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March 24, 2023

When did the French Revolution end?

When did the French Revolution end?

We examine possible end dates for one of the most important revolutions in human history.

We examine possible end dates for one of the most important revolutions in human history.


            The French Revolution began in 1789 when members of the Third Estate challenged the medieval system that concentrated power in the hands of the king, nobility and clergy, based on the claim that the 95% of common people should have a role in government. These initial protests turned out to be just the beginning of a world-historical event. In 1791 the national government voted for a constitutional monarchy. A year later the deputies took the bold step of ending the monarchy altogether and declaring the birth of the French First Republic. The creation of a republic in 1792 and the execution of the monarch early the next year made the French Revolution truly revolutionary, to the point where the modern conception of a ‘revolution’ comes from the French model. While historians agree on when the Revolution began there is a much livelier debate on when it ended.

            Following the execution of the king the First Republic struggled for survival. It faced the threat of external invasion by hostile foreign powers. Catholics rose up across the countryside against the policy of dechristianization. Within the capital politicians competed for control of the violent masses of people who pressured the government. This wildly unstable situation led Maximilien Robespierre to take extreme measures. As head of the Committee of Public Safety he and his colleagues arrested their political rivals, subjected them to sham trials and executed them by guillotine. The Terror led to the Thermidorian Reaction, a period beginning on the 27 July 1794 when more moderate and conservative leaders overthrew Robespierre and his associates and executed them the follow day.

            The Thermidorian Reaction, named because it took place in the Republican month of Thermidor, tried to stabilize the country but proved unsuccessful. Moderates and conservatives who saw their fellows persecuted during the Terror launched a series of reprisals known as ‘The White Terror.’

            On 13 Vendémiaire Year III, that is 5 October 1795, a force led by the Comte d’Artois assaulted Paris. Parisian monarchists joined in the fighting and attempted to overthrow the National Convention. In response, 26 year-old brigadier general Napoleon Bonaparte ordered his troops to fire cluster projectiles, known as ‘grapeshot,’ into the amassed royalists.

While the royalists had been defeated in battle, royalism made serious inroads against republicanism. Constant war, civil strife and hyperinflation meant that the French people tired of the First Republic. In response, the republicans massively reformed the government. On 2 November 1795 a new executive branch came into existence known as The Directory, made up of five leading members who wielded extraordinary power over the country.

The emergence of the Directory is the first event that some historians regard as a potential end to the revolution due to its anti-democratic, authoritarian nature. The Directory was a substantial move away from the democratic idealism that gripped the early republic. It empowered a cabal of 5 men elected by the Council of Ancients rather than through direct election by the people.

However, other historians consider the Directory to be a part of the French Revolution. The Directory claimed continuity with the First Republic. Its leaders argued that its existence was part of necessary reforms to prevent instability and defend against monarchism. While the government changed the voting system and suppressed popular crowds some individuals could still vote. Finally modern historians point out that while the Directory was authoritarian so were the preceding governments, which at times limited the number of adult males who could vote and ruled through terror.

In October 1795 France held a general election. 63 seats went to those aligned with the Thermidorian movement. 54 seats in the National Convention went to a group nominally called the Clichy Club, whose members ranged from moderate republicans to constitutional monarchists. 33 seats went to open royalists. Those who believed that France should remain a Republic held on to power but their influence was waning due to ongoing wars, internal divisions and economic turmoil. Between 21 March to 2 April 1797 France held another election in which the Clichy Club won almost two-thirds of the seats in the National Convention. Soon after monarchists assumed leading positions of power.

On the night of 3 September 1797 one of the monarchist leaders, Jean-Charles Pichegru, moved against the republican directors but by then it was too late. The following day the republicans launched the Coup of 18 Fructidor. They ordered military units loyal to the Republic to take control of Paris and they arrested monarchist leaders who they accused of plotting to overthrow the government.

The Coup of 18 Fructidor is a complex moment in the history of the Revolution. On the one hand, it saved a government that claimed to be republican and represent the people from the restoration of the monarchy. Yet, the majority of French people had voted for monarchists. The leaders of 18 Fructidor essentially told the people of France that they were going to have a republic whether they liked it or not. The authoritarian turn that the coup represented could be another endpoint for the Revolution for those who argue that by this point the First Republic had abandoned its ideals and overturned its own elections.

