Today, the French Revolution is remembered for having created the basic fundamental principles of a modern Western liberal democracy. This got me thinking what are some interesting facts about the French Revolution?
Lasting between May 1789 and November 1799, the French Revolution would expand the rights of the peasant class (also known as the Third Estate before the revolution) greatly, and mark the beginning of the end for France’s Bourbon monarchy…
In its place, France would see the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte, before the Bourbon Restoration in 1814, and the subsequent rise of Napoleon III (the nephew of Napoleon I) before becoming a republic in 1870.
15. Louis XVI Was a Reformer
Today, we tend to remember Louis XVI for his refusal to accept the demands of the peasants. Yet, it may actually surprise you to learn that when he came to the throne in 1774, a 19-year old Louis XVI wanted to reform the monarchy!
You see, anti-monarchist sentiment was not new in France, having been around for as long as the monarchy itself. However, in the years running up to Louis XVI’s accession, anti-monarchist sentiments were at an all-time high.
Hoping to fix this, the newly crowned Louis reinstated the practice of the parlement, with the hopes that the most important issues the people of France had could be dealt with…
The French people would raise issues like freedom of religion. Despite being a fervent Catholic, Louis would grant Jews and protestants the same rights as Catholics.
Wanting to fix the financial situation of France, early French economists like Turgot and Malesherbes convinced Louis to abolish serfdom, remove the taille (land tax) and levy new taxes on the clergy and nobility (who didn’t pay taxes at the time).
Heeding their advice, Louis would do this.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the nobles and clergy weren’t too happy about this. Using their tax-free incomes, they’d argue that Louis had no right to levy taxes on them, which Louis would reluctantly agree to.
It was this knowledge – that levying taxes on the clergy and nobility would be pointless – that Louis would refuse to levy taxes on them when the Estates General was convened in 1789.
14. Not The First “French Revolution”
Today, the French Revolution is portrayed as a sudden outpour of anger that had been (secretly) building up for years. Whilst partly true, this is also slightly false too…
Coming to the throne, Louis XVI had become reforming the French economy. Beyond abolishing serfdom and the land tax, Louis also hoped to reduce the cost of bread, which was causing significant tension between Louis and his people.
Not having any idea how to do this himself, Louis would consult with his economic minister, Turgot, who’d convince the king that the best way to reduce bread prices, was to reduce grain prices (as grain is milled into bread).
In a move that would make Margaret Thatcher proud, Turgot would suggest that Louis deregulate the grain market to make it easier (and thus cheaper) for grain merchants to operate, savings that would be passed onto the French people.
This would backfire however, seeing a huge spike in grain prices in 1775 when poor weather led to a poor harvest.
Government mismanagement would see royal grain stores be emptied, with many regions experiencing a famine. Angered by this, many in the north, east and west would revolt in the spring of 1775, in what historians call the Flour War.
Whilst the Flour War would quickly subside with even more reforms from Turgot (this time being successful), it should’ve shown Louis that the “power of the people” was a clear and present danger!
13. Created The Terms “Left-Wing” And “Right-Wing”
Today, you’ve probably heard of the terms “left-wing” and “right-wing” to describe the views of liberals and conservatives alike. Yet, prior to the late 1700’s, these terms had never been used.
Indeed, they got their name from the Estates General! You see, Louis XVI called the Estates General for the first time since 1614, with the meeting itself being convened at the Grands Salles des Menus-Plaisirs in Versailles.
The king and nobility (second estate) would be seated along the back wall of room, whilst the peasants (third estate) were seated on the left hand side, whilst the clergy (first estate) were seated on the right hand side.
And this is where the names came from.
The people sat on the left hand side (or left wing of the building) advocated for the levying of taxes on the first and second estates, with some even calling for the end of the monarchy all together. These were the “liberals” if you will.
By contrast, those seated on the right hand side (or right wing of the building) rejected these ideas, arguing for the maintenance of the status quo in France at the time. These were the “conservatives” if you will.
The term “left-wing” would first be used in 1815, and become popular across the world in the ensuing decades and centuries, with the people who opposed those on the left being called “right-wing” in reference to the Estates General.
12. The Role Of The Media
Today, newspapers, blogs and radio are famous for wielding a sizeable influence on the electorate. After all, as the old saying goes, knowledge is power and those who control the flown of knowledge control the flow of power.
Yet, in the 1780’s, newspapers as we know them today simply didn’t exist. The internet (and thus blogs) wouldn’t be invented for another 200 years or so. And radio? That wouldn’t be used in a modern sense until the 1920’s!
