This collection of French Revolution essay questions has been written and compiled by Alpha History authors, for use by teachers and students. They can also be used for short-answer questions, homework activities and other research or revision tasks. If you would like to contribute a question to this page, please contact Alpha History:
France before 1789
1. Evaluate the French royal court at Versailles, why it existed and the contribution it made to French government and society.
2. “The French nobility did little but concern themselves with leisure, finery, decadence, affairs and intrigues.” To what extent is this statement true in the context of late 18th century France?
3. The presence of things like lettres du cachet and the Bastille give the impression that pre-revolutionary France was an authoritarian society that oppressed personal liberty and freedom. To what extent was this true?
4. Examine the role of religion in 18th century France, both in ideological and practical terms. How did ordinary French people view the Catholic church and its clergy?
5. Identify and discuss tensions between the Three Estates that may have contributed to revolutionary sentiment in 18th century France.
6. To what extent was feudalism a cause of the French Revolution? Describe how feudal bonds and dues impacted on the ordinary people of France during the 18th century.
7. Explain why the taxation regime and the collection of tax revenue in 18th century France failed to meet the fiscal requirements of the nation.
8. Some historians argue that commerce and trade in France was restricted by regulations that were overbearing, complex and inconsistent. What were the grievances of the merchant and capitalist class in pre-revolutionary France?
9. Discuss how the strains and stresses of imperialism might have weakened the domestic government in 18th century France, paving the way for revolutionary sentiment.
10. Consider the political, economic and social position of women in 18th century France. Did the women of France have more motivation or potential for revolution than the men?
Government and royalty in the ancien regime
1. Louis XIV is once reported as saying “L’etat, c’est moi” (‘The state is me’). To what extent was this true, both of Louis XIV and his two successors?
2. Describe the relationship between the Bourbon monarchy and the French people in the century before 1789. How did French kings impose their will on the nation?
3. In what ways did the Roman Catholic religion support the Bourbon monarchy – and how was the church itself supported by the state?
4. Discuss the relationship between the Bourbon monarch and the Second Estate. How did tensions between the king and his nobles shape the political landscape?
5. Evaluate Louis XVI and his character, personal abilities and his suitability for leadership. Was he a flawed king, or simply a victim of circumstance?
6. Critically examine the relationship between Louis XVI and his ministers during the 1780s.
7. Explain why Marie Antoinette was a target for intrigue, gossip and propagandists. To what extent was her reputation deserved?
8. The extravagant spending of the royal family is often advanced as a major cause of the French Revolution. To what extent was this true?
9. Explain how the ideological foundations of the French monarchy were challenged and possibly undermined by Enlightenment philosophers and writers.
10. According to Simon Schama, the Bourbon monarchy was threatened by “whispering campaigns”. To what is he referring to, and how did they endanger the monarchy?
The troubled 1780s
1. Giving close attention to specific writers, explain how the Enlightenment challenged and undermined the old regime in 18th century France.
2. What contribution did salons, cafes and other social gatherings make to the rising revolutionary sentiment of the 1780s?
3. “The libelles and political pornography of the 1780s contained no explicit political ideas, so had little impact on the old regime”. To what extent was this true?
4. Identify and discuss two individuals who attempted to achieve fiscal and political reform in France during the 1780s. To what extent were they successful?
5. Explain how France’s involvement in the American Revolutionary War impacted on the nation in moral, ideological and practical terms.
6. Discuss the actions of the parlements and the Assembly of Notables in the late 1780s. How did these bodies contribute to the developing revolution?
7. Explain the events of 1788 that led to Louis XVI calling for the convocation of the Estates-General.
8. What were the Cahiers de Doleances and what did they suggest about the mood of the French people on the eve of the revolution?
9. Why did French harvests fail in the late 1780s, leading to a downturn in agricultural production? What impact did this have on the lives of ordinary people?
10. What factors and forces led to the failure of reformist policies in the 1780s? Did these reforms fail because of resistant conservative interests or a disinterested, incompetent royal government?
The drama of 1789
1. Who was the Abbe Sieyes and what contribution did he make to the French Revolution, both in ideological and practical terms?
2. What happened at the Reveillon factory in Paris in April 1789? What working class grievances, fears and rumours triggered these events?
3. Explain how issues of ceremony, procedure and voting created divisions within the Estates-General when it met in mid-1789.
4. For what reasons did the National Assembly form in June 1789? Was the formation of this body inevitable – or did it occur because of chance and circumstance?
5. “From the beginning of 1789, the push for economic and fiscal reform in France became a push for political reform.” Explain the meaning of this statement, referring to key ideas and events of 1789.
