The French Revolution


How a revolution that began with the lofty purposes of the Declaration of Rights and Man and Citizen, a statement of universal individual rights, so rapidly devolved into a Reign of Terror is one of the most vexing questions about the French Revolution. Teachers who have but two or three days (a best-case scenario) to lecture on the French Revolution are often forced to rely on the largely discredited theory that the French Revolution was a creation of the French bourgeoisie and the Terror was a reaction to a proto-socialist worker's movement.

This lesson plan focuses on two competing interpretations of the Terror: one political and the other ideological. The political interpretation claims that the first-generation revolutionaries enshrined individual liberties only to have their aspirations crushed by an escalating set of political crises—the foreign war, the outbreak of civil war in western France, and the political maneuvering of a monarch who became increasingly hostile to the French Revolution. The Terror was, therefore, a political reaction to political and diplomatic circumstances by a revolutionary government under siege.

The ideological interpretation argues that the seeds of the Reign of Terror were already planted in 1789. Rather than creating the individual rights of the citizen, the revolutionaries of 1789, with no political experience on which to draw, drew upon the only political model available, the absolute monarchy. This claim holds that unity of the "nation" was far more important than the rights of the citizen. Onto this, the Revolution grafted the republican ideology of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose concept of a unanimous and infallible "general will" was a comfortable but abstract replacement for the absolute monarchy. However, the abstraction of the nation was a poor substitute for a flesh-and-blood king and thus generated hostility to the Revolution. The foreign and civil wars along with the Reign of Terror, therefore, were symptomatic of the failure to achieve national unity, not the cause of the excesses of the Terror government.

The focus on the debate between individual rights versus the unified nation and the related debate about the origins of the Reign of Terror presented here offers students the opportunity to analyze primary documents, both visual and printed. It also offers a good case study for the interrelationship between ideology and politics. Finally, by focusing on these issues specifically, this lesson should help prepare students for the study of the politics and ideologies of the nineteenth century, especially liberalism, conservatism, and socialism, all of which have connections to the political philosophy of the French Revolution.


  1. To explain the collapse of absolutism in France and the consequences of the political vacuum created by its downfall for the course of the Revolution.

  2. To be able to describe and contrast the two competing ideologies by which French revolutionaries reconstituted France as a nation, rather than a kingdom, and individuals as citizens instead of subjects.

  3. To comprehend and analyze interpretations of the causes of the Reign of Terror as either the creation of specific political circumstances or as the logical consequence of the ideologies of the early Revolution.

  4. To be able to interpret products of revolutionary political culture, such as written and visual political propaganda, as tools in understanding political ideology.

I. The Pre-Revolution Period

While it will be important to explain the various aspects of the pre-Revolution period, such as the financial crisis of the monarchy and the division of French society into distinct orders of clergy, nobility, and commoners, this lesson plan relies heavily on an understanding of Enlightenment philosophy.

The eighteenth-century philosophical movement known as the Enlightenment challenged both the social order and absolute monarchy by questioning the assumptions on which these institutions were based. Rather than accepting tradition as a basis for rule, reason dictated what was best for society and government. Thus, the philosophes of the Enlightenment began to speak of the social contract as a basis for governance and of individual rights.

John Locke, the English philosopher who was influential in France, argued that humans had "inalienable liberties" as individuals. In France, philosophes such as Voltaire promoted the ideology of individual liberty, but Voltaire was far from becoming a democrat. He believed in "enlightened absolutism" as the surest defender of individual liberty. Nevertheless, many of the philosophes of the later Enlightenment, the last two decades prior to the Revolution, such as the Marquis de Condorcet, would support both republicanism and the rights of the individual.

The focus on individual rights, however, was by no means the only voice of the Enlightenment concerning the social contract. The political philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau similarly dealt with the basis of a just form of government and the rights of citizens within that ideal state. However, unlike Locke, who believed that the rights of the individual could never be lost, Rousseau claimed that in the perfect form of government, citizens willingly alienated their rights in the name of the "general will"—that is, the unanimous consent of the citizenry who acted out of civic virtue rather than individual self-interest. The text of Rousseau's Social Contract can be found at the Enlightenment and Human Rights section of George Mason University's website Exploring the French Revolution.

II. The Revolution Begins

A. The Meeting of the Estates-General

Prior to the meeting of the Estates-General, the issue of voting procedures became the dominant political theme, overshadowing specific grievances and reform proposals drawn up by each estate, known as Cahiers de doleances. Tradition mandated that each estate meet separately and vote as an estate, that is, one vote for the clergy, one for the nobility, and one for the commoners.

