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Top 5 Events Of The French Revolution

“Citizens, did you want a revolution without a revolution?” – Maximilien Robespierre

As one of the most chaotic revolutions in history, the French Revolution holds a unique legacy, especially in the West. The early years of the Revolution were fueled by Enlightenment ideals, seeking the social overthrow of the caste system that gave the royalty and aristocracy decisive advantages over the lower classes. But history remembers the French Revolution in a very different way, as the same leaders who sought a more democratic system while out of power devolved into establishing an incredibly repressive tyranny of their own. Robespierre, the instrumental figure of the Reign of Terror, would himself become a victim of it in July 1794. By then it is estimated that at least 16,000 people were guillotined and possibly 25,000 more were summarily executed across France.

5. Storming of the Bastille

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On the morning of July 14th, 1789, a group comprising craftsmen and merchant men decided to go to the Invalides to steal some weapons. The mob stole 28,000 riffles there, however no powder was to be found. They knew that a pile of powder was stocked in the Bastille, a prison that was a symbol of the King’s absolute power. So they decided to attack it.

The Bastille was only guarded by a few soldiers. The crowd was not big enough to impress the guards. The Marquis de Launay, fearing the growing anger among the mob, decided to meet with some of their representatives inside the prison. He also hoped to buy time, as he was expecting a rescue team to arrive shortly and to help him secure the stronghold.

But the negotiations ended when a group of revolutionaries entered the Bastille. The guards were ordered to fire, killing hundreds of people. The path of the revolt completely changed when the rescue team showed up and decided not to fight against but side with the mob. With their canons and their professional soldier skills, they brought victory to the people of France against Louis XVI’s guards in a matter of hours.

At 4 pm, the Marquis de Launay surrendered and allowed the mob to enter the Bastille. The guards were violently killed and the Marquis de Launay was beheaded, with his head then put on a stake and carried all through the city as a sign of victory.

On that day, July 14th, 1789 the King wrote “Nothing” in his diary entry for the day. That was the result of his day’s hunting. When the Duc de Liancourt informed the King of what happened at the Bastille, the King asked his adviser “is this a revolt?” and he was answered, “No Majesty, this is a revolution.”

4. March to Versailles

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In Paris, the high bread prices and shortages of bread led several Parisian women to organize a protest. On October 5, 1789 they gathered at one of the busy market places in Paris and were soon joined by about 10,000 other people. The mob then decided to march on the royal palace of Versailles and demand bread from the King himself. They were armed with kitchen tools and started the 12 mile journey to the palace.

Several National Guardsmen who heard of the march assembled at the Place de Grève and were joined by their commander, the Marquis de Lafayette. Lafayette soon discovered that the majority of the guardsmen supported the rioters cause and soon began to threaten to desert. He decided to send a messenger to Versailles warning of the approaching mob and the advice to the King that he should go to Paris to calm down the people.
It took six hours for the crowd to reach Versailles in pouring rain. The crowd angrily criticized Marie Antoinette with expressions such as “whore” and “bitch”, while many called for her head. When they arrived at Versailles the crowd was met by members of the Assembly who invited the exhausted Parisians into a nearby hall. The President of the Assembly (Jean Joseph Mounier) went to the King’s apartments with a few of the marketplace women. The King received them and the women seemed to be impressed by his charm; an agreement was made that food from the royal stores would be distributed and more would come later.

But the majority of the rioters remained. The atmosphere was becoming more and more toxic and rumors began circulating that the Queen would use her influence to make the King change his decision and take action against them.. At six in the evening, the King appeared and proclaimed that he would accept the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the August degrees. Most of the royal guards were by now tired and placed at the far end of Versailles. Only 61 guards remained scattered throughout the royal palace. Lafayette arrived, hurried to the King and his troops joined the Parisians already located in front of the palace.

The next day at six o’clock in the morning a small group of rioters discovered an unguarded entrance to the palace. They went inside and began looking for the Queen’s bedchamber. The palace guards attempted to handle the situation and began bolting every entrance they could find. Another guard who was outside fired at the crowd and killed a young man. His death caused the rioters to storm the palace, overrunning the outnumbered guards.Two of the guardsmen were brutally murdered and one of their heads was placed on a spike. A guard managed to reach Marie Antoinette’s chamber and warn her that the rioters were coming for her head. She managed to escape through a secret backdoor of her bedchamber and ran barefoot to the King’s chamber. By this time, Lafayette managed to calm down the main core of the National Guardsmen and reconcile them with the surviving palace guards.

The King was convinced that his appearance would stabilize the tension among the crowds still occupying the main court. As he stepped out on the balcony to cries of “Vive le Roi!” from the crowd, the King proclaimed his intention to travel back to Paris. After he went back inside, the mob then began demanding to see “the Queen on the balcony!”. Marie Antoinette received a less enthusiastic welcome. The hostile crowd  was armed and pointed their weapons at her but then became deeply impressed with her dignified appearance as she stood alone on the balcony with her arms serenely crossed over her chest. The atmosphere soon calmed down and Lafayette used the moment to kneel before the Queen and kiss her hand. The rioters then began shouting “Vive la Reine!”.

At one o’clock in the afternoon an enormous cortège escorted the royal family to Paris in their carriage. The crowd had now reached a staggering 60.000 and the journey was nine hours long! There was an almost cheerful atmosphere from the National Guardsmen who carried bread on their bayonets and marketplace women who sang alongside the route. But something darker lurked just beneath the surface. The heads of the guardsmen were carried on spikes and there was an eerie feeling that the royal family was now prisoners. Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette would never return to Versailles and just three years later, they would both be dead.

