Causes of the French Revolution
© Brian Maregedze and Vincent Chenzi
The French Revolution of 1789 was a multi-causal phenomenon. There were political, social, and economic conditions in France which contributed to the discontent felt by many French people-especially those of the third estate. The ideas of the intellectuals of the Enlightenment brought new views to government and society. The American Revolution also influenced the coming of the French Revolution. The Philosophers arguably planted the seeds for the French Revolution. Their goals were to expose and destroy the inequalities of the ancient regime (old order). The natural disasters which took shape on the eve of the revolution gave a tense environment that necessitated the outbreak of the revolution the way it did.
The political discontent of France was one of the causes of the Revolution. During the 17th and 18th centuries, France was ruled by an absolute government. The king had all the political powers. Anyone who criticized the government risked being arrested and put in prison without trial. Louis XVI was king at the time of the French Revolution. He was more interested in hunting than governing France. He and his Austrian wife, queen, Marie Antoinette, lived an extravagant life at the Palace of Versailles. They did not really care about the state of their country. The members of the 3rd estate felt a sense of betrayal when the king supported the block voting over the head voting. The first two estates worked together to outvote the larger third estate to keep them from becoming a threat to their power. The French government was inefficient, unjust and corrupt. There were numerous government departments, different laws in different parts of the country. Many people became livid at the way France was governed. The people couldn’t do anything to bring about a change. Richards posited that the French Parliament or Estates-General had not met since 1614 and couldn’t without the consent of the king and it basically had no power.
The economic problems created by the French kings also contributed to the Revolution. During the 18th century, the French government spent more money than it collected in taxes. For more than one hundred years before the rise of Louis XVI, France was the most powerful country on the European continent. She had held this position for over 150 years, thanks to her fertile land, large population and many resources. However, the government had undergone periodic economic crisis, resulting from long wars, royal mismanagement, losses incurred in the French and Indian War (1775-1783) and Seven Years’ War (1756-1763) and increased debt arising from loans to the American colonies during the American Revolution (1775-1783). In this regard, Lord Acton, an Englishmen, claimed that the monarchy being incompetent wasn’t the spark of the Revolution. He recognized the American war of Independence as the spark of the French Revolution. Dennis Richards concurred that the American War of Independence was ‘the last straw’ in leading to the outbreak of the French revolution. In that regard, the involvement of the French troops in the American war of independence worsened the already dire circumstances.
Moreover, the French governmental system had worked reasonably well under Louis XIV but had become impossible under his weak successors. The government was corrupt and centralized and the King’s authority had been slowly extended over the country. Under the system, there was a lot of overlapping authority and a great inefficiency in the provincial governments. The only people who could obstruct the royal government to save the country was the Parliament of Paris. Unfortunately, its members were only concerned about their own welfare rather than the welfare of the citizens. The greatest governmental weakness was the lack of consistency and order. By 1788, the government was almost bankrupt. The supporters of economic, social and governmental reforms had become increasingly vocal during the reign of Louis XVI.
By 1788, the country was bankrupt. Arthur Young, an Englishmen and observer, who travelled to France from 1787 to 1789 angrily described the living conditions of the peasants in his book, Travels in France. The amount of tax each ordinary citizen was expected to pay was exorbitant and unfair. However, landholders within the nobility weren’t taxed. Such inequalities could have been averted given a king with a sensible approach towards the economic challenges that bedevilled France at the time. The landholders found in the commoners were taxed heavily. There was scarcity of bread which was the staple diet of the French citizenry. The price of bread was not affordable to the ordinary people that is, the peasantry who constituted the majority of the population.
Most of the money was spent on wars. France had been at war for nearly 50 years out of the previous one hundred years. France supported the Americans in the American War of the Independence. After that, France was in financial ruins. The kings of France also spent large sums of money on palaces, entertainment and gifts. The government also spent a lot of money which put forth high taxes. The tax system was unjust. The nobles and the clergy hardly paid any tax. The Church owned one-tenth of the land in France and did not pay any taxes. The peasants were the victims of the heavy taxation. Louis XVI tried to reform the taxation system but the nobility and the clergy refused to accept the new reforms. Therefore, the king was unable to make any financial reforms. The gabelle or salt tax, was also levied by the French Kings. When Jacques Turgot tried to impose the corvee, a tax on land property, he was greatly opposed by the nobility. As a result, he failed to pass the corvee and was dismissed by Louis XVI. Such decisions were catastrophic and had a boomerang effect on the reign of Louis XVI.
