This collection of French Revolution essay questions has been written and compiled by Alpha History authors, for use by teachers and students. They can also be used for short-answer questions, homework activities and other research or revision tasks. If you would like to contribute a question to this page, please contact Alpha History:
France before 1789
1. Evaluate the French royal court at Versailles, why it existed and the contribution it made to French government and society.
2. “The French nobility did little but concern themselves with leisure, finery, decadence, affairs and intrigues.” To what extent is this statement true in the context of late 18th century France?
3. The presence of things like lettres du cachet and the Bastille give the impression that pre-revolutionary France was an authoritarian society that oppressed personal liberty and freedom. To what extent was this true?
4. Examine the role of religion in 18th century France, both in ideological and practical terms. How did ordinary French people view the Catholic church and its clergy?
5. Identify and discuss tensions between the Three Estates that may have contributed to revolutionary sentiment in 18th century France.
6. To what extent was feudalism a cause of the French Revolution? Describe how feudal bonds and dues impacted on the ordinary people of France during the 18th century.
7. Explain why the taxation regime and the collection of tax revenue in 18th century France failed to meet the fiscal requirements of the nation.
8. Some historians argue that commerce and trade in France was restricted by regulations that were overbearing, complex and inconsistent. What were the grievances of the merchant and capitalist class in pre-revolutionary France?
9. Discuss how the strains and stresses of imperialism might have weakened the domestic government in 18th century France, paving the way for revolutionary sentiment.
10. Consider the political, economic and social position of women in 18th century France. Did the women of France have more motivation or potential for revolution than the men?
Government and royalty in the ancien regime
1. Louis XIV is once reported as saying “L’etat, c’est moi” (‘The state is me’). To what extent was this true, both of Louis XIV and his two successors?
2. Describe the relationship between the Bourbon monarchy and the French people in the century before 1789. How did French kings impose their will on the nation?
3. In what ways did the Roman Catholic religion support the Bourbon monarchy – and how was the church itself supported by the state?
4. Discuss the relationship between the Bourbon monarch and the Second Estate. How did tensions between the king and his nobles shape the political landscape?
5. Evaluate Louis XVI and his character, personal abilities and his suitability for leadership. Was he a flawed king, or simply a victim of circumstance?
6. Critically examine the relationship between Louis XVI and his ministers during the 1780s.
7. Explain why Marie Antoinette was a target for intrigue, gossip and propagandists. To what extent was her reputation deserved?
8. The extravagant spending of the royal family is often advanced as a major cause of the French Revolution. To what extent was this true?
9. Explain how the ideological foundations of the French monarchy were challenged and possibly undermined by Enlightenment philosophers and writers.
10. According to Simon Schama, the Bourbon monarchy was threatened by “whispering campaigns”. To what is he referring to, and how did they endanger the monarchy?
The troubled 1780s
1. Giving close attention to specific writers, explain how the Enlightenment challenged and undermined the old regime in 18th century France.
2. What contribution did salons, cafes and other social gatherings make to the rising revolutionary sentiment of the 1780s?
3. “The libelles and political pornography of the 1780s contained no explicit political ideas, so had little impact on the old regime”. To what extent was this true?
4. Identify and discuss two individuals who attempted to achieve fiscal and political reform in France during the 1780s. To what extent were they successful?
5. Explain how France’s involvement in the American Revolutionary War impacted on the nation in moral, ideological and practical terms.
6. Discuss the actions of the parlements and the Assembly of Notables in the late 1780s. How did these bodies contribute to the developing revolution?
7. Explain the events of 1788 that led to Louis XVI calling for the convocation of the Estates-General.
8. What were the Cahiers de Doleances and what did they suggest about the mood of the French people on the eve of the revolution?
9. Why did French harvests fail in the late 1780s, leading to a downturn in agricultural production? What impact did this have on the lives of ordinary people?
10. What factors and forces led to the failure of reformist policies in the 1780s? Did these reforms fail because of resistant conservative interests or a disinterested, incompetent royal government?
The drama of 1789
1. Who was the Abbe Sieyes and what contribution did he make to the French Revolution, both in ideological and practical terms?
2. What happened at the Reveillon factory in Paris in April 1789? What working class grievances, fears and rumours triggered these events?
3. Explain how issues of ceremony, procedure and voting created divisions within the Estates-General when it met in mid-1789.
4. For what reasons did the National Assembly form in June 1789? Was the formation of this body inevitable – or did it occur because of chance and circumstance?
