The major cause of the French Revolution was the disputes between the different types of social classes in French society. The French Revolution of1789-1799 was one of the most important events in the history of the world. The Revolution led to many changes in France, which at the time of the Revolution, was the most powerful state in Europe. The Revolution led tothe development of new political forces such as democracy and nationalism. It questioned the authority of kings, priests, and nobles. The Revolution also gave new meanings and new ideas to the political ideas of the people.
The French Revolution was spread over the ten year period between 1789and 1799. The primary cause of the revolution was the disputes over the peoples’ differing ideas of reform. Before the beginning of the Revolution, only moderate reforms were wanted by the people. An example of why they wanted this was because of king Louis XIV’s actions. At the end of the seventeenth century, King Louis XIV’s wars began decreasing theroyal finances dramatically. This worsened during the eighteenth century. The use of the money by Louis XIV angered the people and they wanted a newsystem of government.
The writings of the philosophes such as Voltaire and Diderot, were critical of the government. They said that not one officialin power was corrupt, but that the whole system of government needed somechange. Eventually, when the royal finances were expended in the 1780’s,there began a time of greater criticism. This sparked the peasants notionof wanting change. Under the Old Regime in France, the king was the absolute monarch. Louis XIV had centralized power in the royal bureaucracy, the governmentdepartments which administered his policies.
Together, Louis XIV and thebureaucracy worked to preserve royal authority and to maintain the socialstructure of the Old Regime. At this time in French history, the social classes played an importantrole in the lives of the people. The social structure of France was divided among three groups: the First Estate, the Second Estate, and theThird Estate. Each social group had a varied type of people within theirstructure, which presented the different views of the people. The First Estate was the Church. During the ancien regime, the churchwas equal in terms of its social, economic, and spiritual power.
The FirstEstate owned nearly 10 per cent of all land in France. It paid no taxesbut, to support church activities such as school running and caring for thepoor, they collected a tithe, or a tax on income. About one-third of theentire clergy in France served as parish priests. Also included in thisestate were the nobles. Some of the nobles lived in luxury in major citiesin France, such as Versailles or Paris. Parish priests usually lived ahardworking life. This Estate was the minority of the people in France, having approximately 1 to 2 per cent of the population.
The Second Estate in French life was the nobility. They enjoyedextensive rights and privileges. They made up less than 2 percent of thepopulation. They, like the First Estate, paid hardly any taxes. Economically, the nobility was characterized by great land wealth. Nobleswere generally the richest members of the society. Typical sources ofincome were rents and dues for the use of their farms or estates. The First and Second Estates were grouped together because they had similarpolitical beliefs. The Third Estate consisted of the commoners. It included the bourgeoisie, peasants and city workers.
The bourgeoisie, or the middleclass, were by far, the wealthiest. In the bourgeoisie, there were themerchants and manufacturers, lawyers, doctors and others similar to thosetypes of professions. Peasants made up the largest group within the ThirdEstate. They were forced to pay hefty taxes, tithes to the church, andrents to their landlords for the land that they lived on. The last groupwithin the Third Estate were the city workers. They were servants,apprentices, and household maids. The major cause of the Revolution were the differences these threegroups had.
However, there was another important factor during thesetimes. France suffered from harsh economic problems. Poor farm harvestsby farmers hurt the economy, and trade rules from the Middle Ages stillsurvived, making trade difficult. However, the most serious problem wasthe problem facing the government during this time. The French governmentborrowed much money to pay for the wars of Louis XIV. Louis still borrowedmoney to fight wars and to keep French power alive in Europe. These costsgreatly increased the national debt, which was, at the time, already toohigh.
When King Louis XVI came into power, he realized that these problemsexisted. At first he did not know what to do, until he found a man by thename of Robert Turgot. He eased the financial crisis of France, but he haddifficulties when he tried to introduce a major reform, that of taxing the nobles. He had such difficulties because the king could not tax the nobles unless the Parliament approved of the new tax laws. The people in thecourts that voted on these laws were the nobles, called nobles of the robe,and therefore rejected Turgot’s reform. After Turgot was rejected, theking fired him from his office.
This led Louis XVI to summon the EstatesGeneral in 1789. The Estates General was the place where representatives from eachsocial class could be represented. Here, many issues would be discussed,and at this time in French history, it would be centered around theeconomic crisis. When the Estates General met in 1789, the deputies, orrepresentatives, from the Third Estate demanded that the three estates meettogether, with each deputy having an equal vote. That way, the First andSecond Estates could outvote the Third Estate. When the king heard ofthis, he demanded that the three estates meet separately.
This causedanger within the Third Estate. The deputies from the Third Estate declaredthemselves the National Assembly. Louis XVI quickly rejected thesedeputies from the meeting hall. After a while, Louis XVI decided that itwould be best if the three estates met together. He ordered the other twoestates to join the Third Estate in the National Assembly. Although now the three estates met together, there were divisionsamong them. Some wanted to protect their rights, while others wanted toestablish a limited, constitutional monarchy. This sparked some change inthe French people.
Immediately after the National Assembly secretly began working on aconstitution, the peasants and workers expected relief from taxes and otherdues that they paid. Little happened, and they still faced their sameproblems of unemployment and inflation. Then there were reports that LouisXVI was bringing troops to Paris. This increased the peoples’ fears. When Louis brought troops to Versailles, many citizens feared that hewanted to get rid of the National Assembly. As a result, they stormed theBastille. Other disturbances also broke out. People were caught up inwhat was called the “Great Fear”.