6. Discuss the context, reasons and outcomes of the sacking of Jacques Necker on July 11th 1789. What impact did this have on the unfolding revolution?
7. Why has the storming of the Bastille become the best known event of the French Revolution? What were the outcomes of this event, in both real and symbolic terms?
8. What were the causes and outcomes of the Great Fear? Was this event evidence that the French peasantry were a revolutionary class?
9. Why did the newly formed National Constituent Assembly move to abolish feudalism in France on August 4th? How sincere were these reforms and did they last?
10. On the surface, the relocation of the royal family from Versailles to Paris, a few miles away, seems a minor event. Was this really the case? Why did the king and his family relocate and what impact did this have on the revolution?
Creating a new society
1. Examine the background, motives and political values of those who sat in the National Constituent Assembly between 1789 and its dissolution in 1791.
2. What steps did the National Constituent Assembly take to abolish or replace the political institutions and social inequalities of the ancien regime?
3. While many aspects of the French Revolution have been forgotten or discredited, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen has endured. Summarise the political values and ideas contained in this critical document.
4. The most influential political figure of 1789-1791, argue many historians, is the Marquis de Lafayette. Describe Lafayette’s background, attributes and political values. To what extent did he truly represent the revolution in France?
5. Evaluate the political leadership of Honore Mirabeau in the revolution between June 1789 and his death in April 1791. Did Mirabeau seek to advance revolutionary change – or to restrict it?
6. What were the political, social and economic objectives of the Civil Constitution of the Clergy? Discuss the impact this reform had on the clergy, the king and the French people in general?
7. How successful was the National Constituent Assembly in resolving the economic and fiscal problems of the ancien regime? Refer to three specific policies in your answer.
8. Evaluate the relationship between the National Constituent Assembly and the French peasantry and working classes. Did the Assembly implement policies that improved living and working conditions for ordinary people?
9. To what extent did the revolution enjoy popular support around France by the end of 1790? Which people, groups or regions were actively opposing the revolution?
10. What was the ‘flight to Varennes’ and why did it change the political landscape in the new society?
The descent into radicalism
1. What were the causes and outcomes of the Champ de Mars massacre? How and why did this event change the development of the new society?
2. Evaluate the brief life and political impact of the Legislative Assembly. Did this body suffer from internal failings – or was it simply a victim of treacherous times?
3. Discuss the fate of the moderate leaders Mirabeau, Lafayette and Bailly during the radical period. What were the events and factors that undermined their leadership?
4. How did France come to find itself at war with other European powers from 1792 onwards? What impact did war have on the government?
5. Explain how radical writers like Jean Paul Marat and Camille Desmoulins influenced the development of the new society between 1789 and 1794.
6. What were the political clubs and what role did they play in the evolving new society? Discuss three specific clubs in your answer.
7. Why is August 10th 1792 considered a pivotal day in the course of the revolution? What impact did the events of this day have on French government and society?
8. Evaluate the fate of the king between June 1791 and his execution in January 1793. Could Louis XVI have saved himself – or was he already doomed?
9. Who were the sans culottes and what were their grievances? Referring to at least three specific events, explain how they influenced the national government between 1791 and 1793.
10. Explain the composition of the National Convention and its various political divisions and factions.
The Terror and beyond
1. In what ways was French society reformed and reinvented between 1792 and 1794? Identify and discuss five elements of the ancien regime and its society that were abolished or reformed by the National Convention.
2. What was the Committee of Public Safety? How did this body come to possess arbitrary power – and what did it do with this power?
3. Identify and discuss three events or factors that you believe were the most significant causes of the Reign of Terror.
4. Explain the purpose and operation of the Paris Revolutionary Tribunal. How did these change as the Terror intensified in late 1793 and 1794?
5. Discuss the arguments advanced by Robespierre and his followers to justify the use of revolutionary terror.
6. What was the Cult of the Supreme Being and how successful was it in achieving its objectives?
7. According to one historian, the revolution began to “eat its own children” in early 1794. Explain the meaning and validity of this statement.
8. Identify and discuss reasons for the arrest and execution of Robespierre and his supporters in July 1794.
9. What steps did the Thermidorian leaders take to wind back the Terror and purge France of Jacobinism?
10. “The leaders of Thermidor attempted to return France to the political, economic and social values of 1789.” To what extent is this true? Discuss, referring to specific policies.
This collection of American Revolution essay questions has been written and compiled by Alpha History authors, for use by teachers and students. They can also be used for short answer questions, discussion points or other research or revision tasks. If you would like to contribute a question to this page, please contact Alpha History.
