Historical processes are not consequence of a single cause, there are always several complex structures involved and the historian must be careful to study all of them in their mutual interconnection. The French Revolution is a particularly complex process because it is a turning point in history and even now there are different points of view about its causes, development and consequences, however it is clear that one of the main short-term causes was the French social structure, the Ancient Regime. The division into three estates with different rights and duties, produced a clear situation of injustice with poverty for the greater part of the people and the extreme wealth for just a few.
1 To what extent were poverty and prosperity causes of the 1789 French Revolution? To a great extent because the prosperity of the bourgeois encouraged the poverty, peasants, to make justice for themselves by making a revolution against the authorities. The first and second estates had several privileges and it produced in the third estate a feeling of resentment, specially among those bourgeois who had education and certain power.2 This cultivated class had been influenced by the ideas of enlightenment and could propose solutions to the injustices. Poverty and prosperity were the concrete conditions that made possible the revolution.
French society had a traditional division in estates: the first estate was represented by the clergy, the upper class of church with bishops and other representatives of the hierarchy. The second estate were the nobles, the aristocracy connected with the monarchy or heirs of ancient families, usually owners of great extensions of land. These two were the richest classes of society, and they also had the political power. They could gain positions in the Church and the Army.3 This situation didn’t mean hard duties, on the contrary, they were exempted from taxes and they were not forced to participate in the frequent wars. They enjoyed their luxurious lives with no economical worries.4 On the contrary, the obligations felt upon the third estate.
Most of the nobles looked at the peasants as beneath them, and they called the peasants canaille meaning “vulgar” or low and crude.5 While the favored class didn’t have to worry about their living, the peasants had to work very hard to survive and to pay taxes. The members of the third estate were heavily taxed and the prices of goods had increased in a tremendous manner because of the economical problems that the country had suffered.6 On the other hand, the educated people from the third estate, the bourgeois, were searching for a way to make equality in the society. 7The bourgeois were being influenced by the ideas of philosophers such as Rousseau ,”man should born free”. These new ideas were the results of the Enlightenment, that began in 1600s and lasted until the 1700s.
The third estate was by large the greatest part of the French population, 27 million people were members or the third estate. The bourgeoisie introduced to the peasants the rights of man, freedom of speech and freedom of religion.8 The Enlightenment brought the idea that the nation should be based on logical thinking and science. The agreement to this ideas encouraged them to write a cahier with all the grievances and new rules that they wanted. In it, the Third Estate suggested “Art. 21. No tax shall be legal unless accepted by the representatives of the people and sanctioned by the king.”, “Art. 22. Since all Frenchmen receive the same advantage from the government, and are equally interested in its maintenance, they ought to be placed upon the same footing in the matter of taxation”.9 The peasants and the bourgeois were willing to make justice.
“Many of the Third Estate wanted equality rather than liberty, motivated not so much by an earnest liberalism as by envy and legitimate anger” 10 The bourgeoisie and the peasants wanted to be treated as the First and Second Estates, they would prefer equality rather than liberty. They wanted the taxing to be even for everyone and equality among the different social classes. All the three Estates wanted to change the government. Each having their own reasons, some more ambitious and some others for justice. A large amount of aristocrats were jealous of the king’s power and wanted it. They wanted monarchy in which they could share the power. 11 Ambitiousness and justice made the government be changed.
The social division of the classes was an influence in the French Revolution. The unfair privileges given to the First and Second Estate made the Third Estate feel resentment towards them, and that provoked anger between them. The prosperity of bourgeois and the strength and quantity of the poverty, which were the peasants, made the Revolution
possible during those times. Without the peasants being in extreme poverty situations, the bourgeois wouldn’t have gotten justice. The peasants, the anger that they felt for he nobles and the ideas that the bourgeois introduced to them, united the necessary strength to develop such strong revolution. The bourgeois took a very important role by encouraging the peasants to fight against the government that was taking advantage of the poor.