Causes of the French Revolution  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
French revolution

The Causes of the French Revolution are very significant historical factors lending to the instigation of the French Revolution. France in 1789, although facing some economic (especially taxation) difficulties and simplicities, was one of the richest and most powerful nations in Europe; Additionally, the masses of most other European powers had less freedom and a higher chance of arbitrary punishment. However, at the time Louis XVI called the Estates-General of 1789, his government as well as the nobility had become clearly unpopular.

The Ancien Régime in France was brought down partly by its own rigidity in the face of a changing world and partly by the ambitions of a rising bourgeoisie, allied with aggrieved peasants, wage-earners and various individuals of all classes influenced by the ideas of the Enlightenment. As the revolution proceeded and power devolved from the monarchy to legislative bodies, the conflicting interests of these initially allied groups would become the source of conflict and bloodshed.

Contents

Famine and malnutrition

Adherents of most historical models identify many of the same features of the Ancien Régime as being among the causes of the Revolution. Economic factors included widespread famine and malnutrition, due to rising bread prices (from a normal 8 sous for a 4-pound loaf to 12 sous by the end of 1789), which increased the likelihood of disease and death, and intentional starvation in the most destitute segments of the population in the months immediately before the Revolution. The famine extended even to other parts of Europe, and was not helped by a poor transportation infrastructure for bulk foods.

France on the verge of bankruptcy

Another cause was the fact that Louis XV fought many wars, bringing France to the verge of bankruptcy, and Louis XVI supported the colonists during the American Revolution, exacerbating the precarious financial condition of the government. The national debt amounted to almost two billion livres. The social burdens caused by war included the huge war debt, made worse by the monarchy's military failures and ineptitude, and the lack of social services for war veterans. The inefficient and antiquated financial system was unable to manage the national debt, something which was both caused and exacerbated by the burden of a grossly inequitable system of taxation.

Conspicuous consumption of the nobility

Another cause was the continued conspicuous consumption of the noble class, especially the court of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette at Versailles, despite the financial burden on the populace. High unemployment and high bread prices caused more money to be spent on food and less in other areas of the economy. The Roman Catholic Church, the largest landowner in the country, levied a tax on crops known as the dîme or tithe. While the dîme lessened the severity of the monarchy's tax increases, it worsened the plight of the poorest who faced a daily struggle with malnutrition. There was too little internal trade and too many customs barriers.

Enlightenment Ideology and Ideas

There were also social and political factors, many of which involved resentments and aspirations given focus by the rise of Enlightenment ideals. These included resentment of royal absolutism; resentment by the ambitious professional and mercantile classes towards noble privileges and dominance in public life, as many of these classes were familiar with the lives of their peers in commercial cities in the Netherlands and Great Britain; resentment by peasants, wage-earners, and the bourgeoisie toward the traditional seigneurial privileges possessed by nobles; resentment of clerical advantage (anti-clericalism) and aspirations for freedom of religion, resentment of aristocratic bishops by the poorer rural clergy, continued hatred for Catholic control, and influence on institutions of all kinds by the large Protestant minorities; aspirations for liberty and (especially as the Revolution progressed) republicanism; and anger toward the King for firing Jacques Necker and A.R.J. Turgot (among other financial advisors), who were popularly seen as representatives of the people.

The large and growing middle class, and some of the nobility and of the working class, had absorbed the ideology of equality and freedom of the individual, brought about by such philosophers as Voltaire, Denis Diderot, Turgot, and other philosophers of the Enlightenment. The example of the American Revolution showed them that it was plausible that Enlightenment ideals about governmental organization could be put into practice. Some of the American revolutionaries, such as Benjamin Franklin, had stayed in Paris where they were in frequent contact with French intellectuals. Furthermore, contact between the American revolutionaries and the French troops who had assisted them resulted in the spread of revolutionary ideals to the French. Many people in France attacked the undemocratic nature of the government, pushed for freedom of speech, and challenged the Roman Catholic Church and the prerogatives of the nobles.

There is controversy over exactly how deeply Enlightenment ideals penetrated the various classes, and over the degree to which these ideals were simply cover for bourgeois self-interest. For example, Karl Marx writing in the Neue Rheinische Zeitung shortly after the Revolutions of 1848 wrote that in both the English Revolution of 1648 and in the French Revolution "the bourgeoisie was the class that really headed the movement. The proletariat and the non-bourgeois strata of the middle class had either not yet evolved interests which were different from those of the bourgeoisie or they did not yet constitute independent classes or class divisions. Therefore, where they opposed the bourgeoisie, as they did in France in 1793 and 1794, (that is to say, during the Reign of Terror) they fought only for the attainment of the aims of the bourgeoisie, albeit in a non-bourgeois manner. The entire French terrorism was just a plebeian way of dealing with the enemies of the bourgeoisie: absolutism, feudalism and philistinism."



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