all unite to condemn the edicts, as well as previous ones, and demand the royal government accede to constitutional reforms crafted by a committee of the four courts. This is the beginning of the Fronde — the greatest challenge to the power of the Bourbon monarchy and political system until 1789, when the French Revolution threw down a new challenge.

October 21, 1652-July 20, 1653: The Fronde is brought to an end by a victorious royal government. Louis XIV triumphantly enters Paris on October 21, 1652, moving into the Louvre (a palace at the time, not a museum like today). The signing of peace at Pézenas on July 20, 1653 by the rebellious Prince of Conti. This treaty definitively ends the Fronde of the princes.

1653-1685: Louis XIV Ascendant

The period of 1653 to 1685 marks the ascension and consolidation of power by Louis XIV, "the Sun King", defining an epoch of French history renowned for absolutist rule, cultural flourishing, and territorial expansion. Following the chaos of the Fronde, Louis XIV's reign began in earnest as he took the reins of governance into his own hands, determined to prevent the return of such widespread revolt. This era witnessed the king's centralization of power, the reduction of the nobility's influence, and the expansion of royal authority through his famous mantra, "L'État, c'est moi" ("I am the state"). Emblematic of his reign was the construction of the opulent Palace of Versailles, serving both as a symbol of France's grandeur and a strategic means to control the nobility. This period also saw France emerge as a dominant force in Europe, guided by the diplomatic maneuverings of his able minister, Jean-Baptiste Colbert.

[Louis XIV, King of France, modello by Hyacinthe Rigaud, dated 1701]

March 9, 1661: Death of Cardinal Mazarin and the beginning of Louis XIV’s personal rule and control over the reins of government. He no longer will employ a chief minister like Richelieu or Mazarin for the rest of his reign.

May 24, 1667-May 2, 1668: War of Devolution is the first of Louis XIV’s many wars he would wage as king, with the goal of aggrandizing France and — since he identified himself personally with the state (“I am the state!”) — aggrandizing his own honor and prestige. The war is fought mainly between France and Spain in the Spanish Netherlands (modern-day Belgium), Franche-Comte (an old province that’s now part of the Bourgogne-Franche-Comté administrative region), and northern Catalonia in Spain. 

April 6, 1672-September 17, 1678: The Franco-Dutch War was waged initially between France and the Dutch Republic before other European power eventually joined in the conflict, sometimes fighting for one side for a bit before jumping to the other. Although Louis XIV’s grand strategic objectives of destroying the Dutch Republic and conquering the Spanish Netherlands were not attained, he still managed to have most of his conquests confirmed in the Peace of Nijmegen. 

May 6, 1682: Louis XIV officially establishes the French royal court at the Palace of Versailles, moving it from where it traditionally was in Paris. 

October 26, 1683-August 15, 1684: The War of the Reunions was fought between France on one side and Spain and the Holy Roman Empire on the other. Louis XIV continued his push for greater territorial acquisitions and achieved much, but this war would serve as his highwater mark militarily. All of Louis XIV’s wars of aggression, taken together, had now seriously alienated the other European powers and generated the formation of coalitions opposing Louis XIV’s France.

1685-1715: Containment of the “Sun King”

The final 30 years of Louis XIV's reign, from 1685 to 1715 were marked by a series of conflicts that tested France's hegemony in Europe and strained the absolute monarchy. This phase commenced with the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, which had granted rights to French Protestants, thereby leading to religious tensions and an exodus of Huguenots. Meanwhile, on the geopolitical front, Louis XIV's territorial ambitions sparked widespread alarm across Europe, resulting in the formation of grand alliances to counter French expansion. The protracted warfare, including the War of the Spanish Succession, placed significant economic burden on France, leading to fiscal crises, public dissatisfaction, and food shortages. Despite these struggles, Louis XIV's reign continued to exert profound cultural influence, with France setting the pace for European arts, literature, and philosophy.[Though the map makes it look like an even match, in actuality the War of the Spanish Succession was waged primarily by 1) Bourbon France and 2) newly-Bourbon Spain against 1) Britain, 2) the Dutch Republic, 3) the Holy Roman Empire, 4) Prussia, 5) Portugal, 6) Savoy, and 7) anti-Bourbon, pro-Habsburg Spain]

October 25, 1685: Publication of the Edict of Fontainebleau, which revoked the limited tolerance and rights granted to French Protestants. The edict has immense implications for the course of French history, as large numbers of French Protestants emigrated leading to a sort of “brain drain”, to the detriment of France and the benefit of her enemies. It also planted the seed of a renewed drive toward achieving tolerance of Protestantism through both popular and political channels — not merely through the whims of one king. 

September 27, 1688-September 1697: The Nine Years’ War, or the War of the Grand Alliance, saw Louis XIV’s armies cross the Rhine River and invade the territories of the Holy Roman Empire. This aggressive act, along with the French army’s brutal tactics, stimulated the formation of the Grand Alliance (also called the League of Augsburg) to oppose him militarily. This war marked, if not a decline, the plateauing of France’s power under Louis XIV.

December 20, 1689: Formation of the Grand Alliance in the Hague, in the Dutch Republic, with the coalition parties including the Austrian Habsburg Empire, the Dutch Republic, England, Spain after 1690, and Savoy from 1690 to 1696. These powers would face down Louis XIV’s France in the Nine Years’ War and again in the War of the Spanish Succession, though with Spain no longer being a member of that Second Grand Alliance.

1699: Publication of the book Les Aventures de Télémaque by François Fénelon, Archbishop of Cambrai, and, since 1689, tutor to the 7-year-old Duke of Burgundy (grandson of Louis XIV and second in line to the French throne). In the novel, the tutor character Mentor instructs his pupil Telemachus in the principles of good and just government, including the suggestion of a major overhaul of the ruling regime, the elimination of the mercantile system and taxes on the peasants, the ceasing of armed conflict, and puts forward the idea of a parliamentary system of government and an international Federation of Nations to handle quarrels between nations peacefully. Wildly popular, the book is a seminal work of the Enlightenment and a not-so-veiled attack on the absolutist Ancien Regime system in France at the time.

July 9, 1701-February 6, 1715: The War of the Spanish Succession, an actual global war, is waged primarily between France and Bourbon Spain on one side and Britain, the Dutch Republic, the Holy Roman Empire, and pro-Habsburg Spain on the other. It is a long, devastating, and exhausting war that ends with the French Bourbon grandson of Louis XIV — Philip of Anjou — being allowed to succeed to the throne of Spain as Philip V, though with any governmental ties or plans of a union of French and Spanish empires completely out of the question. In return, the Grand Alliance powers detached the Spanish Netherlands and much of Spain’s territorial possessions in Italy, giving them to Habsburg Austria, while Britain gained Gibraltar and Menorca. The settlement ending the war established a balance of power that would prevail among the European Great Powers up until the outbreak of the French Revolution and the revolutionary wars in 1789-1792.

September 1, 1715: King Louis XIV dies and Louis XV becomes king at the age of five.

1715-1789: The Last Bourbon Kings

The era from 1715 to 1789, encompassing the rule of the last Bourbon Kings, Louis XV and Louis XVI, stands as a period of substantial political, social, and intellectual ferment leading to the revolutionary upheavals of France. Following the grandeur and absolutism of Louis XIV's reign, his successors found themselves forced into a precarious balancing act ruling a kingdom marked by escalating financial crisis, rising social inequality, and the rapid dissemination of Enlightenment ideas that increasingly challenged the monarchy's divine right. Louis XV's reign, although initially characterized by an attempt at reform and modernization, ended in public disillusionment and decline, setting the stage for Louis XVI. His rule, while marked by indecisiveness and unsuccessful attempts at fiscal and social reform, was pivotal in the lead up to the French Revolution.

[The Battle of Fontenoy, fought on May 11, 1745, pitted France under the overall command of Maurice de Saxe against a coalition of the Dutch, British, Austrians, and Hanoverians, in the War of the Austrian Succession. It's been said Napoleon stated that Saxe's victory at Fontenoy extended the life of the Old Regime in France]

1715-1756: The ‘Good Times’ of Louis XV’s Reign

The initial years of Louis XV's reign, spanning from 1715 to 1756 marked a period of relative prosperity and peace, setting it apart from the latter half of his rule. Upon ascending to the throne as a child, the young Louis XV’s realm was administered by the Duke of Orleans as Regent and later, after 1726, by Cardinal Fleury, his Chief Minister. Under their guidance, France witnessed a period of internal stability, economic recovery, and diplomatic successes, largely maintaining its status as a dominant European power following "the Sun King's" passing. The king himself, known for his charm and charisma, enjoyed immense popularity among his subjects during these early years. However, this golden era was not devoid of its challenges, as old systems of governance began to reveal their cracks and Enlightenment ideas started permeating societal discourse, as well as religious controversies like Jansenism.

May 2, 1716: Creation of the General Bank and the Compagnie d'Occident, marking the beginning of Law's system, named after the Scotsman John Law. The system was quite advanced for Old Regime France, but its collapse in June 1720 would later undermine any idea of creating a central French bank like the Bank of England.

June 24, 1719-December 14, 1720: John Law is named superintendent of the currencies on June 24, 1719. That same year, Law became the architect of what would later be called the Mississippi Bubble, an event that would begin with the consolidation of the various trading companies of Louisiana into a single monopoly — the Mississippi Company — with thousands upon thousands of company shares issued. On January 5, 1720, Law was made Comptroller-General of Finances. Unfortunately, this scheme leads to rampant speculation, followed by panic, as people flooded the market with future shares trading as high as 15,000 livres per share, while the shares themselves remained at 10,000 livres each. By May 1720, prices fell to 4,000 livres per share, a 73% decrease in one year. The rush to convert paper money to coins led to sporadic bank runs and riots. Squatters now occupied the square of Palace Louis-le-Grand and openly attacked the financiers that inhabited the area. It was under these circumstances and the cover of night that John Law fled from Paris, on December 14, 1720, leaving all of his substantial property assets in France. His fall coincides with the collapse of the General Bank (Banque Générale) and subsequent devaluing of the Mississippi Company's shares.

October 25, 1722-February 23, 1723: Coronation of Louis XV at Reims Cathedral takes place on October 25, 1722. But it wouldn't be until February 23, 1723, that Louis XV is declared of age to rule. This officially marks the end of the regency, however, the Duc d'Orléans remained in office as Prime Minister until his death in December 1723.

June 21-August 19, 1726: Fall of the prime minister, the Duke of Bourbon, and his replacement on June 25 by Cardinal de Fleury (1653-1743). Under Fleury's auspices, the General Farm (or General Tax Farm; Ferme générale in French) is restored on August 19, after the institution foundered due to Louis XIV's financial difficulties between 1703 and 1726.

June 24, 1730: Declaration establishing the Bull Unigenitus as a law of the Kingdom of France. This bull issued by Pope Clement XI condemns Jansenism, and it proves to be very controversial and divisive. Jansenist opposition to it and the movement in general help contribute the the growth of the public sphere and public opinion through numerous press publications, helping create the conditions for the revolutionary press and public sphere in the lead-up and during the French Revolution.

August 1732: Crisis in the parlements: Prime minister Cardinal Fleury compels parliaments to register the Bull Unigenitus. Louis XV declared: “The power to make laws and to interpret them is essentially and solely reserved to the king. Parliament is only responsible for overseeing their execution."

July 8-October 20, 1740: A conflict originating between Britain and Spain, called the War of Jenkins' Ear, expands into a larger conflict when Fleury informs the British ambassador that Louis XV has decided to intervene on behalf of Spain, on July 8, 1740. In August, Cardinal Fleury sends two squadrons to America to help Spain in conflict with Great Britain. But then this conflict expands even further into a wider European war when, on October 20, 1740, the Austrian Habsburg Emperor Charles VI dies without male heirs, triggering the War of Austrian Succession (1740-1748).

January 29, 1743: Death of Cardinal Fleury and the beginning of Louis XV's rule without a prime minister. He makes moves to break up the patronage empire that Fleury had put together and nobody was allowed to occupy the same kind of position Fleury held in terms of patronage and access to the king. Under Louis XV, advisory consultations and policy matters were kept largely out of sight, while foreign policy matters were managed via the the so-called Secret du Roi — secret diplomatic channels used by Louis XV throughout his reign.

April 24-October 18, 1748: France, by early 1748, had conquered most of the Austrian Netherlands, but a British naval blockade was crushing their trade and the state was close to bankruptcy. This stalemate finally resulted in the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle, with a diplomatic congress assembling on April 24, 1748, and the actual signing of the treaty occurring on October 18. Although the treaty confirmed Maria Theresa in her titles, it failed to address underlying tensions between the signatories, several of whom were unhappy with the terms. France obtained minimal gains despite performing well on the battlefield and expending vast amounts of money, while the Spanish failed to recover Menorca or Gibraltar, which had been ceded to Britain in 1713. The result of this unsatisfactory treaty was the realignment known as the Diplomatic Revolution, in which Austria and France ended the age-old French–Habsburg rivalry that had dominated European affairs for centuries, while Prussia allied with Great Britain. These changes set the stage for the outbreak of the Seven Years' War in 1756.

February 17-27, 1750: The Duke of Richelieu suspends the Estates of Languedoc — a representative provincial assembly — by order of the king. On February 27, the assembly was suspended indefinitely by decision of the Council of State. This marks another step by the absolutist royal government to eliminate alternative, traditional sources of legislative authority in the Kingdom of France.

July 1, 1751: Publication of the first volume of the Encyclopédie, a major literary and intellectual work of the Enlightenment. Its editing and publication is mainly overseen by Denis Diderot and Jean Le Rond d'Alembert.

1756-1789: Bourbon Monarchy on the Rack

The period from 1756 to 1789 represents a time of escalating crisis for the Bourbon monarchy, as France, under the reign of Louis XV and later Louis XVI, grappled with a myriad of financial, social, and political challenges that strained the traditional structures of the Ancien Régime. This era, marked by significant events such as the Seven Years' War, the loss of colonial territories, and the costly involvement in the American Revolution, placed a severe economic burden on the kingdom. Simultaneously, the conspicuous consumption of the aristocracy and the inability of the monarchy to effectively implement fiscal and social reform exacerbated socio-economic disparities. These factors, coupled with the proliferation of Enlightenment ideas questioning monarchical absolutism and advocating for civil liberties, eroded public confidence in the monarchy.

[Scene from the Siege of Yorktown (1781), the decisive and culminating campaign of the American War of Independence, whose victory owed a lot to America's French allies. Unfortunately, finance minister Turgot's ominous words from before the conflict proved true: "The first gunshot will drive the state to bankruptcy"]

May 17, 1756: Beginning of the Seven Years' War (1756-1763, although fighting had been going on in French and British North America since 1754). This massive, exhausting, and global war would end with the complete defeat of France and the loss of several colonies, most notably its continental possessions in North America, although the Caribbean colonies the French retained were far more profitable than their territories in Canada and the Ohio Valley. Still, it was the damage to national honor and the huge debts accrued from the war that severely undermined the French state.

January 5, 1757: Would-be assassin and servant Robert François Damiens attacks King Louis XV with a harmless stroke of the penknife to warn him to think better about his duties. He is drawn and quartered in the Place de Grève on March 28. The rumour, stirred up by the Jansenists, falsely denounced it as a Jesuit plot. In tje wale of the attack, the depressed king backtracked. Stunned for a moment by the Damiens attack, provincial parlementarians once again affected from May to September 1757 a protest attitude vis-à-vis royal taxation, in solidarity with their Parisian colleagues.

November-December, 1758: François Quesnay publishes his Economic Table at Versailles. The book presents an economic model that laid the foundation of the Physiocratic school of economics. Quesnay believed that trade and industry were not sources of wealth, and instead argued that agricultural surpluses, by flowing through the economy in the form of rent, wages, and purchases were the real economic movers. Though his economic model wasn't necessarily capitalist, it did signify a break with the more mercantilist economic models of the time.

January 20-25, 1759: Lettres de cachet order the exile of 22 parlementaires from Besançon, who were in conflict with the intendant and first president of the Parlement of Besançon, Bourgeois de Boynes. On January 21 and 22, they are dispersed to different fortresses. Eight other councilors are exiled in turn on January 25, and the exile wouldn't end until April 1761.

September 20, 1759: A lit de justice is held by the Louis XV at Versailles for the registration of the September financial edicts. The Comptroller General of Finance — Etienne de Silhouette — attempts a tax reform, known as the general subsidy, a set of measures which leads to the taxation of income from all social categories.

September 22-November 23, 1759: Louis de Bourbon-Condé, Count of Clermont, holds a lit de justice at the Court of Aids to enforce the registration of three fiscal edicts. The court issued severe remonstrances, calling for a coherent financial policy and denouncing the continual propagation of new, arbitrary regulations. The court wants "a fixed and certain law in the taxation of land and other buildings, a proportional and non-arbitrary law in the taxation of the person, a uniform law in the taxation of consumption". The general subsidy project fails in the face of the hostility of the privileged estates/orders as well as the aggravation of the mass of taxpayers. On November 13, the Court of Aids sends the king a new remonstrance on the extension of the twentieth provided for in the general subsidy. An early bankruptcy brings Silhouette down on November 23. Bertin, who replaces him as Comptroller-General, abandons the general subsidy but proposed the same types of taxation, direct or indirect, in particular the additional twentieth and the sol per livre of the General Farm.

July 4, 1760: The Parlement of Rouen issues a remonstrance of that calls for the restoration of the Estates of Normandy and proposes the motto, "A King, a law, a Parlement." It's one of the earlier calls for the re-establishment of the old provincial estate bodies, which had been gradually eliminated as absolutism took firmer hold in France since 1589.

November 13, 1761: Opening of the trial against the Calas family, brought by the Capitouls of Toulouse — a classic case of superstition and religious authority expanding outside its proper remit. Voltaire defends Jean Calas, a Huguenot condemned without evidence for having killed his son whom he suspected of wanting to convert to Catholicism; in reality, his son committed suicide. Voltaire's campaign against the Parlement of Toulouse for prosecuting and condemning Calas epitomizes several of the ideals of the Enlightenment.

February 10, 1763: Signing of the Treaty of Paris, ending France's participation in the Seven Years' War and included major French colonial cessions to Great Britain, such as the transfer of Canada, part of Louisiana, the Ohio Valley, Dominica, Tobago, Grenada, Senegal, and its Indian Empire to Great Britain. It marks the end of the first French colonial phase, though it did retain some highly profitable Caribbean colonies like Martinique, Guadeloupe and Saint-Domingue (modern Haiti). Another crucial outcome of the lost war is that France accrued massive debts, which it would struggle to repay for years, especially when French involvement in the American Revolutionary War added another huge load of state debt.

June 5, 1764: Start of the Brittany Affair, which featured a showdown pitting the Breton Parlement and the Estates of Brittany against the authority of the French monarchy over an issue of taxation. Two of the main protagonists were La Chalotais (procureur général) at the Parlement of Brittany versus the royal governor of the province, the duc d'Aiguillon.The affair has been seen as a precursor of the French Revolution.

