The French Revolution invented modern revolution —the idea that humans can transform the world according to a plan—and so has a central place in the study of the social sciences. It ushered in modernity by destroying the foundations of the “Old Regime”—absolutist politics, legal inequality, a “feudal” economy (characterized by guilds, manorialism, and even serfdom), an alliance of church and state, and created a vision for a new moral universe: that sovereignty resides in nations; that a constitution and the rule of law govern politics; that people are equal and enjoy inalienable rights; and that church and state should be separate. That vision is enshrined in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen of 1789, whose proclamation of “natural, imprescriptible, and inalienable” rights served as the model for the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Eighteenth-century France experienced overlapping tensions that erupted in revolution in 1789. First, the Enlightenment contributed to an environment in which revolution was possible by its insistence on reforming institutions to comply with standards of reason and utility. Furthermore, it coincided with the rise of public opinion, which undermined the absolutist notion that political decisions required no consultation or tolerated no opposition. Second, the French state faced bankruptcy because of a regressive and inefficient tax system as well as participation in the Seven Years War (1756–1763) and the War of American Independence (1775–1783). Third, France witnessed endemic political strife in the eighteenth century. Technically absolutist monarchs who ruled by divine right and who exercised sovereignty without the interference of representative institutions, French kings in reality met with opposition to their policies from the noble magistrates of the highest law courts (Parlements), who resisted fiscal reforms in the name of protecting traditional rights from arbitrary authority. Finally, while class conflict did not cause revolution, there existed stress zones in French society, as a growing population threatened many people with destitution and as talented commoners chafed at their exclusion from high offices in the church, state, and military. Economic problems intensified after bad weather doubled the price of bread in 1789.
These tensions reached a crisis point in the “prerevolution” from 1787 to 1789. To deal with impending fiscal insolvency, the government convened an Assembly of Notables in 1787 to propose a new tax levied on all land and the convocation of advisory provincial assemblies.
Repeated resistance to reform by the notables and Parlements forced Louis XVI (ruled 1774–1792) to convene the Estates-General, a representative body composed of clergy, nobles, and the Third Estate that had not met since 1614. The calling of the Estates-General in 1789 led to a debate over the leadership of reform, and France’s struggle against royal despotism soon became a struggle against noble and clerical privilege. In this context, Emmanuel Sieyès’s pamphlet “What Is the Third Estate?” galvanized patriot opinion by responding “Everything!” and by portraying the privileged groups as unproductive parasites on the body politic.
During a stalemate over whether the estates should vote by order or head, the Third Estate claimed on June 17 that it formed a National Assembly with the authority to write a constitution. This step transferred sovereignty from the king to the nation and constituted a legal revolution. The legal revolution was protected by a popular revolution on July 14 when the people of Paris stormed the Bastille fortress in search of weapons. Popular participation continued to radicalize the revolution. In the countryside, a peasant insurgency against manorial dues and church tithes prompted the National Assembly to decree the “abolition of feudalism” on August 4.
The revolution had three phases. The liberal phase found France under a constitutional monarchy during the National Assembly (1789–1791) and Legislative Assembly (1791–1792). After the destruction of absolutism and feudalism, legislation in this period guaranteed individual liberty, promoted secularism, and favored educated property owners. The aforementioned Declaration of Rights proclaimed freedom of thought, worship, and assembly as well as freedom from arbitrary arrest; it enshrined the principles of careers open to talent and equality before the law, and it hailed property as a sacred right (similarly, the National Assembly limited the vote to men with property). Other laws, enacted in conformity with reason, contributed to the “new regime.” They offered full rights to Protestants and Jews, thereby divorcing religion from citizenship; they abolished guilds and internal tolls and opened trades to all people, thereby creating the conditions for economic individualism; they rationalized France’s administration, creating departments in the place of provinces and giving them uniform and reformed institutions. Significantly, the National Assembly restructured the French Catholic Church, expropriating church lands, abolishing most monastic orders, and redrawing diocesan boundaries.
