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The Modern Era

1789 - 1914

In Europe, the revolutionary transformation of the ruling systems and state structures began with a bang: In 1789 the French Revolution broke out in Paris, and its motto "Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite"—Liberty, Equality, Brotherhood—took on an irrepressible force. A fundamental reorganization of society followed the French Revolution. The ideas behind the revolution were manifest in Napoleon's Code Civil, which he imposed on many European nations. The 19th century also experienced a transformation of society from another source: The Industrial Revolution established within society a poorer working class that stood in opposition to the merchant and trading middle class. The nascent United States was shaken by an embittered civil war. The economic growth that set in following that war was accompanied by the development of imperialist endeavors and its rise to the status of a Great Power.


Liberty Leading the People,
allegory of the 1830 July revolution that deposed the French monarchy,
with Marianne as the personification of liberty,
contemporary painting by Eugene Delacroix.

see also:

Between Two Revolutions

(From David to Delacroix)



The French Revolution

1789 - 1799


The French Revolution had far-reaching consequences not only for France but for all of Europe as it challenged the fundamental institutions that shaped the political structure of Europe. It was an attempt to establish in common laws the equality of all persons regardless of their origin. The Revolution led by the bourgeoisie had as its goals the abolition of aristocratic rule, a constitution, and intellectual freedom. It stressed social mobility without class barriers ("Let ability win through!") and strove for a moral society, the nation, in which the common good took precedence over self-interests: "Liberty, Equality, Brotherhood!" Radicalism, however, along with outside pressure, transformed at times the rule of virtue into a despotism of its own kind.


Phase of Radicalization

Between 1791 and 1792 the Revolution became more radical when it faced massive resistance to its ideas in France and abroad. Some French provinces were in open revolt and the revolutionary masses in Paris became even more active.


The radicalization of the Revolution was triggered by the undiplomatic behavior of the king, us well as outside pressure.

7 Even after Louis XVI swore upon the constitution at the celebration of the inauguration of the constitution at Champ de Mars, he attempted unsuccessfully to block it.

7 Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette
swear upon the constitution

He tied from Paris in June 1791 with his family, but his flight was stopped near Varennes and the king was taken prisoner.

The radical parties of the Revolution demanded the abolition of the monarchy and the declaration of a French republic. In 1791, the majority of the nobility fled from France and as emigrants worked against the Revolution from abroad, seeking support from powerful parties throughout Europe. Internationally, fear of the revolutionary forces taking power in France grew. In February 1792 the emperor of Austria and the king of Prussia formed a pact against the Revolution.

The "Girondists" now became the leading party. They were political moderates but supported the war that began in April 1792. The initial battles ended devastatingly for the Revolutionary Army. Only after the Austro-Prussian commanding general threatened Paris with conquest and destruction in July 1792 did a patriotic zeal seize the entire country.

The sans-culottes controlled the events: 8 ten thousand French citizens armed themselves and marched off to war.

6 50,000 revolutionary soldiers defeated the allied troops near Valmy on September 20, 1792 and in November 1792 the Revolutionary Army marched into Belgium and Germany.

The revolutionary momentum was now directed against the king, who had been held in Temple since August 1792.

The return of the royal family to Paris on 25 June 1791, after a drawing of Jean-Louis Prieur

The Storming of the Tuileries Palace, 10 August 1792 by Jacques Bertaux

8 Arming of the people at the Hotel des Invalides

6 Battle between the French Revolutionary Army and the Coalition Army in Valmy on September 20, 1792

After the discovery of his clandestine correspondence, he was sentenced to death as a "treasonable conspirator, rebel, and public enemy," and 9 guillotined publicly in Paris on January 21,1793.

9 Execution of Louis XVI on the Place de la Concorde in Paris; Marie Antoinette's execution on 16 October 1793.



Louis XVI

Louis XVI en costume de sacre, peinture de Joseph Duplessis

+1 king of France
also called (until 1774) Louis-Auguste, duc de Berry

born Aug. 23, 1754, Versailles, France
died Jan. 21, 1793, Paris

the last king of France (1774–92) in the line of Bourbon monarchs preceding the French Revolution of 1789. The monarchy was abolished on Sept. 21, 1792; later Louis and his queen consort, Marie-Antoinette, were guillotined on charges of counterrevolution.

Early life and accession
Louis was the third son of the dauphin Louis and his consort Maria Josepha of Saxony. At first known as the duc de Berry, he became the heir to the throne on his father’s death in 1765. His education was entrusted to the duc de La Vauguyon (Antoine de Quélen de Caussade). He was taught to avoid letting others know his thoughts, which has led to sharp disagreement about his intelligence. Louis nevertheless possessed an excellent memory, acquired a sound knowledge of Latin and English, and took an interest in history and geography. In 1770 he married the Austrian archduchess Marie-Antoinette, daughter of Maria Theresa and the Holy Roman emperor Francis I.