Failure to Implement Reforms
It was two years after the war that Calonne, French Financial Minister, was faced with a deficit of nearly a quarter of the nation’s incomes, declared the state bankrupt and called for drastic measures to overcome it. He believed it wasn’t extravagance that was the problem, and he believed the debts could be paid quite quickly if the privileged class paid their share in tax. His theory was that people should pay tax according to how much land they owned. Obviously, this didn’t go down well with people in the first and second estates. They were not used to paying taxes and were not about to start. Calonne’s plans of reform three main elements. Firstly, came the economic and administrative reforms designed to fix once and for all the structural problems which troubled the royal finances. Calonne proposed to recast the tax system by abolishing the vingtimes (common tax) and substituting it for a permanent ‘territorial subvention’ or a land tax. There were to be no exemptions, such as was enjoyed by the clergy. From this reform Calonne expected an increase in revenue or income to help pay off bad debt. Secondly, Calonne believed that the program of economic growth would increase and further the already improved tax yield that would be expected from the administrative reforms. Thus, Calonne proposed the abolishment of internal custom barriers, which never happened. Calonne had hoped to abolish the forced labour taxes for road construction, substituting it for an extra tax. Thirdly, he proposed once more to relax governmental controls on the grain trade, going further than either Turgot or any of his forefathers of the 1760’s in allowing free export both internally and externally.
All these reforms, whether administrative or economic, could not be expected to show instant results whatever their long-term benefits were expected to be. Calonne had to identify a means of overcoming the financial crisis, which had brought him to the point of proposing broader reforms in the first place. The immediate problem was to access money to pay off short-term debt falling due to redemption in between 1787 and 1797. Calonne proposed to do it by raising yet more loans, confident that these would be easy to repay in their turn from increased tax revenues later as his reform began to have an effect. The difficulty was convincing French leaders to share his confidence. He decided to call upon an Assembly of Notables (made up of first and second estates) to consider his remedies for the crisis. However, they refused largely because their own privileges were threatened. Calonne’s plan had misfired, having expected the Notables to accept that there was a crisis and to approve his proposals for dealing with it. It seemed clear that if it could be proved that there was a genuine crisis, the Notables would have been prepared to take radical action to overcome it. Instead, they said that people from all estates meeting together could only agree on such a tax.
Louis was extremely unhappy and dismissed Calonne in 1787 and was replaced by Brienne. Brienne knew that if a tax was ever going to work, he had to get an agreement of the Parliament of Paris. This was the Paris Law Court controlled by nobles. Like Calonne, Brienne found himself in trouble. The Parliament of Paris refused to agree to the new tax and they too said that only the Estates-General could pass such a tax. Things were desperate as widespread depression and famine had set in after the bad harvest of 1788 the price of bread had risen by 50% between April 1788 and March 1789. There were riots and the country was becoming impossible to run. Louis had no choice but to call upon the Estates-General, which had not met since 1614. This was a convocation member representing all the three estates. However, many middle-class members had plans of their own. Members of the third Estate such as lawyers and teachers wanted a say in how France was governed. They too demanded a constitution for equal rights and share of wealth (even the King could have to obey these rules). Many of these rules were opposed by the King and by the richest people in the First and Second Estates. When the king tried, on the 20th of June 1789 to break up the meeting, the Third Estate met in a local tennis court and pledged not to go home until they had written a constitution for France. They called themselves the National Assembly.
American War of Independence
The influence of the American war of independence was not only limited to the economic dimension of the French Revolution but also affected the political and ideological spheres as well. The impact of the American War of Independence took on many forms and shapes and varied from country to country so that in France the price to be paid for America’s independence was the French Revolution. The political and ideological impact of the American war of Independence on France also contributed to the emergence of the French Revolution. France’s alliance with the Americans against the British had the boomerang effect of introducing back into France ideas of democratic government. Their joint victory therefore seemed a victory for liberty and natural rights which the French were not enjoying so that the more intellectual elements of within the French society viewed it as hypocrisy that their government was allying itself with a democracy against a monarchy (Britain) rather than uniting with it to prevent democracy from spreading.
