French Revolution Key Terms

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French Revolution Key Terms

August Decrees - A series of decrees issued by the National Assembly in August 1789 that successfully suppressed the Great Fear by releasing all peasants from feudal contracts.

Bastille - A large armoury and state prison in the centre of Paris that a mob of sans-culottes sacked on July 14, 1789, giving the masses arms for insurrection. The storming of the Bastille had little practical consequence, but it was an enormous symbolic act against the ancien régime, inspired the revolutionaries, and is still celebrated today as the French holiday Bastille Day.

Bourgeoisie - The middle and upper classes of French society who, as members of the Third Estate, wanted an end to the principle of privilege that governed French society in the late 1700s. The bourgeoisie represented the moderate voices during the French Revolution and were represented by delegates in both the Estates-General and the National Assembly.

Civil Constitution of the Clergy - A document, issued by the National Assembly in July 1790, that broke ties with the Catholic Church and established a national church system in France with a process for the election of regional bishops. The document angered the pope and church officials and turned many French Catholics against the revolutionaries.

Committee of Public Safety - A body, chaired by Maximilien Robespierre, to which the National Convention gave dictatorial powers in April 1793 in an attempt to deal with France’s wars abroad and economic problems at home. Although the committee led off its tenure with an impressive war effort and economy-salvaging initiatives, things took a turn for the worse when Robespierre began his violent Reign of Terror in late 1793.

Constitution of 1791 - The new French constitution that in 1791 established a constitutional monarchy, or limited monarchy, with all executive power answerable to a legislative assembly. Under the new constitution, King Louis XVI could only temporarily veto legislation passed by the assembly. The constitution restricted voting in the assembly to the upper and middle classes of French society and abolished “nobility” as a legal order.

Declaration of Pillnitz - An August 27, 1791, warning from Prussia and Austria announcing that they would intervene militarily in France if any harm came to King Louis XVI, who had just been captured trying to escape with his family from Paris. The declaration prompted then–Legislative Assembly leader Jacques-Pierre Brissot to declare war on Austria and Prussia.

Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen - A document, issued by the National Assembly on August 26, 1789, that granted sovereignty to all French people. The declaration, which drew from the ideas of some of the Enlightenment’s greatest thinkers, asserted that liberty is a “natural” and “imprescriptible” right of man and that “men are born and remain free and equal in rights.”

Directory - The new executive branch established by the constitution written during the moderate Thermidorian Reaction of 1794–1795. The Directory was appointed by the legislative assembly. However, after 1797 election results proved unfavorable to elements in the Directory, it orchestrated an overthrow of the assembly and maintained dubious control over France until it was overthrown by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1799.

Estates-General - A medieval representative institution in…


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