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
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
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
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.