What really happened in the French Revolution

Background current

In 1789, crop failures in France worsened the economic situation. And the state finances are also bad in view of the participation in the War of Independence in North America. Unrest broke out across the country until the French Revolution finally broke out. In 1791, France received a constitution for the first time that grants the people sovereignty.

June 20, 1789: Ballhaus oath

France has been on the brink of national bankruptcy since the early 1780s. A plan presented by the Minister of Finance Calonne for the restructuring of the state finances in 1787 is rejected. Thereupon members of all estates demand the meeting of the Estates General. In order to avoid the threat of national bankruptcy, King Louis XVI. all representatives of the nobility, the clergy and the rest of the population (3rd class, consisting of the wealthy and educated bourgeoisie as well as farmers and craftsmen) together. They meet in Versailles in May 1789 - for the first time since 1614.

Because one cannot agree on a new voting mode, this meeting fails. The third stand then convenes its own national assembly. When their MPs were no longer allowed into their meeting room in June, they unceremoniously move to the king's ball game hall. There they swear on June 20th that they will not part again until they have given France a constitution. The event goes down in history as the "Ballhaus Oath" (French: Serment du Jeu de Paume).
A colored lithograph shows the Ballhaus oath in Versailles on June 20, 1789. (& copy picture-alliance / dpa)

July 9, 1789: National Constituent Assembly meets

The king bows to the demands of the Third Estate and recognizes the National Assembly. He also urged representatives of the nobility and clergy to rejoin her. The National Assembly meets on July 9th and is now called the National Constituent Assembly (Assemblée nationale constituante). With the proclamation of the National Assembly, voting should no longer be based on status, but on the actual number of representatives. The MPs no longer see themselves as part of the Ancien Régime.

The king has the military gather around Paris and dismisses the popular finance minister Necker. Protests and demonstrations follow.
A collector's picture from the 'Chocolat Guérin-Boutron' company shows a color lithograph, on it the debate in the Assemblée Nationale on July 9, 1789. (& copy picture-alliance / dpa)

July 14, 1789: Storming of the Bastille

Thousands of angry armed Parisians, including sympathetic soldiers, storm the Bastille, a notorious prison and symbol of the tyranny of the French monarchy. While the crowd initially asked for weapons and ammunition supplies, the situation escalated after the crowd was shot and several people died. In the ensuing siege and storming of the Bastille, almost 100 insurgents died. Some of the guards and the governor de Launay are also murdered and their heads displayed on lances. The last seven prisoners are freed from the Bastille. The day is considered to be the beginning of the French Revolution.
The oil painting by Jean-Baptiste Lallemand shows the storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789. (& copy picture-alliance / dpa)

Louis XVI lets the military withdraw again and shows himself to the Paris public three days later. He recognizes the National Guard founded a few days earlier. In this, every soldier wears a red and blue cockade - as a symbol of the colors of Paris.
July 14, 1789 Lafayette with cockade in front of Louis XVI. (& copy picture-alliance / dpa)
Together with the white cockade of the monarchy, this resulted in the colors of the tricolor: blue, white, red, as the national symbol for the emergence of a new France.

The people are also rising in the other cities and the French provinces. Representatives of the people take power in numerous municipalities. In the countryside, farmers refuse to continue paying taxes. You want to abolish the feudal system. Paris itself gets a provisional city government, the "Commune", which is supposed to work out a constitution for the capital.

4th August 1789: Night of sacrifice for the privileged

The constituent national assembly meets until late at night and revokes all privileges of the nobility and clergy. The feudal system will also be abolished. The peasants no longer have to pay labor or church tithes to the nobility and the church. Since aristocratic and clerical representatives of the National Assembly agree to this themselves, the meeting goes down in history as the "night of sacrifice for the privileged".
The night of sacrifice of the privileged on August 4, 1789 is shown on a colored lithograph. (& copy picture-alliance / dpa)

August 26, 1789: Declaration of human and civil rights

In 17 articles, the Constituent National Assembly adopts a declaration of human and civil rights. Two years later, it precedes the first French constitution and begins with the words "Les hommes naissent et demeurent libres et égaux en droits": People [men] are and will remain free and equal in rights from birth. The model is the American Declaration of Independence from 1776.

The declaration of human rights is based on natural law and initially only guarantees male citizens the right to freedom, equality, security and resistance to oppression; free freedom of thought and expression are also guaranteed. The sovereignty now rests with the people and no longer with the king. However, the latter receives a royal right of veto on legislative proposals from the National Assembly.

Louis XVI initially refuses to recognize the declaration of human and civil rights. But in October the people - mostly women - also moved to the Palace of Versailles, the king's seat of government. The protesters want the king to improve the food supply. Overrun by this event, he finally accepts the declaration.

