The French Revolution brought major political and social change to France through enlightened thinking and terrible violence in the late 18th century. The uprising of the common people to overthrow a broken political system demonstrates the spread of democratic principles in Europe and the New World.
By the end of this lesson your students will create amazing storyboards like the ones below!
Monarchy was not only very common in Europe in the 1700s, but the norm. As ideas on science and social issues evolved during the Enlightenment, many people questioned the validity of the "divine right of kings" and the ruling of a very privileged few over the masses. The American Revolution, both as an example of rebellion and as a financial cause, helped pave the way for French revolutionaries to abolish the unjust absolute monarchy of the "Ancien Régime".
Poor harvests and high spending created incredibly high taxes on the Third Estate. The people could not afford to feed themselves, let alone support the costs of the military and the spending of "Madame Déficit". Extreme poverty and outrage over the availability of bread pushed many to action in the Women's March on Versailles and the storming of the Bastille. The people demanded to be heard and, left with few viable options, some turned to violence.
Thousands of people, including King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette, lost their lives to the guillotine, a device for efficient executions by beheading, at the behest of a populace in uproar. Political and civil unrest continued during the Reign of Terror. The French government took on many forms as the ideas of equality, liberty, and fraternity permeated the nation: absolute monarchy, constitutional monarchy, republic, and dictatorship. Napoleon Bonaparte, a commander in the French military, eventually established himself as a leader for France, and became the first emperor.
This teacher guide includes five activities, focusing on different aspects of the French Revolution and Napoleon. The theme connecting these activities is analytical thinking. Since the French Revolution is about people making changes to their own society, students will be reflecting on what motivated the French people to act. In addition, they will analyze both the long and short-term ramifications of these “revolutionary” actions.
Essential Questions for The French Revolution
What conditions lead to revolution?
What were the causes of the French Revolution? To what extent do similar situations exist in our world today?
Why did French citizens resort to using terror to keep their revolution going?
How did Maximilien Robespierre gain and lose political power?
What were the social and political changes caused by the French Revolution?
What role did women play in the French Revolution?
What perceptions did foreign nations have of Napoleon?
French Revolution Lesson Plans, Student Activities and Graphic Organizers
For this activity, students will draw parallels between circumstances that led up to the French Revolution, and similar situations that exist in the world today. For each modern similarity, students must assess whether or not the circumstance that they have researched could potentially cause a revolution. The intent of this activity is to wrap-up study of the French Revolution’s opening sequences. More importantly, this lesson will enable students to see history as a tool. History can help individuals see patterns in events over time – these patterns can help us make predictions about future events, based on current conditions.
This activity will require the teacher to help their students in researching “hotspots” around the globe to find pre-revolutionary conditions, similar to those described on the left hand side of the third column in the chart below. A great place to start researching is the Council on Foreign Relations.
In this activity, the teacher will provide a partially filled template of a grid. The teacher-created cells state four conditions that contributed to the French Revolution on the left. The middle column, which will be student-created, will be a synopsis of their research into a situation that resembles the conditions of pre-revolutionary France. The right hand column, also student-created, will be a prediction based on the students’ understanding of the French Revolution (Column One), and their research (Column Two).
The storyboard also functions as a narrative, linking past, present, and future events. The example below links the French Revolution food crisis with Nepal’s political situation and earthquake response.
The French Revolution
Similar to Modern World
Increased Bread Prices
French peasants had to deal with two years of bad harvests prior to the start of the revolution. Economic policies that deregulated the price of grain contributed to the crisis.
Nepal: Post-earthquake Food Crisis
Like late 18th-century France, Nepal faces food shortages resulting from natural disaster and poor government decisions
Nepal: Government Overthrow
After roughly 14 years of chaotic and inconsistent rule, the poor response to the earthquake crisis might be the last straw. Major protests over a recent constitution indicate that significant unrest already exists.
The Estate System
Unjust Land Distribution and Tax Burdens
France had a social system that heavily favored the First and Second Estate (the clergy and nobility). Less than 3% of the population, these two groups paid no taxes and controlled the government.
The Occupy Protest Movement
The goal of the Occupy Wall Street movement is to decrease the gap between the wealthiest citizens and the poorest citizens.
Capitalism Continues Unfettered
Despite their non-violent approach and lots of media attention, the Occupy message seems to have had little effect. The salary gap between the wealthiest and poorest Americans remains wide.
Negatively Affected the Nation
Louis the XVI was well-intentioned, but had little interest in actually ruling the nation. He put off making big decisions and feared upsetting the nobility.
Bashar al Assad
Bashar was not supposed to rule Syria. He was training as an eye doctor. When his older brother died, he was thrust into the role. His violent response to his own citizens protests is widely viewed as creating chaos that could have been avoided.
Assad Eventually Leaves
Assad will not rule Syria after the civil war ends. Unfortunately, extremists groups like Jabhat al-Nusra might fill in the vacuum.
