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AMERICAN PUBLIC UNIVERSITY SYSTEM

Charlestown, West Virginia

Social, Philosophical, and Economic Causes of the French Revolution

Submitted by

Elizabeth Ping

4142216

HIST536 A003 Sum 10

Submitted to the Department of History

September 21, 2010


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Social, Philosophical, and Economic Causes of the French Revolution

Although the French Revolution did not begin until July of 1789, there were

numerous precipitating factors already escalating turmoil and causing a spiraling chaos.

Ultimately, the French Revolution represented a point of change in modern European history,

and its influence had far-reaching consequences. The years preceding the French Revolution

were in many ways like a festering boil with the purulence of disease rising to the surface

and then exploding in a mess of stench and destruction once the pressure became too great. It

is difficult to sum up and categorize the events that led France to mayhem; however, for the

purposes of this paper, the causative factors will be looked at from three perspectives –

French society, Enlightenment thought, and economic considerations.

I. French Society

French society in the period leading up to the French Revolution was highly

sophisticated and had remained practically unchanged because those who had power and

wealth passed it on to their offspring. The peasants and common people were required to

support those in the upper classes and be the work horses of the nation, earning little for

themselves and their families. The historian, George Rude, likened French eighteenth-

century society to a pyramid, envisioning a stratified division of three conflicting groups of

people: the peasants at the base, the bourgeoisie in the middle or central layer, and the Court

and aristocracy at the apex.1 Similarly, France was divided into three orders or estates: the

First Estate (clergy), the Second Estate (nobility), and the Third Estate (commoners).2 At the

1
George Rude, The French Revolution: It’s Causes and its Legacy after 200 Years (New York,
NY: Grove Press, 1988), 1-2.
2
William Duiker and Jackson Speilvogel, World History (Boston, MA: Cengage Learning, 2010),
532.
2

core, the French Revolution was a result of a class struggle as the poor fought for greater

economic and political freedom and equality.3

Nobility

The government of France relied on older traditions at the time of Louis XVI’s

coronation.4 There was no official constitution, and there were 39 constituent provinces with

their own local customs. In one town alone, there were 53 courts. In short, there were no

universal laws that applied to every citizen of the country. The king proclaimed his absolute

power through divine right, and proudly stated, “I am the state.”5 Even though the king was

simultaneously head of state and representative of God, the monarchy was still responsible

for his finances. This meant that the king could not waste royal capital to the point of

exhaustion or give it to unworthy subjects who were attempting to rob the king of his

wealth.6 Indeed, the monarchy relied on the revenue gained from taxing the poor and loans

taken from aristocratic lenders.7 The watchful eyes of the public during the French

Revolution would eventually expose the material trappings of Louis XVI and his inadequate

expertise at governing a failing nation.8

A brief examination of France’s queen, Marie-Antoinette, lends support to the

contention that the French monarchy was surrounded by an egotistical and indulgent

atmosphere. Although she was apparently well liked in the beginning of her reign, the French

3
Donald Kagan, Steven Osmet, and Frank Turner, The Western Heritage (New Jersey: Prentice
Hall, 2001), 629.
4
Nancy Plain, Loiuis XVI: Marie Antoinette and the French Revolution (New York, NY: Marshal
Cavendish Books, 2001), 17.
5
Richard Heath Dabney, The Causes of the French Revolution (New York, NY: Henry Holt and
Co., 1888), 58.
6
Pierre Goubert, The Course of French History (New York, NY: Franklin Watts, 1988), 241.
7
Ibid., 251.
8
Ibid., 266.
3

people ultimately came to dislike her.9 Marie-Antoinette was obsessed with maintaining her

beauty and commanding her friends. She was also particularly whimsical and would

intervene inappropriately in government business. Furthermore, she held lavish balls and

feasts without thinking about the financial cost of her extravagance. At one point during her

reign, she had gambled millions away in card games and went through 200 formal gowns and

country dresses.10 Marie-Antoinette’s mother, Maria Theresa, saw the danger in her

daughter’s frivolous spending and wrote that she was “heading straight for disaster” and had

“lost all sense.”11

Specifically, the nobility represented the Second Estate and consisted of figures of

power in the arenas of government, military, law, and high church offices.12 This sector was

made up of approximately 350,000 individuals who owned between 25 to 30 percent of the

land. The aristocracy was largely disliked because its members possessed certain inherent

rights by being born with power and were not required to pay the “taille” or “cut,” which was

a particular kind of tax. This was very unpopular since the wealthiest individuals did not owe

money to the government while the poorest individuals were required to give substantial

amounts of their income without question. Furthermore, the nobility required the peasants to

pay certain fees for using the community facilities that they owned, such as the mill, oven,

and winepress, thus earning additional revenue from the already-sapped lower classes.