Despite this, the media would play a huge role in not only starting but also keeping and boosting public support for the revolution.
You see, newspapers did exist. Except, they weren’t like modern-newspapers that are mass-printed and have many pages covering many different subjects, written by several different writers.
Instead, the newspapers of the 1780’s were more like information pamphlets. They were often printed in small numbers (say, a couple of thousand), and were single-page documents focusing solely on the plight of the poor.
Although there were thousands of newspapers printed in France at the time (and 500 in Paris alone!) by far the most famous is Jean-Paul Marat’s L’Ami du peuple (English: Friend of the People) which circulated from September 1789 until September 1792.
Due to the fact that very few could read at the time, the newspapers would be read aloud in taverns and clubs, as well as circulated from hand to hand. Here, newspapers weren’t run as a business, but rather as a civic duty!
11. Louis XVI Helped Invent The Guillotine!
Today, pretty much everybody has heard of the guillotine. Even if you don’t know much, you probably know that it was the method of execution that was favored during the French Revolution.
Whilst beheading machines had existed before then, the most common execution machine in France was the braking wheel, which had been used in France since the mid-to-late first millennium AD.
Convinced he would make a more efficient beheading machine, French surgeon and physiologist Antione Louis and German engineer Tobias Schmidt would build a prototype guillotine, with a suspended curved blade.
Showing it to King Louis XVI, the king would suggest the implementation of the straight, angled blade rather than a curved one. This suggestion would be ignored by the pair, but would eventually inspire Joseph-Ignace Guillotin to make his own design.
After Louis XVI outlawed the breaking wheel in the late 1780’s, Guillotin’s design (nicknamed by many as the “guillotine”) would become the standard method execution in France during the French Revolution.
Ironically, it would be the guillotine that would ultimately be used to execute King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antionette on January 21 1793 and October 16 1793 respectively!
10. The Forgotten King Louis
With the republicans having executed the king in January 1793, they hoped that the royalist claim would disappear without a central figure to rally behind, eg. Louis XVI.
However, by killing Louis XVI, the royalists began to assert that the king’s eldest son, seven-year old Louis-Charles (then Prince Royal, formerly the Dauphin de France and Duke of Normandy) had automatically succeeded as King of France.
Although Louis-Charles was never officially crowned king as his forbearers were due to his imprisonment, the royalists in France and abroad began referring to the seven-year old prince as King Louis XVII of France (French: Louis XVII, roi de France).
Beyond not being officially crowned, Louis XVII’s reign would also be quite short. At the age of ten, in 1795, the young king would die from a scrofulous infection he’d had for several years, thus preventing him from doing any actual governing.
Yet, when the Bourbon monarchy would be restored in 1814, Louis XVI’s younger brother would become king under the regal name Louis XVIII, thus continuing the claim that Louis XVII was a former King of France.
Even today, there is great debate between historians as to whether Louis XVII should be considered a King of France or a pretender to the French throne. As such he’s usually listed as a “disputed king of France” by most sources.
9. Destabilized Europe
When the French peasants rose up and executed their king, it frightened the other monarchs of Europe.
Even in a time before the internet, word of Louis XVI’s execution traveled fast. Many republicans and anti-monarchists in other European countries began calling for their own revolutions in the same vein as the French Revolution.
In Belgium, the Brabant and Liège Revolutions occurred in both halves of the country respectively, seeing the expulsion of Austrian troops and nobles from Brabant, and the end of the Prince-Bishopric in Liège.
Seeing the revolutions in France and Belgium and the growing public support for reform or a revolution, the monarchs of Europe would begin implementing reform so they could keep their heads.
Despite caving into the pressure and adopting reforms, many republicans and anti-monarchists across Europe still advocated for the end of the monarchy in their country and the establishment of a republic.
Sadly, public appetite for a revolution had dissipated.
Even in spite of this, when Napoleon rose to power and conquered nearby countries, he would gain the trust of the republicans and anti-monarchists by abolishing the monarchies… only to replace them with Bonaparte ones.
8. The French Empire
Beyond shaking the political landscape of Europe, the impact of the French Revolution would ripple throughout the French Empire.
You see, in the centuries leading up to the French Revolution, past kings had funded expeditions to the New World, eventually leading to the establishment of colonies there, primarily in modern-day Canada, the US and Haiti.
Each of the colonies would receive the French Revolution in different ways.
Many in the former French colony of Quebec (ceded to Britain after the Seven Years’ War in 1763), especially French-speaking immigrants from France who’d left France for the same reasons that caused the revolution, would view the revolution positively.