The revolution did not end despite the promulgation of the constitution of 1791. King Louis XVI had never reconciled himself to the revolution and as a devout Catholic was distressed after the pope condemned the restructuring of the church (known as the Civil Constitution of the Clergy). Ultimately, the king attempted to flee France on June 20, 1791, but was stopped at Varennes. Radicalism constituted another problem for the assembly, for Parisian artisans and shopkeepers (called sans-culottes ) resented their formal exclusion from politics in the Constitution and demanded legislation to deal with France’s economic crisis and the revolution’s enemies, particularly nobles and priests. After Varennes, radicals called increasingly for a republic. In addition, revolutionaries’ fears of foreign nations and counterrevolutionary émigrés led to a declaration of war against Austria in April 1792. France’s crusade against despotism began badly, and Louis XVI’s veto of wartime measures appeared treasonous. On August 10, 1792, a revolutionary crowd attacked the royal palace. This “second revolution” overthrew the monarchy and resulted in the convocation of a democratically elected National Convention, which declared France a republic on September 22, 1792, and subsequently tried and executed the king.
The revolution’s second, radical phase lasted from August 10, 1792, until the fall of Maximilien Robespierre (1758–1794) on July 27, 1794. The Convention’s new declaration of rights and constitution in 1793 captured the regime’s egalitarian social and political ideals and distinguished it from the liberal phase by proclaiming universal manhood suffrage, the right to education and subsistence, and the “common good” as the goal of society. The constitution, however, was never implemented amid the emergency situation resulting from civil war in the west (the Vendée), widespread revolts against the Convention, economic chaos, and foreign war against Austrian, Prussia, Britain, Holland, and Spain. Faced with imminent collapse in the summer of 1793, by spring 1794 the government had “saved” the revolution and organized military victories on all fronts.
The stunning change of events stemmed from the revolutionaries’ three-pronged strategy under the leadership of Robespierre and the Committee of Public Safety. First, they established a planned economy, including price controls and nationalized workshops, for a total war effort. The planned economy largely provided bread for the poor and matériel for the army. Second, the government forced unity and limited political opposition through a Reign of Terror. Under the Terror, the Revolutionary Tribunal tried “enemies of the nation,” some 40,000 of whom were executed—often by guillotine—or died in jail; another 300,000 people languished in prison under a vague “law of suspects.” The unleashing of terrorism to silence political opponents imposed order at the cost of freedom. It raised complex moral issues about means and ends and has led to vigorous historical debate: Was the Terror an understandable response to the emergency, one that saved the revolution from a return of the Old Regime, or was it a harbinger of totalitarianism that sacrificed individual life and liberty to an all-powerful state and the abstract goal of regenerating humankind? Finally, the revolutionary government harnessed the explosive force of nationalism. Unified by common institutions and a share of sovereign power, desirous of protecting the gains of revolution, and guided by a national mission to spread the gospel of freedom, patriotic French treated the revolutionary wars as a secular crusade. The combination of a planned economy, the Reign of Terror, and revolutionary nationalism allowed for a full-scale mobilization of resources that drove foreign armies from French soil at the Battle of Fleurus on June 26, 1794.
The revolution’s third phase, the Thermidorian and Directory periods, commenced with the overthrow of Robespierre and the dismantling of the Terror on 9 Thermidor (July 27, 1794) and lasted until the coup d’état on November 9, 1799, that brought Napoléon Bonaparte (1769–1821) to power. A new constitution in 1795 rendered France a liberal republic under a five-man executive called the Directory. The reappearance of property qualifications for political office sought to guarantee the supremacy of the middle classes in politics and to avoid the anarchy that stemmed from popular participation. The seesaw politics of the Directory, which steered a middle course between left-wing radicalism and right-wing royalism, witnessed the annulment of electoral victories by royalists in 1797 and by radicals (Jacobins) in 1798 and undermined faith in the new constitution. Similarly, the regime won enemies with its attacks on Catholic worship while failing to rally educated and propertied elites in support of its policies. Initially, continued military victories by French armies (including those by Napoléon in Italy) buttressed the regime. But the reversal of military fortunes in 1799 and ten years of revolutionary upheaval prompted plotters to revise the constitution in a more authoritarian direction. In Napoléon, the plotters found their man as well as nearly continual warfare until 1815. “Citizens,” he announced, “the Revolution is established on the principles with which it began. It is over.”
