The year 1789 marks a signal event in Europe and world history: The overthrow of a monarchy through a popular French revolution. Like most historical markers, the use of this one particular year, 1789, is a shorthand that masks a much more complex reality extending over many more years.
Although 1789 marked the storming of the Bastille and the declaration of the rights of man, the king, Louis XVI (1774-1793), was not actually dethroned until 1792 and he was executed in 1793. And, much of the impact of the French revolution was felt elsewhere in Europe only after Napoleon Bonaparte seized power in 1799.
Story Before French Revolution
The revolution was not fully concluded until the defeat of Napoleon and the restoration of the monarchy in 1815 ( nor was it truly defeated even then.) That these events occurred in France had special significance for the rest of Europe.
France was in many ways the most important country on the continent at the time of the revolution. With some twenty-eight million inhabitants, France was the most populous country on the continent.
Louis XVI (1643-1715), the sun King, he established a standard for a rigorous, powerful, and elegant monarchy, and his luxurious palace at Versailles was admired all over Europe. Monarchy was on it’s peak during his era.
It was the leading centre of arts and sciences and the focal point of the intellectual ferment of the the enlightment. French was the most widely used international language, the language both of diplomacy and of the most of the royal courts of Europe.
As with all revolution the causes of French revolution of 1789 included both long term and structural factors, as well as more immediate event. The former included the socio-economic changes of the 18th century, the ideas of the enlightenment, and weakness in the monarchy. The short-term factors were privately economic government debt, financial crisis, and a bad harvest year.
The financial crisis led the king to convoke a meeting of the Estates general in 1789, and form there events cascaded out of control. During most of the 18th century, France experienced both economic stability and growth.
Agriculture productivity and industrial production increased steadily in the middle part of the century, and the literacy rate of the population grew from 21 % at the beginning of the century to 37% at the end.
The 18th century saw a rapid expansion in the publication of books, periodicals, and pamphlets, which allowed wide dissemination of these new ideas and, with that, the early stages of public opinion.
By the end of the century, however, France was suffering serious problems.
An inefficient system of taxation made it difficult for any monarchy to raise the money it needed. furthermore, both the church and the nobility which together owned much of the land in the country, where virtually exempt from taxes.
The financial problems of the regime were made worse by the financial and provided by France to the American colonies during their war of independence against Britain.
For France, this was a strategic decision, rather than a moral of ideological one, as it was intended to become the country’s chief rival England, and to avenge the loss of French colonies in America and India during the seven years war (the French and Indian war in North America).
The combination of mounting debts an ineffective tax collection meant that, bye 1787, payments on the debt absorbed about half of all the taxes that were collected.
Economic Reasons Behind The French Revolution
The economic slump impacted the rest of the French population as well.
The economic growth of the 18th century and the import of silver from the new World had fueled inflation in France, a phenomenon that was both new and alarming for many people.
Between 1726 and 1789, the cost of living increased by 62%, whereas wages rose by only 25%. In the 1780s, increased competition from British textile manufactures led to massive unemployment in the textile towns of Northern France.
Then, 1788 saw of worst grain harvest in France since1709, causing increases in grain and food prices, food shortage, and even femine. All this provoked rising dicontent in both the cities and the countryside.
One more problem was the weakness of the monarchy, Louis XVI had been a strong and vigorous leader, but his successors were neither, and Louis XVI was both week and ineffactual. He was not able to control his ministers, and ministerial infighting made it difficult to deal with the financial crisis of the 1780s.
Furthermore, Louis had become a virtual prisoner of Versailles, really leaving the Paris region, and he was consequently increasingly isolated from which subject and his diverse regions of his Kingdom.
Relevance of French Revolution
– Perhaps no other topic has been described so exhaustively in history as the French Revolution.
– It has left immense influence in history
-All events that occurred in Europe in the 19th century were influenced by the French Revolution.
– The period from 1789 to 1815 has been summed up in 4 words- Revolution, war, tyranny and Empire.
– Revolution full of violence and savagery ended in wars. Then came the tyrannies of a soldier, Napoleon. Napoleon’s ambition culminated in the formation of a vast Empire.
– To understand how and why the French Revolution occurred, we have to understand the socio-political and economic setup of the that time. Since the causes of the revolution existed in the ancient system (Ancien regime).
There was hereditary theory absolute monarchy in France. Which led to genetic kingship.The king held himself to be the representatives of God on earth. And the ordinary people left on the mercy of Monarch.
The absolute monarchy reached the Zenith of its power and prestige during the reign of Louis XVI (1643 to 1715). Where tyranny crossed it’s threshold and citizens required an alternative system for administration.
As Louis XV (1715 to 1774) was incompetent to manage administrative system due to various reasons. Some of the main reasons are:
- Louis XVI lacked in leadership. He was least interested in the problem of his country. He remained under the influence of his wife Mary Antoinette. But she was also unwise and extravagant.
