CAUSES OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION
(1730 - 1780: The High Enlightenment )
The French "phliosophes" (philosophers) such as Montesquieu, Voltaire, Rousseau and Diderot were writing at a time where immense social change was needed. They questioned traditional authority and embraced the notion that humanity could be improved through rational change. They had a vision of throwing out the old authorities to remake society along rational line. These ideas were read and embraced by the bourgeoisie who were educated and wealthy. They wanted equality, and aspired for more political power, especially after reading the works of the philosophes.
The signature publication of the period was Diderot’s “Encyclopédie” (1751-77), which brought together leading authors ("philosophes") to produce an ambitious compilation of human knowledge (History Channel, 2015).
In 1789 the French population was approximately 25 million people. This was one of the largest empires in the world at this time. The French Society was divided into three classes— the Clergy, Nobles and Common People. These were known as the Three Estates. (see figure 1.)
The social divide was extreme with France still operating under the Feudal System. The clergy who were considered representatives of God were living in an opulence ironic to their cause. The nobility also lived a life of extreme wealth and prestige. The Third Estate was made up of the rest of the population. There were the wealthy, educated middle class (the bourgeoisie) and then approximately 23 million people making up the rest of the Third Estate were peasants who worked and lived on the land.
The bourgeoisie who had been deeply moved by the enlightenment resented their lack of political voice and the large taxes they were paying. The peasants were living in extreme poverty and suffering great inequalities.
American Revolution 1775
The success of the American Revolution in 1775 provided the Third Estate proof that a government could function without traditional power classes of the monarchy and the nobility. This gave revolutionaries confidence that their own establishment of a republic could work.
In France, The King was considered a leader divinely ordained by God. He had absolute power in all things - including government. This meant that Louis XVI controlled all legislation and presided over the law stating that no noble would have to pay tax. During the enlightenment these ideas began to be questioned by the middle class. The Third Estate (The Bourgeoisie, working class, peaseants) made up the majority of the population yet they had no political voice. They believed that they had a say in how to govern their country.
In 1788 there were extremely bad farming conditions and poor harvests in France saw mass shortage of food.There was a severe hail storm that destroyed what was left of the good crops and they were hit with the worst winter in over forty years. It also put many working class out of work and increased inflation.
The french government was in great debt by 1789 as they had financially supported the American Revolution and put much money into the 7 year war against England. Louis XVI's defective foreign policy weakened the economic condition of France.
The taxation system in France was also disorganised and extremely unfair. The nobility and the church were both exempt from taxation, which meant that nearly all tax money came from the incomes of the poorest - and most populous - portion of French society. This led to mass dissatisfaction and turmoil in France. The tax on a necessity, salt (the gabelle) was considered the final straw for the working class. The high rate and unequal distribution of the gabelle provoked widespread contraband dealing in salt by smugglers. (Britannica, 2015)
Another factor that greatly disturbed the Third Estate was that fiscal restraint at court was nonexistent. Louis XVI operated the French court from the Palace of Versailles, an enormous and ostentatious palace located outside Paris. For example, Louis XVI's wife, Marie Antoinette, had a yearly clothing allowance in the millions of dollars, despite France being unable to pay even the interest on the loans it had taken out to finance its empire. (Christopher Sailus, 2015)
Christopher Sails (2015). The Causes of the French Revolution: Economic & Social Conditions. [web] Retrieved 7 October 2015 from, http://study.com/academy/lesson/the-causes-of-the-french-revolution-economic-social-conditions.html
History Channel (2015). Enlightenment - Facts & Summary - HISTORY.com. [web] Retrieved 7 October 2015, from http://www.history.com/topics/enlightenment
Lexilogos (2015). Encyclopédie de Diderot et d'Alembert en ligne LEXILOGOS.[Image] Retrieved 7 October 2015, from http://www.lexilogos.com/encyclopedie_diderot_alembert.htm
Stanford University Libraries (2015) French Revolution Digital Archive. Retrieved 6 October 2015, from http://frda.stanford.edu/en/catalog?&result_view=default
Vikram Rana (2015). Causes of French Revolution: Political, Social and Economic Causes. [web] Retrieved 7 October 2015, from http://www.historydiscussion.net/world-history/french-revolution/causes-of-french-revolution-political-social-and-economic-causes/1881
World Socialism Organisation (2015). 1789: France’s bourgeois revolution: The Socialist Party of Great Britain. Retrieved 7 October 2015, from http://www.worldsocialism.org/spgb/socialist-standard/1980s/1989/no-1019-july-1989/1789-france’s-bourgeois-revolution