November 26, 1764: In the aftermath of the La Valette affair (1761), the parlements, expressing their Jansenist, Gallican, and regalist sympathies, succeed in imposing on Louis XV the expulsion of the Society of Jesus — the Jesuits. This resulted in 106 Jesuit colleges being converted to other uses and France’s expulsion was part of a wider European trend of expelling the Jesuits, often justified by the argument that they had accrued so much power that they constituted “a state within a state.”

March 3, 1766: The “Sitting of the Flagellation” or the “Scourging Session” occurs, in which, in a lit de justice, King Louis XV bluntly tells the Parlement of Paris that they have no authority over legislation and all power flows solely from Louis XV’s absolute rule. This session came in response to continued resistance of members of the parlements over the Brittany Affair.

September 16, 1768: René Nicolas de Maupeou becomes Keeper of the Seals of France, a key role that assists the Chancellor of France in ensuring that royal decrees were enrolled and registered by the judicial parlements. Maupeou’s position would eventually lead to a major conflict between the parlements and central royal government in the early 1770s.

May 8-August 15, 1769: French forces defeat Corsican politician and freedom fighter Pascal Paoli on May 8, leading to the complete conquest of Corsica by France. Months later, on August 15, Napoleon Bonaparte was born on the island of Corsica.

April 19, 1770: The future Louis XVI marries Marie-Antoinette of Austria by proxy in Vienna.

January 21, 1771: Part of Maupeou's coup or the Maupeou Revolution, the parlementaires of the Parlement of Paris are exiled to Troyes. The parlements, which had opposed the royal edicts, were restructured and deprived of their political prerogatives. Confronting their resistance to the financial reforms of Abbé Terray, Maupeou condemns the obstinance and unity of the body of the parlements. Then, faced with their refusal to submit to the royal authority, Maupeou orders the resumption of parlementary activities by force, dispatching musketeers to the residences of the magistrates to banish them and confiscate the charges of parlementaires who refused.

May 10, 1774: King Louis XV dies of smallpox and his grandson, Louis XVI, succeeds to the throne. The new king goes about reforming various parts of the ministry.

August 24-26, 1774: The so-called “Saint-Barthélemy of Ministers” takes place (“Saint-Barthélemy” is a reference to the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre of 1572). This leads to the disgrace and downfall of Maupeou, who’s forced into exile on his lands, while Miromesnil becomes the new Keeper of the Seals. The comptroller-general Terray was fired and Turgot moved from the Navy ministry to become the new Comptroller-General of Finances. When he leaves office, Terray leaves a healthy financial situation. The budget deficit was reduced, from 100 million livres in 1769, to 30 million in 1774, and to 22 million in 1776. On August 26, Turgot added Minister of State to his portfolio of positions.

September 13, 1774: Turgot restores the liberalization of the grain trade, a policy previously carried out by Louis XV's prime minister Étienne-François de Choiseul (in office from 1758 to 1770) between the years 1763 and 1770. The significance of the liberalization of the grain trade in Old Regime France is that it marked a major change in economic and government policy from the past: Since grain (and, thus, bread) was the staple diet of the peasantry and the urban population, the French royal government saw food security as an essential duty and therefore heavily controlled the grain trade to ensure the national and local balance between demand and supply; however, with the growth of more liberal economic ideas during the Enlightenment (e.g., Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations) a group called the Physiocrats pushed for a "free market" approach to the grain trade as being the most optimal policy in economic terms. On paper, this capitalist approach to the grain trade made sense, but in practice it unfortunately gave rise to speculators who aimed above all for the greatest profit, which led to hoarding of grain to increase its price and/or buying grain from regions where it was cheap and selling in other regions where it was expensive. These results were what led to the repeal of the first liberalization of the grain trade by Choiseul in 1770. Turgot's restoration of the "free market" approach would soon blow up in his face.

November 12, 1774: The new King Louis XVI brings an end to Maupeou's coup and restores the old parlements. But instead of showing any appreciation for their restoration, the members of the parlements are even more wary of French royal power. Crucially, it was during the Maupeou coup of 1771-1774 that the first calls for convening the national Estates-General take place.

April 18-May 6, 1775: The so-called "Flour War" (Guerre des farines) takes place when, after a poor harvests in 1773 and 1774 combined with Turgot's freeing-up of the grain trade, leds to bread shortages, skyrocketing prices, and hoarding by speculators. Riots and revolts by peasants and city-dwellers erupted in the northern, eastern and western parts of the kingdom of France. Many common Frenchmen see the "free market" approach to the grain trade as disrupting the "moral economy", meaning that it undermined the principle of the royal government ensuring food security for all its subjects. The "Flour War" once again discredits the liberalization of the grain trade in the eyes of both the royal government and the common people, leading Turgot to reestablish price controls on grain and repeal the act in 1776.

April 19, 1775: The Battles of Lexington and Concord between Massachusetts colonial militia and British regulars marks the beginning of the American Revolutionary War. Three years later, France would officially ally with the American insurgents and directly intervene on their behalf in the war.

January 5-March 12, 1776: Turgot proposes to the royal council, on January 5, the abolition of the corporations — coporations in Old Regime France refers to guilds and professional associations like those for lawyers or doctors, which were compulsory and highly regulated, and therefore stifled capitalist, entrepreneurial spirits from being able to whatever they want business-wise — and the royal corvée (essentially a forced labor tax the peasantry had to carry out). Again, while Turgot's intentions were well-meaning, these liberal economic policies provoke strong resistance from the guilds and other corporative societies because it means the loss of many of their traditional privileges. This resistance induces Louis XVI to hold a lit de justice on March 12 to force the registration of Turgot's edicts.

May 12-13, 1776: Facing serious hostility from both political circles (such as remonstrances of the Parlement of Paris) and commercial circles, Turgot resigns. He is replaced by Clugny de Nuits who revokes all reforming edicts over the next six months. At the same time, more observant and intelligent Frenchmen begin to see these privileged corporative bodies as selfish and obstructing greater freedom in society.

July 4, 1776: The Americans declare their independence.

October 22, 1776: The Geneva banker (and seeming financial wizard) Jacques Necker is appointed Director General of the Royal Treasury. As a Protestant, he could not be a member of the King's Council and thus could not be appointed Comptroller-General of Finances, hence the alternative title. In order to tackle the budgetary difficulties resulting from France's still unofficial support for the American rebels, Necker resorts to raising loans both domestically and on international money markets, while at the same time but will returning to the policy of "economies" (aka belt-tightening) carried out by Turgot.

December 28, 1776: The American ambassador Benjamin Franklin is received by Foreign Minister Vergennes, asking for help from France in their fight against the British.

April 26, 1777: The Marquis de Lafayette departs France for the United States. He eventually lands on North Island near Georgetown, South Carolina on June 13, 1777.

June 29, 1777: After the resignation of Taboureau des Réaux , Necker is appointed Director-General of Finances (again because of his Protestantism, it's an alternative title but essentially the same as Comptroller-General). He will launch a series of loans to finance the French war effort in the American Revolution.

December 17, 1777: King Louis XVI recognizes the independence of the United States, becoming the first head of state in the world to do so.

January 30-February 6, 1778: Treaty of Amity and Commerce Between the United States and France is concluded on January 30, with each country promising to grant the other the most favored nation clause. The treaty sets out the principle of the freedom of the seas and the right of neutral states to trade with nations at war. Then on February 6, a second treaty — the Treaty of Alliance — intended to remain secret, is signed between France and the United States. It's technically a defensive alliance in case war breaks out between France and Britain. Notably, the treaty stipulates that neither party can make a peace or truce with Great Britain without first obtaining the consent of the other (a promise which the Americans would later break in order to make peace with Britain and bring an end to the war in 1783).

April 12, 1779: Treaty of Aranjuez is signed, renewing of the Family Pact between the Bourbon monarchs of Spain and France. In the treaty, France promises Spain the recovery of Gibraltar, Menorca, Mobile, and Pensacola, lost in various wars against Great Britain over the course of the 18th century.

June 16-July 6, 1779: Charles III of Spain declares war on Great Britain on June 16, shortly followed by the beginning of the siege of Gibraltar by France and Spain on June 24. A Franco-Spanish fleet of 66 vessels and 14 frigates meets in Corunna, on June 25, under the orders of Count d'Orvilliers. On July 2, French forces under the command of Comte d'Estaing defeat British forces and capture the island of Grenada. Later, on July 6, in the Naval Battle of Grenada, d'Estaing 's fleet defeats a British one commanded by John Byron, enabling French control of the Caribbean Sea and allows the regiments of the French army, commanded by Rochambeau, to land on American territory.

August 8, 1779: An edict abolishes the right of mortmain and personal servitude (serfdom) in the king's royal domains.

February 25, 1780: the Paris Parliament registers the February edict extending the second vingtième and 4 sols per pound of the first vingtième until 1790. The vingtième ("twentieth") was an income tax during the Ancien Régime, based on revenue and required 5% of net earnings from land, property, commerce, industry, and official offices. The vingtième was enacted to reduce the royal deficit. Its eventual expiration date would become a pressing issue in the future, when in the lead-up to the French Revolution the government tried to figure out how to avoid a national default on its debts.

May 2-July 11, 1780: Rochambeau and his expeditionary force of 5,000 men leave Brest, on May 2, and cross the Atlantic. On July 11, Chevalier de Ternay's squadron — carrying Rochambeau's expeditionary force — arrives at Newport, Rhode Island.

February 19, 1781: Necker publishes his Compte rendu au roi (A Report to the King), revealing the state of public finances. Since 1777, Necker had launched 29 loans for a total amount of 530 million livres. By distributing this text with the agreement of Louis XVI, Necker aims to disarm his critics at court. However, the disclosure of the list of pensions granted to courtiers caused a scandal. Not only that, the Compte rendu au roi was manipulated by Necker to show a surplus, when in reality, he merely put the expenditures and debts from the American Revolutionary War in the extraordinary account. But the general public doesn't know that, so when the French royal government finds itself in dire financial straits in the late-1780s, many Frenchmen don't understand how this crisis came about and call for the return of Necker.

May 19-21, 1781: Necker resigns after Louis XVI refuses his ultimatum to put him on the King's Council and returns to Geneva. On May 21, Jean-François Joly de Fleury is appointed Comptroller-General of Finances.

May 22 , 1781: Proclamation of the Edict of Ségur, which requires four degrees of nobility from candidates in the army. Thus, it reserves for the nobility (especially the older nobility) direct access to the ranks of officers without prior service or without passage through military schools. Ségur's edict was meant to provide poor, old noble families with access to a professional military career as opposed to military offices being bought by upstart new nobles. However, the edict also manages to increase tensions between the bourgeoisie and the nobility because the former see it as an attack on them, and just another sign of how unfair and arbitrary both the society of estates and royal absolutism are.

September 28-October 19, 1781: The siege of Yorktown is waged by Franco-American forces, with Lord Cornwallis finally surrendering on October 19 when his position becomes hopeless after the French naval victory in the battle of the Chesapeake prevents British reinforcements from reaching him. This marks the end of major land campaigning on the North American continent, though not the end of the war entirely.

July 2, 1782: Vergennes, who was one of the loudest voices calling for French intervention on behalf of the republican American revolutionaries, sends an army to crush the Geneva Revolution of 1782, which sought to replace the aristocratic republic with a truly democratic republic. On July 2, revolutionary Geneva surrenders. The Geneva Revolution would prove to be important in the lead-up and during the French Revolution, as several Genevan revolutionary exiles would become leaders in France's revolution in 1789.

September 3, 1783: The signing of the Treaty of Paris puts an end to the American War of Independence. Peace between France, Spain, and Britain is also concluded at the Treaty of Versailles. Britain returns Menorca and Florida to Spain, but retains Gibraltar. France recovers its trading posts in India and Senegal, and Great Britain cedes some islands to it in the West Indies. Though France partially got its revenge on Britain for the disastrous Seven Years' War, the debts and deficits run up by its involvement in the American war would come back to haunt the royal government in 1786.

April 27, 1784: The first public performance of The Marriage of Figaro by Beaumarchais. Its significance derives from the fact that the play questions social inequalities: One of the last lines in the play is, “Nobility, fortune, rank, places, all of this makes you so proud! What have you done for so many goods? you took the trouble to be born, and nothing more." The eventual revolutionary Danton stated that "Figaro has killed the nobility!", while Napoleon is supposed to have called it "the Revolution already put into action."

November 3, 1783: Charles Alexandre de Calonne is appointed to the position of Comptroller-General of Finances. He is determined to figure out how to address the glaring problem of France's national debt. Indeed, interest on accumulated debts absorbs more than 50% of the budget. State revenue reached 475 million livres, against 587 million in expenditure, equaling a deficit of 112 million livres.

August 10-11, 1784: Cardinal de Rohan, in a misguided attempt to win the favor of Queen Marie-Antoinette who doesn't like him, meets Madame de la Motte, who becomes his mistress and later involves him in a plot to act as an intermediary to purchase a fabulous diamond necklace. In January 1785, the Cardinal de Rohan negotiates the purchase of the necklace, but Jeanne de la Motte actually made up this entire scheme of pleasing the Queen and, with her fellow conspirators, take the necklace and sell the diamonds on the black market.

August 15, 1785: Cardinal de Rohan is arrested within the Versailles palace as he was preparing to say mass, interrogated personally by the king, placed under arrest, and marched off in his full cardinal’s attire through crowds of courtiers to the Bastille prison. The reason for this: The discovery of a sordid yet trivial scandal involving a diamond necklace, the Cardinal de Rohan, and a confidence woman that exploded into a public relations fiasco — The Affair of the Diamond Necklace.

May 31, 1786: In a bread-and-circuses of a trial, the court acquits Cardinal de Rohan of any wrongdoing in the Affair of the Diamond Necklace, instead focusing their punishment on the confidence woman, Jeanne de Valois-Saint-Rémy, alias Jeanne de la Motte, who set up the whole scheme. Public opinion is very much on the side of the Cardinal. Unfortunately, Marie-Antoinette took the acquittal very personally and ensured, through her husband, that the Cardinal de Rohan was exiled to the Abbey of la Chaise-Dieu.

August 20, 1786: Calonne presents to Louis XVI his Précis sur l'administration des finances, which proposes an audacious program of administrative and fiscal reforms inspired by that of Turgot. It includes the creation of the territorial subvention, land tax payable by the nobility and the clergy, conversion of the corvée (essentially a forced labor tax) into a tax in cash, abolition of internal customs, freedom of trade in grain, creation of provincial and municipal assemblies elected by suffrage censitaire without distinction of order.

November 29, 1786: King Louis XVI convenes the Assembly of Notables to meet in 1787, primarily to present Calonne's financial reform program.

February 22-May 25, 1787: The convocation of the Assembly of Notables by the king and his chief minister Calonne — the first meeting of the Assembly of Notables since 1626. Calonne's plan to get his reform scheme the go-ahead from the Assembly of Notables fails, due to a combo of distrust of Calonne and the fact that the Assembly of Notables doesn't represent France, and therefore cannot legislate any fiscal reforms and taxation — only the Estates-General, the Assembly says, can do that.

February 19, 1788: Creation of the Society of Friends of Blacks by journalist and revolutionary Brissot, which advocates for the abolition of slavery in French colonies.

May 3, 1788: The Parlement of Paris, feeling threatened with suppression by the royal government, takes the lead and by a decree, spearheaded by Jean-Jacques Duval d'Eprémesnil, which spells out what the Parlement saw as the fundamental laws of the realm, emphasizing "the right of the Nation freely to grant subsidies through the organ of the Estates-General regularly convoked and composed," plus the right of the parlements to register new laws, and the freedom of all Frenchmen from enduring arbitrary arrest (e.g., lettres de cachet); the message also emphasizes the importance of intermediate bodies linked to the society of orders (or estates) as the essential character of the monarchical constitution. This view of the fundamental laws of the realm is in opposition to the ideals of absolutism.

May 5-6, 1788: The Marquis d'Agoult, captain of the guards, attempts to arrest the councilors Epremesnil and Montsabert in the middle of a session. Protected by their colleagues, they manage to escape but ultimately give themselves up the next day.

June 7, 1788: The Day of the Tiles (Journée des Tuiles) in Grenoble occurs; arguably the first open revolt against the king and royal policies pushed through by Étienne Charles de Brienne, minister of finance from 1787 to 1788.

July 21, 1788: The Assembly of Vizille convenes what in actuality is essentially the Estates-General of Dauphiné. Claude Perier, inspired by all of the liberal ideas around him, assembled a meeting in the room of the Jeu de Paume (indoor tennis court) in his Chateau de Vizille and hosted this meeting, which was previously prohibited in Grenoble. Almost 500 men gathered that day at the banquet hosted by Claude. In attendance there were many "notables" including churchmen, businessmen, doctors, notaries, municipal officials, lawyers, and landed nobility of the province of Dauphiné. The demands sounded out at this meeting aligned with the sentiments of many Frenchmen: The convocation in Paris of the national Estates-General, echoing some prominent voices in the Assembly of Notables (like Lafayette) as well as the calls for the Estates-General dating back to the exiled members of the parlements during Maupeou's coup (1771-1774), when he tried to completely restructure the court system and neutralize the power of the judiciary. What's important about the Assembly of Vizille is that it marks a step toward far more open opposition to the absolutist monarchy. with increasing support for its demands from diverse corners of society. Two lawyers who led much of this meeting would go on to play critical roles in the early phases of the Revolution: the Protestant Antoine Barnave and Jean-Joseph Mounier.

August 8, 1788: The royal treasury is declared empty, and the Parlement of Paris refuses to reform the tax system or loan the Crown more money. To win their support for fiscal reforms, the Minister of Finance, Brienne, sets May 5, 1789, for a meeting of the Estates-General, the national assembly of the three estates (or orders) of the realm:

  • The First Estate: The Clergy
  • The Second Estate: The Nobility
  • The Third Estate: Commoners (ranging from peasants to wealthy bourgeoisie; basically defined as those that don't belong to either the First or Second Estate)

August 16, 1788: The treasury suspends payments on the debts of the government. As a result, the Paris Bourse (stock exchange) crashes.

August 25, 1788: Brienne resigns as Minister of Finance, and is replaced by the Swiss banker Jacques Necker, who is popular with the Third Estate, in part because he seemingly financed France's involvement in the American Revolutionary War while at the same time producing a surplus on the balance sheet. French bankers and businessmen, who have always held Necker in high regard, agree to loan the state 75 million, on the condition that the Estates-General will have full powers to reform the system.

December 27, 1788: Over the opposition of the nobles, Necker announces that the representation of the Third Estate will be doubled and that nobles and clergymen will be eligible to sit with the Third Estate.

December 29, 1788: Marseilles calls for an increase in the number of elected members of the Third Estate and also for voting by head in the Estates-General.

II. Timeline of the French Revolution: 1789-1799

As we journey through this timeline of the French Revolution, we will chronicle a turbulent and exciting era marked by monumental events: the fall of the Bastille, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, the Reign of Terror, and the rise of Napoleon, among others. These events, while chaotic and often violent, paved the way for the abolition of feudalism, the introduction of secularism and secular education, and the rise of nationalism. It is in these transformative instances that we observe not only the shifting landscape of France but also the undercurrents of change that were rippling across the world.

