What is the French Revolution?
The French revolution of 1789 was arguably the most significant happening in 18th-century European history. The impacts of the revolt, which started from France, spread to the whole of the European continent primarily.
The aggrieved, marginalised people of France after facing several challenges from their oppressive, monarchical government revolted against the old order and established new socio-political and economic arrangements whose influence spread throughout Europe, especially.
This uprising against the autocratic government of France lasted from 1789-1799, and Napoleon, a vanguard of the revolution fought the Napoleonic Wars (1799-1814) to spread the revolutionary ideas.
Background to the Revolution
The Ancient Regime (Old Order) was the socio-political system that operated in France prior to 1789 when the revolution broke out. The factors that led to the revolution were numerous. In fact, these factors are still open to historical debate, though there are some unanimous claims by historians and scholars.
The bourgeoisie had been marginalised by the autocratic regime and were not allowed to exercise their political rights. The French society, before the revolution, was into three classes; the clergy, the nobles and the commoners. The king of the Bourbon dynasty was a neutral authority, which the three classes looked upon for beneficial policies.
Equality and liberalism lost ground in the French society, the first and second classes were well treated in the system at the expense of the third class, the commoners, which made the highest per cent of the total population of France.
In 1789, with several happenings prior to this period, the French revolution broke out and all elements of the Old Order were shattered and replaced with new ideologies of democracy, constitutionalism, liberalism, equality and confraternity, and afterwards, spread by the Napoleonic Wars of 1799-1814.
The Ancient Regime (The Old Order)
There were many factors that led to the outbreak of the French revolution in 1789. Some of the factors were rooted in social, economic, and political reasons.
One of the causes of the French revolution was the nature of the Ancient Regime. The Old Order, that is prior to the 18th century, was not a pleasant era in the history of France. It was an era of despotism, monarchism, aristocracy, favouritism, and marginalization and oppression.
The Bourbon dynasty was a staunch despotic dynasty that ruled France in a bitter experience under the Divine Rights of Kings.
The Divine Rights of Kings only recognised the supreme authority of the king. The supreme authority, as a representative of God on earth, was accountable to no human; he was only accountable to God. Summarily, the Old Order only had a structural arrangement that recognised the monarchy, the clergy and the aristocracy.
Therefore, there was no recognition of the third class in the society, the commoners which actually constituted about 98% of the total population of France. The political setting prepared the very basis for a revolution that would break out in 1789.
Unfortunately, elements of the Old Order still existed in 17th century France, as the Bourbon dynasty’s kings ruled with absolutism, combined with extravagance. For an instance, Louis XIV (1643-1715) was described to be a lavish spender, lover of enjoyment and also a dictator.
Since he ruled by God’s consent, he was accountable to no one except God, therefore Louis XIV was not limited by any law. He did things in excess and no one dare challenge his position. The king built a very big palace known as Versailles palace with huge amount of money.
The succeeded king, Louis XV was not different from his predecessor when it came to the affairs of the state. He was as brutal as Louis XIV. In 1774, Louis XVI, grandson to Louis XV, became the king of France. He inherited a tumultuous administration of heavy financial debts, social inequality, the absolutism of the king and others. The new Bourbon king was very much interested in the affairs of the state, unlike his predecessors.
Louis XVI tried to sort the differences in the states by appropriately addressing to all issues especial on economic matters. But unfortunately, Louis XVI was actually a very weak monarch, but his wife, Marie Antoinette championed the administration of the state in sweet-bitter experiences.
The French society which was divided into three classes was unequal and oppressive. The clergy and the nobles had many privileges which were detrimental to the survival of the third class. In the 25 million population of France as at this period, the clergy and the nobles constituted just a per cent, and the commoners, 98%. For the easiness of the administration, the Estates-General (the three classes combined) was usually summoned by the king to look to socio-political issues in France.
But since 1614, the Estates-General had not been summoned by the king. Therefore, the political affairs of France were being dictated from the Versailles palace. During the reign of Louis XIV, the Parliament of Paris was even abolished. In 1774, Louis XVI revived the parliament.