In the French colony of Louisiana, many would also view the French Revolution quite positively for many of the same reasons as their Canadian brethren, however, due to the distance, would be unable to help.
Haiti, on the other hand, were inspired by the French Revolution and chose to have their own revolution.
On August 21 1791, the Haitian slaves would rise up against their French masters, declare themselves independent from French rule, and become the first country in modern times to abolish slavery.
Although France (and other countries like Britain and Spain) would try to conquer the new state, and reinstate slavery, their efforts would be in vain, with the Haitians repelling them every single time.
7. More French Nobles Today Than Ever Before
A common misconception about the French Revolution is that French noblemen were put to death simply for the “crime” of being noble. Whilst many nobles were executed during the revolution, it was for rebelling, not for being noble.
In the immediate aftermath of the revolution, the French nobles merely had their privileges revoked (such as the hunt, seigneurial justice and their funeral honors), with some having their lands taken away.
But, they were able to keep their titles.
However, on June 19 1790, noble titles would be abolished in their entirety. Whilst a few French nobles (such as the Marquis de Lafayette) were happy to lose their titles, most saw it as an abhorrent attack on the culture of honor.
Rising to power, Napoleon would soon declare himself emperor and award noble titles to his most trusted allies. Many of these noble titles have survived into the present day.
With the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy in 1814 would also come the restoration of the old, pre-Napoleonic noble titles, as well as the preservation of the Napoleonic ones, with subsequent Bourbon and Orleans monarchs adding more titles.
The Revolution of 1848 would see the abolition of all noble titles, before they were restored in 1852. Despite a republic having been declared in 1870, French noble titles continued to be used, albeit without the land they had pre-French Revolution.
At the time of the revolution, there were an estimated 80,000 nobles. Today, the BBC estimates that there are between 50 100 thousand nobles, meaning that there potentially more nobles today, than before the revolution!
6. A Bloody Revolution
Lasting from May 5 1789 until November 9 1799, the French Revolution can be considered to have been the most tumultuous time in French history to date.
Perhaps not surprisingly, many people beyond the royal family and Robespierre were executed during the Revolution.
All in all, an estimated 40,000 people were executed during the Revolution, including revolutionaries, counter-revolutionaries, nobles, priests and merchants, all for various reasons.
Whilst 40,000 may not seem like a lot, France had a total population of between 22 and 26 million at the time of the Revolution (experts disagree). This means that between 0.18 and 0.15% of the French population were executed.
This was a serious blow to the population of France at the time. However, the deaths didn’t end there.
Many of those who weren’t executed were put in prison. Here, prisons were overpopulated and cramped to say the least. Not surprisingly, disease spread like wildfire and killed a further 50,000 people.
Beyond that, March 1793 would see a civil war break out in the French département of Vendée in the northwest of the country. Here, both sides would conscript local peasants to fight the other, resulting in an estimated 250,000 deaths.
Most of these deaths were French peasants and/or Republican soldiers.
All in all, it’s estimated that between 350,000 and 500,000 people in France died due to the revolution, not to mention the 1.3 million and 6.5 million people that died as a result of the French Revolutionary Wars and Napoleonic Wars the French Revolution led to!
5. Caused a Recession
One of the stated goals of the French Revolution was to make life for the French peasant far easier. And whilst it accomplished this in the long-term, it was devastating in the short-term.
Between 1790 and 1796, French industrial and agricultural output dropped significantly, alongside foreign trade (both imports and exports) at the same time prices began to soar.
In turn, this led to serious inflation, verging on hyperinflation (as was seen centuries later in Weimar Germany), as the French began printing ever increasing numbers of assignats (basically land-credit papers used as currency).
Between 1789 and 1793, the annual deficit increased from 10% to 64%, marking one of the worst deficits of any country, even today! Beyond that, in 1794 alone, there was record inflation of 3,500%, which was a record for the time.
As a result of this, most people in France would survive off the black market, with everyday people speculating on the price of grain, bread and other necessities just to get by.
Whilst not called a recession at the time (as the term didn’t exist) this recession was among the worst of the 18th Century, rivalled only by the South Sea Bubble that occurred in Britain in the 1720’s.
4. Led to The Quasi-War
Seeing the state of chaos France was in immediately after the French Revolution, neighboring countries like Britain, the Netherland, Prussia, Spain and Portugal would attempt to invade France in the hopes of conquering a piece of France for themselves.
Although it had relatively little organization (compared to subsequent wars), this would be known as the War of the First Coalition, the first war of the French Revolutionary Wars, which lasted from 1792 until 1802.
