French revolution

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The French Revolution

What were the causes and the effects of the French Revolution? The

major cause of the French Revolution was the disputes between the different

types of social classes in French society. The French Revolution of 1789-

1799 was one of the most important events in the history of the world. The

Revolution led to many changes in France, which at the time of the

Revolution, was the most powerful state in Europe. The Revolution led to

the development of new political forces such as democracy and nationalism.

It questioned the authority of kings, priests, and nobles. The Revolution

also gave new meanings and new ideas to the political ideas of the people.

The French Revolution was spread over the ten year period between 1789

and 1799. The primary cause of the revolution was the disputes over the

peoples' differing ideas of reform. Before the beginning of the Revolution,

only moderate reforms were wanted by the people.

An example of why they

wanted this was because of king Louis XIV's actions. At the end of the

seventeenth century, King Louis XIV's wars began decreasing the royal

finances dramatically. This worsened during the eighteenth century. The use

of the money by Louis XIV angered the people and they wanted a new system

of government. The writings of the philosophes such as Voltaire and

Diderot, were critical of the government. They said that not one official

in power was corrupt, but that the whole system of government needed some

change. Eventually, when the royal finances were expended in the 1780's,

there began a time of greater criticism. This sparked the peasants notion

of wanting change.

Under the Old Regime in France, the king was the absolute monarch.

Louis XIV had centralized power in the royal bureaucracy, the government

departments which administered his policies. Together, Louis XIV and the

bureaucracy worked to preserve royal authority and to maintain the social

structure of the Old Regime.

At this time in French history, the social classes played an important

role in the lives of the people. The social structure of France was

divided among three groups: the First Estate, the Second Estate, and the

Third Estate. Each social group had a varied type of people within their

structure, which presented the different views of the people.

The First Estate was the Church. During the ancien regime, the church

was equal in terms of its social, economic, and spiritual power. The First

Estate owned nearly 10 per cent of all land in France. It paid no taxes

but, to support church activities such as school running and caring for the

poor, they collected a tithe, or a tax on income. About one-third of the

entire clergy in France served as parish priests. Also included in this

estate were the nobles. Some of the nobles lived in luxury in major cities

in France, such as Versailles or Paris. Parish priests usually lived a

hardworking life. This Estate was the minority of the people in France,

having approximately 1 to 2 per cent of the population.

The Second Estate in French life was the nobility. They enjoyed

extensive rights and privileges. They made up less than 2 percent of the

population. They, like the First Estate, paid hardly any taxes.

Economically, the nobility was characterized by great land wealth. Nobles

were generally the richest members of the society. Typical sources of

income were rents and dues for the use of their farms or estates. The

First and Second Estates were grouped together because they had similar

political beliefs.

The Third Estate consisted of the commoners. It included the

bourgeoisie, peasants and city workers. The bourgeoisie, or the middle

class, were by far, the wealthiest. In the bourgeoisie, there were the

merchants and manufacturers, lawyers, doctors and others similar to those

types of professions. Peasants made up the largest group within the Third

Estate. They were forced to pay hefty taxes, tithes to the church, and

rents to their landlords for the land that they lived on. The last group

within the Third Estate were the city workers. They were servants,

apprentices, and household maids.

The major cause of the Revolution were the differences these three

groups had. However, there was another important factor during these times.

France suffered from harsh economic problems. Poor farm harvests by

farmers hurt the economy, and trade rules from the Middle Ages still

survived, making trade difficult. However, the most serious problem was

the problem facing the government during this time. The French government

borrowed much money to pay for the wars of Louis XIV. Louis still borrowed

money to fight wars and to keep French power alive in Europe. These costs

greatly increased the national debt, which was, at the time, already too


When King Louis XVI came into power, he realized that these problems

existed. At first he did not know what to do, until he found a man by the

name of Robert Turgot. He eased the financial crisis of France, but he had

difficulties when he tried to introduce a major reform, that of taxing the

nobles. He had such difficulties because the king could not tax the nobles

unless the Parliament approved of the new tax laws. The people in the

courts that voted on these laws were the nobles, called nobles of the robe,

and therefore rejected Turgot's reform. After Turgot was rejected, the

king fired him from his office. This led Louis XVI to summon the Estates

General in 1789.

The Estates General was the place where representatives from each

social class could be represented. Here, many issues would be discussed,

and at this time in French history, it would be centered around the

economic crisis.

When the Estates General met in 1789, the deputies, or representatives,

from the Third Estate demanded that the three estates meet together, with

each deputy having an equal vote. That way, the First and Second Estates

could outvote the Third Estate. When the king heard of this, he demanded

that the three estates meet separately. This caused anger within the Third

Estate. The deputies from the Third Estate declared themselves the

National Assembly. Louis XVI quickly rejected these deputies from the

meeting hall. After a while, Louis XVI decided that it would be best if

the three estates met together. He ordered the other two estates to join

the Third Estate in the National Assembly.

Although now the three estates met together, there were divisions

among them. Some wanted to protect their rights, while others wanted to

establish a limited, constitutional monarchy. This sparked some change in

the French people.

Immediately after the National Assembly secretly began working on a

constitution, the peasants and workers expected relief from taxes and other

dues that they paid. Little happened, and they still faced their same

problems of unemployment and inflation. Then there were reports that Louis

XVI was bringing troops to Paris. This increased the peoples' fears.

