From the beginning of the 20th century until the 1970s, the French Revolution was most

commonly described as the result of the growing economic and social importance of the

bourgeoisie, or middle class. The bourgeoisie, it was believed, overthrew the Old Regime

because that regime had given power and privilege to other classes-the nobility and the

clergy-who prevented the bourgeoisie from advancing socially and politically. Recently

this interpretation has been replaced by one that relies less on social and economic factors

and more on political ones. Economic recession in the 1770s may have frustrated some

bourgeois in their rise to power and wealth, and rising bread prices just before the

Revolution certainly increased discontent among workers and peasants. Yet it is now

commonly believed that the revolutionary process started with a crisis in the French state.

By 1789 many French people had become critical of the monarchy, even though it had

been largely successful in militarily defending France and in quelling domestic religious

and political violence. They resented the rising and unequal taxes, the persecution of

religious minorities, and government interference in their private lives. These resentments,

coupled with an inefficient government and an antiquated legal system, made the government

seem increasingly illegitimate to the French people. The royal court at Versailles, which

had been developed to impress the French people and Europe generally, came to symbolize the

waste and corruption of the entire Old Regime.

In this general crisis, revolutionary leaders began to turn on each other. The Girondins

who favored federalism, fought a battle to the death with the Jacobins, who denounced the

Girondins for lacking revolutionary zeal and for aiding, intentionally or not, counter-

revolutionary forces. The Jacobins already dominated the convention, but on June 2,

pressured by the sans-culottes, they consolidated their power by arresting 22 Girondin


During the following months, the government put down the federalist revolts, sometimes

sevearly. A new democratic constitution was taken up but never implemented. In Robespierre's

view, constitutional government would have to wait until fear and repression had eliminated

the enemies of the Revolution. The Jacobins operated through the existing convention and

agencies responsible to it. They used the Committee of Public Safety, composed of 12 men led

by Robespierre, to provide executive oversight and the Revolutionary Tribunal to try

political cases. Additionally, the Jacobins sent representatives from the convention with

wide-ranging powers to particular areas to enforce Jacobin policies.

The most urgent government business was the war. On August 17th, 1793, the convention

voted the levee en masse, which mobilized all citizens to serve as soldiers or suppliers in

the war effort. To further that effort, the convention quickly enacted more legislation. On

September 5 it approved the Reign of Terror, a policy through which the state used violence

to crush resistance to the government. On September 9th the convention established sans-

culotte paramilitary forces, the so-called revolutionary armies, to force farmers to

surrender grain demanded by the government. On September 17th the Law of Suspects was passed,

which authorized the charging of counter-revolutionaries with vaguely defined "crimes

against liberty." On September 29 the convention extended price-fixing from grain and bread

to other needed goods and fixed wages. On December 4th the national government resumed

oversight of local administration. On February 4th, 1794, it abolished slavery in the

colonies. In the end of it all, Napolean

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