The French Revolution. Edited and translated by Paul H. Beik. 1970. Part of the "Revolutionary Europe, 1789-1848" section of Harper & Row's "Documentary History of Western Civilization" collection.
Beik presents a collection of historical documents from the period of the French Revolution: speeches and memoranda from various aristocrats, clergy, and popular representatives, ordered chronologically and individually dated. While often very dry, it's neat to be able to peek into the very words and thoughts of Marie Antoinette and Napoleon Bonaparte.

La Révolution Française
in less than 300 words

Here’s some important stuff everyone should know about the French Revolution:


Maximilien Robespierre - the man responsible for over 40,000 deaths
Georges-Jacques Danton - leader of the Girondins
Camille Desmoulins - a famous speaker for Danton
Louis XVI
Napoléon Bonaparte
le Comte de Mirabeau - famous for saying "Allez dire à votre maître que nous sommes ici par la volunté du Peuple et que nous n’en sortions que par la force des baïonnettes," among other things
Jacques Necker - Louis XVI’s premier minister
le marquis de Lafayette - commander of France’s National Guard
Rouget de Lisle - the soldier who wrote La Marseillaise
Jean-Paul Marat (as well as Charlotte Corday)

les Girondins - the moderate political side of France, also known as La Droite, led by Danton
les Montagnards - the radical or extreme political side of France, also known as “La Gauche”
Les Etats-Généraux

le Comité de Salut Public - the Committee of Public Safety

Jeu de Paume – the first act of rebellion against the king
la chute de la Bastille et la Fête de la Fédération
la Fuite à Varennes – King Louis tried to leave the country with his wife and kids, but was arrested in Varennes, a town on the border between Germany and France
la Grande Terreur – thank Robespierre for this one

Written things
Cahiers de Doléances
Déclaration des Droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen - the French Declaration of Independence
Now, the next time you see one of the names mentioned above, you will be able to shrewdly point out, “That’s from The French Revolution!” Just think of how incredulous people will be! But remember to always share your knowledge. For more information and to further enrich your mind concerning matters of French history, I advise taking some sort of class or perhaps reading some sort of book on the subject. Enjoy!

The French Revolution: A Success or Failure?

Once the Spring of 1789 came along, the long-coming conflict between the French monarchy and the aristocracy erupted into a revolution which would assure that neither France nor Europe would ever be the same politically or socially. At the beginning of the Revolution in France, after the calling of the Estates General, the objectives were the establishment of a constitutional monarchy, and the abolishment of all feudal codes and taxes from the Old Regime. The Third Estate also wished to be equally represented in the national assembly, and another initial objective was equal taxation and bringing France out of bankruptcy.

Throughout the course of the revolution these objectives were modified mainly due to the Girondists assuming leadership in the National Constituent Assembly. As these groups emerged, they fought to protect the Revolution, and were determined to oppose the forces of counterrevolution. As the Girondists gained power, the main objective of the French Revolution was modified from desiring a constitutional monarchy, as before, and now wishing to establish a Republic. Throughout the many years of the Revolution, it is believed that the Revolution was a success. France abolished the absolutist rule of previous monarchs, and later ended the monarchy which had orignally been its goal. The fact that the Third Estate were granted the representation which they had been seeking was in itself a great success of the Revolution. The success also came from abolishing the feudal taxes which had plagued the Old Regime, the acquisitions of the churches land, and the reestablishment of successful taxation.

Nearing the end of the eighteenth century, the government of the Directory already in place, France was a very unstable nation, and there existed a wish of stability in France. The one force which was able to lead France into a more stable nation was the army, under Napoleon Bonaparte. Napoleon, did manage to maintain some of the objectives from the Revolution. One of these was ending the Old Regime and abolishing hereditary privileges. During the Old Regime, due to the fact that Napoleon wasn’t of noble birth, he wouldn’t have been able to ascend to a higher position, but by abolishing the Old Regime, this was now possible for him. Likewise, Napoleon also represented the antithesis of the Revolutionary aim. This was mainly due to the fact that he created an empire, crowning himself emperor.

The French Revolution reshaped society in France, and later affected all of Western Europe, mainly through Napoleons numerous war campaigns. France, and later, much of Europe, effectively ended the Old Regime and the absolutist monarchy. From the Revolution, the figure who emerged, Napoleon, both maintained these objectives, and also repudiated them. The Revolution guaranteed that France, as well as Western Europe would not remain the same.

The French Revolution: Moderate to Radical Stages

The French Revolution began in a peaceful, conservative way as a call for reform within the monarchy. After the Seven Years War and the American Revolution –in which France assisted with arms and funds – the country was nearly bankrupt. The monarchy was in a financial crisis and attempted to reform some of the tax exemptions that the clergy and the aristocracy enjoyed. To that end, Louis XVI called a meeting of the Estates-General in order to present these ideas formally. This was not necessary; France was not a constitutional monarchy.