When the War of the First Coalition had first broken out in 1792, the United States was still a fairly new country, with cultural and political ties to both the UK and France. Not wanting to risk losing either as an ally, the US declared neutrality.
With that being said, the United States would continue to trade with Britain during the war, as well as buy captured British vessels from the French. Seeing this, Britain would begin to attack American vessels trading with Britain.
In retaliation, the US would stop repaying loans to France from the American Revolutionary Wars. Angered by this, French privateers would begin attacking American ships in American waters.
This would then lead to then-President Adams having an unofficial naval war with France, known as the Quasi-War, to defend US sovereignty. It was called the Quasi-War because no declaration of war was ever declared by either side.
Lasting for a little over two years (1798-1800), the war would result in the sinking of numerous ships on both sides as well as the death of 102 men, mostly Americans.
3. A Whole New Currency
In 1266, King Louis IX would introduce the French écu (meaning “crown” in English) as a larger denomination to the silver dernier (penny) that was common at the time.
To begin with, these écu coins would depict the French King sat on his throne, holding holy relics of some kind to reinforce the belief that God was on the king’s side (eventually morphing into the belief of Divine Right of Kings).
During the reign of Louis XIII (king from 1610 until 1643), all écu coins (including 1/2 and 1/4 écus) would depict the king’s head. This trend would be continued by Louis XIV, Louis XV and Louis XVI.
Hilariously, after being placed under house arrest, Louis XVI would attempt to flee to his wife’s home country of Austria. However, people would recognize the fleeing couple due to the king’s head being on every coin they had!
After the revolution, there was no longer a King of France and certainly no Louis XVI. Despite this, the écu (featuring the now-dead king) would remain as the currency until 1800, when the Banque de France would issue a new currency.
This currency, known as the Franc, would depict then-Consul Napoleon Bonaparte instead of the king (in an attempt to emulate Julius Caesar), with the reverse depicting the value of the currency (eg. 1/2 Franc, 1 Franc, 2 Francs, 5 Francs, 20 Francs etc.)
Despite the restoration of the monarchy, the Franc would continue as the currency of France until it was replaced by the Euro in February 2002, almost 202 years later!
2. A Secular France
Historically, France has been one of the most religious countries on Earth. Indeed, France has often wanted to defend the Christian faith (particularly Catholicism) quite violently. Just think about the Crusades or the French Wars of Religion.
Yet, looking at France today, you’ll find that religion isn’t particularly important.
But it’s more than just that, Christian religious symbols like the Cross (and by extension Muslim and Jewish symbols like the Hijab and Kippah) are banned in places like schools and government buildings.
To foreigners, this may seem strange, or even rather backwards, especially if you come from a religious background. However, this is due to the impacts of the French Revolution.
As the First Estate, the Church (and the Clergy as a whole) were incredibly wealthy, yet paid absolutely nothing in taxes. Due to this, when the peasants rose up, all Church lands would be nationalized and redistributed.
Whilst the more radical proposals (such as removing Sundays as a day of rest as well as saints, prayers and holy days) were never passed, the Church lost much of its previous influence.
Although people were still practicing Catholics, there were a growing number of protestants (mainly Calvinists and Huguenots) as well as atheists, with France being the most secular country of its time, and one of the most secular today!
1. Communism, Marxism And The French Revolution
At the time of the French Revolution, the concepts of Marxism, socialism and communism simply did not exist. Indeed, they wouldn’t exist for another half century, when Karl Marx published The Communist Manifesto and Das Kapital in 1848 and 1867.
With later communist thinkers building on Marx’s work, many would point out that if/when (obviously, they hoped when) a global communist uprising happened, it would emulate the French Revolution.
Essentially, the proletariat (the working class) would rise up against the bourgeoise (the ruling class) and remove them from power. From here, they would be executed for their crimes against the proletariat.
It was this belief that would be used by communist revolutionaries the world over after they came to power. This was (partly) why Vladimir Lenin had the Romanovs murdered in July 1918, and why Mao killed so many rich Chinese landlords in 1949.
Under communist rule, Soviet schoolchildren would learn mostly about Russian history – primarily the horrors of life under the Tsar, and the glorious October Revolution – one bit of non-Soviet history some would learn was the French Revolution!
Interestingly, many of the leaders of the French Revolution (particularly Robespierre and “Gracchus” Babeuf) were held in higher esteem in the USSR than in France, generally being considered to be heroes of the Soviet Union.
Which are your favorite facts about the French Revolution? Tell me in the comments!