The French Revolution is the quintessential revolution in modern history, its radicalism resting on a rejection of the French past and a vision of a new order based on universal rights and legal equality. The slogan “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, or Death” embodies revolutionaries’ vision for a new world and their commitment to die for the cause. Both aspects of the slogan influenced subsequent struggles for freedom throughout the world, but one might look at the French slave colony of Saint-Domingue for an example. On Saint-Domingue the outbreak of revolution received acclaim by the lower classes among the 30,000 whites, while planters opposed talk of liberty and equality and the destruction of privileges. Revolutionary ideals also quickly spread among the island’s 30,000 free people of color (affranchis ), who, despite owning property and indeed slaves, suffered racial discrimination. Free people of color demanded full civil and political rights after 1789, but the denial of these rights resulted in a rebellion of the affranchis that was brutally repressed. In 1791 Saint-Domingue’s 450,000 slaves commenced the most successful slave revolt in history. Tensions among whites, mixed-race people, and slaves were exacerbated by British and Spanish actions to weaken their French rival, creating chaos on the island. The Convention’s commitment to equality and desire to win the allegiance of rebels resulted in the abolition of slavery in 1794. A later attempt by Napoléon to reinstate bondage on Saint-Domingue failed despite the capture of the ex-slaves’ skilled leader, Toussaint Louverture (c. 1743–1803), and the slave uprising culminated in the creation of an independent Haiti in 1804. Revolutionary principles of liberty and equality had led to national liberation and racial equality.
One also sees the revolution’s significance in the fact that nineteenth-century ideologies traced their origins to the event. Conservatism rejected the radical change and emphasis on reason of the revolution, while liberalism reveled in the ideals of individual liberty and legal (but not social) equality of 1789. Nationalists treated the concept of national sovereignty as a call to awaken from their slumber in divided states or multiethnic empires. Democratic republicans celebrated the radical phase, finding in its democratic politics and concern for the poor a statement of egalitarianism and incipient social democracy. Socialists perceived in the sans culotte phenomenon the rumblings of a working-class movement, while communists considered the Russian Revolution of 1917 the fulfillment of the aborted proletarian revolution of 1792–1794.
For much of the twentieth century Marxist historians understood the revolution as the triumph of a capitalist bourgeoisie and considered it a bloc (in other words, the radical phase of 1792–1794 was necessary to protect the gains of 1789–1791). Revisionists destroyed this view, treating the revolution as the triumph of a new political culture instead of a new social class and whose main outcome was the realization of the absolutist dream of a strong centralized state rather than a complete break with the past. The revisionists’ denial of social class as an important factor in the revolution opened the field to cultural studies and a focus on marginalized groups such as women and slaves. But the revisionist interpretation has failed to achieve consensus, and scholars continue to dispute the revolution’s legacy. According to the neo-democratic view, the declaration of universal human rights, abolition of slavery, and pattern of modern democratic politics give the revolution a foundational place in the struggle for a better world. For revisionists, the violence of the Terror, the destruction of revolutionary wars, the silencing of dissidents and Catholic worshipers, and the formation of a powerful centralized state render the revolution a source of twentieth-century political horrors ranging from nationalist wars to totalitarian regimes.
Students frequently puzzle over the significance of the revolution when, after all, the Bourbons were restored to the French throne after Napoléon’s final exile in 1815. But the restoration never undid the major gains of the revolution, which included the destruction of absolutism, manorialism, legal inequality, and clerical privilege, as well as commitments to representative government, a constitution, and careers open to talent. Once the revolutionary genie announced the principles of national sovereignty, natural rights, freedom, and equality, history has shown that it could not be put back in the bottle.
SEE ALSO Constitutionalism; Constitutions; Democracy; Jacobinism; Monarchy; Napoléon Bonaparte; Revolution
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Doyle, William. 2002. Oxford History of the French Revolution, 2nd ed. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press.