Source text

Declaration of human and civil rights dated August 26, 1789 (excerpt)


The representatives of the French people appointed as the National Assembly, considering that ignorance, forgetting or despising of human rights are the sole causes of public unhappiness and corruption of governments, decided to solemnly declare the natural, inalienable and sacred rights of the To set people out so that this declaration is always in view of all members of society and constantly reminds them of their rights and obligations; so that the actions of the legislative and executive powers can at any time be compared with the purpose of any political institution and are thereby respected accordingly; so that the demands of the citizens from today onwards are based on simple and indisputable principles and always aim at the preservation of the constitution and the happiness of all. Accordingly, the National Assembly recognizes and declares, in the presence and under the protection of the Supreme Being, the following human and civil rights.
Article I: Human beings are and will remain free and equal in rights from birth. Social differences should only be based on general utility.
Article II: The goal of any political association is to preserve natural and inviolable human rights. These rights are freedom, security and resistance to oppression. [...]
Article IV: Freedom consists in being able to do anything that does not harm the other. [...]
Article VI: The law is the expression of the general will [...]. Whether it protects or punishes: it must be the same for everyone [...]
Article VII: No person can be charged, arrested or captured other than in the cases and forms prescribed by law. [...]
Article XI: Freedom of thought and expression is one of the most precious human rights. [...]
Article XVII: Since property is an inviolable and sacred right, it cannot be deprived of anyone except in the case of public need on condition of just and prior compensation.



A painting shows the declaration of human and civil rights by the National Assembly on August 26, 1789. (& copy picture-alliance / dpa)

September 3, 1791: France receives a constitution

In 1791 the National Constituent Assembly passed France's first constitution. MEPs have long debated whether the constitution should establish a republic or a constitutional monarchy. Finally, the supporters of a royalty prevailed. The monarch remains the ruler of the country, but he is only at the head of the executive. The legislature is taken over by a representative body.

The constitution also regulates the separation of church and state as well as a census right to vote. This means: only men over 25 years of age with a tax payment of at least three working days (roughly two livres) are allowed to vote. And the MPs are not elected directly, but through electors who have to show an even higher tax payment. Overall, the census right to vote excludes large parts of the population.
An etching for the delivery of the constitution passed by the National Assembly in 1791 to Louis XVI. (& copy picture-alliance / dpa)

October 1, 1791: National Legislative Assembly meets

The National Legislative Assembly (Assemblée Nationale Législative) is elected and meets for the first time, in the riding stables of the Tuileries Castle. It thus replaces the National Constituent Assembly.

Above all, the MPs must find a solution to the division of the Church by supporters and opponents of the revolution, lead the country out of the financial crisis and stabilize the new constitutional monarchy.

The king has meanwhile continued to lose support among the population. At the end of June 1791 he tried to flee Paris. But the escape failed and he had to return to Paris accompanied by the National Guard.
A contemporary colored etching shows the escape of the royal family on the night of June 20-21, 1791. (& copy picture-alliance / dpa)

August 10, 1792: Storming of the Tuileries

In Paris the demands are getting louder and louder for the king to be deposed; Criticism is particularly sparked of the royal veto rights and its connections abroad.
Jacques Bertaux's painting shows how Louis XVI. is compelled to put on the red cap of the revolution. (& copy picture-alliance / dpa)
On June 20, 1792, an armed crowd entered the palace to force him to withdraw a veto, but the king was able to appease them by putting on the Jacobin cap [1]. The situation worsened when, on August 1, 1792, a manifesto was published in which Karl II. Wilhelm Ferdinand von Braunschweig called for the submission of French troops and the liberation of the king.

On the morning of August 10, thousands, led by French workers, the so-called sans-culottes, storm the Tuileries Palace, the king's residence, and take it. Hundreds of people die on both sides in the battle between the Swiss Guard, who guarded the King, the National Guard, who fought on both sides, and the French people. The king, already under house arrest and seeking refuge with the National Legislative Assembly that day, is deposed and taken with his family to prison in the Temple. One day later, the Legislative National Assembly resolves new elections and determines that the elected National Convention, as its successor, should draft a new constitution, this time for a republican France.
A color lithograph describes the storm on the Tuileries on August 10, 1792. (& copy picture-alliance / dpa)

September 21, 1792: France becomes a republic

The national convention elected at the beginning of September - for the first time under universal suffrage instead of census suffrage - abolished the monarchy and proclaimed the first French republic. At the same time, however, violence and terror are increasing. At that time France was at war with numerous European states. And in the country itself there is always a boil. It was not until the beginning of September that the sans-culottes stormed prisons, especially in Paris, during the September massacre, killing more than 1,000 prisoners.

Due to the war situation, the National Convention now not only takes over the legislative but also the executive. The separation of powers is thus suspended.
A watercolor drawing shows the coat of arms of the French Republic. (& copy picture-alliance / dpa)

January 21, 1793: Execution of Louis XVI. and drafting a new constitution

After Louis XVI. Sentenced to death in mid-January for conspiracy against the freedom of the nation and the attack on general security, the king will be publicly guillotined on January 21.

The trial against him had opened in December 1792. In a hiding place in his Tuileries castle, documents with counter-revolutionary intentions have been found, which should be his undoing.

In the months that followed, the National Convention drafted a new constitution for the Republic of France. However, it will never come into force. Instead, terror and despotism took control of the country from autumn 1793: the Jacobin reign of terror began and lasted until the end of the first French republic in November 1799.
A color print after watercolor shows Louis XVI how he is led to his execution. (& copy picture-alliance / dpa)

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