12.6 The French Revolution Begins

On April 28, 1789, unrest exploded at a Paris wallpaper factory. A rumor had spread that the factory owner was planning to cut wages even though bread prices were soaring. Enraged workers vandalized the owner's home and then rioted through the streets.

Illustration of a group of men standing and shouting, gathered around a desk where other men are signing a document; another man is standing on a chair with his hand raised.

Delegates of the Third Estate took the Tennis Court Oath in June 1789 and vowed to create a new constitution.


  • Describe the social divisions of France's old order.
  • Trace the causes of the French Revolution.
  • Identify the reforms enacted by the National Assembly, including the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen.

Key Terms

  • ancien régime
  • estates
  • bourgeoisie
  • deficit spending
  • Louis XVI
  • Jacques Necker
  • Estates-General
  • cahiers
  • Tennis Court Oath
  • Bastille
  • faction
  • Marquis de Lafayette
  • Olympe de Gouges
  • Marie Antoinette

The Old Regime in France

The rioting reflected growing unrest in Paris and throughout France. In 1789, France faced not only an economic crisis but also widespread demands for far-reaching changes. By July, the hungry, unemployed, poorly paid people of Paris were taking up arms against the government, a move that would trigger the French Revolution.

In 1789, France, like the rest of Europe, still clung to an outdated social system that had emerged in the Middle Ages. Under this ancien régime, or old order, everyone in France belonged to one of three social classes, or estates. The First Estate was made up of the clergy; the Second Estate was made up of the nobility; and the Third Estate comprised the vast majority of the population.

First Estate: the Clergy

During the Middle Ages, the Church had exerted great influence throughout Christian Europe. In 1789, the French clergy still enjoyed enormous wealth and privilege. The Church owned about 10 percent of the land, collected tithes, and paid no direct taxes to the state. High Church leaders such as bishops and abbots were usually nobles who lived very well.

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Table of Contents

World History Topic 1 Origins of Civilization (Prehistory–300 B.C.) Topic 2 The Ancient Middle East and Egypt (3200 B.C.–500 B.C.) Topic 3 Ancient India and China (2600 B.C.–A.D. 550) Topic 4 The Americas (Prehistory–A.D. 1570) Topic 5 Ancient Greece (1750 B.C.–133 B.C.) Topic 6 Ancient Rome and the Origins of Christianity (509 B.C.-A.D. 476) Topic 7 Medieval Christian Europe (330–1450) Topic 8 The Muslim World and Africa (730 B.C.-A.D. 1500) Topic 9 Civilizations of Asia (500–1650) Topic 10 The Renaissance and Reformation (1300–1650) Topic 11 New Global Connections (1415–1796) Topic 12 Absolutism and Revolution Topic 13 The Industrial Revolution Topic 14 Nationalism and the Spread of Democracy (1790–1914) Topic 15 The Age of Imperialism (1800–1914) Topic 16 World War I and the Russian Revolution (1914–1924) Topic 17 The World Between the Wars (1910–1939) Topic 18 World War II (1930–1945) Topic 19 The Cold War Era (1945–1991) Topic 20 New Nations Emerge (1945–Present) Topic 21 The World Today (1980-Present) United States Constitution Primary Sources 21st Century Skills Atlas Glossary Index Acknowledgments