Dubois, Laurent. 2004. Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Furet, François, and Mona Ozouf, eds. 1989. A Critical Dictionary of the French Revolution. Trans. Arthur Goldhammer. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Palmer, R. R. 1969. Twelve Who Ruled : The Year of the Terror in the French Revolution. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Tackett, Timothy. 1996. Becoming a Revolutionary: The Deputies of the French National Assembly and the Emergence of a Revolutionary Culture (1789-1790). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
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"French Revolution." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. 2008. Encyclopedia.com. (August 29, 2016). http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3045300863.html
"French Revolution." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. 2008. Retrieved August 29, 2016 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3045300863.html
French Revolution, political upheaval of world importance in France that began in 1789.
Origins of the Revolution
Historians disagree in evaluating the factors that brought about the Revolution. To some extent at least, it came not because France was backward, but because the country's economic and intellectual development was not matched by social and political change. In the fixed order of the ancien régime, most bourgeois were unable to exercise commensurate political and social influence. King Louis XIV, by consolidating absolute monarchy, had destroyed the roots of feudalism; yet outward feudal forms persisted and became increasingly burdensome.
France was still governed by privileged groups—the nobility and the clergy—while the productive classes were taxed heavily to pay for foreign wars, court extravagance, and a rising national debt. For the most part, peasants were small landholders or tenant farmers, subject to feudal dues, to the royal agents indirect farming (collecting) taxes, to the corvée (forced labor), and to tithes and other impositions. Backward agricultural methods and internal tariff barriers caused recurrent food shortages, which netted fortunes to grain speculators, and rural overpopulation created land hunger.
In addition to the economic and social difficulties, the ancien régime was undermined intellectually by the apostles of the Enlightenment. Voltaire attacked the church and absolutism; Denis Diderot and the Encyclopédie advocated social utility and attacked tradition; the baron de Montesquieu made English constitutionalism fashionable; and the marquis de Condorcet preached his faith in progress. Most direct in his influence on Revolutionary thought was J. J. Rousseau, especially through his dogma of popular sovereignty. Economic reform, advocated by the physiocrats and attempted (1774–76) by A. R. J. Turgot, was thwarted by the unwillingness of privileged groups to sacrifice any privileges and by the king's failure to support strong measures.
The direct cause of the Revolution was the chaotic state of government finance. Director general of finances Jacques Necker vainly sought to restore public confidence. French participation in the American Revolution had increased the huge debt, and Necker's successor, Charles Alexandre de Calonne, called an Assembly of Notables (1787), hoping to avert bankruptcy by inducing the privileged classes to share in the financial burden. They refused in an effort to protect economic privileges.
The Estates-General and the National Assembly
Étienne Charles Loménie de Brienne succeeded Calonne. His attempts to procure money were thwarted by the Parlement of Paris (see parlement), and King Louis XVI was forced to agree to the calling of the States-General. Elections were ordered in 1788, and on May 5, 1789, for the first time since 1614, the States-General met at Versailles. The chief purpose of the king and of Necker, who had been recalled, was to obtain the assembly's consent to a general fiscal reform.
Each of the three estates—clergy, nobility, and the third estate, or commons—presented its particular grievances to the crown. Innumerable cahiers (lists of grievances) came pouring in from the provinces, and it became clear that sweeping political and social reforms, far exceeding the object of its meeting, were expected from the States-General. The aspirations of the bourgeoisie were expressed by Abbé Sieyès in a widely circulated pamphlet that implied that the third estate and the nation were virtually identical. The question soon arose whether the estates should meet separately and vote by order or meet jointly and vote by head (thus assuring a majority for the third estate, whose membership had been doubled).
As Louis XVI wavered, the deputies of the third estate defiantly proclaimed themselves the National Assembly (June 17); on their invitation, many members of the lower clergy and a few nobles joined them. When the king had their meeting place closed, they adjourned to an indoor tennis court, the jeu de paume, and there took an oath (June 20) not to disband until a constitution had been drawn up. On June 27 the king yielded and legalized the National Assembly. At the same time, however, he surrounded Versailles with troops and let himself be persuaded by a court faction, which included the queen, Marie Antoinette, to dismiss (July 11) Necker.
