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The French Revolution beginning in 1789 redesigned the country’s political landscape and uprooted century old institutions. The movement was a result of a combination of various factors and played a critical role in shaping and showing modern nations the power inherent in the will of people. The Monarchy’s absolute rule and ancient regime were tested by the growing influence of the Enlightenment, which challenged traditional ways and ideas. Lavish spending and irrational mistakes made by the royal family worsened the nations ongoing economic debt, installing fear and famine in the lives of French citizens.
In the face of a changing world, the old order succumbed to its own rigidity, falling to the ambitions of a rising bourgeoisie. These significant long-term causes created an atmosphere of discontent and confusion in France, allowing an angry and frustrated Third Estate to utilise the Estates-General meeting to their advantage. It was this event that lit the spark for the Revolution of France.
The inequalities and inefficiencies seen in the ancient regime contributed to the French Revolution.
A social and political structure, the Old Order created imbalances in French society. The nation was divided into three strict “Estates”, where the king was at the top and three distinctive social groups were under him. The First Estate consisted of religious leaders and clergy, and accounted for 0.6% of the population. They mainly existed to pray, keep the kingdom free of evil and collect the tithe from the Third Estate, which was equivalent to 10% of a person’s income.
An archbishop earned about 400,000 livres while most priests received 700 livres annually. There were huge disparities between the wealth of high-ranking officials to the lowly priests and many understood the plight of the French peasantry.
The Second Estate comprised of the nobility, which held prominent positions in religion, politics, and the military. They made up 0.4% of the population but owned 30% of the land, and along with their title came wealth, power and privileges such as exception from military service, special feudal rights to hunting and the ability to be tried in special courts. The first two Estates were exempt from paying most taxes such as the taille (land), gabelle (salt) and vingtieme, putting the entire burden upon the Third Estate. The Third Estate were considered ‘everyone else’ even though, being 99% of France, they were the majority of the population. They consisted of artisan workers, farmers, professionals and businessmen.
Peasants made up 80% of the country. The Third Estate were unsatisfied with having no voice in government and being unfairly overtaxed, especially the Bourgeoisie and the middle class. Not only was the tax system biased, the ways laws were arranged were unjust too. The states had to vote for an equal number of representatives and meet in the Estates-General. Each state got one vote but as the First and Second Estates normally voted together, the Third Estate could never win. William Doyle debates, _”What was inevitable was the breakdown of the old order”_. It was these discrepancies in social class and the endless unfair treatment of the Third Estate in particular that inescapably led to the Revolution in France.
France’s deepening economic crisis and heavy expenditure was responsible for French Revolution. France was bankrupted by three highly costly, successive wars, made possible by borrowing large sums of money from wealthy noblemen, at high interest rates. The first was the War of the Austrian Succession from 1740 to 1748, which cost the French 1 billion livres. If this wasn’t enough, from 1756 to 1763, the Seven Years War cost the country another 1.8 billion livres. Bitter from losing most of their colonial empire, France immediately began an expensive project of improving the army and rebuilding the navy. In 1778, France entered the American Revolution (War for Independence) as an ally of the colonists. By the time of the American victory in 1783, France had spent an additional 1.3 billion livres, pushing them further into debt. Since the 1760s, the French government had consistently tried to inflate its way out debt.
The French clergy and nobility, which were the wealthiest Estates in French society, held 90% of the national wealth, but they were practically exempt from most forms of taxation. So when Ministers raised taxes to pay for foreign wars, the entire burden fell on the Third Estate, causing great popular resentment. Poor grain harvest further damaged the economy when, in 1787 and 1788, a cycle of drought followed by fierce hailstorms and flooding destroyed most of the nation’s grain crop. This led to soaring prices, high unemployment, and conditions of near-famine by the spring of 1789, leading people to go on rampages in the countryside. The king and his court continued to spend lavishly despite the serious economic crises, and used 40% of the nations income into paying off the debt.
Marie-Antoinette’s excessive spending during times of financial hardship only heightened the growing revolutionary fervors, as enraged people of France felt that the royal family bought its luxurious lifestyle at the poor people’s expense. It was this point of supreme crisis- a matter of life and death for working people- that they had pinned their faith in Necker, who favoured control of grain production. Francois Furet states _”The Dismissal of Necker was interpreted as a double unlucky omen: bankruptcy and counter-revolution.”_ Upon learning of the King’s decision to release Necker on the 11th of July 1989, the Third Estate already in a revolutionary mood began arming themselves, setting fire to the customs houses and tearing down the tax wall. France’s economic turmoil ultimately led to the French revolution.