9
Ibid., 266.
10
Plain, 22-23.
11
Ibid., 22-23.
12
Duiker and Speilvogel, 532.
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Clergy and Bourgeoisie

The clergy or First Estate was made up of approximately 130,000 members of the

Catholic Church, and, like the nobility, they were exempt from paying certain taxes.13 They

also owned ten percent of the land, and some had familial ties with nobility, which probably

aided them in not having to be responsible for government taxation. Additionally, the

relationship with the higher members of French society increased the likelihood of their

sympathizing with the nobility rather than the peasants and commoners more often than not.14

Clergy members selected from their own ranks those who should hold the most power in the

church. Little could thwart the clergy since they reflected the entire establishment of the

Catholic Church and ecclesiastical duties.15 Furthermore, the king supported the collecting of

tithes from the Third Estate, making the clergy a formidable party.

The bourgeoisie or middle class represented approximately eight percent of France’s

total population or approximately 2.3 million individuals.16 In society, they accounted for the

merchants, industrialists, bankers, physicians, public officers, writers, and lawyers. The

middle class owned a sizable amount of land, which totaled between 20 to 25 percent of

France. Although the bourgeoisie reflected some professional disciplines, they were still not

allowed many of the privileges that the nobility enjoyed, so the middle class became

increasingly disgruntled with the prevalent social order of French tradition. The bourgeoisie

argued in favor of Enlightenment ideals, which defiantly opposed the customs of the old

order that focused on birthright instead of a person’s ability to improve his financial

outcomes through hard work and new economic methods.


13
Ibid., 532.
14
James B. Perkins, France under Mazarin: With a Review of Administration of Richelieu (New
York, NY: Knickerbocker Press, 1886), 34.
15
David P. Jordan, The King’s Trial: Louis XVI vs. French Revolution (Los Angeles, CA: California
Press), 15.
16
Duiker and Speilvogel, 532.
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Peasants

France’s peasants lived in a dismal and pitiful state of existence. The peasants made

up the Third Estate, which accounted for almost two-thirds of the population, and they were

despised by almost everyone.17 With poverty being the nation’s most visible social concern, it

was obvious to many that the plight of the peasantry was almost inescapable. Desperate

because of the limited opportunities for employment and assistance, many poor people chose

to shamelessly beg in the streets by faking illnesses.18 Others chose prostitution and crime to

make an income. These hard-pressed individuals mainly consisted of the very young and

very old who could not work. Even those who could hold a job were at a loss when crop

failures increased since the cost of living had risen so dramatically while average wages

remained fairly constant. Charitable funds were also dwindling rapidly since the influx of

city dwellers created an unwieldy number of indigent men, women, and children.

By and large, the peasants of France argued for greater control of their finances after

years of being suppressed by those with wealth. They were the poorest citizens, but they

were expected to give most of their income to those with more financial stability. They were

required to pay the “taile,” which was a basic tax, in addition to taxes on such common goods

as salt and soap.19 Taxation for the running of monasteries cost the peasants more than eight

percent of their income.20 The feudal system was an artifact from medieval times, and the

feudal taxes were required even when the harvest was less than satisfactory because most

peasants rented the land that they farmed from the more affluent landowners. Taxes for

17
William Doyle, The Oxford History of the French Revolution (New York, NY: Oxford
University Press, 2002), 16.
18
Ibid., 15.
19
Plain, 19.
20
Doyle, 11.
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peasants were variable throughout France and ranged from a few cents to a quarter of one’s

income. The dues the peasants owed were infinite since the feudal lords controlled the land

they rented. The peasants were further hampered by the responsibility of the “corvee”

program, which required them to build and maintain France’s roads.

