How the French Revolution Worked

Announcer: Welcome to Stuff You Missed in History Class from

Candace Gibson: Hello, and welcome to the podcast. I'm editor, Candace Gibson, joined by staff writer, Jane McGrath.

Jane McGrath: Hi, Candace.

Candace Gibson: Jane, this morning I was having a bagel for breakfast and I got to thinking about how - it's a treat for me. It's a luxury. Every now and then on the way to work, I'll stop at Einstein's and I'll grab a bagel.

Jane McGrath: Sure, yeah.

Candace Gibson: I don't really question where my bread is going to come from. I have a loaf at home. Maybe I'll stop by the bagel shop. But for the people of France, back around 1780 - 1789 was when things really took off, bread was a huge point of contention because they didn't really have much.

Jane McGrath: That's true. They were suffering from some really bad harvests and economic depression in general. And this was a problem - it was kind of a perfect storm situation. Not only were people having the food issues, but the government was having money issues as well.

Candace Gibson: And we don't typically think of the plague and other massive diseases as a good thing. But they were in the sense that they kept France's population in check. But during this point in time, everyone was really healthy. They were living longer and all of a sudden there wasn't enough to go around. And there had been a couple of kings in the House of Bourbon who'd screwed a lot of things up. We had Louis XIV, who was really excessive and had a lot of superfluous luxuries. And he didn't even like being in the middle of the dirtiness and squalor of Paris. So he built a castle called Versailles - I'm sure you've all heard of it - about 12 or 13 miles -

Jane McGrath: That sounds about right.

Candace Gibson: - away from the city, so that he could have a retreat. And then Louis XV came in and he was more interested in being the boss of the bedroom than the boss of his subjects. And the Louis XVI, who we know married Marie Antoinette, he was the one who famously said, "Help us, God. We are too young to reign." And it's true. If you look at our country today, we have a new President Elect who's going to be taking a massive financial deficit and a couple of wars. He's coming into a really hard position. And we could say that the same was pretty comparable for Louis XVI - massive financial debt, unhappy subjects.

Jane McGrath: That's true. And you can see the contrast from then to now, back then - the way they had it in France anyway - was that the nobles and the upper people in the clergy didn't even have to pay taxes. And this is sort of contrary to our sensibilities now, where the more money you have, the more money you owe to the country, basically. And this was part of the financial problems, is that the more money problems they had, the more they wanted to tax people, to raise money. But they could only tax the people who were suffering at this time. One important tax, I think, is called the gabelle. It was a tax on salt, actually - which not only was an added thing for food, but it was also very important for preserving food back then, before they had refrigerators.

Candace Gibson: Yeah. And so people at this time, if they didn't have the salt to preserve their food and they didn't have enough flour for bread, they were foraging as best they could. But in urban areas like Paris, that wasn't working too well because there wasn't enough land to forage in. And in the outlying provinces, there was such severe winters and hot summers that nothing was really working in any ones favor. And so we see, like Jane said, the perfect storm at the beginnings of an uprising that would eventually blossom into the French Revolution.

Jane McGrath: That's right. And another element of that perfect storm is basically the ideas that were becoming more and more popular, even among nobility. They were discussing these ideas brought up by Rousseau and Voltaire of equality and liberty. And when all these things came together, a revolution bubbled up.

Candace Gibson: And what's funny about these ideas and these enlightened thinkers is that these were very popular subjects in salons, especially - people would get together, and the people who had the time to really sit around and contemplate the universe. And they started thinking that aspects of their life weren't fair. But the poor people didn't have the time and luxuries for this. But I think there were people in the middle class and upper middle class, and maybe even parts of the upper class, who were looking out for them. And there were certain members who really started to contemplate the idea of equality, and that it should be available to everyone. And one thing that was really strange was this idea of equality an d death. And we have to remember that during this time, a lot of middle age ideas still permeated the justice system in Europe. And so when people of a lower class were sentenced to death, it was done by scary things like quartering or being burned or -

Jane McGrath: It wasn't pretty.

Candace Gibson: - or being drowned.

Jane McGrath: Yeah, it hurt, I bet.

Candace Gibson: It hurt a lot, I'm sure. We can't speak from personal experience, but -

Jane McGrath: Whereas, the nobles on the other hand, they deserved a more humane death and less painful.

Candace Gibson: Yeah. A gentleman's death! So they were usually beheaded - which again, we're not saying that doesn't hurt. We really imagine that it does, but it was seen as more humane.

Jane McGrath: And a faster death, at least.

Candace Gibson: Yeah. And something really interesting came out of this whole debate about being equal in death, and that was the creation of a death device by a member of the constitutional assembly name Joseph Guillotin.