When Louis brought troops to Versailles, many citizens feared that he

wanted to get rid of the National Assembly. As a result, they stormed the

Bastille. Other disturbances also broke out. People were caught up in

what was called the "Great Fear". Rumors passed from village to village

that robbers were destroying homes all over France. When no robbers showed

up, the peasants turned to their landlords. They destroyed grain towers,

and destroyed tax records, showing that they will never pay any taxes,

fines or dues ever again.

These events forced Louis to summon the National Assembly on August

4th. They people discussed possible reforms. On this day, the National

Assembly ended serfdom. Towards the end of August, the National Assembly

adopted the Declaration of the Rights of Man. It stated that democratic

principles would be the basis for French government. The job of turning

these ideas into a constitution still remained.

While the constitution was in the process of being made, an angry

crowd in Paris rioted, forcing the National Assembly to recognize their

demands. Some of these rioters were women. They were angry about food

prices. They also thought that the king and queen were going against the

National Assembly. They demanded that Louis return to Paris where they

could watch him. To prevent any further uprisings, he agreed.

Throughout France, all ancient customs were thrown away by the

revolution. The National Assembly called for freedom of worship and

abolished all special activities and privileges of the Catholic Church. To

raise money that was needed, the government began selling off church lands,

which angered many Catholics.

In 1791, the National Assembly brought forward a new const itution.

It made France a limited monarchy and established a system of separation of

powers. Under the constitution, the old distinctions between the clergy,

nobles, and commoners disappeared.

Few people were satisfied with the constitutional monarchy. Louis XVI

was frightened at the actions of the National Assembly. He fled the

country with his wife, but he was later arrested and brought back to accept

the constitution. After this action by the king, moderate revolutionaries

still wanted to preserve the constitutional monarchy, while the radicals

distrusted the king and wanted a republic.

These were the causes of the French Revolution. Many peoples' lives

were changed during this time. Peoples' ideas also changed.

After the war between France and Austria and Prussia, prices increased

dramatically, and food shortages occurred. When Louis XVI and his wife fled

to the Legislative Assembly, they were imprisoned. They called for a

national convention to write a new constitution. The National Convention

met in September. The National Convention tried and convicted Louis XVI of

treason. He was sentenced to death.

News of his death spread all throughout Europe. Monarchs of European

nations feared that the Revolution would spread. By 1793, the French

armies occupied the Austrian Netherlands and were about to invade Prussia.

But, in 1793, Great Britain, the Dutch Netherlands, and Spain went along

with Prussia and Austria in a war against France. With these five powerful

nations fighting against France, the French were outnumbered and outmatched.

This one war was very hard for France. This war caused many deaths at

home due to starvation. At this point in the Revolution, some people

thought that the Revolution had gone too far and should be put to an end.

In the effort to restore temporary peace in the society, the National

Convention made a constitution that created a Committee of Public Safety.

It campaigned against people who were considered enemies of France.

Maximilien Robespierre led the Committee of Public Safety. He wanted to

create a "Republic of Virtue". The Committee went all over France to help

other groups find traitors to France. During the Reign of Terror, trials

for the people were held often. Many people were brought to the guillotine

and killed. Most of the victims were commoners. This time of terror had

scared the people, and their revolts towards the government ended.

The Committee of Public Safety organized new and powerful armies to

protect itself from foreign invasion. The Committee also set limits on

prices and salaries.

By early in 1794, the French armies were winning battles again, but

supporters were asking if these executions of the people were still needed

in society. The National Convention then arrested Maximilien Robespierre,

and executed him, which ended the Reign of Terror.

Between the years of 1789 and 1794, French life had changed

dramatically. There were changes in the lifestyle of the people, as well

as in clothes and art. The monarchies were gone, and the king no longer

ruled. Te National Convention abolished all feudal customs and ended all

slavery. Revolutionary leaders also established the metric system. They

wanted to set up free public schools, but that never came about, due to the

economic problems.

In 1795, after the total ending of the Reign of Terror, the National

Convention established another constitution. It established a new system

of government called the Directory. This Directory, however, faced many

problems. The legislative deputies begged and "bought" political votes,

and prices rose sharply, something which the poor classes of society didn't

like. Along with these problems, it still followed a foreign policy. It

built the largest army in Europe during this time. This army were headed

by a great military leader, Napoleon Bonaparte.

In 1793, Napoleon won many battles against the British, and at this

time, he was a general. He next won battles over Italy, and in 1798, he

invaded Egypt. He defeated Egypt's army, but he had to pay for his victory.

At sea, the Egyptian Navy, led by Horatio Nelson, destroyed the French

fleet at the Nile river. This loss meant that the fleet could not take the

soldiers back to France, so, Napoleon left them there and he went back to

France. Unbeknownst to the people of France about the tragedy in Egypt, he

was still welcomed as a hero. When talking to the people at home, he found

that many people were not satisfied with the Directory. With the help of

troops, he overthrew the government in 1799. Under this new government,

Napoleon was called the First Consul. His military talents helped him to

win popular support. With his support, he was named the dictator of France.

This time in French History was important to the people of France

because of the different types of government they had. Socialism,

liberalism and nationalism all were results of the French Revolution. It

gave people the idea that if they tried, they could reorganize a society

whenever it was needed. The greatest legacy of the French Revolution,

however, was that people could change anything that they wanted with

political ideas, words and laws.