- There was no representation of council of parliament to keep a check on the king. The only institution was the ‘parliament’- its prime work was to register the orders of the King as laws. It could refuse the registration of irrational laws. This it did during the early years of revolution.
- The French administration before the revolution was incompetent, disorganized and corrupt. The king was the head of the state. Entire country was divided into two kinds of provinces – Government and generalities.
- The number of government was forty in total apart from the King. There were mostly old provinces. Their governors held from aristocratic families and received huge salaries. Although they receive huge salary but still corruption was common among them.
- The number of generalities was thirty four. These word governed by ‘entendent’. He was deputed by the king. The entendent also hailed from aristocratic or bourgeois (higher) class. In practice he enjoyed unrestricted powers and made hectic efforts to increase his on income.
- Local self government did not exist in France at that time. Local administration was also handled from the palace of Versailles (king’s residence). So, there was centralization of power.
- Every organ of administration was corrupt -including law and justice. Judicial posts were sold. Punishment was biased. Aristocrats were often not punished.
- Also, the language of court was Latin which the French speaking population could not understand.
The French society was complex and stratified. So, there was lack of brotherhood among all sections of people.It was divided into three classes-
– The clergy (First Estate)
– The nobility ( Second Estate)
– The commoners (also called proletariat/bourgeois or Third Estate)
The first and the second estate formed the elite, enjoyed special status and privilege and comprised only one percent of the population. Then on 1/5th of the French property yet were exempted from all taxes which mainly belonged to above two classes.
But the commoners were burdened with many taxes. These special rights and privileges bred deep opposition among the commoners. Had the kings solved the question of special rights, the revolution would not have taken place.
Now let’s try to understand each type of class in detail:
A. Priests (clergy)
Majority of people in France were Roman Catholics. Hence Roman catholic Church was dominant and had a massive organisation all over France. It possessed use property but were exempted from taxes.
As a result, the wealth of the church had increased tremendously. Because of their status and privilege – the church in France was called- “a state within a state”. So, they hold some special autonomy on major portion of the wealth.
This was a major reason why the popularity of the church declined in the 18th century. The people were disgusted with the luxurious life of the priests.
Another reason was rise of skepticism. people were becoming skeptical about the existence of God. The utility of the church become controversial. The main reason behind this was the life of priests, who were looting ordinary uneducated people in the name of God.
B. Nobility or the Aristocracy
Even this class enjoyed many feudal rights and privileges. They occupied all the high offices of the state, the church and the armed forces.
They also possessed huge property but were exempted from taxes. They also exploited the farmers and this ignited serve indignation among the lower classes. All this happen due to increasing inequality.
C. The Common Class
Bulk of the French population belong to the common class. They had no special rights. They comprised of – middle class (bourgeois), artisans and laborers and the farmers.
The middle class ( the bourgeoisie) – they comprised on moneylender, Teachers, advocate, doctors, writers, artists etc. and did not engage in physical labour. They seethed with intense dissatisfaction because of the following reason-
1. The middle class was ambitious of acquire high position in society but this was frustrated by the feudal setup of French society. They had understood that only solution was the destruction of the feudal setup.
2. The middle class was wise and educated, yet it did not exert any political influence. Therefore it supported a political change.
3. The middle class intellectuals were infused with the spirit of idolism. Social inequality fomented dissatisfaction among them.
4. There was immense scope for trade and business to flourish, but many restrictions were imposed. This frustrated the traders and businessman
The artisans and labourers–
They lived in misery. They were paid meager wages and made to work long hours. They dependent upon the mercy of middle class capitalists. Most of them lived in cities and had close interaction with the educated section of society. So they were politically aware.
The farmers- they were in majority and 80% of the population. Their condition was sad and shocking. There were two classes of farmers independent and semi-serfs. And independent farmer was the owner of land but a semi-serfs worked on someone else’s land and could not move out at his own will.
All farmers exploited by the nobility. They had to pay 80% of income as taxes. They were seething with bitter discontent. 3rd Estate was burdened by the first and second Estate.
The economic system of France was miserable. There were many reasons-
– There was extravagance of the ruling classes. Personal income of the king was not differentiated from the income of the state.
-The French taxation system was defective. The clergy and the Nobles were expected from taxes while the farmers were burdened with heavy taxes.
– The commercial policy was also defective. Many restrictions were imposed on Trade and commerce.
– The situation was worsened by the French participation in various wars- Austria’s war of succession, Seven year’s war etc.
– As a result, the financial condition of France had reached bankruptcy.
– Financial issues triggered off the revolution.
In 18th century, many intellectual arose- like montesquieu, Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, Quesnay and Tourge. These thinkers and philosophers talked about a liberal, progressive and ideal society.
By means of satire and humour, criticism and comparison, scientific explanation, ideology and candid contempt, they revealed the hollowness of the French institutions.
