What caused the French Revolution? The French Revolution (1789 – 1799) had many catalysts.

The main causes were fiscal, economic, and political. The source of the economic problems originated with France’s reoccurring international wars. Whether France was supporting allies or maintaining its army, international conflicted required resources the French treasury did not have. The solution to this problem seemed like a logical one, increase and reform taxation to include all of the French citizens. Elimination of tax exemptions would expand the state’s depleted accounts, allowing money to flow back into the national treasury. Unfortunately for the king, the first and second estates, which consisted of the clergy and nobility, did not want these changes and resisted any attempts to reform the state’s tax structure. The inability of the king to stand up to first and second estate alludes to the lack of leadership that he had. He was not able to stand up to the country in order to bring France out of its financial problems. The subsequent inability of the

government to address the financial and economic problems led to a polarization of political factions and radicalization of events. The French government, paralyzed to address the economic problems, was held hostage to the bickering factions that put forward even more radical solutions. The financial and economic problems were on the exterior of the revolution. The Enlightenment thinkers were on the interior and although influential not as much as the economic situation. The combination the fiscal problems and the Enlightenment thinkers led to France finding itself on the brink of a revolution. The French had an interest in being involved in many different wartime conflicts. Their involvement in the American Revolution was the most important short-term element. This stretched the credit mechanisms of the monarchy to the limits, as an

expensive naval war, which was financed at first from loans.1 There was two decades of peace following the death of Louis XIV and then war again was once reignited. Two of the major conflicts the French were involved in were the War of Austrian Secession and the Seven Years’ War. Out of 43 years, France only experienced 21 years of peace and 22 years of war.2 With war comes great expenses and many of the times these expenditures were funded from taxes on the people. The only viable way available to pay for these expenses was to raise the already existing taxes and recourse the extraordinary revenue. The extraordinary revenue were taxes that were levied on wealthy groups or goods borrowing from the public or corporate bodies.3 In doing so, this started to heighten hostility the bourgeoisie had for the French government. Once peace was finally established the financial situation was even more difficult than during the war. One example is clearly shown in the years 1746-1767 when controller general L’Averdy paid 206 million livres tournois in cash to repay the debts that were considered the most urgent. In addition he issued 226 million bonds of bearing interest to pays off other debts. The capital of these was large and it represented nearly half of the extraordinary revenues that were collected during the Seven Year’ War. In order to bring the economic situation to a balance the postwar budget must reduce certain expenses and increase their revenue. If this was not to be accomplished, the government would then risk losing control of its finances and had no option but to increase tax in peacetime.4 Naturally this would result in social conflict after the people had already suffered an increase in taxes during the

Peter R. Campbell, The Origins of the French Revolution (New York: Palgrave Macmillan , 2006). 22 2 Ibid, 40 3 Ibid, 41 4 Ibid, 43

actual wartime, which accounted for 22 out of 43 years. The irresponsible spending of the French government was of course the foundation for the French Revolution, and the events after that only led to more unrest with French citizens. Bankruptcy was inevitable and finally reached the French monarchy during the years of the American Revolution. In trying to fix this problem the monarchy then hired Calonne as their controller general of finance. His proposals went beyond the immediate needs of the monarchy to include a general overhaul of much of the financial system. The main point of his plan was his attempt to substitute the vingtiemes (income tax) for a permanent tax on land, irrespective of the status of its owners.5 The income tax tended to favor the privileged orders while Calonne’s tax was not biased to anybody. Calonne’s tax would be based on the value of the land according to fertility and once the principle of such taxation were admitted it would be able to be easily adjusted in accordance with the needs of the government.6 This would have a tremendous effect on the power that the noblesse de robe would have over taxation and royal policy. Even more disturbing to the provincial estates and parliament was that Calonne seemed to be threatening the privileged in purse and principle even if he did not realize it at the time. These fears were also reinforced by Calonne’s plan to asses taxation by new district assemblies where voting power would be proportionate to land ownership and not to social status. In essence, Calonne was trying to eliminate the line that had been drawn many years before that established different people of different classes had to pay different amount of taxes. Calonne was not doing this for self-gain but only in hope to get the monarchy out of the