1789-1794: The Outbreak of Revolution and Its Increasingly Radical Course

Delving into the tumultuous period of 1789 to 1794, we encounter one of the most defining chapters of the Bourbon Dynasty — the French Revolution. This critical juncture not only reshaped the political, social, and economic landscape of France, but it also sent seismic waves across Europe and beyond, heralding the beginning of modern political ideology.

Rooted in widespread civil unrest and financial crisis, and led by an intellectual vanguard schooled for years in the writings of the Enlightenment, the revolution marked the end of absolute monarchy and the rise of radical social change in France. From the storming of the Bastille to the Reign of Terror, this phase of the Bourbon Dynasty is marked by extraordinary turmoil, its overthrow, and a shift in power that would eventually pave the way for the era of Napoleon Bonaparte.

1789: Estates-General, the Bastille, and the Constituent Assembly

[The assemblage of the national Estates-General in Versailles in May 1789 — the first time this once significant body met in 175 years]

January 1789: French intellectual, writer, and member of the clergy Abbé Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès publishes his famous and highly influential political pamphlet, What Is the Third Estate? (Qu'est-ce que le Tiers-État?).

February 7, 1789: Orders for the estates to draw up customary notebooks of grievances (cahier de doléances) in anticipation of the meeting of the Estates-General.

April 27, 1789: Riots occur in Paris, fueled by workers of the Réveillon wallpaper factory in the Faubourg Saint-Antoine who mistook a statement about fixing wages at a liveable level as meaning that wage cuts were about to take place. Twenty-five workers were killed in battles with police.

April 30, 1789: Deputies to the Estates-General from Brittany (Bretagne), including Le Chapelier, Lanjuinais and Glezen, lawyers at the bar of Rennes, establish the Breton Club at Versailles. The Breton Club would eventually evolve into the far more famous Jacobin Club.

May 2, 1789: The presentation by order of the 1,200 deputies to King Louis XVI at Versailles, during the grand opening procession of the Estates-General.

May 5, 1789: The Estates-General convenes for the first time since 1614. The Estates-General was nominally convoked by finance minister Jacques Necker to help solve the kingdom's dire financial straits. However, very soon, the representatives elected to the Estates-General move beyond this narrow remit and discuss the implementation of political, not just fiscal, reforms.

June 3, 1789: The scientist Jean Sylvain Bailly is chosen the leader of the Third Estate deputies.

June 10-14, 1789: At the suggestion of Sieyès, the Third Estate deputies decide to hold their own meeting, and invite the other Estates to join them. Nine deputies from the clergy decide to join the meeting of the Third Estate on June 13-14, 1789.

June 17, 1789: The Third Estate votes to leave the Estates-General and form a new body of government, calling itself the National Assembly, led by Honoré Gabriel Riqueti, Comte de Mirabeau.

June 20, 1789: The famous Tennis Court Oath takes place (Serment du Jeu de Paume). The Tennis Court Oath came about after the bodies comprising the Estates-General — the clergy, the nobility, and the Third Estate — reached an impasse over issues of representation, especially on the question of voting by order or voting by head, the latter of which would benefit the more numerous Third Estate representatives. The Third Estate representatives moved to meet in the royal tennis court because, on the morning of June 20, when they arrived at the chambers of the Estates-General, the door was locked and guarded by soldiers. Interpreting this as an attempt to try and silence them, or outright suppress them, the Third Estate instead held their own congregation in the nearby tennis court, where they swore  "not to separate and to reassemble wherever necessary until the Constitution of the kingdom is established."

June 25-27, 1789: Louis Philippe II, Duke of Orléans (later known as Philippe Égalité because of his commitment to the Revolution), leads 48 nobles to join the National Assembly. Partly due to this, on June 27, Louis XVI changes course, instructs the nobility and clergy to meet with the other estates, and recognizes the new Assembly. However, at the same time, Louis XVI orders reliable military units, primarily composed of Swiss and German mercenaries, to gather in Paris.

July 9, 1789: The National Assembly becomes the National Constituent Assembly. After the storming of the Bastille, the National Constituent Assembly became the effective government of France. It dissolved on September 30, 1791, and was succeeded by the Legislative Assembly.

[After the Royal-German regiment, commanded by Prince de Lambesc, had quelled and injured Parisian citizens in the preceding days, the French Guards — whose rank-and-file were heavily local — engaged with the Royal-Germans in front of their depot, at the corner of the Boulevard and the rue de la Chaussée d'Antin, on the night of July 12, 1789. To put it in modern perspective: It would be akin to something like a state's National Guard fighting a detachment of the U.S. Army]

July 14, 1789: A large armed crowd, including both armed civilians and the mutinous French Guards (Régiment des Gardes françaises), besieges and eventually storms the Bastille, which holds only seven prisoners but has a large supply of gunpowder, which was the main objective of the crowd. After several hours of resistance, the governor of the fortress, de Launay, finally surrenders. But as he exits, he is killed by the crowd. The crowd also kills de Flesselles, the provost of the Paris merchants.

August 4, 1789: The Night of August 4, 1789 is the session of the National Constituent Assembly during which the suppression of feudal privileges was voted. Beginning on Tuesday, August 4, at 7 o'clock in the evening, the meeting goes on after midnight, until 2 o'clock in the morning. It is a fundamental event of the French Revolution , because, during the session which was then held, the Constituent Assembly put an end to the feudal system. It abolishes all feudal rights and privileges as well as all the privileges of classes, provinces, cities, and corporations. The main impetus for the initiative comes from the Breton Club, the future Jacobin Club.

August 20-August 26, 1789: The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (Déclaration des droits de l'Homme et du citoyen de 1789) is drawn up and published. This declaration, crafted by France's National Constituent Assembly in 1789, is one of the preeminent human civil rights documents of the French Revolution and the entire Enlightenment movement in general. Deeply influenced by Enlightenment philosophers — from moderate philosophes like Montesquieu to more radical philosophes like Diderot and d'Holbach — the Declaration was a central statement of the values of the French Revolution at this point. It would have an indelible impact on the development of popular conceptions of individual liberty and democracy in Europe and the world at large.

September 16, 1789: First issue of Jean-Paul Marat's newspaper, L'Ami du peuple, proposing a radical social and political revolution.

October 5,  1789: The Women's March on Versailles, also known the October Days (Journées des 5 et 6 octobre 1789), was one of the earliest and most significant events of the French Revolution. The march began among women in the marketplaces of Paris who were nearly rioting over the high price of bread. The unrest soon became caught up in the activities of revolutionaries seeking liberal political reforms and a constitutional monarchy for France and the mob of women marched from Paris to the royal residence of Versailles. The March on Versailles ended with the crowd forcing Louis XVI, his family, and most of the French Assembly to return with them to Paris.

October 6, 1789: The Breton Club moved to the Couvent des Jacobins rue Saint-Honoré in Paris and took the name of "Society of Friends of the Constitution", before officially becoming the Jacobin club on August 10, 1792. The founders — Lanjuinais and le Chapelier — were joined by Barnave, Duport, Lafayette, Lameth, Mirabeau, Sieyès, Talleyrand, Brissot, Robespierre.

October 10-12, 1789: Deputies of the National Constituent Assembly decree that Louis XVI would bear the title of King of the French, as opposed to King of France. On the same day, Doctor Joseph Ignace Guillotin proposes the use of the guillotine to the Assembly as a more humane and equal form of execution. With the revolution accelerating, the arch conservative brother of Louis XVI, Charles the Comte d'Artois, writes to the Holy Roman (Austrian) Emperor Joseph II, asking him to intervene in France.

November 2-December 24, 1789: Decree on the nationalization of the property of the clergy, proposed by Talleyrand, is adopted by 568 votes against 346 on November 2, placing the property of the clergy of the Catholic Church at the disposal of the nation in order to reimburse the debts of the state. Notably, Necker tries to oppose the confiscation. The next day, the former parlements are put on vacation by decree of the National Assembly and, on November 5, a decree of the National Assembly puts an end to the provincial Estates of Artois. On November 28, Doctor Joseph Guillotin demonstrates to the deputies of the Constituent Assembly his new machine used to execute those condemned to death, stating it's the "safest, fastest, and least barbaric" way to carry out a capital execution. Returning to the nationalization of church property, on December 19, the Assembly approves the creation of assignats, paper certificates pledged on the sale of national property, which eventually turn into currency. On December 22, the Assembly decrees the division of France into departments based on the size of territories and population, eliminating the old and convoluted territorial divisons of the Ancien Regime. And, finally, on December 24, non-Catholics gain citizenship.

1790: Rise of the Political Clubs and Breakdown of the Revolutionary Consensus

[Held on the anniversary of the storming of the Bastille, the Fête de la Fédération  — July 14, 1790 —  saw roughly 400,000 to 600,000 Parisians attend the ceremony at the Champ-de-Mars. Although it was a celebration of liberty, equality, and fraternity, there are eerie aspects to the depiction: 1) The placement of the French army at the center, alongside the Altar of the Fatherland, implying it's essential to the revolution; and 2) the crowds giving the Roman salute, which at this time was of course not associated with fascism...yet would be in the 20th century, along with the fasces — the bundle of spears holding up the canopy on the right]

January 18-22, 1790: Marat publishes a fierce attack on finance minister Necker on January 18. A few days later, on January 22, Paris municipal police try to arrest Marat for his violent attacks on the government, however he is defended by a crowd of sans-culottes and absconds to London. He returns to Paris on May 18, 1790.

February 13-March 12, 1790: The National Assembly passes a number of acts fundamentally altering the way of society as  it was under the Old Regime. On February 13, the National Assembly forbids the taking of religious vows and suppresses the contemplative religious orders. Later, on February 23, the National Assembly requires curés (parish priests) in churches all over France to read out loud the decrees of the Assembly. In the area of the military, on February 28, the National Assembly abolishes the requirement that army officers be members of the nobility. On March 8, the Assembly decides on the continuation of the institution of slavery in French colonies, but permits the establishment of colonial assemblies. Returning to the church, on March 12, the National Assembly approves the sale of the property of the church by municipalities.

March 29, 1790: Pope Pius VI condemns the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen in a secret consistory.

April 17, 1790: Foundation of the Cordeliers club, which meets in the former convent of that name. It becomes one of the most vocal proponents of radical change.

May 12, 1790: Lafayette and Jean Sylvain Bailly institute the Society of 1789.

May 22, 1790: The Assembly decides that it alone can decide issues of war and peace, but that the war cannot be declared without the proposition and sanction by the King.

June 19, 1790: The National Assembly officially abolishes the titles, orders, and other privileges of the hereditary nobility.

July 26, 1790: It is claimed that Camille Desmoulins published the now famous phrase and national motto of the French Revolution and modern France: Liberté, égalité, fraternité. He supposedly originally coined the phrase on July 14, 1790, during the Fête de la Fédération (Festival of the Federation), which marked the anniversary of the storming of the Bastille. On the same day, Avignon, then a territory of the Papal States, asks to be joined to France. The National Assembly, wanting to avoid a confrontation with Pope Pius VI, delays a decision. Also on June 26, diplomats of England, Austria, Prussia and the Dutch Republic meet at Reichenbach to discuss possible military intervention against the French Revolution.

July 12, 1790: The Assembly adopts the final text on the status of the French clergy. Clergymen lose their special status, and are required to take an oath of allegiance to the government: Civil Constitution of the Clergy.

July 14, 1790: The Fête de la Fédération is held on the Champ de Mars in Paris to celebrate the first anniversary of the Revolution. The event is attended by Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, the National Assembly, the government, and a massive crowd. Lafayette takes a civic oath vowing to "be ever faithful to the nation, to the law, and to the king; to support with our utmost power the constitution decreed by the National Assembly, and accepted by the king." This oath is taken by his troops, as well as the king. The Fête de la Fédération is the last event to unite all the divergent factions in Paris during the Revolution.

July 23, 1790: The Pope writes a secret letter to Louis XVI, promising to condemn the Assembly's abolition of the special status of the French clergy.

July 28, 1790: The National Assembly refuses to allow Austrian troops to cross French territory to put down an uprising in Belgium — the Brabant Revolution in the Austrian Netherlands — partily inspired by the French Revolution, though actually conservative in its goals.

July 31, 1790: After Marat publishes a demand for the immediate execution of 500 to 600 aristocrats to save the Revolution, the National Assembly decides to take legal action against Marat and Camille Desmoulins because of their calls for such revolutionary violence.

September 4, 1790: The once wildy popular finance minister Necker is dismissed. The National Assembly takes over management of the public treasury.

October 6, 1790: Louis XVI writes his cousin, Charles IV of Spain, to express his hostility to the new status of the French clergy.

October 21, 1790: The National Assembly decrees that the tricolor of red, white, and blue will replace the white flag and fleur-de-lys of the French monarchy as emblem of France.

November 4-25, 1790: Insurrection in the French colony of Isle de France (now Mauritius) begins on November 4, followed weeks later by the uprising of black slaves, on November 25, in the French colony of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti).

November 27, 1790: The National Assembly decrees that all members of the clergy must take an oath to the Nation, the Law and the King. A large majority of French clergymen refuse to take the oath.

December 3, 1790: Louis XVI writes to King Frederick William II of Prussia asking for a military intervention by European monarchs to restore his authority.

1791: Moderates, Deadlock, and Failed Flight of the Royal Family

January 1, 1790: Mirabeau is elected President of the Assembly.

January 3, 1789: Priests are ordered to take an oath to the Nation within twenty-four hours. A majority of clerical members of the Assembly refuse to take the oath.

February 24, 1791: Constitutional bishops, who have taken an oath to the State, replace the former Church hierarchy.

February 28, 1791: The so-called Day of Daggers takes place, in which Lafayette orders the arrest of 400 armed aristocrats who have gathered at the Tuileries Palace to protect the royal family. They are freed on March 13.

March 2, 1791: Abolition of the traditional trade guilds, one of many Old Regime corporative bodies the Revolution will eliminate.

March 10-25, 1791: Pope Pius VI condemns the Civil Constitution of the Clergy and on March 25, diplomatic relations break between France and the Vatican.

June 20-21, 1791: The infamous Flight to Varennes takes place. In the night of June 20-21, Louis XVI, the Marie-Antoinette, and their children abscond from the Tuileries Palace and flee by carriage in the direction of Montmédy. Unfortunately for them, they are spotted and recognized in the town of Varennes by a postman.

July 16, 1791: The formation of the Feuillants Club (offically called "The Society of the Friends of the Constitution"). This political club came into existence because the National Assembly was diverging, with moderates on the right, who wanted to preserve the position of the king and supported the creation of a constitutional monarchy, along British lines; and the radical Jacobins on the left, who wanted to push for a democratic republic and the overthrow of Louis XVI. The Feuillant deputies emerged when they publicly split with the Jacobins, on July 16, over the latter's plan for a popular demonstration against Louis XVI to take place on the Champ de Mars the following day.

August 21, 1791: The Haitian Revolution begins on the night of August 21, 1791, when the slaves of the French colony of Saint-Domingue rise in revolt, with thousands of slaves attending an underground vodou ceremony and proceeding to kill their masters, plunging the colony into civil war. Soon, the Haitian slaves take control of the entire Northern Province, while whites kept control of only a few isolated, fortified camps.

1792: The Revolution Goes to War and Overthrows the Monarchy

[The French National Guard joins the army for war in September 1792 against the First Coalition]

January 23, 1792: The slave uprising in Saint-Domingue — part of the Haitian Revolution — causes severe shortages of sugar and coffee in Paris, leading to riots against food shortages and the looting of many food shopsin Paris.

February 7-19, 1792: Treaty of Berlin is made between Prussia and Austria, a defensive alliance, against Poland (which was being dismantled in the Partitions of Poland, not to mention the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth drafted their own highly liberal constitution) and revolutionary France. Treaty is ratified on February 19. This sets the stage for the eventual invasion of France by Austrian and Prussian forces.

March 10-23, 1792: Brissot gives a speech attacking Minister Lessart (a minor nobleman who supported reforms but not full-blown revolution) because of his opposition to war against the conservative and interventionist monarchies of Austria and Prussia. He is impeached for his pacifism by the Girodin faction on March 10. The Feuillant ministers resign in his wake. Dumouriez gets appointed to Foreign Affairs on March 15 (and later becomes a general). Later, on March 23, a Brissotin government is formed with Étienne Clavière in the Finance Ministry and Roland as Minister of the Interior.

March 24-April 4, 1792: A decree recognizing the political rights of free men of color and free blacks is put forth on March 24, and later ratified by Louis XVI on April 4. The next day, France delivers an ultimatum to Francis II, king of Bohemia and Hungary — aka the Habsburg Holy Roman Emperor — to disperse the gatherings of emigrants in the Rhineland, and it is rejected. On March 28, the Brissotin government passes an amnesty decree for political crimes. Meanwhile, on March 30, they pass a decree confiscating the property of nobles who had emigrated since July 1, 1789.

April 20, 1792: Beginning of the War of the First Coalition, as France declares war on the King of Bohemia and Hungary — the Austrian Habsburg Emperor Francis II. Months later, in July, the King of Prussia — Frederick William II — declares war on France under the terms of the Treaty of Berlin of February 7, 1792.

April 25-26, 1792: The first execution by the guillotine takes place in the Place de Grève on April 25. The next day, Rouget de l'Isle composes in Strasbourg a song called the “War Song for the Army of the Rhine,” which soon would become known by the far more famous name, the Marseillaise.

June 8-13, 1792: Political deadlock is undermining the idea of a constitutional monarchy — the political system supported by moderates like the Feuillants. On June 8, the Brissotin government passes a decree for the formation of a camp of National Guards of the provinces in Soissons in order to defend Paris. However, on June 11, Louis XVI vetoes the decree organizing the raising of these 20,000 fédérés (volunteer troops of the French National Guard) as well as the decree deporting refractory priests. In a move to break the deadlock and sideline the democratic republican factions, Louis XVI and his council, on June 12-13, forces the Brissotin ministry to resign and allows for the formation of a new ministry composed of Feuillants.

June 20, 1792: The Demonstration of 20 June 1792 (Journée du 20 juin 1792) was the last, and unsuccessful, peaceful attempt made by the people of Paris — especially the so-called sans-culottes — to persuade King Louis XVI of France to abandon his current policy and attempt to follow what they believed to be a more empathetic approach to governing. Its objectives were to convince the government to enforce the Legislative Assembly's rulings, defend France against foreign invasion, and preserve the spirit of the French Constitution of 1791. The demonstrators hoped that the king would withdraw his veto and recall the Girondin ministers. The Demonstration was the last phase of the unsuccessful attempt to establish a constitutional monarchy in France. After the Insurrection of 10 August 1792, the monarchy fell.

July 10-14, 1792: Under pressure from the pro-war Brissotins, the Feuillant ministers resign on July 10, while the following day, the Legislative Assembly issues the famous proclamation of "Le patrie en danger" ("the homeland is in danger"), resulting in fédérés flocking to Paris despite Louis XVI's veto. On July 14, another Fête de la Fédération at the Champ de Mars is held in the presence of the king, in which the fédérés illegally participate and most of whom remain in Paris after the celebration.