The Third Estate protested that because they represented the vast majority of the French population, voting should be by head, one vote per delegate. The crown turned the matter over to the Parlement of Paris, who decided that voting initially must be done in the traditional format, but did not forbid the possibility that the format could be amended by the Estates-General itself.

One argument, which certainly contemporaries believed, was that the Parlement's decision was part of an aristocratic reaction to prevent the Third Estate from having a legitimate voice. Abbé Sieyes's pamphlet "What Is the Third Estate?" is one of the more hostile responses to the Parlement's decision.

Once convened at Versailles, the Estates-General became bogged down in a debate over voting. The Third Estate hoped to debate the issue with the other two groups, but the crown provided no clear instruction on how to proceed, other than that the edict of the Paris court should be followed. The impasse led to the breakdown of the Estates-General and the Third Estate's declaration that they alone represented the French nation as the "National Assembly."

This was the beginning of the French Revolution. The defection of members of the First Estate, mostly parish clergy, and a handful of liberal members of the Second Estate to the National Assembly forced the crown to recognize the National Assembly as legitimate.

One approach to the opening of the Estates-General is to examine various images that represented the three orders of France. Some, such as the "The Joyous Accord" and Jacques-Louis David's "The Tennis Court Oath," emphasize the Estates-General and the creation of the National Assembly as a unifying experience. Others, such as "The Third Estate Awakens," stress the divisions between the orders. These images are available on the Exploring the French Revolution website. Search by title.

Activity: Reenacting the Estates-General

Divide the class into three “estates.” The numbers should be roughly divided so that half the class is divided into the First and Second Estates and the remaining half into the Third Estate—this is how the breakdown actually occurred in 1789.

Without the support of some members of the First or Second Estates, even "voting by head" was no guarantee of political victory for the Third Estate. Any proposals by the Third Estate must therefore appeal to some of the other two groups. Some students can be identified as impoverished priests or "enlightened" aristocrats. Have students "fix" the crown's financial crisis.

Students may very well ask how to proceed with their debate, much as did the Estates-General itself. Acting as the crown, the instructor should in fact give little indication of procedure. Hopefully, students will find the only way to agree as to procedure will be through uniting the three separate estates into one group.

Assignment: Document Analysis

Have students write an essay analyzing Sieyes's "What Is the Third Estate?" Is the primary ideological basis for Sieyes Voltaire's individual liberties or Rousseau's general will? Does this foreshadow what would actually transpire in 1789?

B. Popular Reaction and Creating a Constitutional Response

The "people" of France became a force in the Revolution through the taking of the Bastille in Paris on July 14, 1789, and the anti-aristocratic "Great Fear" of the peasantry during the entire summer. These are both important events in the course of the Revolution; however, for the purpose of this lesson plan, they form the backdrop against which the National Assembly was forced to create a new constitution for France.

A response to the Great Fear was the abolition of feudalism on August 5, 1789. This may be viewed as an immediate political response to the Great Fear or as part of the logic of creating a nation that was founded on the general will and therefore unified. The same analysis can be made with the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen of August 26, 1789. This text and the decree abolishing feudalism are also available on the Exploring the French Revolution website.

The Civil Constitution of the Clergy of 1791 was more complicated. Rather than drawing on the American model, which prohibited the establishment of a state church, the Assembly made the Catholic Church an organ of the State, and members of the clergy paid civil servants.

Papal condemnation of the Civil Constitution polarized French society into groups of "good Catholics" versus "good Revolutionaries." However, it is possible to argue that the Civil Constitution of the Clergy was necessary not only because the new government needed to gain control over Church income but also because ideologically, like feudalism, a "separate" corps of clergy prevented true national unity. Therefore, even priests and monks needed to become incorporated into the general will. See, for example, the image "Monks Learning to Exercise" on the Exploring the French Revolution site.


Divide students into groups representing "individual liberties" versus the "general will." Have them debate the merits and failings of specific aspects of the Abolition of Feudalism, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, and the Civil Constitution of the Clergy. Is there ideological consistency in these documents and/or images?

III. The Revolution Radicalizes

The radical phase of the French Revolution, or the Reign of Terror, is currently analyzed as either a reaction to specific events, such as foreign wars and internal counterrevolution, or as the logical consequence of the ideologies of 1789. Historians who view the guiding political ideology of the early Revolution as one dedicated to protecting the individual liberties of "citizens" interpret the stripping away of those liberties as an unfortunate response to the crises created by foreign and civil war. However, many other historians view the Terror as a completion of the ideology of the general will—that in order to create a nation, the rights of the citizen became subordinate to the rights of the nation. War and counterrevolution thus were the symptoms, not the cause, of the failure to achieve unity, and the Terror was the attempt to enshrine the unified general will by force.

