Causes of the French Revolution
Every new society is soon in need of a graveyard and a prison [Nathaniel Hawthorne]
Revolution in France
The road to revolution in France was not nearly as (relatively) peaceful as in the US. It was long, bloody, and did not result in anything quite so concrete or positive being decided. There were three main causes of the revolution:
- The successors of Louis XIV (who reigned for 70 years)
were not his equals
- France was deeply in debt
- France was suffering from inflation
During the reign of Louis XV (Louis XIV’s great-grandson), most of Frances’ wealth came from trade. This caused the port cities to get all the money, and so the non-coastal cities were back in the dark ages and never saw any reward for their labour. Louis XV reigned for 60 years. He was seen as weak and easily manipulated. (For example, he had a mistress who exerted power publicly and made him lose face.) His poor personality and public image caused a decline in the idealism that characterised the Age of Absolutism. He died in 1774. His most famous quote was, “After me, the deluge.” (He was right about that.)
Louis XVI was Louis XV’s grandson. He was the one who helped the nascent America during their revolution – which had seemed like a good investment at the time, but it put a real strain on the French economy, which was already performing badly. On top of this, France was squabbling with Russia, and Louis' wife, Marie-Antoinette, was from Austria, a supporter of Russia.
Deteriorating economic conditions caused things to come to a head, finally leading to the French Revolution. Since the country was broke, Louis had decided to raise taxes. Of the Three Estates, he exempted the First Estate (the Clergy) and the Second Estate (the Nobility) from taxation. Only the Third Estate (the peasants and the bourgeoisie or merchant class) was left to shoulder the increasingly heavy tax burden. Since the Third Estate comprised 80 - 90% of the population, the time was ripe for revolution. Versailles went from being a source of pride to being seen as a symbol of decadence. There were outbreaks of violence, and many places refused to pay the taxes which had been imposed. The Absolute Monarchy was no longer holding together. Louis responded by reinstating an old idea, namely the Estates General, an organisation of elected representatives designed to reduce royal power. It had not met in 175 years when it was called on to meet once more at Versailles. All Estates had their representatives; however, as so much time had passed, there was quarreling over the exact etiquette that should be followed. If each Estate got one vote, the Third Estate would always be overruled, even though they represented the vast majority of the people. So the Third Estate recommended one person, one vote. This reform was blocked, however, so the Third Estate broke off and changed its name to the National Assembly. Three days later, officials at Versailles locked them out of their meeting place. In defiance, the National Assembly met in a nearby indoor tennis court and produced the Tennis Court Oath. This oath stated that members needed to stick together, to continue meeting until they got their way. They felt that the sovereignty of the people resided in the people themselves and in their elected representatives. A resolution was issued which stated that sovereignty had been moved from the king to the people.
One week later, Louis XVI stated that he would allow the Assembly to meet together to hammer out a constitution. This was seen as an initial victory for the peasants and this encouraged the people. The masses in Paris felt that since they had won a concession, they needed to take action to ensure future victories. Apparently, they decided one such action was to storm The Bastille, an armory, presumably to seize the arms so that they couldn’t be used against the people. This act turned out to be mainly symbolic because there were no arms to speak of in the Bastille to seize and there were only about 6 prisoners at that time. The action was bloody, but the peasants won. Oddly, they felt they had somehow finally been freed (but the worst was yet to come). Immediately, some of the onerous taxes were repealed.
After some debate, the National Assembly came up with the Declaration of the Rights of Man (Thomas Paine contributed to this). Some of the key features were that "Men are born and remain free and equal in rights," "Mankind's natural rights, are Liberty, Property, Security, and Resistance to Oppression" and "Every man is assumed innocent until proven guilty." There were also some freedom of expression clauses and assurances of representative forms of government. There was pressure during the writing of the declaration for the rights to apply to women as well (they were intended only for men). So women were given the right to divorce and to hold property - but not to vote nor to hold office.
Eventually, Louis realised that he would be in grave danger if he did not acquiesce, and so he agreed to a constitutional monarchy. However, he took several months to decide this, and that was a little too long - mobs were taking matters into their own hands, palace guards were killed, and finally Louis and his family were temporarily taken to Paris for their safety, where they were held virtually as prisoners. Due to the anarchy breaking out, mobs were common, and a war with Britain somehow started. Things were spiraling out of control. At this point came the ascendancy of Napoléon Bonaparte.
The French Revolution was a bit more desperate than the American one. The Americans weren’t trying to overthrow the British style of government – they just wanted to return to the laissez faire policy they thought had existed in the past. Plus, America was wealthy – they were not starving. They were less heavy-handed in their reforms. They did not really have to overthrow a preexisting government, and the Enlightenment figures in America were a lot more passive. In France, the peasants and the philosophes did not always agree, though they thought they did at first. France was plagued by misunderstandings, incompetence, impatience, and greed.
France looked to America for guidance.