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  • Although Louis XVI had signed the Constitution , the situation in France continued to be tense during the following years.
  • The King of France entered into secret negotiations with the King of Prussia because rulers of other neighbouring countries were worried too by the developments in France and made plans to send troops to put down the events that had been taking place there since the summer of 1789 .
  • Before this could occur, in April 1792 , the National Assembly voted to declare war against Prussia and Austria .
  • Thousands of volunteers thronged from the provinces to join the army . They saw this as a war of the people against kings and aristocracies all over Europe .
  • They sang the Marseillaise , composed by the poet Roget de L’Isle , among the patriotic songs. It was sung for the first time by volunteers from Marseilles as they marched into Paris and so got its name. The Marseillaise is now the national anthem of France.
  • People suffered losses and economic hardships during the revolutionary wars .
  • While the men were away fighting at the front, women were left to cope with the tasks of earning a living and looking after their families .
  • Large sections of the population were convinced that the revolution had to be carried further , as the Constitution of 1791 gave political rights only to the richer sections of society.
  • As a result, Political clubs became an important rallying point for people who wished to discuss government policies and plan their forms of action .
  • The most successful of these clubs was that of the Jacobins , which got its name from the former convent of St Jacob in Paris .
  • Women too had been active throughout this period and formed their clubs .

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  • This is one of the rare paintings by a woman artist
  • The revolutionary events made it possible for women to train with established painters and to exhibit their works in the Salon , which was an exhibition held every two years. 
  • The painting is a female allegory of liberty – that is, the female form symbolises the idea of freedom .

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  • The members of the Jacobin club belonged mainly to the less prosperous sections of society like small shopkeepers , artisans such as shoemakers , pastry cooks , watch-makers , printers , as well as servants and daily-wage workers .
  • Their leader was Maximilian Robespierre .
  • A large group among the Jacobins decided to start wearing long striped trousers similar to those worn by dock workers, to set themselves apart from the fashionable sections of society , especially nobles , who wore knee breeches .
  • It was a way of proclaiming the end of the power wielded by the wearers of knee breeches.
  • These Jacobins came to be known as the sans-culottes , literally meaning those without knee breeches . Sans-culottes men wore in addition the red cap that symbolised liberty .
  • Women however were not allowed to do so.
  • In the summer of 1792 the Jacobins , who were angered by the short supplies and high prices of food , planned an insurrection of a large number of Parisians .
  • On the morning of August 10 , they stormed the Palace of the Tuileries , massacred the king’s guards and held the king hostage for several hours.
  • Later the Assembly voted to imprison the royal family .
  • Elections were held .
  • From then on all men of 21 years and above , regardless of wealth , got the right to vote.
  • The newly elected assembly was called the Convention .
  • On 21 September 1792 , it abolished the monarchy and declared France a republic
  • A republic is a form of government where the people elect the government including the head of the state . There is no hereditary monarchy
  • Louis XVI was sentenced to death by a court on the charge of treason
  • On 21 January 1793 , he was executed publicly at the Place de la Concorde .
  • Queen Marie Antoinette met with the same fate shortly after.

The Reign of Terror

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  • The period from 1793 to 1794 is referred to as the Reign of Terror
  • Robespierre followed a policy of strict control and punishment .
  • All those whom he saw as being ‘enemies’ of the republic ex-nobles and clergy , members of other political parties , and even members of his party who did not agree with his methods – were arrested , imprisoned and then tried by a revolutionary tribunal.
  • If the court found them ‘guilty’ they were guillotined .
  • The guillotine is a device consisting of two poles and a blade with which a person is beheaded . It was named after Dr Guillotin who invented it.

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  • Robespierre’s government issued laws placing a maximum ceiling on wages and prices.
  • Meat and bread were rationed.
  • Peasants were forced to transport and sell their grain to the cities at prices fixed by the government.
  • The use of more expensive white flour was forbidden ; all citizens were required to eat the pain d’égalité (equality bread) , a loaf made of wholewheat .
  • Equality was also sought to be practised through forms of speech and address .
  • Instead of the traditional Monsieur (Sir) and Madame (Madam), all French men and women were henceforth Citoyen and Citoyenne (Citizen).
  • Churches were shut down and their buildings were converted into barracks or offices.

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  • Robespierre’s policies were so relentless that even his supporters began to demand moderation .
  • Finally, he was convicted by a court in July 1794 , arrested and on the next day sent to the guillotine .

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A Directory Rules France

  • After the fall of the Jacobin government , the wealthier middle classes seized power .
  • A new constitution was introduced in which the non-propertied sections of society were not allowed to vote .
  • It provided for two elected legislative councils . These then appointed a Directory , an executive made up of five members
  • This was meant as a safeguard against the concentration of power in a one-man executive under the Jacobins.
  • However, the Directors often clashed with the legislative councils , who then sought to dismiss them .
  • This political instability of the Directory paved the way for the rise of a military dictator , Napoleon Bonaparte .
  • Through all these changes in the form of government , the ideals of freedom , equality before the law and fraternity remained inspiring ideals that motivated political movements in France and the rest of Europe during the following century.


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Davneet Singh

Davneet Singh has done his B.Tech from Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur. He has been teaching from the past 14 years. He provides courses for Maths, Science, Social Science, Physics, Chemistry, Computer Science at Teachoo.