What were the main reasons of French Revolutions in 1789?
Before the French Revolution, which occurred in 1789, France was termed as one of the affluent, as well as among the most powerful countries in Europe. However, the failure of the French monarchy to tackle the new social certainties led to the rise of enlightenment principles in the 1780s. One of the underlying reasons for the emergence of the French Revolution was lack of government finances. At the middle of the economic crisis, the monarch was experiencing a serious shortage of funds, yet the government was spending on wars and royal lavishness. Although the Revolution began due to financial pressure, the origin was due to political grievances. Thus, the main reasons why the French Revolution emerged could be attributed to socio-cultural, political, economic, and financial factors.
Social and Cultural Causes
The root causes of the famous French Revolution had something to do with the situation of the French society. The eighteenth-century philosophers engaged in the research on the foundations of the law and order within the societies and found that the political power and wealth were features of the aristocrats and clergies while a large number of people were made servants of the clergies and aristocrats. Most of the people in France depended on agriculture for their livelihood. Since the Middle Ages, French social structure incorporated both privileged and deprived communities, who were divided into three estates. According to Duiker and Spielvogel, the First Estate was made of the clergy, who possessed 10% of the land, and were exempted from paying chief tax (526). The clergy is split into two: upper strata and the lower strata. The upper strata of the clergy were quite influential in the making of the government policy, in addition to managing church affairs. The lower strata were true servants of the populace and spent an ordinary but miserable life.
The Second Estate belonged to the nobility, who held the leading positions within the government, law courts, army, and in the religious offices. The nobles owned 25 to 30% of the country’s land (Duiker and Spielvogel 532). They were also freed from paying chief tax to the monarch. Being born a noble guaranteed an individual a place within the top social order, in addition to legal privileges that included immunity from punishment, as well as leadership in the military. The nobility is also divided into two clusters: (1) the court nobles and (2) the provincial nobles. The court nobles enjoyed splendor and opulence, and they overlooked the problems experienced by the common people. Conversely, the provincial nobles were responsive of the common man’s needs.
The Third Estate, which was the lowest social class, had no privileges; it was governed by the upper classes, as well as the middle classes. The Third Estate incorporated the skilled craftspeople, shop-owners, as well as other wage earners within the cities. The Third Estate, or the commoners, outlined a heterogenous class, which also consisted of farmers and semi-skilled laborers. The commoners formed the largest part of the population, and owned little or no land, as they were mostly servants of the clergies and the nobles. They are the only social group that paid all forms of taxes. The bourgeoisie are the most essential part of the Third Estate because they possess wealth and social status. However, when the prices of commodities began to rise without an increase in wages, and particularly in cities, the Third Estate directed their aggression to the government, which had no means to calm their anger.
The emergence of the new bourgeoisie within the commoners led to the outburst of the Revolution, as they were able to incite the commoners to claim for their rights. The commoners were later joined by the lower clergy group and the provincial nobles, who understood their problems. The taxes were burdensome and overwhelming, yet the wages were not rising. This brought more resentment to the peasants, whose effort was used to maintain the First Estate group. Thus, the French Revolution was also dubbed as the “Bourgeoisie Revolution” because it emanated from the bourgeoisie who were aggravated by the wastefulness of the upper clergies.
Certainly, ideas can contribute towards historical transformation when such ideas offer the direction to enhance human nature. The French Revolution emerged from the concepts of the philosophic Enlightenment that preceded it (Polanyi and Allen 86). The Enlightenment philosophy weighed down the power of the monarch, as well as that of the church. Before the commoners’ plan for a Revolution, they held the notion that life has to remain as it was and nothing could change it. However, philosophers encouraged people to think beyond their means, and when they realized that they had been slaves to the aristocrats and clerics they began to contemplate on a revolution. Enlightenment philosophy helped in establishing a society that valued reasons rather than traditions. People were eager to fight for equality at all cost.
The French Revolution was largely a political movement that involved a massive dismissal of the assumptions that emphasized on ancient regime’s authority over public life. People were angered by the style of leadership that France had taken, that the king was abusing his power. The French kings perceived themselves as God’s representatives on Earth, and made their will become law. The country assumed the absolute rule system, which restricted the commoners from participating on the issues of governance. One of the most annoying tactics that the kings applied was the “sealed letters,” which were utilized to arrest and imprison the perceived law breakers (Ballard 1). The letters made people feel unsafe even when they had not broken any law.
The eighteenth century saw the population of France rising rapidly, particularly in the rural area, where people practiced farming. However, the rural majority were peasants, who rented land from the wealthy individuals, and were compelled to part with taxes in order to be permitted to grow crops. While the lords were required to surrender part of the tax collected from the peasants to the government, they kept much of the tax for themselves. The peasants were annoyed that their sweat was misused by people who already owned properties.
