The French Revolution of 1789 was a cataclysmic event in European history, which destroyed the long-standing feudal social order and institutions of the Ancien Regime, ushering in a new order based on individual rights, equality and liberty. While there are different interpretations on the cause of the French Revolution, it is generally agreed that it was a series of interrelated economic, social and cultural changes in France during the late 18th century which undermined the bases of political and social order, creating a revolutionary population which brought down the Ancien Regime (McPhee 2002: 26).
Prior to the Revolution in 1789, France was ruled by an Ancien Regime based on a feudal order made up of the three Estates. At the apex of the social hierarchy was the king who ruled by divine right, followed by the First Estates of the clergy, the Second Estates of the nobility and the Third Estate which was made up of commoners of all other professions and background. It was a society grounded in the idea inequality whereby individual's legal rights and privileges depended on the Estate that one was born into (Palmer, Colton and Kramer 2002: 334).
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The first two Estates of the clergy and nobility, which made up of less than 10 percent of the total population, belonged to privileged orders that were largely exempted from taxes, collectively owned 40 percent of the land and occupied most of the leading positions in the church, government and military (McPhee 2002: 18). The Third Estate, on the other hand, constituted majority of the French population but were denied of social privileges and underwrote the cost of the first two estates through taxes, seigneurial dues and tithes imposed upon them (McPhee 2002: 13). French peasants of the Third Estates also had other obligations to their manorial lords, which includes payment for the use of winepress, mills and bakery and regular payment of a harvest due called champart (McPhee 2002: 16).
However, in the 1780s, capitalist economic development began to bring about a contradiction with the feudal order. Between 1713 and 1789, France experienced an expansion of foreign trade with an increase in mercantile capitalism (Spielvogel 2000: 575). The result was the rise of a bourgeoisie class who became wealthy and influential through capitalist ventures in trade, industry and finance (Spielvogel 2000: 572). The bourgeoisie were characterized by social values of frugality and meritocracy which were incompatible with the aristocrat's values of extravagances and noble birth rights. As the bourgeoisie became prosperous and more conscious of their social importance, they became increasingly frustrated by their exclusion from social and political privileges and resentful of the extravagance of the nobility whose upkeep they contributed but had no control over (Rudé 2000: 52-53). While the wealthy middle class could purchase offices and noble titles to gain social prestige, these avenues for social advancement became progressively closed in the late 18th century (Rudé 2000: 54). The existence of onerous internal tolls, imposed by seigneurial lords without consultation of the bourgeoisie, further made the existing social and legal system appear outdated and discordant with the growing capitalism economy. Consequently, the bourgeoisie began to search for justification to critique the rigid social order and functions (McPhee 2002: 25-26).
The Enlightenment theories provided the means to criticize the existing social inequality. France in the 1780s became the center of the intellectual movement of Enlightenment theories and ideologies which encouraged political and social criticism. These Enlightenment theories promoted ideas of logical reasoning, equality and rights of man and challenges the traditional authority and privileges of the king and his nobles (Palmer, Colton and Kramer 2002: 343).
One such theories that was widely discussed was Rousseau's Social contract which argued that all government are bounded by a social contract with political power resting in the community and not by divine rule, justifying the act to depose of rulers who did not provide stability and security for the common people.
As Enlightenment theories became widely circulated through newspapers and absorbed by a fervent reading public, it provided a theoretical language in which people of the Third Estate could justify and articulate their dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs, especially the irrationality of noble rights and privileges (Palmer, Colton and Kramer 2002: 347).
An intellectual climate of democratic thoughts and critical spirit developed as liberal ideas permeated the society through discussions in salons, coffeehouses and widespread dissemination of political journals (Palmer, Colton and Kramer 2002: 347). People from different social classes began to meet in public spaces such as Masonic lodges to debate on political theories, think critically about all forms of authority and discussed ideas. (Writing 37)
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As a result, there was a rise in political consciousness of the populace and people became increasingly aware and dissatisfied with the unfairness in treatment and privileges and began to question the legitimacy and rationality of existing social and political order. Â
Eventually, the Enlightenment ideals undermined traditional beliefs and basis of the Ancien Regime and gave cohesion to the discontents of different social classes, unifying them with a body of liberal ideas and a common language to critique the feudal order (Rudé 2000: 56).
