We. The Revolution in Context - A Crash Course on the French Revolution

Published: March 20, 2019 2:00 PM /


we the revolution release date

Tomorrow, We. The Revolution releases and it takes place during the French Revolution, a point of major political and social upheaval at the tail-end of the 18th Century. In the game, you'll play the role of a judge on the Revolutionary Tribunal during the Reign of Terror. As part of our coverage on the game, we'll be giving our readers a crash course on this key moment in modern history.

Learn about what We. The Revolution is and how it plays in our preview here. If you want to read more on its gameplay and art style, check out our interviews here and here where we spoke to the developers.

Growing tensions

When it comes to exactly what caused the Revolution, a wide variety of causes are still debated. However, some of the biggest reasons were financial and economic ones. King Louis XVI spent a good amount of the country's money on aiding America in the American Revolution. This aggravated a financial crisis primarily started by costly involvements in the Seven Years War. On a more local front, the people of France were dealing with increased bread prices and two decades of droughts, bad harvests, and cattle diseases.

In the fall of 1786, controller general of finances Charles Alexandre de Calonne proposed a financial reform package. Among the changes was a consistent land tax that included the nobility and clergy. In an attempt to stall an aristocratic revolt, Louis XVI reappointed finance minister Jacques Necker and announced that the Estates-General would meet May 5, 1789. This meeting of the three estates (clergy, nobility, and lower/middle class respectively) marked the first meeting of the estates since 1614.

A lot had changed since 1614, including France's demographics. The ~600 men of the Third Estate represented about 95% of the country's population, yet the other two Estates could outvote them. Because the clergy was primarily made of nobles, the two Estates could easily band together on issues. Pamphlets were handed out that argued the importance of the Third Estate and demanding that voting be based by head, not status. By the time the Estates-General met in Versailles, the voting issue completely eclipsed the meeting's original purpose.

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The National Assembly and the Storming of the Bastille

On June 17, with talks at the Estates-General stalling, the Third Estate declared itself the National Constituent Assembly, an assembly of "the People." They invited the other Estates to join them but made it apparent that they would proceed without them if necessary. Three days later, when royal officials locked the Assembly deputies out of their meeting hall, the Assembly instead met at the king's indoor tennis court. There, they swore the Tennis Court Oath, where they would not separate until they got France a new constitution. Over the next week, a good amount of clergy and some nobles would join into the Assembly. Louis XVI grudgingly acknowledged the National Assembly on June 27. Meanwhile, the military gathered around Paris and Versailles with plans to forcefully disassemble the Assembly if necessary.

As the Assembly continued their debates, the citizens of Paris grew worried about an "aristocratic coup" facilitated by the encroaching military, which was primarily made up of foreign mercenaries. When Necker, who was disliked by the French court for manipulating public opinion, was fired on July 11 for publishing an inaccurate and publicized account of the government's debts, the citizens went into open rebellion. On July 14, 1789, the rioters raided the Bastille fortress, which was perceived as a symbol of royal power, and Governor Marquis Bernard-René de Launay, despite a mutual ceasefire, was beaten, stabbed, and decapitated, with his head impaled on a pike and paraded around the city. Similarly, the prévôt des marchands (roughly a term for the city's mayor) was butchered by the rioters. The Bastille's storming is considered the start of the French Revolution and is now considered a public holiday.

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Prise de la Bastile (Storming of the Bastile) by Jean-Pierre Houël, 1789

The Great Fear and The Rights of Man

Despite efforts by King Louis XVI to appeal to the rioters and acknowledge their sovereignty, civil authority rapidly fell apart. Known as "The Great Fear," peasants mobilized themselves in both self-defense against the bourgeois and for outright raids against their châteaux and other upper-class holdings. The Great Fear expedited the emigration of nobles leaving the country for fear of their lives. The Great Fear is estimated to have ended about three weeks after the Storming of the Bastille on August 4, when the National Constituent Assembly abolished feudalism, a 10% church tithe, and other special privileges. French historian Georges Lefebvre would describe this as "the death certificate of the old order."

In order to pay off France's public debt, the Assembly engaged in the mass redistribution of nationalized land formerly owned by the Roman Catholic Church. The Assembly also passed the Civil Constitution of the Clergy on June 12, 1790, which effectively made the remaining clergy employees of the state. However, it was rejected by Pope Pius VI and much of the French clergy, producing a schism between the church and the state that would aggravate later events.

On August 26, the Assembly published the Declaration of The Rights of Man and of the Citizen. Highly inspired by Thomas Jefferson's doctrine of "natural right," The Rights of Man acted as a statement of the Assembly's principles. At this point, the Assembly was seeking to create a permanent constitution. Over the course of the next month, King Louis XVI was able to gain legislative veto power during constitutional negotiations, but the King and the royal family were forced to move from Versailles to Paris by the Women's March on Versailles on October 6. An official constitution was adopted sometime in September, establishing a constitutional monarchy and reflected the views of the more moderate members of the Assembly, which went through elections and became the Legislative Assembly on October 1, 1791. However, more radical members like lawyer and politician Maximilien Robespierre began drumming up support for a more republican form of government.