July 25, 1792: The First Coalition powers issue the Brunswick Manifesto to the people of Paris, so named because it was pronounced by the commander-in-chief of the Prussian and Austrian armies, Charles Guillaume de Brunswick. The manifesto threatens the people of Paris "with an exemplary and forever memorable vengeance, by delivering the city of Paris to military execution and total subversion" if the slightest outrage were made against the royal family. On the same day, the 48 Parisian sections — the most radical political groups in the revolution — are authorized to sit permanently by decree.

July 29-30, 1792: Robespierre delivers a speech at the Jacobins Club on the usurpation of national sovereignty. The speech legitimizes direct action and violence when the superior interest of the nation and of the “state” justifies it and presents the elected officials as simple “clerks” of the sovereign power held by the people. The speech effectively spells out the authoritarian populist, anti-representative democracy ideology of the Robespierrists and the Montagnards. The next day, July 30, troops from Marseilles arrive in Paris singing the "War Song for the Army of the Rhine," hence why it becomes popularly known as the “Marseillais”.

August 10, 1792: Due to the combination of Louis XVI's obstructionism, the Brunswick Manifesto, and Robespierre's speech, the Storming of the the Tuileries Palace occurs: A major insurrection carried out by the National Guard of the Paris Commune and fédérés from Marseille and Brittany in Paris, which attacked the Tuileries defended by the Swiss Guards. Hundreds of Swiss guardsmen and 400 revolutionaries were killed in the battle, and Louis XVI and the royal family take shelter with the Legislative Assembly. The formal end of the monarchy occurred six weeks later on September 21, 1792, as one of the first acts of the new National Convention, which established the First French Republic on the next day. 

September 2-6, 1792: The September Massacres take place and were a series of killings of prisoners in Paris, during which between 1,176 and 1,614 people were killed by fédérés, guardsmen, and sans-culottes, with the support of gendarmes responsible for guarding the tribunals and prisons, the Cordeliers, the Committee of Surveillance of the Commune, and the revolutionary sections of Paris.

September 2-19, 1792: The French legislative elections of 1792 take place, after primary elections of the electoral colleges were held on August 26, in order to elect the deputies of the National Convention . It takes place just after the day of August 10 and the suspension of Louis XVI and his royal power. Following these events, the Constitution of 1791 becomes null and void, and now one of the primary tasks of the new Assembly are to proclaim the forfeiture of the king, to establish a new regime, and to draft a new Constitution.

September 21, 1792: The formal end of the monarchy is proclaimed.

1793: The King’s Execution, Counter-Revolution, the Montagnard Coup, and the Reign of Terror

[Execution of Louis XVI on January 21, 1793]

January 1, 1793: The creation of the General Defense Committee with the aim of supervising all the specialized Committees. It would later transform into the infamous Committee of Public Safety.

January 15-21, 1793: Louis XVI is declared guilty of conspiring against public freedom, unanimously (693 votes), on January 15. The appeal to the people is rejected by 423 votes against 281. On January 16-17, Louis XVI is sentenced to death by the Convention, with a majority of 387 voting for “unconditional death” out of 721 deputies who voted. The day of execution comes on January 21, 1793, when Louis XVI is guillotined in Paris.

February 1-17, 1793: Already at war with Austria and Prussia, France declares war on Great Britain and the United Provinces (Dutch Republic), resulting in the formation start of the First Coalition: Great Britain, Austria, Prussia, Russia, Spain, Piedmont-Sardinia, and the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. General Dumouriez manages to implement his offensive plan for an invasion of the Austrian Netherlands, which begins on February 17.

April 6, 1793: Formation of the Committee of Public Safety (Comité de salut public) by the National Convention. Originally meant to be just a provisional government and war cabinet, the Committee of Public Safety eventually became all-powerful. Its composition would change over time, but in the wake of the Thermidorian Reaction and overthrow of Robespierre, it lost its former power. Later, on October 25, 1795, the committee was abolished.

May 31-June 2, 1793: The Days of May 31 and June 2, 1793 (Journées du 31 mai et du 2 juin 1793) sees a political putsch carried out by the Montagnards, led primarily by Robespierre and his followers who stir up popular uprisings — especially of the sans-culottes — to eliminate the Girondins. On June 2, 1793, 31 Girondin deputies are arrested, marking the beginning both of the Federalist Uprisings and of the Mountagne Convention, the latter of which will end on July 27, 1794.

[Robespierre and his populist authoritarian followers carry out a coup that eliminates the democratic republican Girondin opposition]

June 24, 1793: The Constitution of Year I is promulgated, with the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1793 included the preamble. However, this constitution is never applied because the state of revolution and war, it is argued, prevents its implementation. It makes the right to rebel a sacred, imprescriptible right. It grants the “primary assemblies” the right to make the law during popular initiative referendums. It proclaims the right to work, to assistance, to education, recognizes the right of asylum and the naturalization of foreigners. The constitution embodies an interesting mix of elements of the socio-political left and right.

July 13, 1793: Charlotte Corday assassinates Jean-Paul Marat by stabbing him with a knife while he takes a medical bath. Corday isn't a counter-revolutionary but detests the ignorant, authoritarian populism represented by Marat and his groundless, conspiracy theory-laden publications.

August 23, 1793: The Levée en masse is decreed by the National Convention. The decree states: "From this moment until such time as its enemies shall have been driven from the soil of the Republic, all Frenchmen are in permanent requisition for the services of the armies. The young men shall fight; the married men shall forge arms and transport provisions; the women shall make tents and clothes and shall serve in the hospitals; the children shall turn old linen into lint; the old men shall betake themselves to the public squares in order to arouse the courage of the warriors and preach hatred of kings and the unity of the Republic." All unmarried able-bodied men between 18 and 25 were requisitioned with immediate effect for military service. This significantly increased the number of men in the army, reaching a peak of about 1,500,000 in September 1794, although the actual fighting strength probably peaked at no more than 800,000. In addition, as the decree suggests, much of the civilian population was turned towards supporting the armies through armaments production and other war industries as well as supplying food and provisions to the front. The Levée en masse marks the first real instance of universal conscription and, in many ways, the initiation of "total war".

1794: The Terror Intensifies, Purging the Ranks, Suppressing Revolts, and the Fall of Robespierre

January 8-13, 1794: At the Jacobins Club, Robespierre denounces Fabre d'Églantine, one of the instigators of the September Massacres, father of the Republican calendar, and ally of Danton. On January 13, d'Églantine is arrested for alleged diversion of state funds.

January 29, 1794: Death of Henri de la Rochejaquelein, royalist and military leader of the counter-revolutionary Vendéens, fighting at Nuaillé.

February 4, 1794: The Convention votes to abolish slavery in French colonies.

February 5, 1794: Robespierre lectures the convention on the necessity for the Terror: "The foundations of a popular government in a revolution are virtue and terror; terror without virtue is disastrous; and virtue without terror is powerless. The Government of the Revolution is the despotism of liberty over tyranny."

February 6, 1794: Napoleon Bonaparte is promoted to general for his role in driving the British from Toulon. On the same day, Jean-Baptiste Carrier is recalled from Nantes. As official delegate of the convention, he was responsible for the drownings (noyades) at Nantes of as many as 10,000 Vendéen prisoners, in barges deliberately sunk in the Loire River.

February 10, 1794: Jacques Roux commits suicide in prison. He was one of the key figures of the Enragés faction.

February 22, 1794: In a speech at the Cordeliers Club, Hébert attacks both the factions of Danton and Robespierre.

March 4-11, 1794: At the Cordeliers Club, Jean-Baptiste Carrier calls for an insurrection against the convention. On March 11, the Committees of Public Safety and General Security denounces the planned uprising by the Cordeliers.

March 13-15, 1794: Saint-Just, President of the convention, denounces a plot against liberty and the French people. Hébert and many other Cordeliers are arrested. Two days later, on March 15, Robespierre tells the Convention that "All the factions must perish from the same blow."

March 20, 1794: Arrest of General Hoche, a member of the Cordeliers. He is freed in August 1794 after the fall of Robespierre.

March 21-24, 1794: Trial of the Hébertists begins. To compromise them, they are tried together with foreign bankers, aristocrats and counter-revolutionaries. Then, on March 24, Hébert and leaders of the Cordeliers are condemned to death and guillotined.

March 27, 1794: The philosopher and mathematician Condorcet — often called the "last witness" of the ideals of the Age of Enlightenment — is arrested. He is found dead in his cell two days later.

March 30, 1794: Purging of factions continues, with Danton, Camille Desmoulins and their supporters arrested.

April 2-5, 1794: Trial of Danton before the Revolutionary Tribunal. He uses the occasion to ridicule and insult his opponents. This leads to the Convention decreeing on April 4 that anyone who insults the justice system is excluded from speaking, barring Danton from defending himself. The next day, April 5, Danton and Desmoulins are convicted and guillotined the same day.

April 8, 1794: Robespierre makes accusations against the Convention delegate Joseph Fouché at a meeting of the Jacobins.

April 10, 1794: The members of the alleged Conspiracy of Luxembourg, a diverse collection of followers of Danton and Hébert and other individuals, are put on trial. Seven are acquitted and 19 are condemned and executed, including Lucile Desmoulins, the widow of Camille Desmoulins, General Arthur Dillon, who had fought in the American Revolutionary War, Pierre Gaspard Chaumette, Françoise Hébert, the widow of Jacques Hébert, and the defrocked Bishop Gobel.

April 14, 1794: At the request of Robespierre, the Convention orders the transfer of the ashes of Jean-Jacques Rousseau to the Panthéon.

April 20, 1794: In a report to the convention, the deputy Billaud-Varenne delivers a veiled attack against Robespierre: "All people jealous of their liberty should be on guard even against the virtues of those who occupy eminent positions."

April 22, 1794: Malesherbes and the deputés Isaac René Guy le Chapelier and Jacques Guillaume Thouret, four times elected president of the Constituent Assembly, were taken to the scaffold and executed.

April 23, 1794: Robespierre creates a new Bureau of Police attached to the Committee of Public Safety, in opposition to the existing police under the Committee of General Safety.

May 7, 1794: Robespierre asks the convention to decree "that the French people recognize the existence of a Supreme Being and the immortality of the soul", and to organize celebrations of the new cult.

May 8, 1794: The chemist Antoine Lavoisier, along with twenty-six other former members of the Ferme générale, is tried and guillotined.

May 10, 1794: Arrest of Jean Nicolas Pache, the former mayor of Paris, followed by his replacement by Jean-Baptiste Fleuriot-Lescot, a close ally of Robespierre. Execution of Madame Élisabeth, the sister of Louis XVI, on the same day.

June 2, 1794: Naval battle between British and French fleets off Ouessant. The French lose seven warships, but a convoy carrying grain from the United States is able to dock in Brest.

June 4, 1794: Robespierre is unanimously elected president of the convention.

June 8, 1794: Festival of the Supreme Being, conducted by Robespierre. Some deputies visibly show annoyance with his behavior at the Festival.

June 10, 1794: The Law of 22 Prairial comes into effect: As the prisons are full, the Convention speeds up the trials of those accused. Witnesses are no longer required to testify. From June 11 to July 27, 1,376 prisoners are sentenced to death, with no acquittals, compared with 1,251 death sentences in the previous fourteen months. The convention also gives itself the exclusive right to arrest its own members.

June 12: Without naming names, Robespierre announces to the Convention that he will demand the heads of "intriguers" who are plotting against the convention.

June 24-26, 1794: Carnot foresightedly despatched a large part of the Parisian artillery to the front. And on June 26, French forces under Jourdan defeat the Austrians at the Battle of Fleurus.

June 29, 1794: Dispute within the Committee of Public Safety. Billaud-Varenne, Carnot and Collot d'Herbois accuse Robespierre of behaving like a dictator. He leaves the committee and does not return before July 23.

July 1, 1794: Robespierre speaks at the Jacobin Club, denouncing a conspiracy against him within the convention, the Committee of Public Safety, and the Committee of General Security.

July 8, 1794: French forces under Generals Jourdan and Pichegru capture Brussels from Austrians.

July 9, 1794: Robespierre speaks again at the Jacobin Club, denying he has already made lists, and refusing to name those he plans to arrest.

July 14, 1794: At the request of Robespierre, Joseph Fouché is expelled from the Jacobin Club.

July 23, 1794: Alexandre de Beauharnais is tried and executed; his widow Joséphine de Beauharnais became Napoleon's mistress, and his wife in 1796. Meanwhile, on the sme day, Robespierre attends a meeting of reconciliation with the members of the Committees of Public Safety and General Security, and the dispute seems settled.

July 25-27, 1794: The poet André Chénier is among those guillotined, followed by Marie Thérèse de Choiseul, the princess of Monaco, on July 27. Her execution would be one of the last during the Reign of Terror.

July 26, 1794: Robespierre gives a violent speech at the convention, demanding, without naming them, the arrest and punishment of "traitors" in the Committees of Public Safety and General Security. The Convention first votes to publish the speech, but Billaud-Varenne and Cambon demand names and attack Robespierre. The Convention sends Robespierre's speech to the Committees for further study, without action.

July 27, 1794: According to the revolutionary calendar, the date is 9 Thermidor Year II. At noon, Saint-Just began his speech in the convention, preparing to blame everything on Billaud, Collot d'Herbois and Carnot. After a few minutes, Tallien interrupted him and began the attack. When the accusations began to pile up the Convention voted the arrest of Robespierre, and of his younger brother Augustin Robespierre, Saint-Just, Couthon and Lebas. François Hanriot warned the sections that there would be an attempt to murder Robespierre and mobilized 2,400 National Guards in front of the town hall. In the meantime the five were taken to a prison, but refused by the jailors. An administrator of the police took Maximilian Robespierre around 8 p.m. to the police administration on Île de la Cité; Robespierre insisted being received in a prison. He hesitated for legal reasons for possibly two hours. At around 10 p.m. the mayor appointed a delegation to go and convince Robespierre to join the Commune movement. Then the Convention declared the five deputies (plus the supporting members) to be outlaws. They expected crowds of supporters to join them during the night, but most left losing time in fruitless deliberation, without supplies or instructions. This marks the beginning of the Thermidorian Reaction.

[Painting of the night of 9 Thermidor, displaying National Guardsman Merda's claim of having shot Robespierre. However, Robespierre may have shot himself in a failed attempt at suicide]

July 28, 1794: At 2 o'clock in the morning, soldiers loyal to the Convention take the Hôtel de Ville without a fight. Robespierre is wounded in the jaw by a gunshot, either from a gendarme or self-inflicted. His brother is badly injured jumping from the window. In the morning, Robespierre and his supporters are taken to the Revolutionary Tribunal for formal identification. Since they have been declared outside the law, no trial is considered necessary. In the evening of July 28, Robespierre and his supporters, including his brother, Saint-Just, Couthon and Hanriot, 22 in all, are guillotined.

July 29, 1794: Arrest and execution of seventy allies of Robespierre within the Paris Commune. In all, 106 Robespierrists are guillotined.

August 5, 1794: Inmates of Paris prisons arrested under the Law of Suspects are released.

August 9, 1794: Napoléon Bonaparte is arrested in Nice, but released on August 20.

August 24, 1794: The Convention reorganizes the government, distributing power among 16 different committees.

August 29, 1794: First anti-Jacobin demonstration in Paris by disaffected young middle-class Parisians called Muscadins.

August 30, 1794: French army retakes Condé-sur-l'Escaut. All French territory is now freed of foreign occupation.

August 31, 1794: The Convention puts Paris under the direct control of the national government.

September 13, 1794: The Abbé Grégoire, a member of the convention, coins the term "vandalism" to describe destruction of religious monuments across France.

September 21, 1794: The remains of Marat are placed in the Panthéon.

October 1-3, 1794: Confrontations in the meetings of the Paris sections between supporters and opponents of the Terror. On October 3, leaders of the bands of armed sans-culottes in Paris are arrested.

October 6, 1794: A French army captures Cologne.

October 22, 1794: Foundation of the Central School of Public Works, the future École Polytechnique.

November 9-12, 1794: Muscadins attack the Jacobin Club. The attack is repeated on November 11. Then, on November 12, the Convention orders the suspension of meetings of the Jacobin Club.

December 3, 1794: The Convention forms a committee of 16 members to complete work on the Constitution of 1793.

December 8, 1794: The return of 73 surviving Girondin deputies, who are given seats again in the Convention.

December 16, 1794: Conviction and execution of the Jacobin Carrier for ordering the mass execution of as many as 10.000 prisoners in the Vendée.

December 24, 1794: The Convention repeals the law setting maximum prices for grain and other food products.

1795-1799: Stabilizing the Revolutionary Regime

The period from 1795 to 1799 reflects a key phase in French history where efforts were made to solidify the gains of the Revolution and address the political instability and economic turmoil that had characterized previous years. This era saw the establishment of the French Directory, a five-man executive leadership that replaced the National Convention and marked a significant shift from radical Jacobin rule. Despite inherent political corruption and economic difficulties, the Directory period witnessed substantial efforts towards stabilizing the nation, including the establishment of a new constitution, curbing the political influence of the Parisian sans-culottes, and fostering French military successes abroad under promising generals like Napoleon Bonaparte. The regime also fostered cultural and scientific developments, with the creation of institutions such as the Institut de France. However, the Directory's inability to fully resolve France's deep-seated issues set the stage for its downfall and the emergence of Napoleon's Consulate in 1799.

[The Conspiracy of the Equals in 1796, a proto-communist putsch attempt spearheaded by Gracchus Babeuf and Philippe Buonarroti, was one of many threats posed to the regime of the Directory]

1795: The Directory Assumes Control, a New Constitution, and Napoleon’s Rise

February 2, 1795: Confrontations begin between Muscadins and sans-culottes in Paris streets. The former represent a somewhat right-wing reaction among Parisian young men against the left-wing radicalism of the years 1793-1794.

February 14, 1795: A number of former Jacobin leaders in Lyon, who carried out the Reign of Terror there, are assassinated, marking the start of the so-called First White Terror.

May 2-11, 1796: The Conspiracy of the Equals: A proto-communist movement led by Grrachus Babeuf as well as Italian revolution Philippe Buonarroti, tries to stage a putsch to implement their regime of total equality. On May 2, 1796, the Directory considered that the Babouviste propaganda was dangerously agitating public opinion and ordered the dismissal and disarmament of a police legion because that had fallen under their influence. The Directory thought it time to react and discovered through its agents evidence of a conspiracy for an armed rising fixed on May 11, 1796, in which Jacobins and socialists were combined. Babeuf, who had taken the pseudonym Tissot, was arrested on May 10, along with many of his associates.

1796-1797: Napoleon Ascendant in Italy and at Home, Defeat of Royalists in the Vendee and in Paris by Republican Forces 

1798: Sister Republics and Napoleon in Egypt

February 11-15, 1798: French troops led by General Louis-Alexandre Berthier invaded the Papal States and seized the city of Rome on February 11, 1798. Pope Pius VI is deposed and deported to Tuscany, then to France, where he dies in exile. As a result, in place of the Papal States, General Berthier proclaims the Roman Republic on February 15, with a political organization modeled on the French Republic, by Daunou and Monge, plus with the help of local revolutionaries like the engraver Francesco Piranesi and some Frenchmen like Florens.