Rumors passed from village to villagethat robbers were destroying homes all over France. When no robbers showedup, the peasants turned to their landlords. They destroyed grain towers,and destroyed tax records, showing that they will never pay any taxes, fines or dues ever again. These events forced Louis to summon the National Assembly on August4th. They people discussed possible reforms. On this day, the NationalAssembly ended serfdom. Towards the end of August, the National Assemblyadopted the Declaration of the Rights of Man. It stated that democratic principles would be the basis for French government.
The job of turningthese ideas into a constitution still remained. While the constitution was in the process of being made, an angrycrowd in Paris rioted, forcing the National Assembly to recognize theirdemands. Some of these rioters were women. They were angry about foodprices. They also thought that the king and queen were going against theNational Assembly. They demanded that Louis return to Paris where theycould watch him. To prevent any further uprisings, he agreed. Throughout France, all ancient customs were thrown away by therevolution.
The National Assembly called for freedom of worship andabolished all special activities and privileges of the Catholic Church. Toraise money that was needed, the government began selling off church lands,which angered many Catholics. In 1791, the National Assembly brought forward a newconst itution. It made France a limited monarchy and established a systemof separation of powers. Under the constitution, the old distinctionsbetween the clergy, nobles, and commoners disappeared. Few people were satisfied with the constitutional monarchy. Louis XVIwas frightened at the actions of the National Assembly.
He fled thecountry with his wife, but he was later arrested and brought back to acceptthe constitution. After this action by the king, moderate revolutionariesstill wanted to preserve the constitutional monarchy, while the radicalsdistrusted the king and wanted a republic. These were the causes of the French Revolution. Many peoples’ liveswere changed during this time. Peoples’ ideas also changed. After the war between France and Austria and Prussia, prices increaseddramatically, and food shortages occurred. When Louis XVI and his wife fledto the Legislative Assembly, they were imprisoned.
They called for anational convention to write a new constitution. The National Conventionmet in September. The National Convention tried and convicted Louis XVI oftreason. He was sentenced to death. News of his death spread all throughout Europe. Monarchs of Europeannations feared that the Revolution would spread. By 1793, the Frencharmies occupied the Austrian Netherlands and were about to invade Prussia. But, in 1793, Great Britain, the Dutch Netherlands, and Spain went alongwith Prussia and Austria in a war against France. With these five powerfulnations fighting against France, the French were outnumbered and outmatched.
This one war was very hard for France. This war caused manydeaths at home due to starvation. At this point in the Revolution, somepeople thought that the Revolution had gone too far and should be put to anend. In the effort to restore temporary peace in the society, the NationalConvention made a constitution that created a Committee of Public Safety. It campaigned against people who were considered enemies of France. Maximilien Robespierre led the Committee of Public Safety. He wanted tocreate a “Republic of Virtue”. The Committee went all over France to helpother groups find traitors to France.
During the Reign of Terror, trialsfor the people were held often. Many people were brought to the guillotineand killed. Most of the victims were commoners. This time of terror hadscared the people, and their revolts towards the government ended. The Committee of Public Safety organized new and powerful armies toprotect itself from foreign invasion. The Committee also set limits onprices and salaries. By early in 1794, the French armies were winning battles again, butsupporters were asking if these executions of the people were still neededin society.
The National Convention then arrested Maximilien Robespierre,and executed him, which ended the Reign of Terror. Between the years of 1789 and 1794, French life had changed dramatically. There were changes in the lifestyle of the people, as wellas in clothes and art. The monarchies were gone, and the king no longerruled. Te National Convention abolished all feudal customs and ended allslavery. Revolutionary leaders also established the metric system. Theywanted to set up free public schools, but that never came about, due to theeconomic problems.
In 1795, after the total ending of the Reign of Terror, the NationalConvention established another constitution. It established a new systemof government called the Directory. This Directory, however, faced manyproblems. The legislative deputies begged and “bought” political votes,and prices rose sharply, something which the poor classes of society didn’tlike. Along with these problems, it still followed a foreign policy. Itbuilt the largest army in Europe during this time. This army were headedby a great military leader, Napoleon Bonaparte. In 1793, Napoleon won many battles against the British, and at thistime, he was a general.
He next won battles over Italy, and in 1798, heinvaded Egypt. He defeated Egypt’s army, but he had to pay for his victory. At sea, the Egyptian Navy, led by Horatio Nelson, destroyed theFrench fleet at the Nile river. This loss meant that the fleet could nottake the soldiers back to France, so, Napoleon left them there and he wentback to France. Unbeknownst to the people of France about the tragedy inEgypt, he was still welcomed as a hero. When talking to the people athome, he found that many people were not satisfied with the Directory. Withthe help of troops, he overthrew the government in 1799.
Under this newgovernment, Napoleon was called the First Consul. His military talentshelped him to win popular support. With his support, he was named thedictator of France. This time in French History was important to the people of Francebecause of the different types of government they had. Socialism,liberalism and nationalism all were results of the French Revolution. Itgave people the idea that if they tried, they could reorganize a societywhenever it was needed. The greatest legacy of the French Revolution,however, was that people could change anything that they wanted with political ideas, words and laws.