1. Investigate and discuss three British attempts to settle in North America in the 16th and early 17th centuries. What challenges did these early settlements encounter?
2. What was the political legacy of the Jamestown settlement and the Mayflower Pilgrims? What ideas did these groups have about politics and government?
3. Explain how British governments encouraged or supported exploration and colonial settlement in North America.
4. Compare and contrast the three colonial regions: New England, the Middle Colonies and the Southern Colonies. How were their societies and economies similar and different?
5. Explain the role of religion in the development of colonial society between the early 1600s and the American Revolution.
6. Colonial American society is sometimes wrongly presented as a mirror of British society. Discuss how life in colonial America was different to life in Britain.
7. Examine the nature of class and power in colonial American society. Which people or groups wielded power and how?
8. Describe everyday life in colonial America. Provide some comparisons between life in large cities, rural settlements and frontier regions.
9. How and why was slavery integrated into colonial American society and economics by the mid 1700s?
10. How were Native American tribes and peoples affected by the settlement of British America between the early 1600s and the mid 1700s?
Catalysts for change
1. Investigate the political participation of colonial Americans before the revolution. To what extent were ordinary people involved in local and provincial government and decision making?
2. Explain how distance shaped the relationship between Great Britain and her American colonies in the 17th and 18th centuries.
3. Referring to specific examples, explain why colonial assemblies sometimes came into dispute or conflict with their royal governors. How were these disputes usually resolved?
4. What was meant by the term ‘salutary neglect’? Explain how this policy worked in real terms, both for Britain and the Americans.
5. The French and Indian War is sometimes described as “a war for control of America”. To what extent was this true? What were the outcomes of this conflict?
6. What was the purpose of the British Royal Proclamation of 1763? Which American colonists were affected by this measure and how did they respond?
7. The British parliament passed two Currency Acts in 1751 and 1764. What restrictions did these acts place on the colonies and who was most affected?
8. “Smuggling” is often cited as a source of tension between Britain and colonial Americans. Define smuggling, explain who engaged in it and discuss how prevalent it was prior to 1764.
9. What are writs of assistance? Referring to specific examples, why did they generate revolutionary sentiment in colonial America?
10. The Sugar Act of 1764 lowered British customs duties on sugar and molasses. Why did it cause unrest among American colonists, particularly the merchant class?
The Stamp Act crisis
1. Focusing on the British government and the problems it faced in 1764, explained why its ministers considered introducing a stamp tax in colonial America.
2. Explain the purpose of a colonial stamp tax, how it would be implemented and which people or groups it would affect.
3. Research and discuss the role of Benjamin Franklin, during the formulation and passing of the Stamp Act.
4. Discuss the opposition to the Stamp Act in Boston in 1765. Which people and groups resisted the Stamp Act? What methods did they use to achieve this?
5. Locate three primary sources, British or American, that contain protests or criticisms of the Stamp Act. Extract and discuss the arguments they use.
6. Discuss attitudes to the Stamp Act within Britain. To what extent was the legislation supported there?
7. Locate three visual sources that contain protests or criticisms of the Stamp Act. Discuss the content of these sources and explain how they use ideas, symbols and tone to encourage opposition to the Stamp Act.
8. Referring to three specific incidents, explain how American colonists used intimidation or violence to protest against the Stamp Act.
9. What are the differences between ‘actual representation’ and ‘virtual representation’? Why did these differences become crucial in the unfolding revolution?
10. Explain why the Stamp Act was repealed in 1766 and the implications this had for relations between Britain and her American colonies.
From the Townshend duties to the Tea Party
1. Discuss the purposes and content of the Revenue Acts or ‘Townshend duties’ of 1764. What commodities were affected by these duties?
2. How did the American colonists mobilise to resist the Townshend duties? Which groups or classes became involved in this campaign?
3. Summarise the ideas and objections to British policies expressed in John Dickinson’s Letters from a Farmer (1767-68).
4. What ideas were contained in the Massachusetts Circular Letter, written by Samuel Adams in early 1768? What were the consequences of this letter for Anglo-American relations?
5. Referring to specific people or sources, explain colonial objections to the presence of standing armies in American cities.
6. What was the background to the Boston Massacre? Why did violence erupt between Bostonians and British soldiers in March 1770?
7. Using primary and secondary evidence, explain who was more responsible for the Boston Massacre: the Boston mob or the British soldiers?
8. How did Samuel Adams and the Committees of Correspondence contribute to the American Revolution between March 1770 and December 1773?