Norman Hampson, Social History of the French Revolution (Canada: Unversity of Toronto Press, 1963). 36 6 Ibid, 36

dire economic situation. In the Assembly of the Notables, Calonne hoped to present his plan and garnish support of it but instead what he received was harsh accusations of abusing the power he had as controller and his plan was seen as a “terrible diatribe against the clergy and nobility”.7 It was plainly clear that the assembly was not going to support any plan that required nobility or clergy to be taxed, even if that was the most logical solution at the time. Calonne was soon dismissed of his duties as controller and Jacques Necker was then brought in to take over that job title. Necker felt that the Louis XVI should bring in the Estates-General to assess the situation. They had not met since 1614, which might be a slight indication of how ineffective they were. The EstatesGeneral convening can be seen as an ill-advised decision and effectively jumpstarting the French Revolution. When King Louis XVI decided that the Estates-General should convene this could be seen as the beginning of end of any peaceful conflict occurring. Even though the country’s economic state was the factor of significant importance at the time, the Estates General went into its meeting in May of 1789 with the mindset of giving France a constitution. This would require bringing a government that was run by the privileged and arbitrarily to an end. The Estates-General consisted of the First Estate which was the clergy, the Second Estate the nobility, and the Third Estate which was the rest of French society and it had poor peasant and well off independent businessmen.8 If history was to repeat itself, each order would meet separately and have an equal number of representatives and a unanimous vote of the orders would determine the decision of the Ibid, 38 Leo Gershoy, The French Revolution 1789-1799 (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1932). 11
7 8

assembly. This would not be in favor of reform, since the first two orders would naturally oppose any sort of reform that was going to challenge their status. It was then decided that the Third Estate would have as many representatives as the first two orders combined since they represented ninety-eight percent of the entire population.9 The voting would be by poll instead of by order10, however the final decision on voting was never ultimately reached by the Royal Council and this effectively made the Third Estates double representation meaning less. Each of the three orders had come up with their own cashiers, which were grievances that were customary to submit whenever the convocation of the Estates General decided to assemble. When all the cashiers submitted all of the estates had its own grievances either against abuses within its own ranks or in the country at large. In addition, they had proposals that were unacceptable to each of the other estates 11 Ultimately the failure of King Louis XVI to come up with a solution regarding the manner of voting gave the nobility its chance to win sole control of the EstatesGeneral. Furthermore, King Louis was demonstrating his ineffectiveness at being a leader when he failed to present a reform program to the commoners. The nobility and clergy along with the king devised a plan that consisted of inactivity for five weeks in hope to unite all of the clergy and nobility together.12 Eventually the commoners had enough and on June 17th took a huge step towards revolution and organized the National Assembly. They stated, “ that the wishes of almost the entire totality of the nation could not be flaunted by the non-cooperation of the privileged orders.”13 They were taking a stand

Ibid, 13 Ibid, 13 11 Ibid, 14 12 Ibid, 15 13 Ibid, 16
9 10

against the injustices done and the National Assembly was a sign that they could be organized and most importantly powerful. After this happened a small majority of the clergy decided to join them. The clergy’s motives for joining the assembly’s cause can be seen in that they saw how unfairly they were being treated and thought this was not the moral values that the church stood for. June 20th is the next significant date for the National Assembly as this was the date that they found themselves locked out of the hall were all three estates would normally meet. This would then lead to historic Tennis Court Oath that swore” their heroic oath never to separate until they had given France a constitution.14 Once the king saw the National Assembly as a serious threat to his power he had either one of two choices. He could either use force or claim the Third Estate victorious in their battle for reformation. Louis decided to use the element of surprise and while he was pretending to concede to the Third Estate, he decided it would be a better decision to secretly use troops against them.15 What King Louis XIV did next was what ultimately turned the already angry Third Estate into a rage. When Necker was dismissed as controller by the king this angered many of the commoners. This then led to one of the most symbolic events of the revolution, which was named the Fall of the Bastille. Necker’s popularity was clearly seen in the streets of Paris on Sunday morning of July 12th. When news reached the peopled of his firing, demonstrators swarmed the streets and busts of Necker were carried off into the street for his support.16 The king’s troop had much of the city surrounded, which led to the only logical place that the revolutionaries could try and make an impact of some sort was at Ibid, 16 Ibid 16 16 Georges Lefebvre, The Coming of the French Revolution (Princeton: Princeton Univertiy Press, 1947). 110
14 15

