Causes of the French Revolution

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There is significant disagreement among historians of the French Revolution as to its causes. Usually, they acknowledge the presence of several interlinked factors, but vary in the weight they attribute to each one. These factors include: cultural change, normally associated with the Enlightenment; social change, often emphasised by Marxist historians; financial and economic difficulties; and the political actions of the involved parties.


Social background

The 17th-century French playwright Moliere (1622-73) catalogued the social-climbing essence of the bourgeoisie in Le Bourgeois gentilhomme (1670) Moliere - Nicolas Mignard (1658).jpg
The 17th-century French playwright Molière (1622–73) catalogued the social-climbing essence of the bourgeoisie in Le Bourgeois gentilhomme (1670)

Throughout the early modern period a class of wealthy middlemen who connected producers emerged; the bourgeois. These bourgeois played a fundamental role in the French economy, accounting for 39.1% of national income despite only accounting for 7.7% of the population. [1] Under the Ancien Régime they were part of the Third Estate, as they were neither clergymen (the First Estate) or nobles (the Second Estate). Given their powerful economic position, and their aspirations on a class-wide level, the bourgeois wanted to ascend through the social hierarchy which was formalised, as aforementioned, into the Estate system. This is reflected by cahiers submitted by members of the Third Estate in March to April 1789: those of Carcassonne demanded that Louis "assure to the third estate the influence to which it is entitled in view of...its contribution to the public treasury". [2] This desire for higher social position resulted in high levels of bourgeois entryism into the Second Estate throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. This entryism was enabled by several factors, for example the poverty of many noble families meant that they married bourgeois families; the nobles gained bourgeois wealth, the bourgeois gained noble status. Moreover, corruption was rife, with many bourgeois simply attaching the noble particle 'de' to their name, or assuming nonexistent titles. Investigations into this behaviour were stopped in 1727. Furthermore, many governmental offices and positions were sold to raise cash - the bourgeois bought these positions and hence were ennobled; by 1765, 6,000 families had gained nobility through this method. [3] [4] This entryism resulted in significant social tension, as the nobles were angered that these bourgeois were entering their ranks (despite often having been bourgeois themselves one or two generations previously) and the bourgeois were angered that the nobles were resultantly trying to prevent them ascending and being disdainful even if they did ascend.

As such, there was significant social tension between the dominant classes at the time of the French Revolution. Furthermore, significant resentment was felt by the poorer members of the Third Estate (industrial and rural labourers), largely due to vast increases in the cost of living. From 1741 to 1785, there was a 62% increase in real cost of living. Due to a variety of factors, including poor harvests, in 1789 itself there was a 25% fall in real wages and an 88% increase in the price of bread. This resulted in anger at the establishment, that is the aristocracy and the King, who were perceived as being to blame for the economic crisis. Combined with this more immediate issue was an underlying problem of the inequality of land distribution; peasants made up approximately 80% of the French population, but only owned 35% of the land. [5] They were often tenant farmers who had to pay various dues to their noble landlords, taxes which were often disproportionately high in comparison to the peasant-farmers' income.

Beyond these relatively established facts regarding the social conditions surrounding the French Revolution, there is significant dissent among historians. Marxist historians, such as Lefebvre and Soboul, see the social tensions described here as the main cause of the Revolution, as the Estates-General allowed them to manifest into tangible political action; the bourgeois and the lower classes were grouped into the Third Estate, allowing them to jointly oppose the establishment. Others see the social issues as important, but less so than the Enlightenment or the financial crisis; François Furet is a prominent proponent of the former, Simon Schama of the latter.

