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French Revolution

French Revolution, first European revolution in modern times, (1789–99). Through its wars, the revolution spread the explosive ideas of the sovereignty of the people, liberty of the individual, and equality before the law. By 1788 in a time of the rise of the middle classes, the country was still ruled by the privileged nobility and clergy, the 2 upper Estates of the States-General. The tax burden fell on the Third Estate, made up of the middle classes and the landowning peasantry; it was further increased by the corruption of the fiscal system. When the nobility thwarted attempts by the royal ministers such as the popular director of finances, Jacques Necker, to reform government finance, the king was forced to summon the Estates-General; when the Third Estate, which outnumbered the other 2 chambers, was not given a majority, it declared itself the National Assembly (June 20, 1789). When Louis XVI accepted the National Assembly but dismissed Necker, crowds stormed the Bastille prison on July 14 and pillaged the nobility's country estates. The royal family fled in June, hoping to join their sympathizers, who had fled abroad, but they were arrested at Varennes and returned to Paris.

On Aug. 4 the Assembly abolished the feudal system and approved the Declaration of the Rights of Man; the royal family was threatened by mobs; the Church, disestablished and largely suppressed. In Oct. 1791 the Legislative Assembly convened under a new constitution and became increasingly radical. Threat of attack from abroad by émigrés and their foreign supporters precipitated the French Revolutionary Wars. In the face of this crisis the mob again threatened the king, forcing him to replace the Assembly with the radical National Convention, elected in Sept. 1792, during mob massacres of jailed royalists. The First Republic was established, and the king was tried for treason and executed in Jan. 1793. In the face of royalist insurrection and foreign hostility the Jacobins seized power from the more moderate Girondins, transferring power from the Convention to arbitrary bodies such as the Committees for Public Safety and General Security. Dominated by Georges-Jacques Danton and Maximilien Robespierre, these brought about the Reign of Terror, during which France became a police state and all were threatened with execution for the mere suspicion of disloyalty. This ended with Robespierre's execution by the Convention in July 1794. The Convention then introduced a new constitution, setting up the Directory, which proved ineffectual and corrupt. In 1799 it was overthrown by the army, led by the popular general Napoleon Bonaparte. He established the Consulate, effectively ending the revolutionary period.

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