The Revolution of 1789
Parisians mobilized, and on July 14 stormed the Bastille fortress. Louis XVI meekly recalled Necker and went to the Hôtel de Ville in Paris, where he accepted the tricolor cockade of the Revolution from the newly formed municipal government, or commune. The national guard was organized under the marquis de Lafayette. This first outbreak of violence marked the entry of the popular classes into the Revolution. Mobilized by alarm over food shortages and economic depression, by hopes aroused with the calling of the States-General, and by the fear of an aristocratic conspiracy, peasants pillaged and burned châteaus, destroying records of feudal dues; this reaction is known as the grande peur [great fear].
On Aug. 4, the nobles and clergy in the Assembly, driven partly by fear and partly by an outburst of idealism, relinquished their privileges, abolishing in one night the feudal structure of France. Shortly afterward, the Assembly adopted the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. Rumors of counterrevolutionary court intrigues circulated, and on Oct. 5, 1789, a Parisian crowd, aroused by rising food prices, marched to Versailles and brought the king and queen, "the baker and the baker's wife," back to the Tuileries palace in Paris. The Assembly also removed to Paris, where it drafted a constitution. Completed in 1791, the constitution created a limited monarchy with a unicameral legislature elected by voters with property qualifications.
Of gravest consequence were the Assembly's antireligious measures. Church lands were nationalized (1789), religious orders suppressed (1790), and the clergy required (July, 1790) to swear to adhere to the state-controlled Civil Constitution of the Clergy. Only a bare majority (52%) of all priests took the oath; disturbances broke out, especially in W France; and Louis XVI, though forced to assent, was roused to action. Numerous princes and nobles had already fled abroad (see émigré); Louis decided to join them and to obtain foreign aid to restore his authority. The flight (June 20–21, 1791) was halted at Varennes, and the king and queen were brought back in humiliation. Louis accepted the constitution.
Factionalism and War
On Oct. 1, 1791, the Legislative Assembly convened. Some members joined the various political clubs of Paris, such as the Feuillants and Jacobins. Most deputies were middle-of-the-roaders, swayed by the more radical clubs and by the Girondists. Jacobinism was gaining in this period; "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity" became a catch phrase.
Meanwhile abroad, early sympathy for the Revolution was turning to hatred. Émigrés incited the courts of Europe to intervene; in France, war was advocated by the royalists as a means to restore the old regime, but also by many republicans, who either wished to spread the revolution abroad or hoped that the threat of invasion would rally the nation to their cause. The Feuillant, or right-wing, ministers fell and were succeeded by those later called Girondists. On Apr. 20, 1792, war was declared on Austria, and the French Revolutionary Wars began. Early reverses and rumors of treason by the king again led Parisian crowds to direct action.
The Revolution of 1792
An abortive insurrection of June 20, 1792, was followed by a decisive one on Aug. 10, when a crowd stormed the Tuileries and an insurrectionary commune replaced the legally elected one (see Commune of Paris). Under pressure from the commune, the Assembly suspended Louis XVI and ordered elections by universal manhood suffrage for a National Convention to draw up a new constitution. Mass arrests of royalist sympathizers were followed by the September massacres (Sept. 2–7), in which frenzied mobs entered jails throughout Paris and killed approximately 2,000 prisoners, many in grisly fashion.
On Sept. 21, 1792, the Convention held its first meeting. It immediately abolished the monarchy, set up the republic, and proceeded to try the king for treason. His conviction and execution (Jan., 1793) reinforced royalist resistance, notably in the Vendée, and, abroad, contributed to the forming of a wider coalition against France. The Convention undertook the foreign wars with vigor but was itself torn by the power struggle between the Girondists and the Mountain (Jacobins and extreme left). The Girondists were purged in June, 1793. A democratic constitution was approved by 1.8 million voters in a plebiscite, but it never came into force.
The Reign of Terror
Instead of a democracy the Convention established a war dictatorship operating through the Committee of Public Safety, the Committee of General Security, and numerous agencies such as the Revolutionary Tribunal. Known to history as the Reign of Terror, this period represented the efforts of a few men to govern the country and wage war in a time of crisis. Georges Danton and Maximilien Robespierre dominated the new government, with Robespierre gradually gaining over Danton and others. Price and wage maximums were unevenly enforced, and acceptance of the inflated paper currency, the assignats, was made mandatory. A huge number of suspects were arrested; thousands were executed, including Marie Antoinette. A revolutionary calendar, with 10-day weeks, was adopted.