Cultural change

There are two main points of view with regard to cultural change as a cause of the French Revolution; the direct influence of Enlightenment ideas on French citizens, meaning that they valued the ideas of liberty and equality discussed by Rousseau and Voltaire et al, or the indirect influence of the Enlightenment insofar as it created a "philosophical society". The Enlightenment ideas were particularly popularised by the influence of the American War of Independence on the soldiers who returned, and of Benjamin Franklin himself, who was a highly dynamic and engaging figure in the French court when he visited. [6] [7] The French publication of Locke's Treatises in 1724 also played an important role in influencing both pre-Revolutionary and post-Revolutionary ideology. [8]

Proponents of the Enlightenment being a major cause, or indeed the major cause, of the French Revolution usually assert that the Estates-General was an opportunity for these ideas to be expressed. When the First and Second Estates, as well as the King, failed to respond to the Third Estates demands, they eschewed the authority of the King, resulting in the Tennis Court Oath and the subsequent development of the Revolution. Furet, the foremost proponent of the 'philosophical society' nuance to this view, says that the ideas of the Enlightenment were discussed in clubs and meetings "where rank and birth were second to...abstract argument". [9] This resulted in a breakdown of the stratification that still divided the bourgeois and the nobles, fundamentally changing France's social organisation. As such, when the Estates-General was called, its rigid organisation into Third Estate and Second Estate conflicted with the new, informal organisation, and caused dissent; the Third Estate had attained equal status to the nobility, in their view, and when they demanded that the Estates meet as equals, the King's refusal triggered their secession from royal authority. Furet and others argue that the direct influence of Enlightenment ideas only played a part after the Revolution had begun, insofar as it was used to justify revolutionary action and fill the lack of central, guiding ideology that disillusionment with the monarchy had created.

1822 depiction of the 1596 Assembly of Notables in Rouen Rouget - Assemblee des notables a Rouen (4 novembre 1596).jpg
1822 depiction of the 1596 Assembly of Notables in Rouen

Financial crisis

The financial crisis of the French crown played a role in both creating the social background to the Revolution, generating widespread anger at the Court, and (arguably most importantly) forcing Louis to call the Estates-General. The Court was deeply in debt, which in conjunction with a poor financial system, created a crisis. [10] In order to service the debt, given the Crown could find no more willing lenders, Louis attempted to call upon the nobility via an Assembly of Notables. However, the nobility refused to help - their power and influence had been steadily reduced since the reign of Louis XIV - and hence Louis was forced to rely upon the Estates-General. This meant that the discontented Third Estate (damaged by poor policy and low standards of living) were given the opportunity to air their grievances, and when they did not receive the desired response, the Revolution proper began; they denied the authority of the King and set up their own government.

Causes of debt

The French Crown's debt was caused by both individual decisions, such as intervention in the War of Independence and the Seven Years' War, [11] and underlying issues such as an inadequate taxation system. The War of Independence alone cost 1.3 billion livres, [12] [13] more than double the Crown's annual revenue, and in a single year - 1781 - 227 million livres were spent on the campaign. The Seven Years' War was even more costly, at 1.8 billion livres, [14] and the war preceding that, the War of the Austrian Succession cost another billion livres. [15] France faced an impossible dilemma: how to both maintain its international position and status by engaging in these conflicts, and how to fund them with an archaic and grossly inefficient system.

Le Traite de la Police
by Nicolas de La Mare (1707): under the Ancien Regime, the police regulated price, quality and supply of bread. Traite de la Police par Nicolas de La Mare.jpg
Le Traité de la Police
by Nicolas de La Mare (1707): under the Ancien Régime, the police regulated price, quality and supply of bread.

