Chapter 1: The Causes of the French Revolution
The Aristocrats Sought Greater Civil Rights for All French Citizens
In the years before the revolution, the French aristocracy enjoyed many economic and political privileges, including the right to collect tithes from peasants who worked their lands. Despite their privileged position, many of the more liberal nobles were dismayed by the lack of political and civil rights afforded to the average French citizen and sought to redress the inequality. In the following viewpoint, excerpted from a letter addressed to the viscount of Beauharnois and the cavalier de Phelines, a group of nobles from the bailliage (royal court) of Blois argues that reforms are needed to ensure that all French people have the opportunity to pursue happiness. According to the aristocrats, these reforms include ending unlawful exiles and arrests, establishing a free press, creating a commission that will examine inequality in the judicial system, and ensuring that there is only one code of law throughout all of France.
The object of every social institution is to confer the greatest possible happiness upon those who live under its laws.
Happiness ought not to be confined to a small number of men; it belongs to all. It is not an exclusive privilege to be contested for; it is a common right which must be preserved, which must be shared, and the public happiness is a source from which each has a right to draw his supply.
Such are the sentiments which animate the nobility of the bailliage of Blois, at a moment when we are...
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Revolting Against the Monarchy Was a Rational Act
Thomas Paine was an Anglo-American political philosopher known for pamphlets he wrote in support of the American Revolution. In 1791 he wrote The Rights of Man, a response to Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. In the following viewpoint, excerpted from his book, Paine defends the decision of French citizens to revolt against the monarchy. He argues that the French people were not rebelling against the person of King Louis XVI, who was a good king, but against the endemic despotism that marked all political, economic, and religious affairs in France. He contends that the French masses quite reasonably wanted to overcome this political and economic repression and establish new civil and political rights.
We now come more particularly to the affairs of France. Mr. [Edmund] Burke’s book [Reflections on the Revolution in France] has the appearance of being written as instruction to the French Nation; but if I may permit myself the use of an extravagant metaphor, suited to the extravagance of the case, It is darkness attempting to illuminate light.
While I am writing this there are accidentally before me some proposals for a declaration of rights by the Marquis de la Fayette (I ask his pardon for using his former address, and do it only for distinction’s sake) to the National Assembly, on the 11th of July, 1789, three days before the taking of the Bastille;1 and I cannot but remark with...
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Revolting Against the Monarchy Was an Irrational Act
One of the most notable evaluators of the French Revolution was the British statesman and orator Edmund Burke. In 1790 he published the book Reflections on the Revolution in France. In the following viewpoint, excerpted from that work, Burke criticizes the decision of the French citizenry to revolt against the monarchy of Louis XVI. According to Burke, starting the French Revolution was a rash and irrational act. He contends that France should have built upon its existing constitution and society instead of turning to violence against a lawful king. The immediate result of the revolution, according to Burke, was to impoverish the French people and plunge them into chaos.
[The English] political system is placed in a just correspondence and symmetry with the order of the world, and with the mode of existence decreed to a permanent body composed of transitory parts; wherein, by the disposition of a stupendous wisdom, moulding together the great mysterious incorporation of the human race, the whole, at one time, is never old, or middleaged, or young, but in a condition of unchangeable constancy, moves on through the varied tenour of perpetual decay, fall, renovation, and progression. Thus, by preserving the method of nature in the conduct of the state, in what we improve we are never wholly new; in what we retain we are never wholly obsolete. By adhering in this manner and on those principles to our forefathers, we are guided not by the superstition...
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Chapter 1 Preface
The causes of the French Revolution are complex; many of them can be traced far back into history. Indeed, the groundwork for the French Revolution was laid long before King Louis XVI, Maximilien Robespierre, and other key figures of the era reached adulthood. One such contributor to the revolution was the Enlightenment. This seventeenth- and eighteenth-century philosophical movement, whose adherents believed in freedom and equality, led to the popular belief in the 1780s that France should renounce monarchy and support a new type of government— one based on representation and consent. Although some historians have noted that Enlightenment philosophers were more conservative than the revolutionaries who were later inspired by their writings, the ideas of the Enlightenment took root in a nation eager to break away from traditional beliefs.
For hundreds of years the French had believed in the “divine right of kings”—the idea that a king’s authority came directly from God and that the monarch was accountable to no one other than God. In 1690 British philosopher John Locke argued in direct opposition to this idea in his influential essay “Of Civil Government.” Locke contended that political power is delivered through people, not a higher being. He argued that governments are legitimate only through the consent of the ruled and that the purpose of governments is to guarantee “the peace, safety, and public good of the people.” In another...