Causes of the Revolution
The Socio-political Reasons
The clergy and the nobility which were just few numbers had several privileges than the commoners. The families of the church just resided at the palaces and monasteries and enjoyed the privileges, just as the nobles. These two classes were the closest to the king, therefore, the enacted policies and laws from the palace of Versailles always worked for their interests.
The nobles owned most of the lands in France which they give to the commoners who worked for them. They were exempted from paying taxes, and abreast, they had dues from the commoners. The peasants had to pay tithe to the church, taxes to the French government and some duties to the nobles.
The whole burden was on the third class, and unfortunately, there was no one to listen to the grievances of these peasants. The Roman Catholic Church, which was comprised of bishops, archbishops, and abbots, did not only have lands, but also collected tithes, and also (other religion-attached) dues which were compulsory for the commoners to pay.
The Grand Nobles were rich French men from the middle class who became rich and bought the titles of nobility of birth. They were a privileged set of people. They had a significant position at the Versailles Palace, where parts of them were courtiers. During the period of our study, the nobles had lost all political power, but they derived survival with the ancient feudal rights, and also, the unlimited rights to hunt on the peasants’ farms.
The commoners were the less-privileged third-class French citizens who bore the brunt of all happenings during this period. They were artisans, the bourgeoisie, and the peasants.
They paid taxes, unlike the other two classes, and also worked for the nobles. These people were not given a role in the administration, they were marginalised and oppressed. The commoners rejected the French socio-political setting, and they clamoured every day for changes. They wanted a constitution, a democratic government with the principles of equality and liberalism.
They paid taxes to the French government, tithes to the church, land tax, property tax, and also feudal dues to the nobles. The most obnoxious indirect tax imposed on the commoners was the salt tax (gabelle).
There was salt scarcity, and because of the heavy tax on salt, they kept trying to evade the salt tax. The French tax official searched house-to-house, and smugglers were harassed and embarrassed.
One of the reasons for the outbreak of the French revolution in1789 lied in the economy of France. The French government was bankrupt. Apart from the extravaganza of the king and the privileges of the clergy and the nobles, France also met itself in economic difficulty.
The system of taxation could not suffice, and unfortunately, the third class citizens were only mandated to pay taxes to the states, tithes to the church, and feudal dues to the nobles.
Although the French government sought to address the economic problems to increase the national revenue but all the reforms were strongly refuted by the clergy and nobles because some of the reforms requested that they pay taxes, and have their privileges reduced.
Louis XVI though inherited bankruptcy from his predecessors; France’s involvements in several wars during this period also contributed to the debts it incurred after wars. The taste of Marie Antoinette, the wife of Louis XVI, was a luxurious one.
She was a luxurious queen who enjoyed the epicurean lifestyle of the palace. The French government spent heavily and got her soldiers involved in the Seven Years War (1756-63), and the American War of Independence (1776-83).
The bankruptcy was a notable factor that contributed to the ongoing turmoil in France. The peasants kept striving to survive the bad atmosphere while the other two classes kept living luxurious lifestyles. The national economy was misused by the French government for its selfish interest.
All the efforts to reform the economy of France were futile. Different finance ministers were appointed by the French government to address the debt issues. Turgot served as the finance minister from 1774-1776, Necker, from 1776-1781, and Calonne from 1783-87, before Necker was recalled.
All these ministers sought to restore the trust of the government in the heart of the citizens by carrying out different sorts of reforms. Though they had different reforms but with some similarities.
All of them sought to chop the privileges of the first and second classes away, that is, their reforms wanted to eliminate the unnecessary privileges of the clergy and the nobles.
Therefore, the two classes opposed them, and these ministers later achieved nothing. Every minute, the peasants were in agony, while the two other classes enjoyed their respective privileges, and also Marie Antoinette spent lavishly at the palace.
Unfortunately, the poor harvest of 1788 and famine of the 1780s were also noticeable factors that led to the outbreak of the French revolution. Nature itself was on the bad side to French society at this period.
Many died because of poor harvest and the high price of bread, which they could not afford. This moved the hungry French people to invade Paris and revolt against the system. They wanted equality, liberty and fraternity. They wanted a classless society that would recognise their citizenship, just like the other two classes.