The next major event and a very popular choice for the end of the Revolution was the Coup of 18 Brumaire. In 1799 Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès became the most powerful member of the Directory. However, political leaders struggled to govern and were not broadly popular. In contrast, general Napoleon Bonaparte was a national hero due to his continuous string of victories. On 9 October Napoleon returned to France from his Egyptian campaign to adoring crowds. The great military leader traveled to Paris and met with the country’s main political leader and the two planned a coup. However, neither man trusted each other since Napoleon and Sieyès both correctly believed that their counterpart was simply going to use them to seize power for themselves.

On 9 November Lucien Bonaparte, Napoleon’s younger brother and president of the Council of Five Hundred, told the members of the Council of Five Hundred and the Council of Ancients that the Jacobins were plotting a coup and that the government needed to relocate to a safe location. The delegates believed him and left Paris. Sieyès and two other members of the Directory resigned. With the Councils away and the Directory in shambles the government was in a state of collapse.

The following day a number of Jacobin politicians still in the city protested against the obvious coup. In response, Napoleon delivered a passionate though jumbled speech in which he proclaimed that the God of War and God of Fortune were on his side. When the delegates told him his actions violated the constitution he replied, “You yourselves have destroyed it. On 18 Fructidor, you violated it; on 22 Floréal, you violated it; on 30 Prairial, you violated it. It is no longer respected by anyone.”

Most elected officials opposed the coup, with some denouncing Napoleon as a would-be dictator. Napoleon was caught by indecision; while a master on the field he was not as adept at political intrigue. Ultimately, the situation came down to who controlled the military. For this, Lucien Bonaparte delivered the day. In a speech to the troops Lucien implored them to support Napoleon in saving the republic, declaring that, “I swear to plant a blade in the breast of my own brother if he ever violates the liberty of the French.” The line met with thunderous applause. The soldiers expelled the deputies who openly opposed the coup. Those members who remained voted to adjourn for three months while leaving power in the hands of three consuls who would rule with extraordinary power. These consuls were Napoleon, Sieyès and Roger Ducos. A month after the coup, Napoleon replaced both other consuls and soon assumed dictatorial power.

18 Brumaire is always a top contender as far as answers go to the question, “when did the French Revolution end?” Napoleon gave a speech that the constitution was dead and proved it by destroying the government it was based upon. He ruled with unquestioned power on the promise that he was only doing so to safeguard the republic and would resign from his position voluntarily when the time came, which he did not.

Still, there are those who claim that this was not the end of the Revolution for three major reasons. First, critics of the revolution point out that its idealistic aspirations did not reflect reality. Despite its claims to Liberté, Égalité et Fraternité, the First Republic’s leaders regularly used their power to diminish, imprison or execute their opposition. Second, the French Republic drew inspiration from the Roman Republic. The Roman Republic was hardly democratic with consuls sometimes wielding remarkable power, particularly in times of war. Finally, the Consulate did not officially end the Republic. Quite the opposite, Napoleon claimed that he was saving the republic. In fact, Napoleon was so determined to save the French First Republic that on 2 August 1802 he won a referendum making him consul for life. The 1802 referendum is another event that some consider the end of the revolution given that Napoleon essentially became a legal dictator-for-life.

The death-knell for the First Republic came on 18 May 1804 when the Senate declared Napoleon Emperor of the French. On 2 December Napoleon crowned himself Emperor in Notre-Dame de Paris, officially ending the First Republic and beginning the First Empire. The Revolution had begun as a popular movement to limit the power of the monarch and create a more democratic government. By 1804 it came full-circle as Napoleon assumed absolute authority.

            Various historians have argued that the French Revolution ended on one of the aforementioned dates. However, there are those that believe that the revolution was larger than just the First Republic. The revolution fundamentally challenged the concept of sovereignty. Before, most European governments claimed to exercise legitimate power through God’s divine favor or through their noble rights. The Revolutionaries asserted that a nation must reflect the will of the people and that legal distinctions cannot be based on birth. While Napoleon ruled with dictatorial power he claimed he did so while reflecting the will of the French people, hence why he took the title Emperor of the French, rather than Emperor of France.