3. Flight to Varennes 

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The Flight to Varennes during the night of 20–21 June 1791 was a significant event in the French Revolution in which King Louis XVI, his queen Marie Antoinette, and their immediate family attempted to escape from Paris in order to initiate a counter-revolution at the head of loyal troops under royalist officers stationed at Montmédy near the frontier. They escaped only as far as the small town of Varennes, where they were arrested after having been recognized at their previous stop in Sainte-Menehould.
 
Pressured by the queen, Louis committed himself and his family to a disastrous attempt of escape from Paris. With the dauphin’s governess taking on the role of a Russian baroness, the queen and the king’s sister playing the roles of governess and nurse, the royal family made their escape leaving the Tuileries Palace at midnight. Louis and Marie-Antoinette decided on the use of a heavy and conspicuous coach drawn by six horses. 
 
The royal family was thwarted in its escape after the postmaster of Sainte-Menehould recognized the king from his portrait printed on an assignat in his possession. Units of cavalry intended to receive the royal family had been withdrawn or neutralized by suspicious crowds before the large and slow moving vehicle being used by the royal family reached them. The king and his family were eventually arrested in the town of Varennes, 31 miles from their intended destination, the heavily fortified royalist castle of Montmédy.
The goal of their flight was to provide the king with greater freedom of action and personal security than was possible in Paris. At Montmédy, General François Claude de Bouillé had concentrated a force of 10,000 regulars of the old royal army who were still considered to be loyal to the monarchy. The expectation was that “numerous faithful subjects of all classes” would then rally to demand the restoration of the rights of the throne and that order would be restored without the need for civil war or foreign invasion.
When the royal family was returned under guard to Paris, the revolutionary crowd met the royal carriage with silence and complete shock rippled throughout the crowd at the sight of their king. The royal family was confined to the Tuileries Palace. From this point, the abolition of the monarchy and the establishment of a republic became an ever increasing possibility. The credibility of the king as a constitutional monarch had been seriously damaged as a result of the attempted escape.

2. Execution of Louis XVI

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The execution of Louis XVI, by guillotine, took place on January 21, 1793 at the Place de la Révolution in Paris. After an assault on the Tuileries on August 10, 1792, Louis was arrested and imprisoned in the Temple prison with his family. He was tried for high treason and convicted in an almost unanimous vote (while no one voted ‘not guilty,’ several deputies abstained), and condemned to death by a narrow majority. His execution made him the first victim of the Reign of Terror. His wife Marie Antoinette was guillotined on October 16, 1793.

Louis’ hostility towards the National Assembly had aroused discontent with his rule. Public opinion began to turn against him after he was returned under guard to Paris from trying to escape to Varennes.

Arriving at the foot of the guillotine, Louis XVI looked for a moment at the instruments of his execution and asked the executioner why the drums had stopped beating. He came forward to speak, but there were shouts for the executioners to get on with their work. As he was strapped down, he said “My people, I die innocent!” Then, turning towards his executioners, Louis XVI declared “Gentlemen, I am innocent of everything of which I am accused. I hope that my blood may cement the good fortune of the French.” The blade fell at 10:22 am. One of the assistants of the executioner showed the head of Louis XVI to the people, and a huge cry of “Vive la Nation! Vive la République!” arose and an artillery salute rang out which reached the ears of the imprisoned royal family.

1. Reign of Terror

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After the death of Louis XVI in 1793, the Reign of Terror began. The first victim was Marie Antoinette. She had been imprisoned with her children after she was separated from Louis. They took her son Louis Charles from her (often called the lost dauphin, or Louis XVII). He disappeared under suspicious circumstances. The new instrument of justice was the guillotine. Public executions were considered educational. Women were encouraged to sit and knit during trials and executions. The Revolutionary Tribunal ordered the execution of 2,400 people in Paris by July 1794. Ultimately, more than 30,000 people were killed.

The Terror was intended to fight the enemies of the revolution.  Most of the people rounded up were not aristocrats, but ordinary people. A man could simply go to the guillotine for saying something critical of the revolutionary government. If an informer happened to overhear, that was all the that was needed to convict. Committees around France were encouraged to arrest “suspected persons, those who, either by their conduct or their relationships, by their remarks or by their writing, are shown to be partisans of tyranny and federalism and enemies of liberty” (Law of Suspects, 1793). Civil liberties were suspended. The promises of the Declaration of the Rights of Man were cast aside. In the words of Maximilien Robespierre, “Softness to traitors will destroy us all.”

Robespierre was the mastermind of all of the Terror. He was the leader of the Committee of Public Safety, the executive committee of the National Convention, and the most powerful man in France. He explained how terror would lead to the Republic of Virtue in a speech to the National Convention. The old maxim “the end justifies the means” describes Robespierre’s policy.

Even Robespierre’s own followers started to believe the Terror must be stopped. When Robespierre called for a new purge in 1794, he seemed to threaten the other members of the Committee of Public Safety. The Jacobins had had enough. Statesman Pierre Cambon rose in the Convention and said “It is time to tell the whole truth. One man alone is paralyzing the will of the Convention. And that man is Robespierre.” Others quickly rallied to support him. Robespierre was arrested and sent to the guillotine the next day, the last victim of the Reign of Terror. 

 

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Rick Mac
Student and author of History. The study of History is the beginning of wisdom.

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