The late 1700’s were a period of great social and political revolution in Western civilization. The French Revolution was a major part of this sweeping change in the way Europeans (and the newborn Americans) perceived the function of government and the most effective ways of governing. The French Revolution had many long term and short term causes and effects, and was one of the most violent periods in the history of the country. There were many factors that contributed to the spark of the revolution. There were three main causes of the French Revolution: gross mishandling of governing duties and incompetence in the leadership of King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, the large and very unjust social and economic gap between the first two privileged estates and the poor third estate, and finally the revolutionary ideas of the enlightenment and their influence on the philosophies of the people.
Louis XVI was one of the most incompetent and frankly idiotic rulers in the history of France. He would have absolutely nothing to do with his official duties as king, and his horribly decadent lifestyle contributed greatly to the economic plight France was in. The fact that he was married to Marie Antoinette, a native of Austria, France’s sworn enemy, was very detrimental as well. Louis XVI inherited debt from previous rulers, but he made no move of any kind toward paying it off. In fact, he borrowed vast sums of money in order to give aid to the Americans in their revolution, which only worsened France’s already outstanding deficit. In 1786, bankers refused to lend the government any more money, and Louis XVI was in serious trouble. Of course, all of this put Louis in a highly unfavorable position with the people of France, who absolutely despised him and his wife. Marie Antoinette was a major problem for Louis as well.
She gave him poor advice on governing matters, spent large amounts of money on her own vanity, and was generally hated by the people the moment she set foot in France. Louis was a serial procrastinator. He put off dealing with economic troubles until it was essentially too late, and the people were completely fed up. He was finally forced to resort to taxing the nobility, which spelled the end of Louis’s reign, as the Estates-General that he called-the first in 175 years-to deal with the problem was the first step of the revolution. It is also ironic that the American Revolution (which Louis supported) was a major factor to the downfall of the monarchy, as suggested by Lord Acton, “…The American example caused the (French) Revolution to break out…”(doc. 5).
All throughout human history, the wealthy have always been the minority. They have been completely deaf to the voices of the majority of people, who tend to be very poor. France in the late 1700’s was no exception. The social hierarchy of the country was divided into three classes, or estates. The first estate was made up of the clergy, and was the smallest and wealthiest class, consisting of only 1% of France’s population. The second estate was made up of nobles, and consisted of about 2% of France’s population. These two estates combined, making up only 3% of the population of France, owned nearly half of the land in France (doc. 2)! The third estate was made up of the middle class(or the bourgeoisie), peasants, and city workers and was the overwhelming majority of the people.
They only owned about half of the land, however, and had almost no say in government whatsoever. Of course, the burden of taxes was placed squarely on the shoulders of the third estate, while the first and second estates paid essentially nothing. The outrageous amount of taxes like the taille, or a tax on the land and its produce, caused many people in the third estate to live with almost nothing and in filthy conditions, as observed by Arthur Young who traveled through France from 1787 to 1789, “The poor people seem very poor indeed. The children are terribly ragged….The lack of bread is terrible…The price of bread has risen above the people’s ability to pay. This causes great misery,”(doc. 3). It would not be long before the people had had enough and great change was demanded.
The Enlightenment was the third major factor in the French Revolution. Before the ideas of the philosophes became widespread, the monarchy and old ways of thinking were not questioned. It was just tradition and people knew not to question tradition. Then thinkers like Voltaire, Rousseau, and Locke came along and changed everything. John Locke was probably the most important and influential philosophe. His idea about natural rights (life, liberty, and property) being totally unalienable stirred the French people. They realized that they deserved much better than their positions in life. Of course, the bourgeoisie were the first to accept these revolutionary ideas, since they were the most educated and probably the only portion of the third estate who could read, as pointed out by historian Albert Mathiez, “The middle class…was sensitive to their inferior legal position.
The Revolution came from them-the middle class. The working classes were incapable of starting or controlling the Revolution. They were just beginning to learn to read,”(doc. 4). The ideas of Voltaire, who believed in the right of free speech for everyone, also figured greatly in the revolutionary thoughts of the third estate. The people were angry that their opinions were being suppressed by the corrupt government. The Comte D’Antraigues, a friend of Rousseau, said about the ideas of the people, “The Third Estate is the People and the People is the Foundation of the State; it is in fact the State itself; the…People is everything. Everything should be subordinated to it…It is in the People that all national power resides and for the People that all states exist.” The revolutionary seed was planted in the mind of the French people by the ideas of the philosophes.
The French Revolution had three major causes: the incompetence of Louis XVI, the vast gap between the rich and poor in France, and the revolutionary ideas of the Enlightenment. Once Louis called the infamous Estates-General of May 5, 1789, a revolution began when the third estate created the National Assembly to create reforms in the name of the people. Three days later, the Third Estate was locked out, so they broke into a tennis court and created a new constitution. This was the spark the ignited the revolution, and the beginning of a whole new era in the history of France.