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The Middle Class Sought Increased Political Rights
Prior to the French Revolution, the nation’s inhabitants were divided into three “estates,” or orders. The First Estate, or the clergy, was comprised of 130,000 people; the Second Estate was the aristocracy, which numbered 110,000. The remaining 25 million belonged to the Third Estate, which consisted of the middle class and poor, who lacked the political and economic freedoms of the first two groups. In 1788 and 1789 the Third Estate, especially the segment known as the bourgeoisie, or middle class, began to seek a greater political voice.
In January 1789 Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès, a priest, political theorist, and major figure in the revolution, published the pamphlet What Is the Third Estate? In the following viewpoint, which features excerpts from that pamphlet, Sieyès explains the political demands of the French middle class. According to Sieyès the Third Estate wants equal representation in the Estates-General, a legislative assembly occasionally convened by the king. The commoners want the votes in the Estates-General to be taken by head, not by group, because the aristocracy and clergy tend to vote in tandem against the commoners. Sieyès further argues that in order to achieve political equality, the number of Third Estate representatives must be at least equal to the sum of those in the first two estates and that these legislators must be educated, honest, and not beholden to the clergy or nobility.
One must not judge [the...
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The Peasants Sought Greater Economic Freedoms
The French economy in the eighteenth century was based heavily on the feudal system, in which a feudal lord or seigneur owned large swaths of land on which peasants worked in exchange for portions of the crops. Peasants became increasingly disillusioned with the feudal system in the 1780s. In the following viewpoint, taken from a cahier (letter) written to finance minister Jacque Necker by the inhabitants of the feudal lands in Montjoye-Vaufrey, the peasants argue that their seigneur has exploited them economically. According to the peasants, the feudal lord demands excessive tithes, wrongfully appropriates communal lands, and compels his workers to cater to his whims. The feudal system was abolished on August 4, 1789.
[This is a] statement concerning the unjust, onerous, and humiliating dues and other unheard of burdens which the undersigned inhabitants of the seigneury [feudal lands] of Montjoye- Vaufrey are made to endure by the Count of Montjoye-Vaufrey. The seigneury of Montjoye-Vaufrey is small with almost inaccessible mountains, covered in large part by forests of beech and fir trees. The soil is naturally barren and produces nothing but brambles and thorn bushes. It is part of Upper Alsace and enclosed by the diocese of Basle, lying on the kingdom’s border. Close to one thousand individuals live in this region, which is almost wild because of its location. There they stagnate, living in misery, crushed beneath the entire weight of...
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The French Monarchy Was Beset with Financial Problems
In the following viewpoint William Doyle details the financial difficulties that crippled the French monarchy and inevitably led to revolution. According to Doyle, the deficit had risen steadily since 1777, with much of the debt the result of excessive military spending. He examines the suggestions made by Louis XVI’s comptroller-general, Charles Alexander Calonne, to solve France’s financial problems, including reducing spending, raising taxes, and declaring bankruptcy. As explained by Doyle, Calonne concluded that only a complete reform of the monarchy would end the financial crisis. Doyle is the chairman of the School of History at the University of Bristol in England.
The revolution that was to sweep away the political institutions of old France, and shake her society to its foundations, did not begin on 14 July 1789. By that time the old order was already in ruins, beyond reconstruction. This was the result of a chain of events that can be traced as far back as 20 August 1786. For it was on that day that [Charles Alexander] Calonne, comptrollergeneral of the royal finances, first came to Louis XVI and informed him that the state was on the brink of financial collapse.
We have no absolutely reliable or completely unambiguous figures to illustrate the financial condition of France in 1786. Nor did contemporaries have such figures. Even Calonne, with all the accounts of the royal treasury at his disposal, claimed that it had taken him...
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The French Monarchy’s Financial Problems Were Exaggerated
In the following viewpoint Simon Schama argues that the financial difficulties France experienced in the 1770s and 1780s were not a primary cause of the revolution. According to Schama it was the perception, not the reality, of irreparable economic problems that caused anxiety and unrest. He contends that although the various wars France fought during the eighteenth century created substantial debts, those debts were no worse than those of other European nations. Schama is a professor of history at Columbia University in New York City and the author of Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution, the source of the following viewpoint.
If the causes of the French Revolution are complex, the causes of the downfall of the monarchy are not. The two phenomena are not identical, since the end of absolutism in France did not of itself entail a revolution of such transformative power as actually came to pass in France. But the end of the old regime was the necessary condition of the beginning of a new, and that was brought about, in the first instance, by a cash-flow crisis. It was the politicization of the money crisis that dictated the calling of the Estates-General.1
A Pyrrhic Military Victory
To do them justice, the ministers of Louis XVI were painfully impaled on the horns of a dilemma. It was quite reasonable for them to wish to restore France’s position in the Atlantic since they correctly saw that it was in...
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