Photographic book

France in 1789


Serment du jeu de Paume
Serment du jeu de Paume

The crumbling of the monarchy in 1789 opened the way to more sweeping changes in France’s political structure than occurred in any other period of French history. In the course of the French Revolution, the state was massively reorganized, while a tradition of revolution became part of France’s political culture. As a result, political stability, which the revolutionaries themselves sought after a time, proved elusive. The French Revolution caused a breach in French politics that would not be healed for a century and a half. Again and again, conservative, counterrevolutionary parties that defined the nation in terms of its prerevolutionary past clashed with parties that saw 1789 as a critical moment of national rebirth. Since the revolution, France has lived through five republics, two empires, and a variety of other regimes.

During the 19th century, France’s society and economy experienced other less dramatic but equally important changes. The French Revolution destroyed the structure of traditional privilege, turning subjects unequal before the law into citizens with roughly equal rights. The Industrial Revolution, which took place more gradually in France than in other European nations, offered new means of making a living and greatly raised living standards. Indeed, one of the major issues in modern French politics has been how to assure a fair distribution of the benefits provided by the industrial economy.

The Moderate Revolution


In 1789 the French nation embarked on reconstructing itself. In August the National Assembly proclaimed the end of the feudal regime—meaning primarily the end of the dues peasants owed their landlords.

The assembly also enacted the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, intended as the preface to a constitution to be written later. Brief and vague, the Declaration both affirmed the sovereign authority of the nation and limited that authority by recognizing individual rights to life, property, and security. Work on the constitution began immediately. Finished in 1791, the constitution maintained the monarchy. But in an effort to prevent further despotism, the constitution sharply limited the king’s powers and invested greater authority in a single-bodied legislature, to be elected by wealthy males.

Brissot, Jacques Pierre
Brissot, Jacques Pierre

Between 1789 and 1791, the National Assembly also reorganized the nation into 83 districts, called departments, and gave them considerable power to run their own affairs. The assembly eliminated the nobility as a legally defined class, abolished venality of office, and made the French Catholic Church an agency of the state. The lands of the church were seized and gradually sold off to repay the monarchy’s debts and to reimburse venal officeholders. Full citizenship was extended to Jews and other religious minorities. These radical changes were resisted by some people, especially the nobility and the clergy, who began to leave France as early as the summer of 1789. Called the émigrés, these exiles lobbied other nations to crush the French Revolution. In October 1789 an angry mob forced the king and his family to leave Versailles for Paris. The king then reluctantly and belatedly accepted revolutionary reforms. In June 1791 the royal family attempted to escape from Paris and possibly from France, only to be stopped near the French border.

The king and his family were essentially prisoners when the new constitutional monarchy took effect in October 1791. Differences soon surfaced over measures to be taken against the émigrés and those members of the clergy who refused to swear the required oath of allegiance to the new regime. Using the issue as a means to gather support, a group of deputies called the Brissotins gained power in the legislature (Brissot, Jacques Pierre). In April 1792 they pushed the legislature into declaring war on Austria, which was later joined by Prussia, England, Spain, and the Netherlands. The French army was unprepared for war and was soon put on the defensive. The whole revolution now seemed in acute danger. In August angry mobs attacked the Palace of the Tuileries, where the royal family lived. Shortly thereafter, the assembly voted to disband the new government in favor of a new constitution to be written by the National Convention, a new body of elected deputies. "France" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia.

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