The French Revolution

Lesson Plans by John Gillis

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French Revolution Lesson Plans

Student Activities for French Revolution Include:

The French Revolution of 1789 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.

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French Revolution Lesson Plans, Student Activities and Graphic Organizers

Analyzing Four Causes of the French Revolution

Causes of The French Revolution
Causes of The French Revolution


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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 above links the French Revolution food crisis with Nepal’s political situation and earthquake response.

Extended Activity

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.

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The Role of Women in The French Revolution Graphic Organizer

Women's Role in the French Revolution
Women's Role in the French Revolution


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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:

  1. What motivated this action?
  2. 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 above is specifically during the Women’s March on Versailles.

Extended Activity

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.

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Was Napoleon a Hero or a Villain? - Timeline Graphic Organizer

The French Revolution - Napoleon: Hero or Villain?
The French Revolution - Napoleon: Hero or Villain?


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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
    • Slavery
    • Women

  • 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).

Napoleon Timeline


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.

Extended Activity

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?”

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Reign of Terror Timeline

The French Revolution - Reign of Terror Timeline
The French Revolution - Reign of Terror Timeline


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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

September 5,1793

“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.

Extended Activity

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.

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Revolutionary Changes in French Society

The French Revolution - What did it change?
The French Revolution - What did it change?


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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

Colonial Affairs
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.

Political Identity
With the monarchy removed, a new spirit of nationalism developed in France. Pride and devotion to the nation became widespread.

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Political Cartoons

The French Revolution - Political Cartoons: Napoleon
The French Revolution - Political Cartoons: Napoleon


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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 Interpretation Storyboard 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.

Extended Activity

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.

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French Revolution Summary

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 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

  1. What conditions lead to revolution?
  2. What were the causes of the French Revolution? To what extent do similar situations exist in our world today?
  3. Why did French citizens resort to using terror to keep their revolution going?
  4. How did Maximilien Robespierre gain and lose political power?
  5. What were the social and political changes caused by the French Revolution?
  6. What role did women play in the French Revolution?
  7. What perceptions did foreign nations have of Napoleon?

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•   (English) The French Revolution   •   (Español) La Revolución Francés   •   (Français) La Révolution Française   •   (Deutsch) Die Französische Revolution   •   (Italiana) La Rivoluzione Francese   •   (Nederlands) De Franse Revolutie   •   (Português) A Revolução Francesa   •   (עברית) המהפכה הצרפתית   •   (العَرَبِيَّة) الثورة الفرنسية   •   (हिन्दी) फ़्रांसीसी क्रांति   •   (ру́сский язы́к) Французская Революция   •   (Dansk) Den Franske Revolution   •   (Svenska) Den Franska Revolutionen   •   (Suomi) Ranskan Vallankumous   •   (Norsk) Den Franske Revolusjon   •   (Türkçe) Fransız Devrimi   •   (Polski) Rewolucja Francuska   •   (Româna) Revoluția Franceză   •   (Ceština) Francouzská Revoluce   •   (Slovenský) Francúzska Revolúcia   •   (Magyar) A Francia Forradalom   •   (Hrvatski) Francuska Revolucija   •   (български) Френската Революция   •   (Lietuvos) Prancūzijos Revoliucija   •   (Slovenščina) Francoska Revolucija   •   (Latvijas) Franču Revolūcija   •   (eesti) Prantsuse Revolutsioon