The French Revolution (1789-1799) was one of the pivotal moments in the history of the Western world. It transformed French society and politics and threatened the entire established order of Europe.
The factors responsible for the emergence of the French Revolution are a significant subject of historical debate. Historians seek them in widespread dissatisfaction with the manifold social, economic and political incongruities of the ancien régime.
French society in the 18th century was a kind of hybrid, neither entirely free of its feudal past nor entirely caught up in it. It was divided into three orders or estates: the clergy (the First Estate), the nobility (the Second Estate), and the Third Estate. The Third Estate, because it included everyone not in the First or Second Estates, consisted of a wide variety of people from different sections of the French society such as artisans, peasants, wage-earners, bourgeoisie etc.
Members of the French nobility enjoyed a considerable degree of freedom from direct taxation. They were virtually immune from payment of the principal direct tax, the taille, and evaded payment of their share of the vingtieme and capitation which had been introduced to supplement the taille at the end of Louis XIV’s reign. The clergy, whose upper ranks belonged almost without exception to the nobility, enjoyed even greater financial privileges: in addition to the income derived as landowners from rents and feudal dues, they drew tithe and discharged their obligations to the exchequer by the payment of a relatively small percentage of their income in the form of a don gratuit or voluntary gift.
The Third Estate bore the burden of taxation. The French peasants, for instance, paid tithe to the Church; taille, vingtieme, capitation and gabelle to the State; and to the seigneur of their manor they discharged various services and payments such as corvée (forced labour on roads) and cens (feudal rent in cash).
The Old Regime, thus, was dominated by the first two estates. It was they who occupied the commanding heights of the French state and society and enjoyed all the prestige. In feudal society, when land had been virtually the only form of wealth, their privileged position had a secure economic base, but by the late 18th century it had become an anachronism. For by then the development of commerce and industry had created a new class, the bourgeoisie. Increasingly numerous, prosperous and self-confident, their sense of frustration sharpened by the growing exclusiveness of their social superiors, the bourgeois refused to tolerate indefinitely their subordinate position.
The degree of privilege that the privileged classes were able to enjoy depended in large measure on the degree of authority at the King’s command. In theory, the king of France exercised “absolute” power – that is, no person or institution could block his initiatives. Unlike Britain, France did not have a functioning national parliament; its equivalent in France, the Estates-General, a convocation representing all three Estates, had not met since 1614. In practice, however, the king depended on nobles, local elites, and royal officials to make his rule effective since he relied on them to carry out his will. The king’s control over his own bureaucracy was limited by the fact that royal offices had been bought and sold as personal property since the late Middle Ages. The royal officials who owned their offices paid a yearly tax to the crown in exchange for being able to pass on their offices as inheritable property.
The French middle classes became resentful of the extravagance, inefficiencies and tyranny of a court and government to whose upkeep they largely contributed but over which they had no control. The middle classes, for all their expanding prosperity, had other grievances as well. Among them were the obstacles to free exercise of trade and manufacture and their failure to realize social and political ambitions commensurate with their wealth.
Unlike his predecessor, Louis XVI, who came to the throne in 1774, wanted to bring about substantial reforms. Though Turgot’s, his Chief Minister, reforms were welcomed by the middle classes, they ran counter to the vested interests of the Parlements, the upper clergy and aristocratic faction at Court and thus were abandoned. His successors Calonne, Brienne and Necker faced similar rejections. Thus it was evident that no far-reaching measure could be introduced so long as the privileged orders were left in possession of their powers and influence at Court. This was sufficient to draw further hatred on the privileged orders and contempt on the monarchy that appeared to protect them.
Economic conditions also played an important role in bringing about the Revolution. The general prosperity of agriculture in the closing years of the ancien régime was grinding to a halt. After 1778, the year France entered the American Revolutionary War, there was a recession resulting in an unprecedented fall in prices. Besides the cyclical depression, came the sudden catastrophe of 1787-9 which brought poor harvest and shortages. The crisis severely affected the bulk of the peasantry. From agriculture it spread to industry, and unemployment, already developing due to a ‘free-trade’ treaty signed with Britain in 1786, reached disastrous proportions in Paris and the textile centres of Lyons and the north. Another consequence was that wage-earners and small consumers were compelled by the rapid rise in food prices to increase their daily expenditure on bread to amounts far beyond their means. Thus peasants and urban craftsmen and workers were drawn together in common hostility towards the government and landlords.
The political crisis resulted from the financial bankruptcy of the monarchy following French participation in the American War of Independence. Opinions vary as to the extent of the influence of the American Revolution and of its Declaration of Independence on the course of events in France, but there are no two opinions about the cataclysmic results that followed from France’s participation in the war. Though France was victorious and England suffered defeat, England survived with her economic position relatively unimpaired while France, having outstretched her resources, was left financially crippled.
Calonne, who became the Controller-General in 1783, faced with a deficit of a quarter of the nation’s annual revenue, declared a state of bankruptcy and called for drastic remedies to overcome it. It was decided to invite an assembly of handpicked ‘Notables,’ thought to be more amenable to persuasion, to consider the crisis. The Notables, however, refused to endorse the ministerial reforms, largely because their own cherished fiscal immunities were threatened. Instead they demanded the summoning of the Estates-General. The Ministry, however, turned this proposal down, thus provoking the ‘aristocratic revolt’ which tore the country apart for almost a year. The revolt ended with the defeat of the Ministry and a total victory of the Parlements and aristocracy. The government was also forced to concede to the demand of summoning of the Estates-General.
The situation changed after the Estates-General met at Versailles in May 1789. The King, faced with the irreconcilable demands of nobility and the Third Estate, chose to support the former, called in troops to Versailles and prepared to disperse the National Assembly, recently formed illegally by the Third Estate and its allies, by force of arms. This coup was averted by the intervention of the people of Paris. The peasants, stirred by the economic and political crises, had begun to take action of their own. A combination of forces- middle class, urban craftsmen and peasants- united in a common purpose with liberal aristocratic and clerical support, in June-August 1789, carried through the first major stage of the Revolution.
However, it needed more than economic hardship, social discontent and political crisis to make a revolution. There was, during this period, the development of a common ‘revolutionary psychology’ giving cohesion to the discontents and aspirations of widely varying social classes. New ideas associated with the 18th century intellectual movement known as the Enlightenment profoundly influenced the expectations of most educated people in France and the system of “orders,” based on inequalities of rights and privileges, came under attack during the movement.
Undoubtedly, Louis XVI faced a daunting task at the time when the institution of kingship was being challenged by intellectuals known as philosophes. The philosophes, men such as Voltaire, Rousseau, Montesquieu, Diderot, challenged the basic institutions of the State, most notably the monarchy and the church, the pillars of the Old Regime. They used reason and criticism to attack existing inequities, such as unfair taxation, unjust laws, slavery, the evils of war, religious intolerance, bigotry, superstition. But in leveling such charges they eroded the prestige and power of the king and weakened his ability to bring about the very changes they advocated.
The Enlightenment might have remained in the realm of ideas if they had not been able to reshape public opinion. More books were published in the 18th century than ever before, and more people could read. Cafes, newspapers, literary societies and Masonic lodges all grew in number toward the end of the 18th century. Enlightenment philosophes sometimes joined Masonic lodges and frequented cafes, but they also met in private circles called “salons,” where under the patronage of leading women of high society they would read their writings and discuss ideas.
The growth of new social institutions gave backbone to the “public” and provided a secular forum for the development of “public opinion.” Terms such as ‘citizen’, ‘nation’, ‘social contract’, ‘general will’ were entering into the common political vocabulary. It was the Enlightenment writers who, as Burke and Tocqueville point out, weakened the ideological defenses of the ancien régime.
Thus the French Revolution was the outcome of both long-term and short-term factors which arose from the social, economic political and ideological conditions prevalent during the ancien régime.