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Year 12 - History - The French Revolution: Key People

Units 3 and 4 - Causes & Consequences

Louis XVI

The French king from 1774 to 1792 who was deposed during the French Revolution and executed in 1793. Louis XVI inherited the debt problem left by his grandfather, Louis XV, and added to the crisis himself through heavy spending during France’s involvement in the American Revolution from 1775 to 1783. Because this massive debt overwhelmed all of his financial consultants, Louis XVI was forced to give in to the demands of the Parlement Of Paris and convene the Estates-General—an action that led directly to the outbreak of the Revolution. Louis XVI was deposed in 1792 and executed a year later. (Spark Notes)

Duc d’Orléans

During the conflicts that arose between Louis XVI and the nobles over financial policies in 1787, Duc de Orléans was temporarily exiled to his estates for challenging the king’s authority before the Parlement of Paris (one of the high courts of justice). He was elected a representative for the nobles to the States General, which convened on May 5, 1789. Orléans supported the unprivileged Third Estate (bourgeoisie) against the two privileged orders (nobles and clergy). On June 25 he and a small group of nobles joined the Third Estate, which had already (June 17) proclaimed itself a National Assembly. His Paris residence, the Palais-Royal, became a centre of popular agitation, and he was viewed as a hero by the crowd that stormed the Bastille on July 14.   Britannica

Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès

Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès was elected a deputy of the Third Estate and not of his own Estate, and he played a key role in the events of the first months of the Revolution. He proposed the name National Assembly for the combined single chamber established unilaterally by the Third Estate, with some support from liberal clergy and nobles, on June 17; drew up the "Tennis Court Oath," by which the deputies pledged themselves to the defense of the National Assembly as the embodiment of the sovereignty of the people, on June 20; and took the initiative in the decision of the Constituent Assembly (as the National Assembly was called in its self-assumed task of writing a constitution) to continue its work despite the King's order to disband on June 23. He was also active in the formulation of the Declaration of the Rights of Man.

Comte de Mirabeau

Comte de Mirabeau, a French politician and orator, was one of the greatest figures in the National Assembly that governed France during the early phases of the French Revolution. A moderate and an advocate of constitutional monarchy, he died before the Revolution reached its radical climax. 

Mirabeau's rise to fame included scandal, womanising, gambling, bankruptcy and prison. When he died of a heart condition in 1791 he was given a hero’s funeral and laid to rest in the Panthéon, alongside the tombs of Voltaire and Rousseau. Public affection for the dead orator lasted only 18 months, until the opening of the king’s secret armoire de fer (‘iron chest’) in the Tuileries Palace in late 1792. Private correspondence showed Mirabeau had been in receipt of 6,000 livres a month for providing advice to the king. This revelation shattered public perceptions of Mirabeau. His corpse was removed from the Panthéon, placed in a lead coffin and interred in a communal burial ground.     AlphaHistory

Marquis de Lafayette

 As the French Revolution unfolded, Marquis de Lafayette continued to support the government of Louis XVI and the idea of a constitutional monarchy. Elected as a representative of the nobility to the Estates-General that convened in May 1789, Lafayette supported the maneuvers by which the bourgeois deputies of the Third Estate gained control of the Estates-General and converted it into a revolutionary National Assembly. With Jefferson’s help, he composed a draft of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, which he presented to the Assembly on July 11. After extensive revisions the document was adopted on August 27. Meanwhile, on July 15, the day after a mob stormed the Bastille, Lafayette had been elected commander of the newly formed national guard of Paris. His troops saved Louis XVI and Queen Marie-Antoinette from the fury of a crowd that invaded Versailles on October 6, and he then escorted the royal family to Paris, where they became hostages of the revolution.    Britannica

Napoleon Bonaparte

Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821), also known as Napoleon I, was a French military leader and emperor who conquered much of Europe in the early 19th century. Born on the island of Corsica, Napoleon rapidly rose through the ranks of the military during the French Revolution (1789-1799). After seizing political power in France in a 1799 coup d’état, he crowned himself emperor in 1804. Shrewd, ambitious and a skilled military strategist, Napoleon successfully waged war against various coalitions of European nations and expanded his empire.

Charles de Calonne

calonneCharles de Calonne (1734-1802) was a royal minister whose attempts to reform the nation’s fiscal system in the late 1780s helped trigger the revolution. A judge’s son from northern France, Calonne entered the public service as an indentant and displayed a capacity for managing difficult financial matters. In 1783, Louis XVI appointed Calonne as finance minister, at a time when the nation’s debt was stretched to its limits by involvement in the American Revolutionary War. Calonne made some superficial reforms, chiefly to debt management and currency – but he knew the size of the national debt (more than 110 million livres) required more fundamental fiscal restructuring.

Calonne recommended increasing the government’s revenue base by introducing a tax on all land, with no exemptions for the First or Second Estates.       AlphaHistory

Jacques Necker

Jacques Necker (September 30, 1732 – April 9, 1804) was a French statesman of Swiss origin and finance minister of King Louis XVI. Jacques Necker is said by some to have provoked the French Revolution when he convened the ancient French Assembly only to ask for money. He was out of touch with the spirit of the age, which no longer tolerated the absolute power of the king. The people wanted a greater say in their own governance. However, the noble aims of the French Revolution would be betrayed, and a tendency towards totalitarianism developed.