5. “From the beginning of 1789, the push for economic and fiscal reform in France became a push for political reform.” Explain the meaning of this statement, referring to key ideas and events of 1789.
6. Discuss the context, reasons and outcomes of the sacking of Jacques Necker on July 11th 1789. What impact did this have on the unfolding revolution?
7. Why has the storming of the Bastille become the best known event of the French Revolution? What were the outcomes of this event, in both real and symbolic terms?
8. What were the causes and outcomes of the Great Fear? Was this event evidence that the French peasantry were a revolutionary class?
9. Why did the newly formed National Constituent Assembly move to abolish feudalism in France on August 4th? How sincere were these reforms and did they last?
10. On the surface, the relocation of the royal family from Versailles to Paris, a few miles away, seems a minor event. Was this really the case? Why did the king and his family relocate and what impact did this have on the revolution?
Creating a new society
1. Examine the background, motives and political values of those who sat in the National Constituent Assembly between 1789 and its dissolution in 1791.
2. What steps did the National Constituent Assembly take to abolish or replace the political institutions and social inequalities of the ancien regime?
3. While many aspects of the French Revolution have been forgotten or discredited, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen has endured. Summarise the political values and ideas contained in this critical document.
4. The most influential political figure of 1789-1791, argue many historians, is the Marquis de Lafayette. Describe Lafayette’s background, attributes and political values. To what extent did he truly represent the revolution in France?
5. Evaluate the political leadership of Honore Mirabeau in the revolution between June 1789 and his death in April 1791. Did Mirabeau seek to advance revolutionary change – or to restrict it?
6. What were the political, social and economic objectives of the Civil Constitution of the Clergy? Discuss the impact this reform had on the clergy, the king and the French people in general?
7. How successful was the National Constituent Assembly in resolving the economic and fiscal problems of the ancien regime? Refer to three specific policies in your answer.
8. Evaluate the relationship between the National Constituent Assembly and the French peasantry and working classes. Did the Assembly implement policies that improved living and working conditions for ordinary people?
9. To what extent did the revolution enjoy popular support around France by the end of 1790? Which people, groups or regions were actively opposing the revolution?
10. What was the ‘flight to Varennes’ and why did it change the political landscape in the new society?
The descent into radicalism
1. What were the causes and outcomes of the Champ de Mars massacre? How and why did this event change the development of the new society?
2. Evaluate the brief life and political impact of the Legislative Assembly. Did this body suffer from internal failings – or was it simply a victim of treacherous times?
3. Discuss the fate of the moderate leaders Mirabeau, Lafayette and Bailly during the radical period. What were the events and factors that undermined their leadership?
4. How did France come to find itself at war with other European powers from 1792 onwards? What impact did war have on the government?
5. Explain how radical writers like Jean Paul Marat and Camille Desmoulins influenced the development of the new society between 1789 and 1794.
6. What were the political clubs and what role did they play in the evolving new society? Discuss three specific clubs in your answer.
7. Why is August 10th 1792 considered a pivotal day in the course of the revolution? What impact did the events of this day have on French government and society?
8. Evaluate the fate of the king between June 1791 and his execution in January 1793. Could Louis XVI have saved himself – or was he already doomed?
9. Who were the sans culottes and what were their grievances? Referring to at least three specific events, explain how they influenced the national government between 1791 and 1793.
10. Explain the composition of the National Convention and its various political divisions and factions.
The Terror and beyond
1. In what ways was French society reformed and reinvented between 1792 and 1794? Identify and discuss five elements of the ancien regime and its society that were abolished or reformed by the National Convention.
2. What was the Committee of Public Safety? How did this body come to possess arbitrary power – and what did it do with this power?
3. Identify and discuss three events or factors that you believe were the most significant causes of the Reign of Terror.
4. Explain the purpose and operation of the Paris Revolutionary Tribunal. How did these change as the Terror intensified in late 1793 and 1794?
5. Discuss the arguments advanced by Robespierre and his followers to justify the use of revolutionary terror.
6. What was the Cult of the Supreme Being and how successful was it in achieving its objectives?
7. According to one historian, the revolution began to “eat its own children” in early 1794. Explain the meaning and validity of this statement.
8. Identify and discuss reasons for the arrest and execution of Robespierre and his supporters in July 1794.
9. What steps did the Thermidorian leaders take to wind back the Terror and purge France of Jacobinism?
10. “The leaders of Thermidor attempted to return France to the political, economic and social values of 1789.” To what extent is this true? Discuss, referring to specific policies.