Prior to the French Revolution, the monarch did not have a universal law. Judges did not have any reference book, thus, laws were applied sparingly and were based on regions. The provincial judicial boards and religious groups made their own laws to be administered in their own regions. All essential political decisions were made subjectively without consultation. The French administration was criticized for being a hotbed of favoritism while administrative posts were specifically taken by the nobles and aristocrats, regardless of their educational qualifications. Taxes were administered based on social classes while privileges such as voting and the rights to liberty, are awarded on the basis of a person’s status.
Since the seventeenth-century, the French monarchy undertook its operations without having a legislature. The kings exploited their powers by burdening the commoners with high taxes and borrowing money to sustain their lavish lifestyles. They also sold noble titles to deny some individuals privileges to be exempted from paying taxes. The conflict that emerged between the monarch and the aristocrats resulted in paralysis and bankruptcy in the government after the efforts to enhance tax collection system hit a snag. The commoners carried the largest burden of paying taxes, despite earning meager wages and paying tithe in churches. France exercised the authority to raise its tax revenue internally, but unstable land boundaries restricted the tax collection in some regions. Tax collectors also worked to enhance their lifestyles, thus, were involved in unlawful deals to benefit their personal needs.
Louis XVI inherited a huge debt from Louis XV, his grandfather, who spent heavily during the American Revolution. Louis XVI was compelled to capitulate to the demands that the Parlement of Paris brought to him. The Estates-General was ignored on matters that concerned the commoners and had not met for more than a hundred years. He also encountered bitter opposition from provincial courts, which contributed largely in awarding the privileged members of society. The nobles went against the king’s decision by inciting the Third Estate groups to criticize the king’s power, which lead to the first level of the revolution. This was demonstrated during the day of the tiles, when the king had made an attempt to coerce the parliament to permit him to take a loan that would enable the country to balance its deficit. The attempt to disperse the parliamentarians at Grenoble was met by a strong opposition
The revolutionaries perceived the monarchy as despotic, despite having all checks and balances. They were aware that they were not only challenging the monarchy, but also the underlying assumptions that expressed French social and rational life. The feeling of discontentment among the peasants concerning the autocratic rule made them to push of political change after being sidelined for many years through unequal distribution of powers. A growing number of commoners began to embrace the ideas of equality, freedom, and rights of the individuals during the Age of Enlightenment. The Revolution helped in the institution of a new political culture among the French communities. When people become aware of their destiny, they can encourage each other to push for changes that would facilitate better lifestyle.
The American Revolutionary War also contributed in the emergence of the French Revolution. France was eager to assist America to defeat Britain and take pride through its cultural influence. In addition, the French wanted to learn from America on the aspects of liberty and equality, thus, the French people who participate in the American Revolution were inspired philosophically by the Americans. Through the Enlightenment, the American Revolution was able to influence the French to institute their Revolution. The fight for human rights, freedom, and speech could have been delayed if the French people did not participate in the American Revolution.
Economic causes were critical in the French Revolution, as without them, perhaps the Revolution would not have occurred. A country is likely to experience an economic crisis if it fails to sustain its output while people would experience a shortage of resources during an economic crisis. France was experiencing a major economic crisis just before the Revolution, owing to the royal debt. The economic circumstance of France led to the outburst of the French Revolution, as the commoners become discontented due to food shortage and economic instability. The peasants encountered a difficult life since they lived below the subsistence levels.
France became bankrupt owing to engagement in numerous wars, which included the Seven Years War, and the American Independence War. The war led to humongous spending on the military, in addition to advancing protective measures within the country’s borders. The auditing of the government accounts opened an avenue to corruption, as accountants took the advantage to enrich their personal needs. The only option that remained was to raise taxes, and the culprits were the peasants. The attempt to make everyone pay tax was deemed to receive an opposition by the parlement while the peasants would complain of high taxes.
Poor leadership within the monarch led to ineffective economic strategies, which consequently resulted in food insecurity. The deregulation of the market for grains, which was supported by liberal economists, led to an increase in the price o bread. Bread was the only affordable commodity that could feed the peasants, thus, when the price went up, many families felt agitated, leading to concern to the authority (Lefebvre and White 7). The fiscal problem was escalated by food scarcity that occurred in the 1780s due to crop failure. The country was unable to import food to feed its people due to heavy debts. The bourgeoisie who were hardworking and educated managed to convince the rest of the commoners to rally behind them to push for a change in the leadership.