Sparked Ideas of Democracy, Liberty, and Equality
Upper class members of the third estate (the bourgeoisie) looked at the success of the American Revolution and began to speak openly about eliminating the old social system and replacing it with the Enlightenment concepts of democracy, liberty, and equality.
Egypt: Arab Spring
Using Facebook as an organizing tool, Egyptians protested in huge numbers to end the corrupt rule of President Mubarak.
Instability Will Continue
Not long after Mubarak was removed, a problematic number of competing ideologies began to surface. This will make the transition to stability difficult.
A fourth column could be added to this storyboard titled, “Policy Suggestions”. This student-created column would identify policies that would improve the situation in Column Two. Captions for this column would identify the policy, and explain how and why it would work.
The role of women in the French Revolution is often overlooked. However, the stories of female political activism are both controversial and fascinating. Moreover, they provide great insight into the limits of enlightenment thinking in 19th century Western Europe.
In this activity, students will analyze cause and effect within the framework of a political/social revolution using the grid layout. In the first column students give examples of the roles women played in the French Revolution. On the other two columns, two questions must be answered for each example:
What motivated this action?
What was the outcome of this action?
Students should consolidate their research on motives and outcomes and explain their storyboard cells in the space provided. The storyboard below is specifically during the Women’s March on Versailles.
Role of Women
Women’s March on Versailles
Hundreds of women marched the 12 miles from Paris to Versailles in the rain. They hoped to voice their plight to the royal family and demand change.
Bread Shortage / Royal Family Plotting Rumors
Major bread shortages and rumors of the royal family plotting a counterrevolution pushed working-class women to the brink. Their frustration turned to action.
King / Queen Leave Palace
Things quickly got out of control at Versailles. The women were joined by men. They broke into the palace and killed two guards. The King and Queen agreed to leave their palace and live in their home in Paris. They would never return to Versailles.
Declaration of Independence
Inspired by the Declaration of Independence, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen promised French men "Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. The problem: it neglected women!
Olympe de Gouges
Writing under the pen-name Olympe De Gouges, Marie Gauze showed how women had been excluded from the promises made in the "Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen" by publishing the "Declaration of the Rights of Woman".
In 1793, De Gouges was labeled an agitator and an enemy of the Revolution. She was executed for these crimes.
Charlotte Corday / Assassination of Marat
Corday did not approve of the intolerant, violent nature of the revolution. Marat published an inflammatory newspaper called "The Friend of the People" which called for people to kill those who were critical of the revolution. Corday gained access to his home and killed him in his bathtub.
L’Ami du Peuple
Jean-Paul Marat's revolutionary newspaper, L'Ami du Peuple, frequently promoted violence as a way to further the revolution.
Charlotte Corday helped shut down the newspaper, but was executed by guillotine for the murder of Marat.
Marie Antoinette was the unpopular Austrian wife of Louis XVI. Her ever-increasing spending on luxury items earned her the nickname "Madame Deficit."
Uninterested in Husband
Marie Antoinette was from Austria. She was not interested in her husband, Louis XVI, and distracted herself with gambling, parties, and fashion.
Less than a year after her husband was executed, the unpopular queen was a victim of the guillotine herself.
Students could extend this activity by looking at the effect of Napoleon’s rule on women’s rights. Another row of cells could be added to the bottom of this storyboard to explore the motivations and outcomes of Napoleon’s policies regarding women’s rights.
The impact of Napoleon Bonaparte on the development of France has been the subject of a vast quantities of historical research. This research reveals Napoleon as an individual with complex motivations and personal struggles. He holds a place of honor in French history, but were his actions ultimately helpful or harmful?
Create a storyboard timeline of Napoleon’s life that tries to answer the question: “Was Napoleon a Hero or a Villain?” The timeline must include:
Napoleon’s domestic policies
How he dealt with the French Revolution
Napoleon’s efforts to create an empire
Conflicts with Britain
Conflicts with Spain
Invasion of Russia
The timeline should include 8-10 cells, but adjust accordingly for your needs. Use a color-coding system in the title text boxes to indicate whether you think Napoleon is being a heroic (Blue), villainous (Red) or a combination of both (White).
Defender of the Republic, Military Genius
Napoleon defends the National Convention and claims victories in Italy.
Order! Security! Efficiency! Emperor?
Napoleon seized power in 1802 and negotiated peace. By 1804 he had named himself Emperor.
Keeps the Revolution Alive, Sort of...
Napoleon centralized power, but kept many revolutionary changes alive. He established a uniform legal system under his Napoleonic Code, but restored slavery and oppressed women.
Battle of Trafalgar
This was a decisive naval defeat for Napoleon's fleet. Britain would not become part of the French Empire.
The Empire at its Largest
Napoleon controlled most of Western Europe for five years, but it was a volatile empire.
Mistakes in Spain and Britain
Napoleon attempted to defeat Britain with the "Continental System", a series of blockades that failed. He also placed his brother on the Spanish throne and it was a political disaster.
Napoleon Invades Russia
This was Napoleon's most costly mistake. The Russian army retreated and burned everything. The French army ended up far from home with no food and winter closing in.
