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The French Revolution (1789–1799)

History SparkNotes

Study Questions & Essay Topics

The Directory: 1795–1799

Quiz

Always use specific historical examples to support your arguments.

Study Questions

1.

Although many accounts of the French Revolution focus on the actions of the Girondins and Jacobins, nearly every major step of the Revolution was incited by the sans-culottes. Support or refute this statement.

A recurring theme throughout the French Revolution was the idea that there is power in numbers, and the sans-culottes represented without doubt the best example of the power of the masses. Although the National Assembly was the governing body during the early stages of the Revolution, it had little control over the symbolic events that incited revolutionary fervor, such as the storming of the Bastille, the Great Fear, and the women’s march on Versailles. In fact, it was only in response to these spontaneous, unplanned events that concrete policy changes such as the August Decrees were passed.

Later in the Revolution, the sans-culottes continued to prove influential, as they were involved in the storming of Tuileries, which led to King Louis XVI’s deposition, and stormed the National Convention, which gave Robespierre and the Jacobins the opportunity to take control. Although the Reign of Terror and subsequent Thermidorian Reaction suppressed sansculotte activity later in the Revolution, the decline was also due in part to diminished revolutionary spirit and apathy on the part of the government of the Directory. Nevertheless, in the crucial early and middle stages of the Revolution, the sans-culottes proved to be remarkably effective at forcing change—change that otherwise might not have occurred.

2.

Although the financial crisis of the ancien régime was the immediate spark that set off the French Revolution, which broader factors within France contributed to the Revolution?

In adhering to an outdated and essentially baseless feudal system, the aristocracy and monarchy of France provided the true impetus for the French Revolution. In the years leading up to the Revolution, France was riddled with unsustainable economic and cultural disparities: it showed a decadent facade to the world while actually facing catastrophic debt, and boasted some of the greatest minds of the Enlightenment, though its populace was overwhelmingly illiterate and poor.

Perhaps most destabilizing factor was the growing class disparity between the emerging wealthy bourgeoisie and the old nobility. Despite the fact that the nobility were titled and the bourgeoisie were not, many of the bourgeoisie were far wealthier than the “blue-blooded” but financially strapped aristocrats. As the nobility continued to try to claim special privileges over their hardworking bourgeoisie counterparts, it was inevitable that the bourgeoisie would grow angry and resentful.

At the same time, discontent grew among the lower classes as landlords in the countryside continued to bind peasants to outdated, oppressive feudal contracts that were often difficult to fulfill. Simply put, with Enlightenment ideas spreading through France in the late 1700s, it became increasingly obvious that the French nobility wielded a disproportionate amount of power and privilege for no apparent reason. The revolutionaries, with their cries of “Liberty!” and “Equality!”, sought to change that.

3.

Assess the validity of this statement: by attempting to escape from France in June 1791, Louis XVI effectively destroyed the prospect of a moderate Revolution resulting in the installation of a limited or constitutional monarchy.

By definition, a constitutional monarchy needs two things: a constitution and a monarch. By late 1791, France had a constitution, as the National Assembly had presented the new Constitution of 1791 in September. The credibility of the monarch, however, was suspect. Up until his attempted escape from France with his family in June 1791, King Louis XVI had enjoyed vehement backing from moderates within the National Assembly. Jacques-Pierre Brissot and his followers, the Girondins, had sought a constitutional monarchy since the very beginning of the Revolution—much to the chagrin of the radical democratic Jacobins—and had constructed the 1791 constitution around the principle of limited monarchy.

However, the fact that the king tried to run away from the very constitutional monarchy to which he had agreed made it clear that he had given up on the new government. This development made it difficult, if not impossible, for Brissot and the Girondins to defend their pro–constitutional monarchy stance. The Jacobins, who had detested the idea of a king from the beginning, were able to take advantage of the Girondins’ weakened position and take control of the government. With Louis XVI having destroyed the credibility of the proposed constitutional monarchy, there was little to prevent the radicals from declaring France a republic, as the Girondins could no longer justify any other feasible form of government.

Suggested Essay Topics

1. To what extent was the French nobility responsible for the crisis that destroyed the ancien régime?

2. What role did women play in the Revolution? Were they simply a reactionary force—as when bread shortages prompted a march on Versailles—or an active part of the revolutionary public?

3. To what extent did the Thermidorian Reaction owe its success to the excesses of Maximilien Robespierre?

4. Make an argument as to which governmental arrangement—monarchial rule, the National Assembly’s constitutional monarchy, the National Convention’s republic, or the Directory—was best suited to revolutionary France.

5. What problems in France and beyond contributed to the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte?

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