Frances’s peasants desired more than that the old feudal structures be abandoned;

they desperately wanted the idea of privilege to be renounced.21 The privilege of the upper

classes over the peasants was a despised principle since it allowed those who were wealthy

enough to replace standing officials by buying them off. Those who cried for social change

promoted the idea that opportunities for elevation of employment should not be based on

such privilege but on an individual’s talents.22 In turn, the people would benefit from greater

equality of work status and civil duties. The renunciation of privileged hunting rights, private

courts, and tolls were also suggested. No more could the wealthy individuals who gained

their advantages through birth assume power irrefutably; supremacy must be earned through

hard work and natural ability. Consequently, a record of grievances and aspirations that the

people conveyed (i.e., cahier de doléances) was set forth. This ultimately represented the

seeds of the subsequent revolution because the public opinion reflected the need for social

and political transformation.23

II. Enlightenment Thinking

Social and political thought during the Age of Enlightenment focused on exploring

the ideas of natural rights and social contract theories. In fact, the very foundation of

21
Ibid., 117.
22
Ibid., 116.
23
John Markhoff, The Abolition of Feudalism: Peasants, Lords, and Legislators in The French
Revolution (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania University Press, 1996), 22.
7

philosophical thought concerning ethical and social values was formulated by introducing the

relationship of how an individual’s rights influence practical politics and form a new, better

type of humanity. These concepts eventually became the basis of the subsequent French

Revolution since the prevailing monarchy was viewed as failing to follow the social contract

popularized by these new theories.

Philosophes

The philosophes were a mostly unorganized group of individuals (namely, Voltaire,

Montesquieu, Locke, Diderot, Alembert, Rousseau, Hume, Gibbon, Smith, Lessing, and

Kant) living in eighteenth-century Europe who were concerned with the application of the

science of reason to all social practices. Although each of the philosophes had a different

opinion about how government and society should be reformed, their primary desire was to

promote human liberty.24 Peter Gay asserts that the philosophes’ common goals involved

“freedom from arbitrary power, freedom of speech, freedom of trade, freedom to realize

one’s talents, freedom of aesthetic response, freedom, in a word, of moral man to make his

way in the world.”25 The peasants relayed the enthusiasm to induce a state of freedom so that

they could have the opportunity to actually “be something” in life.26 The nullity in politics

that the peasants possessed was specifically described by Abbé Sieyès in his pamphlet “What

is the Third Estate?” In this document, he suggested that the moving force of the common

people would be the potential for greater political, social, and economic significance.

Voltaire's, Letter's on the English, resounded irrevocably in the minds of the French

people. In fact, some historians argue that his works marked the gradual shift against the

24
Kagan, Osmet, and Turner, 590-591.
25
Peter Gay, The Enlightenment: An Interpretation (New York, NY: Knoph, 1967), 4.
26
Jordan, 15.
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prevailing order of the Christianity, the government, and some of society in French culture

which at last brought forth the need for social renovation.27 He attacked the church with rigid

and direct scorn and the State at a lesser degree but still apparent in his reflections. Voltaire

distinguished the Catholic Church and all religions likewise as the "source of all intolerance

and misery" that was a force directly impeding scientific reasoning. Furthermore, Voltaire

championed his own reason and refuted the previously-taught philosophy to distrust one's

own rationalizations.28 Thus, Voltaire ushered in a new school of thought that was seemingly

devoid of prior dogma. He expressed the need to think rationally, though, at the same time he

was somewhat frightened of the storm that change could potentially bring. Nevertheless, he

held reluctance to support any human act that he deemed illogical, and therefore he could not

accept full heartedly the institution of religion and inequality of humans.29

While Voltaire exclaimed his contempt for religion, Montesquieu exclaimed his

forbearance for the monarchy of France.30 His book, The Spirit of the Laws, revealed his

philosophy on political matters. Though he felt that no perfect model of government could

exist, Montesquieu fervently believed that civil and political laws should reflect the nature of

man which should thusly demonstrate the atmosphere of the country in general. Montesquieu

predicted that the customary form of government, despotism, would eventually lead to

anarchy when the common people would lose all sense of freedom and become servile.31 For

this reason, Montesquieu promoted a government similar to that of England's system, with a

scheme based on a democracy of a separation of powers between the executive, legislative,