On the death of his grandfather Louis XV, Louis succeeded to the French throne on May 10, 1774. At that time he was still immature, lacking in self-confidence, austere in manner, and, because of a physical defect (later remedied by an operation), unable to consummate his marriage. Well-disposed toward his subjects and interested in the conduct of foreign policy, Louis had not sufficient strength of character or power of decision to combat the influence of court factions or to give the necessary support to reforming ministers, such as Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot or Jacques Necker, in their efforts to shore up the tottering finances of the ancien régime.

In late 1774 he reversed Louis XV’s and Chancellor René Maupeou’s controversial attempt to reduce the powers of the parlements that had been undertaken in 1771; this decision was popular but placed obstacles in the way of any major reforms. His approval of French military and financial support for the American colonists led to a foreign policy success, but the borrowing required to pay for the war drove the government to the brink of bankruptcy and led the king to support the radical fiscal, economic, and administrative reforms proposed by Charles-Alexandre de Calonne, the controller-general of finance, in 1787. The refusal of a specially summoned Assembly of Notables to approve these measures, and the opposition of the parlements, forced the king in July 1788 to summon the Estates-General—the representatives of the clergy, nobility, and commoners—for the following year and thus set in motion the Revolution.

Louis’s reaction to the Revolution
After 1789 Louis XVI’s incapacity to rule, his irresolution, and his surrender to reactionary influences at court were partially responsible for the failure to establish in France the forms of a limited constitutional monarchy. He allowed himself to be persuaded that royal dignity required him to avoid communication with the deputies assembled at Versailles, and he made no attempt to lay out a program that might have attracted their support. At critical moments, he was distracted by the illness and death of his eldest son, the dauphin (June 4, 1789).

By this time the fundamental weakness of the king’s character had become evident. Lethargic in temperament, lacking political insight, and therefore incapable of appreciating the need to compromise, Louis continued to divert himself by hunting and with his personal hobbies of making locks and doing masonry. His dismissal of Necker in early July 1789 set off popular demonstrations culminating in the storming of the Bastille, which forced the king to accept the authority of the newly proclaimed National Assembly. Despite his reluctance, he had to endorse its "destruction" of the feudal regime and its Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen in August. The king privately continued to believe that the Revolution would burn itself out. Publicly, however, he appeared ready to accept his new role as constitutional monarch, and gestures such as his visit to Paris after the storming of the Bastille led to an upsurge in his popularity; in early August 1789 the National Assembly proclaimed him the “restorer of French liberty.”

Attempt to flee the country
Louis’s resistance to popular demands was one of the causes of the forcible transfer of the royal family from Versailles to the Tuileries Palace in Paris on October 6. Yet he made still more mistakes, refusing to follow the secret advice tendered to him after May 1790 by the comte de Mirabeau, abdicating his responsibilities, and acquiescing in a disastrous attempt to escape from the capital to the eastern frontier on June 21, 1791. Caught at Varennes and brought back to Paris, he lost credibility as a constitutional monarch. Thenceforward he seems to have been completely dominated by the queen, who must bear the chief blame for the court’s subsequent political duplicity.

From the autumn of 1791 the king tied his hopes of political salvation to the dubious prospects of foreign intervention. At the same time, he encouraged the Girondin faction in the Legislative Assembly (which had succeeded the National Assembly in September 1791) in their policy of war with Austria, in the expectation that French military disaster would pave the way for the restoration of his authority. Prompted by Marie-Antoinette, Louis rejected the advice of the moderate constitutionalists, led by Antoine Barnave, to faithfully implement the constitution of 1791, which he had sworn to maintain, and committed himself to a policy of subterfuge and deception.

The outbreak of the war with Austria in April 1792, the suspected machinations of the queen’s “Austrian committee,” and the publication of the manifesto by the Austrian commander, the duke of Brunswick, threatening the destruction of Paris if the safety of the royal family were again endangered, led to the capture of the Tuileries by the people of Paris and provincial militia on Aug. 10, 1792. It also led to the temporary suspension of the king’s powers by the Legislative Assembly and the proclamation of the First French Republic on September 21. In November, proof of Louis XVI’s secret dealings with Mirabeau and of his counterrevolutionary intrigues with the foreigners was found in a secret cupboard in the Tuileries. On December 3 it was decided that Louis, who together with his family had been imprisoned since August, should be brought to trial for treason. He himself appeared twice before the Convention (December 11 and 23).

Execution of Louis XVI of Franceon 21 January 1793,
from an English engraving of 1798.

Condemnation to death
Despite the last-minute efforts of the Girondins to save him, Citizen Capet, as he was then called, was found guilty by the National Convention and condemned to death on Jan. 18, 1793, by 387 votes (including 26 in favour of a debate on the possibility of postponing execution) to 334 (including 13 for a death sentence with the proviso that it should be suspended). When a final decision on the question of a respite was taken on January 19, Louis was condemned to death by 380 votes to 310. He was guillotined in the Place de la Révolution in Paris on Jan. 21, 1793. Nine months later his wife met the same fate. Louis XVI’s courage on June 20, 1792, when the royal palace was invaded by the Paris mob after his dismissal of the Girondin ministry, and his dignified bearing during his trial and at the moment of execution did something to redeem, but did not reestablish, his reputation.

