With the meeting of the Estates-General on May 5, 1789, the Revolution began. The representatives of the Third Estate led the way. Some of the nobles and many of the clergy joined with them. They changed the name of the gathering from Estates-General, which represented classes, to National Assembly, which represented the people of France. When the king shut them out from their usual place of meeting, they took the famous Oath of the Tennis Court (June 20, 1789), pledging themselves not to separate until they had given France a constitution. When the king sent a messenger to remove them from their hall, the fiery Mirabeau cried out: “Go tell your master that we are here by the will of the people, and that we shall be removed only at the point of the bayonet.” Paris, 11 miles away, was alarmed by rumors of the troops gathering about Versailles. A Paris mob stormed and captured the old royal prison in Paris, called the Bastille, on July 14. Here for generations kings and ministers had imprisoned men and women at will. Soon after, its thick walls were torn down. The date of its capture became a French national holiday. When the king was told what had taken place he exclaimed: “Why, this is a revolt!” “No, sire,” was the reply, “it is a revolution.”
After the fall of the Bastille a revolutionary committee of middle-class citizens governed Paris. A national guard composed mainly of citizens was organized. It was commanded by General Lafayette (see Lafayette). Then the provinces followed the lead of Paris and formed revolutionary governments. The peasants in many places burned the castles of the lords in order to destroy the papers which contained the records of the lords’ manorial rights. There was anarchy in many country districts.
Nobles Give Up Their “Privileges”
A report of the peasant outbreaks made a strong impression on the Assembly. Some liberal nobles in that body set the example of giving up their feudal rights. Amid the wildest enthusiasm, men weeping and embracing each other, one noble after another gave up some exclusive privilege. Finally a decree was passed which aimed at abolishing the entire feudal system. That wild night of Aug. 4, 1789, marked the beginning of equality. Remnants of feudal dues, however, kept the peasants uneasy until 1793.
Meanwhile work continued on the constitution which the Assembly had promised to prepare for France. It was finally finished in 1791. Nobility was abolished. France was made a limited monarchy, with a one-house legislature. The immortal part of the document was the Declaration of the Rights of Man. It included the following points:
1. All men were born free with equal rights.
2. All citizens have the right to take part in electing representatives to make the laws.
3. Every person shall be free to speak, write, or print his opinions provided he does not abuse this privilege.
4. The amount of taxes which a person is called upon to pay shall be based on the amount of wealth that he possesses.
The Declaration of the Rights of Man came to be regarded as the charter of democracy. The equality of all men in the eyes of the law is its essence. Property was inviolable, for the chief supporters of the new order owned property or desired to own it.
The King Wavers
Louis XVI was a weak and indecisive king. At first he did promise to obey the constitution which had been instituted in 1791, though it placed a narrow limit on his power. Later, however, he listened to evil counselors and changed his mind. Many nobles had fled before the Revolution broke. These émigrés, as they were called, later headed by the king’s own brothers, were in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. They were appealing to the princes of Europe to stop the Revolution in France and threatening a reign of bloodshed when they returned. The people of France mistrusted the king and still more mistrusted Marie Antoinette, “the Austrian woman.” In October 1789 a mob had brought them—and the Assembly with them—from Versailles to Paris so that they might be more closely watched.
Overthrow of the Monarchy
In June 1791 the suspicions against Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette became certainties for most of the people when the king and queen, with their children, tried to escape. They were captured at Varennes, on the edge of the Argonne, before they reached the French border. They were brought back to Paris. From that day the monarchy was doomed.
These events helped divide the revolutionists into two parties, the Constitutional Royalists and the Republicans. The new Legislative Assembly, which met as soon as the king had accepted the constitution (September 1791), still wanted to keep the monarchy. The Republican sentiment, however, increased rapidly as the king’s weakness became more apparent.
On Aug. 10, 1792, a mob invaded the Tuileries and killed the guards. The royal family sought refuge in the hall of the Legislative Assembly. On Sept. 21, 1792, a decree was passed that “royalty is abolished in France,” and a republic was proclaimed. Four months later Louis XVI was sent to the guillotine. This was a beheading machine named for the physician whose recommendation brought it into use.
Symbolically speaking, the declaration of sovereignty and the beheading of the monarch were powerful motivators within France. Unfortunately, the moment of bliss was brief, as the governmental powers quickly realized that all of their achievements were being threatened by internal and external fighting.