The End of the French Revolution

The End of the French Revolution










The French Revolution refers to a period in the history of France during which the country went through political and social upheaval. Lasting between 1789 and 1799, the revolution had long lasting effects on France and affected the future of Europe and the rest of the world. Historians also refer to it as the Revolution of 1789 because that is when the events unfolding in France reached a climax. The occurrence of the French Revolution sparked a series of related events in Europe that ultimately resulted in the declining influence of churches and monarchies and the subsequent emergence of democratic systems and nationalistic ideals. While the impact of the French Revolution is obvious in Europe’s history over the nineteenth and twentieth century, the ending of the revolt is open to discussion. While some scholars place the ending in 1799, other historians have argued that unrest and discontent related to the revolution lasted much longer and could be traced to some events transpiring in the twentieth century. Apart from the actual year when the French Revolution ended, historians also fail to agree on the exact role that Napoleon Bonaparte played in the revolt. Napoleon became involved in the French Revolution after it had already gone through several stages. The progression of the revolution through the years had seen various groups of people attempt to bring stability to France but to no avail. The fact that the revolution seemed to calm down after Napoleon rose to the helm has led some historians to argue that his actions ended the revolution. Napoleon himself was of a similar opinion, something that he alluded to in his perceptions of his own achievements. Through his coup d’état in 1799, Napoleon effectively ended the French Revolution by instituting his own dictatorship over the nation.

The French Revolution before Napoleon

Events leading up to the French Revolution go back several decades before the actual revolt. This is because France’s socio-political structure was one of the key reasons why the public became discontent with the country’s leadership. When the revolution occurred, the French society had three main social classes. The Privileged Estates included the first and second social groups. These two groups made up three percent of France’s population but owned more than thirty percent of the land in the empire. The Third Estate was the last social group in France and it contained three smaller classes within[1]. The French Revolution started in 1789 when delegates from the Third Estate tried to reform the government and make it more representative of the commoners. These attempts led to the creation of the National Assembly, a body to which Louis XVI was opposed. Louis XVI reacted negatively to this development and brought in the Swiss Guard. Fearing for their safety, the French commoners stormed Bastille in search of weapons that they would use to protect themselves. The storming of the Bastille marked the beginning of the revolution[2]. This was followed by a series of events in which the French government was reformed three times and approximately forty thousand people were executed including Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.

Napoleon’s Role in the Revolution

Napoleon’s involvement in the French Revolution began in 1799. In 1796, the Directory placed Napoleon in charge of French forces that went to fight in Austria. A series of victories in his conquests meant that the French people considered Napoleon a national hero. When he returned home, Napoleon’s friends convinced him to carry out a coup d’état. Following their advice, he seized the national legislature in November 1799[3]. After most of the members had fled, the remaining lawmakers voted to end the Directorate, granting Napoleon absolute power in the country. Through this coup d’état, Napoleon seized power in France and assumed dictatorial powers over the empire. This move marked a significant shift in the governance of the country as well as the progression of the revolution[4]. After becoming the French dictator, Napoleon made key moves towards restoring order in France with more European powers trying to remove him from power. Though some Historians argue that the revolution ended with Napoleon’s seizure of power, it took the dictator several years to completely restore order in France.

One of issue that marks Napoleon’s era as the end of the French Revolution is the fact that he used his dictatorial powers to steer the nation forward in the spirit of the revolt. After seizing power, Napoleon secured power by winning a referendum held in France in 1800. The plebiscite saw Napoleon become France’s first consul. However, Napoleon elected to move the country forward in a new direction rather than steer it back to the days of Louis XVI[5]. Napoleon’s decision to steer the country forward in line with the changes brought by the revolution means that his dictatorship allowed the revolt to truly take effect. The effects of his actions became even more apparent when he enforced reforms that instituted some degree of equality in France. These changes affected France’s tax collection and education systems by ensuring that they treated people from different classes the same.

By carrying out widespread reforms within the French government and society, Napoleon successfully restored order in France in a move that provided further proof of his reign marking the end of the revolution. When Napoleon rose to power, France had been through a tumultuous decade that had seen more than forty thousand people die. The empire’s war with Prussia and Austria threatened to worsen the situation, as the two European powers sough to reverse the gains of the revolution[6]. However, this situation did not deter Napoleon. Instead he used the reforms to make sure that France’s internal affairs were settled. The economic reforms that Napoleon instituted helped increase equality and reverse some of the problems that had been caused by France’s previous social classes. In addition to these reforms, Napoleon introduced the Napoleonic Code, a set of laws that eliminated many of the injustices that previously existed in France[7]. Interestingly, some of the measures that Napoleon took went against the ideals of the revolution. For instance, the Napoleonic Code limited the freedom of the press and reinstituted slavery in France’s colonies. Additionally, Napoleon restored the church’s position in French society in a move that went against the spirit of the revolution. The combined effect of these measures meant that France became more peaceful during Napoleon’s time than it had been during any other year of the revolution[8]. Napoleon himself was of the opinion that his measures had calmed down the revolutionaries inside France. In an address to the legislative body, the emperor explained that France was as calm as it had ever been in during its most peaceful periods. This calm was allowing the empire’s enterprises to flourish. Further cementing his position as a defender of the revolution, Napoleon recited an oath that affirmed various key issues of the revolt such as the security of property, the empire’s integrity and the rule of law[9]. With this affirmation, Napoleon showed that he respected the wishes of the commoners, particularly the revolutionaries, despite the fact that he held absolute power over the country. Through this approach towards the revolution, Napoleon was able to ensure that France regained stability after a decade of internal conflict.


Though many historians argue that the French Revolution ended in 1799, the events that transpired during Napoleon’s reign show that it was under his leadership that the situation in France came under control. Napoleon became involved in the revolution after overthrowing the Directorate in a coup d’état. However, he was able to cement his power and popularity by making the right decisions in a manner that balanced his role as the absolute leader of the nation with the responsibility that he took upon himself of protecting the revolution. Widespread reforms saw the reinstatement of justice and equality in the nation and these changes allowed the internal situation in France to settle down, ending the revolution in the progress.




Beck, Roger, B., Linda Black, Larry Krieger, Phillip Naylor & Dahia Ibo Shabaka. Modern World History: Patterns of Interaction. New York: Houghton Mifflin School, 2006.

Brown, Howard G. Ending the French Revolution: Violence, Justice and Repression from the Terror to Napoleon. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2008.

Doyle, William. The French Revolution. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

“French Revolution.” Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Perry, Jonathan. “Napoleon’s Account of the Internal Situation of France in 1804.”

“The French Revolt and Empire.” The War Times Journal.

[1]Howard G. Brown, Ending the French Revolution: Violence, Justice and Repression from the Terror to Napoleon, (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2008), p. 89.

[2] Ibid., p. 101

[3] Roger B. Beck, Modern World History: Patterns of Interaction (New York: Houghton Mifflin School, 2006), p. 663.

[4] “The French Revolt and Empire,” The War Times Journal, available from

[5] Roger B. Beck, Modern World History: Patterns of Interaction (New York: Houghton Mifflin School, 2006), p. 664

[6] “French Revolution,” Encyclopaedia Britannica, available from

[7] William Doyle, The French Revolution, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 88.

[8] Roger B. Beck, Modern World History: Patterns of Interaction (New York: Houghton Mifflin School, 2006), p. 663

[9]Jonathan Perry, “Napoleon’s Account of the Internal Situation of France in 1804,”, available from


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