Causes of French Revolution: Political, Social and Economic Causes!
The three main causes of French revolution are as follows: 1. Political Cause 2. Social Cause 3. Economic Cause.
1. Political Cause:
During the eighteen the Century France was the centre of autocratic monarchy. The French Monarchs had unlimited power and they declared themselves as the “Representative of God”.
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Louis XIV was the exponent of this view. The French Monarchs engaged themselves in luxurious and extravagance at the royal court of Versailles. They enjoyed unlimited power. By the Letter de Catchet, they arrested any person at any time and imprisoned them. They paid no attention towards their subjects.
Louis XIV (1643-1715) of the Bourbon Dynasty was a powerful monarch. He was an efficient, hard-working and confident ruler. He participated in many wars. Louis XIV’s concept of unlimited royal power is revealed by his famous remarks, “I am the State”.
Louis XV (1715-1774) succeeded Louix XIV He was a ‘butterfly monarch’. His defective foreign policy weakened the economic condition of France. Louis XV fought the Seven Years War against England which brought nothing for France. France became bankrupt due to over expenditure in wars and luxury. He realised it later on. Before his death he cried-‘After me the Deluge’.
After Louis XV, Louis XVI (1774-1793) ascended the throne of France. During that period, the economic condition of France became weak. Louis XVI was an innocent and simple man. But he was influenced by his queen Marie Antoinette who always interfered in the state affairs.
Out of frustration he uttered-“Oh! What a burden of mine and they have taught me nothing.” Marie Antoinette was the daughter of Marie Theresa, the Austrian Empress. She always felt proud as she was the daughter of Austrain Empress. She always enjoyed luxurious and extravagant life. She sowed seed of the French Revolution. Thus, the autrocratic monarchy, defective administration, extravagant expenditure formed the political cause of the French Revolution.
2. Social Cause:
The Social condition of France during the eighteenth century was very miserable. The then French Society was divided into three classes— the Clergy, Nobles and Common People.
The Clergy belonged to the First Estate. The Clergy was subdivided into two groups i.e. the higher clergy and the lower clergy. The higher clergy occupied the top position in the society. They managed the churches, monasteries and educational institutions of France. They did not pay any tax to the monarch.
They exploited the common people in various ways. The higher clergy lived in the midst of scandalous luxury and extravagance. The common people had a strong hatred towards the higher clergy. On the other hand, the lower clergy served the people in true sense of the term and they lived a very miserable life.
The Nobility was regarded as the Second Estate in the French Society. They also did not pay any tax to the king. The Nobility was also sub divided into two groups-the Court nobles and the provincial nobles. The court nobles lived in pomp and luxury. They did not pay any heed towards the problems of the common people of their areas.
On the other hand, the provincial nobles paid their attention towards the problems of the people. But they did not enjoy the same privileges as the Court nobles enjoyed. The Third Estate formed a heterogenous class. The farmers, cobblers, sweepers and other lower classes belonged to this class. The condition of the farmers was very miserable.
They paid the taxes like Taille, Tithe and Gable. Inspite of this, the clergies and the nobles employed them in their fields in curve. The Bourgeoisie formed the top most group of the Third Estate. The doctors, lawyers, teachers, businessmen, writers and philosophers belonged to this class. They had the wealth and social status. But the French Monarch, influenced by the clergies and nobles, ranked them as the Third Estate.
So they influenced the people for revolution. They aroused the common people about their rights. Thus, the common people became rebellious. The lower Clergies and the provincial nobles also joined their hands with the common people along with the bourgeoisie. So the French Revolution is also known as the ‘Bourgeoisie Revolution’.
3. Economic Cause:
The economic condition of France formed another cause for the outbreak of the French Revolution. The economic condition of France became poor due to the foreign wars of Louis XIV, the seven years War of Louis XV and other expensive wars. During the reign period of Louis XVI, the royal treasury became empty as extravagant expenses of his queen Marie Antoinette.
To get rid of this condition. Louis XVI appointed Turgot as his Finance Minister in 1774. Turgot tried to minimise the expenditure of the royal court. He also advised the king to impose taxes on every classes of the society. But due to the interference of Queen Marie Antoinette, Louis XVI dismissed Turgot.
Then Necker was appointed as the Finance Minister in 1776. He published a report on the income and expenditure of the State in order to arouse the people. But he was also dismissed by the king.
The next person who was appointed by the King as the Finance Minister of France in 1783 was Callone. He adapted the policy of borrowing in order to meet the expenditure of the royal court. But due to this policy, the national debt of France increased from 300,000,000 to 600,000,000 Franks only in three years.
Then Callone proposed to impose taxes on all the classes. But he was dismissed by the king. In this situation, the king at last summoned the States General. The economic instability formed one of the most important causes of the French Revolution.