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So if you know just one thing about the French Revolution it's probably that some French guys went around lopping people's heads off with a gruesome looking machine called a guillotine. And that's true. But let's back up a little bit and examine what got them into that bizarre yet oddly fascinating place.
France in the 1700s was bad at managing its money.
Wait: don't go. We promise that this is actually one financial story that's super interesting.
France was bad at managing its money in the most entertaining way possible. At the time they had an absolute monarch, which means the royal family could spend the treasury on anything they wanted. And boy did they want a lot of stuff. We're talking high heels, giant curly wigs, jewel-incrusted clothes…and that was just for the men.
The out of control spending spree included joining several foreign (and expensive) wars and building Versailles, a massive palace that's over 700,000 square feet on 2,000 acres of immaculately landscaped property.
These guys weren't messing around.
Of course all that spending caught up with them. So what's a king to do? Raise taxes—sure, why not! But here's the problem: French society was divided into three classes of people a.k.a. Estates. The First Estate was the clergy, people who worked for the Catholic Church. Traditionally churches weren't taxed, so you can't raise taxes on them.
The Second Estate was the nobility; people who had fancy titles like count and duke. At the time, those titles were like big tax exemption stickers. The whole point in being a noble was not having to pay taxes, so you can't tax them either.
That leaves the Third Estate, which was everybody else.
The Third Estate, or ordinary people of France, was taxed a lot, and frankly they were getting pretty sick of it. Especially considering the king and queen didn't seem to spending the dough on very practical items. (Money for new roads: no. Money for new wing built on Versailles: yes.) So: this is the point where they change the tax laws and make them more fair right?
France doesn't really have tax laws because they don't even have a constitution. All they have is tradition, and traditionally if the king wants to change the way people are taxed he has to call an Estates General, a meeting of all three estates.
So in 1789 King Louis XVI does that. What he should have done was call Suze Orman so she could tell him to stop spending so much money, but as that wasn't really an option he went with the Estates General. Representatives were elected from each of the three estates and sent to Versailles.
When they all got there it quickly turned into a fiasco.
The First and Second Estates weren't willing to compromise and continually shot down any suggestion that they start paying taxes. Nothing was getting accomplished, so the Third Estate started having their own meetings and calling themselves the National Assembly since, after all they represented nearly 98 percent of the country. King Louis got nervous about what these commoners might be up to and decided to lock them out of their meeting room, winning him the award for most passive aggressive monarch ever.
The new National Assembly wandered around Versailles until they found a room big enough to hold them all, which couldn't have been all that hard in one of the largest palaces in the world. They ended up in the king's indoor tennis court where they spend some time trash talking about Louis, and then they swore to continue meeting no matter what until they'd written a French Constitution.
The Tennis Court Oath should probably be the official start of the French Revolution because it's when people first flouted the king and started to create a new government. But that same summer everybody was distracted by the angry mobs in Paris who started burning down buildings. Did we mention that ordinary people were really mad about the king and taxes and inequality? They were.
So while the Bastille Prison was being taken over by hungry Parisians, the National Assembly continued to meet.
A few delegates from Estates One and Two who were sympathetic to the plight of the Third estate joined the National Assembly. Among these was the Marquis de Lafayette, a noble who'd been to America in one of King Louis pricey wars and become besties with the U.S. Founding Fathers. Lafayette proposed that before rushing into a constitution what France needed was a declaration of rights. It just so happened that he, with the help of Thomas Jefferson the American ambassador to France, had already written a list of rights.
The Assembly was impressed, although they did form a committee to rewrite the declaration to make sure that it was a hundred percent French. The result was the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, which became the preamble for the French Constitution two years later.
It'd be so nice if this were where the story of the French Revolution ended, but we haven't even gotten to the guillotining yet.
The National Assembly couldn't agree on much of anything and disintegrated into chaotic infighting while the mobs of angry people got increasingly violent. The Constitution was rewritten multiple times as France struggled to agree on a form of government. King Louis and his wife were beheaded along with multiple members of the Assembly as they attempted to either lead or take control of France.
France eventually got its act together and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen remains an integral part of their constitution today. However, it took a long, long time including a dictatorial coup and several failed attempts at returning to a monarchy.
It gets pretty messy and we don't have time for all of it here, but you should definitely look into it. Believe us when we say that it's even more fascinating than Les Mis.