- Virginia Johnson
On July 14, 1789, a Parisian mob broke down the gates of the ancient fortress known as the Bastille, marking a flashpoint at the beginning of the French Revolution.
"What is the third estate? Everything. What has it been up till now in the political order? Nothing. What does it desire to be? Something."
--Emmanuel Joseph Sieyes, French political activist
For years, the anger between the three major social classes, called Estates, had grown to a fever pitch. The First Estate was the clergy. The Second Estate was the nobility. The Third Estate was everyone else-the poor, the shopkeepers, and the middle classes. It was by far the largest group of people, and quite a number of them were well-educated clerks, lawyers, teachers, and so on.
The philosophical ideas of Cicero and Rousseau fueled the Revolutionary fire. In old Rome, Cicero had promoted the restoration of original Republican values to a state whose nobility seemed cheerfully mired in decadence and corruption.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who died a short time before the French Revolution, argued for a civil society that would be voluntarily formed by its citizens and wholly governed by reference to their general will. Citizens governed in this way, he believed, would unanimously accept their governing authority.
Rousseau proposed that man in his natural state, without the interference of defective laws, was a noble savage whose natural desire was for simple justice. Members of the Third Estate found many examples of laws created simply to enrich the nobility.
The nobles of the Second Estate were not entirely happy with the situation, either. They wanted to curtail the King's right to exercise his power, which the royal family believed to come directly from God, hence the expression "the Divine Right of Kings."
On June 17, 1789, the Third Estate, frustrated in its attempts to reform the political order, decided to break from the Estates General and form a new "National Assembly." On June 20, 1789, the organizers found themselves locked out of their regular meeting place, so they gathered at a nearby tennis court and swore what would become known as the Tennis Court Oath, that they would continue to meet until they had established a new constitution for France. In the days leading up to the fall of the Bastille, fiery orators stood on street corners calling the crowds to action, including Camille Desmoulins.
To the French people, the Bastille represented the corrupt power of the nobility. Here, political prisoners as well as ordinary criminals were left to rot, although it is true that those who had money, such as the Marquis de Sade, could buy a more comfortable existence. At the time of the fall of the Bastille, there were only seven prisoners released from its chambers, but its destruction nevertheless became a symbol of the end of King Louis XVI's power to quash the rising tide of the Third Estate.
The bloody aftermath of July 14 was fueled by generations of rage against the status quo and new leaders from the middle class, idealistic and otherwise, who jockeyed for power. Trials became mockeries of justice, and some of the Revolution's early leaders died without defense on the blade of the guillotine.
Desmoulins met that fate, as did one of the creators of its feared military tribunal, Georges Jacques Danton. The famed French scientist Antoine Lavoisier, known as the father of modern chemistry, also perished in the public square, as did countless other men and women who had been declared enemies of the state.
Curious to learn more about the French Revolution? The library and the Web have sources to aid you in your studies.
Ideals, Politics, and Leaders
Blood of the Bastille, 1787-1789, by Claude Manceron.
A lively history that draws on old sources and legends to give an insider's perspective to the French Revolution. Bear in mind that Manceron often enthuses and infuses personal opinion into his narrative. This is the last part of chronological five-part series that begins with Twilight of the Old Order.
Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution by Simon Schama.
This New York Times best seller tells the tale of the Revolution in slightly under 1,000 pages and includes many illustrations.
Danton, starring Gerard Depardieu.
"Georges Danton, the popular revolutionary leader, returns to Paris at a time when the new Republic is in disarray. Robespierre and his allies have set up a monstrous dictatorship, beginning the infamous 'Reign of Terror.' Danton pleads with the people for an end to the bloodshed which violates the spirit of their revolution."
In French, with English subtitles.
The French Revolution by Hilaire Belloc.
This compact volume is an excellent choice for its overview of characters, events, and themes of the conflict. Includes chapters on the military aspects of the time and the Church's reaction/role.
Two Classics of the French Revolution.
Includes Reflections on the Revolution in France by Edmund Burke, written in 1790, and The Rights of Man by Thomas Paine written immediately after in answer to Burke's criticism.
A Dish Taken Cold by Anne Perry.