27
Alfred, B. Ernst, The Cambridge Modern History: The French Revolution (London:
Cambridge University Press, 1904), 10.
28
Ibid., 11.
29
Ibid., 12.
30
Ibid., 18.
31
Ibid., 19.
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and judicial roles would be most ideal. Additionally, Montesquieu called for a reformation in

taxation based on a scale of whether an item was a necessity for living or merely a luxury,

with luxury items being more taxed more heavily. Moreover, Montesquieu felt that everyone

should be afforded the opportunity to be educated on the principles of working.32 In this way,

he believed that citizens should be ultimately assured by government subsistence, "daily

bread, descent clothes, and a kind of life not destructive of health."33

Locke proposed that all men in the state of nature were born free and equal and only

because of increased wealth, especially by government, are these natural liberties stripped

away.34 However, Locke also argued that government could be utilized to protect certain

rights of individuals such as the right to life and the right to property. By forming a kind of

social contract between a people and a governmental system, the natural rights of man could

be safe guarded. The stipulation to Lockean theory is that people have a right to be loyal to

their government only as long as the government is loyal to them; the only reason

government should exist is for the mutual benefit of all.35 Consequently, Locke’s ideas of his

treatises of government provided initiative for the American and French Revolutions.36 By

the close of the seventeenth century, the grievances of the larger people were coming to a

head, and the present monarchy was no longer satisfying the concerns and needs of the

citizens.

American independence from Great Britain influenced French thinking and

challenged the necessity for a country to be governed by an absolute monarchy.37 In fact, the

32
Ibid., 20.
33
Ibid., 21.
34
Ibid., 7.
35
Lora P. Oberle, The Declaration of Independence (Mankato: MN, Bridgestone Books,
2002), 35-36.
36
Ibid., 41.
37
Peirre Goubert, The Course of French History (New York, NY: Franklin Watts, 1988), 273.
10

Declaration of Independence, developed during the American Revolution, has been viewed

by modern historians as directly affecting France’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and

Citizen and the French Constitution of 1791. The enthusiasm that the American anti-colonial

insurrection unleashed spread through France and elicited understanding from those who

were familiar with Enlightenment philosophical views. The Declaration of Independence was

translated into French and distributed throughout the country.38 The result of the American

Revolution was what the philosophes envisioned to be their idealistic form of government.39

Most envied by the French was the freedom that American citizens enjoyed, such as the

freedom of press, election of judges, majority voting for taxation practices, and opportunity

for education.

Physiocrats

The physiocrats (i.e., those ruled by nature) were eighteenth-century writers of

economics and politics who looked toward natural laws for social reform, and their ideas

were largely based on those of Francois Quesnay’s Tableau Economique.40 Specifically, the

physiocrats were advocates of an agronomic-centered economic system which they viewed

as being separated into three categories: the productive class (capitalists and laborers in

agriculture), the sterile class (nonagricultural laborers), and the idle class (clerical, noble, and

common people).41 Furthermore, they promoted the abolition of guilds and recommended

that all government revenue be raised from one tax on agriculture.42 With less government

interference, the physiocrats believed that the economy could flourish when each individual

38
Plain, 24.
39
Goubert, 272.
40
E. Hunt, History of Economic Thought: A Critical Perspective (Armonk, NY: Sharpe, 2002), 36.
41
Ibid., 38.
42
Ibid., 36.
11

acted under the doctrine of laissez faire capitalism.43 In this way, progress could be made as

individual wealth increased and not necessarily consisting of the nobility. The primary legacy

of the physiocrats was the new economy they set forth and its sharp contrast with the ideals

of mercantilism.44 Laissez faire capitalism would permit a more equal opportunity to gain

fortune and even out the disparity between the people who had money and those who did not

have money.

III. Economic Struggles

In the late 1770s, the French economy started to waiver in the domestic and foreign

domains.45 In essence, France was starting to lose control over the ability to maintain a

powerful, influential, and competitive system internally and externally. Financial difficulties

were seen even at the level of the monarchy, and this increasingly became the norm after

expensive wars generated high levels of debt and consumed much of the annual revenue.

Technological revolutions outside of France joined with an agriculturally-based economy

resulted in mounting trade deficits when natural disaster struck, and other European nations

continued to produce goods at rates unseen before.

