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The French Revolution left a prolonged effect during the 18th and 19th centuries, however, its causes can be traced back to the 16th and 17th centuries. This essay will particularly deal with the long-term causes, yet, there still are numerous short-term causes. The prime long-term cause was the Ancien Regime; the Old Regime. The Ancien Regime was the practice of the system of government in France. However, the revolution was exasperated because of the long consequent years of political, economic, social, and ideological prosperities, thus all estates’ statuses were in decline.
The états; estates, were three different categories of the French population. The first estate was the clergy, the second estate was the nobility, their population was numbered around 300 thousand out of 25 million, but the ancien regime worked solely in their favor and profits. The third estate was the rest, it was the largest and most weak but heavily burdened, they had no share in the government, had the main load of taxation, and more often liable to the corvée; forced labor on public property like roads or buildings.
Many of the working class were imprisoned or executed for failure of paying or participating in these prosperities. The bourgeoise was in no burden, as much as the peasant, from the economic aspect of however these men were excluded from official positions in the army, clergy, navy, and the government. These men were literate and often intellectual who could speak and criticize the unjust system of government. They resented the exemptions made for the nobility and clergy, for taxation, and the luxurious and lavish lifestyle the two estates were living.
Therefore, this section of the third estate drove the motivation for the revolution.
The bourgeoisie had also political knowledge, they had read about the ideas of philosophers. Their ideas had sparked a reform ideal. Montesquieu (1689-1755) was one of the philosophers, his philosophy was introduced after conducting an experiment by freezing a tongue. He concluded that populations in hot climates were suitable of despotism due to their harsh temperament. His book, De l’Esprit des Louis, included his experience visiting Britain and wrote about how the system of government was worthy of imitation. The positive-minded Jean-Jacques Rousseau () was also one of the leading influences, he wrote in Du Contrat Social, that the man is always subject to government. Unlike Montesquieu, he criticized the British system of government by arguing that the man is only free during elections, afterward he is not. These philosophers weren’t the only ideological influence and gateway to the French Revolution but also the American War of Independence. French soldiers who fought in the war returned with American democratic ideals. They compared their home-land burdens and noticed that if a revolt was to happen, it would have been justified. The Americans revolted for self-government, not misgovernment, therefore, the French were influenced since the burdens, mostly the taxations, were too much to bear.
The third estate was enormously financially burdened. The peasant owed several taxes to the king, the taille; land tax, the capitation; poll tax, the gabelle; salt tax, customs duties, the vegtiéme; the twentieth of his income, money due to the landlord when his machinery was used and the tithe of the produce produced on his land. Sometimes the tax collectors garmented many of the taxes that were collected. The first and second estates possessed many special privileges, one of which being the exemption of tax. The second estate was relieved from most tax however paid some lightly while the clergy gave a ‘free gift’. The constant involvement of wars had generated a loss of money and made borrowing necessary, piling up a large amount of debt. The king was assisted by many individuals like the royal controller of finances and intendants, however, most of the power lied primarily on Louis himself.
Not only economic power lied in the king’s hands but every aspect of government. He was helped by his personal advisers, which were considered to lack efficiency and effectiveness. The éstas-généraux; the Estates-General, was the arrangement to represent all the states combined, to give a form of a sense of power, however, this was only an excuse since it had last been called in 1614. The government was responsible for the affairs in over 40 thousand districts and struggled immensely against the debts caused. Louis XVI did not have the character of a monarch, he was not interested in reform, only to hold onto his power and hunting. His wife, Marie Antionette was one of the fatal influences, she was ignorant of the need for reform and incapable of grasping the cruciality of the political unrest. Louis XVI was very in denial, therefore, any criticism of the ancien regime or a noble was bound to be arrested on a royal writ, more often called a letter de cachet; a sealed letter. Over 30 thousand of these letters were sent and many more imprisoned.
All these long-term causes that include the political, economic, ideological, and social flaws all flared up and flourished the French Revolution. The French Revolution was officially declared in 1789, however, all of these cases date back to the 16th and 17th century. Feudalism in the ancient regime was the downfall of the third estate. Thus, tension, strain and pent-up anger of these ongoing causes were fundamentally why the third estate, with the help of some nobles, were eager for change and revolted to make one of the most notable events in history.
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