April 12, 1798: The Helvetic Republic is the officially proclaimed and replaces the old names of the Swiss Confederacy. The Helvetic Republic lasts until March 10, 1803, when Napoleon, recognizing the failure of this unitary republic, dissolves it and establishes a new federal Swiss state. This period of the history of Switzerland is also called "the era of Helvetia". Its beginning marks the end of the Ancien Régime in Switzerland and the beginning of the political modernization of the country. For the first time in fact, the cantons are equal to each other and there are no longer subject countries.

May 11, 1798: The Law of 22 Floréal Year VI is passed, which in actuality is more like a bloodless coup, by which 106 left-wing deputies are deprived of their seats in the Council of Five Hundred, the lower house of the legislature under the French Directory. Following the Coup of Fructidor, the power of the Monarchists and the Royalists was largely broken. However, in order to do this, the Directory needed to rely on support from the Left. Once th Left's usefulness ran out and they proved successful in the elections, the Directory convinced the Council of Five Hundred to annul the elections results in 53 departments, leading to almost 130 deputies losing their seats. These were then replaced by individuals chosen by the Directory.

July 21, 1798: The Battle of the Pyramids took place between the French Army of the Orient, commanded by Napoleon Bonaparte, and Mamluk forces commanded by Mourad Bey, during the former's Egyptian campaign. Napoleon emerges victorious.

August 1-2, 1798: The Battle of Aboukir (also called Battle of the Nile) is a major naval battle between the British and French fleets in the Bay of Aboukir, near Alexandria in Egypt. The battle results in a decisive British victory, effectively isolating and cutting off Napoleon and his forces in Egypt.

October 12-24, 1798: Revolts break out in Belgium against the French occupiers. by October 24, these revolts against the French occupiers has become widespread in Belgium.

November 2, 1798: Similar to Belgium's situation, revolts break out on the island of Malta against the French occupiers.

November 4-13, 1798: In Belgium, on November 4, 8,000 priests are proscribed and deported because of the revolts raging there against the French occupiers. On November 13, Belgian peasants too take part in the revolt against the French occupiers, takinge the city of Diest, under the leadership of Emmanuel Rollier.

December 4, 1798: Massacre of Hasselt is perpetrated by the French troops, putting an end to the Belgian revolt.

December 24, 1798: Alliance between Russia and Great Britain is formed, presaging the War of the Second Coalition.

1799: The Directory in Turmoil, Napoleon’s Return, the Coup d'état of 18 Brumaire and the Consulate

April 9-16, 1799: The French legislative elections of 1799 took place on 20 and 27 germinal year VII. The 1799 election ended with a massive victory for the left-wing republican Montagnards. However, the Royalist parties, the Clichy Club (moderate constitutionalists) and Ultra-Royalists (absolute monarchists) won almost half of the seats within the council. The Extreme Left Group (Groupe de Extrême-Gauche) also won their first group of seats in the election. These are the last elections under the Directory but also the last free legislative elections before 1815.

June 17-19, 1799: The Battle of the Trebbia takes place during the Italian campaign waged by the Second Coalition, spearheaded especially by the Russians. It ends with the victory of the Austrians and the Russians, commanded by General Suvorov, over the French commanded by General Macdonald.

November 9-10, 1799: The coup d'etat of 18 Brumaire occurs, in which Napoleon Bonaparte overthrows the Directory, beginning of the provisional consulate. The Council of Elders votes to transfer the Legislative Body to Saint-Cloud to protect it from an attempted Jacobin plot. Bonaparte receives the command of the troops, while Sieyès obtains the resignation of the Directors. Bonaparte presents himself to the Ancients, then to the Cinq-Cents, where he is booed and threatened. The President of the Five Hundred, his brother Lucien Bonaparte, uses these threats as a pretext to request the intervention of the troops, which releases the meeting room. The Legislature is vacant, which was not the aim of the conspirators who wanted a legal investiture by the Legislative Body. During the night, they manage to bring together a few deputies from both chambers, who vote to abolish the Directory and exclude 62 deputies. They decide on the formation of a legislative commission and appoint a committee to revise the Constitution.

November 11, 1799: The new provisional Consulate gets up and running, led by a triumvirate of Sieyès, Roger Ducos, Bonaparte, as well as the establishment of the consular government. Berthier is appointed Minister of War, Laplace Minister of the Interior and Gaudin Minister of Finance. Cambacérès, Fouché and Reinhard, Ministers of Justice, Police and External Relations, appointed by the Executive Board, continue in their functions.

III. Timeline of the Consulate to the Empire to the Restoration: 1799-1815

The coup d'etat of 18 Brumaire, according to many historians, marks the end of the French Revolution proper. Of course, by having a government devoid of a king, namely a Bourbon king, the French government was still technically revolutionary. The meteoric rise of the talented general Napoleon Bonaparte produced profound effects in the realm of politics, especially since Bonaparte had both allies among the elite and very positive popular opinion (no doubt helped by Napoleon's own propaganda machine) on his side. In many ways similar to Julius Caesar or Oliver Cromwell, Napoleon Bonaparte would harness his military successes and glory for political ends. From 1799 until 1815, Bonaparte would lead France as either the First Consul of the French Consulate (Le Consulat) or as Emperor of the First French Empire.

1799-1804: From Consulate to the First French Empire

Although Sieyès, among others, had thought they were going to use Napoleon for their own ends, the reality flipped this notion upside down. Bonaparte would not be a tool or instrument that could be manipulated — he was the man of the hour. From the start, Bonaparte began consolidating power, targeting political leaders that were more republican and Bonapartists. Although a royalist assassination plot was executed on December 24, 1800, Bonaparte escaped with his life, and he used the opportunity to lash out against — not conservatives or royalists — but democratic republicans, making them the scapegoats. Thanks to a series of military victories and political successes — such as the Concordat of 1801 with the pope, thus ending the furore caused by the Civil Constitution of the Clergy; and the Peace of Amiens in 1802 with the United Kingdom — Napoleon catapulted himself to emperor on May 18, 1804.

1799-1802: The Consulate, Consolidation, Concordat, and Peace

The years from 1799 to 1802 marks yet another crucial turning point in French history, with the establishment of the Consular regime, a new form of governance following the turbulent years of the French Revolution. This era commenced with Napoleon Bonaparte's return from his Egyptian campaign and his crucial role in the coup of 18 Brumaire, which effectively ended the French Directory and established the Consulate with Napoleon as First Consul. This new structure marked the beginning of Napoleon's ascent to power and the consolidation of his authority. The Consular regime implemented a series of reforms that sought to stabilize the French state following the chaos of the Revolution, including the implementation of the Napoleonic Code and the Concordat with the Catholic Church, which had profound impacts on French society and governance. This section provides a thorough exploration of the birth and early years of the Consular regime, highlighting the significant developments and their enduring impact on France and beyond.

December 13-24, 1799: The Constitution of Year VIII is decided upon, followed by its promulgation on December 15, and official adoption on December 24. Napoleon takes power and is named First Consul.

1803-1804: Napoleon Becomes Emperor

1805-1812: Napoleon's Bid for Hegemony

The years from 1805 to 1812 represent a pivotal period in European history — not just French — defined by Napoleon Bonaparte's bid for continental hegemony. Following his coronation as Emperor in 1804, Napoleon embarked on a series of ambitious military campaigns, known as the Napoleonic Wars, with the aim to expand and solidify French control over Europe. This era witnessed significant victories such as the Battle of Austerlitz in 1805, where Napoleon's strategic brilliance effectively dismantled the Third Coalition. His reforms within occupied territories helped to spread French revolutionary principles, reshaping the political landscapes of Europe. However, this period also laid bare the limits of Napoleon's expansionist ambitions, culminating in the disastrous Russian campaign of 1812. His Continental System, intended to isolate Britain economically, inadvertently strained relations with other European powers and contributed to rising nationalist sentiment against French rule.

1805-1807: Napoleon Triumphant

The period from 1805 to 1807 marks one of the high points of Napoleon Bonaparte's reign. This era is characterized by a series of stunning military victories that solidified Napoleon's control over much of continental Europe and established him as a formidable force on the global stage. Beginning with the strategic masterstroke at the Battle of Austerlitz in 1805, which resulted in the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire, and culminating in the decisive Battle of Friedland in 1807 against the Russians, Napoleon appeared unstoppable. These triumphs not only expanded French territory but also allowed Napoleon to impose the Napoleonic Code and other elements of French revolutionary reforms across Europe, fundamentally reshaping the continent's political and social landscape.

1808-1812: Gathering Storm

The years from 1808 to 1812 mark a steady yet significant shift in Napoleon Bonaparte's reign, as the once seemingly invincible French Empire began to face mounting opposition and the gradual erosion of its territorial and diplomatic dominion. The origins of this resistance lay within multiple concurrent developments: the 'Spanish Ulcer', a term coined for the costly Peninsular War that drained French resources and morale; the failure of the Continental System, Napoleon's economic blockade against Britain, which not only fell short of its objective but also bred resentment among France's allies and neutral European nations; and, crucially, the ill-fated decision to invade Russia in 1812, a disastrous campaign that led to catastrophic losses for the Grand Army.

1812-1815: Napoleon’s Downfall and the Bourbon Restoration

This short period, from 1812 to 1815, encompasses Napoleon Bonaparte's downfall and the subsequent Bourbon Restoration, signifying a dramatic and decisive chapter in French history. This era was set into motion by the disastrous 1812 Russian Campaign, which decimated Napoleon's Grand Army and sparked a coalition of European powers, determined to curtail French dominance. The subsequent years saw a rapid series of setbacks for Napoleon, culminating in his abdication in 1814, his brief return to power during the Hundred Days in 1815, and final defeat at the Battle of Waterloo. Meanwhile, the Bourbon Restoration under Louis XVIII sought to reconcile some of the revolutionary ideals with monarchical rule, marking an uneasy and complex transition period in French society.

April 8, 1812: Tsar Alexander I of Russia sends an ultimatum to Napoleon to evacuate Prussia and Swedish Pomerania and withdraw his troops behind the Elbe and Oder rivers.

IV. Key Terms and Concepts of the French Revolution

Absolutism: A form of monarchical power that is unrestrained by all other institutions, such as churches, legislatures, or social elites, including the hereditary nobility. Absolutism is less of a concrete doctrine or ideology than an ideal that many monarchs of Europe strove to make real. The development of absolutism occurred simultaneously with the transition from Medieval feudalism to the mercantilist, proto-capitalist Early Modern Period. Absolutism is characterized by and/or associated with:

  • The ending of feudal partitioning
  • Consolidation of power within the monarch
  • Rise and preeminence of central, royal state power
  • Unification and codification of state laws
  • A decrease in the influence of the church and the nobility
  • The emergence of professional standing armies (in response to the domestic chaos that noblemen and their armed retinues could and did bring about, such as during the Hundred Years War, the Wars of Religion, the Fronde, etc.)
  • Formation of professional bureaucracies
  • The rise of ideologies that justify the absolutist monarchy. Absolutist monarchs typically were considered to have the divine right of kings as a cornerstone of the philosophy that justified their power; this is in contrast to the previous order when the kings were considered vassals of the pope or the Holy Roman Emperor, for example.

Absolutism played a role in causing the French Revolution because, over the course of the 200 years of Bourbon rule, the monarch and the royal government had increasingly encroached upon aspects of society that had traditionally been within the purview of other important status groups. For example, over the years, the central royal government increasingly took over the nobility's traditional responsibilities and authority of administering the justice system on the local level; another example would be the French royal government's encroachment on the traditional privileges of towns and cities to elect their own municipal council and mayor, and replacing this with a royally appointed officer to govern the town or replacing it by selling the offices of mayor and councilmen to the highest bidders who would then govern the city. In all examples, the French monarchs' absolutist drive over the years had begun to be heavily recognized, resented, and effective in alienating and aligning disparate groups of society against the royal government. Thus, all this came to a head in the years 1787-1789, when first the nobility found itself opposing the royal government in the Assembly of Notables, followed by the Third Estate in the Estates-General of 1789. [Return to where you were >>]

Affair of the Diamond Necklace: The Affair of the Diamond Necklace was important in discrediting the Bourbon monarchy in the eyes of the French people four years before the French Revolution. Marie-Antoinette became even more unpopular, and malicious gossip about her made her a greater liability to her husband. As she was associated with the scandal and already considered by some to be an enemy of the French people, her reputation was irreversibly destroyed. Marie-Antoinette's reputation never recovered from this incident. Her early history of excessive spending had already blemished her popularity, but the Diamond Necklace Affair catapulted public opinion of her into near-hatred. [Return to where you were >>]

Ancien Regime (the “Old Regime”): A combination of absolutism and feudalism in pre-revolution France, including the division of society into three estates (also called "orders"). The Old Regime in France doesn't have a specific starting date, though the Late Middle Ages (roughly 1300-1500) is often seen as the period when it take shape. 

The administration and social structure of the Old Regime in France developed over years of state-building, legislative acts, and internal conflicts, especially between the expanding power of central royal government and the estates of realm — be it conflict with the clergy (like the Jansenism movement), conflict with the nobility (like during the Fronde), or conflict with the Third Estate (which tended to occur episodically, like royal monopolies preventing a middle-class businessman from starting a certain type of business). The Valois dynasty's attempts at reform and at re-establishing control — in the aftermath of the Hundred Years' War (1337-1453) — over the scattered political centers of the kingdom were undermined by the Wars of Religion (1562 to 1598). With the ending of those wars, the Bourbon dynasty began and much of the reigns of Henry IV (reigned 1589–1610) and Louis XIII (reigned 1610–1643) and the early years of Louis XIV (reigned 1643–1715) focused on administrative centralization. Despite the notion of "absolute monarchy" (perhaps best exemplified by the king's right to issue orders through lettres de cachet) and efforts to create a centralized state, Old Regime France remained a country of systemic irregularities: administrative, legal, judicial, and ecclesiastic divisions and prerogatives very often overlapped, while the French nobility struggled to maintain their rights/privileges in the matters of local government and justice.

The drive for centralization related directly to questions of royal finances and the ability to wage war. The internal conflicts and dynastic crises of the 16th and the 17th centuries between Catholics and Protestants, the Habsburgs' internal family conflict, and the territorial expansion of France in the 17th century all demanded great sums, which needed to be raised by taxes, such as the land tax (taille) and the tax on salt (gabelle), and by contributions of men and service from the nobility.

One key to the centralization was the replacing of personal patronage systems, which had been organised around the king and other nobles, by institutional systems that were constructed around the state. The appointments of intendants, representatives of royal power in the provinces, greatly undermined the local control by regional nobles. The same was true of the greater reliance that was shown by the royal court on the noblesse de robe as judges and royal counselors. The creation of regional parlements had the same initial goal of facilitating the introduction of royal power into the newly assimilated territories, but as the parlements gained in self-assurance, they started to become sources of disunity. [Return to where you were >>]

Assembly of Notables: A group of high-ranking nobles, ecclesiastics, and state functionaries convened by the King of France on extraordinary occasions to consult on matters of state. Assemblymen were prominent men, usually of the aristocracy, and included royal princes, peers, archbishops, high-ranking judges, and, in some cases, major town officials. The king would issue one or more reforming edicts after hearing their advice. This group met in 1560, 1583, 1596–97, 1617, 1626, 1787, and 1788. Like the Estates-General, they served a consultative purpose only. But unlike the Estates-General, whose members were elected by the subjects of the realm, the assemblymen were selected by the king for their "zeal", "devotion", and their "trustworthiness" toward the monarch. [Return to where you were >>]

Bastille, Storming of: A Medieval fortress built in the 1370s-1380s, the Bastille, by the time of the outbreak of the revolution, had become a symbol for the French monarchy's absolutism, despotism, and arbitrariness, often being the site where political prisoners were kept as well as victims of the infamous lettres de cachet. On July 14, 1789, amid serious foment in Paris, a group of armed civilians and the mutinous French Guards unit lay siege to and capture the Bastille. Th event and date become seminal moments in the French Revolution and French history in general down to today, with July 14 celebrated in France as "Bastille Day", and is akin to America's 4th of July celebrations. [Return to where you were >>]

Bourbon Restoration: The Bourbon Restoration, which took place from 1814 to 1815, marked the return of the Bourbon monarchy to France following the end of Napoleon Bonaparte's first reign. After Napoleon's abdication in April 1814, Louis XVIII, brother of the executed Louis XVI, ascended to the throne, marking the restoration of the Bourbon line. The Restoration was characterized by a constitutional monarchy framework, outlined in the Charter of 1814 granted by Louis XVIII. The Charter sought to reconcile the old monarchical regime with the changes brought by the French Revolution and the Napoleonic era. It preserved many of the liberal reforms of the previous years, including civil equality and a bicameral legislature, but also affirmed the king's authority, the privilege of the aristocracy, and the Catholic Church's position as the state religion. However, the Bourbon Restoration was short-lived. Napoleon escaped from Elba and returned to power in 1815 during the period known as the Hundred Days. After Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo and his final abdication, the Bourbons were restored once more, beginning the second phase of the Bourbon Restoration, which lasted until the Revolution of 1830. [Return to where you were >>]

Bourgeoisie: Generally referring to the urban middle-class, the term bourgeoisie is derived from the word for city (from Frankish *burg "city"). This social group wasn’t explicitly defined but generally included a wide range of middle-class occupations, such as merchants and artisans to professionals like lawyers, notaries, and physicians, to very well-off bankers and non-noble landowners. The bourgeoisie would become very important in the lead-up and during the French Revolution, since most of the intellectual, political leaders of the Third Estate came from this social group. [Return to where you were >>]

Civil Constitution of the Clergy: A law passed on July 12, 1790, during the French Revolution, which caused a fundamental transformation in the relationship between the Catholic Church and the French state. The law subordinated the Church to the French government, resulting in the nationalization of Church property and the restructuring of religious hierarchy. Under the Civil Constitution, clergy members were required to swear an oath of allegiance to the French Constitution, effectively making them state employees. Bishops and priests were to be elected by civil assemblies rather than being appointed by the Church's higher authorities. This caused a significant rift within the French Catholic Church, leading to a schism between the clergy who accepted the Civil Constitution (the "juring" priests) and those who rejected it (the "non-juring" or "refractory" priests). Pope Pius VI condemned the Civil Constitution, which further deepened the divide. The schism had long-lasting repercussions, fueling religious tensions and laying the groundwork for a complex and troubled relationship between the Church and state in France. [Return to where you were >>]

Committee of Public Safety: A committee of the National Convention that formed the provisional government and war cabinet during the Reign of Terror, a violent phase of the French Revolution. Supplementing the Committee of General Defence, created early January 1793, the Committee of Public Safety was created on April 6, 1793, by the National Convention. The committee was charged with protecting the new republic against its foreign and domestic enemies, waging the war of the First Coalition, and suppressing the revolt in the Vendée. As a wartime measure, the committee was given wide supervisory and administrative powers over the armed forces, judiciary, and legislature, as well as the executive bodies and ministers of the convention. As the committee, restructured in July 1793, raised French defenses (levée en masse) against the monarchist coalition of European nations and counter-revolutionary forces within France, it became more and more powerful. In December 1793, the National Convention officially conferred executive power upon the committee. Among the members, the radical Jacobin Maximilien Robespierre was one of the most well-known, though he did not have any special powers or privileges. Perhaps its most notorious composition was the 12 members from September 5, 1793 to July 31, 1794:

In the following Thermidorian Reaction, the committee's influence diminished after 26 months and it disappeared on the same day as the National Convention, which was October 25, 1795, but it probably continued till the end of the month.