The Third Estate, as well as liberal members of the other estates each drew up a list of grievances to present to the King. Among the reforms presented were the beginning of a national assembly that would meet on a regular basis, freedom of the press, and consent in matters of tax rates and many other points regarding personal freedom. In essence, the Estates-General asked for a constitutional monarchy to be established. Later on, it became clear that though both the liberal nobles and the Third Estate wanted reform, they disagreed as to the details of such reform.

This strife between the monarchy and the estates became a struggle between the first two estates and the Third Estate. Even though the Third Estate represented the majority of citizens of France, each estate only garnered a single vote when matters were decided upon. Consequently, the first two estates banded together on numerous occasions to block the moves to reform suggested by the Third Estate. This lopsided balance of power began to enrage many political figures of the Third Estate, as well as the liberal minority in the other estates.

Emmanuel Sièyes described the Third Estate as encompassing every type of individual necessary to establish a nation. The Third Estate included all of the occupations to sustain a viable society; however this very group had been overruled and ostracized to the outskirts of representative government. “The modest intention of the Third Estate is to have in the Estates-General an influence equal to that of the privileged” (Sièyes “What is the Third Estate”). It is clear that even at this point, the violence to come was not premeditated or foreseen.

When the demands of the Estates-General were not met, almost all of the members of the Third Estate and some of the clergy retired to a nearby tennis court to convene what would become known as the National Assembly. The nervous nobility, suddenly left alone with the threat of the Assembly looming over them, quickly put aside their differences with the king and allied with Louis XVI in opposition to the National Assembly. He quickly ordered the National Assembly to dissolve, but it was to no avail. The storming of the Bastille by the bourgeois of Paris ensured the longevity of the National Assembly and forced Louis XVI and the nobility to assent to the legitimacy of the Assembly.

In August of 1789, the National Assembly ratified the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, but it wasn’t until months later, after numerous insurrections by the people of Paris, that the King agreed to all the reforms contained therein. The Declaration established the equal rights of all men before the law, the opening of employment to all men based on merit alone, freedom of speech and of the press, due process of law and religious freedom. Such reform satisfied the majority of members of the National Assembly.

While the people of France felt empowered by the reforms brought about, the price of bread was still high, poverty was still rampant and while the idea of nobility by birth was all but abolished, it was replaced by the reality of nobility by wealth. The term “citizen” was now a badge of honor, but the honor helped the peasant little when it came to feeding his family. Insurrections continued: the radical sans-culottes called for extreme measures for the purpose of closing the widening division between the wealthy and the poor. These measures included a limit on property ownership, higher taxes for the wealthy and official equality with the aristocrats.

These rising pressures within France were aggravated by the onset of war with Prussia and Austria. The King and his family had already fled Paris. They were soon caught and returned as prisoners. The Girondin party used this incident to call for the dissolution of the monarchy altogether and the introduction of a republic. The Legislative Assembly was followed by the National Assembly and the National Convention. It was this National Convention that officially established a republic in France and executed Louis VXI in 1793.

The radical Jacobin party gained control of the National Convention by force of arms. In support of the war effort, they drafted most of the young, unmarried men in France to fight. They established an intense sense of nationalism in the militia; and also in the people of France through their control of the press. While the Convention was very involved in fighting their enemies outside of France’s borders, Robespierre, an extreme Jacobin leader, seized the opportunity to tackle the problem of France’s internal enemies. He introduced the use of terror as a viable method of protecting the republic. Stemming from extreme nationalism, he linked terror with virtue, stating that while France lived in a time of revolution and upheaval, virtue could not exist without terrible justice for those who opposed the nation.

Such was the beginning of the radical stage of the revolution, by equating the supposed enemies within with the enemies outside of the nation. During a few months during Robespierre’s reign of terror, 269 people were executed and over 5,000 people were imprisoned (Robespierre’s Justification of the Use of Terror).

It seems very strange that a revolution that began with the humanist ideas of the Enlightenment, such as the freedom of the individual, would evolve into one of the most terrifying chapters of European history. This conversion from representative government to terrifying despotism was eventually tempered, but it effects still ring in hearts and minds of people today; not only in France, but throughout the world.

How did the French Revolution affect the conduct and organisation of the sciences?


The French Revolution has been regarded as a crippling crisis for French natural philosophy at the end of the eighteenth century. Historians have argued that vital infrastructure for scientific discovery was demolished and science was viewed as an enemy of the republic that was incompatible with Jacobin ideologies. Scientific academies were abolished at the height of the The Reign of Terror and Charles Gillispie wrote that this was "a simple act of intellectual vandalism"1. A paradigm shift led to the association of counterrevolutionary thinking with learned pursuit of knowledge. However, there is another side – with the revolution came increased mathematisation and a more logical approach to organisation. The word "liberté" in the Republic's new motto allowed for open discussion of natural philosophy and a move toward meritocracy replacing the injustice of the admission processes to certain institutes of learning.


