Like all wars, a revolution has its roots embedded in past events and actions that call or beg for an opposing reaction. Social, economic and political factors that contributed to years of oppression finally culminated in an outburst of anger from the French people in which they attacked the Bastille prison. Thus began the French Revolution which spread throughout France.
There were many factors that contributed to the French Revolution of which this paper focuses on the three most known causes of conflict: social, economic and political. First of all the most popular cause of any revolution, social unrest in an era that called for reform due to the inequalities in the social structure common to Europe and its ideologies. Second, the French economy weakening due to France’s involvement in the American Revolution and the extravagant spending on behalf of the royal people caused irreversible byproducts of social injustice and added fuel to the fires of the Enlightenment ideals and the need for total reform. The ideas of the intellectuals of the Enlightenment brought new views into the political structure and its failure to government and society. Last, weak leadership provided under Louis XVI and his inability to maintain a stable economy only increased the pleas of the common folk for reform of their government and ultimately a constitution that would guarantee the change was kept. This revolution resulted in the end of the old regime with the establishment of a new one that would have a lasting impact because the Constitution protected these rights.
Social problems were a major factor that brought about the French Revolution. In the 18th century, France was a feudal country with class divisions. People were divided into three estates. The First Estate consisted of the clergy. The Second consisted of the nobility, and the third included the bourgeois, the city workers and the peasants. The state which one belonged to decided one’s power and rights. This shows the social class distinctions. The first estate was made up of 1% of the people and owned 10% of the land in France. The second estate consisted of 2% of the people and owned 35% of the land. The third estate held 97% of the people who owned 55% of the land. The people-to-land proportion was unjust looking at the amount of people in each estate. The third estate held very little land compared to the amount of people it had. It was overcrowded. The first and the second estate were the privileged classes. They clergy and the nobility were exempt from many taxes. They had to pay about four-fifths of their income on tax. They also needed to pay the land tax: also the taxes on property, roads, and salt. The third estate was the most discontented class. The bourgeoisie were well educated. They were strongly influenced by the ideas of Voltaire and Rousseau who attacked the injustices of the time. Rousseau believed that people are basically good but become corrupted by society. In an ideal society, people would make the laws and would obey them willingly. Probably the most famous of the philisophes was Francois-Marie Arouet who took the name Voltaire. He used biting wit as a weapon to expose the abuses of his day. He targeted corrupt officials and idle aristocrats. With his pen, he battled inequality, injustice, and superstition. He detested the slave trade and deplored religious prejudice. They resented the privileges of the nobility and wanted a larger role in state affairs. City workers were angry because their wages were not enough to buy goods when prices were going up rapidly. The peasants made up 80% of the population and had to pay heavy taxes. Although some authors may claim that the Revolution was caused by the middle classes there are plenty of reasons for the peasants to have a major influence in it. The working classes weren’t able to read or write but people placed in a dire situation can in fact become a power to control or start the Revolution. French peasants were subject to certain feudal dues, called banalities. These included the required used-for-payment of the lord’s mill to grind grain and his oven to bake bread. The lord could also require a certain number of days each year of the peasant’s labor. Peasants were targeted by society. The French peasants as McPhee puts it were, “victims of longstanding oppression.”
The political discontent of France was another one of the causes of the Revolution. Before the Revolution there was skepticism as to whether the laws were being shaped at the will of the local keepers far away from the view of the nobles. France at the time was not truly united to begin with for it was divided into 36 federalities. It was many regions and lands grouped together over many centuries and had taken their French Rulers as their paternal guides. The laws of government differed greatly as did the land itself and the customs and taxation of each region. France was essentially a feudal nation pinning different classes over ancient and modern rights. The peasants whom, as I mentioned before, comprised about 80% of the population were pinned under the bourgeoisie and all the upper classes and their injustices.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, France was ruled by an absolute government. The king had all the political powers when it came down to exercising absolute power. Anyone who criticized the government could be arrested and put in prison without trial. Even with what seemed such extreme measures of French law it was known that France was one of the most lenient. Louis XVI was king at the time of the French Revolution. He was more interested in hunting than governing France. He and his Austrian queen, Marie Antoinette, lived an extravagant life at the Palace of Versailles. They did not really care about the state of their country. The excerpt from the cahiers mentioned in document 3 shows that the votes in the assembly were not taken by head. The people of the 3rd estate felt a sense of betrayal when the king supported the block voting over the head voting. The first two estates worked together to outvote the large third estate to keep them from becoming a threat to the power. Lord Acton, an Englishmen, states that the monarchy being overthrown wasn’t the spark of the Revolution. He recognizes the American Independence as the spark of the French Revolution. The French government was inefficient, unjust and corrupt. There were numerous government departments, different laws in different parts of the country and officials. Many people became livid at the way France was governed. The people couldn’t do anything to bring about a change. The French Parlement was called the Estates-General. It had not met since 1614 and couldn’t without the consent of the king. It basically had no power.
Problems with the economy
The economic problems created by the French kings also contributed to the Revolution. During the 18th century, the French government spent more money than it collected in taxes. By 1788, the country was bankrupt. Arthur Young, an Englishmen and observer, who traveled to France from 1787 to 1789 angrily describes the living conditions of the peasants in his book Travels in France. The amount of tax each person must pay is unfair. Landholders found in the nobility weren’t taxed much. The landholders found in the commoners were taxed heavily. There was lack of bread. The price of bread was a lot higher then one’s ability to pay which caused great misery for the people of France. Most of the money was spent on wars. France had been at war for nearly 50 years out of the previous one hundred years. France supported the Americans in the American War of the Independence. After that, France was in financial ruins. A large sum of money was also spent on palaces, entertainment and gifts by the kings of France. The government spent a lot of money which put forth high taxes. The tax system was unjust. The nobles and the clergy hardly paid any tax. The Church owned one-tenth of the land in France and did not pay any taxes. The peasants were the victims of the heavy taxation. Louis XVI tried to reform the taxation system but the nobility and the clergy refused to accept the new reforms. Therefore, the king was unable to make any financial reforms. The gabelle, salt tax, was also levied by the French Kings. When Jacques Turgot tried to impose the corvee, tax on land property, he was opposed by the nobility. He failed to pass the corvee and was dismissed by Louis XVI.
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The French Revolution was caused by social, political and economic problems. People were in discontent with the king. The first two estates were privileged and the third was very unprivileged and had to pay heavy taxes. The third estate did not get along with the first two. French kings spent a lot of money on wars. They spent more money then they made. It was time for a change in France.
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