Contributions of the Philosophers
Without an examination of the contribution of the philosophers, the causes of the French revolution would be incomplete. These were people who spread democratic ideologies, particularly in different forms.
Generally speaking, they despised the French situation that rendered the commoners useless and marginalised. This era is often referred to as the Age of Enlightenment.Voltaire, Montesquieu, Rousseau, Denis Diderot, and others were significant philosophers of this age.
The philosophy of Voltaire challenged the church and absolutism, Montesquieu advocated for the Theory of Separation of Power in order to shun absolutism, and also, J.J. Rousseau impacted and promoted the Social Contract Theory.
Including the physiocrats, Denis Diderot and the Encyclopedists, all sought to challenge the primordial setting of the societal structure. These philosophers opened the dogmatic eyes of the French people, especially the oppressed peasants who largely stormed Paris and demanded the overthrow of the French government in 1789.
The Outbreak of the Revolution
As Louis XVI could not effectively address the economic crisis in France, all the parliaments, in general, were abolished. There were clamours and gradual rejections of the royal orders. People began to demand the meeting of the Estates-Generals, an assembly composed of representatives from the three classes in France.
The Estates-Generals which later constituted the National Assembly was the last hope of both the king the French people. They hoped to see France out of the economic burden with the meeting of the representatives.
The Estates-Generals attempted the meeting and they drew up the Cahiers des doléances (lists of grievances), in order to know the best of decisions to make in the meeting of the Estates-Generals.
There were many suggestions in the cahiers which covered all ramifications where the French government had lapses or was not effective. On May 5, 1789, the Estates-Generals met at the Palace of Versailles and the meeting was put in procedure with the issue of representatives.
The National Assembly
Because each class had equal delegates, the first two classes used to combine and outvote the third class, therefore making the (third class) decisions unachievable. When the third class recognised its numerical strength, they, therefore, demanded representation in terms of population.
This would be of help to the third class because they had the highest numbers of the population. The clergy and the nobility also opposed this advance, and therefore the grudge and indecision continued for weeks before the third estate formed the National Assembly (Constituent Assembly).
The Tennis Court Oath
And when they were locked out of their meeting place on the 20th of June, 1789, they moved to the Tennis Court and swore not to leave until France had a constitution. Despite Louis XVI’s resistance to the existence of the National Assembly (he sent troops to interrupt their meeting), it continued to sustain its clamours in solidarity till the king later recognised the assembly by force.
The Storming of the Bastille
When Necker was dismissed, the French people were suspicious of the king’s move. They feared that Louis XVI might suppress the National Assembly, therefore they were looking for arms to defend or fight the royal troops if dispatched. The people stormed the Bastille prison on 14th July 1789, in order to get ammunitions from the prison, and also to release the political prisoners.
The storming of the Bastille marked the very start of the French Revolution of 1789 which later had a significant influence on the whole world. Though Necker was recalled, the people did not stop to make the move to shatter the old order.
Formation of Government and Constitution
They formed a Municipal Government and established a new national army, known as the National Guard. It was like a fired arrow. The oppressed peasants went out en mass to beat and kill some nobles. All old titles became archaic and regardless, inclusive of the privileges of the church.
\The National Assembly advocated for reforms in political, economic, religious, and socio-cultural arrangements, all of which favoured democratic principles. Feudalism was abolished, there was the declaration of human rights, there was an established constitution, the civilisation of the clergy (bringing them to the civilian world, unlike the age of privileges), and other reforms.
Louis XVI refused to recognise the constitution, and, in the presence of continuous push, sought to escape out of Tuileries with his wife, Antoinette in 1791. Unfortunately for him, he was returned back to Paris (with humiliation). And in September 1791, the National Assembly finished the constitution.
Conclusively, Louis XVI was put on trial in 1793 and unanimously found guilty of treason that he was planning to overthrow the constitution. Therefore in January 1793, Louis XVI and his wife, Antoinette were executed.
Cite as: Faforiji Tadese. French Revolution: The Causes and Consequences. October 06, 2021. Tadexprof. https://tadexprof.com/2021/10/french-revolution-the-causes-and-consequences/