The financial system was ineffective in multiple ways. First, despite the Capet's attempts to limit their power, the nobility still wielded significant influence at Court; when Silhouette, a Controller-General, suggested taxing luxury items, he was removed from office due to noble opposition. Second, there was a system of tax immunities and feudal privileges that allowed many of France's wealthy citizens to avoid many taxes, notwithstanding the fact that few direct taxes were levied in the first place. The vingtieme, a tax of 5% successively imposed on the nobility, was indeed paid, but this additional revenue was nowhere near enough to allow the Crown to maintain the levels of spending it needed, or wanted, to. The capitation was also imposed, a tax that varied with social status and the number of people in the family, but this too was insufficient. The tax that was collected, a significant sum, was fixed at certain levels at the government through a system of tax farming; private individuals and groups were asked to collect a fixed amount of tax on behalf of the government, and could keep any excess. When the government failed to accurately forecast the levels of tax that they could collect, they did not benefit from any increase in national output. Furthermore, due to the obvious financial difficulties of the French Crown and the lack of a central bank, lenders demanded higher interest rates to compensate them for the higher risk; France faced interest rates twice as high as Britain did, which further increased the cost of servicing the debt and hence worsened the Crown's problems.

Impact of financial ministers

One of the ministers that Louis turned to in order to resolve the financial crisis was Turgot, financial minister from 1774-1776. Turgot abolished the regulations surrounding the food supply, which to this point had been strictly controlled by the royal police: they monitored the purity of bread flour, prevented price manipulation via hoarding, and controlled the inflows and outflows of grain to regions facing good and bad harvests. [16] [17] This caused rampant speculation and a breakdown of interregional import-export dynamics; famine and dissent (the Flour War) ensued. Turgot was forced to restore regulation and repress the riots. Though resolved, the failed experiment led to deep distrust of the monarchy, with rumours of their intention to starve the war both prevalent and widely believed.

In 1783, Calonne was appointed as financial minister; Calonne, ahead of his time, advocated increasing public spending to drive up consumption and hence increase the country's GDP and tax revenues. However, this policy also failed, and only resulted in higher debt and France facing a primary deficit for the first time. The total fiscal deficit reached 140 million in 1787. [18] [19]

Necker, appointed in 1777-1781 and 1788-1789, used his connections with European banks to facilitate lending in order to fund wars and service the debt, but this proved a temporary measure (as might be expected) and had little long term value.

Environmental factors

First page of the Encyclopedie methodique published in 1782 (Panckoucke, Paris). Encyclopedie methodique T1 1782.png
First page of the Encyclopédie méthodique published in 1782 (Panckoucke, Paris).

In 1788 and 1789 there were poor harvests, perhaps triggered by the 1783 Laki eruption in Iceland. [20] This caused bread prices to rise in conjunction with falling wages, and hence led to further discontent and rural revolt. [21] [22]

Alternative views of France's social issues

On the other hand, while the financial crisis and the resultant social issues France faced have often been cited as a major cause of the Revolution, some historians attack this point of view. Lucas, for example, asserts that the bourgeois and nobility were not in fact that distinct, evidencing his argument with the bourgeois entryism and the a priori suggestion that it makes little sense for the bourgeois to attack a system that they are trying to become part of. Lucas places the break between bourgeois and nobles at the moment of the Estates-General, rather than earlier, asserting that it was only when the bourgeois were relegated to the Third Estate that they took issue with the nobility, seeing themselves as equated to "vulgar commoners". [23] Along the same lines, Behrens contests the traditional view of the failure of the tax system, arguing that the nobles in reality paid more tax than their English counterparts and that only one of the privileges enumerated by the Encyclopédie Méthodique relates to taxation. [24] Moreover, Lucas argues that many fiefs were owned by non-nobles - for example, in 1781 22% of the lay seigneurs in Le Mans weren't noble - and that commercial families, the bourgeois, also invested in land. Revisionist historians such as these also contest the view that the nobility were fundamentally opposed to change, noting that 160 signatories of the Tennis Court Oath had the particle 'de'. [25] This is also a view advocated by Chateaubriand, who notes in his memoirs that "The severest blows struck against the ancient constitution of the State were delivered by noblemen. The patricians began the Revolution, the plebeians completed it". [26] On the other hand, the Marquis de Ferrières believed there was "an accursed cabal" within the nobility who wanted to thwart any possibility of compromise. [27]

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