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War, a Constitutional Crisis, and Regicide

As political intrigue and radicalism took part in the Legislative Assembly, France wound up declaring war on Austria on April 20, 1792. Radicals hoped to spread the principles of the revolution, while Louis XVI hoped to either boost his popularity or stop the revolution through the help of foreign armies. Austria faced little resistance at first in the war. On July 25, 1792, Charles William Ferdinand, Duke of Brunswick (who led the allied armies of Austria and Prussia) issued the Brunswick Manifesto, threatening to harm the French citizens if the royal family was harmed. It was meant to intimidate the people of France, but the Manifesto made people suspect the royal family was colluding with the enemy. King Louis XVI would later be arrested on August 10 when radical revolutionaries rose up in Paris and imprisoned him. He was later sentenced to death and executed on January 14, 1793, with his wife, Marie Antoinette, facing a similar fate nine months later.

On September 2, Parisians learned that Prussia captured the fortress-town of Verdun and heard rumors that imprisoned counter-revolutionaries were allying with the enemy. The citizens of Paris proceeded to massacre around a thousand prisoners over the next few days, about 200 of which were priests who wouldn't support the Civil Constitution of the Clergy. The Legislative Assembly did little to stop the bloodshed and the revolutionary Paris Commune (effectively the city's government) encouraged other cities to follow their example. These massacres would be called the September Massacres. Chaos persisted until new elections were held, and the National Convention became the new de facto government of France on September 20, 1792. A day later, they proclaimed the abolition of the monarchy and the establishment of a republic known as the First French Republic.

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Execution of King Louis XVI, a German copperplate engraving by Georg Heinrich Sieveking (1793)

The Reign of Terror - We. The Revolution's Setting

Following King Louis XVI's execution, other powers, such as Britain and the Dutch Republic, joined in the war against France. These new allies pushed deeper into France and strengthened the Revolution's extremists. The moderate Girondins were driven from the Convention and the more radical Montagnards took over. They enacted extreme measures, like government control of prices and taxation on the rich, which provoked violent reactions. Eventually, the government took over the violence when it established the Revolutionary Tribunal on March 10, 1793. This marked the beginning of the Reign of Terror, and is primarily where players in We. The Revolution will be taking place, as players pass sentences and engage in political intrigue.

The Revolutionary Tribunal and the Reign of Terror was meant to take harsh measures against those who were suspected of being enemies of the Revolution, such as nobles, priests, and hoarders. Many of the killings were overseen by the Committee of Public Safety (established in April 1793 by the National Convention,) where Robespierre was a member. Exact numbers are uncertain, but about 16,000 people were officially executed, but many more likely were killed without a trial or died in prison.

As the Reign continued and Catholicism was facing a purge, Robespierre established a deist national religion known as the Cult of the Supreme Being. Envisioned as a state religion that celebrated reason, the Festival of the Supreme Being held June 8, 1794 failed to attract much interest. Robespierre's major presence at the Festival widened a gap growing between him and other members of the Revolutionary Government. The French Army's reoccupation of Belgium from Austria in June 26, 1794 also caused trouble for Robespierre when debate opened up two days later on the necessity of wartime measures, which Robespierre supported. After an argument during the debate, Robespierre stopped frequenting meetings of the Committee of Public Safety.

On July 26, 1794, Robespierre returned to the Committee to defend himself from rumors and attacks on his person and to accuse other deputies of conspiracy. His claims didn't go well and he was imprisoned at the city hall (Hôtel de Ville) two days later. Robespierre left the hall with a broken jaw. Some sources say it was from a botched suicide attempt via a pistol, while other say it was caused by an officer occupying the hall. Robespierre was executed later that day at the same guillotine used on so many before, marking an end to the Reign of Terror.

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The Fall of Robespierre in the Convention on 27 July 1794, an oil painting by Max Adamo (1870)

The end of the Revolution

Shortly after Robespierre's execution, the Convention pulled back some of the extreme measures and debated the creation of a new constitution. On August 22, 1795, the National Convention, made up mostly of Girondins, approved a new constitution that created France's first bicameral legislature. They made significant military progress but were dogged by claims of corruption. Eventually, the government was overthrown in a coup d'état on November 9, 1799 led by a charismatic general named Napoleon Bonaparte. His new role as France's "first consul" marked the end of the French Revolution and the beginning of the Napoleonic Era.

The big question, though, is will YOU be able to see the end of the French Revolution? Find out for yourself when We. The Revolution launches on Steam March 21.

Have a tip, or want to point out something we missed? Leave a Comment or e-mail us at tips@techraptor.net

A picture of me, Brian Renadette
| Former Staff Writer

I am a graduate of Southern New Hampshire University with a major in writing and a minor in gaming. I have a passion for video games and writing. I also… More about Brian

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March 21, 2019 (Calendar)
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