The French Revolution of 1789 changed the world forever; while opening up a new understanding of the relationship between ruler and ruled, it also ushered in a period of violence and war for continental Europe. With humble beginnings, the Revolution took root among what was to be a mere advisory meeting for Louis XVI, king of France. With France in crisis, representatives of the “Third Estate” – all of the people outside the nobility and clergy – became increasingly radicalized and set the country on a path none could have foreseen. The literature of the Revolution contains a variety of founding documents, speeches, press accounts, histories, and fiction, fit for a major world event. Much of the literary output of the Revolution was aimed at reshaping society in a totally new way. Likewise, much of it was every bit as “revolutionary” as the Declaration of Independence, which helped to inspire the early revolutionaries.

Origins of the French Revolution

Cambridge History: Period of the French Revolution

Blanc, History of the French Revolution of 1789

Kropotkin, The Great French Revolution

The Early Revolution

The French Revolution was the culmination of three factors: the Enlightenment, a serious financial crisis in France, and a meeting of representatives from the three “Estates”, or social classes, of France. The Enlightenment was a broad philosophical movement that called upon people to analyze problems using reason as well as, or in place of, faith. The Enlightenment helped spur the American Revolution, which impressed many French. Thanks in part to these factors, ideas about expanded rights for common people stirred French thought long before the Revolution. When a major fiscal crisis threatened the legitimacy of the French throne and caused difficulty for farmers and other common people, an Estates-General meeting was called. Gradually, representatives of the Third Estate became convinced that a written accord between people and king was required. With time, this desire grew into a full constitution for the French people.

Sieyes, What is the Third Estate?

Paine, The Rights of Man

Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen

French Revolutionary Constitution of 1791

History and Heritage of the Enlightenment

The Radical Revolution

King Louis XVI vacillated on how much change he would accept or support, even as conditions among the common people deteriorated. Events like the fall of the Bastille agitated the public against what was seen as the tyranny of the aristocratic upper class. Over time, radicalism and mob rule frequently prevailed in Paris. The king was executed by forces favoring a republic in January of 1793. By this point, other European monarchies had begun to move in defense of the traditional order; with the king dead, sentiment among rulers throughout Europe was inflamed to crush the Revolution. The period 1793-1794 is known as the Reign of Terror, a time when extremist forces enacted oppressive measures and authorized thousands of executions to “preserve the republic.” By 1795, those responsible had fallen from power, and France was led by a new regime until 1799, when Napoleon Bonaparte instigated a coup.

Robespierre, On Political Morality

The Decree Abolishing the Feudal System

Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France

French Constitution of 1793

French Revolution Pamphlet Collection

It is said that no one who arrived for the meeting of the Estates-General had revolution in mind. The ideas that led to the overthrow of the French monarchy took years to crystallize, but even so, they swept up the whole of France on a course that ended in a totally transformed society. For its huge implications, the French Revolution has become one of the most studied phenomena in all western history. The literature of the Revolution is still growing – and shows no signs of stopping after over 200 years.

Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

Orczy, The Scarlet Pimpernel

British Newspaper Coverage of the French Revolution

Gouges, Declaration of the Rights of Woman

French Revolution Links and Resources

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