Jane McGrath: That's right. And there were other machines similar to it in other European countries at the time, but he perfected it. He introduced it to France and it became synonymous with the French revolution because of the ideas of equality bubbling up there, and because eventually - although he didn't quite foresee this, the massive killings. And they would end up using this death machine a lot during the following years.

Candace Gibson: And so what's ironic is what was intended to be a humanitarian device was eventually repurposed into a death machine. And that's the crazy thing about the guillotine. And we were joking earlier. Can you really say if it hurts or it doesn't because it is so quick. And doctors today have done some research into the guillotine and they look at how it actually kills someone. And they talk about the severing of the skin and then the bone and then the spinal cord - and then the brain death that results. And people today look at it and say, "I bet it hurts a lot."

Jane McGrath: Yeah, it's not considered quite as humanitarian as it was back then.

Candace Gibson: No, not at all. And a really interesting rumor that sprung up around the guillotine and the concept of decapitation is that after someone's decapitated, they're still alive, at least for a couple of seconds.

Jane McGrath: Yeah, for a little while. There are legends surrounding - one of the famous people who were killed, Charlotte Corday - legend is that the executioner actually picked up her head afterwards and it actually looked at him.

Candace Gibson: I think indignantly, even.

Jane McGrath: Yeah, I would imagine.

Candace Gibson: It would look like, "Hey, come on." And Charlotte Corday was famous because she was from one of the outlying provinces in France. She wasn't a revolutionary - or she was to a certain extent. But she was essentially a provincial girl who had been hearing about all of the riots in Paris. And she was blaming everything on this one journalist named Marat.

Jane McGrath: That's true. And you could say that he was responsible for a lot of the violence. He intentionally instigated all this violence through his propaganda and his writings.

Candace Gibson: Definitely. And she knew exactly where to find him. He had a really bad skin condition that required him to soak in a tub for a couple of hours a day. And she came to Paris with the intent of finding and killing him.

Jane McGrath: Kind of ironic trying to prevent the violence by killing this guy.

Candace Gibson: Yeah, but no one was thinking clearly during the French Revolution.

Jane McGrath: And it backfired on her, right? Because he ended up being the martyr of the situation and people were celebrating when she was guillotined.

Candace Gibson: Exactly. And that's how the French Revolution was. A hero one day, a martyr the next, absolutely hated the next day - it was crazy, these turning tides. But we could go on and on about the motley crew of the French Revolution, as I like to call them. Just to get down to basics, we know who the main players are. We've got Louis XVI. And we've got his wife, Marie Antoinette. And there was so much ire directed toward her. She was a total spendthrift and she was expected to produce an heir to the throne. She hadn't done that yet, and the people of France were just furious with both of them.

Jane McGrath: And there were scandals surrounding everything that she did, right? You wrote about these scandals that happened around her in one of the articles on the site, where she would say, "Let them eat cake." And she was having supposed affairs as well - and having, just in general, this extravagant lifestyle.

Candace Gibson: Yeah. And some of the rumors surrounding her, like the whole let them eat cake thing. We know today that she didn't actually say that. But she did project and air of careless. And Thomas Jefferson who - obviously I have to refer to him in every single podcast we do - he apparently said about her that if, "Someone had shut that lady up in a convent, the French Revolution would never have happened."

Jane McGrath: He makes a good point.

Candace Gibson: He does.

Jane McGrath: And he was a relative sympathizer with the French Revolution, was that right?

Candace Gibson: Yeah. Because the French Revolution used as it's model the American Revolution. And when we look at the Declaration of Independence and the ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? And we look for the parallels in the French Revolution, the rallying cry there was liberty, equality, and brotherhood - or liberté, égalité, and fraternité. I don't profess to be a native French speaker. I'm from the south. But that was the general governing idea. And it was important because no one had ever thought to go up against the king. And people in general wanted to love the king. He was the father of the country and he was supposed to be looking out for everyone.

Jane McGrath: Yeah. And they kept him around for a little while, even after they -

Candace Gibson: They did. Yeah, and there was affection for him. And even when Marie Antoinette and Louis' children were born, there was genuine affection and celebration for the birth of the new king. But when things - again, things started going poorly! They tried to get the king on board with this idea of a new constitution, which there would be power more evenly divided among the classes. Jane was saying that the clergy and the upper class was the aristocracy. They had all the voting power, essentially. They were three percent of the population and they were making the laws that governed everyone else. And Louis was basically pigeonholed into hiring a finance minister to sort everything out because things had gotten so financially messy. And he hired a man named Jacque Necker.

