The French Revolution of 1789

Although the origins of the French Revolution lie in growing social unrest and intellectual agitation against the French monarchy, the trigger for revolt was financial. Food shortages and poor harvests saw the price of bread soar, causing widespread deprivation among the peasantry and working classes. French participation in the American revolutionary war had saddled the nation with massive debts, which urgently needed to be resolved.


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The French king Louis XVI (1754–93), realizing that the situation was desperate, and that the measures needed to resolve it would require broad support, reluctantly summoned the Estates General in 1789 to reform the taxation system. This was the first time the body had been summoned since 1614. The Estates General refused to endorse the king’s demands, and confronted Louis with a series of demands for social and financial reform that he was unwilling to accept. The “Third Estate” – the assembly of commoners – openly demanded radical change, and proclaimed themselves as representatives of the people. Although some concessions were made, they were not enough. Angered by the lack of serious reforms, protesters took to the streets of Paris. On July 14, 1789, a mob stormed the Bastille – a fortress used to house political prisoners. The fall of the Bastille became an icon of a revo- lution that captured the imagination of the French public.

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