The fanatic Jacques Hébert, who had introduced the worship of a goddess of Reason, was arrested and executed in Mar., 1794, along with other so-called ultrarevolutionaries. The next month Danton and his followers, the "Indulgents," who advocated relaxation of emergency measures, were executed. To counter Hébertist influence, Robespierre proclaimed (June, 1794) the cult of the Supreme Being. France's military successes lessened the need for strong domestic measures, but Robespierre called for new purges. Fearing that the Terror would be turned against them, members of the Convention arrested Robespierre on July 27, 1794 (see Thermidor), and had him guillotined; a majority of Commune members were also executed.
The Directory and the Coming of Napoleon
The Convention drew up a new constitution, setting up the Directory and a bicameral legislature. The constitution went into effect after the royalist insurrection of Vendémiaire (Oct., 1795) had been put down by armed force. The rule of the Directory was marked by corruption, financial difficulties, political purges, and a fateful dependence on the army to maintain control. Conflict among the five directors led to the coup of 18 Fructidor (Sept. 4, 1797).
Discontent with Directory rule was increased by military reverses. In 1799 Napoleon Bonaparte, the hero of the Italian campaign, returned from his Egyptian expedition and, with the support of the army and several government members, overthrew the Directory on 18 Brumaire (Nov. 9) and established the Consulate. Until the Restoration of the Bourbons (1814), Napoleon (see Napoleon I) ruled France.
Effects of the Revolution
The French Revolution, though it seemed a failure in 1799 and appeared nullified by 1815, had far-reaching results. In France the bourgeois and landowning classes emerged as the dominant power. Feudalism was dead; social order and contractual relations were consolidated by the Code Napoléon. The Revolution unified France and enhanced the power of the national state. The Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars tore down the ancient structure of Europe, hastened the advent of nationalism, and inaugurated the era of modern, total warfare.
Although some historians view the Reign of Terror as an ominous precursor of modern totalitarianism, others argue that this ignores the vital role the Revolution played in establishing the precedents of such democratic institutions as elections, representative government, and constitutions. The failed attempts of the urban lower middle classes to secure economic and political gains foreshadowed the class conflicts of the 19th cent. While major historical interpretations of the French Revolution differ greatly, nearly all agree that it had an extraordinary influence on the making of the modern world.
See the older works by Guizot, Jules Michelet, Alexis de Tocqueville, Louis Blanc, Edgar Quinet, and H. A. Taine; the great modern studies by Alphonse Aulard, Albert Mathiez, and Georges Lefebvre; the diplomatic history by Albert Sorel; the socialist interpretation of Jean Jaurès; P. Gaxotte, The French Revolution (1928), a royalist account.
See also J. M. Thompson, The French Revolution (1945); N. Hampson, A Social History of the French Revolution (1963); W. Doyle, Origins of the French Revolution (1988) and The Oxford History of the French Revolution (1989); S. Schama, Citizens (1989); R. Cobb, The French and Their Revolution (1999); D. Andress, The Terror (2006); T. Tackett, The Coming of Terror in the French Revolution (2015).
On the historiography of the French Revolution, see P. Farmer, France Reviews Its Revolutionary Origins (1944, repr. 1963); D. Sutherland, France, 1789–1815: Revolution and Counterrevolution (1986); and F. Furet and M. Ouzouf, A Critical Dictionary of the French Revolution (tr. A. Goldhammer, 1989).
"French Revolution." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. 2016. Encyclopedia.com. (August 29, 2016). http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1E1-FrenchRe.html
"French Revolution." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. 2016. Retrieved August 29, 2016 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1E1-FrenchRe.html
"French Revolution." World Encyclopedia. 2005. Encyclopedia.com. (August 29, 2016). http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1O142-FrenchRevolution.html
"French Revolution." World Encyclopedia. 2005. Retrieved August 29, 2016 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1O142-FrenchRevolution.html