9. Explain the purpose of the Tea Act of 1773. Which Americans were most affected by this act and how did they respond?
10. Was the Boston Tea Party a protest against British taxation, British trade regulations, or something else?
From the Coercive Acts to independence
1. Describe the punitive measures implemented in the Coercive Acts. Why did the Americans consider these acts ‘intolerable’?
2. How did the appointment of General Thomas Gage as governor of Massachusetts contribute to a revolutionary situation there?
3. Though not one of the Coercive Acts, the Quebec Act (1774) also generated opposition in America. What were the terms of this act and why did the Americans oppose it?
4. Discuss the content of the Fairfax Resolves and Suffolk Resolves of 1774. What impact did these local resolutions have on the broader revolution?
5. What decisions or resolutions were made by the first Continental Congress in 1774? How did they shape the course of the revolution?
6. What attempts were made to reconcile the American colonies with Great Britain between mid 1774 and July 1776? Which people or groups favoured reconciliation?
7. Referring to specific people, groups and places, explain how the American colonies mobilised for war between mid 1774 and April 1775.
8. What ideas and arguments were advanced in Thomas Paine’s 1776 essay Common Sense? Discuss the impact of this document.
9. Describe the push for independence within the second Continental Congress. Which groups and people lobbied for a break with Britain?
10. Referring to specific phrases or passages, describe how the Declaration of Independence expressed or reflected Enlightenment values and ideas.
The Revolutionary War
1. In its first months the Continental Army was notorious for its lack of military organisation and poor discipline. How did George Washington and others turn the Continental Army into an effective military force?
2. How did American leaders convince ordinary people to enlist in the Continental Army or state militias and fight in the Revolutionary War?
3. Referring to primary and secondary sources, explain the challenges and problems faced by an ordinary footsoldier in the Continental Army.
4. What occurred at Trenton, New Jersey in late December 1776? Why is this seemingly minor event considered a turning point in the Revolutionary War?
5. Referring to at least two other nations, explain how the American revolutionaries sought the support of foreign nations during the Revolutionary War.
6. Evaluate the importance of the French alliance and support to America’s victory in the Revolutionary War.
7. How successful were the Continental Congress and state governments at supplying the war effort? What obstacles and difficulties did they face?
8. What was the Newburgh conspiracy and why did it threaten government in the new society?
9. What were Britain’s military objectives during the Revolutionary War? Why were British commanders unable to carry out and fulfill these objectives?
10. Investigate attitudes to the American Revolutionary War back in Britain. Did these attitudes change over time and did they have an effect on government policy?
Creating a nation and new society
1. Describe the national government created by the Articles of Confederation in 1781. What were the advantages and disadvantages of this form of government?
2. Why did the new United States find itself in an economic depression during the 1780s? Consider both internal and external factors.
3. How did the new United States government address the challenge of its newly acquired territories west of the Appalachians?
4. Outline the causes of unrest among Massachusetts farmers in 1786. What were their grievances and what action did they take to resolve them?
5. Explain and discuss at least three compromises that were reached during the drafting of the United States Constitution in 1787.
6. How was the issue of slavery addressed – or not addressed – in the United States Constitution?
7. Identify differences between the Federalists and Anti-Federalists in 1787-88. How did their visions for the new United States differ?
8. Focusing on three specific people, discuss the anti-Federalists and their main objections to the proposed Constitution.
9. How did the Federalist movement contribute to the successful ratification of the Constitution in 1787-88?
10. Describe the process that led to the passing of the Bill of Rights. Why was it considered necessary to incorporate these rights into the Constitution?
Evaluating the revolution
1. To what extent was the American Revolution complete by 1789? Did the revolution leave any ‘unfinished business’ or unresolved problems?
2. Why did the American Revolution lack the violence and high death tolls of more recent revolutions?
3. John Adams famously described Americans as being one third in favour of the revolution, one third against it and one third indifferent. How accurate is this claim? How many Americans supported and opposed the revolution, and did this change over time?
4. The United States political system created in 1789 is often depicted as radically different from the British political system. Was this really the case? What British structures or concepts were reflected in American systems of government?
5. Some historians have referred to the United States Constitution as a ‘counter-revolution’. What is the basis for this claim?
6. Describe the global legacy of the American Revolution. How have the political ideology and values of the revolution influenced other governments and societies?
7. To what extent did the American Revolution transform American society?
8. Research and discuss the involvement of Native Americans and African-Americans in the American Revolution.
9. Women participated in the American Revolution as homemakers, protestors or supporters of the army. To what extent did the revolution change or improve the lives of women?
10. How has folklore and myth shaped or distorted our view of the American Revolution? What are the origins of these myths?
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