Existing social and economic resentments of both urbanites and rural peasants became magnified under a culture of increasing political and social criticism. Late 1780s was especially a period of economic difficulties due to the poor harvest of 1788 which drove up the price of bread. Rapid growth of trade also halted in 1789, leading to increase in unemployment and decrease in wages (Palmer, Colton and Kramer 2002: 352). The peasantry and urban workers were hit the hardest during the economic crisis of 1787-89.
The heavy burden of taxations, obligations and payments imposed upon the Third Estate appears especially vexatious and intolerable under such difficult economic condition. With a rise in political consciousness, seigneurial dues were no longer seen as legitimate by members of the Third Estates. The resentment of seigneurialism was further exacerbated when nobles attempted to enforce additional unknown or forgotten taxation to increase their income to cope with inflation, called the "feudal reaction" (McPhee 2002: 32). Members of the Third Estate were no longer willing to shoulder bulk of the economic burden while the privileges nobles and the monarch engage in wasteful practices and extravagant way of life.
As the price of bread, which was their main staple food, increasingly rose to a level beyond their economic means, the populations grew desperate and became especially restless. Under a sense of hardship caused by the harsh conditions and stirred by the ideals of equality promoted by Enlightenment ideals, peasants and urban workers became hungering for changes and ready to fight if necessary to better their conditions.
Consequently, a revolutionary group was created from different social groups of bourgeoisie, sans-culottes and rural peasants, with different dissatisfaction and resentments of the existing system, but with a common belief that reforms must be made in order to provide a solution for the existing socio-economic problems of France. The seeds for Revolution were thus sown with a revolutionary group with a common hostility to the Ancien Regime and its privileged orders.
The insensitivity and inability of the aristocrats would further escalate the tensions and paved the way for Revolution in 1789. The old order had made little effort to respond to criticism or to introduce reforms.
The calling of the Estate Generals had gave hopes for changes as people were requested to formulate proposal for reforms and draw up their grievances list or cashier de doleances, to guide the deliberations (McPhee 2002: 40). However, even though there were general acceptance between the three Estates over fiscal equality and uniform laws, entrenched divisions remained over abolishment of seigneurial rights and noble privileges (McPhee 2002: 40-41).
The social tension and division over the issues of seigneurialism and civil equality was brought to surface when the Estate General convened in Versailles on 5th May 1789. When the question of whether the three orders would vote separately were not resolved, bourgeoisie from the Third Estates whose demand for a joint session was not met, proclaimed the creation of a National Assembly and swore to continue meeting until they had produced a French constitution (Spielvogel 2000: 578).
If the aristocrats had been willing to surrender their noble privileges and accommodated reforms, the Third Estate might have compromised and a revolution could have been averted. However, insistence was made by the privileged order to retain their noble rights which reflected their insensitivity to the rising political aspirations of the populace.
The king refused to acknowledge the formation of the National Assembly and assembled troops to threaten the dissolve of the Estate General. As a result, the urban population, who had become disillusioned with the feudal order, finally took matters into their own hands to bring about changes and stormed the Bastille. From this point onwards, the sans-culottes and peasantry would propel the French Revolution onwards with the bourgeoisie falling into place to nominally lead the revolution.
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In conclusion, the French Revolution was a result of a combination of underlying forces that created a revolutionary group. The development of capitalism brought about a conflict with the institutional bases of feudal order, resulting in the rise of a bourgeoisie whose interests and values became incompatible with the existing social order. Consequently, there was a search for justification to critique the feudal order and the Enlightenment theories provided the theoretical language which advocated social and political reforms. As Enlightenment theories became widely disseminated through new media and politicizing of public spaces, there was a rise in political consciousness of the populace and a climate of political and social criticism was created. Existing socio-economic issues became magnified and commoners who were more aware of their situation were no longer willing to support the burdensome feudal order. Hungering for change, they looked to the government to introduce liberal reforms. However, insistence was made by privileged order to retain their noble rights, reflecting their insensitivity to the rising political aspirations of the populace. As the government showed their unwillingness to accommodate social reforms and address their grievances, the revolutionary group mainly consisting of the bourgeoisie, sans-culottes and peasants finally took matters into their own hands, resulting in the French Revolution.