What are some of the main causes of the French Revolution?
Extreme Social Inequality
Before the Revolution, France was divided into three Estates. The first two consisted of the clergy and the nobility, which had all the power and paid no taxes. However, the First and Second Estate consisted of only two percent of the country's population. The vast majority, the Third Estate, had few rights, no access to positions of political power, and were subjected to frequent abuse. Such a system in which the majority are treated this way has proven untenable many times throughout history. It should come as no surprise that the Third Estate unified to overthrow the power structure that had subjugated them for so long.
A series of poor harvests throughout the 1780s brought France to the brink of famine and mass starvation. The peasants, who did all the farming but were still forced to feed the First and Second Estates, were hungry and desperate. To make matters worse, the price of grain was skyrocketing due to recent changes in the regulation of the market. Few French peasants could afford the limited supplies of food available. In many ways, it was this desperation that drove them to revolt.
Despite the extreme plight of the peasantry, the nobility and monarchy appeared unconcerned. For generations, they built lavish palaces across France and flaunted their wealth. Not only did this highlight the economic chasm that existed between them and the peasantry, but it was also extremely wasteful. Fully aware that there was enough wealth in the country to feed and care for the entire populace, the Third Estate became fed up with the excessive and wasteful spending of the monarchy and rose in revolt.
New Enlightened Ideas
This was also a time of revolutionary thinking. The century leading up to the French Revolution gave birth to the ideas of Enlightenment philosophers. This intellectual movement stressed the rights of the citizen and the consideration of the true source of political legitimacy. Many of these thinkers, such as John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, questioned whether class divisions were a natural and just way to organize and rule a society. Nations, they argued, should be made up of free people whose government is committed to protecting their natural rights. The United States had recently won a revolution and established itself along these ideals. This was a huge inspiration to many of the revolutionaries of France.
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