France in the late 1780s was a powder keg. The royal coffers were empty, the lower classes were starving, and the people were at a breaking point. Desperate peasants stormed the Bastille. King Louis XVI called a National Assembly to revise the French constitution but refused to agree to the proposed changes. The royal family was forced out of Versailles, taking residence in Paris. Over the next two years, the monarchy would be systematically dismantled. Finally, the king and queen were executed, and the First Republic was born.
Here are 7 figures to know from the French Revolution.
1. Louis XVI
Louis XVI was never supposed to be king. A third son, he received a classical education but was not well-prepared to rule a kingdom. Nevertheless, after the death of his two older brothers, Louis inherited the French throne in 1774.
Though often criticized for being weak and apathetic, Louis XVI was surprisingly progressive for a monarch of his time. Inspired by Enlightenment thinkers, he was a crucial financial supporter of the American Revolution (though his primary motivation was probably to knock Britain down a peg). He also made a series of small, democratic changes at Versailles upon coming into power and was initially receptive to Revolutionary demands for reform.
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Unfortunately, his efforts wouldn’t be enough. Louis XVI was executed by guillotine in 1792, the last king in a monarchy stretching back nearly 1,000 years.
2. Marie Antoinette
Marie Antoinette was just 14 when she married the future king of France. The young archduchess of Austria was not used to the strict protocols and etiquette of the French Court and found life at Versailles to be both lonely and stifling. She was also unhappy in her marriage, which would not be consummated for several years despite intense pressure to provide the monarchy with a male heir.
The future queen distracted herself by throwing lavish parties for a close circle of acquaintances, which included copious amounts of alcohol and gambling. A lover of fashion, she became known for her opulent gowns and elaborate, gravity-defying hairstyles (powdered white with flour even during widespread bread shortages, for which she received significant backlash).
Marie Antoinette was crowned queen at 19 and went on to have three children. Two would die in childhood, including the Dauphin Louis Joseph. By the time of the Revolution, the queen’s lifestyle had calmed down significantly, but her reputation for excess and luxury lived on. She was vilified in the press during the Revolution as being callous and out of touch, falsely accused of responding to the bread shortages with the heartless phrase, “let them eat cake.”
The queen would follow her husband to the guillotine in 1793.
3. Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette
After playing a pivotal role in the American Revolution, America’s favorite fighting Frenchman returned home to France and began working towards a revolution in his own country. The war hero served as a member of the National Assembly and drafted the original Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen with help from Thomas Jefferson. Louis XVI refused to sign the declaration, in large part because it negated the divine right of kings.
Lafayette fled France when the Revolution turned bloody but was later found and imprisoned in Austria (with whom France was at war due to Austria’s vocal opposition to the Revolution). He was eventually released and lived out the remainder of his life in France in relative peace.
4. Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyes
At the time of the Revolution, France was divided into three socioeconomic classes, called Estates: the clergy (First Estate), the wealthy nobility (Second Estate), and the working classes (Third Estate).
Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyes was a Catholic abbot of humble birth who played a significant role in the Revolution. His 1789 pamphlet, What is the Third Estate?, was published in response to the reluctance of Louis XVI and the upper Estates to give the Third Estate an equal say when it came to social reform. The pamphlet put forth the argument that the lower classes were the backbone of France and, as such, the only group who deserved to be heard on these issues.
After the dissolution of the monarchy, Sieyes helped to draft a final copy of Lafayette’s Declaration of the Rights of Man (and voted for the former monarchs’ execution). He was also instrumental in planning the coup that put Napoleon Bonaparte on the throne.
5. Maximilien de Robespierre
Second only to Napoleon Bonaparte, Maximilien de Robespierre is the Revolution’s most notorious figure. Once called “The Incorruptible,” Robespierre began his career as a principled lawyer passionate about equality. As an elected member of the 1789 National Assembly, he was an outspoken, vehement advocate for the will of the people.
After the dissolution of the monarchy, Robespierre became a leading member of the Jacobin Club, a massive political group dedicated to protecting political progress made by the Third Estate from aristocratic interference. He was also one of twelve men chosen to serve on the Committee of Public Safety, tasked with protecting Revolutionary interests at home and abroad.
In 1793, the Revolutionary backlash was reaching a fever pitch. In addition to conflict with Austria and Prussia, France was feeling pressure from Spain, Portugal, and its longstanding rival, Britain. Mass conscription and civil unrest had some French citizens questioning whether the Revolution had been a mistake.
In a desperate grab for control, the Committee for Public Safety passed the Law of Suspects. The law gave local Revolutionary groups the power to arrest any person who – by their conduct, acquaintances, or comments – was suspected of anti-Revolutionary sentiments. The result was nothing short of a witch hunt.
In less than a year, over a quarter of a million French citizens were arrested under suspicion of being “enemies of freedom.” Thousands died awaiting trial, and thousands more were publicly executed by guillotine. At the head of it all was Maximilien de Robespierre.
By 1794, it was clear that the once-respected politician had become a fanatical, dangerous zealot. Robespierre was arrested by fellow members of the National Convention and executed by guillotine without trial.
6. Jean-Paul Marat
Jean-Paul Marat began his career as a physician and scientist but turned to writing around the time of the Revolution. A member of the National Convention, Marat was initially supportive of the monarchy being reformed, not abolished, but changed his tune after Louis XVI refused to sign the National Convention’s Declaration.
He used his position as a newspaper editor to publish vicious attacks – against the monarchy and fellow Revolutionaries whose actions he deemed too timid. His brazen, outspoken criticisms made him a favorite of the people – and a target.
Marat was stabbed to death in his bathtub in 1793 by Charlotte Corday, a Frenchwoman who blamed Marat for inciting violence – both through his writing and his position on the Committee of General Security (which worked in tandem with the Committee of Public Safety during the Reign of Terror). Fellow Convention member Jacques-Louis David painted the now-famous The Death of Marat in memory of his friend and colleague.
7. Napoleon Bonaparte
Napoleon Bonaparte is a name synonymous with the French Revolution. Born Napoleon Buonaparte in Corsica (an island recently acquired by France from Genoa, Italy), he received a military education in France thanks to his father’s political connections.
Napoleon spent the better part of the next decade bouncing between the French and Corsican militias, settling in France permanently after his family fled Corsica in political exile. He rose steadily through the ranks of the French army, commanding multiple military branches and leading campaigns in the Middle East. His role in quashing a royalist uprising in 1795 garnered him favor with the new Revolutionary government, the Directory.
In 1799, Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyes led a coup that dismantled the Directory, replacing it with a three-person Consulate similar to the triumvirate of Ancient Rome. Napoleon – now 30 and a fervent champion for reform – was placed at the head. He spent the next few years getting France back into shape with trademark military precision: centralizing the government, reorganizing the military, and completely overhauling the complicated French legal system with his Napoleonic Code.
Napoleon was elected First Consul for life via a constitutional amendment in 1802. The amendment further granted Napoleon the power to choose his own successor. Two years later, in response to growing tension with the Catholic Church and threats from various European monarchies, Napoleon made an even bolder move; less than a decade after the monarchy was dismantled, Napoleon crowned himself Emperor of the French.
The next decade was dominated by the Napoleonic Wars, during which Napoleon attempted to defend and expand his Empire against European influences which had banded together to oppose him. Following a disastrous invasion of Russia in 1812, it was clear that the Empire was not sustainable. Napoleon surrendered his position and was exiled – only to return to wreak havoc in France a year later. His final, crushing defeat came at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.