Concordat of 1801: An agreement between Napoleon Bonaparte and Pope Pius VII, signed in Paris, the Concordat of 1801 remained in effect until 1905. It sought national reconciliation between revolutionaries and Catholics while securing the position of the Roman Catholic Church as the majority church of France, with most of its civil status restored. This resolved the hostility of devout French Catholics against the revolutionary state. It did not restore the vast Church lands and endowments, however, which had been seized during the Revolution and sold off. Catholic clergy returned from exile, or from hiding, and resumed their traditional positions in their customary churches. Very few parishes continued to employ the priests who had accepted the Civil Constitution of the Clergy of the revolutionary regime. While the Concordat restored much power to the papacy, the balance of church-state relations tilted firmly in Napoleon's favor, since he selected the bishops and supervised church finances. [Return to where you were >>]

Continental System: Napoleon's Continental System, implemented between 1806 and 1812, was an ambitious economic strategy aimed at weakening Britain, France's chief rival during the Napoleonic Wars. Rooted in the Berlin Decree of 1806 and reinforced by the Milan Decree of 1807, the system prohibited European nations under French control or influence from trading with Britain, intending to cripple the British economy by denying it access to crucial continental markets. However, the system's effectiveness was undermined by widespread smuggling, non-compliance from several European nations, and the unwillingness or inability of some of Napoleon's allies, such as Russia in 1812, to fully enforce the blockade. Rather than precipitating the collapse of the British economy, the Continental System led to economic hardship within continental Europe itself, particularly in France. Furthermore, it strained relations between France and its allies and contributed to rising anti-French sentiment. The decision of Tsar Alexander I of Russia to withdraw from the system was a key factor precipitating Napoleon's ill-fated invasion of Russia in 1812. Thus, while the Continental System was a significant component of Napoleonic policy, its repercussions played a notable role in the eventual downfall of Napoleon's empire.

Cordeliers, Cordeliers club: The Cordeliers Club, formally known as the Society of the Friends of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, was a radical political group that emerged during the early stages of the French Revolution. Established in 1790, the club was named after the district in Paris where its meetings were held, in a former convent of the Cordeliers (Franciscan) order. The Cordeliers Club distinguished itself from other political clubs of the era through its populist approach: It had low membership fees and was open to all citizens, including women. This inclusivity enabled the club to represent a broad cross-section of society and made it a hotbed of radicalism. Its leaders included some of the most radical figures of the revolution, such as Georges Danton, Camille Desmoulins, and Jean-Paul Marat. The Cordeliers were ardent proponents of direct democracy and played a prominent role in key revolutionary events, such as the insurrection that led to the fall of the monarchy on August 10, 1792. The Club was disbanded during the Reign of Terror in 1794, after many of its leading members, including Danton and Desmoulins, were executed. Despite its relatively short existence, the Cordeliers Club had a lasting impact on the French Revolution, embodying its radical spirit and democratic aspirations. [Return to where you were >>]

Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen: The Declaration was initially drafted by the Marquis de Lafayette, but the majority of the final draft came from the Abbé Sieyès. Influenced by the doctrine of natural right, human rights are held to be universal: valid at all times and in every place. It became the basis for a nation of free individuals protected equally by the law. [Return to where you were >>]

The Directory (le Directoire): The government system that ruled France from October 26, 1795, until November 9, 1799, during the latter stages of the French Revolution. It was established by the Constitution of Year III, following the collapse of the Committee of Public Safety and the Thermidorian Reaction that ended the Reign of Terror. The Directory consisted of a bicameral legislature and a five-member executive body known as the Directors. The lower house, the Council of Five Hundred, was responsible for drafting legislation, while the upper house, the Council of Ancients, had the power to accept or reject proposed laws. The five Directors were elected by the Council of Ancients from a list presented by the Council of Five Hundred, and they held executive power, overseeing the administration and foreign affairs. The Directory era was marked by political corruption, economic instability, and military challenges. The government faced opposition from both Royalists, who sought the restoration of the monarchy, and radical Jacobins, who were dissatisfied with the conservative turn. The coup of 18 Brumaire led by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1799 overthrew the Directory and replaced it with the Consulate, marking the end of the revolutionary period and the beginning of Napoleon's rise to power. The Directory's legacy is often seen as a period of reaction against revolutionary excesses, yet one marked by inefficiency and corruption. [Return to where you were >>]

Encyclopédie: Published between 1751 and 1772, the Encyclopédie was a monumental achievement in the Enlightenment period and had a significant impact on the intellectual climate leading up to the French Revolution. As a comprehensive work, the Encyclopédie aimed to compile and disseminate all human knowledge, reflecting the Enlightenment's emphasis on reason, science, and empirical observation. By challenging traditional authority, particularly that of the Church and monarchy, the Encyclopédie provided a platform for new ideas about government, law, and human rights. It was not just a reference work but a radical attempt to educate the public and promote critical thinking and skepticism towards established norms. The contributors, including many prominent philosophers and scholars, openly criticized feudalism and absolute monarchy, promoting instead the ideas of political and social equality. The Encyclopédie helped to spread Enlightenment ideas across French society, making them accessible to a wider audience, and created an intellectual environment that questioned traditional authority and encouraged the revolutionary spirit that would eventually lead to the French Revolution. [Return to where you were >>]

The Enlightenment: Also known as the Age of Reason, the Enlightenment (or Age of Enlightenment) was an intellectual and philosophical movement that emerged in Europe, especially Western Europe, in the 17th and 18th centuries, with global influences and impact. The Enlightenment included an array of ideas centered on the value of human happiness, the pursuit of knowledge attained by means of reason and the evidence of the senses (empiricism), and ideals such as liberty, progress, toleration, natural law, fraternity, constitutional government, and separation of church and state. Chronologically, the Enlightenment overlapped a bit and followed on the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century and the work of Francis Bacon and John Locke, among others. Some historians date the beginning of the Enlightenment to the publication of René Descartes' Discourse on the Method in 1637, which featured his famous phrase, "Cogito, ergo sum" ("I think, therefore I am"). Others point to the publication of Isaac Newton's Principia Mathematica in 1687 as the culmination of the Scientific Revolution and the onset of the Enlightenment. Many historians now date the end of the Enlightenment as the start of the 19th century, with the latest proposed year being the death of Immanuel Kant in 1804. Others, such as Jonathan Israel, see the Enlightenment extending essentially to 1848, when Marxism replaced the ideals of the Enlightenment as the main oppositional movement to the current order.

Over the course of the Enlightenment (roughly 1650s-1848), the movement had two distinct straint: The "Radical Enlightenment" and the "Moderate Enlightenment," each influenced by different philosophical traditions and having different impacts on the societies they permeated. The Radical Enlightenment was deeply rooted in the philosophy of Baruch Spinoza, a 17th-century Dutch thinker. Spinozistic thought fundamentally challenged the established religious, social, and political order by promoting radical ideas such as democracy, equality (including sexual equality), freedom of thought, and the rejection of religious authority and superstition in favor of reason and empiricism. These ideas formed the basis of what we now understand as the secular, democratic, and rational foundations of Western society. Examples of Radical Enlighteners include Baron d'Holbach, Diderot, Raynal, Volney, Condorcet, Paine, Priestley, among others.

On the other hand, the Moderate Enlightenment, associated with figures like Locke, Voltaire, and Kant, sought a balance between the old and new orders. It aimed for reform rather than revolution and tended to compromise with existing religious and political institutions. This strand of the Enlightenment as less transformative than its radical counterpart but still progressive nonetheless. Either way, both strands of the Enlightenment filled the minds of the intellectual and political vanguard of the French Revolution and fueled their motivations. [Return to where you were >>]

Estates: Also called "orders," the estates of the realm in France — and throughout much of Europe — were social status groups that comprised Old Regime French. Unlike modern countries, in which the state is made up of the agglomeration of individual citizens, pre-modern European societies (namely, societies of the Middle Ages and Early Modern Period) were made up of separate estates or orders; an individual's rights, privileges, and responsibilities were dictated by which social group they belonged too, rather than being dictated by indivial civil rights. Oftentimes estates are described as representing different "classes" of society, but the term "class" doesn't fully capture the meaning of a society made up of estates: "Class" is a vague term with multiple meanings, such as the Marxist view of class as being defined by the "means of production" or the capitalist view of class as being defined by income and/or occupation. Instead, estates were entirely distinct orders, almost like the modern difference between civilians and the military: Each estate not only had their own rights, privileges, and responsibilities, but also their own codes of conduct, value systems, and worldviews. In Old Regime France, there were three estates of the realm:

  • The First Estate: The clergy, which included everyone from the lowly parish priest to high-ranking bishops and archbishops. The First Estate was exempted from the taille, though the church was required to pay the crown a tax called the "free gift" ("don gratuit"), which it collected from its office holders, at roughly a twentieth the price of the office (that was the "décime", reapportioned every five years). At the same time, the church exacted a mandatory tithe from its parishioners, called the "dîme".
  • The Second Estate: The nobility, which included great, landed, and wealthy nobles as well as impoverished, ancient noble lines. Although all grouped together into a single estate, the French nobility was often very divided on various issues. At different times, they could unite, however, as the nobility did to an extent during the Fronde (1648-1653) and during the meeting of the Assembly of Notables in 1787-1788 when they collectively refused to agree to Calonne's financial reforms and stated only the Estates-General could legitimize new taxation.
  • The Third Estate: Commoners, which wasn't well defined at the time, but in theory included everyone from peasants up to wealthy bourgoisie bankers and professionals. The Third Estate bore the greatest burden of taxation, as the other two estates were largely exempt from most taxes. What's more, the Third Estate often came into conflict with, or at least resented, both the other estates as well as the central royal government: For example, members of the First or Second Estate could and did use their privileged position to obstruct the ambitions of individuals of the Third Estate — not to mention, subject them to judicial penalties and exact feudal dues; and the absolutist royal government could and did stifle Third Estate attempts at entrepreneurism via royally granted business monopolies as well as take away urban representative institutions (like mayors and town councils) and replace them with venal offices sold to the highest bidder. [Return to where you were >>]

Estates-General (États généraux): In France under the Ancien Régime, the Estates-General or States-General was a legislative and consultative assembly of the different classes (or estates) of French subjects. It had a separate assembly for each of the three estates (clergy, nobility and commoners), which were called and dismissed by the king. It had no true power in its own right as, unlike the English Parliament, it was not required to approve royal taxation or legislation. It served as an advisory body to the king, primarily by presenting petitions from the various estates and consulting on fiscal policy. [Return to where you were >>]

Feuillants,  the Feuillants Club: The Feuillants Club emerged during the early stages of the French Revolution as a moderate political group, primarily comprising members who had broken away from the more radical Jacobin Club in 1791. The split originated from differences in opinion regarding the direction and pace of the Revolution. While both factions initially supported the constitutional monarchy and the 1789 Revolution's reforms, the Feuillants believed in a more moderate approach, opposing the more radical measures and popular insurrections advocated by their Jacobin counterparts. Named after the rue Saint-Honoré's Feuillants Convent in Paris where they held their meetings, the club's most prominent members included Antoine Barnave, Alexandre de Lameth, and Adrien Duport. Their influence, however, was short-lived. As the Revolution's momentum accelerated and popular sentiment swung towards the radicals, especially after the king's failed flight to Varennes, the Feuillants found themselves sidelined and eventually dissolved. Many of its members faced dire consequences in the subsequent years, especially during the Reign of Terror, where their moderate stance was deemed counter-revolutionary. [Return to where you were >>]

First White Terror: A wave of violent reprisals and persecution that occurred in France following the fall of Maximilien Robespierre in July 1794. After the end of the Reign of Terror, during which radical Jacobins and the Committee of Public Safety had controlled the French government, there was a reactionary backlash against those associated with the Jacobin regime. The White Terror was characterized by attacks, murders, and legal retribution against former revolutionaries, particularly those who had been involved in or supportive of the Reign of Terror. Many Jacobins and their sympathizers were arrested, imprisoned, or killed. This period of retribution was often driven by local and regional forces, such as the Royalists, moderates, and individuals seeking personal revenge, rather than being a centrally coordinated effort. The term "White Terror" itself comes from the white cockades worn by the Royalists, and it is contrasted with the "Red Terror" of the Jacobins. The First White Terror contributed to a climate of fear and mistrust and marked a significant shift away from the radical phase of the Revolution. It also laid the groundwork for further political polarization and upheaval in the years that followed. [Return to where you were >>]

Flight to Varennes: The Flight to Varennes was a significant event in the French Revolution that occurred in June 1791 when King Louis XVI and his family attempted to escape Paris and the radical revolutionaries who had seized power. The royal family planned to flee to the northeastern border of France, in the town of Varennes, with the hope of rallying support among the Royalist factions. The King, Queen Marie-Antoinette, their children, and a few loyal servants disguised themselves as middle-class citizens and traveled in a heavy, conspicuous coach, which contributed to their eventual recognition. However, they were recognized and arrested in Varennes, about 30 kilometers short of their ultimate goal. This event was a turning point in the French Revolution as it shattered the image of the King as a sovereign and exposed his counter-revolutionary intentions, leading to a rapid decline in his popularity. The Flight to Varennes resulted in a shift in public opinion that eventually led to the abolition of the monarchy the following year, pushing France towards becoming a republic. [Return to where you were >>]

French legislative elections of 1792: Elections held to elect members to the National Convention, a new constituent assembly that has to replace the governmental system of the constitutional monarchy of 1789-1792. The results of the election break down as follows:

  • La Plaine/Le Marais (The Plain/The Marsh): 1,747,200 votes — 51.94% — with 389 deputies elected, led by Lazare Carnot.
  • La Montagne (The Mountain): 907,200 votes — 26.70% — with 200 deputies elected, led by Maximilien Robespierre.
  • La Gironde (The Girodins; often referred to as Brissotins): 705,600 votes — 21.36% — with 160 deputies elected, led by Jacques-Pierre Brissot.

Following this election, the main political conflict in the French Revolution would be between the democratic republican Girodins and the populist authoritarian Montagnards. [Return to where you were >>]

The Fronde: A major domestic conflict and series of small civil wars, as well as foreign intervention, that occured from 1648 to 1653. [Return to where you were >>]

General Farm (Ferme générale): The Ferme Générale, or General Farm, was a critical component of the financial system in Old Regime France and played a notable role in the lead-up to the French Revolution. Established in the 17th century, it was a corporation of tax farmers responsible for collecting indirect taxes on behalf of the Crown. These taxes included duties on salt (the gabelle), beverages (the aides), and agricultural products (the traites), among others. However, the Ferme Générale was notorious for its corruption and ruthless methods of tax collection, and it became a symbol of the social inequality and financial mismanagement that characterized the Old Regime. Its tax farmers, or fermiers généraux, were typically from the privileged classes, and they profited enormously at the expense of the common people, contributing to deep-seated social grievances. The taxation system's flaws, exemplified by the Ferme Générale, added fuel to the growing public discontent that eventually sparked the French Revolution. As a result of the Revolution, the Ferme Générale was abolished in 1791, marking the end of a system that had come to be seen as an embodiment of the Old Regime's injustices. [Return to where you were >>]

Haitian Revolution: The Haitian Revolution (1791-1804) stands as the most successful slave revolt in history and led to the formation of the first independent Black republic. Set against the backdrop of the wider Atlantic Revolutions, especially the French Revolution, the uprising began in the rich, French-controlled colony of Saint-Domingue. The island's complex social hierarchy ranged from white landowners and free people of color to enslaved Africans. Inspired by the revolutionary ideals of liberty and equality, a massive slave revolt erupted in 1791 under leaders like Toussaint L'Ouverture. The ensuing 13-year conflict saw shifting alliances, with former slaves, free people of color, and white colonists navigating both local power struggles and the broader geopolitics involving France, Britain, and Spain, all of whom sought to control the lucrative colony. In the face of overwhelming challenges, including fierce military campaigns and attempts to reinstate slavery, the Haitian revolutionaries declared their independence in 1804, renaming Saint-Domingue as Haiti. This revolution had profound implications for colonies worldwide, sending shockwaves through the colonial empires and providing a beacon of hope for enslaved and oppressed peoples everywhere. [Return to where you were >>]

Huguenots: These people and the Huguenot movement in general were a strain of Protestantism that spread throughout France in the 1500s amid the wider Protestant Reformation (1517-1648). Huguenots were French Protestants that adhered to the Calvinist/Reformed church tradition — as opposed to Lutheranism — and since the epicenter of Calvinism was Geneva, Switzerland, the Huguenot move geographically followed the Rhone River, spreading into southern and western France, where it took hold the most. Although the era when the Huguenots achieved the greatest historical importance long predates the French Revolution — the French Wars of Religion (1562-1598) and the Huguenot rebellions of the 1620s — Protestantism in France was an important, if not essential, aspect of the French Revolution. This because the intellectual roots of the Revolution were those of the Enlightenment, such as religious toleration, freedom of expression and assembly, the ending of religious authority in the civil and political spheres, etc. Hence why some French Protestants became prominent leaders of the French Revolution, like Antoine Barnave and Jean Sylvain Bailly. [Return to where you were >>]

Jacobins, Jacobin Club: The Jacobin Club, formally known as the Society of the Friends of the Constitution, was the most famous and influential political club during the French Revolution. Founded in 1789, the club derived its name from the former Dominican convent in Paris where its members met, as the Dominicans were referred to in France as Jacobins. The club became a gathering place for radical revolutionaries, and its members were known as Jacobins. Their primary aim was to create a republic, and they played a crucial role in the abolition of the monarchy in 1792. The Jacobins were known for their commitment to civic equality and the sovereignty of the people. Under the leadership of figures like Maximilien Robespierre, the club became increasingly associated with the Reign of Terror, during which thousands were executed for being perceived as enemies of the Revolution. The Jacobins were instrumental in shaping revolutionary policy, and their influence reached its height in 1793-1794. Following the fall of Robespierre in July 1794 and the subsequent Thermidorian Reaction, the club's power rapidly declined. It was officially closed by the government in November 1794. The term "Jacobin" has since been used to describe those with radical, left-wing revolutionary ideals. [Return to where you were >>]

Jansenism: A theological movement within Catholicism, mainly active in France during the 17th and 18th centuries, Jansenism emphasized original sin, human depravity, the necessity of divine grace, and predestination. Its roots lay in the teachings of the Dutch theologian Cornelius Jansen. Contrary to the Jesuits, who represented the more mainstream Catholic opinion, Jansenists opposed the absolutism of both Church and monarchy. They were heavily involved in the intellectual debates of the time and contributed to the growth of public opinion by encouraging people to think critically about religious, political, and social issues. Through their extensive writings, such as Pascal's "Provincial Letters," and association with the Parlement of Paris, they challenged the arbitrary power of the monarchy, thereby sowing seeds of discontent and questioning of authority. Though not a direct cause, the ideas and critiques propagated by the Jansenists helped lay the intellectual groundwork for the Enlightenment ideas that would later fuel the French Revolution. They helped cultivate a climate where questioning and challenging the established order became more acceptable, paving the way for more radical societal changes. [Return to where you were >>]

