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Causes of the French Revolution

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Published: 29th Sep 2017 in History

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Revolutions are not simply actions committed from impulses, rather, they are a set of protests to express disagreements with the current society. This was the case of the French Revolution. Around the 18th century, British colonists in North America accused England for unequal treatments. Inspired by Enlightenment ideas, Americans overthrew the British power and created a republic. Driven by the successful American Revolution and the new ideas of liberty and equality, the French were inspired to do the same with the ruling royalty and to establish a new political order. This was mainly because France continued the system of the “Old Regime”, a type of feudal system where the king held absolute power. Under the Old Regime, there was an unequal distribution of wealth and rights of citizens. In addition, the enormously high prices of life necessities were also critical because many people had barely enough to eat and live. Consequently, the observed of Enlightenment ideas and witness of American Revolution’s success, disparity in wealth and rights of the citizen, in addition of corruption in the ruling royalty’s power over government inspired the occurrence of the French Revolution.

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Among one of the factors that had played into the French Revolution was the philosophical view of human right and government structure. At the Age of Reason, many philosophers created new ideas about the government and questioned the basic rights of all humans. Such ideas influenced the French Revolution. There were three major enlightenment thinkers, and they were John Locke, Montesquieu and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Locke was an English philosopher who witnessed political turmoil in England during the 17th century. One of his most influential ideas on French Revolution was the equality of human and the three natural rights, which are life, liberty and property. In France, serfs and peasants didn’t have the same rights as aristocracy because they didn’t enjoy the same freedoms and property that the wealthy population enjoyed. Furthermore, they made up 80 percent of the population (Kreis). Thus, they were unsatisfied with their unequal rights. In addition, the “bourgeoisie”, or the middle class, could be as rich as the some nobles because the bourgeoisie were the people to get engaged in trades and a variety of businesses that helped them to gain a good amount of wealth and influence the French economy. However, the bourgeoisies were still considered as commoners because their statuses in society were not heritable as nobilities (Kreis). Consequently, the bourgeoisies wished the government to open more positions to base on the individual’s merits. But it was impossible to do this under the Old Regime due to the huge differences in social classes and privileges. Hence, the commoners, including both peasants and bourgeois, were inspired to revolt from the new philosophical ideas that were widely spread and accepted of the individual human rights.

In addition, Montesquieu published The Spirit of the Laws in 1783 and claimed the best government was a kind of constitutional monarchy, which was a monarchy that shared its political powers with another governing power. Consequently, Montesquieu suggested that France should model this kind of government in order to achieve the same success as England did. With this form of government Montesquieu suggested the sharing of sovereignty with the aristocracy. Hence, his view didn’t represent the whole population of the country, including the bourgeoisie and peasants. (The French Revolution: Ideas and Ideologies). The king also rejected the sharing of power, so it was considered as an impractical solution. However, Montesquieu had made an essential influence on the French Revolution with this new idea of sovereignty, which was expressed in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. The clause three stated that no individual could exercise the power of controlling over others. Another Enlightenment philosopher, Rousseau, however proposed the idea of self-ruling and direct democracy. The idea stated all citizens have the equality to participate in politics (MacAdam). According to an authority of philosophical studies, Jim MacAdam, concluded Rousseau impacted French Revolution by the idea of human equality. This was because the proposal of self-ruling outlined the equality among all citizens to have the rights participating the affairs of the nation. The idea that the general population could participate in politics was also deeply appealing because compared to clergies and nobilities at the time, commoners had no social status, privileges, and rights to manage political affairs. Inspired by the idea of equality in politics from Montesquieu and Rousseau, the commoners were inspired to take actions to fight for their political freedom.

Combining the ideas proposed by philosophers and American Revolution, the French was very inspired to create a revolution in the overall societal structure. During the 17th century, America was a colony to the Great Britain. Unfair treatment such as over-taxation and a monarchal government, spurred the American Revolution (Mackey), so that they could fight for freedom, liberty and reasonable taxation (Emerich, Dalberg, Acton). Observing the Americans, the French commoners also wished to have the equal freedom and liberty that they gained. Due to the similar reasons in France and America, it provided a suitable explanation to start a revolution. Moreover, Paris was the origin the enlighten ideas, so it was easy for revolutionary ideas to spread around France and the French people. Hence, the new idea for equality promoted action to commence a revolution in France.

In addition, the poor economic condition provided a demonstrated factor to revolt. The poor economic condition in France included accumulated debts and issues of the deregulatory market of grain after a drought in 1788. As a participant of the Seven Years War and American War of Independence, huge debts were accumulated in order to fund armies. The assistance to the American Revolution had built up the debt in France to 13 billion livres (Schiff). Hence, the French government was bankrupted. However, England, also a participant of both wars, was able to manage the financial problems brought by the wars (Karan). The financial problems in France were not as manageable as England due to the lack of advisers and the inefficient tax collecting system (Smith). Since France was still controlled by an absolute monarchy, who believed in absolute control, most decisions, including economical decisions, were only made by the monarchy alone. Without others advisors to suggest practical solutions, the financial problems were hard to improve solely with decisions from the monarchy. In addition, the tax collecting system was also unsuitable, because the monarch gave power to local officials to collect taxes (Smith), which caused some corrupt officials seize the tax money for themselves, rather than turning the money back to the state. Thus this made the financial problems even more difficult to resolve, because there was no taxation money into the state, so the debt was unable to be paid off.