Albert Goodwin
Jeremy David Popkin

Encyclopaedia Britannica





A highly realistic portrait of Marie Antoinette,
done around 1791, by Alexandre Kucharsky

queen of France
in full Marie-Antoinette-Josèphe-Jeanne d’Autriche-Lorraine (Austria-Lorraine), originally German Maria Antonia Josepha Joanna von Österreich-Lothringen

born November 2, 1755, Vienna, Austria
died October 16, 1793, Paris, France

queen consort of King Louis XVI of France (1774–93). Imprudent and an enemy of reform, she helped provoke the popular unrest that led to the French Revolution and to the overthrow of the monarchy in August 1792.

The 11th daughter of the Holy Roman emperor Francis I and Maria Theresa, Marie-Antoinette was married in 1770 to the dauphin Louis, grandson of France’s King Louis XV. The timid, uninspiring Louis proved to be an inattentive husband; by the time he ascended the throne in 1774, Marie-Antoinette had withdrawn into the companionship of a small circle of court favourites.

Her extravagant court expenditures contributed—though to a minor degree—to the huge debt incurred by the French state in the 1770s and ’80s. Louis XVI’s inability to consummate their marriage and the queen’s resultant childlessness in the 1770s inspired rivals—including the king’s own brothers, who stood to inherit the throne if she did not produce a legitimate heir—to circulate slanderous reports of her alleged extramarital affairs. These vilifications culminated in the Affair of the Diamond Necklace (1785–86), in which the queen was unjustly accused of having formed an immoral relationship with a cardinal. The scandal discredited the monarchy and encouraged the nobles to oppose vigorously (1787–88) all the financial reforms advocated by the king’s ministers.

Engraving of Marie Antoinette à la paysan

During these crises, as in those to come, Marie-Antoinette proved to be stronger and more decisive than her husband. After a crowd stormed the Bastille on July 14, 1789, the queen failed to convince Louis to take refuge with his army at Metz. In August–September, however, she successfully prodded him to resist the attempts of the Revolutionary National Assembly to abolish feudalism and restrict the royal prerogative. As a result, she became the main target of the popular agitators, who attributed to her the celebrated and callous remark on being told that the people had no bread: “Let them eat cake!” (“Qu’ils mangent de la brioche!”). In October 1789 popular pressure compelled the royal family to return from Versailles to Paris, where they became hostages of the Revolutionary movement.

Six months later Marie-Antoinette opened secret communications with the comte de Mirabeau, a prominent member of the National Assembly who hoped to restore the authority of the crown. Nevertheless, her mistrust of Mirabeau prevented the king from following his advice. After Mirabeau died in April 1791, she turned for assistance to a group of émigrés. They arranged for the king and queen to escape from Paris on the night of June 20, but Revolutionary forces apprehended the royal couple at Varennes (June 25) and escorted them back to Paris.

Marie-Antoinette then attempted to shore up the rapidly deteriorating position of the crown by opening secret negotiations with Antoine Barnave, leader of the constitutional monarchist faction in the Assembly. Barnave persuaded the king to accept publicly the new constitution (September 1791), but the queen undermined Barnave’s position by privately urging her brother, the Holy Roman emperor Leopold II, to conduct a counterrevolutionary crusade against France. Leopold avoided acceding to her demands. After France declared war on Austria in April 1792, Marie-Antoinette’s continuing intrigues with the Austrians further enraged the French. Popular hatred of the queen provided impetus to the insurrection that overthrew the monarchy on August 10, 1792.

Marie Antoinette on the Way to the Guillotine,
by Jacques-Louis David

Marie-Antoinette spent the remainder of her life in Parisian prisons. Louis XVI was executed on orders from the National Convention in January 1793, and in August the queen was put in solitary confinement in the Conciergerie. She was brought before the Revolutionary tribunal on October 14, 1793, and was guillotined two days later.

Encyclopaedia Britannica


Portrait of Archduchess Maria Antonia of Austria
at the age of seven years, 1762, by Martin van der Meytens


Marie Antoinette by Jean-Etienne Liotard, 1762


Preparatory drawing for the famous official portrait of Marie Antoinette;
painted in 1778 by Élisabeth-Louise Vigée-Le Brun


Marie Antoinette à la Rose by Vigée Le Brun


Marie Antoinette at the spinet, by Franz Xaver Wagenschon (1768).


Marie Antoinette, at the age of thirteen, by Joseph Ducreux (1769).


Marie Antoinette in a court dress worn over extremely wide panniers, by Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun (1778).


Marie Antoinette en chemise, portrait of the queen in a "muslin" dress, by Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun (1783).


This State Portrait by Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun (1787) of Marie Antoinette and her children Marie Thérèse, Louis Charles (on her lap), and Louis Joseph, was meant to help her reputation by depicting her as a mother and in simple, yet stately attire.


Portrait of Marie Antoinette, by Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun (1788)


Marie Antoinette in the Tuileries Palace with her children, when the angry mob broke into the palace.


Marie-Antoinette au Tribunal révolutionnaire.
Engraving by Alphonse Francois after Paul Delaroche.



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