Politically, it also made democracy respectable and fashionable in French society as the Comte De Segur suggested that “I was far from being the only one whose heart palpitated at the sound of the growing awakening of liberty”. The ideology of the War was so pleasing to the French that they had the American constitution translated into French and there was even a political party called “les americains.” The American war also demonstrated to the French that victory over oppression was feasible and thus the American way of life came to be considered as the perfect one. Therefore, efforts to bring about a revolution similar to the American experience became more and more dominant as the revolution drew closer. However, outside France, the ideological effects of the American war of independence were more subdued and its main impact was economic as a result of the war. There were some advantageous long term trade opportunities which in time were good for the various economies however it’s direct results as for most post-war economies were terrible.
The National Assembly estimated that one for every ten French citizens was poor. However, historians believe that it was more like one in five or even one in every three. The number of poor depended on the state of the harvest. If the harvests failed, soaring prices meant that many urban peasants or artisans who leased small lots of land were vulnerable to a shortage of food. In bad years like 1769, 1776 and 1783, poverty spread far beyond the most vulnerable core of the destitute. On top of these cyclical depressions, came a sudden catastrophe of 1787-9 which brought about poor harvests and food shortages. Moreover, the prices of wheat doubled within two years in the north of France. By the summer of 1789, the crisis had hit the bulk of the peasantry both as consumers and producers including wine growers, dairy farmers, and wheat growers.
From the agricultural sector, it spread to the industrial sector such that chronic unemployment had already developed due to a ‘free trade’ treaty with Britain in 1786. This situation reached disastrous proportions in Paris and the textile centres of Lyons. The wage earners and small consumers, in both villages and towns were also compelled by the rapid rise in food prices to increase their daily expenditures on bread to levels far beyond their means of survival. Thus, peasants and urban tradesmen and workers-not to mention manufacturers-were drawn together in a connection of hostility towards the government, landlords, merchants and speculators. Therefore, to give unity to the discontents and hope to the widely varying social classes, there had to be a body of ideas (as peasants were content in letting others start the revolution), like a ‘revolutionary psychology’ or game plan-the grounds were prepared for other means rather than ambitions.
Wolf further argued that peasants were often spectators of political struggles and they were slow to rise because they were too far away from understanding what was really happening in the ‘city’. They suffered from three crises: demographic, ecological and power and authority. In the first instance, by writers of the Enlightenment who, as Bourke and Tocquville were quick to note, weakened the defences of the ancient regime. The ideas of writers, such as Rousseau, were absorbed by the eager reading public. The writings allowed the people to know what was really happening within the political, social and economic spheres throughout France. Theda Skocpol states that social revolutions occurred in these modernizing bureaucracies, (i.e.- France) which both grieving peasantry’s suffered because they didn’t have the organizational skills. When the Bastille was taken over by thousands of angry Parisians on July 14th, 1789, a series of elected governments took control of France. King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were executed along with thousands of other ‘counter revolutionaries’ in the Reign of Terror.
In the 18th century, France was a feudal country with class divisions. People were divided into three estates. The First Estate consisted of the clergy. The Second consisted of the nobility, and the Third included the bourgeoisie, the city workers and the peasants. The state you belonged to decided your power and rights. The first estate was made up of 1% of the people and owned 10% of the land in France. The second estate consisted of 2% of the people and owned 35% of the land. The third estate held 97% of the people who owned 55% of the land. The people-to-land proportion was unjust looking at the amount of people in each estate. The third estate held very little land compared to the amount of people it had. Therefore, it was overcrowded.
The first and the second estates were the privileged classes. The clergy and the nobility were exempted from paying the bulk of the taxes. They had to pay about four-fifths of their income on tax. They also needed to pay the land tax: also, the taxes on property, roads, and salt. The third estate was the most discontented class. The bourgeoisie were well educated. They were strongly influenced by the ideas of Voltaire and Rousseau who attacked the injustices of the time. Rousseau believed that people are basically good but become corrupted by society. In an ideal society, people would make the laws and would obey them willingly. Probably the most famous of the philosophers was Francois-Marie Arouet who took the name Voltaire. He used biting wit as a weapon to expose the abuses of his day. He targeted corrupt officials and idle aristocrats. With his pen, he battled inequality, injustice, and superstition. He detested the slave trade and deplored religious prejudice. Generally, the philosophers resented the privileges of the nobility and wanted a larger role in state affairs. City workers were angry because their wages were not enough to buy goods when prices were going up rapidly. The peasants made up 80% of the population and had to pay heavy taxes. In his book, The French Revolution, Albert Mathiez claimed that the Revolution was caused by the middle classes. The working classes were not able to control or start the Revolution. They were just starting to learn how to read. French peasants were subject to certain feudal dues, called banalities. These included the required used-for-payment of the lord’s mill to grind grain and his oven to bake bread. The lord could also require a certain number of days each year of the peasant’s labour. Peasants were targeted by society. They could not do anything on their own or try to fight back.