Backward agricultural methods, as well as internal tariff barriers contributed towards recurrent food shortages while speculators took the chance to hoard the products to benefit from the high prices. During the period of low harvests, the commodity became scarce, leading to mass rebellion. Speculation by grain owners led to increase in prices, as well as grain shortage. The grain conflict, which was dubbed “the Flour War of 1775” led to demonstrations everywhere, as the commoners prevented convoys from transporting grains in other places and sell to them at a fair price (McPhee 35). Crop failure also compelled rural residents to migrate to urban areas leading to overcrowding and unemployment.
The collapse of the French government finances triggered a revolution, as the Third Estate endeavored to overturn the political situation after a meeting to resolve the financial crisis. The French government spent a huge sum of money to support the U.S. in the American Revolutionary War, which left its coffers in a catastrophic shape. The French government wanted to retaliate against the British government, which defeated France during the Seven Years War. When the governmental expenditures became unsustainable, Louis XVI called a meeting (the Estate-General), which was similar to a parliamentary sitting (Duiker and Spielvogel 526).
The debt made France to experience a financial crisis, which aggravated resentment from the commoners. The country could have avoided debts, repudiate them, or establish a mechanism to repay them, but the ministers did not see the need to do any of the above. King Louis XVI engagement in extravagance expenditures for prestige amounted to unsustainable debt. His predecessor, Louis XV had already incurred a fiscal problem after failing to reach an agreement between conflicting parties concerning economic policies. The country was unable to prevent a revolution because it lacked the financial strength to instill proper administration tactics among its subject.
Although France was largely involved in import and export trade, such trade did not play a key role in fostering industrialization. The plantation economy experienced a crisis after the monarch’s engagement in the Seven Years War due to a rise in production costs (Andress 16-17). Planters were unable to pay the French merchants, who took the plantations as a repayment of debts. However, the French merchants were incapable of running the plantations profitably wheelie the continuous growing of colonial crops were an effort to pay off debts. Thus, the struggle to remain in import-export trade contributed to financial inadequacy, which consequently pushed for the revolution.
Revolutionary Constitutional Reign
The French government realized too late that it required addressing the rising tension among the commoners, particularly recognizing that it could not raise taxes. Other European countries seemed to have discovered that the monarchy was in a crisis and became cautious when dealing with it. When the commoners became impatient of the monarchy, they opted to act, and on 5 October 1789, a group of working women gathered at the Palace of Versailles, the home of the monarchy leader. The group claimed that the queen was living a frolicsome lifestyle that went against is inclination. Parisians forced the king to accept the Revolutionary leaders’ demand to establish a municipal government that incorporates all social groups while the National Guard was to be organized by people who served in the American Revolution.
The Revolution assisted in the establishment of the French constitution, which allowed for a limited monarchy, where all executive power was answerable to the legislative assembly. The constitution constrained voting in the assembly and instead allowed the upper and middle classes to engage in voting. The Declaration was made in the national assembly, which awarded sovereignty to all individuals. The nobility was stripped from the privilege of not paying the tax although they were permitted to retain their titles. The influence from the culture of Enlightenment made people to realize that religious leaders were misusing them. The aristocrats and nobles ignored the religious rationalization for rules, as well as the progressive trends instilled by the highest echelon in the monarchy.
France was heading towards bankruptcy due to heavy debt that was accrued through military expenditure and lavish lifestyle by the monarchy leaders while the country was unable to collect adequate tax to settle the debts. The tensions that emerged in the process of safeguarding the colonial empire, enhancement of international trade, borrowing extra money, as well as strengthening the army, contributed in the cause of the French Revolution. The classification of people into estates made the lowest social class to rebel against the despotic and corrupt practices by the top and the middle classes. Food scarcity and taxation among the commoners angered them, leading to the revolution. The bourgeoisie, which was part of the Third Estate, played a critical role in the French Revolution as they became the voice of common people. They objected the rules instilled by the monarchy because they were hardworking and educated. The monarchy was left with no option but to surrender to the commoners’ demands.
Andress, David. The Oxford Handbook of the French Revolution. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014. Print.
Ballard, Richard. A New Dictionary of the French Revolution. London: I.B. Tauris, 2012. Print.
Duiker, William J, and Jackson J. Spielvogel. World History. Australia: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2013. Print.
Lefebvre, Georges, and Joan White. The Great Fear of 1789: Rural Panic in Revolutionary France. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014. Internet resource.
Polanyi, Michael, and R T. Allen. Society, Economics & Philosophy: Selected Papers. New Brunswick, N.J: Transaction Publishers, 2011. Print.