What caused the French Revolution?

I must have been about 9 or 10 years old when my father gave me one of the most treasured gifts of my life – a collection of classics in comic form, amongst which was the French Revolution. Although I did learn about this turbulent period in French history later on in my school history books, nothing could ever quite match the vividness of the account as in that comic book classic. The scenes of the lavish grandeur of King Louis XVI and Queen Marie-Antoinette, the storming of the Bastille, the guillotine beheadings – all of them were still vivid in my mind as I wrote this account of the French Revolution.

With the rallying notion of ‘Liberty, Equality, Fraternity’, the French Revolution, which began in 1789 and lasted up to 1799, was a time of great upheaval, both socially and politically, in the history of France as well as the rest of Europe. During this period the structure of the French government, which until then was an absolute monarchy, with the Catholic clergy and aristocracy enjoying feudal privileges, was changed radically into kinds that had the principles of Enlightenment as their basis, such as the rights of citizens, citizenship, and nationalism.

These changes, however, were brought about through violent turbulence, which included executions by the thousands by the notorious guillotine along with repression, especially during the ‘Reign of Terror’, as well as military conflict, which involved all other European powers. Some of the later events that can be linked back to the French Revolution are: the Napoleonic Wars, the monarchy being restored, and two more revolutions, as France, as we know it today, slowly emerged.

The Causes of the French Revolution

Social Causes:

By the latter part of the 18th century, France was on the verge of the revolution. There were several reasons for this, which had been insidiously building up for a number of years, although the main cause could be attributed to the great disparity between the Royalty, clergy and nobility on one side, and the middle classes and peasants on the other.

The population of France at that time was separated into three estates: The first estate, numbering about 100,000 people, comprised the clergy; the second estate, numbering about 400,000 people, comprised the nobility; and the third estate comprised the peasantry, wage earners, and the bourgeoisie, which made up 90 percent of the population of France.

Under this system, while the first and the second estates were conferred with great privileges, the third estate was downtrodden under oppressive conditions. First of all, even though they were the wealthiest, the first and the second estates hardly paid any taxes. Plus, they were the only ones who could hold high positions in French society. In addition, the monarchy, via the local officials and ministers, wielded absolute authority and power over France. For instance, the parliament, known as ‘States General’, had not been convened since 1614. These conditions gradually became cause for great resentment in the third estate.

The Privileges of the First and Second Estate:

  • Tolls were collected by the aristocrats from people who used markets and roads.
  • The aristocrats were exempted from paying most of taxes.
  • The aristocracy were also exempt from doing military service.
  • The aristocrats had almost full authority over the peasant class.
  • Most clergy and aristocrats lived extremely luxurious lives in palaces and chateaus.

The Unfair Conditions of the Third Estate:

  • The peasant class had no right to fish or hunt in the estates of the aristocrats.
  • The peasant class was forced to pay taxes to the Church, the King, as well as to their noble master.
  • The peasant class had to serve in the military.
  • The peasant class had to use their noble master’s winepress, oven, and mill, and pay for doing so.

Monetary Causes

The brewing discontent and resentment amongst the common people of France may not have led to the political revolution without the fiscal crisis that the country was plunged into by the late 1780s, by which time the government of France was bankrupt, with a debt amounting to 4000 million livres. A lot of money had been spent in waging expensive wars, with no gains to show for it.

The royals were accused by the people of spending enormous amounts of money on their luxurious lifestyles, particularly the highly unpopular Queen Marie-Antoinette, the wife of Louis XVI, whose extravagance and opposition to reform were contributory factors to the monarchy being eventually overthrown.

Others thought that the system of taxes was unfair and corrupt, accusing some tax collectors of not handing over their taxes to the government.

Failure of Harvests

During the 1700s, a large majority of the French people relied almost entirely on farming and agriculture for their subsistence. From the years 1787 to 1789, the weather turned for the worse, with summers that were too hot, extremely hard winters, and unprecedented heavy rains, which resulted in three years of very poor harvests in the country. This, in turn, resulted in a reduction of incomes amongst farmers and peasants, while the prices of food rose acutely. The bad harvests also led to the unemployment of a large number of farmers. Thus, there was starvation amongst large sections of the poorer classes, but they could not get any employment and therefore could not afford to buy food.

