French Revolution

In the 18th century, French society was still feudal in character with the monarch exercising complete authority. It was divided into three classes or estates. The First Estate of Clergy or Church and the Second Estate of Nobility enjoyed all the luxuries and many privileges over religion and the governance of the country. The Third Estate of the Commoners such as peasantry, city workers and the middle class were heavily burdened with taxes.

The internal condition of France made it an ideal stage for a revolution to take place. Louis XVI and his wife Marie Antoinette’s luxurious lifestyles had emptied the treasury and made the country bankrupt. Louis XVI was forced to call a meeting of representatives of the three estates - the clergy, the nobility and the commoners in 1789. He wanted to gain approval for new tax law.

The third estate demanded equality in taxation and abolition of special privileges enjoyed by the first two estates. It declared itself a National Assembly and took over the sovereign power from the Emperor.

The historic French document, ‘Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen’ was adopted. It was later embodied as the preamble in the French Constitution of 1791. This was influenced by the U.S. Declaration of Independence, asserting the equality of all men, the sovereignty of the people and the rights to liberty, property, security, right to education, to free speech, to be informed, right of the poor to public assistance, a ban on torture and slavery, recognition of the right of the people to choose their government and the eligibility of all citizens for employment in public offices.

The French Revolutionary Wars and the Napoleonic Wars starting from 1789 and lasting for about 15 years resulted in the formation of the French Republic. The French Revolution tore down the medieval structures of Europe and brought in new ideas of liberalism and nationalism.

France witnessed a complete change in the government, administration, military, society and culture. France became a republic under Napoleon Bonaparte. The guiding principles of the French Revolution were Liberty, Fraternity and Equality. The revolutionaries were inspired by the ideas of many Enlightenment thinkers and philosophers such as Voltaire, Montesquieu and Rousseau.