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Causes of the French Revolution


Last Name, First Name
money by Louis XIV angered the people and they wanted a
Abstract---Ever since the beginning of global history, there have new system of government. The writings of the philosophes
been major political, economic, social, and cultural revolutions. such as Voltaire and Diderot were critical of the government.
A revolution is the overthrowing if a government or ruler by the
They said that not one official in power was corrupt, but that
governed and then substituting another. This paper examines
the issues which can lead to a revolution, and illustrates how the whole system of government needed some change.
these issues were prevailing in France prior to the outbreak of Eventually, when the royal finances were expended in the
the revolution. The paper outlines the social, economic and 1780’s there began a time of greater criticism. This sparked
political problems in France in the years preceding the the peasants’ notion of wanting change.
revolution which resulted in a change of the whole government The second part of this paper describes the social and
perspective in France. The French Revolution (1789–1799) was political factors, many of which involved resentments and
a period of political and social upheaval in the political history
aspirations given focus by the rise of Enlightenment ideals.
of France and Europe as a whole, during which the French
governmental structure, previously an absolute monarchy with The Economics which had been greatly disturbed by the
feudal privileges for the aristocracy and Catholic clergy, misruling of Louis XIV and his advisors have been discussed
underwent radical change to forms based on Enlightenment in the third part. Various aristocratic and bourgeois reform
principles of nationalism, citizenship, and inalienable rights. movements spun out of control. The movements coincided
The French Revolution brought about great long term changes with popular movements of the new wage-earning classes and
in the society and government. Throughout global history, the the provincial peasantry, and any alliance between classes
revolutions have had complex causes and left long lasting
impacts on people’s lives as well as the nation in general. French
was contingent and incidental.
Revolution was one of them. Various other factors like Material Conditions which
include widespread famine and malnutrition etc. have been
Index Terms---Revolution; Ancien regime; Parlement; Danton; discussed in the last part of this paper. Finally, perhaps, above
Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen; Estates- all, was the almost total failure of Louis XVI and his advisors
General; Montagnards; National Assembly; the Republic. to deal effectively with any of these problems.

I. INTRODUCTION II. THE ORIGINS OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION

T HE significance of this paper is that it attempts to


highlight the causes that led to the French Revolution.
The French Revolution of 1789-1799 was one of the most
The statement citing the essential cause of the French
Revolution as the "collision between a powerful, rising
bourgeoisie and an entrenched aristocracy defending its
important events in the history of the world. The Revolution privileges" has great pertinence in summarizing the conflict
led to many changes in France, which at the time of the of 1789. The causes of the French Revolution are
Revolution, was the most powerful state in Europe. The complicated, so complicated that a debate still rages among
Revolution led to the development of new political forces historians regarding origins, causes and results. In general,
such as democracy and nationalism. It questioned the the real causes of the Revolution must be located in the rigid
authority of kings, priests, and nobles. The Revolution also social structure of French society during the Ancien regime.
gave new meanings and new ideas to the political ideas of the As it had been for centuries, French society was divided into
people. three Estates or Orders. The First Estate consisted of the
By examining the social, political, environmental, and clergy and the Second Estate the nobility. Together, these two
Estates accounted for approximately 500,000 individuals. At
economic factors that led to the French Revolution, the reader
the bottom of this hierarchy was the vast Third Estate which
will develop an understanding of how major political change
basically meant everybody else, or about 25 million people.
occurs. As the revolution proceeded and as power devolved This social structure was based on custom and tradition, but
from the monarchy to legislative bodies, the conflicting more important, it was also based on inequalities which were
interests of the initially allied groups became the source of sanctioned by the force of law. So, we must have a look at
conflict and bloodshed. these three Estates more carefully.
The first part of this paper describes the three different
Estates which were present in France. The primary cause of
the revolution was the disputes over the peoples' differing A. The First Estate
ideas of reform. Before the beginning of the Revolution, only
moderate reforms were wanted by the people. An example of
why they wanted this was because of King Louis XIV's
actions. At the end of the seventeenth century, King Louis
XIV's wars began decreasing the royal finances dramatically.
This worsened during the eighteenth century. The use of the
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wealth and arrogance of the upper clergy. The bishops and


abbots filled the ranks of the upper clergy, men who regarded
their office as a way of securing a larger income and the
landed property that went with it. Most of the upper clergy
sold their offices to subordinates, kept the revenue, and lived
a luxurious life. Their responsibilities included the
registration of births, marriages and deaths; they censored
books; served as moral police; operated schools and hospitals;
and distributed relief to the poor. They also owned 10-15% of
all the land in France. This land, of course, was all held tax-
free.
B. The Second Estate
The Second Estate in French life was the nobility. They
enjoyed extensive rights and privileges. They made up less
than 2 percent of the population. They, like the First Estate,
paid hardly any taxes. Economically, the nobility was
characterized by great land wealth. Nobles were generally the
richest members of the society. Typical sources of income
were rents and dues for the use of their farms or estates. The
First and Second Estates were grouped together because they
had similar political beliefs.
The nobility held the highest positions in the Church, the
army and the government. As an order, they were virtually
exempt from paying taxes of any kind. They collected rent
from the peasant population who lived on their lands. They
also collected an extraordinary amount of customary dues
from the peasantry. There were labor dues (the corvée), as
well as dues on salt, cloth, bread, wine and the use mills,
granaries, presses and ovens. Collectively, the nobility owned
about 30% of the land. By the 18th century, they were also
becoming involved in banking, finance, shipping, insurance
and manufacturing. They were also the leading patrons of the
arts. It is interesting that the nobility would offer their homes
and their salons to the likes of Voltaire, Gibbon, Diderot and
Rousseau. After all, these were the men who would end up
criticizing the Second Estate. Of course, it must also be that
the philosophes could not have existed without their
aristocratic patrons.
Fig.1. This figure shows some of the major events which occurred during the There were, like the clergy, two levels of the nobility (350,
French Revolution. 000 individuals in total). The Nobility of the Sword carried
the most prestige. The served their King at his court in
The First Estate was the Church. During the Ancien Versailles. Many members of this order were of ancient
regime, the church was equal in terms of its social, economic, lineage - their family history could be traced back hundreds
and spiritual power. The First Estate owned nearly 10 per of years. But there were also members of this estate who were
cent of all land in France. It paid no taxes but, to support relative newcomers. The Nobility of the Robe also had
church activities such as school running and caring for the prestige but much less than did the Nobility of the Sword.
poor, they collected a tithe, or a tax on income. About one- Numerous members of the Nobility of the Robe had been
third of the entire clergy in France served as parish priests. created by the monarchy in the past. French kings needed
Also included in this estate were the nobles. Some of the money so it seemed logical to offer position and status to
nobles lived in luxury in major cities in France, such as those men who were willing to pay enough money for it. But
Versailles or Paris. Parish priests usually lived a hardworking more important, perhaps, was that by giving these men royal
life. This Estate was the minority of the people in France, positions, the king could keep an eye on their behavior. In
having approximately 1 to 2 per cent of the population. The many ways, this is one reason why Louis XIV built Versailles
French Catholic Church maintained a wide scope of powers; in the first place. Originally a vast hunting lodge, Louis built
it literally constituted a state within a state and it had up Versailles in order to house his generals, ministers and
sustained this position for more than 800 years. The clergy other court suck-ups.
was divided into the lower and upper clergy. Members of the Some of the lesser nobility were partial to the philosophes
lower clergy were usually humble, poorly-paid and of the Enlightenment and during the early days of the
overworked village priests. As a group, they resented the
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individuals during the 18th century. Their standard of living


was perhaps better than the European peasantry in general.
However, the French peasant continued to live in utmost
poverty. Collectively, the peasantry owned 30-40% of the
available land but mostly in small, semi-feudal plots. Most
peasants did not own their land but rented it from those
peasants who were wealthier or from the nobility. They tried
to supplement their income by hiring themselves out as day
laborers, textile workers or manual laborers. Peasants were
victimized by heavy taxation - taxes were necessary to pay
for the costs of war, something that had already consumed the
French government for an entire century. So, the peasants
paid taxes to the king, taxes to the church, taxes and dues to
the lord of the manor, as well as numerous indirect taxes on
wine, salt, and bread. Furthermore, the peasants also owed
their lord a labor obligation. And throughout the 18th century,
the price of rent was always increasing, as did the duties
Fig.2. This graph shows the percentage of the total population, total land levied on goods sold in markets and fairs. By 1789, the plight
owned and income paid in taxes by the Three Estates in France in 1789. of the French peasant was obvious. Taxes were increased as
was rent. Peasants continued to use antiquated methods of
Revolution would be considered "liberal nobles." They agriculture. The price of bread soared and overall, prices
wished to see an end to royal absolutism but not necessarily continued to rise at a quicker rate than wages. To make
the end of the monarchy. These liberal nobles tended to look matters worse, there was the poor harvest of 1788/89. The
to France's traditional enemy, England, as a model for what urban workers or artisans, as a group, consisted of all
France ought to become, a limited or constitutional monarchy. journeymen, factory workers and wage earners. The urban
C. The Third Estate poor also lived in poverty, a poverty that was intensified by
1789. By that time, wages had increased by 22% while the
The Third Estate consisted of the commoners. It included cost of living increased 62%. The major cause of the
the bourgeoisie, peasants and city workers. The bourgeoisie, Revolution was the differences these three groups had.
or the middle class, were by far, the wealthiest. In the However, there was another important factor during these
bourgeoisie, there were the merchants and manufacturers, times. France suffered from harsh economic problems. Poor
lawyers, doctors and others similar to those types of farm harvests by farmers hurt the economy, and trade rules
professions. Peasants made up the largest group within the from the Middle Ages still survived, making trade difficult.
Third Estate. They were forced to pay hefty taxes, tithes to However, the most serious problem was the problem facing
the church, and rents to their landlords for the land that they the government during this time. The French government
lived on. The last group within the Third Estate was the city borrowed much money to pay for the wars of Louis XIV.
workers. They were servants, apprentices, and household Louis still borrowed money to fight wars and to keep French
maids. power alive in Europe. These costs greatly increased the
As a class, the bourgeoisie - merchants, manufacturers, national debt, which was, at the time, already too high.
bankers, doctors, lawyers, intellectuals - had wealth; in some
cases, enormous wealth. But, wealth in the Ancien regime did Political disorder:
not mean status or privilege and it should be clear by now Politics itself was another major cause of the revolution.
that "success" in 18th century France meant status and The political institutions were so bound up with social and
privilege. Wealth was nothing without status. The bourgeoisie fiscal privilege that reform was a dangerous enterprise likely
were influenced by the nobility and tried to imitate them to arouse fierce opposition. A divided political elite whose
whenever possible. So, they tried to improve their status by factional maneuvers undermined reform, was closely
becoming land owners themselves. By 1789, the bourgeoisie identified with the monarchy. The king and queen badly
controlled 20% of all the land. They were upwardly mobile, mismanaged the situation, along with their ministers. The
but they felt frustrated and blocked by the aristocracy, an Parlements resisted reform on the grounds that it was a
aristocracy whose only interest was that everyone maintain despotic extension of central government, and the Paris
their place in society. Parlement blocked loans that might have seen the monarchy
By 1789, the bourgeoisie had numerous grievances they through without major reform. Once reform was attempted
wished addressed. They wanted all Church, army and from 1787, the political crisis snowballed, until cries for the
government positions open to men of talent and merit. They Estates General to meet, as the only body competent to do
sought a Parlement that would make all the laws for the root and branch reform, were too loud to resist. The ministry
nation. They desired a constitution that would limit the king's had no choice but to capitulate to these calls as the financial
powers. They also desired fair trials, religious toleration and crisis was so severe that there was no further room for
vast administrative reforms. These are all liberal ideas that maneuver. The electoral process in early 1789 certainly
would certainly emerge after the summer of 1789. helped to politicize the lower orders, if only in an elemental
The peasantry consisted of at least twenty-one million
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sense that change was about to occur; a more sophisticated relief from taxes and other dues that they paid. Little
politicization occurred among the better off, who also had happened, and they still faced their same problems of
access to the hundreds of political pamphlets published each unemployment and inflation. Then there were reports that
month. In this context of evolving opinion, the failure by the Louis XVI was bringing troops to Paris. This increased the
monarchy to seize the initiative in the early days of the peoples’ fears.
Estates, in May, was disastrous. An exasperating deadlock When Louis brought troops to Versailles, many citizens
developed between the two privileged orders: the nobility and feared that he wanted to get rid of the National Assembly. As
clergy, on the one hand, and the Third Estate with its a result, they stormed the Bastille. Other disturbances also
numerous lawyers, on the other. Although the Third Estate broke out. People were caught up in what was called the
was equal in numbers to the other two orders combined, it "Great Fear". Rumors passed from village to village that
feared much-needed reforms of fiscal privilege would be robbers were destroying homes all over France. When no
blocked by their having two votes against one. Exasperation robbers showed up, the peasants turned to their landlords.
led to radicalism, to the declaration of national sovereignty by They destroyed grain towers, and destroyed tax records,
the Third Estate on 17 June, and after the failure of a royal showing that they will never pay any taxes, fines or dues ever
compromise on 23 June, to an enforced union of the orders again.
into the National Assembly at the end of June. As the country These events forced Louis to summon the National
fell into disorder with food riots and increasing peasant Assembly on August 4th. They people discussed possible
attacks on châteaux, a conservative reaction was prevented by reforms. On this day, the National Assembly ended serfdom.
popular support which led to the fall of the Bastille on 14 Towards the end of August, the National Assembly adopted
July. In the context of growing internal disorder, the king the Declaration of the Rights of Man. It stated that
could not prevent revolution, for such was the force of democratic principles would be the basis for French
popular revolution that his officials became powerless and government. The job of turning these ideas into a constitution
counter-measures became impossible. In this situation, the still remained. While the constitution was in the process of
triumph of the Third Estate led to the almost complete failure being made, an angry crowd in Paris rioted, forcing the
of royal power: a political revolution occurred in July 1789. National Assembly to recognize their demands. Some of these
When King Louis XVI came into power, he realized that rioters were women. They were angry about food prices.
these problems existed. At first he did not know what to do, They also thought that the king and queen were going against
until he found a man by the name of Robert Turgot. He eased the National Assembly. They demanded that Louis return to
the financial crisis of France, but he had difficulties when he Paris where they could watch him. To prevent any further
tried to introduce a major reform, that of taxing the nobles. uprisings, he agreed.
He had such difficulties because the king could not tax the Throughout France, all ancient customs were thrown away
nobles unless the Parliament approved of the new tax laws. by the revolution. The National Assembly called for freedom
The people in the courts that voted on these laws were the of worship and abolished all special activities and privileges
nobles, called nobles of the robe, and therefore rejected of the Catholic Church. To raise money that was needed, the
Turgot's reform. After Turgot was rejected, the king fired him government began selling off church lands, which angered
from his office. This led Louis XVI to summon the Estates many Catholics.
General in 1789. In 1791, the National Assembly brought forward a new
The Estates General was the place where representatives constitution. It made France a limited monarchy and
from each social class could be represented. Here, many established a system of separation of powers. Under the
issues would be discussed, and at this time in French history, constitution, the old distinctions between the clergy, nobles,
it would be centered on the economic crisis. When the Estates and commoners disappeared. Few people were satisfied with
General met in 1789, the deputies, or representatives, from the constitutional monarchy. Louis XVI was frightened at the
the Third Estate demanded that the three estates meet actions of the National Assembly. He fled the country with
together, with each deputy having an equal vote. That way, his wife, but he was later arrested and brought back to accept
the First and Second Estates could outvote the Third Estate. the constitution. After this action by the king, moderate
When the king heard of this, he demanded that the three revolutionaries still wanted to preserve the constitutional
estates meet separately. This caused anger within the Third monarchy, while the radicals distrusted the king and wanted a
Estate. The deputies from the Third Estate declared republic. These were the causes of the French Revolution.
themselves the National Assembly. Louis XVI quickly Many peoples' lives were changed during this time. Peoples'
rejected these deputies from the meeting hall. After a while, ideas also changed.
Louis XVI decided that it would be best if the three estates These are the social and political causes that acted as a
met together. He ordered the other two estates to join the breeding ground for the grievances and passions the
Third Estate in the National Assembly. Revolution would unleash. But there are a few other causes,
Although now the three estates met together, there were equally important, that are also worth our attention.
divisions among them. Some wanted to protect their rights,
while others wanted to establish a limited, constitutional III. ROYAL ABSOLUTISM AND PRIVILEGE
monarchy. This sparked some change in the French people.
Immediately after the National Assembly secretly began By the early 18th century, French kings had nearly
working on a constitution, the peasants and workers expected succeeded in wresting all power from the nobility. France had
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no Parlement. France did have an Estates General which was freedom of the individual, brought about by such philosophes
a semi-representative institution in that it was composed of as Voltaire, Denis Diderot, Turgot, and other philosophes of
representatives from each of the Three Estates. The last time the Enlightenment. The example of the American Revolution
the Estates General had been convened was in 1614. So, was showed them that it was plausible that Enlightenment ideals
the Estates General a truly representative body? The answer about governmental organization could be put into practice.
is: Hardly. The way the French administered the country was Some of the American revolutionaries, such as Benjamin
through a distended bureaucracy of officials. By 1750, the Franklin, had stayed in Paris, where they were in frequent
bureaucracy had overgrown itself - it was large, corrupt and contact with the French intellectuals; furthermore, contact
inefficient. Too many officials had bought and sold their between the American revolutionaries and the French troops
offices over the years. Furthermore, despite the efforts of who had assisted them resulted in the spread of revolutionary
Charlemagne (742-814) in the 9th century, France had no ideals to the French. Many in France attacked the
single, unified system of law. Each region determined its own undemocratic nature of the government, pushed for freedom
laws based on the rule of the local Parlement. France in 1787 of speech, and challenged the Roman Catholic Church and
was, at least in theory, an absolute monarchy, an increasingly the prerogatives of the nobles.
unpopular form of government at the time. In practice, the There is controversy over exactly how deeply ideals
king's ability to act on his theoretically absolute power was penetrated the various classes, and over the degree to which
curtailed by the (equally resented) powers and prerogatives of these ideals were simply cover for bourgeois self-interest. For
the nobility and clergy, remnants of feudalism. Similarly, the example, Karl Marx writing in the Neue Rheinische Zeitung
peasants covetously eyed the relatively greater privileges shortly after the Revolutions of 1848 wrote that in both the
enjoyed by townspeople. The Absolutist regime was suffering English Revolution of 1648 and in the French Revolution
because of a combination of external and internal crises. “the bourgeoisie was the class that really headed the
Externally, France was seen as a weak and ineffectual power movement. The proletariat and the non-bourgeois strata of the
by the late 1780s, despite its successful support of American middle class had either not yet evolved interests which were
independence. The country was losing diplomatic influence different from those of the bourgeoisie or they did not yet
rapidly in central and Eastern Europe, having already lost its constitute independent classes or class divisions. Therefore,
major overseas territories in North America and India a where they opposed the bourgeoisie, as they did in France in
generation earlier. All this provoked a sense of crisis among 1793 and 1794, (that is to say, during the Reign of Terror)
the elites, and widely differing views on how to improve the they fought only for the attainment of the aims of the
state of the country arose. The key issue was finance. bourgeoisie, albeit in a non-bourgeois manner. The entire
France’s complex and inefficient systems of taxation could French terrorism was just a plebeian way of dealing with the
not support the burdens that previous wars had placed on enemies of the bourgeoisie: absolutism, feudalism and
them, and by the 1780s the treasury was spiraling into philistinism.”
uncontrollable debt, threatening the literal bankruptcy of the The effect of the Enlightenment on the French Revolution
kingdom. It was the irreconcilable differences between the has created a debate which will not soon be resolved. But, in
most influential organizations in the country over the possible general, it can be said that there is no causal relationship
resolution of this crisis that propelled France into a more between the philosophes of the Enlightenment and the
thoroughgoing political collapse. outbreak of the French Revolution. Few philosophes, if any,
Socially, France was undergoing changes and increased advocated revolution and the reason is fairly clear. No
tensions during the eighteenth century. Paradoxically, as philosophe advocated the violent overthrow of the existing
social mobility and moveable wealth expanded, privilege was order of things because violence was contrary to human
on the increase and there were more, and perhaps more often reason. But because the philosophes of the Enlightenment
embittering, divisions in society. Those without the relatively attacked the established order together with authority of any
easily acquired privileges of offices or nobility felt slighted, kind, their ideas helped to produce what can only be called a
and new nobles resented the older nobility’s attempt to revolutionary mentality. One modern historian has correctly
remain more exclusive. The bourgeoisie was beginning to feel observed that:
more self-confident in their own privileges and merits. 18th century philosophy taught the Frenchman to find his
Artisans resented exclusive and restrictive guild practices, condition wretched, unjust and illogical and made him
however, while the rural poor displayed mounting anti- disinclined to the patient resignation to his troubles that had
seigniorial attitudes and behavior. No doubt all this tension long characterized his ancestors . . . . The propaganda of the
was not enough to cause a revolution, but it did shape the philosophes perhaps more than any other factor accounted
choices people made in 1789. for the fulfillment of the preliminary condition of the French
Revolution, namely discontent with the existing state of
IV. ENLIGHTENMENT IDEOLOGY things. (Henri Peyre, "The Influence of Eighteenth Century
Ideas on the French Revolution," Journal of the History of
Spread of new ideas at the upper levels of French society Ideas vol. 10, No. 1 (January 1949).
created new expectations and possibilities. It provided the
The Enlightenment’s critique of society and institutions,
intellectual shift away from absolutism. The large and
especially of despotism and the Church, laid the foundations
growing middle class, and some of the nobility and of the
for a new order. Historians of differing political persuasion
working class, had absorbed the ideology of equality and
and different ideas of the nature of the revolution have
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revenue was sufficient but that its credit mechanisms, unlike


those of Britain with its Bank of England, were deficient. (If
that is the case, then the problem was more political than
fiscal, as the reform of institutions would have been the key
to survival.) In the event, the American War of Independence
involved a costly naval war with Britain and the budgetary
problems were so great that a major reform initiative was put
before an Assembly of Notables in 1787, who rejected most
of it. Attempts to impose the reforms led to a major political
crisis in 1787–88 that developed into a revolution in 1789.
France in 1789, although facing some economic (and
especially fiscal) difficulties, was one of the richest and
strongest nations in Europe. The following all comes from
[Bairoch 1989].
France had over 28 million inhabitants. In Europe, only
Imperial Russia had more (37–41 million) and it was a poor
country. All of Europe, outside of Russia, counting France
and the British Isles, had a total of about 141–147 million. (p.
941)
France was amongst the most urbanized countries in
Europe if one considers communities over 2,000 to be urban
(and of slightly above average urbanization if one holds to a
minimum of 5,000). (p. 942)
The population of Paris was second only to London
Fig.3. The picture shows some of the major works and their authors during (approximately 500,000 vs. 800,000; p. 941), and the country
the Enlightenment. Their works sent a new wave of ideology among the
masses. had six of Europe's 35 largest cities. (p. 943)
singled out several aspects of the eighteenth century France had 260,000 square kilometers under cultivation;
ideologies. Ideas of liberty, equality, the fellowship of man the entirety of Europe outside Russia — that qualifier will
against oppression, democracy as an idealized solution, have apply unless otherwise noted — had no more than 100
all been accorded an important role, undermining respect for million. (p. 945)
the traditional elites and order of things. A major issue has France had 5.3 million of Europe's 30 million male
been how far such ideas remained those of narrow elite or peasants. (p. 945)
permeated down the social scale to those artisans and In 1800, the earliest date for which good statistics are
peasants. available, only the Netherlands and British Isles exceeded
Culturally, France was undergoing significant changes France (in its 1789 borders) in agricultural productivity per
especially from mid-century onwards. The luxury trades and unit area. (p. 946)
the availability of commodities from the New World, such as France ranked roughly even with Switzerland, Belgium
coffee and tea, drunk in cafés that were meeting places, led to and the Netherlands and significantly behind only the British
a new degree of consumerism. A more commercial culture Isles in its level of industrialization. (p. 949) Because France
was developing. The availability of periodicals, what has would have constituted about 14% of the continental
been termed a ‘reading revolution’, the famous art exhibitions European product (again excluding Russia) at the time. He
in the Louver from 1737 onwards, the parterre of the theatre, does not believe that data is available to do a reasonable
the critical subtexts to paintings and plays, promenades with comparison to Britain. The per capita GDP of France would
newsmongers, clandestine pamphleteering, – all were helping have been equivalent to about US$200–205 at the 1960 value
to create a public sphere in which discussion took place. of the United States dollar, 6–10% above the (non-Russian)
Religious controversies over Jansenism also led to a more European average of the time. (p. 959–963)
politically aware Parisian bourgeoisie, and famous trials In short, while not having quite the per capita wealth of the
became a vehicle for public discussion of government and Low Countries and possibly Switzerland, the sheer size of the
social injustice. Combined with notions of patriotism and French economy made it the premier economic power in
citizenship, these changes prepared sections of the population continental Europe.
to make new choices when the opportunity arose in 1788–89.
1)Debt:
The French monarchy had operated for over a century
without resorting to a legislature. Since 1614, French kings
V. ECONOMICS
had managed their fiscal affairs by increasing the burden of
The French monarchy had always had such problems, but the ancient and unequal system of taxes, by borrowing
the eighteenth century saw a great rise in the cost of warfare. money, and sometimes by selling noble titles and other
France had insufficient revenue to maintain its international privileges; however, because noble titles exempted the holder
role as a great power, although some historians argue that its from future taxes, the purchasers of titles were effectively
7

buying an annuity. The system also excluded the nobles and the clergy from
This led to the long-running fiscal crisis of the French having to pay taxes (with the exception of a modest quit ren).
government. On the eve of the revolution, France was so The tax burden was thus paid by the peasants, wage earners,
deeply in debt as to be effectively bankrupt. Extravagant and the professional and business classes. These groups were
expenditures by Louis XVI on luxuries such as Versailles also cut off from most positions of power in the regime,
were compounded by heavy expenditures on the Seven Years' causing unrest.
War and the American War of Independence.
Britain too had a great debt from these conflicts, but 3)Failure of reforms:
Britain had a far more advanced fiscal structure to deal with During the régimes of Louis XV and Louis XVI (reigned
it. France was a wealthier country than Britain, and its 1774-1792) several ministers, most notably Turgot and
national debt was no greater than the British one. In each Necker unsuccessfully proposed to revise the French tax
country the servicing of the debt accounted for about half the system to tax the nobles. Focus was often short sighted. The
annual expenditure of the government. Where they differed main attention was looking for new revenue which created
was in the fact that the rate of interest in France was almost greater resentment. Turgot who was appointed controller
double than of across the Channel. This implied a much general by Louis XVI attempted laissez-faire reforms and
higher level of taxation and less scope for any increase to was soundly defeated by guilds, merchants and nobles.
deal with a specific emergency. Necker created the first accounting of the French Budget and
Edmund Burke, no friend of the revolution, was to write in attempted reform through increasing efficiency of the
1790, "...the public, whether represented by a monarch or by government. The result was creation of both broad support as
a senate, can pledge nothing but the public estate; and it can well as absolute enemies.
have no public estate except in what it derives from a just and Such measures encountered consistent resistance from the
proportioned imposition upon the citizens at large." Because Parlements (law courts). Members of these courts bought
of the successful defense by the nobles of their privileges, the their positions from the king, as well as the right to transmit
king of France lacked the means to impose a "just and this position hereditarily (the so-called Paulette tax).
proportioned" tax. The desire to do so led directly to the Membership in such courts, or appointment to other similar
decision in 1788 to call the Estates-General into session. public positions, often led to the elevation into the nobility
(the so-called noblesse de robe – "nobility of the robe", as
2)Taxation: opposed to the nobility of ancestral military origin, the
Disputes over taxation were common place throughout the noblesse d'épée, nobility of the sword). While these two
late 17th and entire 18th centuries. Not being one of the categories of nobles were often at odds, they both sought to
major trading nations, France needed to raise most of its keep in place their privileges.
government's revenues internally rather than from external Because the need to raise taxes placed the king at odds
tariffs. While average tax rates were higher in Britain, the with the nobles and the high bourgeoisie, he typically
burden on the common people was greater in France. appointed as his finance ministers, (to use François Mignet's
Taxation relied on a system of internal tariffs separating the term) "rising men", usually of non-noble origin. Turgot,
regions of France, which prevented a unified market from Chrétien de Malesherbes, and Jacques Necker successively
developing in the country. Taxes such as the extremely attempted to revise the system of taxation and to make other
unpopular gabelle were contracted out to private collectors reforms, such as Necker's attempts to reduce the lavishness of
("tax farmers") who were permitted to rise far more than the the king's court. Each failed in turn.
government requested. These systems led to an arbitrary and In contrast, Charles Alexandre de Calonne, appointed
unequal collection of many of France's consumption taxes. finance minister in 1783, restored lavish spending more
Other taxes the peasants were required to pay included a reminiscent of the age of Louis XIV. By the time Calonne
tenth of their income or produce to the church (tithe), a brought together the Assembly of Notables on February 22,
(taille) to the state, a 5% property tax (vingtième) and a tax 1787 to address the financial situation, France had reached a
on the number of people in the family (capitation). Further state of virtual bankruptcy: no one would lend the king funds
royal and seigniorial taxes were collected in the form of sufficient to meet the expenses of government and court.
compulsory labor (the corvée). The peasants also had According to Mignet, the loans amounted to "one thousand
numerous obligations to their landlords - rent in cash (cens), a six hundred and forty-six millions... and... there was an
payment related to their amount of produce (champari), and annual deficit... of a hundred and forty millions [presumably
taxes on the use of the nobles' mills, wine presses or bakeries of livres]." Calonne was succeeded by his chief critic Etienne
(banalités). In good times, the taxes were burdensome; in Charles de Loménie de Brienne, archbishop of Sens, but the
harsh times, they were devastating. fundamental situation was unchanged: the government had no
Many public officials had to buy their positions from the credit. To try to address this, the assembly "sanctioned the
king, as well as the right to keep this position hereditary; they establishment of provincial assemblies, a regulation of the
of course tried to have these expenses repaid by making a corn trade, the abolition of corvées, and a new stamp tax; it
profit out of their appointment. For instance, in a civil broke up on the 25th of May, 1787."
lawsuit, judges had to be paid some fees by the parties (the
épices); this put justice out of reach of everybody but the
wealthy classes. VI. TRANSPARENCY
8

H.F. Helmolt argued that the issue was not so much the on luxuries even though the government had some financial
debt as such, but the way the debt was refracted through the problems. One of the government's main jobs back then was
lens of Enlightenment principles and the increasing power of to protect their country and manage wars. In the Seven Years
the Third Estate creditors. War against England, France spent large sums of money on
Properly speaking, the people ought to have been the war effort but they still lost the war and had to give up
accustomed to the fact that the French government did not their colonies in North America. Many people regarded this
fulfill its financial obligations, for since the time of Henry IV, loss as a major humiliation.
that is, within two centuries, it had failed to meet its
obligations fifty-six times. In earlier days such catastrophes IX. OTHER CAUSES
had not been announced and publicly discussed. Now all
France, which for two generations had been worked upon by
the party of rationalism, shared the outcry against the i. American Reforms:
financial situation. France had played a deciding role in the American
The subsequent struggle with the Parlements in an Revolutionary War, (1775-1783) sending its navy and troops
unsuccessful attempt to enact these measures displayed the to aid the rebelling colonists. During this time there was
first overt signs of the disintegration of the Ancien Régime. much contact between the Americans and the French, and
In the ensuing struggle, Protestants regained their rights and revolutionary ideals spread between the groups.
Louis XVI promised an annual publication of the state of
finances, and convocation of the Estates-General within five ii. Food Scarcity:
years. These problems were all compounded by a great scarcity of
Despite Ancien Régime France being, in theory, an food in the 1780s. Different crop failures in the 1780s caused
absolute monarchy, it became clear that the royal government these shortages, which of course led to high prices for bread.
could not successfully effect the changes it desired without Perhaps no cause more motivated the Paris mob that was the
the consent of the nobility. The financial crisis had become a engine of the revolution more than the shortage of bread.
political crisis as well. The poor conditions in the countryside had forced rural
residents to move into Paris, and the city was overcrowded
and filled with the hungry and disaffected. The peasants
VII. FAMINE suffered doubly from the economic and agricultural problems.
These problems were all compounded by a great scarcity of
food in the 1780s. A series of crop failures caused a shortage
of grain, consequently raising the price of bread. Because X. CONCLUSION
bread was the main source of nutrition for poor peasants, this
The French Revolution fundamentally changed the society
led to starvation. The two years previous to the revolution
of France in the late 18th century, impacting the lives of every
(1788-89) saw bad harvests and harsh winters, possibly
citizen as revolutionaries worked to rebuild from the old
because of a strong El Niño cycle caused by the 1783 Laki
system of tyranny and to create a society based in new
eruption at Iceland. The little ice age was also affecting
principles benefiting the common man. The goals of
agriculture: many other areas of Europe had adopted the
revolution were taken to the extreme as nearly every aspect of
potato as the staple crop by this time, whereas the French
life was changed in attempts to separate the culture from the
generally refused it as a dirty food or the devil's food. The
Old Regime and to do away with a legacy of monarchies and
potato was more resilient to the colder temperatures during
tyranny. The Revolution was not entirely based on the
the little ice age and also could not be easily destroyed by
fundamentals of equality and fraternity and did not exist
scorched earth warfare. A normal worker earned anywhere
without its own legacy of violence and destruction, but it
from 15 to 30 sous a day while skilled workers received 30 to
allowed for a change and an exploration of possibilities that
40 sous. A family of four would need about 2 loaves of bread
had not been possible until that time. This time in French
a day to survive. The price of bread rose by 88 percent in
History was important to the people of France because of the
1789, going from 9 sous to 14.5/15 sous. Many peasants were
different types of government they had. Socialism, liberalism
relying on charity to survive. The peasantry became a class
and nationalism all were results of the French Revolution. It
with the ambition to counteract social inequity and put an end
gave people the idea that if they tried, they could reorganize a
to food shortages. The 'bread riot' evolved into a central cause
society whenever it was needed. The greatest legacy of the
of the French Revolution. Mass urbanization coinciding with
French Revolution, however, was that people could change
the beginning of the industrial revolution led residents to
anything that they wanted with political ideas, words and
move into French cities seeking employment. French cities
laws.
became overcrowded and filled with the hungry and
disaffected. The peasantry suffered doubly from the economic
and agricultural problems.

VIII. POLITICAL DISCONTENT


King Louis XV and King Louis XVI both led extremely
extravagant lives. They spent lots of the government's money
9

[12]J.Adolphus, Biographical Memoirs of The French Revolution,


T.Cadell, junn. And W.Davies, 1808.
[13]A.Cobben and G.Lewis, The Social Interpretation of The French
Revolution, Cambridge University Press, 1999, pp 118-227
[14]F.C.Bouille, Memoirs Relating to French Revolution, Cadell and
Davies, pp 450 470.
[15]F.Feher, The French Revolution and Birth of Modernity, Net
Library, Incorporated, pp 210-219.
[16]N.Hampson, ”The Failureto Compromise”, The Social History of
the French Revolution, Rout ledge, 1963, 86-100.
[17] ‘Press and public in the French Revolution: a Parisian case-study
from 1791’, European History Quarterly, 28(1) 1998: 51–80
[18] ‘The denial of social conflict in the French Revolution: discourses
around the Champ de Mars massacre, 17 July 1791’, French
Historical Studies, 22(2) 1999: 183–209.
[19] French Society in Revolution, 1789-1799 (Manchester:
Manchester University Press, 1999).
[20] The French Revolution and the People (London: Hambledon &
London, 2004).
[21]‘The un virtuous king? Clerical rhetoric on the French monarchy,
1760–1774’, Journal of the History of European Ideas, 25(1-2)
1999: 55–74.
[22] The Origins of the French Revolution (Basingstoke and New
York: Palgrave, 2006).
[23]Paul Bairoch, "L'économie française dans le contexte européen à
la fin du XVIIIe siècle", Revue économique, Vol. 40, No. 6,
Révolution de 1789: Guerres et Croissance économique (Nov.,
1989), pp. 939-964
[24] Wood, C.A., 1992. "The climatic effects of the 1783 Laki eruption"
in C. R. Harrington (Ed.), The Year Without a Summer? Canadian
Museum of Nature, Ottawa, pp. 58– 77
[25]Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity: Exploring the French
Revolution [online]. Available http://chnm.gmu.edu/revolution/
[26]Origins of French Revolution [online], available:
http://www.historyguide.org/intellect/lecture11a.html
[27]Primary Source documents on French Revolution [online]
available: http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/modsbook13.html
[28]Cobban, A. ‘Historians and the causes of the French Revolution’,
in A. Cobban, Aspects of the French Revolution (London:
Jonathan Cape, 1969).

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