The French Revolution

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To what extent was the French monarchy both the main cause and the main victim of the French Revolution?

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The Bourbon Monarchy was undoubtedly both the main cause and the main victim of the French Revolution. Enlightenment ideas encouraged the people of France to question their government and demand popular sovereignty, natural rights, and equality. These ideas were wildly popular mostly because the Bourbon kings were notoriously theocratic and tyrannical. French monarchs had been abusing their financial power for far too long, and the people were tired of their greed and governmental mismanagement. Lastly, because Louis XVI refused to listen to his Estates-General, giving up some of his power and making much-needed reforms, he and his entire family were killed during the revolution. Along with their deaths came the demise of the Bourbon dynasty in France.

Beginning in the late seventeenth century, Enlightenment ideas spread across Europe like wildfire. By the mid-eighteenth century, Paris was the center of the movement. Salons filled with educated upper- and middle-class Parisians discussed the ideas of Voltaire, Locke, Montesquieu, and Rousseau. These thinkers challenged the authority of longstanding royal bloodlines, arguing that monarchy was not the best form of government. Locke introduced the idea that a government should derive its power from the consent of the people through elected representatives. He famously said that if a government lost the approval of the people, it was the people’s job to overthrow the government and elect a new one. Enlightenment thinkers were especially critical of rulers who believed they derived their power from God (divine right monarchs). These ideas were threatening to France’s theocracy and the Catholic Church alike. The advent of the printing press in Europe and use of the vernacular in texts allowed more and more people to read Enlightenment works. These ideas were fomenting the French Revolution as dislike for the Bourbon monarchs grew.

Secondly, the French people were tired of greedy, tyrannical, and incompetent kings. Louis XIV (reign: 1643–1715), known as “the Sun King,” was notoriously greedy, selfish, and addicted to luxury. While he was a competent king for the most part, he spent frivolously and plunged the country into debt. Louis XIV set out on one of the most extravagant building projects in history—constructing the Palace at Versailles, where he aimed to centralize power and keep a close watch on his nobles. His palace dripped in gold, marble, velvet, and jewel-encrusted adornments. The entire palace has been estimated at 2.5 billion dollars in US 2008 dollars.

When Louis XIV (reign: 1774–1792) became king, France was suffering from debt and bad harvests. He foolishly decided to become involved in the American Revolution because of France’s longstanding feud with England. When the colonists won against England at the Battle of Saratoga (1777), Louis decided to back them in the Revolutionary War (1778). They had proven that they could go toe to toe with Great Britain, and France wanted to see the mother country lose its North American holdings. As a result of France’s involvement in the American Revolution, the country sank further into financial hardship. To make matters worse, foolish deregulation of the grain market caused an increase in bread prices. After a particularly bad harvest, food scarcity lead to starvation across France, resulting in grain riots (1774). The Bourbon Monarchy was becoming frightened; they knew revolution was near as their country crumbled and riots continued to spring up across France.

To bring in more revenue, Louis decided to implement new taxations, most of which fell on the Third Estate (commoners). France’s Third Estate made up about ninety-seven percent of the population. This social strata included the bourgeoisie (middle class), peasants, workers, and serfs. Even though the Third Estate was the poorest segment of society, they were taxed at the highest rate. They were also the least represented in France’s Estates General (legislative body). They were tired of being unrepresented in government and taxed unfairly. They were prepared for change, even if it had to be achieved through violence.

Louis—knowing that he was unpopular—called the Estates-General for a meeting in 1789 at Versailles. He wanted help on how to solidify his power and prevent being overthrown. The Estates-General told him that in order to prevent revolution and lessen the riots, he needed to give up some of his power and restructure the government, including reducing taxes. Louis did not like this recommendation and demanded that the Estates-General not meet again. They disobeyed his order and continued to meet in secret. The Third Estate (mostly the bourgeoise) spearheaded these efforts, eventually assembling and taking the “Tennis Court Oath,” swearing not to separate until a constitution was established that gave the French people natural rights and fair treatment in accordance with Enlightenment thought.

Louis continued to oppose reform and thus ended up being the ultimate victim of the French Revolution. He was the only king of France to be executed (1793), ending one thousand years of continuous French monarchy. When the guillotine cut off his head, it was also decapitating the entire Bourbon legacy. They would never fully recover. Maximilien Robespierre’s Reign of Terror followed, after which Napoleon seized power and created a sprawling French Empire across Europe.

Even though the Congress of Vienna (1814–1815) ultimately restored European royal families to power across the continent (including France), the power of Bourbon kings was never as strong as it had been. In fact, Louis XVII only ruled for about a decade, and his royal privilege was substantially reduced by the Charter of 1814, France’s new constitution.

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There is little doubt that the Bourbon monarchy was among the victims of the French Revolution. Louis XVI and his wife lost their heads, the king's son perished after a stay in prison, and the monarchy would only return for an extended period after the downfall of Napoleon (who admittedly proclaimed himself Emperor, but not the heir of the Bourbons.) Whether the Bourbons were responsible for causing the Revolution is more complex. By the time Louis XVI came to the throne, France suffered from a number of fiscal issues related to an activist foreign policy (which Louis XVI continued) and serious structural deficiencies in French government that inhibited reform. Prior to 1789, Louis's attempts at reform were blocked by nobles, acting through the Parlement of Paris, and it is entirely possible that even the more sweeping reforms would have failed to avert the problems that led to the Revolution, particularly the economic crisis that gripped peasants and urban workers. On the other hand, his decision-making during the crisis of the late 1780s was almost uniformly poor, and he consistently sought to avoid making difficult decisions. In short, historians differ as to the role of the king in causing the Revolution, with some citing insurmountable difficulties facing Louis and others pointing to his incompetence.

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