Three years after the fall of the Bastille, Paris is plagued by food shortages, mob rule, and a lack of effective leadership. In this setting, a young mother contrives a bitter revenge against the young woman whom she blames for the death of her child.
Les Miserables by Victor Hugo.
Although the climax of this famous book takes place during the Paris student uprising of 1832, the sentiments are so similar to those of the Revolution that it deserves mention here. Also available on video and as an audiobook.
Scaramouche: A Romance of the French Revolution by Rafael Sabatini.
Andre-Louis Moreau, a young attorney determined to take revenge on the corrupt aristocracy, adopts the theatrical character of Scaramouche during the years leading up to the French Revolution. Complex and enjoyable characterization from the creator of The Sea Hawk and Captain Blood.
The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy.
"They seek him here. They seek him there. Those Frenchies seek him everywhere."
Foppish Englishman Sir Percy Blakeney is wealthy, blue-blooded, and an international man of mystery. Posing as the Scarlet Pimpernel, he risks his own life to rescue innocents from the guillotine. But can he trust his secret to his beautiful new wife, the talented French actress Marguerite St. Just?
Also available on video.
A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.
"It was the best of times. It was the worst of times."
Love, hope, and vengeance intermingle in the fires of the French Revolution. This deservedly famous book is one of Dickens' shorter masterpieces and should not be missed. Available on video and as an audiobook.
The Lady and the Duke.
"Beautiful aristocrat Grace Elliott enjoys her comfortable upper-middle class life and warm friendship with her former lover the Duke of Orleans, until the turbulent French Revolution of the 1790s frighteningly begins. Their friendship unravels as Grace risks her life taking in a fugitive against the Duke's wishes. Soon, Grace urges the Duke not to make a horrifying decision. But ultimately she's unable to prevent several bloody fates-- including the possibility of her own."
This video production is based on Journal of My Life during the French Revolution by Grace Elliott.
The Long Affair: Thomas Jefferson and the French Revolution, 1785-1800 by Conor Cruise O'Brien.
The author examines how Jefferson's initial enthusiasm for the French Revolution waned when its egalitarian policies threatened the slave-holding economy of the Southern United States.
Rebellious Hearts: British Women Writers and the French Revolution edited by Adriana Craciun.
In this eBook, 14 essays delve into how the aspirations and aftermath of the French Revolution affected the intellectual sphere of women writers.
The Religious Origins of the French Revolution: From Calvin to the Civil Constitution, 1560-1791 by Dale K. Van Kley.
"Although the French Revolution is associated with efforts to dechristianize the French state and citizenry, it actually had long-term religious -- even Christian -- origins, claims Dale Van Kley in this controversial new book. Looking back at the two and a half centuries that preceded the revolution, Van Kley explores the diverse, often warring religious strands that influenced political events up to the revolution."
Sister Wendy's Story of Painting: The Age of Revolution.
The Industrial Revolution and the French Revolution both played an important part in art history. Part four of a five-part video series.
On the Web
Bastille Day: Wallpapers, Greetings, Recipes
Bastille Day is celebrated today throughout much of the French-speaking world. Here are eCards, a bit of history, classic recipes, and the words to the anthem, La Marseillaise.
Catholic Encyclopedia: French Revolution
This page details the experience of the First Estate, the clergy, during the Revolution, when Catholicism ceased to be the religion of the State in France.
Liberty, Equality, Fraternity: Exploring the French Revolution
This rich site from George Mason University has essays, images, maps, songs, a timeline, and a glossary to make studying the time period a pleasure. Includes materials on Napoleon.
The Marquis de Lafayette and Two Keys to the Bastille
There are local connections to Bastille Day. The French patriot and hero of the American Revolution sent his friend George Washington a key to the Bastille in 1790 as a symbol of freedom and the overthrow of oppression. This artifact is now on display at Mount Vernon. During Lafayette's 1824-25 American tour, he presented another larger key to Bastille to the Alexandria-Washington Lodge No. 22. That key may now be seen at the Museum of the George Washington Masonic National Memorial in Alexandria, Virginia.
Place de la Bastille, Paris
Read a quick history of the French landmark and learn its role in Paris today.