Increasing Debt

France acquired substantial debt during the Seven Years’ War or French and Indian

War and lost almost all of the American colonies to England.46 By the end of the Seven

Years' War, the federal deficit reached 50 million livres.47 Additional debt was accrued

during the American Revolution when France backed the American colonies against Great

43
Ibid., 59.
44
Dennis Canterbury, European Bloc Imperialism (Leiden, Brill, 2010), 126.
45
Lewis Gwynne, The French Revolution: Rethinking the Debate (New York, NY: Routledge,
1999), 11.
46
Plain, Louis XVI, 19.
47
William Doyle, The French Revolution: Opposing Viewpoints (New York, NY: Greenhaven
Press, 2004), 63.
12

Britain.48 To supplement its war efforts, France was forced to take a loan for over 500 million

livres, which excluded the amount spent on naval operations.49 All in all, the total sum of the

American Revolution for the French has been evaluated at 1.3 billion, which was added on to

the amount still owed for previous war debts. Debt service was approximated to be at fifty

percent of the nation’s annual revenue.50 No one wanted to contribute to reducing the national

debt with his own money. For this reason, some recommended that France should declare

bankruptcy as it had done during previous periods of enormous debt.51 However, bankruptcy

was viewed as a highly dishonorable practice, which ruined credibility and frightened away

investors. Therefore, the only other option was to increase taxes even more in a nation where

the people were already the most heavily taxed in Europe.

The scale of financial distress had repercussion on other practical governmental

issues. For instance, France anticipated that an alliance with America would create more

trade prospects.52 However, aiding the American Revolution depleted finances to such an

extent that France could not participate in its other international associations.53 The French

felt that their deteriorating funds were more important than defending the Dutch, who called

for French support when the Prussian army invaded the Dutch Republic in 1787. The country

could not uphold its obligation to assist in military efforts, and the French monarchy was left

in a state of dishonor. Consequently, loyalty waivered when morale decreased because of

France’s inability to defend its Dutch ally.

48
Kagan, Osmet, and Turner, 626.
49
Goubert, 274.
50
Doyle, The Oxford History, 69.
51
Doyle, The French Revolution: Opposing Viewpoints, 64.
52
Sylvia Neely, A Concise History of the French Revolution (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield
Publishers, 2008), 41.
53
Ibid., 49.
13

The Swiss banker Jacques Necker was appointed as the new director-general of

finances to assist in ameliorating France’s escalating debt.54 During the American

Revolution, his plan was to raise money for the war without raising the people’s taxes.55 In

the end, he was forced to leave office after it was revealed that the aristocracy was draining

the royal reserves through pensions, which upset the upper classes since they did not want to

give up the monetary privileges they believed that they deserved.56 Necker, in fact, shed light

on the wider scope of the monarchy’s outlandish expenditures, which totaled approximately

six to eight percent of spending and placed income at a surplus instead of a deficit.57 One

specific instance of reckless spending occurred when Marie-Antoinette gave a dowry of

800,000 to her friend Polignac, which was a staggering amount equal to the wages of two

thousand journeymen. Understandably, knowledge of such extravagances enraged the

nation’s citizens, turning them against the monarchy and its frivolous spending.

Suffering Industries

The textile industry suffered due to increasing competition from Prussia, Switzerland,

Italy, Spain, and England.58 Furthermore, wealthier French citizens were choosing to limit

their overall spending on textiles, and by 1789, the textile industry’s productivity was at half

its previous rate.59 When the demand for textiles decreased, unemployment rates increased,
54
Ibid., 626.
55
Goubert, 270.
56
Kagan, Osmet, and Turner, 626.
57
Goubert, 271.
58
Ibid., 11.
59
Goubert, 290.
14

and those without work flocked to the cities where they met others who were in similar

situations. By this time, the city of Paris held 700,000 citizens and included many young and

sometimes even literate homeless individuals. The widespread unemployment rate

contributed to an anxious and fearful atmosphere in which the inhabitants exchanged songs,

pamphlets, posters, and conversations about social and political change. Not initially

apparent, social unrest began to foment as a consequence of diminished incomes and limited

welfare opportunities for those who were presented with financial difficulties.

