French Revolution: characteristics, causes and consequences

We explain what the French Revolution was and its main events. In addition, its various causes and consequences.

The French Revolution took place in the then Kingdom of France in the year 1798.

What was the French Revolution?

The French Revolution is known as a political and social movement that  occurred in the then Kingdom of France in 1798 , which shook the foundations of the absolutist monarchy of Louis XVI and led to the establishment of a republican and liberal government in its place.

This event is almost universally regarded as the historical event that marked the beginning of the contemporary era in Europe and the West . The French Revolution and the Bonapartism that followed shocked the entire world and spread the ideas of the French Enlightenment, summed up in the revolutionary slogan of “liberty, equality, fraternity.”

The French Revolution began when the impoverished and subjugated masses of citizens opposed feudal power, disobeyed the authority of the monarchy and lit the fuse for historical change.

Thus, they overthrew the aristocratic government and began the chaotic construction of a society based on the fundamental rights of all human beings .

However, not everything ended that same year, but it lasted about ten years (1789-1799) of violent changes and popular organization, during which the first universal rights of the human being were declared, much of the Catholic Church was taken from power he held and the first republican constitution in Western history was drafted.

So many events, of course, did not take place without an important margin of violence, both by the troops of the crown, who shot the insurgent people, and by revolutionary ranks that guillotined the kings and their aides-de-camp, together with those loyal citizens the monarchy or those who were later found guilty of being counterrevolutionaries, during a period known as “The Terror” (1792-1794).

In addition, the nascent French republic had to face the intervention of foreign enemies such as the armies of Austria and Prussia , who came to the defense of the monarchy, fearful that something similar would happen in their own countries.

The French Revolution  came to an end with the seizure of power by Napoleon Bonaparte , a revolutionary general who staged a coup to restore order to the troubled French Republic, soon after proclaiming his own Empire and setting out to conquer Europe.

 Characteristics of the French Revolution

The republican stage was anarchic and difficult, with many internal confrontations.

The Revolution was carried out quickly, but the following years were of complex reorganizations and internal confrontations between the different revolutionary factions that aspired to power. In general terms, three stages of the French Revolution can be distinguished:

  • Monarchical period (1789-1792). During the first stage, an attempt was made to coexist with the monarchy, putting limits on it and limiting its power, through a National Assembly in which the common people had representation.
  • Republican period (1792-1804). The failure of the previous stage led to the abolition of the monarchy and the establishment of the Republic through popular political organization and the debate on how to govern the new model. It was an anarchic and difficult stage, with many internal confrontations.
  • Imperial stage (1804-1815). The Revolution came to a close with the rise to power of Bonaparte, who paradoxically had himself proclaimed emperor and returned France to a monarchical, albeit modern, scheme.

Causes of the French Revolution

The causes of the French Revolution were:

  • The rigor of absolutism. Absolutism gave the kings all the political, legal and economic power, without being able to contradict them in any way, which also made them responsible for the economic disasters that occurred, whether or not it was really their responsibility.
  • The inequalities of the feudal regime.  It is estimated that of the 23 million inhabitants of France at the time, barely 300,000 belonged to the privileged classes of the aristocracy or the clergy. The great remaining mass was ordinary people with fewer rights and possibilities.
  • The misery and marginalization of the common people. The living conditions of the common people were extremely poor: hunger, marginalization, disease, slave labor and no prospect of social advancement or improvement.
  • The ideas of the Enlightenment. The ideas regarding equality between men and faith in reason from philosophers and writers such as Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot or Montesquieu, greatly influenced the mentality of the time, forging the aspirations for a more modern social system less influenced by the Church and religion.

Consequences of the French Revolution

The motto of liberty, equality and fraternity led to the first human rights law.

The consequences of the French Revolution were:

  • End of the feudal order. It ended with the monarchy and with the separation of society into fixed and immovable classes: aristocracy, clergy and serfs. Thus, the republic was reborn as a system of government in the West.
  • First proclamation of universal human rights. The motto of freedom, equality and fraternity led to the drafting of the first human rights law without distinction of race, creed or birth.
  • Influence in the American colonies. The American colonies of Europe saw in the French Revolution an example to follow and its ideals marked their own processes of independence. 
  • Rise of Bonapartism. The rise of Napoleon Bonaparte and his French empire, as well as the European wars that followed, brought this historical period to an end.
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