L'Ami du peuple: L'Ami du peuple (The Friend of the People) was a newspaper during the French Revolution, distinguished for its impassioned and radical voice. Its creation was the brainchild of Jean-Paul Marat, a Swiss-born physician, political theorist, and scientist who became one of the most vocal leaders during the Revolution. First published in September 1789, L'Ami du peuple quickly established itself as a relentless critic of power, consistently challenging the government and the political elites. Marat used it as his platform to advocate for the rights of the lower classes and to rally them against perceived enemies, be they aristocrats, moderate revolutionaries, or eventually, the Girondins. The newspaper's inflammatory style, filled with demands for justice and punctuated by calls for heads to roll, made it both popular and notorious. It played a significant role in shaping public opinion during the Revolution's most turbulent years. Despite multiple attempts to suppress it and repeated threats to Marat's life, L'Ami du peuple continued to be published until Marat's assassination in 1793. The newspaper, synonymous with its creator's radicalism and intensity, remains emblematic of the fevered press activity and the power of public opinion during the French Revolution. [Return to where you were >>]

Lettres de cachet: Lettres de cachet, one of the most notorious instruments of the monarchy in Ancien Régime France, were a form of privileged royal decree that could order a wide array of directives, including imprisonment without trial, execution, or exile. Sealed with the king's private seal, or "cachet", these letters were often issued at the request of individuals seeking a discreet way to rid themselves of an inconvenient person, typically a family member. Their arbitrary nature, lack of judicial review, and use as tools of personal vendetta rather than legal necessity, made them emblematic of the abuses of absolute monarchy and the lack of personal freedoms. Lettres de cachet were utilized by the monarchy until the French Revolution, when they were abolished in 1790 as part of broader judicial reforms. They played a significant role in fermenting public dissatisfaction leading up to the Revolution; the widespread knowledge of their misuse fueled outrage against the arbitrary and unchecked power of the monarchy. They served as a tangible symbol of the social and political inequalities of the Old Regime, and their abolition marked a pivotal step towards establishing the rule of law and individual rights in Revolutionary France. [Return to where you were >>]

Lit de justice: A ceremonial event in Ancien Régime France, a lit de justice was a formal session of the Parlement of Paris over which the king presided in person. The name, which translates to "bed of justice", stems from the seat used by the king, which resembled a throne or bed. More than a mere ceremony, the lit de justice was a tool of royal authority, used to assert the king's will over the Parlement, particularly when it resisted royal edicts. By holding a lit de justice, the king could compel the registration of edicts, laws, or reforms that the Parlement had previously refused to register, thus ensuring their implementation. As such, it was emblematic of the centralization of power in the monarchy and the subordination of judicial bodies to the king's authority. However, the overuse of the lit de justice, particularly in the late 18th century, contributed to the mounting tensions between the monarchy and the Parlements, and more broadly, the growing disaffection with the absolutist monarchy among the wider public. This was notably the case in the lead-up to the French Revolution, as Louis XVI's repeated use of the lit de justice to force through fiscal and judicial reforms in the face of Parlementary resistance was seen as an abuse of royal power and contributed to the breakdown of respect for monarchical authority, thus playing a part in sparking the revolutionary movement. [Return to where you were >>]

Maupeou's coup, the Maupeou Revolution, the "Royal Revolution": The period from 1771 to 1774, known as Maupeou's coup or the Maupeou Revolution, marks a critical moment of tension in Ancien Régime France as Chancellor René de Maupeou sought to consolidate royal authority and reform the judicial system. Named for Louis XV's Chancellor, this political maneuver targeted the parlements, the powerful high courts dominated by the nobility of the robe, which had become a significant impediment to the Crown's ability to reform France's tax system. Maupeou's dramatic move involved the suppression of the parlements, the exile of several prominent magistrates, and the establishment of new courts with judges appointed by the king and lacking the hereditary rights that had previously ensured the parlements' independence. This sparked considerable outrage, particularly among the nobility and the bourgeoisie, and debates around the so-called 'Maupeou coup' contributed to the politicization of public opinion in the years preceding the French Revolution. However, Maupeou's reforms were short-lived, as they were reversed following the death of Louis XV in 1774, with his successor Louis XVI choosing to restore the parlements to their former position, further eroding the monarchy's authority in the years leading up to the Revolution. [Return to where you were >>]

Muscadins: The term Muscadin, meaning "wearing musk perfume", refers to mobs of young men, generally well-off and dressed in a dandyish manner, who were the shock troops in the streets during and after the Thermidorian Reaction in Paris. After the overthrow of Robespierre and the Jacobins of 9 Thermidor Year II (July 27, 1794), they faced off with the remaining Jacobins and sans-culottes, and more or less succeeded in suppressing them over the next one to two years.

Napoleonic Code: Officially known as the Civil Code of the French, was enacted on March 21, 1804, and served as the foundation of modern civil law systems in many countries around the world. Spearheaded by Emperor Napoleon I, the code was the culmination of various legal reforms during the French Revolution, and it sought to consolidate and standardize the complex and often contradictory laws and customs of France into a single, cohesive legal system. The Napoleonic Code was groundbreaking in that it eliminated privileges based on birth, allowed for freedom of religion, and established the principle of government regulation of property rights. It also promoted the idea of equality before the law and laid out clear and accessible legal procedures. However, it was criticized for limiting certain individual freedoms and the rights of women, as it reinforced patriarchal authority within the family. The Napoleonic Code influenced the legal systems of many European nations and Latin American countries, and its principles continue to be a fundamental part of civil law traditions. Its formulation marked a significant departure from feudal legal norms and helped to shape the concept of a modern, secular legal system based on written codes and principles. [Return to where you were >>]

Napoleonic Wars: A series of conflicts fought between 1803 and 1815, mainly pitting the French Empire, led by Emperor Napoleon I, against a series of opposing coalitions formed by various European powers. The wars were rooted in the revolutionary changes wrought by the French Revolution and were an extension of the conflict between the revolutionary ideals of France and the monarchical conservative order in the rest of Europe. The Napoleonic Wars were marked by Napoleon's ambitious expansion across the continent, where he managed to control or influence vast swathes of Europe through a combination of military victories and strategic alliances. His innovative military tactics and skilled use of artillery made the French army one of the most formidable of its time. However, his invasion of Russia in 1812 proved to be a disastrous turning point, leading to a difficult retreat and the erosion of his power. The subsequent coalition of European powers succeeded in defeating Napoleon in 1814, forcing his abdication and brief exile to Elba. He escaped and returned to power in 1815 but was defeated again at the Battle of Waterloo and exiled to Saint Helena, where he died in 1821. The Congress of Vienna, which followed the wars, sought to redraw the map of Europe and establish a balance of power to prevent any single nation from dominating the continent. The Napoleonic Wars had a profound impact on global military strategy, nationalism, and the development of modern warfare, leaving a lasting legacy on European history. [Return to where you were >>]

National Assembly: Existing from June 17, 1789 to September 29, 1791, the National Assembly was a revolutionary assembly of the Kingdom of France formed by the representatives of the Third Estate of the Estates-General. From July 9, 1789, until it was replaced by the Legislative Assembly on September 30, 1791, it was known as the National Constituent Assembly (Assemblée nationale constituante), although the shorter form was favored. [Return to where you were >>]

National Constituent Assembly: A constituent assembly in the Kingdom of France formed from the National Assembly on July 9, 1789 during the first stages of the French Revolution. After the storming of the Bastille, the National Constituent Assembly became the effective government of France. It dissolved on September 30, 1791, and was succeeded by the Legislative Assembly. [Return to where you were >>]

Nobles of the Robe (noblesse de robe): During the Old Regime of France, the Nobles of the Robe, also called Nobles of the Gown (noblesse de robe), were French aristocrats whose rank derived from holding certain judicial or administrative posts. A general rule was that these positions did not of themselves confer the holder a title of nobility, such as seigneur (lord) or viscount. Though the office usually didn't confer nobility, the holder more often than not acquired such a title at some point. Over time however, especially by the second half of the 1700s, these offices often became hereditary, and by 1789, most of the holders had inherited their positions. The most significant of the Nobles of the Robes were the 1,100 members of the 13 parlements of France. The Nobles of the Robe were distinct from the Nobles of the Sword (noblesse d'épée): see below for details. [Return to where you were >>]

Nobles of the Sword (noblesse d'épée): In contrast to the Nobles of the Robe, Nobles of the Sword (noblesse d'épée) had their nobility based on their families' traditional function as the knightly, warrior class and whose titles were usually attached to a particular feudal fiefdom, a landed estate held in return for military service. Thus, the Nobles of the Sword were noblemen of the oldest class in France, dating from the Middle Ages and the Early Modern period. As the original knightly class, Nobles of the Sword had owed military service (usually to a king, who might be the king of France or the king of England) in return for the possession of feudal landed estates. They played an important part during the French revolution since their attempts to retain their old power monopoly caused the new nobility’s interests to align with the newly arising French bourgeoisie class, creating a powerful force for change in French society in the late 18th century. For the year 1789, Gordon Wright gives a figure of 80,000 nobles. [Return to where you were >>]

Notebooks of grievances (cahier de doléances): These were an essential element in the political landscape of Old Regime France, particularly in 1789, in the lead-up to the French Revolution. In early 1789, King Louis XVI, facing financial ruin and widespread discontent, called the Estates-General, a representative assembly of the three Estates (clergy, nobility, and commoners), to convene and address the crisis. As part of this process, cahiers de doléances were drafted by each Estate to articulate their specific grievances, demands, and suggestions for reform. These documents were compiled at various local levels, reflecting a broad spectrum of society's concerns, from burdensome taxes and feudal privileges to demands for greater political representation and personal liberties. The cahiers allowed for a significant degree of political participation, as even commoners could voice their complaints and aspirations. They serve as a crucial historical record, capturing the social and political climate of the time and revealing the depth of dissatisfaction with the Old Regime. The failure of the Estates-General to adequately address the wide-ranging issues presented in the cahiers further disillusioned the populace and contributed to the radicalization that would lead to the French Revolution. [Return to where you were >>]

Parlement of Paris, Parlements of France: The Parlements of France under the Ancien Régime were not legislative bodies like modern parliaments, but rather a network of high courts that acted as the ultimate courts of appeal in their respective regions. The most powerful of these was the Parlement of Paris, whose jurisdiction spanned a large part of northern and central France. These judicial bodies wielded significant power and influence as they held the right of remonstrance, which allowed them to protest against royal edicts that they deemed unjust or in violation of the fundamental laws of the kingdom. However, this power was also a source of tension, as the monarchs often perceived the parlements as impediments to the execution of royal authority. Despite being largely composed of noblesse de robe, nobility of the robe, who were often sympathetic to the needs of the common people, the parlements were also protective of their own privileges and resisted changes that threatened their status, playing a complex and sometimes contradictory role in the politics of the Ancien Régime. [Return to where you were >>]

Peasants: The peasantry of France formed the majority of the population, living and working in agriculture, by far the kingdom's largest economic sector. A significant amount of their earnings went to a combination of royal taxes, noble feudal dues, and the tithes of the church. While feudalism's most egregious characteristic — serfdom — had largely disappeared (except in recently acquired Germanic provinces like Franche-Comte in the east), a variety of feudal dues remained even though the peasantry was technically free. Feudal dues included tons of different fees and obligations (see "Feudal Dues" entry for details). Although most of the French peasantry by temperament were traditional and religious, they served a key role in the French Revolution in the episode known as the Great Fear, from July to August 1789, when the peasants rose up in reaction to a supposed conspiracy of the landed nobility to hire brigands to destroy the harvest and starve them. The Great Fear contributed ultimately to the abolition of feudal privileges on the Night of August 4, 1789. [Return to where you were >>]

Provincial estates: Provincial estates, or États provinciaux, were a crucial component of the governance structure in Old Regime France, providing a unique snapshot of the complexities of political and fiscal management in the kingdom prior to the French Revolution. Unlike other parts of the country that were directly governed by royal intendants, certain provinces, known as pays d'états, maintained their historic rights to hold regular assemblies, or estates, where local nobility, clergy, and, in some cases, representatives of the Third Estate, convened to administer local affairs. These assemblies were responsible for levying and collecting taxes, managing expenditures for provincial infrastructure, and often served as a platform for negotiating with the Crown over fiscal matters. However, they were also emblematic of the social and political inequalities of the period, with the First and Second Estates often dominating proceedings. Plus, many more provincial estates had existed before, but over the course of the Bourbon dynasty, the monarchy eliminated them in several provinces, which came to be called pays d'élection, where the representative of the royal government — the intendant — divvied up the impôts (taxes) in each province with the aid of the élus, who were for a long time elected by the Estates-General, hence the name of their office and of the pays d'élection. But by 1789, only the term "election" survived, rather than actual elections.. As the financial crisis of the late 18th century deepened, the inefficiencies and inequalities embodied by the provincial estates, as well as their resistance to fiscal reforms, fueled widespread dissatisfaction, which contributed to the tensions leading up to the French Revolution. [Return to where you were >>]

Reign of Terror: Also known as simply "the Terror," was a period of intense political repression and violence during the French Revolution, lasting from September 1793 to July 1794. Instigated by the Committee of Public Safety, led by figures like Maximilien Robespierre, Georges Danton, and Jean-Paul Marat, it was marked by mass executions, purges, and surveillance aimed at eradicating perceived internal enemies of the Revolution. During this period, an estimated 16,000 to 40,000 people were executed by guillotine, including King Louis XVI, Queen Marie-Antoinette, and many other nobles, clergy, and political opponents. The Law of Suspects allowed for the arrest of anyone suspected of counter-revolutionary activities, leading to widespread fear and paranoia. The Reign of Terror ended with the fall of Robespierre and his associates in the Thermidorian Reaction, an event that led to a more conservative phase in the Revolution. [Return to where you were >>]

Sans-Culottes: A rather amorphous group of different segments of the urban population, especially of Paris. Often simply seen as the urban poor and low wage-earners, the sans-culottes were in actuality more complex, and included the urban poor and low wage-earners but also representatives of the "small man": Small businessowners and proprietors like winemakers, journeymen and apprentices who no longer had the guild system to fall back on, hack writers, newly arrived city dwellers originally from the countryside, etc. The sans-culottes would develop into the shock troops or paramilitary of the more extreme political elements of the French Revolution, particularly after the Demonstration of 20 June 1792 (Journée du 20 juin 1792). The name "sans-culottes" means "without breeches", because, being members of the lower ranks of society, they wore long trousers instead of the culottes (silk knee-breeches) worn by both the middle-class bourgeoisie and upper-class in general. 

Tennis Court Oath: The occasion in which 576 of the 577 representatives of the Third Estate to the Estates-General, on June 20, 1789, took an oath to "not to separate and to reassemble wherever necessary until the Constitution of the kingdom is established," thus becoming one of the pivotal events of the French Revolution. By taking this crucial step independently of the other estates, the Third Estate managed to seize the political initiative and, therefore, ended up causing sympathetic members of the First and Second Estates to follow their lead, as opposed to forging their own independent political campaign. Indeed, the Third Estate's decisive maneuver here induced Louis XVI to concede and on June 27, 1789, he ordered that voting occur by head not by estates — a decision that heavily favored the numerically superior Third Estate. [Return to where you were >>]

Thermidorian Reaction: The common term for the period between the ousting of Maximilien Robespierre on 9 Thermidor II, or July 27, 1794, and the inauguration of the French Directory on November 2, 1795. The "Thermidorian Reaction" was named after the month in which the coup took place and was the latter part of the National Convention's rule of France. It was marked by the end of the Reign of Terror, decentralization of executive powers from the Committee of Public Safety and a turn from the radical Jacobin policies of the Montagnard Convention to more conservative positions. Economic and general populism, dechristianization, and harsh wartime measures were largely abandoned, as the members of the convention, disillusioned and frightened of the centralized government of the Terror, preferred a more stable political order that would have the approval of the plurality. The Reaction saw the Left suppressed by brutal force, including massacres, as well as the disbanding of the Jacobin Club, the dispersal of the sans-culottes, and the renunciation of the Montagnard ideology.

Versailles, Palace of Versailles: By moving his court and government to Versailles, Louis XIV hoped to extend more royal control of the government at the expense of the nobility and to distance himself from the population of Paris. All the power of France flowed from this center: There were government offices at Versailles, plus the homes of thousands of courtiers, their retinues, and all the attendant functionaries of court. By requiring that nobles of a certain rank and position spend time each year at Versailles, Louis XIV prevented them from developing their own regional powerbases at the expense of his own (as had happened in the Middle Ages) and kept them from countering his efforts to centralize the French government in an absolute monarchy. [Return to where you were >>]

Vote by Head: When each representative in each estate received on vote, an arrangement favored by the Third Estate since they outnumbered the First and Second Estates in terms of representatives. Vote by head is in contrast to vote by order. [Return to where you were >>]

Vote by Order: When each state received one vote as a body, an arrangement favored by the First and Second Estates since they could outvote the Third Estate if they opposed proposals coming from that order of the realm. Vote by order is in contrast to vote by head. [Return to where you were >>]

War of the First Coalition: A series of military conflicts — from 1792 to 1797 — that pitted Revolutionary France against a shifting alliance of European powers, primarily composed of Austria, Prussia, Great Britain, Spain, and the Dutch Republic. The war's roots lay in the widespread alarm and disdain with which Europe's monarchies viewed the radical changes of the French Revolution, fearing the spread of revolutionary sentiments across their own borders; indeed, recent and/or concurrent upheavals occured, including:

  • The Brabant Revolution (1789-1790) in the Austrian Netherlands
  • The Liege Revolution (1789-1791)
  • The Revolt of the Dutch Patriots (the Patriottentijd, 1780-1787)
  • As well as seething tensions with the potential for revolution in Geneva and the Rhineland.