            The after-effects of the Revolution reverberated throughout Europe and beyond long after the fall of the First Republic. In 1830 revolutionaries overthrew Charles X when he tried to impose an Old Regime-style absolute monarchy. These revolutionaries replaced him with a constitutional monarch, Louis-Philippe. When Louis-Philippe tried to suppress political and press freedoms the people overthrew him in 1848. What began in France spread like wildfire and that year revolutions broke out all across Europe as various peoples fought for political rights and unification with others who shared their language and culture. 

            If we take the long view of history then the French Revolution that began in 1789 created a permanent goad to peoples across the world that political power belonged to the people, not a select group of individuals, particularly those who acquired their power through noble birth. It is for this reason that French historian François Furet declared that, “the [Old Regime] is thought to have an end but no beginning, the Revolution has a [beginning] but no end.” Furet was not the first to make that argument. In a speech to the Chamber of Deputies in 1891, Georges Clemenceau said, “Whether we like it or not, whether it pleases us or shocks us, the French Revolution is a bloc ... a bloc from which nothing can be separated, because historical truth does not permit it. ... the Revolution is not finished, it is still continuing, we are actors in it, the same men are still in conflict with the same enemies. The struggle will go on, until the final day of victory, and until that day we will not allow you to throw mud at the Revolution.”

            In 1972 Chinese premier Zhou Enlai was visiting France when someone asked him what the impact of ‘the revolution’ was, to which Enlai replied, “It’s too early to tell.” The Chinese premier was actually referring to the recent May 1968 demonstrations, rather than the original French Revolution, but his comments were misinterpreted. Nevertheless, the sentiment that the French Revolution still exerts an influence across the world remains.

Conversely, one might argue that the French Revolution has ended because it succeeded. At its heart the French Revolution was an answer to a political problem. During the medieval period only a select few, largely confined to the clergy and nobility, had access to education, transportation and resources and so they naturally ruled. However, by the 18th century France had many non-nobles who were well-educated, travelled and even wealthy. These capable people balked at not having the right to exercise their abilities and fought to end prohibitions on their access to political power. As of the 21st century virtually every government on Earth has done away with legal divisions between aristocrats and commoners while claiming its authority rests on popular sovereignty. With very few exceptions modern countries allow every person regardless of birth to pursue whatever occupation they desire, even becoming head of the country. That doesn’t mean that every country is an egalitarian democracy. Corruption and kleptocracy remain a problem. However, legal divisions between persons based on birth are mostly abolished and countries at least claim to represent the will of the people. North Korea is often called the least free country on Earth yet even it holds elections as proof that it reflects the popular will of its people, though those elections are hardly fair.

            However, there is one other major event that might have signaled the end of the French Revolution. This event did not take place in Paris or France. In fact, it happened on the other side of Europe. I am of course, speaking of the Russian Revolution. The 1917 February Revolution (which actually took place in March but the Russians were using the old Julian Calendar rather than the Gregorian) began much like the French Revolution. In fact, many Russian revolutionaries looked to the French Revolution as a model. The February-but-actually-March Revolution placed limits upon the monarch’s authority and more people exercised democratic rights.  

The Russian Revolution entered a whole new territory on 7 November 1917, though the Russians called it ‘The October Revolution’ because remember, old calendar. The October Revolution ended rule by the democratically-elected government and replaced it with the Soviet. What followed was a struggle by the Bolshevik party to establish the world’s first workers’-controlled society. While The French Revolution expanded political rights of citizens, the Russian Revolution expanded economic rights of workers. Its leaders asserted that no one should want while others had so much, they supported the rights of workers against bosses and wealth redistribution.

As in the French Revolution, the Russian revolutionaries often became authoritarian, even turning against the very people they claimed to champion. The Russian Revolution was filled with powerful personalities and conflicting opinions on what the ideal expression of its ideology should be. The Revolution was imperfect and ended with a despot assuming power. However, like the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution’s failures did not destroy its global impact.

As early as 1917 socialists across Europe looked to Bolshevik Russia as an example of what they should do to address the problems of industrial era misery and wealth inequality. After World War 2 many political leaders from former colonies adopted Communist ideologies in the formation of their societies. Even as the Western world took a hardline anti-Communist stance there remained prominent figures in capitalist societies who believed that wealth inequality had to be addressed to create a better-functioning society. In this regard it is possible that the Russian Revolution and the possibilities it raised have supplanted the French Revolution. While the French Revolution successfully challenged legal distinctions between people based on birth, the Russian Revolution still challenges modern societies to address extreme wealth inequality.