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CHY4U – The West & the World Unit 2 – Lesson #10 The Origins of the French Revolution Significance of the

French Revolution • • • The main significance of the Revolution is that it occurred in the most advanced country of its time. France was the centre of the enlightenment. French was the international language of the educated and aristocratic elements of Europe.

Significance • • • France was the single most powerful, the wealthiest and the most populous nation of Europe. French exports to Europe were larger than those of Great Britain. France was the “United States” of the 18th century.

Background – The Three Estates • • • • • The “Ancien Regime” was legally aristocratic, placing all persons, by birth, into thee estates or orders: 1st Estate – The Clergy 2nd Estate – The Nobility 3rd Estate – Everyone Else There existed very limited social mobility between these estates, a very rigid system.

The Third Estate • • • The Third Estate included farmers, urban poor, doctors, lawyers, merchants, businessmen and bankers. It was classified as a single legal and political entity but it really was made up of several layers of education, wealth and political interests. The Third Estate was more complex than France’s political elite believed it to be.

Demographics • • 1st Estate was made up of no more than 100,000 people, from priests and monks to bishops and cardinals – 0.42% of the French population. 2nd Estate was made up of no more than 400,000 people, representing 1.67% of the French population.


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The Second Estate experienced a resurgence after the death of Louis XIV. By the time of Louis XVI (1774) they controlled most of the high government offices, army commands and other public positions. The First and Second Estates, although only 2% of the population, held virtually all of the political and economic power.

Demographics • The Third Estate represented 98% of the French population and legally, had very little influence on French government and politics.

Income & Land Distribution • • Land ownership in France, compared to other European states, was rather evenly distributed, but in comparison to modern standards, was extremely unbalanced. The First and Second Estates, while representing only 2% of the population, owned nearly half of all French land.

Land Ownership – By Class Eminent Property Rights • • • Despite the fact that peasants and the middle class owned 58% of the land, they did not completely “own” it. The nobility and the church held “eminent property rights” that allowed them to collect annual rents and transfer fees on the land. Although peasants owned land, they still had to pay rent on the land.

Pressures on the Lower Classes • • Both the urban and rural lower classes had been subject to increasing pressures in the period before the revolution. Between 1730 and 1789 prices of goods rose 65% but wages only rose 22%, reducing the urban wage earner’s ability to pay for necessities.

Pressures on the Lower Classes • Over the same period, rural peasants were subject to higher dues, less favourable lease or sharecropping arrangements, higher fees for using the village mill, bakeshop and wine press, and reduced access to hunting and pasture lands. The result of this as that the nobles and middle class were becoming increasingly wealthy at the same time that he lower classes were having greater difficulty.

Perks of the Nobility

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The Nobility were exempt from most taxes, especially the taille – a direct tax on property and income. The Nobility also enjoyed hunting rights and certain police and judicial authority on their manors. All of this was in addition to their dominance of public office, political influence and eminent property rights.

Existence of a Nation State • • Unlike the later revolutions in Italy and Central Europe (1830’s and 40’s) a French nation already existed, reformers did not need to create it. This allowed for the formation of national or nation-wide opinions on social conditions or political issues.

Existence of a Nation State • • The revolution stirred up a sense of membership within the masses, of belonging to and participating in the workings of the state. Citizenship, voting rights, civil rights, and the “general good” become issues of main concern for most common Frenchmen.

Financial Crisis • • The Revolution was triggered by the government’s inability to pay for its own existence. The main burden on the treasury was war costs, both the legacy of past wars in the form of past loans and debt, and the current maintenance of the army and navy.

Financial Crisis • • • • • 1788 distribution of French Revenue: 25% - maintenance of the army & navy 50% - payment of past debts The total French Debt was roughly 4 billion livres. In comparison, the distribution of the English revenue was roughly the same and the English debt was nearly double.

The Financial Crisis • • Technically, the financial situation in England was worse than that of France. Why then did the French Government fall?

Problems with Revenues

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Revenues in France were lower than expenditures because the wealthiest elements of society, the Nobility and Middle Class, did not pay taxes due to rights or exemptions. Another problem was that the tax farming system did not run efficiently, not all of the taxes collected went into the government treasury.

Problems with Revenues • • • The country was prosperous but the government was bankrupt. Previous attempts at tax reform had been blocked by the political strength of the nobility. In 1788 another attempt to reform the French tax system failed and Louis XVI, unable to either borrow money or collect taxes, was forced to call the Estates General.

The Estates General • • • Was the French version of Parliament, but had not been called since 1614. The Estates General had the power to raise taxes or levy new taxes. Each of the three estates sat in separate chambers, voted on motions and then cast a single vote based on the majority within the chamber.

The Estates General • • The Clergy and Nobility (2% of the population) represented 2 of the 3 votes of the Estates General. The decision to keep the old setup and the calling of the Estates General in the first place shows that the revolution was started by the nobles and began as a victory of the Aristocracy over the Crown.

The Estates General • • • The nobles wanted change, such as a constitutional government, guarantees of personal liberty, and freedoms of speech, the press, etc. Their plan called for France to be governed through the Estates General, like Parliament in England, where their interests would dominate. This, however, was what the Third Estate feared most.