the Bastille. Here the governor, de Launay, had positioned a cannon, which brought the Saint-Antoine area into his field of fire.17 On July 14th, the people that went to the Bastille went with not the intention of attacking but asking the governor to distribute the weapons and withdraw the cannon that was aimed at the city. These requests were done by three delegates who were sent to talk to de Launay. This is one mistake of the Bastille storming, since the people that sent the delegates were not aware how long the meeting was to take they grew cared when the delegates never returned. The crowd outside of the Bastille now became enraged and talk began to surface of calling on the fortress to surrender or an impending attack was imminent.18 The people then found a way to penetrate the Bastille and when this happened de Launay became nervous and ordered his men to fire upon the people.19 The Bastille then fell and this was a momentous event that showed that the revolutionaries were a force to be reckoned with. More importantly, they stood as a symbolic victory over the old regime that the people despised. All of these events eventually led to the utmost resentment in the country, which then brought about the French Revolution. These events of course were the reasons that can be characterized as clear events but there was also the changing views that were occurring that were the underlying causes of these events. The Enlightment thinkers of this time, were constantly undermining the feudalist view that had existed for hundreds of years in France. The Enlightenment thinkers believed that religious and aristocratic prejudices should be stripped away in order to reveal and to liberate human nature.20 One

Ibid, 112 Ibid ,114 19 Ibid, 115 20 Ralph C. Hancock, The Legacy of the French Revolution (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publisher, Inc, 1996). 5
17 18

of the key individuals in this type of thinking was Voltaire and he specifically attacked the church and absolutism. His main goal was to protect the rights of subjects against royal power and to liberate this power from the grip of religion and more generally from traditional authorities.21 Voltaire personified the Enlightenment era. This was at a time in French history when the people were being treated unjustly. This mistreatment was based solely on what social class they were apart of. If there was another notable Enligtenment thinker that had a direct impact on the French Revolution it would have to be JeanJacques Rousseau who stressed his dogma of popular sovereignty. The power of the Old Regime’s society is what led to the people eventually turning to violence to create the change that was needed. His philosophy assumes that there really is a common good what most of the people want is not just a thought but under the right conditions can actually happen. The idea behind his political theory is that only full development can take place if there is a general consensus among the majority of the nation.22 The Common Man approach was a concept derived from Rousseau and believed that man naturally was good and truthful. Rousseau never advocated violence much less revolution in the pursuit of political change.23 This view was changed when the people began to act violently. This was particularly evident in July of 1789 with the storming of the Bastille.24 Voltaire and Rousseau were two men whose ideas provided the intellectual underpinnings for the French Revolution. Enlightenment thinkers like Rousseau and

Ibid, 201 Ibid, 36 23 Paul Hanson, Historical Dictionary of the French Revolution (Lanham: Scarecrow Press Inc, 2004), 283 24 Gary Kates, The French Revolution (New York: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, 1998). 137
21 22

Voltaire also helped the French people open their eyes to the social injustice of the ancient regime. All orthodox histories of the French revolution assume that this was the period when the third estate completed their rise and overthrew feudalism. 25 Feudalism had been in place for many years and it was considered a functioning system for French society. The problem was with the poor leadership that was present with the different kings especially King Louis XVI. When he made a decision it was often not thought of all the way through and was typically ill advised. In doing this he was trying to undermine the Third Estate and the people did not take kindly to this. Although Voltaire and Rousseau were instrumental in the revolution, they had more of an indirect affect. The status of the economy and the way that the commoners were being exploited to fix the economy were the direct causes of the revolution. The French Revolution also served as springboard for other revolutions to take place. These occurred in Haiti, Ireland and Egypt. 26This eventually led to the uprising that has come to be known in history as the French Revolution.

Alfred Cobban, The Social Interpretation of the French Revolution (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1964). 35 26 Ferenc Feher, The French Revolution and Birth of Modernity (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1990) 122-123

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