Likewise, the wine business endured hardship when the return on sales reached only

half the expected amount before the revolution.60 This was the end result of an

overproduction of wine and subsequent lowered wine prices that occurred between the years

1775 and 1778.61 In effect, wine production was an extensive French affair at the time. It is

estimated that the wine consumption constituted approximately a liter per day for urban

residents during the period preceding the revolution. Furthermore, there were thousands of

wine producers who were considered specialists in their trade and even more peasant wine

producers who were simply trying to earn some extra money. The overproduction greatly

affected the peasant class since the side business of cultivating grapes for wine afforded them

additional profit that allowed them to subsist on their meager incomes and meet their living

expenses. Without the supplementary income from the production of wine, the peasants were

at risk of increasing financial struggles since rentes (taxes) were always collected.62

Unlike Great Britain, France did not undergo a vast technological revolution during

the late eighteenth-century.63 During this time, the French still relied on older means to

60
Ibid., 11.
61
Ibid., 289.
62
Ibid., 290.
63
Ibid., 12.
15

produce goods, what modern historians call “proto-industrial.” The production methods

involved in the proto-industrial system were more sophisticated than the cottage industries of

the medieval era and relied on domestic workers who supplied raw materials to the

merchants who, in turn, relied on money from bankers. Finished goods were then transported

to America or other countries in Europe. Although this method sounds like a productive way

to provide goods efficiently to desiring buyers, the new techniques of mechanization of

goods surpassed the traditional industries. The technological revolution allowed those

countries who embraced new systems to produce goods quicker and cheaper. The

modernization of work came in the form of mule and spinning jennies, with Great Britain

utilizing the most machines and thereby creating a clear lead in economic power.

Physiocrats

The physiocrats’ economic theories contributed to the weakening of France’s

economy.64 This was because the physiocrats believed that agriculture was the foundation for

returning the country to wealth. True to their beliefs, the peasants typically lived in smaller

villages with populations of 2,000 or less, and the people of Frances tended to invest most of

their wealth in the land that they cultivated. The caveat to France’s reliance on their

agricultural system was that the peasants were taxed both by the government and by the

feudalistic system. Together with France’s comparatively lowered production rates for goods,

the country lagged behind the other European nations. Modern historians call feudal

tendencies the “debris of the past.”65

64
Ibid., 12-13.
65
Ibid., 12-13.
16

One of the breaking points for the peasants came in the late 1780s when crop failures

led to famine and dramatically increased bread prices, making this staple unaffordable for

them.66 This crisis was compounded by a meddling in the corn trade by some who opposed a

change in trade regulations, which led to the belief that there was a deficient supply of corn

when in fact there was not.67 The fear over having a scarcity of corn and grain made the

peasants increasingly concerned, and many chose to endure long lines in order to wait for the

opportunity to receive free bread. The importance of bread for the French was immense. In

fact, bread was the mainstay of the French diet, and the people could not afford to spend as

much as 88 percent of their daily wage on food without sacrificing on other essentials.68 With

the majority of income spent on bread alone, spending on goods such as fuel and clothing

decreased, thus deteriorating the French economy even more.

The multitudinous challenges that led to the eventual French Revolution were vastly

complex. To some extent, the spheres of society, politics, philosophy, and economic thought

contributed to the disruption and overturn of the government. The question of inequality

raised during the pre-revolutionary period amounted to the belief that the majority of

France’s citizens - the peasants - were being suppressed by taxation and poverty to such a

degree that they could not continue to live in squalor without rising up to protect the few

shreds of dignity that they did possess. Decades of indulgence by the monarchy and privilege

among the upper classes led to their being held in contempt and a call for equal opportunity

for public employment and terms of office for those handling government affairs. Already-

established Enlightenment ideals were championed as the solution to France’s social

66
Sylvia Neely, A Concise History of the French Revolution (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield
Publishers, 2008), 72.
67
Bertha M. Gardiner, Epochs of Modern History (New York, NY: Longmans, Green, and Co.,
1910), 59.
68
Neely, 72.
17

inadequacies to provide a better country for every citizen, not just those were born wealthy.

Although time would reveal the “reign of terror” that the French Revolution would entail,

few would question the necessity for reform so that France could become a nation of “liberty,

equality, and fraternity.”69

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Kagan, Osmet, and Turner, 624-625.
18

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