The Causes of the French Revolution: Roots of Resentment

The French Revolution was the inevitable aftermath following a century of evident distrust in a society which faced immense hardship through a myriad of economic and political grievances. Yet, while resentments over social inequality certainly exacerbated the tensions between the different classes, “nowhere was the kingdom’s lack of uniformity more glaring than the structure of the privileges and exemption” due to the political issues in France with regards to the major divisions distinguishing the different classes under the ‘Ancien Régime.

’ It can be argued however, that while political weaknesses were the underlying cause, this argument can be carried further by highlighting several sub-factors that may have contributed to the growing resentment including: the System of Estates with a hereditary (absolute) monarchy, feudal system of nobility and moderate tax exemptions on nobles and clergy in addition to the evidently growing transparency in France through Enlightenment. These were indeed the most important contributors to this arguably ‘chaotic’ uprising as many peasants were almost – outraged – by the King’s inability to implement change once they got a sense of realisation in regards to their inauspicious situation.

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This point would argue a similar case to that of William Doyle’s in regard to the the root cause of the revolution being a political one, due to the king’s lack of new taxation implementations being enforced on the ‘parlaments’ (upper classes) who were strongly disinclined from such measures of change. However, while Doyle seems to align with a somewhat revisionist outlook, believing in a series of complex events including economic problems (mid-1780s harvest failures), social, ideological and political issues that build up the resentments.

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This argument will carry political disparity as the primary, underlying cause throughout while social inequality is its counter argument as reinforced by renowned historian David Andress.

The Bourgeoisie

Despite a considerable federal debt burden which the peasantry were least adequate to pay, the severe disparities however are not solely focused on growing tensions between nobles and peasantry but also those prominent between the prominent and growing bourgeoisie and Second Estates. Marxists would argue that the French Revolution was a classic example of a bourgeois revolution. From this view, the middle classes would gather together to undermine the aristocracy as this political revolution was tied to an underlining economic one. According to Marxist believers, the bourgeois restored the legal and political order that would foster the development of capitalism by overthrowing the remaining elements of feudalism (aristocratic control of the land). Liberty (freedom) for Marxists was simply freedom for the bourgeois to make more money under capitalism. Historians who aligned with Marxist views also believe that the causes of the revolution had to be sought in long-term economic developments. These created deep social divisions (class conflicts), especially between the aristocracy of land owners and the bourgeoisie of merchants and manufacturers in the cities. Much of the discussion of the origins of the French Revolution has been devoted to either devoting or contesting Marx’s view. There is no question that France in the 18th century was divided by social conflicts. Peasants strongly resented the special duties they had to pay to their aristocratic lords as much as they resented the taxes they laid to the state. But do these social tensions add up to clear-cut class conflict?

Like the nobility, the bourgeoisie could own land and also extract dues and payments from their peasant tenants. Moreover, the bourgeoisie (merchants, lawyers and officials) had one great aim in their lives – to become nobles themselves by buying the right king of office or purchasing a letter from the king which grants them noble status. Opponents of this view argue that social divisions added to no clear pattern of class conflict. The bourgeoisie disliked the lower classes as much as the nobility did and upper class groups generally shared common interests (getting ahead socially).

Hierarchical Society

France on the eve of 1789 was a deeply hierarchical society at the bottom with the peasants who worked the land and barley made a living. Peasants made up the majority of the 26 million French people. Fewer than half of them could read or write and few of them knew much about anything over national political quarrels. They wanted to pay as little taxes as possible to the state and deeply resented the rents, dues and duties as well as and special recommendations demanded by their landlords. The middle classes of the cities were a much smaller group making up at most five percent of the population. Below them were the lower classes of the cities (shoemakers, weavers and water carriers) – who depended on work provided by the upper classes at the top of society with the 300,000 nobles and 100,000 clergy. Nobles and clergy both benefited from tax exemptions or paid them according to more favourable rates. Nobles were also privileged in a myriad of other ways, ranging from the rights to wear swords in public to the best views in church.


Regardless of the arguably ‘progressive’ measures the Third Estate under took by 1789 in pursuit of greater social advancements for peasant’s rights through riots and other means in the following years including: the ‘Tennis Court Oath’ in the hopes of establishing a constitution, in addition to the ‘Women’s March on Versailles’ (which seemed to in-act as the final line of tolerance to the gradually diminishing regime in France). The inevitable demise of Louis XVI and his wife Marian Antionette was fast approaching once the majority of French peasants came to the realisation that the king was arguably too weak to make any distinct reforms to challenge the social constructs of French society and minimise these long with-standing disparities and divisions between the nobles and clergy compared to the Third Estate. However, the argument here set out brings into question whether resentment was somewhat sudden; sparking outrage or was there no actual clear-cut pattern of conflict as all classes seemed to share similar interests (getting up socially), primarily the bourgeoisie and nobility. (ADD MORE ON ENLIGHTENMENT).Needless to say, the origins of the French Revolution are a vastly debated topic with several respected historians representing moderately polarising viewpoints.

Historical Interpretations

However, the prominent historical arguments being put forward highlight the interpretations of renowned historians including those of William Doyle – who is evidently inclined to believe that initially, the peasantry seemed almost ‘disillusioned’ from the reality of their political struggles, regardless of their seemingly inauspicious situation in relation to feudalism which was only condemned under intellectual attack (primarily from ‘physiocrats’) who believed these unequal rights and feudal dues being extracted from peasants to nobles in conjunction with ‘Tithes’ to the church – were playing a harmful effect on agriculture. Furthermore he goes on to evoke an idea that the “peasants were completely passive observers of what was happening” and while Doyle’s perspective evidently seems to be revisionist, as he seems to see the revolution as a complex series of events which followed a considerably long period of substantial transition and change. He certainly touches upon France’s social problems in regards to the major level of poverty across the country prior to the revolution in addition to the bourgeois’s attempts of joining the more the privileged (noble) estates. Non-the-less, unlike Marxist historians, Doyle while acknowledging, both the economic and social issues that exacerbated the Revolution he seems to incline slightly more favourably with the argument that the root cause was more so a political one – primarily due to the unfair system of Estates imposed under the Ancien Regime. Additionally, Doyle (while elevating his criticism on the political system in France as the biggest source of resentment) he certainly highlights the somewhat major economic crisis - (harvest failures of mid 1780’s) as he almost claims that – to a small extent - this is what arguably ignited a sense of self awareness into the reality which the majority of the Third Estate were bounded to.

William Doyle is a renowned English historian who primarily specialises in French 18th century history. He is clearly a credible source of information within this period of French history as highlighted by his works. Having graduated from the University of Oxford with a bachelors degree in history in addition to his lectures at the university of York, Nottingham and Bristol it is

However, other interpretations such as those of historian David Andress seem to contradict Doyle’s view, as he believes that “the French villagers engaged in a multifaceted evaluation of their burdens, making at times rather fine judgements about the tolerable and the intolerable.” It seems that Andress was particularly inclined to the idea that it wasn’t simply political and (to an extent economic) distress that caused peasants to come to terms with their neglected position in French society but more so the……… of the regime and the lack of socio-economic equality – predominantly the “model reform cahiers produced by the opposition leaders”.

Updated: Jan 25, 2024
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The Causes of the French Revolution: Roots of Resentment. (2024, Jan 25). Retrieved from

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