As the French Revolution became increasingly radical, with the French monarchy abolished and King Louis XVI executed, these nations formed a coalition to curtail the Revolutionary regime and restore the Bourbon monarchy. The French, driven by revolutionary fervor and employing innovative mass conscription, initially faced setbacks but eventually scored significant victories, such as at the battles of Valmy and Fleurus. Despite their internal political upheavals, including the Reign of Terror and the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte, the French successfully expanded their territorial control by the war's end. The Treaty of Campo Formio in 1797 concluded the conflict, signaling a temporary hiatus in the larger European struggle against Revolutionary and Napoleonic France that would resume shortly thereafter. [Return to where you were >>]

What Is the Third Estate?: This political pamphlet written by Abbe Sieyès, published January 1789, argues that the Third Estate — the common people of France — constituted a complete nation within itself, providing in the end all the men necessary to man the army, to staff the churches, to administer the law, and every other operation of society. It therefore had no need of the dead weight of the two other orders—the first and second estates of the, respectively, clergy and aristocracy—which Sieyès suggested abolishing. Before all else Sieyès argued for the sovereignty of the nation, unfettered by ancient constitutional niceties, represented by its people and empowered to re-establish the political system. He saw this actualized with genuine representatives in the Estates-General, equal representation to the other two orders taken together, and votes taken by heads and not by orders. [Return to where you were >>]

Women's March on Versailles: Market women, riotous because of the high price of bread, and their allies grow into a mob of thousands. Encouraged by revolutionary agitators, they plundered the city armory for weapons and marched on the Palace of Versailles. The crowd laid siege the palace and, in a dramatic and violent confrontation, they successfully pressed their demands on King Louis XVI. The next day, the crowd forced the king, his family, and most of the French Assembly to return with them to Paris. These events ended the king's independence and heralded a new balance of power that would ultimately displace the established, privileged orders of the French nobility in favor of the common people, collectively known as the Third Estate. By bringing together people representing the sources of the Revolution in their largest numbers yet, the march on Versailles proved to be a defining moment of the Revolution. [Return to where you were >>]

V. Key People of the French Revolution

Bailly, Jean Sylvain: Born September 15, 1736, Bailly was a French astronomer, mathematician, freemason, and political leader of the early phase of the French Revolution. He presided over the Tennis Court Oath, served as the mayor of Paris from 1789 to 1791, and was ultimately guillotined (November 12, 1793) during the Reign of Terror, due largely to the fact that he was a political moderate who leaned towards the British-style mixed-government model with a constitutional monarchy, as opposed to a full-fledged republican.

Barnave, Antoine: A French politician who plays an important role during the first years of the Revolution. A member of the Dauphiné Estates-General, he became one of the main members of the National Constituent Assembly, where he first sat on the left, within the "triumvirate" of Duport-Barnave-Lameth. However, fearing the radicalization of the revolution after Louis XVI's attempted flight (June 1791), he made moves toward the court. After the fall of Louis XVI during the storming of the Tuileries Palace on August 10, 1792, Barnave was imprisoned on August 18 because of the discovery of compromising correspondence. A year later, after the victory of the Montagnards over the Girondins (June 1793), he was brought before the Revolutionary Tribunal at the start of the Reign of Terror and sentenced to death on November 28, and guillotined on November 29, 1793. [Return to where you were >>]

Barère de Vieuzac, Bertrand: Born September 10, 1755, he was a French politician, freemason, journalist, and one of the most prominent members of the National Convention, representing the Plain (a moderate political faction) during the French Revolution. The Plain was dominated by the radical Montagnards and Barère, as one of their leaders, supported the foundation of the Committee of Public Safety in April 1793 and of a sans-culottes army in September 1793. According to Francois Buzot, Barère was responsible for the Reign of Terror, alongside Robespierre and Louis de Saint-Just. In Spring 1794 and after the Festival of the Supreme Being, he became an opponent of Maximilien Robespierre and joined the coup, leading to his downfall. However, turning on Robespierre and his allies didn't save Barère: His arrest was decreed on March 22, 1795, though he managed to escape on October 26, 1795, and for the next few years remained in hiding. On December 24, 1799, Napoleon issued an amnesty for certain politicians, including Barère in this case. He lived well under the First French Empire, but with the Bourbon Restoration in July 8, 1815, he was exiled as a regicide, living in Brussels until 1830 when a second French Revolution would bring the Orleanist King Louis Philippe to the throne and enable Barère to return to France, where he died on January 13, 1841. [Return to where you were >>]

Billaud-Varenne, Jacques-Nicolas: A French lawyer, politician, and one of the most radical members of the Committee of Public Safety during the French Revolution. Born on April 23, 1756, he was a committed Jacobin and a strong advocate of the Reign of Terror. Billaud-Varenne was instrumental in drafting and promoting laws that facilitated the mass executions of perceived enemies of the Revolution. Known for his fervent and uncompromising stance, he clashed with other members of the revolutionary government, including Robespierre. After the fall of Robespierre during the Thermidorian Reaction, Billaud-Varenne was arrested and subsequently deported to French Guiana, where he lived in exile. He died on June 3, 1819. His legacy remains controversial, reflecting the broader tensions and complexities of the revolutionary period. [Return to where you were >>]

Brissot, Jacques Pierre: Born on January 15, 1754, Brissot was a key figure in the early stages of the French Revolution and a leading member of the Girondin faction. A writer, journalist, and lawyer, Brissot was a strong advocate for the abolition of slavery and an ardent supporter of a democratic republic. He played a crucial role in the Legislative Assembly and was instrumental in pushing France into war with Austria in 1792. However, his democratic republican stance and opposition to the authoritarian populist Robespierrists led to his downfall. During the Reign of Terror, the conflict between the Girondins and the Jacobins reached a climax, and Brissot, along with other Girondin leaders, was arrested, tried, and guillotined on October 31, 1793. [Return to where you were >>]

Calonne, Charles Alexandre de: Born in Douai on January 20, 1734, Charles Alexandre de Calonne served as the Comptroller-General of Finance in from November 3, 1783, to May 17, 1787, during the reign of Louis XVI, and played a pivotal role in the financial crisis that contributed to the onset of the French Revolution. When Calonne took office, the French monarchy was grappling with enormous debt, exacerbated by France's involvement in the American Revolutionary War. Calonne recognized the need for radical fiscal reforms and sought to implement measures that included the abolishment of certain taxes, the imposition of a universal land tax that would affect the nobility (who were traditionally exempt), and various free trade policies. His ambitious plans, however, were met with fierce resistance from the aristocracy and influential segments of society — namely, the Assembly of Notables he presented it to — leading to his dismissal in 1787. The failure to enact these reforms exacerbated the financial crisis and heightened tensions between the different classes in France. The continued financial disarray and the perceived incompetence and corruption of the royal administration, of which Calonne's tenure was emblematic, further eroded trust in the monarchy and set the stage for the revolutionary fervor that would soon engulf the nation. He goes into exile for a time, before returning to France and dying in Paris on October 29, 1802. [Return to where you were >>]

Carnot, Lazare: A French mathematician, physicist, and politician who played a vital role in the French Revolution as the "Organizer of Victory." Born on May 13, 1753, Carnot was a member of the Committee of Public Safety and was responsible for the reorganization and mobilization of the French Revolutionary Army. Carnot implemented significant reforms, including the introduction of meritocracy within the military and the mass conscription known as the levée en masse. His efforts turned the tide in favor of the French against various European coalitions. After the fall of Robespierre, Carnot continued his political career, serving in the Directory. However, his association with the Reign of Terror led to his eventual political downfall, and he spent his later years in exile. He died on August 2, 1823. His contributions to both military strategy and mathematics left a lasting impact, and he remains a prominent figure in French history. [Return to where you were >>]

Collot d'Herbois, Jean-Marie: A French actor, dramatist, essayist, and revolutionary. Born in 1749, he became a prominent figure during the French Revolution and was a member of the Committee of Public Safety, where he played a critical role in the Reign of Terror. Collot d'Herbois was known for his radical political views and his vigorous enforcement of revolutionary laws. He was instrumental in the suppression of the federalist revolts in Lyon, where his ruthlessness earned him infamy. In 1794, he voted for the execution of King Louis XVI and later supported the downfall of fellow revolutionary Maximilien Robespierre. After the Thermidorian Reaction, which ended the Reign of Terror, Collot d'Herbois was arrested and found guilty of being one of the instigators of the Terror. He was subsequently deported to French Guiana, where he died in 1796. His zealous advocacy for radical revolutionary principles and his role in some of the most brutal episodes of the Revolution have made him a controversial figure in French history. [Return to where you were >>]

Couthon, Georges: A key figure during the French Revolution, Georges Couthon was most notably a member of the radical Jacobin Club and a close ally of Maximilien Robespierre and Louis Antoine de Saint-Just in the Committee of Public Safety. Born on December 22, 1755 in Orcet, Auvergne, Couthon began his career as a lawyer and gained a reputation for his philanthropy and advocacy for the underprivileged. As the revolution progressed, he was elected to the National Convention and played a pivotal role in the execution of King Louis XVI by voting for his death without appeal or reprieve. His influence grew under the Reign of Terror, where he was instrumental in enacting policies leading to mass arrests and executions, purportedly to root out "enemies of the revolution." In 1794, as tensions within the revolutionary leadership peaked, Couthon, alongside Robespierre and Saint-Just, faced a coup that culminated in their arrest and subsequent execution by guillotine, on July 28, 1794, marking a pivotal turning point in the Revolution's history.

d'Alembert, Jean Le Rond: A renowned French mathematician, philosopher, and co-editor with Denis Diderot of the Encyclopédie, Jean le Rond d'Alembert was born in Paris on November 16, 1717, and became a leading figure in the intellectual circles of his time and made significant contributions to mathematics, particularly in the field of differential equations and the wave theory. His collaboration on the Encyclopédie began with writing the work's Preliminary Discourse, which outlined the project's ambitious scope and its rationalistic and empirical approach to knowledge. As a major contributor and editor, d'Alembert played a crucial role in organizing and shaping this monumental work that sought to catalog human knowledge and promote Enlightenment values like reason, skepticism, and secularism. In addition to his mathematical work, d'Alembert was an influential thinker who espoused progressive social and political views, and his contributions to the Encyclopédie helped disseminate these ideas, challenging traditional authorities and laying intellectual groundwork that would influence the French Revolution. His life and works exemplify the spirit of the Enlightenment, combining rigorous intellectual inquiry with a commitment to social progress and humanism. He died on October 29, 1783. [Return to where you were >>]

Diderot, Denis: Born on October 5, 1713, and dying on July 31, 1784, Diderot was a prominent French philosopher, art critic, and writer, best known for co-founding, editing, and contributing to the Encyclopédie, one of the most ambitious and influential works of the Enlightenment period. Born in Langres, France, he was originally educated for a career in the Church but abandoned this path to pursue his intellectual interests in philosophy and literature. Diderot's radical ideas often put him at odds with the authorities, leading to periods of imprisonment and the suppression of some of his works. His writings, ranging from plays and novels to scientific essays, consistently challenged traditional institutions, including the Church and monarchy, and espoused a secular, empirical, and often skeptical approach to knowledge. As the chief editor of the Encyclopédie, he oversaw the compilation of thousands of articles that aimed to present human knowledge impartially and without the bias of religious and political dogma. His commitment to free thought and the spread of knowledge played a pivotal role in shaping the intellectual climate of his time, contributing to a societal shift towards reason, criticism, and the questioning of established authorities. His influence extended beyond France and his lifetime, laying intellectual groundwork that would resonate throughout Western thought and culture. [Return to where you were >>]

Louis XVI: Born on August 23, 1754, and executed on January 21, 1793, King Louis XVI played a central role in the dramatic events leading up to and during the early years of the French Revolution. Ascending to the throne in 1774, Louis inherited a kingdom burdened by debt and increasingly discontented with the ancien régime's entrenched social inequalities and autocratic governance. His reign was marked by attempts to reform France's financial system and alleviate its fiscal crisis, but these efforts were often stymied by resistance from the nobility and the Parlements. Louis's indecision, political missteps, and perceived detachment from his subjects further eroded his authority. When the Estates-General was convened in 1789 to address the financial crisis, it quickly spiraled into a revolutionary movement that dismantled the monarchy's absolute power. Louis's attempt to flee France in 1791, known as the Flight to Varennes, further alienated him from the revolutionaries, leading to his eventual trial and conviction for conspiracy and high treason. The decision to execute the king was a profoundly radical act, signaling the Revolution's definitive break from the monarchical past. Louis XVI's complex and tragic reign continues to be analyzed and debated, embodying the turbulent transition from absolutism to republicanism in France. [Return to where you were >>]

Marat, Jean-Paul: A pivotal figure of the French Revolution, Marat was a Swiss-born physician, political theorist, and fervent advocate for the lower classes of society. Born on May 24, 1743, Marat originally pursued a career in medicine and science, but his life took a dramatic turn with the onset of the French Revolution in 1789. As the editor and primary writer of the newspaper L'Ami du peuple (The Friend of the People), he became notorious for his impassioned and radical rhetoric, which consistently challenged the government and political elites. His writings stoked revolutionary fervor and were unyielding in their denunciation of corruption and demand for justice, often in the form of heads to roll. His strong support for direct democracy and his unabashed endorsement of political violence put him at odds with both the moderate revolutionaries who favored mixed-government constitutional monarchy and the democratic republicans who favored liberal representative government. Rather than simply being a radical of the extreme left, Marat — like Robespierre and his acolytes — was in reality an authoritarian populist that doesn't neatly fit the traditional left-right political spectrum. Marat was also a member of the Jacobin Club and, despite his radicalism, was elected to the National Convention in 1792. His life and career were cut short when he was assassinated in 1793 by Charlotte Corday, a Girondin sympathizer. His death turned him into a martyr for the radical Montagnard faction of the Revolution, immortalized in Jacques-Louis David's painting "The Death of Marat". A controversial figure, Marat embodies the intensity and the polarizing effects of the French Revolution. [Return to where you were >>]

Marie-Antoinette of Austria: Born on November 2, 1755, in Vienna, Marie-Antoinette was Archduchess of Austria and became the Queen of France and Navarre following her marriage to King Louis XVI. Her reign was marked by extreme political upheaval and she became a highly controversial figure. Arriving in France at age 14, she struggled to navigate the complex and often hostile French court. Her extravagant lifestyle, characterized by lavish spending on fashion and entertainment, made her a target for criticism as France's financial crisis worsened. Critics portrayed her as out of touch with the common people's struggles, and the infamous (though likely apocryphal) quote "Let them eat cake" has been erroneously attributed to her. Marie-Antoinette's perceived political meddling and her Austrian heritage further inflamed public opinion against her. During the French Revolution, she became a symbol of the excesses of the monarchy, and her relationship with the radical revolutionaries was fraught with tension and hostility. Imprisoned with her family following the fall of the monarchy, Marie-Antoinette was put on trial and convicted of treason. She was executed by guillotine on October 16, 1793. Her life and tragic end continue to captivate historians and the public alike, symbolizing the decline of the Old Regime and the tumultuous changes that swept through France during her time as queen. [Return to where you were >>]

Necker, Jacques: Born on September 28, 1732, in Geneva (then a city-state called the Republic of Geneva), Necker was a prominent Swiss statesman and finance minister for King Louis XVI of France, playing a crucial role during the early stages of the French Revolution. Necker gained prominence as a banker in Paris, where his financial acumen caught the attention of the French court. Appointed as Director-General of the Royal Treasury in 1776, he would attempt to implement financial reforms to address France's crippling debt, largely accumulated due to its involvement in the American Revolutionary War. Necker's efforts to reduce court expenses and his attempts to increase transparency by publishing the Compte rendu au roi (A Report to the King) in 1781, a first-of-its-kind account of the French government's finances, made him popular among the common people. However, his policies, which often clashed with the traditional privileges of the French nobility, led to his dismissal and reappointment multiple times. His final dismissal in 1789 was one of the triggers for the fall of the Bastille, marking the beginning of the French Revolution. Despite his attempts to balance the royal and public interests, Necker's complex legacy is one of a reformist whose measures fell short of resolving France's deep-seated financial troubles. Eventually he left France and later died on April 9, 1804 in Switzerland. [Return to where you were >>]

Riqueti, Honoré Gabriel - Comte de Mirabeau: One of the most prominent leaders of the early stages of the French Revolution, having died early, on April 2, 1791, before the royal family's botched attempt to flee and the intensification of the political struggles between moderate constitutional monarchists (e.g. Bailly, Barnave), democratic republicans (e.g. Brissot, Condorcet), and authoritarian populists (e.g. Robespierre, Marat). [Return to where you were >>]

Sieyès, Abbé Emmanuel Joseph: A Roman Catholic abbé, clergyman (though personally he was thoroughly secular in his views), and political writer who played a prominent role during the French Revolution. Born on May 3, 1748, in Fréjus, France, Sieyès is perhaps best known for his pamphlet What is the Third Estate? published in 1789. In this influential work, he argued that the common people of France, or the Third Estate, were the true nation and should have power commensurate with their numbers, effectively dismissing the First Estate (the clergy) and the Second Estate (the nobility) as irrelevant. This idea had a significant impact on the early stages of the Revolution and contributed to the growing demand for political equality and representation. Sieyès was elected as a representative of the Third Estate to the Estates-General and played a key role in transforming it into the National Assembly, marking a radical departure from the old monarchical system. Later, he was involved in various political shifts and plots, including the coup that overthrew the Directory and brought Napoleon Bonaparte to power in 1799, known as the Coup of 18 Brumaire. Sieyès continued to be active in political life under Napoleon but gradually withdrew from politics after the Bourbon Restoration. He died on June 20, 1836. His writings and political maneuvers have made him an enduring figure in the study of French revolutionary history. [Return to where you were >>]

Voltaire: Born François-Marie Arouet on November 21, 1694, Voltaire was a leading intellectual figure of the Enlightenment, particularly in its moderate wing. He was a staunch advocate for freedom of speech, separation of church and state, and was relentless in his battle against superstition and what he considered the unreasoned dogma of revealed religion. Through his witty and provocative writings, like "Candide" and his "Philosophical Dictionary," Voltaire lampooned the church and monarchic institutions, promoting skepticism toward traditional authority. However, he restrained his attacks on the nobility, the court, and king, all of whom we depended upon for his livelihood. His insistence on reason, science, and tolerance significantly influenced the philosophical groundwork of the French Revolution. Voltaire's criticism of organized religion and his defense of civil liberties laid the foundation for a secular society, emphasizing the importance of evidence and empirical thinking. His bold and revolutionary ideas helped shape the intellectual currents of his time, making him one of the most influential philosophers of the 18th century. Even though he supported reform rather than revolution, his principles would resonate with those who later sought to overthrow the French monarchy and establish a more democratic society. He'd die on May 30, 1778 at the age of 83, the same year France officially intervened on behalf of the American colonists in their war of independence. [Return to where you were >>]

The Bottom Line on the Timeline of the French Revolution

The French Revolution, which is generally dated by historians as running from 1789 to 1799, marked a seismic shift not only in France but also in global history. It eradicated the absolute monarchy that had governed France for centuries, laid the foundation for republican governance, and inspired a wave of revolutionary movements across Europe and beyond. The ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity, which were articulated and pursued with relentless fervor, continue to resonate as universal principles of human rights. The Revolution's commitment to democratic values and its radical challenge to traditional social hierarchies permanently altered political discourse and practice.

But the significance of the French Revolution extends beyond its immediate political outcomes. Its legacy is complex and continues to provoke both admiration and criticism. The Revolution's ambitious attempts to reshape society, culture, and human nature have left a lasting imprint on political thought, inspiring future revolutions and democratic movements around the world. Its darker episodes, such as the Reign of Terror, have also left a cautionary tale about the potential excesses and perils of revolutionary zeal. In sum, the French Revolution stands as a monumental event in world history, its lessons and symbols echoing into the present, serving as both a beacon of democratic aspiration and a sobering reminder of the intricate and often turbulent path toward social change.

Andrew DePietro

Author: Andrew DePietro

Senior Researcher, and Content Strategist

Andrew DePietro is a finance writer covering topics such as entrepreneurship, investing, real estate and college for BrokeScholar, Forbes, CreditKarma, and more.