Causes of the French Revolution

Causes of the French Revolution

The cause of the French Revolution is a significant subject of historical debate.
France in 1789, although facing some economic ( especially taxation) difficulties and simplicities, was one of the richest and most powerful nations in Europe; [Norman Gash, [ Reflections on the revolution - French Revolution] , "National Review, July 14, 1989, accessed online 4 July 2007: "Yet in 1789 France was the largest, wealthiest, and most powerful state in Western Europe."] further, the masses of most other European powers had less freedom and a higher chance of arbitrary punishment. At the time Louis XVI called the Estates-General of 1789, he himself was generally popular, even if the nobility and many of the king's ministers were not. [For the time see, for example, F. A. M. Mignet "History of the French Revolution from 1789 to 1814" (1824, [ available on Project Gutenberg] ): speaking of his arrival for the first session of the Estates, "…the king appeared… The hall resounded with applause on his arrival." Later, July 27, 1789, nearly two weeks after the storming of the Bastille, "…when Louis XVI. had left his carriage and received from Bailly's hands the tri-coloured cockade, and, surrounded by the crowd without guards, had confidently entered the Hôtel de Ville, cries of "Vive le roi!" burst forth on every side. The reconciliation was complete; Louis XVI. received the strongest marks of affection."] .

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

Absolutism and privilege

France in 1789 was, at least in speculation, an absolute monarchy, an increasingly unpopular form of government at the time. In practice, the king's ability to act on his theoretically absolute power was curtailed by the (equally resented) powers and prerogatives of the nobility and clergy, remnants of feudalism. Similarly, the peasants covetously eyed the relatively greater privileges enjoyed by townspeople. [ [ SparkNotes: the French Revolution (1789–1799)] ]

Enlightenment ideology

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 philosophes 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 the French, who were 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. [ [ The Origins of the French Revolution] ] 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." [ [ Karl Marx, The Bourgeoisie and the Counter-Revolution'] , Neue Rheinische Zeitung No. 169, Translated by the Marx-Engels Institute, Transcribed for the Internet by, 1994] [ [ Browse French Revolution Texts] ] [ [ French Revolution] ]


France in 1789, although facing some economic (and especially fiscal) difficulties, was one of the richest and strongest nations in Europe. The following all comes from Bairoch 1989.
*France had over 28 million inhabitants. In Europe, only Imperial Russia had more (37–41 million) and it was a poor country. All of Europe, outside of Russia, counting France and the British Isles, had a total of about 141–147 million. (p. 941)
*France was amongst the most urbanized countries in Europe if one considers communities over 2,000 to be urban (and of slightly above average urbanization if one holds to a minimum of 5,000). (p. 942)
*The population of Paris was second only to that of London (approximately 500,000 "vs." 800,000; p. 941), and the country had six of Europe's 35 largest cities. (p. 943)
*France had 260,000 square kilometres under cultivation; the entirety of Europe outside Russia — that qualifier will apply unless otherwise noted — had no more than 100 million. (p. 945)
*France had 5.3 million of Europe's 30 million male peasants. (p. 945)
*In 1800, the earliest date for which good statistics are available, only the Netherlands and British Isles exceeded France (in its 1789 borders) in agricultural productivity per unit area. (p. 946)
*France ranked roughly even with Switzerland, Belgium and the Netherlands and significantly behind only the British Isles in its level of industrialization. (p. 949) Because France would have constituted about 14% of the continental European product (again excluding Russia) at the time. He does not believe that data is available to do a reasonable comparison to Britain. The per capita GDP of France would have been equivalent to about US$200–205 at the 1960 value of the United States dollar, 6–10% above the (non-Russian) European average of the time. (p. 959–963)

In short, while not having quite the per capita wealth of the Low Countries and possibly Switzerland, the sheer size of the French economy made it the premier economic power in continental Europe.


