The year 1789 to 1799 was a year of radical changes and political upheavals for the country of France. The “whole country seem[ed] ready for a revolution”. On such a momentous occasion it is easy to reflect with hindsight as to how the constitutional monarchy which had been traditionally used for centuries, be abruptly overthrown by new ideas such as Enlightenment. However, although Enlightenment did play an important role in the French Revolution it can be argued that the American Revolution was a plausible demonstration in showing the French that their country could also be a place of “equality” and “freedom of the individual”. Additionally, it is important to take into consideration that even though France had faced great economic difficulties during the year 1785, mostly concerning taxation, it was one of the most powerful and richest countries in Europe.
But, it was because of the ruinously heavy taxation on the impoverished that allowed hatred for the gluttonous lifestyle of the monarchy. The most important cause of the French Revolution was arguably the unfair system of collection of taxes between the Three Estates; the obligations of the Third Estate and the fact that they had no money to upgrade their position, especially if they were peasants. Coupled with an extravagant King, a series of crop failures and the Seven Years Plan which caused France to face severe financial difficulties, the French Revolution was a disaster waiting to happen. Also, the role of the French people and leading ideologies from political leaders was a major influencing factor, as this strong social desire for change was the reason there was a large majority of involvement.
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The most important cause of the French Revolution was economically the country’s sizeable national debt. This was from the result of the Seven Years War during 1756to 1763 and the French were not only bankrupted by the Seven Years War but also the War of the Austrian Succession and the American War for Independence. At this period King, King LouisXVI had just managed to come out of debts and unfortunately, this did not last as “by 1753 their debt was 1.2 billion with annual interests of 85 million, which was 20% of France’s annual revenue”.The french viewed war as intrigue and instead of paying attention to funding and financial cost, they leapt at every opportunity to avenge their humiliations from prior wars, regardless of their situation. The result of these enormous war expenditures meant they were on the verge of bankruptcy and no bankers would lend to them.
Support was lost for the King and the national popularity of hatred increased, especially among peasants. The Seven Years War damaged the country economically and further damaged the demands of the Third Estate. The peasants were deeply angered and felt it was “unfair” for them who had nothing, to give almost everything. Furthermore, as a result of the war, the Third Estate were more heavily taxed to repay the country’s debt. This economic position crippled France and was equally depressing as the monarchy, nobles and clergymen had not rendered their ways in living lavishly. This economical crisis in France before the revolution can be argued as the immediate and main cause of the revolution
However, the War of Independence was another factor that influenced the French Revolution as France’s involvement in the American Revolution was not only costly on the French economy but also provided an example for a revolution. Many French soldiers returned with great pride and a determined spirit to make a change in their country; it reinvigorated people to take action and was a perfect example to use as a reference that a revolution could work. Most of the soldiers especially started having thoughts about freeing their own country from the corrupt clutches of a monarch. For example, Count De Segur wrote in his diary in 1782. “the liberty for which I am going to fight inspires in me great enthusiasm, and I would like my country to possess as much of it as is compatible with our monarchy, our status and our custom”. Also “the young men who had fought in (American War) had seen at close-ranged a new people governed by a wise constitution.
Their heads were turned. They brought back badly digested ideas” and decided to execute them within France. Therefore the American Revolution was a major short term cause in the advancement of the revolution. A cause that was of less importance to the French Revolution was Marie Antoinette’s involvement (the queen and wife of King Louis XVI). She was an Austrian and was regarded as a foreign sympathizer who was pitied upon because she only gained recognition through the King’s rule. However the country’s heavy debts were a chief cause of national unrest, and exaggerated reports about Marie Antoinette’s luxurious lifestyle became associated with the nation’s deficit. Furthermore, the queen was seen as ignorant and “was an object of hatred on account of her extravagance and her attitude”. Because this queen had considerable influence over her husband, many French people held her accountable for all the problems of his reign.
Her popularity increased slightly with the birth of her children, especially her first son, but she was soon the most hated person in France and the subject of wild rumours spread by pamphleteers.. Stories about her lifestyle emerged such as her ridiculous hobby of deliberately building villages and farms of the peasantry to play dress up. Ultimately Marie Antoinette “was no help to her husband. She was vain, extravagant and the most hated queen in the history of France”. Marie Antoinette was so hated that she suffered many illegitimate rumours and was described as a “harpy”, a vicious and ugly looking creature. On the 1st October 1789, 7,000 women joined the march to Versailles, bringing with them cannons and a variety of smaller weapons accusing the queen of stealing grain and bread. This accusation made her very unpopular during a period of economic unrest where there were bread shortages. Ultimately, the queen was a disgrace to her position and ignorant to the struggles and concern of anyone, heightening the people’s intensity to revolt.
Another important cause of the French Revolution was the incompetency of Louis XVI who was, like many other rulers, insensitive to the needs of and problems faced by the lower classes. The difference lay in the fact that he was or was perceived to be an incompetent and indecisive monarch. This indecisiveness caused him to surrender to the opposition in court, thus leading him to fail to set up a limited constitutional monarchy or respond to the need for introducing tax reforms. For example, the appointed financial advisor of the time, Jacques Necker, realised that there was a need for tax reform since the current tax system subjected the lower classes to pay high taxes while allowing numerous unfair tax exemptions for the nobles and clergy. Naturally, such a proposed reform met with opposition from the ministers, and the incompetent king yet again backed down and rejected the appeal.
Eventually, the king dismissed Necker, which led to one of the significant events in the revolution, the Storming of the Bastille. This king, who was easily influenced by his ministers, can be seen as one of the main reasons for which no improvements were made by the state to introduce new laws which benefited the people. In fact, it can be easily argued that “kings are often a disgrace to their nation” and “the cry that led people to storm the Bastille is right out of the Social Compact” However, it is necessary to recognise that the king did not so much to accentuate the problem; rather it was his contentedness in maintaining the status quo and refusal to believe he was a poor leader. Furthermore, this cause is also politically linked to the failure of France’s Parliament, who at the time was known as the States-General.
This parliament was essentially useless as not only did the nobility and clergy hold much more power than the peasants but the parliament held no power itself and from 1614 to 1789, the parliament never met meaning all the power of France was, one could argue vested upon the King. Additionally, this means that although the King was a failure, arguably it was not all his fault as there was no system in control of the King’s power. Louis XVI also had to deal with many problems left behind by his father, who also was a poor leader, therefore Louis had no good example of how to rule a nation. This meant he was unable to cope in political affairs, indecisive and lacked firmness and self-belief leading to an abundance of misgovernment. Louis actions widened the gap between the rich and poor as he did not do anything to solve it. Furthermore, anger was instilled in the hearts of the French due to their King’s lack of leadership and support and this ultimately favoured the outbreak of the Revolution.
The most important cause was the system of the Three Estates and Taxation. The three estates in France were: the clergy, the nobility, and the peasants/bourgeoisie. The first two estates, the clergy and the nobility were exempted from taxes, which laid the taxation burden on the Third Estate, the peasants. The peasants were the poorest of the three estates and were forced to bear the burden of the taxes. This inequality led to a general resentment of the feudal system, which was especially dangerous given that 97% of France’s populace belonged to the third estate. After the Seven Years’ War, France faced severe financial difficulties and needed economic reform. Not only was the Crown facing enormous debt from this war, but the method of collecting taxing was completely disorganized. Individuals appointed by Louis XVI attempted to reform taxation by including the Nobles and Clergy.
His finance ministers (ie. Turgot and Necker) were unsuccessful in addressing the deficit situation, largely because they faced fierce opposition from the first and second estate. However, had Louis invoked the ‘lit de justice’ (which would force the reforms to pass), his finance minister may have stood a better chance. In comparison, Louis was as damaging to his country as the expenditures of the French Crown during the Seven Years’ War and the American Revolution ultimately led to the bankruptcy of the Crown. This was due to no major reforms from the monarchy as they still lived luxuriously event was also caused by a standstill in economics; no reforms were successfully carried out. Furthermore, within the Third Estate, there was the Emergence of the Bourgeoisie. The men from the upper end of the Third Estate in France were known as the bourgeoisie. This emerging middle class was well educated and rich.
However, they held no political power because they were still considered part of the Third Estate, the peasantry, and because of their unfair refusal to be upgraded, anger rose between the Bourgeoisie and the other estates, again heightening the intensity of a revolution. Another important cause of the French Revolution was the era of Enlightenment and from 1712 to 1778 Jean Jacques Rousseau emerged as an Enlightenment philosopher from France who lobbied for the rights of the masses. He came from the lower classes of society and believed that equality, freedom and justice should be the foundations of a country. Philosophers and great teachers wanted the French people who were of a particular lower class to realize they were treated unfairly and had to do something about it. “It is time to teach kings that the silence of the laws about their crimes is the ill consequence of their power and not the will of reason or equity. . . .” This speech gathered that the king was to blame and was the silent consequence as to the position they were in.
In conclusion, the cause of the French Revolution wasn’t one major cause but a series of causes that caused the worsening and heightening of the occurrence of the revolution. The King was weak and had no discipline, while his wife was ignorant of the needs of the people. Along with France was in debt and economically high prices and famine caused the march to Versailles. France was in a deteriorating situation where Enlightenment and the American Revolution showed the people and influenced them to act. However, if it had not been for the drastic differences and privileges between the Three Estates then other factors would not have needed to occur. The unfair tax system of people who had little and needed to give a lot was a system open for ridicule and was a system waiting to explode into an angry revolution. To some extent at least, it came not because France was backward, but because the country’s economic and intellectual was not matched by social and political change.” These two factors majorly led to the cause of the French Revolution.
- John P miller
- (Citizen: A Chronicle of the French Revolution, Simon Schama at 65
- Charles Francois writes about French participants in the American War of Independence
- Stated by Voltaire
- Jean-Jacques Rousseau – Father of the French Revolution
- The Social Compact…“That we are morally responsible for the state of the social world, if it is corrupt it is because we tolerate it.” Rousseau
- Speech of Marquis de Condorcet (December 3, 1792)