Jane McGrath: Yeah, and this guy became pretty important for doing something that hadn't been done in 175 years, and that was calling together the state's general. And this was this group; obviously the first and second estates were the clergy and the nobles who had the most power. And the third estate at these meetings began to rise up, making demands of the king that he wouldn't give in to.

Candace Gibson: And one of the most important members of the third estate was a lawyer named Maximillen Robespierre. And he became a very outspoken advocate of the lower classes. And people really respected Robespierre. He had a lot of salient things to say. And he was actually called The Incorruptible because he seemed to ethical and so wise in everything that he did.

Jane McGrath: Yeah. And that ended up not being quite true in the end. At least in the beginning, it seemed like his heart was in the right place.

Candace Gibson: And so the estates general continued on with their work, and they actually included members of the upper class to come and meet with them, because they weren't ardent supporters of the group, because obviously t hey saw their power being slowly cut off. But some would come; they'd all meet and have their assemblies. And then one day they went to the palace to meet, as usual, and the doors were shut. And in reality, what was going on is that someone in the palace was preparing the room for an address that the king would give later.

Jane McGrath: Oh, wow. So they weren't shutting them out.

Candace Gibson: No, not exactly. I think this has been interpreted many ways throughout history, but I think the general accord is they were not being bolted out, it was just an unfortunate timing.

Jane McGrath: Either way, though, they believed that they were being bolted out.

Candace Gibson: And that's all they needed to believe. So they went to the closest room they could find, which was an indoor tennis court, and they made an oath that they would not rest until France had a new constitution.

Jane McGrath: That's right. And this seems to be a very good step in the people's pursuit of more power. But actually, by the next month, the people were getting so frustrated they didn't think that peaceful reform was quite possible. So they ended up storming the Bastille.

Candace Gibson: And they went there to get guns and gunpowder, and essentially show Louis that they were not playing around anymore. And I think a famous anecdote from the French Revolution is that Louis was out hunting the day that happened. And when he got back in one of his advisors told him what had happened, and he asked, "Is it a revolt?" And his advisor said, "No, sire. It's a revolution." It was a big deal, and I don't think Louis comprehended the gravity of the situation. And on that day the guards were slaughtered, prisoners were set free. And what's more, the Bastille was this fortress, this medieval fortress. And it was a symbol to the people of the king's corruptibility. Because there were prisoners kept there who were convicted of crime outside the bounds of common law. And no one knew what happened inside this prison, but there were awful tales that people were tortured and maimed and terrible things went on. So the people of Paris just started knocking it down brick by brick by brick.

Jane McGrath: And they certainly made their point with the storming of the Bastille. It was a very dramatic episode.

Candace Gibson: And so it seemed that the people of Paris had united, Louis was going to be forced into going along with the new constitution. Things were going pretty well until there were rumors swirling around town, courtesy of Marat's crazy newspaper - well, I shouldn't say crazy. That's not fair. Courtesy of his newspaper, in which he broadcasts all this propaganda; that the king and his courtiers have stomped on the tri colour, which was a flag? It's still the flag of France today. It's the red and blue of France separated by the white of the House of Bourbon, which represented the royalty. Anyway, rumors that they had stomped on the flag and desecrated the symbol of the revolution certainly incensed the people. And at this time, the women of Paris took action. And they stormed Versailles this time. They went for bread. And they went for Marie Antoinette's head.

Jane McGrath: That's right. And they just barely missed her. She had just fled from her room when they stormed in. But they eventually got what they wanted. They got the king to sign away the Declaration of the Rights of Man, which basically took power away from him significantly. And they actually moved the royal family Tuileries.

Candace Gibson: In the heart of Paris. So they were under lock and key. And then there were rumors again that Marie Antoinette was plotting with her relatives in Austria to take control of Paris. And they thought, "Well, there's still a chance that the royal family can reclaim power." And Marie Antoinette's lover, Hans Axel von Fersen, actually orchestrated an escape for the royal family. And they nearly made it to Austria. They were captured in Verín, which was just miles from the Austrian border. So Louis was brought back.

Jane McGrath: And this made him look worse, I'm sure, trying to escape. Obviously, he didn't look like he was going to cooperate.

Candace Gibson: No. And so any ire toward him was magnified a million times and he was put on trial. And at this point, he wasn't even referred to as King Louis anymore. He was called by his surname, Capet, which wasn't even his surname. He was a Bourbon, so they got his name wrong, too, to add insult to injury. And this is when we see the national assembly which drafted the Declaration of the Rights, they had drafted this constitution. They seem unified until this point. And then when you have a monarch on trial and you have the extremists who want to put him to death like a common person. And you have some people who still have some loyalty to the crown - it was split.