The French monarchy had operated for over a century without resorting to a legislature. Since 1614, French kings had managed their fiscal affairs by increasing the burden of the ancient and unequal system of taxes, by borrowing money, and sometimes by selling noble titles and other privileges; however, because noble titles exempted the holder from future taxes, the purchasers of titles were effectively buying an annuity.

This led to the long-running fiscal crisis of the French government. On the eve of the revolution, France was so deeply in debt as to be effectively bankrupt. Extravagant expenditures by Louis XIV on luxuries such as Versailles were compounded by heavy expenditures on the Seven Years' War and the American War of Independence.

Britain too had a great debt from these conflicts, but Britain had a far more advanced fiscal structure to deal with it. France was a wealthier country than Britain, and its national debt was no greater than the British one. In each country the servicing of the debt accounted for about half the annual expenditure of the government. Where they differed was in the fact that the rate of interest in France was almost double than of across the Channel. This implied a much higher level of taxation and less scope for any increase to deal with a specific emergency.

Edmund Burke, no friend of the revolution, was to write in 1790, "...the public, whether represented by a monarch or by a senate, can pledge nothing but the public estate; and it can have no public estate except in what it derives from a just and proportioned imposition upon the citizens at large." Because of the successful defense by the nobles of their privileges, the king of France lacked the means to impose a "just and proportioned" tax. The desire to do so led directly to the decision in 1788 to call the Estates-General into session. [ [ The French Revolution] ]


Not being one of the major trading nations, France needed to raise most of its government's revenues internally rather than from external tariffs. While average tax rates were higher in Britain, the burden on the common people was greater in France. Taxation relied on a system of internal tariffs separating the regions of France, which prevented a unified market from developing in the country. Taxes such as the extremely unpopular "gabelle" were contracted out to private collectors ("tax farmers") who were permitted to raise far more than the government requested. These systems led to an arbitrary and unequal collection of many of France's consumption taxes. Other taxes the peasants were required to pay included a tenth of their income or produce to the church ("tithe"), a ("taille") to the state, a 5% property tax ("vingtième") and a tax on the number of people in the family ("capitation"). Further royal and seigneurial taxes were collected in the form of compulsory labor (the "corvée"). The peasants also had numerous obligations to their landlords - rent in cash ("cens"), a payment related to their amount of produce ("champari"), and taxes on the use of the nobles' mills, wine presses or bakeries ("banalités"). In good times, the taxes were burdensome; in harsh times, they were devastating.

Many public officials had to buy their positions from the king, as well as the right to keep this position hereditary; they of course tried to have these expenses repaid by making a profit out of their appointment. For instance, in a civil lawsuit, judges had to be paid some fees by the parties (the "épices"); this put justice out of reach of everybody but the wealthy classes.

The system also excluded the nobles and the clergy from having to pay taxes (with the exception of a modest quit ren). The tax burden was thus paid by the peasants, wage earners, and the professional and business classes. These groups were also cut off from most positions of power in the regime, causing unrest.

Failure of reforms

During the régimes of Louis XV (reigned 1715-1774) and Louis XVI (reigned 1774-1792) several ministers, most notably Turgot and Necker, unsuccessfully proposed to revise the French tax system to tax the nobles. Such measures encountered consistent resistance from the "parlements" (law courts). Members of these courts bought their positions from the king, as well as the right to transmit this position hereditarily (the so-called "Paulette" tax). Membership in such courts, or appointment to other similar public positions, often led to the elevation into the nobility (the so-called "noblesse de robe" – "nobility of the robe", as opposed to the nobility of ancestral military origin, the "noblesse d'épée", nobility of the sword). While these two categories of nobles were often at odds, they both sought to keep in place their privileges.

Because the need to raise taxes placed the king at odds with the nobles and the high bourgeoisie, he typically appointed as his finance ministers, (to use François Mignet's term) "rising men", usually of non-noble origin. Turgot, Chrétien de Malesherbes, and Jacques Necker successively attempted to revise the system of taxation and to make other reforms, such as Necker's attempts to reduce the lavishness of the king's court. Each failed in turn.