Murmurs of enmity toward natural philosophy in the beginning stages of the revolution had escalated into full blown opposition in the mid 1790s. The Académie Royale des Sciences had been fundamental to the progress of French learning since its inception and was widely regarded and an institute for elite science before it was made to close in August 1793. Another important scientific organization, the Bureau de Commerce, was dissolved by revolutionaries in 1791 and the Jacobin Convention was cited as reason to abolish other academies devoted to the sciences.

Proponents of the revolution were not necessarily opposed to the idea of scientific study. Rather, there was a vague connection between aristocratic institutions with close ties to the previous system of government which, in the republican fervour of the Revolution, tended to be exaggerated. Lavoisier, who had contributed an enormous amount to the emerging field of chemistry, found himself presented as a reactionary member of the previous regime. Despite his novel ideas that removed the need for "phlogiston" he was killed for his involvement in pre-Revolutionary taxation – not even his prestigious role as a natural philosopher was sufficient to spare his life.

The idea that politics ought to be prioritised before natural philosophy became increasingly popular in the 1790s. The Académie was abolished for little other reason than it represented counterrevolutionary ideals. There was an air of perceived exclusivity that was intolerable in the new Republic and hence sufficient to override its positive scientific achievements. Even engineering schools were victims of extreme Jacbobinism almost entirely due to lingering associations to the French monarchy. Intellectuals were not judged on their erudition and contributions to science but instead by their personal affiliations and ideologies.


However, the desire for quantification had left some room for scientific institutions in the early stages of the revolution. Metrification was based on "pure reason" which was favoured at the time and the Académie's involvement was instrumental in the creation of the earliest versions of the Système International. Scientific institutions also suited the needs of the Revolution in its first years. A vast pillage of expensive silverware had been acquired from rich émigrés and the members of the Académie were of substantial assistance in assaying the silverware. Military innovations were also greatly sought after and intensive educational programmes in the sciences were established toward this end. However, it must be said that there was very little science for the sake of knowledge – the military slant means that most research was purely practical and utilitarian.

Science had become so integrated with France's central administration that it continued to be practised and work continued in several fields. Moreover, the new liberties under the Republic allowed for new academies to be founded as well as the reestablishment of societies such as the Société Philomathique. Compared to the old scientific academies, institutions such as the Institut de France tended toward being geniocratic with wealth and status no longer such significant factors in the admissions process. Publishing freedoms also allowed several the inception of several new journals promoting particular specialised aspects of science.

Inside France the practice of medicine also changed after the early 1790s. Prior to then, French hospitals had been in an appalling condition rife with overcrowding and unsanitary conditions. The military required more trained medics and the Revolution removed the affiliation of many hospitals with churches. Medical education was also overhauled and was radically restructured over the following decade. The understanding of physiology and pathology was greatly increased and, in the early nineteenth century "the French canonised the ritual of modern physical examination"2: patient were expected to cooperate with more intimate examinations that involved the four cardinal arts of bedside diagnosticians. Organisation in hospitals improved so that contagious diseases could be quarantined, and experiments were better deigned in that there was less bias toward preferred hypotheses.


The French Revolution affected the whole of science in varied ways. Where the revolutionaries found a use for innovation it was encouraged and supported. The new changes in thinking allowed science to distance itself from and even criticise religion's dictums. However, all too often scientific thought was restricted by the zeal of Jacobinism to obliterate all pre-Revolutionary traces – as the Terror continued theories were judged on the politics of whoever formulated them and institutions were broadly tarred with the same brush as stalwart antirevolutionaries. Only later could scientific institutions re-establish themselves and the communication made possible by established journals continue. Importantly, science in the Republic of France was largely without the aristocratic elitism of the Ancien Régime but there were still very few women involved. The whole organisation of medicine in France and conduct between doctors and patients was pushed into renovation after the Revolution. However, despite the vast progress made, latent xenophobia prevented several advances proliferating through Europe until some time later.

  • i Gillispie, Charles Coulston. "Science In The French Revolution", Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, Volume 45, issue 5, pp.677-684 (1959).
  • ii Bynum, W. F. Science and the Practice of Medicine in the Nineteenth Century, chapter 2, p.33. (Cambridge, 1994).
  • Fara, Patricia. Pandora's Breeches: Women, Science and Power in the Enlightenment (2004).
  • Hankins, Thomas L. Science and the Enlightenment (Cambridge, 1985).
  • Russell, Colin A. Science and Social Change, 1700-1900 (1983).
  • Outram, Dorinda. "New spaces in natural history", Cultures of Natural History pp. 249-265 (1996).

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.