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Thursday, 20 August 2009 05:17

Lesson 1: The French Revolution (1789 – 1791)

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In this lesson students will participate in a simulation that will provide a deeper understanding of the causes and stages of the French Revolution. Lesson includes simulation of the Three Estates, Tennis Court Oath and trial of Louis XVI.

(Lesson by Monty Worth, Lowell High School; modifications by Kristin Lubenow, Lowell High School)


  1. Students will explore the causes of the French Revolution, life during the French Revolution, and the aftermath of the French Revolution.
  2. Students will make connections to other revolutions: American and Glorious Revolutions.
  3. Students will understand what sacrifices must be made for revolution and the idea of freedom, and what happens when people lose sight of their purpose.


(This lesson takes approximately 5 days)

Step 1: Intro Activity:

  1. Meet students in the hall and randomly pass out roles (see Teacher Handout 3.1.1) and bags of M&M’s based on roles (M&M’s should be divided up before hand according to the following:  40 for the 1st estate; 30 for the 2nd estate; 15  for the Bourgeoisie and 10 for the peasants both are part of the 3rd estate)
  2. Group the students into three groups according to their roles; 1st estate should have the most M&Ms, but the least amount of people
  3. Then announce: “If you belong to the 3rd estate, pay 3 M&M’s for taxes to the 2nd estate; in addition tithes are due today pay 7 M&Ms  to the 1st estate– this applies to both the 2nd and 3rd estate.
    Question: Who has the most? Who has the least? What is the problem with this system? Review the ideas of the Enlightenment:
    Popular sovereignty                                
    Natural Rights: life, liberty, property
    Individual freedom                                  
    Political equality
    Who would disagree with these ideas? Who would agree with these ideas? Who likes the way things are? Who wants change?

Step 2: Play La Marseillaise & Lecture

Lecture Notes: L’Ancien Regime and French Revolution (from


  1. Breakdown of Old Order; Revolution’s Origins
    1. Economic Causes
      1. immediate: financial difficulties of government (economic)
        1. public opinion resisted increase in taxes
        2. govt financed its enormous expenditures thru borrowed $
        3. 1780 debt was so bad 50% of France’s budget went to pay interest only; 25% went to military; 6% to king and court at Versailles; less than 20% went to function of state
        4. couldn’t declare bankruptcy; no central bank couldn’t print $; French currency was gold
        5. had to increase taxes; tax system was unfair; to increase revenues you would have to change the system
    2. Social Causes:  Old Regime (Ancien Regime)
      1. Since Middle Ages 25 million inhabitants legally divided into 3 orders or estates
        1. 1st estate: Roman Catholic clergy 100,000 members owned 10% of land; paid “voluntary gift” every 5 years in taxes; church levied a tax (tithe) on landowners of about 10%
        2. 2nd estate: 400,000 (2%) noblemen and women who owned 25% of land; taxed lightly or not at all; had many manorial priviledges – taxed the peasants, fishing and hunting rights
        3. 3rd estate: commoners:
          1. few: lawyers, merchants, officials (educated and wealthy) bourgeoisie – middle class
          2. more: artisans and unskilled day laborers
          3. majority: peasants and agricultural workers
      2. Old Regime no longer corresponded to social reality
        1. social system still based on feudal times
        2. now society was based on wealth and education; emerging elite (aristocracy and bourgeoisie) that was frustrated with bureaucratic/absolute monarchy
    3. Political Causes
      1. Weak King: Louis XVI
        1. careless, heartless, foolish; wrong man at the wrong time
        2. most hated for his Austrian wife, Marie Antoinette
        3. lived extravagantly
        4. depleted the French treasury
  2. Stages of Revolution
    1. Moderate Stage: 1789 – 1792
      1. Louis calls Estate General (Congress)
        1. 1st and 2nd estate dominate the talks; given uneven vote
        2. 3rd estate urges reform, relief for the poor, & equal voice
        3. weeks of arguing; 3rd estate leaves meets on the King’s Tennis Court
      2. Tennis Court Oath: a vow to save France from ruin
        1. Conservatives gather on the right, liberals on the left
        2. Call themselves “National Assembly” and start making laws
      3. Bastille Day (July 14, 1789)
        1. random riots thruout Paris; mob showed up at the King’s prison (the Bastille) looking for weapons
        2. sparked the Great Fear; countryside peasants attacked landlords for food stores
      4. August 4, 1789: National Assembly meets
        1. ends serfdom, feudalism and all class privilege
        2. Liberte, equalite and fraternite
        3. Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen
        4. Called for the creation of a limited monarchy
      5. National Assembly (1789 – 1792)
        1. reform France: church lands are confiscated; sold to pay debt
        2. radicals called for the death of the King and nobles (King tried to escape 1790 to Austria)
        3. émigrés: nobles fled France for more friendly countries
        4. upper class targeted by mobs and killed
        5. eventually dissolves monarchy and declares France  a republic
          1. National Convention 1792