In contrast, Charles Alexandre de Calonne, appointed finance minister in 1783, restored lavish spending more reminiscent of the age of Louis XIV. By the time Calonne brought together the Assembly of Notables on February 22, 1787 to address the financial situation, France had reached a state of virtual bankruptcy: no one would lend the king funds sufficient to meet the expenses of government and court. According to Mignet, the loans amounted to "one thousand six hundred and forty-six millions... and... there was an annual deficit... of a hundred and forty millions [presumably of "livres"] ." Calonne was succeeded by his chief critic Étienne Charles de Loménie de Brienne, archbishop of Sens, but the fundamental situation was unchanged: the government had no credit. To try to address this, the assembly "sanctioned the establishment of provincial assemblies, a regulation of the corn trade, the abolition of corvées, and a new stamp tax; it broke up on the 25th of May, 1787."


H.F. Helmolt argued that the issue was not so much the debt as such, but the way the debt was refracted through the lens of Enlightenment principles and the increasing power of the Third Estate creditors.

Properly speaking, the people ought to have been accustomed to the fact that the French government did not fulfill its financial obligations, for since the time of Henry IV, that is, within two centuries, it had failed to meet its obligations fifty-six times. In earlier days such catastrophes had not been announced and publicly discussed. Now all France, which for two generations had been worked upon by the party of rationalism, shared the outcry against the financial situation. [H.F. Helmolt, "History of the World", Volume VII, Dodd Mead 1902, p. 120–121.]

The subsequent struggle with the "parlements" in an unsuccessful attempt to enact these measures displayed the first overt signs of the disintegration of the "Ancien Régime". In the ensuing struggle, Protestants regained their rights and Louis XVI promised an annual publication of the state of finances, and a convocation of the Estates-General within five years.

Despite "Ancien Régime" France being, in theory, an absolute monarchy, it became clear that the royal government could not successfully effect the changes it desired without the consent of the nobility. The financial crisis had become a political crisis as well. [Helmolt, p. 121.]


These problems were all compounded by a great scarcity of food in the 1780s. A series of crop failures caused a shortage of grain, consequently raising the price of bread. Because bread was the main source of nutrition for poor peasants, this led to starvation. The two years previous to the revolution (1788-89) saw bad harvests and harsh winters, possibly because of a strong El Niño cycle [Richard H. Grove, “Global Impact of the 1789–93 El Niño,” "Nature" 393 (1998), 318-319.] caused by the 1783 Laki eruption at Iceland [Wood, C.A., 1992. "The climatic effects of the 1783 Laki eruption" in C. R. Harrington (Ed.), The Year Without a Summer? Canadian Museum of Nature, Ottawa, pp. 58– 77] . The little ice age was also affecting agriculture: many other areas of Europe had adopted the potato as the staple crop by this time, whereas the French generally refused it as a dirty food or the devil's food. The potato was more resilient to the colder temperatures during the little ice age and also could not be easily destroyed by scorched earth warfare [ [ Little Ice age: Big Chill] . [ History Channel] .] . A normal worker earned anywhere from 15 to 30 sous a day while skilled workers received 30 to 40 sous. A family of four would need about 2 loaves of bread a day to survive. The price of bread rose by 88 percent in 1789, going from 9 sous to 14.5/15 sousFact|date=February 2007. Many peasants were relying on charity to survive. The peasantry became a class with the ambition to counteract social inequity and put an end to food shortages. The 'bread riot' evolved into a central cause of the French Revolution. Mass urbanization coinciding with the beginning of the industrial revolution led residents to move into French cities seeking employment. French cities became overcrowded and filled with the hungry and disaffected. The peasantry suffered doubly from the economic and agricultural problems.



* Paul Bairoch, "L'économie française dans le contexte européen à la fin du XVIIIe siècle", "Revue économique", Vol. 40, No. 6, "Révolution de 1789: Guerres et Croissance économique" (Nov., 1989), p. 939-964 DOI:10.2307/3501973. [ Online] as PDF on JSTOR (pay site).

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