Always use specific historical examples to support your arguments.
Although many accounts of the French Revolution focus on the actions of the Girondins and Jacobins, nearly every major step of the Revolution was incited by the sans-culottes. Support or refute this statement.
A recurring theme throughout the French Revolution was the idea that there is power in numbers, and the sans-culottes represented without doubt the best example of the power of the masses. Although the National Assembly was the governing body during the early stages of the Revolution, it had little control over the symbolic events that incited revolutionary fervor, such as the storming of the Bastille, the Great Fear, and the women’s march on Versailles. In fact, it was only in response to these spontaneous, unplanned events that concrete policy changes such as the August Decrees were passed.
Later in the Revolution, the sans-culottes continued to prove influential, as they were involved in the storming of Tuileries, which led to King Louis XVI’s deposition, and stormed the National Convention, which gave Robespierre and the Jacobins the opportunity to take control. Although the Reign of Terror and subsequent Thermidorian Reaction suppressed sansculotte activity later in the Revolution, the decline was also due in part to diminished revolutionary spirit and apathy on the part of the government of the Directory. Nevertheless, in the crucial early and middle stages of the Revolution, the sans-culottes proved to be remarkably effective at forcing change—change that otherwise might not have occurred.
Although the financial crisis of the ancien régime was the immediate spark that set off the French Revolution, which broader factors within France contributed to the Revolution?
In adhering to an outdated and essentially baseless feudal system, the aristocracy and monarchy of France provided the true impetus for the French Revolution. In the years leading up to the Revolution, France was riddled with unsustainable economic and cultural disparities: it showed a decadent facade to the world while actually facing catastrophic debt, and boasted some of the greatest minds of the Enlightenment, though its populace was overwhelmingly illiterate and poor.
Perhaps most destabilizing factor was the growing class disparity between the emerging wealthy bourgeoisie and the old nobility. Despite the fact that the nobility were titled and the bourgeoisie were not, many of the bourgeoisie were far wealthier than the “blue-blooded” but financially strapped aristocrats. As the nobility continued to try to claim special privileges over their hardworking bourgeoisie counterparts, it was inevitable that the bourgeoisie would grow angry and resentful.
At the same time, discontent grew among the lower classes as landlords in the countryside continued to bind peasants to outdated, oppressive feudal contracts that were often difficult to fulfill. Simply put, with Enlightenment ideas spreading through France in the late 1700s, it became increasingly obvious that the French nobility wielded a disproportionate amount of power and privilege for no apparent reason. The revolutionaries, with their cries of “Liberty!” and “Equality!”, sought to change that.
Assess the validity of this statement: by attempting to escape from France in June 1791, Louis XVI effectively destroyed the prospect of a moderate Revolution resulting in the installation of a limited or constitutional monarchy.
By definition, a constitutional monarchy needs two things: a constitution and a monarch. By late 1791, France had a constitution, as the National Assembly had presented the new Constitution of 1791 in September. The credibility of the monarch, however, was suspect. Up until his attempted escape from France with his family in June 1791, King Louis XVI had enjoyed vehement backing from moderates within the National Assembly. Jacques-Pierre Brissot and his followers, the Girondins, had sought a constitutional monarchy since the very beginning of the Revolution—much to the chagrin of the radical democratic Jacobins—and had constructed the 1791 constitution around the principle of limited monarchy.
However, the fact that the king tried to run away from the very constitutional monarchy to which he had agreed made it clear that he had given up on the new government. This development made it difficult, if not impossible, for Brissot and the Girondins to defend their pro–constitutional monarchy stance. The Jacobins, who had detested the idea of a king from the beginning, were able to take advantage of the Girondins’ weakened position and take control of the government. With Louis XVI having destroyed the credibility of the proposed constitutional monarchy, there was little to prevent the radicals from declaring France a republic, as the Girondins could no longer justify any other feasible form of government.
Suggested Essay Topics
1. To what extent was the French nobility responsible for the crisis that destroyed the ancien régime?
2. What role did women play in the Revolution? Were they simply a reactionary force—as when bread shortages prompted a march on Versailles—or an active part of the revolutionary public?
3. To what extent did the Thermidorian Reaction owe its success to the excesses of Maximilien Robespierre?
4. Make an argument as to which governmental arrangement—monarchial rule, the National Assembly’s constitutional monarchy, the National Convention’s republic, or the Directory—was best suited to revolutionary France.
5. What problems in France and beyond contributed to the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte?