The revolutionary movement that rocked France between 1787 and 1799 is known as French Revolution. It is also called Revolution of 1789 as the movement reached its first culmination in 1789 that marked the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte. Although the event could not achieve any of its goals and even deteriorated into a chaotic massacre, the French Revolution showed the world the strength inherent in the willpower of the people.
There are several causes that led to the French Revolution. These include social, political, and economic conditions in France that fuelled dissatisfaction among the French people, particularly the third estate population. The Philosophes or the intellectuals of the Enlightenment introduced new views to the society and government. Their goal was to expose and eliminate the discrimination of the old order (ancient regime). Here is a brief description of the causes of the French Revolution:
- Social problems:
Social issues were a main reason behind the French Revolution. In the 18th century, France followed a feudal system in which the people were categorized into three estates. The First Estate comprised of the clergy who formed 1% of the population and held 10% of the land in the country. The Second Estate comprised of the nobility who formed 2% of the population and held 35% of the land. The Third Estate comprised of the city workers, the bourgeoisie, and the peasants who formed 97% of the population and held 55% of the land. The state decided the power and rights of the people. The people-to-land ratio was unfair. The third estate owned very little land in comparison to the number of people it had. The first two estates comprised the privileged categories. While the nobility and the clergy were exempted from many taxes, the third estate had to pay taxes on land, roads, and salt. There was discontentment among the third estate. The bourgeoisie were knowledgeable people and strongly believed in the ideas of Rousseau and Voltaire who stood up against the injustices happening during the time. Rousseau said that people are good on the whole but become corrupt due to the society. In a perfect society, people make the rules and obey them happily. Another famous philosophers, Francois-Marie Arouet (Voltaire), battled injustice, inequality, and superstition with his pen. He deplored slavery and detested religious prejudice and privileges of the nobility. They wanted a bigger role in the state affairs. The city workers were livid because their income was not enough to buy supplies when the prices were increasing rapidly. Albert Mathiez stated that the French Revolution was caused by the middle-class people. The working class people were not able to trigger or control the Revolution. They had just started to learn to read and write. The French peasants had to bear certain feudal dues, known as banalities. The dues included the obligatory payment for using lord’s mill to crush grains and his stove to bake bread. In lieu of these facilities, the lord could require the peasant’s labor for a specific number of days every year. The society also made things extremely difficult for the peasants leaving them helpless and unable to fight back.
- Political conditions:
The political restlessness in France was a major cause of the Revolution. An absolute government ruled in France during the 17th and 18th centuries. All the political authorities rested in the hands of the king. Any person who condemned the government could be detained and imprisoned without trial. He was more interested in hunting than governing France. During the French Revolution, Louis XVI was the king who lived a lavish life with his Austrian queen, Marie Antoinette, at the Palace of Versailles. They paid no attention to the circumstances in their country. The king supported that the votes in the assembly to be taken by the blocks and not by the head that left the 3rd estate people feeling betrayed. The nobles and the clergy who comprised the first two estates came together to outvote the vast third estate to prevent them from posing a threat to their power. The American Independence also triggered the French Revolution. The government in France was incompetent, unfair and dishonest. There were a number of government departments that followed different rules in different states of the country. Many people were enraged at the system France was ruled and they couldn’t do much to make a change. The French Parlement, called the Estates-General, had no power and was governed by the king.
- Economic problems:
The economic tribulations created by the kings also led to the Revolution. In the 18th century, the French government used up more funds than it accumulated in taxes that left the country bankrupt by 1788. The condition of the peasants deteriorated due to the unreasonable taxes. The landowners in the nobility were not taxed heavily while the landowners in the commoners had to pay hefty taxes. There was a lack of bread the cost of bread was way higher then one’s paying capacity and this caused a great misery to the people of France. Nearly all of the money was exhausted on wars. The country was at war for almost last 50 years. France helped the Americans in their battle for the independence that left France in financial ruins. France also spent heavily on king’s palaces, gifts, and entertainment that further pushed the taxes. The taxation system was unfair. Nearly one-tenth of the land was owned by the Church and they did not pay taxes. The clergy and the noble barely paid any tax. The commoners had to pay heavy taxes. The clergy and the nobility did not accept the financial reforms proposed by Louis XVI to change the taxation system. The French Kings also levied the salt tax. The nobility opposed the tax on land property that was imposed by Jacques Turgot.
These were the social, political and economic problems that caused the French Revolution. People were not happy under the king’s reign. The first and second estates enjoyed several privileges while the third estate did not have any privileges and was burdened with heavy taxes. The first two estates never got along with the third estate. It was about time that things changed in France.