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French Revolution of 1789: Social factors Essay

Although social tensions within France certainly contributed to the revolutionary situation in August 1789 it was not the only contributing factor. Divisions and inequality between, as well as within, the Three Estates created an atmosphere of disharmony while the influence of the enlightenment and liberal ideas fueled the growing discontent of the Estates toward the government and Louis XVI. However, political factors, like the undermining of the Kings power as well as economic factors, such as the chaotic nature of the taxation system exacerbated the social tensions and combined created a revolutionary situation.

The Ancien Regime was riddled with social inequalities and therefor-growing discontent. Out of a population of around 25 million the First and Second Estates, which consisted of approximately 400,000 members, were largely exempt from taxes, such as the taille and the corvee, despite the fact they were the wealthiest estates. This left the burden of supporting the country to the (overall) poorest estate: the Third estate. Much of the Third Estate were alienated by the Nobility during the 18th C when, because of inflation, they increased feudal dues and sought new ways in which to extract money from the peasants at the same time as rising food prices and bad harvests crippled their incomes.

The bourgeois were also prevented from obtaining high-ranking positions in the army, navy and the Church as the Nobility held these. As an added burden to the feudal dues many peasants paid they were also required to pay a tithe, one-tenth of their income, to the church as well as a vingtieme, taille, capitation and gabelle to the government. As the price of food surged their incomes did not, leaving many peasants struggling to get by. This combined with he fast growing population during the late 18th C created an ideal situation for change and revolution in the countryside.

Discontent and inequality were issues within each estate. In the Second Estate there was the Noblesse depee, who had ‘blue blood’, their ancestors were related to the King and they heavily influenced King Louis’ decisions. During the 18th C the Noblesse depee sought to abolish the opportunity to
buy nobility and largely succeeded. The ‘bought’ Nobility, or Noblesse de robe, were well-educated and wealthy former bourgeois who obtained their titles from the King for a sum. The Noblesse de robe were considered lesser nobles than the noblesse depee as the did not have blue blood or old money, in many cases the noblesse de robe had made their fortunes in the industrial revolution.

The clergy too was full of inequalities. The Upper Clergy lived extremely well on large estates while the Lower Clergy would have a better affinity with the peasants life. The Third Estate had many divisions within it. There were serfs, who worked the land and were owned by the landlords, small land owners who managed to make a small living on their own plots of land and the richer peasants, who owned larger amounts of land or became landlords themselves. The urban workers lived and worked in the major towns and were unskilled and poorly paid, living crowded together in cellars and upper storys.

The haute bourgeois were the wealthiest, avoided as many taxes as possible and were most likely to become noblesse de robe. The petite bourgeois were educated and owned land. The bourgeois were strongly influenced by the ideas of the enlightenment. The enlightenment writers, philosophes, were critical of the governments corruption and the churches intolerance. In Montesquieu’s spirit of laws he argues for separation of legislative, executive and judicial powers to prevent too much power falling in the hands of too few people. Many of the philosophes, especially Rousseau believed in the notion of popular sovereignty and the general will of the people governing the nation.

However, these factors and ideals alone could not bring about a revolutionary situation. The political and financial situation of France in the 18th C also helped bring about a revolutionary situation.

The government of Louis XVI was close to bankruptcy by the late 18th C and in desperate need of tax reform. There was no budget and no organised tax collection system. In 1781 controller general Necker drew up the Compte Rendu, a financial paper detailing Frances financial situation, though he did not include Frances involvement in the America war of Independence which according o historian lefebvre cost France 2 million Livres and resulted in raised loans which left France heavily indebted. Many Generalities and provinces overlapped and had different tax rates, like that of the gabelle, a salt tax, which varied throughout France. With no budget the state had no way of knowing how much money it was spending or collecting and corruption was rife despite successive controller generals efforts to reform the system. Facing bankruptcy Louis XVI attempted reform but was refused by first the assembly of notables and then by the parlement of paris.

It is Lefebvres belief that the aristocracy ‘asserting its authority and challenging the royal power’ was the first step leading up to the revolution. It undermined the Kings authority. France was an absolute monarchy and opponants to the crown could be imprisoned with the hated lettres de cachet however Louis XVI was not a strong leader and the aristocracy who made up the courts and representative assemblies sensed this. They consistently resisted reforms throughout 1788 until the King was forced to recall the Estates General for May 1789. Following this anouncment many pamphlets were written and the ideas of the enlightenment and of democracy and equality reached a far greater audience, particularly with the pamphlet ‘what is the Third Estate?’ by Abbe Sieyes which was written simply and concisly enough for most educated poeple to understand.

With revolutionary ideas of liberty, equality and fraternity from the enlightenment swirling throughout France by late 1789 change was inevitable. The inefficient tax system and corrupt government, the undermining of King Louis’ power, exacerbated the tensions within and between the Three Estates, led to a revolutionary situation in France.

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