The Enlightenment era opened new doors for humanity and paved the way for the French Revolution. Beginning in the 1720’s, the intellectual movement criticised the old regime, causing changes in public perception. Called philosophes, these critical thinkers used human reason and science to examine society, identifying its injustices and suggesting a more enlightened way of organising humanity. They gave people the opportunity to think for themselves and discover self-worth, while preaching separation of Church and State, equality for all, freedom of association and ‘social contract’. Voltaire expressed his revolutionary ideas through numerous poetry, plays, historical works and philosophical works. He attacked the church and aristocracy, and advocated freedom of religion, freedom of expression and separation of church. Political philosopher, educationist and essayist Rousseau argued for the natural rights of life, liberty and property.
In 1754 he wrote the _Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality_, which re-emphasized the natural goodness of man and the corrupting influences of institutionalized life. 8 years later saw his masterpiece, _The Social Contract_ which attempted to solve the problem posed by its opening sentence: _”Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains.”_ With its slogan, “_Liberty, Equality, Fraternity,”_ it became the bible of the French revolutionaries. Montesquieu was also a French social commentator and political thinker who believed in separation of powers, that is, the state is divided into branches, each with separate and independent powers and areas of responsibility so that no branch has more power than the other. This greatly rivaled the concept of the monarchy as he suggested for the end of absolutism.
The Enlightenment period reached its peak by the 1770’s and by the time of the revolution in 1789, French citizens had read the great works of the Enlightenment and had learned to think critically about their own society. The influence of these philosophes allowed people to gain confidence and optimism to believe a better world was achievable. Revolutionaries claimed that they were inspired by the ideas of the enlightenment, confirming Denis Diderot’s belief in the power of subversive ides. Although only few philosophes were alive in the 1780’s, revolutionaries adopted their principles to give authority to their reforms. Albert Soboul, a Marxist, claims, _”The Enlightenment undermined the ideological foundations of the established order.”_ The critical spirit of the Enlightenment seriously weakened the old regime and authority, damaging the conventional monarchy and helping follow through the French Revolution.
The Estates-General was the trigger that instigated the French Revolution. Called upon by Louis XVI on May 5th 1789, the meeting set in motion a series of events, which resulted in the abolition of the monarchy and a completely new socio-political system for France. The country was in a state of crises because of the King’s incompetence and several clumsy mistakes made over the years. Thus Louis XVI had no other choice but to call for the meeting of the Estates-General, which had not gathered since 1614. This assembly, made of representatives of the three estates, met to try and find a solution to the severe political, military and economical issues of the time. For the Third Estate it was a huge opportunity for the poorest people of France to finally be heard by the King. The double representation, initiated by Necker and granted by royal decree in December 1788, was seen as a huge victory and advantage for the Third Estate and a hope that change was growing.
Yet in the meeting, voting was conducted by estate, not by head, so the double representation was a fallacy. Seeing that neither the King nor the other estates would acquiesce to its requests, the Third Estate began to organise within itself and recruit actively from the other estates. On June 17th, 1789, strengthened by community wide support, the Third Estate officially broke away from the Estates-General and proclaimed itself the National Assembly. In so doing, it also granted itself control over taxation. Shortly thereafter, many members of the other estates joined the cause. Seeing a threat to his monarchy, Louis XVI responded by locking the Third Estate out of the meeting houses. This poor decision would ultimately change the course of the French political system forever. Led by Robespierre, Mirabeau and Sieyes, the Third Estate relocated to a nearby tennis court.
Liberal clergy member Sieyès wrote a pamphlet titled _”What Is the Third Estate?”_ In response to his own question, Sieyès answered, _”The Nation”,_ and articulated the pervasive feeling in France that though a small minority might be in control, the country truly belonged to the masses. Sieyès’s pamphlet compelled the Third Estate to action, inciting the masses to take matters into their own hands if the aristocracy failed to give them due respect. So they formed the Tennis Court Oath on June 20th, and decided to write the constitution of France.
Louis XVI had no choice but to acknowledge the authority of the assembly, which renamed itself the National Constituent Assembly on July 9th, 1789. Jill Fenwick & July Anderson argued that _”The decision [the declaration of the national assembly] marked the beginnings of the real revolution and it was largely as a result of the indecision of Louis XVI.”_ William Doyle agrees; _”The Founding of the National Assembly was the founding act of the French Revolution”._ When news of Louis’ plan to use military force against them reached Paris on July 14th, mobs stormed the Bastille. The power of the King was severely affected and in a very short time, the Revolution of France occurred.
The French Revolution was the consequence of a series of mistakes made by Louis and could have been avoided, but not made finally possible until the Estates General. Widespread poverty, misery and starvation from a nation burdened with enormous debts, as well as the ineptitude and continued decadence of the aristocracy made for a country in need of change and upheaval. As the ideas from the Enlightenment spread across the country, people started to vision a new government that could be the solution to the on going class struggle. French citizens saw the opportunity to put an end to the persistent inequalities of the ancient regime and economic troubles, which unavoidably led to the fall of the French monarchy.
France, _The Causes of the French Revolution_, Britannica Online Encyclyopedia, Available: http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/215768/France/40393/The-causes-of-the-French-Revolution, Last accessed on 9th September
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