The French social pyramid was riddled with contradictions both within and between its constituent parts. In the contemporary society we now believe that everybody is treated equally in a system of law. This was not the case in France before the revolution. The French people belonged to one of three classes or estates. The First Estate was made up of members of the Church (the clergy). It owned about one tenth of the land and some of its members, including Cardinal Fleury, played an important part in government. With the 130,000 clergy in France, the Church was particularly important in an age where most people believed in heaven and hell. In return for praying for the King and the people, the first estate was allowed privileges. Its members did not have to pay taille or main tax; they were not called for military service and if they broke the law they were tried in their own courts. The Second Estate was made up of nobles. In 1789, there were about 400,000 nobles in France in which they owned one third of land. The older noble families had served the King for centuries either in government, battle or at court. Rich or poor, the nobility was expected to serve the King in war and in return, they were given privileges, including exemption from most governmental taxes. The Third Estate comprised of most of the population, ranging from rich businessmen to poor peasants. These members had no privileges and played no part in government and running the country. Most were peasants and made 80% of the population. They had a hard life, and most didn’t own the land they farmed on. As well as paying rent, they had to work free of charge for the local landowner on certain days of the year. They had to pay taxes to the government, like the taille and the gabelle (salt tax), and tithes to the church. Sometimes they paid three quarters of their yearly income in taxes. They were also expected to fight whenever France went to war.
Tocquville believed that the middle class were becoming increasingly richer and more conscious of their social importance. Furthermore, the peasants were becoming free, literate and prosperous whilst the old feudal survivals and aristocratic privileges appeared more vexatious and intolerable. The ‘Abbe Sieyes’ pamphlet stated the Third Estate was “everything” in the sense it was “a complete nation”, which would survive without the other two orders. Meanwhile poverty and discontent were spreading. Communications were poor and economic life was sluggish and improvements such as good harvests were being torn away by climatic deterioration and the rising population. Poverty was the most recognizable social problem. With the misery of rural housing and the poor appearance of the peasantry were contributing to discontent throughout the land. Hours were long and the price rise of bread was considered the worst times for public order. When jobs failed, they turned to the streets for begging. However, the most important aspect was that the economy could not provide decent living conditions for the people. Anger towards the ‘well-off’ spread. This was reiterated by Young who stated that, “Hatred grows more bitter, and the state is divided into two classes: the greedy and the insensitive, and the murmuring malcontents”
The Failure of the System of the Ancient Regime
France’s system of government was still the absolute system as Louis XVI had built a century before when France was a powerful and important country. Under his weak successors, the system had lost a great deal of vigour and its ability to command the respect and loyalty of its subjects, whether privileged or not. In 1763, it had to surrender most of its overseas Empire to Britain. The Bourbon Family ruled France. King Louis XVI (1754-93) was a shy, awkward misfit who was a lazy monarch known for his orgy’s and was mostly the subject to viscous rumours around France. In this regard, Louis XVI headed an extravagant and pleasure-loving court more than a conscientious one. France had a monarchy that carried within it decay; an aristocracy that, though privileged and mostly wealthy, was deeply resentful of its long exclusion from office; a bourgeoisie, though enjoying increasing prosperity, was denied the social status and share in government equal to its wealth; and the peasants who (in part at least) were becoming more independent and literate yet were still regarded as a general burden who were overtaxed and despised. These tensions were becoming sharper as the century went on. The French peasant was heavily burdened on taxation and in years of bad harvest and depression, they were intolerable. This was the problem that grew more intense (as well as violent) as the century went along. These resentments were heavily aggravated in the latter years of the ancient regime. As were the hardships of the middle class who became more resentful of the extravagance and tyranny of the court and government to whose wealth they contributed heavily. It was nevertheless the financial crisis that led to the fall of the ancient regime.