Marie Antoinette

The wife of King Louis XVI and, in the French commoners’ eyes, the primary symbol of the French royalty’s extravagance and excess. When Marie-Antoinette was executed in 1793, she was dressed in a plain dress, common to the poorest in French society.

Nine months after the execution of her husband, Marie Antoinette was also sent to the guillotine and beheaded - condemned for treason.

Madame de Staël

Anne Louise Germaine de Staël-Holstein, commonly known as Madame de Staël, was a woman of letters and political theorist of Genevan origin who in her lifetime witnessed at first-hand the French Revolution and the Napoleonic era up to the French Restoration.

Her father was Jacques Necker, a man of modest origins, who had risen to become Louis XVI's finance minister. Her mother Suzanne, though stiff and cold, entertained the leading intellectuals and politicians of the day in her famous salon.  Staël made a loveless marriage to the Swedish ambassador to France, Baron Erik Magnus de Staël-Holstein and proffited from his diplomatic immunity by remaining in Paris during most of the French Revolution. Her salon became a center of political intrigue for those who favored a modern constitutional monarchy and a bicameral legislature. During the Terror she courageously arranged and financed the escape of numerous constitutionalist friends. In 1797 Staël welcomed Napoleon Bonaparte to Paris as France's deliverer; within a few years she grew to detest him. Napoleon resented both her interference in politics and her unorthodox views. He repeatedly confiscated her manuscripts and banished her from Paris.

Olympe de Gouges

A French social reformer and writer,  Olympe de Gouges,  challenged conventional views on a number of matters, especially the role of women as citizens. She became active in political causes and took up social issues that ranged from road improvement to divorce, maternity hospitals, and the rights of orphaned children and of unmarried mothers, and she wrote prolifically in defense of her ideas. 

In 1791, as the French Revolution continued, she published the pamphlet Déclaration des droits de la femme et de la citoyenne (“Declaration of the Rights of Woman and of the [Female] Citizen”) as a reply to the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the [Male] Citizen (Déclaration des Droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen), which had been adopted two years earlier by the National Assembly. In her pamphlet she asserted not only that women have the same rights as men but also that children born outside of marriage should be treated as fairly as “legitimate” children in matters of inheritance.

De Gouges sided with the moderate Girondins against the Montagnards, defended Louis XVI, and called for a plebiscite to allow citizens to choose their form of government. After the fall of the Girondins in the summer of 1793, she was arrested and was subjected to a mock trial, and on November 3 she was sent to the guillotine.     Britannica

Camille Desmoulins

Camille Desmoulins (1760-1794) was a politician and writer, probably the best-known journalist of the French Revolution. Born in a small town in Picardy, northern France; his father was a government magistrate. As a teenager, Desmoulins gained a scholarship to attend boarding school in Paris. There he met Maximilien Robespierre from Arras; the two became friends, fellow law students and, later, political collaborators.

Desmoulins graduated as a lawyer in the early 1780s and obtained a position working with the Paris parlement – however his nervousness and verbal stutter thwarted his prospects as a barrister, so he turned to writing.

Jean-Paul Marat

Jean-Paul Marat (1743-1793) has become one of the French Revolution’s most identifiable figures, as much for his untimely death as his political contributions he made in life. He undertook studies in medicine and set up practice as a doctor. By the 1770s Jean-Paul Marat had also taken an interest in the Enlightenment philosophes, so he began writing works of political theory.

The onset of the French Revolution presented Marat with both opportunities and new ideas. The convocation of the Estates-General prompted Marat to take up his pen for the Third Estate. Between late 1788 and mid-1789, he wrote several essays urging constitutional reform and political equality for all French citizens. At least one of these essays was tabled in the National Constituent Assembly during its constitutional deliberations. 

In September 1789, Marat began publishing his own newspaper, L’Ami du Peuple (‘The Friend of the People’). In its first edition, Marat attacked the Second Estate and demanded that all nobles be expelled from the Assembly. In the second, he refocused his aim on bourgeois bankers and financiers, men who, according to Marat, “built their fortunes atop the ruination of others”.

Georges Danton

Georges Danton (1759-1794) was one of the towering figures of the French Revolution. Born near Troyes, Danton’s father was a local prosecutor but a generation further back his family had been peasants. Danton’s parents wanted him to enter the priesthood but he chose to follow his father into law. By the mid-1780s, he was working as a defence lawyer in Reims, before buying a venal office and relocating to Paris in 1787.

Unlike other notable revolutionaries, Danton did not participate in the Estates-General, however, in the summer of 1789 he volunteered to serve in the National Guard. In October of that year, he founded the Cordeliers club, the most radical political club of the time. Danton’s compelling and witty oratory saw him rise to become the club’s president and attracted a measure of public popularity. Unlike his fellow Cordeliers, who were mostly Republicans, Danton’s views about the monarchy were vague. He could be a sharp critic of the king yet showed little inclination to support a French republic. Following the flight to Varennes, Danton argued for the forced abdication of Louis XVI in favour of his young son, with the Duke of Orleans acting as regent. It later emerged that Danton, who lived extravagantly, was accepting payments from Orleans and possibly other Royalists.


Maximilien Robespierre

Maximilien de Robespierre, a key figure in the French Revolution, helped to upend the monarchy. But while his 'Reign of Terror' reinvigorated the Revolution, it ended in as bloody a fashion as it began.  In the latter months of 1793 he came to dominate the Committee of Public Safety, the principal organ of the Revolutionary government during the Reign of Terror, but in 1794 he was overthrown and executed in the Thermidorian Reaction.