The French Revolution (1789–1799)

by: History SparkNotes

Key People

Napoleon Bonaparte

A general in the French army and leader of the 1799 coup that overthrew the Directory. Napoleon’s accession marked the end of the French Revolution and the beginning of Napoleonic France and Europe.

Jacques-Pierre Brissot

A member of the Legislative Assembly and National Convention who held a moderate stance and believed in the idea of a constitutional monarchy. Brissot’s followers, initially known simply as Brissotins, eventually became known more generally as the Girondins. After unsuccessfully declaring war on Austria and Prussia, Brissot was removed from the National Convention and, like many Girondin leaders, lost his life at the guillotine during the Reign of Terror in 1793–1794.

Charles de Calonne

The controller general of finance appointed by King Louis XVI after Jacques Necker was forced out of office in 1781. Calonne proposed a daring plan to shift the French tax burden from the poor to wealthy nobles and businessmen, suggesting a tax on land proportional to land values and a lessened tax burden for peasants. The French nobility, however, refused to pay these taxes.

Lazare Carnot

A French soldier appointed by the Committee of Public Safety to help reorganize the failing war effort against Austria and Prussia. Carnot did so very effectively and made enough of a name for himself to earn a seat as one of the first members of the Directory. Although he was removed from this position during the overthrow of September 4, 1797, he went on to hold various posts in future governments.

Marquis de Lafayette

A liberal nobleman who led French forces assisting in the American Revolution. The common people of France revered Lafayette as an idealistic man who was dedicated to liberty and the principles of the Revolution. Although Lafayette organized the National Guard of armed citizens to protect the Revolution from attack by the king, he balked as the Revolution became more radical.

Louis XVI

The French king from 1774 to 1792 who was deposed during the French Revolution and executed in 1793. Louis XVI inherited the debt problem left by his grandfather, Louis XV, and added to the crisis himself through heavy spending during France’s involvement in the American Revolution from 1775 to 1783. Because this massive debt overwhelmed all of his financial consultants, Louis XVI was forced to give in to the demands of the Parlement of Paris and convene the Estates-General—an action that led directly to the outbreak of the Revolution. Louis XVI was deposed in 1792 and executed a year later.


The wife of King Louis XVI and, in the French commoners’ eyes, the primary symbol of the French royalty’s extravagance and excess. When Marie-Antoinette was executed in 1793, she was dressed in a plain dress, common to the poorest in French society.

Jacques Necker

A Swiss-born banker who served as France’s director general of finance in the late 1770s, with high hopes of instituting reform. As it turned out, Necker was able only to propose small efforts at eliminating costly inefficiencies. He did produce a government budget, however, for the first time in French history.

Maximilien Robespierre

A brilliant political tactician and leader of the radical Jacobins in the National Assembly. As chairman of the Committee of Public Safety, Robespierre pursued a planned economy and vigorous mobilization for war. He grew increasingly paranoid about counterrevolutionary opposition, however, and during the Reign of Terror of 1793–1794 attempted to silence all enemies of the Revolution in an effort to save France from invasion. After the moderates regained power and the Thermidorian Reaction was under way, they had Robespierre executed on July 28, 1794.

Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès

A liberal member of the clergy, supporter of the Third Estate, and author of the fiery 1789 pamphlet “What Is the Third Estate?” Sieyès was one of the primary leaders of the Third Estate’s effort at political and economic reform in France.