In the meantime, the royals, the aristocrats, and the clergy continued living their luxurious lives in their grand chateaus and palaces. This was the time Queen Marie-Antoinette was supposed to have famously said: “If they have no bread, let them eat cake!” (although there is some dispute whether she had actually said those words)

Opposition from the Parlements and the Philosophes

During this period, the monarchy of France also came under increasing criticism from the very people who worked for them. Past practices were criticized by the king’s own ministers, which led to them proposing reforms. However, the parlements, which comprised thirteen regional royal courts, with the Parlement of Paris at their head, were the source of the most influential dissent. The parlements were endowed with the authority of registering royal decrees, all of which had to be registered by them before they became law. The parlements often opposed the initiatives of the king which they thought threatened the liberties and rights of the people. They projected a picture of a France that was historically free, while denouncing the absolute rule of the monarchy in publications that were widely distributed.

This opposition by the parlements coalesced with that of others, particularly an influential group of intellectuals, known as the philosophes. Although they did not recommend violent revolution, however, they claimed to be the voice of the general people, putting forth the argument that the common man had certain inalienable rights and that the government was supposed to ensure those rights. They went on to ridicule the inefficiencies as well as the abuses of power by the monarchy, which they published in treatises and pamphlets, much of it illegal.

Some of the most influential figures of the Enlightenment in France whose thoughts influenced the basic ideas of the French Revolution were: Voltaire, who criticized absolutism and the Church; the Marquis de Condorcet, who propounded notions of progress; the Baron de Montesquieu, who popularized the constitutional system of England; Denis Diderot, who argued in favor of social utility, while he spoke against tradition; and most of all Jean-Jacques Rousseau, with his views of popular sovereignty. The economic reform that was proposed by the physiocrats, which A.R.J. Turgot attempted to put in place in 1774-1776, was foiled by the resistance of the privileged classes to let go of any of their privileges as well as the failure of the king to back strong economical and social measures.

It was at this time that the philosophes and the parlementaires fashioned a vocabulary, which would later be used to debate and define political ideas during the Revolution. They gave a new definition to terms like ‘nation’, ‘rights and liberty’, ‘an arbitrary ruler oppressing the people’, and ‘despotism’.

The Estates General called by King Louis XVI

The King wanted the help of the aristocracy in reforming the tax system, which he asked them to do in 1787. He wanted them begin paying some of the taxes, a proposal that they rejected. Hence, the King called for a meeting of the Estates General in 1788, who were representatives from the three estates, which had last met in 1614. The meeting was held at the palace at Versailles, in the year 1789. The King was hoping that the Estates General would give approval for new taxes. The clergy and the nobles wanted to carry on with their privileges. The middle classes wanted a democracy like the one in England. And the peasants wanted their problems to be solved and their representatives asked them to make a list of their grievances. While the King had made the palace of Versailles the venue for the meeting, he also had large numbers of troops there. Some thought that this was an attempt by him to cow down the representatives. He did not provide them with any proposals that could be discussed, and they had to think of ideas themselves. This resulted in the King not having any control over the meeting.

The French Revolution

It was the year 1789, when the States General met in the month of May, that marked the beginning of the French Revolution. Then, in the same year, on the 14th of July, the famous storming of the Bastille took place, and in the month of October, King Louis XVI, along with the Royal Family, was moved to Paris from Versailles. The Royal Family attempted to flee from Paris to go to Varennes in 1791, but failed. A Legislative Assembly began functioning from the month of October in 1791 up to the month of September in 1792, when the National Convention replaced it due to the advancing allied armies of Holland, Austria, Sardinia, and Prussia. The National Convention proclaimed France to be a Republic. It was in the month of December in 1792 that King Louis XVI was brought to trial, and executed on the 21st of January, 1793. In the same year, war was declared on Britain by the revolutionary government.

Immediately after the King was executed, the Revolutionary Tribunal and the Committee of Public Safety were set up. The infamous Reign of Terror, with its equally infamous symbol, the guillotine, was ruthlessly used by the ruling faction to execute every potential enemy, beginning in the month of September 1793. Earlier, King Louis XVI had met his fate under its blade. Then Queen Marie-Antoinette, Philippe Egalite, although he had voted for the execution of the King, the Girondins, Madame Roland, and many more, right up to the execution of Robespierre (who was the leader of the Jacobins, and one of the main architects of the Reign of Terror) on the 27th of July, 1794.

Thousands of people were condemned to death by the guillotine by the Revolutionary Tribunal. While some of them were killed for their political actions or opinions, many were killed merely because of suspicion or because getting rid of them was beneficial for others. Most of the people sent to the guillotine made the trip there unceremoniously in a tumbrel, a farm dumpcart, which proceeded through jeering crowds. About 18,000 to 40,000 people were put to death during the Reign of Terror.

The Directory replaced the Convention in 1795, which in turn was replaced by the Consulate in 1799. It was in the month of May, in 1804, that Napoleon Bonaparte became the Emperor of France.