Describe the circumstances leading to the outbreak of the French Revolution.

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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The circumstances that led to the outbreak of the French Revolution were intricate and complex.  In analyzing these conditions, it becomes clear how seismic the French Revolution actually was.  One of these circumstances was a cultural spirit of change and reform that permeated through France.  The embrace of the Enlightenment, particularly the French brand of Enlightenment thought, was a significant circumstance that contributed to the outbreak of the revolution in France.  The Enlightenment teachings and ideas embraced democratic self-determination and sought to remove monarchal power in favor of one where greater individual voice was evident. The Enlightenment sought to create the conditions of change in the world, and was very skeptical about creating circumstances which would have substantiated the ancien regime. Enlightenment ideals of equality, individual rights, and representative government became realities.  These principles served to facilitate the American Revolution.  The teachings of the Enlightenment played a vital role in leading to the outbreak of the French Revolution.

Economics also led to the outbreak of revolution in France.  While France was not destitute, it increased economic hardship in the form of taxation on the poorest of French society.  The French monarchy resisted economic and political reforms, seeking instead to have the peasants pay so much more in way of taxes from a proportional standpoint than those who were wealthy.  The prices of basic necessities such as food were skyrocketing and, combined with a greater tax burden, the poorest of French society had had enough.  This resentment is something that Thomas Carlyle saw as a major circumstance that led to the outbreak of revolution:

. . . the hungry food-year, which runs from August to August, is getting older; becoming more and more a famine-year! With 'meal-husks and boiled grass,' Brigands may actually collect; and in crowds, at farm and mansion, howl angrily, Food! Food! It is in vain to send soldiers against them: at sight of soldiers they disperse, they vanish as under ground; then directly reassemble elsewhere for new tumult and plunder...

The economic condition of hardship which was brought on by rising costs and taxation combined with the monarchy's inertia towards economic and political reform.  These circumstances led to the disenchantment of the lower classes that clamored for revolution and change in France.

In a larger sense, one of the circumstances that led to the outbreak of revolution in France was a changing world.  The emergence of the bourgeoisie and the growing dissatisfaction of the poorest in society were changing facets of French society.  These groups' changing political and economic aspirations were a part of why revolution took place in France.  The monarchy failed to understand the level of change in its society, believing that it could assert its power through insistence and then through the use of the military power in order to silence dissent.  However, it was not merely dissent as much as it was a fundamental shift in how French society was constructed.  The French monarchy's absolute power was "dissolving," its dream of total control collapsing.  This changing status quo was another circumstance that led to the outbreak of revolution in France.

For more information about the causes of the French Revolution, check out this video:

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