Jane McGrath: And there was frustrations at this ti me, as well. Keeping the king alive, obviously, might encourage other countries that were monarchies at the time to go in and restore power. Because the king was obviously - when he was writing to other powers trying to get help, he was saying, "Look what's happening here. The same thing could happen in your country. So if you help me out, we can stop this revolutionary fever going on."

Candace Gibson: And that certainly was a factor. And I believe it was the Duke of Prussia who wrote the revolutionaries the letter later published in one of the newspapers - maybe courtesy of Marat - that if anything happened to Louis, they would come in and burn Paris to the ground. And that was all that a lot of people needed to hear. So Louis was convicted, put to death, and that was the end of him. So Louis' dead. The national convention is split, we know, over his death. And now we see a new uprising. And we should mention that these different factions did have specific names. The moderates were the girondins. And then the radical members were the Jacobins.

Jane McGrath: And that's where Robespierre was, he was the leader of that group.

Candace Gibson: Yes. Do you all remember Robespierre? You're about to see him get really corrupt - just a side note. So anyway, then the other group we see emerge is the sans-culotte. And that translates into those who do not wear breeches, or those without breeches. And these were the artisans of Paris. They weren't walking around without pants, they were walking around without the little knee shorts.

Jane McGrath: So they were actually wearing longer pants.

Candace Gibson: They were wearing longer pants. And the custom was to wear breeches and cute little tights and the dainty little buckle shoes and all the other things that sweet little pre-Revolutionary France people wore.

Jane McGrath: And these were people who were ruling the local areas? Is that correct?

Candace Gibson: Yes. So we start to see power again shifting, contracting. And the ideals of the revolution in the first place, or the ideals of the reform that people originally wanted, they start to get muddied and confused. Because we know at first, people wanted a constitutional monarchy. Well obviously that wasn't going to happen now, because -

Jane McGrath: Yeah, the king is dead.

Candace Gibson: - the monarch was dead. So who was going to rule? That was a really important question.

Jane McGrath: And this was when Robespierre really gained in power. And he filled the void of power at this time. And he was able to solidify it by killing a lot of his political enemies at the time.

Candace Gibson: And he would eventually go on to condone these killings publicly. At first, like the events of the September Massacre, he turned his head away. And he thought, "Well, if these are the people of Paris, they're the ones who are acting like beasts and killing their fellow countrymen. I'm not really a part of this." But later on, during the Great Terror and the Great Fear, he himself would compose lists of counterrevolutionaries who would be put to death. And it's important to remember at this time that there was not a lot of peace in France. People were fearing every day that they would be accused of counterrevolutionary activity. It was like a witch hunt, really.

Jane McGrath: Yeah, that's right. And they did have some semblance of justice when they tried to institute the revolutionary tribunals to try these people who were accused of antirevolutionary activity. But if you look at the stats, I think 9/10 people who were tried were found guilty and killed.

Candace Gibson: And one of those was Marie Antoinette.

Jane McGrath: That's right.

Candace Gibson: She wasn't going to be around for too much longer. She continued to be suspected of plotting with Austria to overthrow the revolutionaries. And she was put on trial. And one of the most poignant charges that came against her was molestation of her own son. And Marie Antoinette, as we know, she had been a twit - no one really liked her.

Jane McGrath: She had her faults.

Candace Gibson: She had her faults.

Jane McGrath: But I don't know about that one.

Candace Gibson: But no. And that was absolutely not true at all. It was a horrible salacious rumor started. And she hung her head when all the other charges against her were read, but when that one was read, that was when she spoke up and said, "No." And she implored the other women in the room to sympathize with her and to really think about how they would feel if they were charged with such a terrible thing.

Jane McGrath: Yeah, I can imagine.

Candace Gibson: And she won their sympathy for an instant. And then like that, it was gone.

Jane McGrath: Oh, wow.

Candace Gibson: Yeah. And when Louis was put to death at the guillotine, he at least was driven up to the stand in an enclosed cart. But she was driven in an open cart, a common criminal's cart. So people could throw things at her and spit and jeer.

Jane McGrath: So it seemed like the people hated her even more than they hated the king, I guess.

Candace Gibson: They did. And when she went out to the stand, I think people really wanted to see her cry and prostrate herself. And that didn't happen at all. She was very dignified until the moment that she died.

Jane McGrath: Wow. Pretty impressive! I couldn't do that.

Candace Gibson: I know. But as much as the people wanted Marie Antoinette dead and as much as her dead symbolized for the people of France and for the revolution itself, it wasn't enough. The revolution still was not over.

Jane McGrath: That's right. And as you said, Robespierre was coming up with lists of people that he felt needed executed. And eventually he ended up executing one who used to be his ally, Danton. And he was the leader of the opposing party, with different ideas for where the revolution should be taken.

Candace Gibson: And that's what was so crazy about the splits and factions of the national convention, is that they kept splitting. And factions that had split off, split in and of themselves. And one of the biggest things that was really upsetting the people here in this assembly was that they feared so much that outside countries would attack France, that they went to war to keep their borders clear. And that meant that there weren't enough people in the city to quell any violent uprisings that occurred. So people were either for the French Revolutionary War or they were fighting in the cities. No one knew where their affiliations really were. And Danton and Robespierre had been eye to eye all along, but then Robespierre one day said, "Nope. That's enough. Danton must die." And when he went to the guillotine he famously said, "I regret that I go before that rat Robespierre." So he knew that Robespierre would come soon.

Jane McGrath: And you can see the public opinion is starting to get a little against Robespierre at the time, because Robespierre started looking a little crazy. A few months after executing Danton, he started this Festival of the Supreme Being. And he had this paper Mache Mountain that he paraded on through the streets of Paris. And he looked like he was making himself a god. Really, he had this sort of cult that he started. It was a deist cult and he just wanted morality - as much as he wanted to get rid of Christianity in France, he thought that morality was pretty essential to a civil society. So he tried to unite the people with this Supreme Being Festival, when really it backfired on him and people were like, "He's crazy. We've got to get him out of here."

Candace Gibson: And he had done some other extremist things, too. He tried, after the death of Louis and toward the shift away from the monarchy, to really rid France of any feelings at all that it may have had toward the monarchy or toward Christianity - or even toward time.

Jane McGrath: That's right. And what I found fascinating - I didn't know this until I started researching for this podcast, actually - was the idea of changing the concept of time through what they called the Revolutionary Calendar. And they basically reconstructed the days and the hours. And basically, they still had 12 months in a year. But they ended up renaming everything. And they ended up taking out the 7-day week. And instead, each month would have decades - three periods of ten days. So this, if you think about it, is no longer a 7-day week. It would be a 10-day week with one day of rest and nine days of work. So this was an attempt to get rid of the Christianity in the country. So they'd no longer have this sense of Sundays with the Catholic Church or any other Christian sects.

Candace Gibson: Yeah, so Sunday being the proverbial day of worship and rest, was phased out completely with the hope that people wouldn't even recognize that this day was meant to be Sunday.

Jane McGrath: That's right. And actually, they tried to constitute a new clock - however, I'm sure how this would work. The put extra seconds in the day from what we have. But, at least what I read is that each day had ten hours, each hour had 100 minutes, and each minute had 100 seconds. Which you can see how this dramatically - the whole sense was that it was trying to dramatically change how people thought about everything.

Candace Gibson: And the people who were the masterminds behind these really radical changes are beginning to lose sight of what's going on in the streets. And meanwhile, the people in the streets are harping on the bread again. "Where is our bread? We're still going hungry. Nothing has changed. The only thing that really has is that we don't hate Louis, we just live in a constant state of fear that we're going to be called a counterrevolutionary." That could be something like badmouthing Robespierre, or it could be something like plotting against the Revolution - or even just calling someone Madame or Monsieur instead of citoyen, which meant citizen. So really it was time for the revolution to come to an end. It hadn't accomplished what it set out to accomplish. And there was a quick and succinct way to do this, and that was to kill Robespierre and all of his allies.

Jane McGrath: And that didn't quite end it. They ended up setting up a directory after that. And that didn't quite satisfy anybody's needs. There were two opposing views, and this tried to straddle the middle. And it ended up satisfying no one.

Candace Gibson: And so they called in one of the biggest war heroes of the French Revolutionary War, and that was good old Napoleon Bonaparte. So he came in and he was supposed to reunite France. And he did restore religion, so that was something that he did accomplish for the people of France. And he did restore a semblance of order and there was food and resources for them. But as we know, he went on to become a dictator.

Jane McGrath: That's right. And he wouldn't call himself king. Obviously, they didn't have good ideas towards a king. But he did end up being what was called a First Console, and I think eventually the emperor.

Candace Gibson: So obviously, France had a long way to go before it really reached the ideals of the revolution, if it ever did. And that's something that you can pursue more for yourself when you read How the French Revolution Worked on

Announcer: For more on this and thousands of other topics, visit Let us know what you think. Send an email to