Louis XVI was King of France in
1789. Louis was a kind man, but he was raised to be a king and had
little knowledge of common people. There was a story in France that
when Louis' wife, Marie
Antoinette, heard that the people had no bread, she said, "Let
them eat cake." Marie
Antoinette never said that, but it shows how little she knew
(and some say cared) about life for the common people of France.
Louis needed help in 1789. The nation
had endured a long, hard winter and most of the crops were lost.
The treasury was bankrupt after supporting America in their revolution.
Louis had to raise money. He could not tax the peasants, because
they had no money, so he had to tax the aristocrats and the middle
class. Louis knew the people would revolt if he raised taxes on
his own, so he asked the states-general to advise him.
For several hundred years, the states-general
was an assembly that represented the "estates," or classes in France.
The states-general advised the king on difficult decision, but no
French king has called the states general in 179 years. The states-general
voted as a class. The first class was the clergy and the second
was the nobility. A third class was made up of the "middle class,"
a group shopkeepers and craftsmen who were neither rich nor poor.
Usually, the clergy and the nobility voted to support whatever the
king wanted, so the vote of the middle class did not matter. The
middle class argued that voting should be "by head" rather than
by class, because they had more representatives than the first two
estates combined. Louis agreed, and the "National Assembly" met.
The people revolt and storm the Bastille
King Louis has supported the middle
class, but people began to think he had changed his mind and would
dissolve (or end) the National Assembly. Louis' army seemed to be
placed in ways that would stop the middle class. On July 14, 1789,
the middle class attacked the Bastille. The Bastille was a prison
where weapons were stored. The middle class now had the power to
rule France and the French Revolution had begun.
Louis remained King, but had little authority.
The National Assembly now controlled France. Louis was moved from
his palace in Versailles to Paris, where he would be safer from
attack. The National Assembly made many changes.
- Torture and arbitrary imprisonment were abolished.
- Property owned by the church was seized.
- The highest ranks of the military were now open to people of
- The people elected judges for short periods of time. Now, the
common people of France controlled justice.
The other ruling families of Europe were
very unhappy with what was happening in France. What would happen
if their people revolted? Monarchs in Austria and Prussia (now a
part of Germany) sent soldiers to support Louis. Louis tried to
escape France, but he was captured and returned to Paris.
In January, 1793, Louis XVI and his wife, Marie Antoinette
were beheaded for a "multitude of crimes."
The Reign of Terror
The Revolution had gone further than the
people expected it to. Several men contended for power. Those that
lost power struggles were usually beheaded. This period became known
as the "Reign of Terror," as the French attempted to remake almost
every part of life. The days of the week were renamed and the Christian
calendar was replaced by a new calendar. Churches were closed and
the clergy were persecuted, or treated cruelly.
The Reign of Terror ended when the French
government was taken over by a popular general who became the most
powerful leader in European history since Charlemagne.