This tired the feeling of the messes against the evils rampant in society. Many historians believe that the French Revolution originated from the combination of intellectual movement and material misery.
Immediate Causes of The Revolutions
The immediate cause was the economic policy of king Louis XVI. France was sinking into bankruptcy. Louis initiated many steps but left the incomplete. He also changed many finance ministers in succession.
In August 1786, the treasury turned empty. Calonne the then FM persuaded the king of summon a council of influential persons to come up with a solution. The council consisted of the clergy, nobles and other and had no representation of the common people. In the meeting, Calonne proposed that all sections of society should be texed. But he was dismissed.
Next, Queen’s favorite Brienne was appointed as FM. He proposed a uniform land tax and a new ‘stamp tax’. His proposal were also rejected by the council.
However, the king dissolved the council and sent Brienne’s proposal to the parlement of registration. The parliament refused to register and said that only Estates General was empowered to impose new taxes.
Estates General was an old representative council of France. It session had not been held for the last 175 years. Anyway, Louis called the session under duress. The session was due for May 7, 1789. The election for this body was held in 1788.
Beginning of the Revolution
on May 5, 1789, session of the estate general was held in palace of Versailles. The Estate general consisted of 3 chamber- comprising of the nobility, the clergy and the commoners.
A proposal could be passed only if approved by any 2 chamber. Even as the strength of the they’d Chander ( commoners) was doubled, the current had only one vote.
So the commoners did not benefit despite their majority. The commoners opposed this arrangement and this resulted in a deadlock in the very first session.
On 17 June 1789, the 3rd chamber took a bold step and declared themselves as the National council. The National council was declared as the only representative council of the French public.
Louis ordered to shut the doors of the council hall to ensure that the National council does not assemble. So they help the session in the nearby tennis court and pledge- ‘we will never separate and work together until a constitution is drafted’.
This is known as the famous- ‘tennis court oath‘.
This unprecedented declaration shook the foundation of the French absolute monarchy. Perplexed, the king called joint session of all 3 chamber but insisted that the special right of the nobility will continue under monarchy.
Here Mirabeau took the lead and opposed. At this point several priests and nobles also joined tha National council. The king had to yield to adverse circumstances. He allowed a joint sitting of the 3 chamber with the commoners having majority vote.
On 9th July 1789, the National council declared itself constituent assembly. This was a remarkable victory of the proletariat. As the power of decision making again came in the purview of the council.
Once again the king tried to suppress the constituent Assembly. There were rumors that soldiers were being sent to Paris.
Kamil Demule, an influential journalist and other furious revolutionaries greatly excited the public and urged them to take up arms. The furious mob began to loot weapon from shops in the city.
It was rumored that the fort of Bastille contained a huge store of weapon. On the 14th of July 1789, the great crowd marched towards Bastille.
It marched into the fort, set all prisoners free and ravaged it with the fall of Bastille, a wave of celebration swept Paris. This event sounded the trumped of revolution.
14th July was declared National day. The public abolished the old administration and formed a new municipal govt called the ‘Paris commune’. Baille was declared as the Mayor of Paris.
National guard was formed for the security of the city. Lafayette was made the chief of the National guard. These events influenced entire French Communes and national guard were formed at several places.
Villagers assaulted their oppressor, tax records wetter out on fire. In this way, the French public practically eliminated the feudal system. The anarchic condition was discussed in the national assembly. The assembly expressed shock.
The situation took a dramatic turn when a noble Noiya said that root cause of present anarchy is feudal setup, taxes and enormous rights and privileges enjoyed by the feudal lords. He said that they must be abolished. He also relinquished his special rights.
Several nobles and clergy followed suit. All this took place amidst gushing tears, warm hugs, clapping and delight in patriotic sacrifices.
This show went on throughout night and 30 ordinances were issued. By morning an extraordinary Revolution had swept over French that no other country had witnessed.
These ordinance needed kings approval. Meanwhile, on Oct 5, thousands of women gathered in Paris and reached Versailles shouting the slogan- ” Give is bread”.
The king and his family had to rush to Paris. There they stayed in the palace of Touillery. As a result, the National assembly too was brought to Paris.
Equality, Liberty and Fraternity are three key words mentioned in many constitutions of the World. The emphasis of these words are so strong that Indian Constitution added these words in the preamble of the constitution. These words are the result of French revolution. Process of government change from Monarchy to Democracy is the result of this revolution.
We can learn a lot from the incidents that took place due to brutal suppression of monarchy. Like equality is important in all forms. It is not just financial autonomy that strengthens the people of any country. Administrative autonomy is also very important to run a country. So, we can see the whole series of french revolution as a success. As many countries in this decolonize world is democratic with equal rights to all.
Now, there are very less number of countries with Monarchy. United Kingdom is an exception as we know this country as a great democratic state. But monarchy is still in existence but only as a symbol.