Step 3:

Show Video Excerpt: The History Channel: The French Revolution

Step 4:

Introduce French Revolution Role Play (Student Handout 3.1.1 and Student Roles Handout 3.1.2)

  1. Pass out the Handout 3.1.1. Prior to class cut up the student roles on Handout 3.1.2, assign roles or take volunteers. Read through the role play instructions and answer any questions.
  2. Give students time to prepare. They must complete for homework.


Step 5: French Revolution Role Play (Part 1)

  1. The room should be set up so that the members of the different Estates are sitting together. They should be separated as much as possible. The teacher should read the introductory part and call the students up to the podium that are to speak on the matter in the order listed.
  2. Once all of the speeches have been given, the teacher should call for a vote on the matter at hand.  This can be done aloud or by secret ballot, with the results read before the end of class.
  3. Wait for the reaction of the 3rd Estate, then hand note to Lafayette, Mirabeau & Sieyes to lead a walkout of the 3rd estate.  They storm out as class ends.
  4. Instruct those students that are to speak on the fate of the king to be prepared for the following day.

Step 6: French Revolution Role Play (Part 2)

  • The room should be set up in rows, with the podium in the front. The teacher should read the introductory part and then call on Count Mirabeau to run the meeting, calling on the student speakers in the order listed.
  • When the speeches are complete, allow the King and Queen defend themselves.
  • Explain the charges
  • Allow for some time for debate among the representatives.
  • Vote taken to decide King/Queen’s fate
  • Give time for students to reflect on what they just did.  Did the revolution accomplish its goal? Tell them that tomorrow  you will explain what happened next.

Step 7: Finish Lecture Notes

  1. Stages of Revolution Continued
    1. Reign of Terror 1793 – 1794)
      1. time of crisis: England and Spain join Austria and Prussia in opposing the revolution; food shortages and counterrevolution in western France
        1. power struggle between Radicals (Jacobins) and moderates Girondins
        2. Jacobins take control of the legislature and install an emergency government Committee for Public Safety headed by Robespierre
        3. Planned economy and Levee en masse (national conscription) and reign of terror: round up nobles for execution; thousands sent to “national barber’                (guillotine)
        4. Jan. 21, 1793: Radicals execute Louis XVI and his family
        5. wanted a republic of virtue
        6. changed the names of months; abolished Sunday
      2. Orders 1,000 of executions
        1. uses spies; put people to death if they disagreed with the Revolution
        2. killed famous revolutionary leaders that he saw as a threat (Danton, DesMoulins)
        3. 40 – 50,000 killed in all including peasants for ridiculous reasons; bartender was killed for serving sour wine
    2. Reaction Stage (1794 – 1798)
      1. Moderates react; former members of National Assembly turn on Rob; he’s execute (1794)
        1. Girondins readmitted
      2. People are sick of the killing and the chaos; terror did not help
        advance the revolution
      3. (1795) National Assembly meets and writes new constitution
        1. power given to intellectuals
        2. five man directory formed (executive branch)
        3. controlled by wealthy merchants that wanted to expand their wealth; overturned planned economy upset the sanscoullote
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