There is no question that the Reign of Terror was a complicated and confusing phenomenon. To account for details of the foreign and civil wars, the political struggles between the Jacobins and Girondins, the economic crisis, and urban unrest could take almost an entire course itself. One way to approach the Reign of Terror is by using the trial of Louis XVI as a case study. Royal recalcitrance toward the Revolutionary government, which accelerated following his failed attempt to flee France in 1791, eventually led to his arrest, trial as a traitor, and execution.

Analysis of the numerous documents in the Exploring the French Revolution database (search: "trial King") exposes both interpretations of the Reign of Terror. Having the monarch become an enemy of the Revolution certainly created a political crisis to which the Reign of Terror may well have been a response. However, many of the documents also demonstrate that the king was no more exempt from the dictates of the general will and therefore no more or less a part of the greater nation than any other individual.

Activity: The King's Trial

Assign roles to individual students and recreate the trial of Louis XVI (or Citizen Capet, as the charge formally read). Students without specific parts serve as the Constituent Assembly (formerly the National Assembly) and the jury. Those on the side of the prosecution can be further divided into advocates for the general will and those who support the trial because of political necessity. Similarly, the defense can be divided into two groups: one of "absolutists" who might argue that the king by definition can never be a traitor, and another of "individual rights" supporters who might claim that although the monarch was no different than any other citizen, his trial was a violation of his individual rights in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen.

Assignment: The Constitutions of 1789 and 1793

A second approach to the Reign of Terror is through a document analysis of the Declaration of Rights within the French constitutions of 1789 and 1793. Again, the theory of circumstance will see the rights outlined in 1789 to be basic and individual while those of 1793 to be radically different. The alternate interpretation would view the rights outlined in 1793 as only an intensification of the same political ideology present in the Declaration of 1789. Ask students to write an essay comparing and contrasting the two views.

IV. The Rise of Napoleon

In many ways, the downfall of Robespierre and the collapse of the Terror government set the stage for the Napoleonic dictatorship, just as 1789 perhaps set the stage for the Terror. Over the course of the Directory, the government hoped to avoid the excesses of the radical revolution by maintaining a "middle ground" between Jacobinism and the resurgent aristocratic and monarchical movement that returned to France after the Thermidorian Reaction.

In order to preserve moderate politics, the Directory interfered with elections for the Council of 500 (the lower house of the post-Terror government) by nullifying election results that leaned either too far to the left or the right. Hence, the Directory increasingly invalidated its own constitution, was ineffective in governing, and made the 1799 Brumaire Coup of Napoleon, Abbé Sieyes, and Roger Ducos possible.

Napoleon is, of course, as controversial as the Terror. Having claimed, "The revolution is over!" upon his seizure of power during the Brumaire Coup, he portrayed himself as the savior of the Revolution, bringing it to a successful completion. Indeed, his Civil Code, although harsh, was perhaps no worse than the laws passed by the Terror government. And with the Code, France was truly unified under a single code of law, with a political leader who possessed the power to enforce it.

However, Napoleon also restored the aristocracy, although his nobility was open to men of talent, not birthright, and he plunged France into a war of empire. In the end, Napoleon did not look much different than the absolute monarchs of the pre-Revolution period.

Additional Resources


Baker, Keith Michael. Inventing the French Revolution: Essays on French Political Culture in the Eighteenth Century. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
This is one of the best studies of the impact of Rousseau's political philosophy on the French Revolution.

de Tocqueville, Alexis. The Old Regime and the French Revolution. Translated by Stuart Gilbert. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1955.
This nineteenth-century classic originated the interpretation that the Terror originated in 1789.

Doyle, William. The Origins of the French Revolution. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1982.
See part 1 of this book for an excellent overview of the various interpretations of the French Revolution, including strengths and weaknesses of each.

Doyle, William. The Oxford History of the French Revolution. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.
This study favors the interpretation of individual rights and the circumstantial origins of the Reign of Terror, stressing the role of the foreign war.

Furet, Francois. "The Revolution Is Over." In Interpreting the French Revolution. Edited by Francois Furet. Translated by Elborg Forster. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1981.
This essay focuses on the relationship between the events of 1789 and Old Regime absolutism leading to the Reign of Terror.

Hunt, Lynn. Politics, Culture, and Class in the French Revolution. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.
An excellent study of revolutionary imagery, offers a compelling synthesis between the individual rights and circumstantial interpretations of the origins of the Terror.

Sutherland, Donald M. G. France, 1789-1815: Revolution and Counterrevolution. London: Fontana Press/Collins, 1985.
This falls into the circumstantial origins of the Terror interpretation and emphasizes internal social divide and conflict.