French Revolution Timeline

With France in tremendous debt and more than 90% of its people facing food shortages, King Louis XVI found himself growing desperate at the end of the 18th century. On May 5, 1789, he called for a meeting of the Estates General, which was something like a Parliament, which hadn’t met for over 100 years. Members of the Estates General included representatives from all three Estates in the French social hierarchy, although there was an overrepresentation of people from the 3rd Estate. Unfortunately, they couldn’t come to much of a consensus during this meeting regarding how to address the huge royal debt that Louis XVI had accrued.

Shortly after, the summer of 1789 ushered in a period known as The Great Fear (or la Grande Peur in French). There was a general panic among the members of the lower estate, the 3rd Estate, that the higher ranking individuals of the country were plotting against them. It didn’t help that in June of 1789, members of the Third Estate - who would commonly meet up to discuss political issues - found that their meeting house had been locked, and they supposed the King was responsible for it. They therefore moved their meeting to a tennis court in Versailles, and on June 20, they signed the Tennis Court Oath. As part of this Oath, the Third Estate declared itself the National Assembly and agreed that they would not stop meeting until they could force a new constitution on the King.

One of the first major acts of the French Revolution would occur on July 14, 1789, and is celebrated today as Bastille Day. On this day, a mob from Paris stormed the Bastille - which was a fortress that kept political prisoners - and set them free. The mob also beheaded the prison guard and his accompanying officers.

Another was the adoption of the Declaration of the Rights of Man, which was approved by the National Assembly on August 26, 1789. The document spoke of the rights of men as they related to freedom, political assembly, and the law. Shortly after, on October 5 of that same year, an angry mob of nearly 1,000 armed women marched from Paris to Versailles to protest the rising costs of bread. Bread was already a scarce commodity, and it was also a staple to everyday meals, but tensions flared when people saw their basic necessities virtually disappear. It also didn’t help that the King up until that point had been flaunting his lavish lifestyle. Thus, the women converged and engaged in their historic March on Versailles.

King Louis XVI was eventually found guilty of treason and was executed by the guillotine on January 21, 1793, by the Radical Republicans. One of the champions of the King’s overthrow, a man named Maximilien de Robespierre, would thrust the country into what became known as the Reign of Terror, a horrific period of time in which any individual who was accused of questioning the Revolution would be jailed or killed. The irony in this was that Robespierre had been named the head of the committee on Public Safety, yet thousands were executed under his command during this time.

Queen Marie Antoinette, King Louis XVI’s wife, was also found guilty of treason and was beheaded for those crimes on October 16, 1793. Like her husband, she was executed by the guillotine. Months later, on July 28, 1794, Robespierre would become a third high ranking individual to meet his fate with the guillotine. He was overthrown by the National Convention and was later executed.

Finally, although they tried to move away from an autocratic reign, Napoleon assumed dictatorial power as 1st Council of the Republic on November 9, 1799, and later, he was crowned the Emperor of France.

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