Apart from economical issues, the agriculture in France suffered a deadly blow. A devastating drought in 1788 caused peasants to have difficulty maintaining their health mainly due to lack of food caused from the lack of growth of grain. The failure of grain growth resulted the increased pricing on bread, because bread was made from the grain. Bread was a daily staple in France, so peasants couldn’t live without bread (The French Revolution: The causes of the revolution). However, due to the drought in 1788, the prices of bread inflated. The portion of income spent on bread thus increased eighty-eight percent, compared to fifty percent before the drought (Walinger). In addition to the increase in bread prices, the peasants also had to pay taxes, which created unsatisfactory living conditions for many peasants.

There was also an unequal societal structure in France at this time, because the Old Regime divided French social structure unequally. The monarch held all power of the state and there was no parliament in France. Around 1770 to 1780, Louis XVI was in charge of the throne. However, he wasn’t prepared to become king, because he was too shy and irresponsible (Louis XVI biography). Also because France was controlled under an absolute monarchy instead of a constitutional monarchy, most decisions were based on the monarch himself. However, the monarch wasn’t fully considerate of the whole nation due to lack of consideration from Louis XVI. For instance, Louis XVI’s construction of the palace of Versailles wasted over seven to ten percent of the national treasury (Smith), which had put more stress on the treasury from the debts created the American Revolution and the Seven Years Wars.

To resolve the debt problems in France became a critical issue, so Louis XVI turned toward the “Third Estate” that generated most of the country’s income. The Old Regime was divided into three Estates. The First was composed of clergy, the Second of the nobility and the Third of the commoners, which comprised of 25 million people. Because this social structure was based on customs and traditions, it created inequalities in law (Keris). For instance, although the Third Estate formed 80 percent of the French population, including the bourgeoisie who owned 25 percent of the land, they only held one vote in the Estate General (a general meeting of the three Estates). (Unit 4: French Revolution & Napoleon). Compared to the other two Estates, this was generally not fair. The First Estate owned ten to fifteen percent of land in France and constantly received tithe and did not pay taxes. The Second Estate owned thirty percent of the land and they usually get their wealth from rents from the peasants who lived on their land. However, the people of the poor Third Estate used their little income to live and pay taxes to the Church, monarchy and landowners (Keris). Compared to the First and Second Estates, the people of the Third Estate were extremely unsatisfied with unequal privileges, heavy taxes, and inequality on voting rights in the Estate General.

The French Revolution was a remarkable event on French history, and it was created mainly from new ideas of Enlightenment philosophers, enormous economic problems, and inequality of rights, which were also observed from the success of the American Revolution. Moreover, the economic problem resulted over taxation and the raised of the daily staple created an unsatisfied living condition for the peasants. In addition, the failure of the ruling monarch, such as the fact that the monarch managed all decisions of the state without putting the population into consideration and unwillingness to adapt to new form of political structure.

Works Cited

Cranston, Maurice. “The French Revolution: Ideas and Ideologies.” History Today, HistoryToday Ltd., 5 May 1989. Web. 3 Dec. 2014.

Choi, Insun. “Economic problem that caused French Revolution.” KIS World History. n.p., 26 Oct. 2009. Web. 6 Dec. 2014.

Emerich, John. Dalberg, Edward. Acton, Lord. “Lectures on the French Revolution: The Influence of America”. Google online book. Google, Mar. 30 2006. Web. 3 Dec. 2014.

“The French Revolution.” Go Social Studies Go. n.p., n.d. Web. 20 May 2015.

Karan, Priya. “Economic Causes of The French Revolution: Debt.” Suite.com. n.p., n.d. Web. 3 Mar. 2015.

Kerise, Steven. “Lecture 11: The Origins of the French Revolution.” Historyguide.org. The History Guide, 30 Oct. 2006. Web. 28 Sep. 2014.

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MacAdam, Jim. “Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the Revolution.” Montreal Symposium. n.p., 28 May 1989. Web. 3 Dec. 2014.

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Prest, William. “The French Revolution, Locke and Rousseau. ” HubPages. n.p., 31 Jan 2013. Web. 10 Mar. 2015.

Smith, Nicole. “France’s Pre-revolutionary Financial Crisis: The Lead-up to the French Revolution.” Article Pyramid. n.p., 7 Dec. 2011. Web 10 Mar. 2015.

Waldinger, Maria. “Drought and the French Revolution: The Effects of Adverse Weather Conditions on Peasant Revolts in 1789.” Academia.edu, n.p., 7 Oct. 2013. Web. 16 Nov. 2014.


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