Escape from Elba
After the debacle in Russia, Napoleon's enemies were able to defeat him and banish him to Elba. However, he escaped and returned to wild popular support!
Battle of Waterloo
After he escaped from Elba and ruled France for 100 days, Napoleon's enemies defeated him near the Belgian town of Waterloo. He was banished to the remote island of St. Helena.
The storyboards that students just created could be used to write a persuasive essay. Students could also research the tomb of Napoleon. Students should use this research to address the question: “Why did the French people build a tomb of this scope to Napoleon?”
The Reign of Terror is a well-known component of the French Revolution, mostly due to the excessive use of the guillotine to preserve the Revolution. This activity asks students to look beyond the “chopping block” to discover the political motivations of the man behind the Terror: Maximilien Robespierre.
Task: Create a storyboard timeline of the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution. The timeline should be 6 - 8 cells and must include:
The motivations for the use of terror to preserve the Revolution
Methods Robespierre used to consolidate his power
When popular support turned against Robespierre
Reign of Terror Timeline
“Terror is the order of the Day”
The Reign of Terror began when French lawyer and politician Maximilien Robespierre took control of the Committee of Public Safety and ruled as a dictator.
October 16, 1793
Death of a Queen
Put on trial for a wide range of charges, many of them exaggerated, the Queen was found guilty and executed.
October 31, 1793
Girondin members are rounded up and executed
Robespierre was a member of the Jacobins - a radical political group. The rival group, the Girondins, became targets during the "Terror".
December 25, 1793
Robespierre justifies his authority
Robespierre claims that since his "revolutionary regime" is at war, it must "operate in an extraordinary manner".
June 8, 1794
Festival of the Supreme Being
Robespierre created his own revolutionary religion based on Greek and Roman models. To "ring in" this new belief system he organized a massive festival, involving a man-made mountain, which he presided over.
June 10, 1794
New legislation makes trials for "counterrevolutionaries" even faster!
Over 65% of all "counterrevolutionaries" were executed after Robespierre put this new law into effect.
June 28, 1794
The Terror Ends
Charged with "crimes against the Republic". Robespierre is guillotined. The Reign of Terror ends after over 40,000 French citizens are killed.
Students could create other “rise and fall” timelines for figures including Napoleon, Louis XVI, or Marat. In addition, students could identify and analyze the times Robespierre overstepped his authority, and sowed the seeds for his demise.
The Revolution turned French society on its ear, but what else changed beyond the execution of the king and queen? This activity asks students to look beyond the guillotine, and determine how far-reaching the transformations promised by the Revolution actually were.
Students will create a spider map storyboard that explains the changes created by the French Revolution.
Example Changes after the French Revolution
The new government abolished slavery in French colonies of the West Indies.
Despite a tumultuous 10-year period (1789 - 1799) in which the government went through several constitutions and legislative bodies, French society made the transition from monarchy to republic.
French paintings began to emulate a neo-Classical style. Major events like the Tennis Court Oath were captured using this emotional, romanticized technique.
Fashion changed from elaborate dress and powdered wigs to simple clothes and long pants. Parents began giving their children revolutionary names like "Republic" or "Constitution".
The new revolutionary government attempted to replace church schools with compulsory state-run schools.
With the monarchy removed, a new spirit of nationalism developed in France. Pride and devotion to the nation became widespread.
The era of Napoleon’s domination in France and Europe also saw the continued development of mass media, specifically newspapers. The cartoons used in this activity were all published in European newspapers in the early 19th century. They are amazing primary sources. The cartoons used in this example come from the The Brown University Center for Digital Scholarship: Napoleonic Satires.
Task: Students need to complete two separate tasks in this assignment: one analytical and one creative. The analysis involves deciphering the message of the cartoon.The symbols and events depicted in each cartoon require a solid understanding of Napoleon’s role in French history. Students should be directed to explain the symbols identified by red arrows in each of the cartoons.
The creative element uses storyboard art to create a political cartoon that tackles a current social/political/economic issue, with the same general approach as the Revolutionary cartoon in the storyboard’s first and second cells. An example appears in the top row of the storyboard.
Primary Source Cartoon
Caption: Three Plagues of Europe
The Turbulent Mr. Fight All, The Honorable Mr. Tax All, and the Worshipfull Mr. Take All
Both Britain and France are Problematic...
The 1st figure is Napoleon - depicted as a violent war monger, the 2nd figure is British Prime Minister, William Pitt - shown with hand on hip admonishing Napoleon. The final figure is the devil - perhaps appearing because the actions of the first two are worthy of his notice.
Violence, Drugs and Poverty Each figure represents a social problem in the United States. The nicknames for each social problem are based on the Napoleonic cartoon in the first cell.
This activity can be extended in a number of ways. Students could locate and analyze current political cartoons/satires. They could also build a storyboard collection of political cartoons or satires from each unit of study, e.g. the Industrial Revolution, or World War I.