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Why Was There A Revolution In France ? Essay, Research Paper

The French revolution was more than just a revolution to change the government of France in fact it changed the whole of France socially, economically as well as politically, to quote A. J. P. Taylor, ” The French were confident that they were preparing a new age and that history would begin again from 19 September 1792, when the revolutionary Convention met”. In this light it is obviously foolish to look for one neat explaination of the French revolution. There are long-term causes such as the divisions within French society,and the lack of representation for the people within government. There are also short-term causes such as the bankruptcy of the country caused by war coupled with the increases in food prices caused by bad harvests, the need for the absolutist government to call the parlements in order to reform taxation and the sucess of the American revolution which saw a just and rational system of government set up in the colonies which broke away from Great Britian. There are though other factors which need consideration if a true explaination for the causes of the French revolution is to be found. The very structure of the French regime is of vital importance to this question. An absolutist state such as France was then is, by it’s very nature, bound to exclude the mass of the people from taking an active role in government and it will dominate and control their lives. The abolutist state, although strong with a standing army loyal to the King, is very weak when that same standing army turns its back on the state and joins with the revolutionaries. The final factor which needs consideration when looking at the French revolution is the Enlightenment. France was, to a great degree, the home of the Enlightenment writers, such as Rousseau, who lived and wrote there and formed the ideas that would be the undoing of the absolutist monarchy and the basis of the new French republic. The long term causes of the French revolution are based around, it can be argued, the division amongst French society at that time. French society was based, not around classes, but around the system of orders. There were three orders, the nobility, the clergy and the third order. The third order was the most diverse, being made up of all the people which did not fit into the other categories. This lead to divisions and resentment between the social orders. The French nobility were indeed privileged at the time of the revolution.They were exempt from and avoided much taxation. This caused the third order, especially the peasants and village inhabitants, which bore the burden of taxation to feel much resentment. The nobility also gained much revenue from fuedal dues which the rural population had to pay which in the past had had a certain signifcance but now were just a drain on finances. There was also a great deal of money to be made by the large landowners in commercial farming. They could sell large surpluses of grain to make money, this was especially lucrative when there had been bad harvests and as a result grain prices increased greatly. This not only meant that the landowners could sell at increased prices to the peasants whose own harvests had failed, but also at increased prices to the urban areas so that the price of bread, the staple diet, would go up. As a result of the rural poverty there would be less money to be spent on goods manufactured in the urban areas. Ther was also a division within the nobility itself between the richer and poorer lords. Running a large estate cost a great deal and many lords could not afford to run their estates properly, especially when there were bad harvests. This is in contrast to the wealthy lords who enjoyed status with the king at Versailles. A divided nobility can be seen, this would mean that there would not necessarily be solidarity among the nobles in the face of reform. The church also enjoyed a privileged position within French society at this time. The church had great wealth and was a large landowner owning 10% of the land and collected 120 million livres in tithes which was to a great extent exempt from taxation . This must have caused great resentment amongst the rural population of France because land was split amongst the male sons as inheritance . This would have put a great deal of pressure on land. By this it can be seen the ways in which divisions between the population and the clergy would have caused tensions in pre-revolutionary France. The third estate which constituted of the remainder of society was typified politically by the bourgeoisie. The educated classes such as the lawyers and writers and the wealthy merchants were jealous of the priveleged position in society of the nobility who were exempt from many taxes. As P.M. Jones writes, “…the concept of honour precluded any significant liability to ‘commoner’ taxes.” The bourgeoisie were also kept out of top positions in French society by the privileged nobility. In the eighteenth century the nobles, by virtue of their noble position had reclaimed many of the state posts which the monarchy had filled with the middle classes. This woud be of harm to the French state because, quite often the nobles would not be as competent as the bourgeoisie they replaced. This happened in areas such as the army, diplomatic profession and court appointments. The state of France was heavily in debt at this time, owing, according to de Tocqueville, six million Livres to creditors in 1789. These debts being incurred in the pursuit of, primarily wars against other European powers. The money was owed to rentiers, merchants, manufacturers businessmen and financiers. These groups of people belonged to the bourgeoisie, so it can be argued that the bourgeoisie ‘bailed out’ the state and kept it solvent. It can be seen, therefore, that because of the resentment of the bourgeoisie against the privileged position of the nobility and the fact that the state was financially indebted to the bourgeoisie that they were dissatisfied with the way in which the country was being run. The Enlightenment movement which was very prominent in France at this time influenced the French intellegentsia. The writings of Rousseau, especiallly his work The Social Contract, laid out a basis for a representative government. After the revolution there was a declaration of rights based on reason not privilege. The English writer and revolutionary Tom Paine named his book which was a defence of the revolution, The Rights of Man. This influence and diffusion of ideas meant that although there was no leader of the revolution as such there was a kind of impetus behind it. There were also short term causes of the French revolution which acted as a catalyst to set events going, these also need examination if a proper analysis is desired. Of these causes, it can be argued that the financial crisis was the main reason that the revolution happened at the time it did. The financial crisis provided the chance for political reform in France and can be seen to have brought about the revolution. France was, to all intents and purposes, bankrupt. Expenditure was over twenty percent higher than revenue and in 1788 three quarters of expenditure went on to the armed forces and the servicing of the existing debt. The French had been fighting with the Americans against the British and won but, as a result, built up a huge debt. However there was also the fact that there had been bad harvests in 1788 and another one was expected in 1789. This put prices up to almost famine levels and while this was good for the large landowners who could make a lot of money from selling their grain, it put the prices up for the ordinary people this, it can be argued, reinforced the perception of the nobles as a privileged section of society. This is combined with the fact that bad harvests create rural poverty, which means the rural population has less disposable income. When the rural population has less money to spend on non-essential items there is less call for manufactured goods and, therefore, as a result there is a depression in urban industrial areas, which would, in turn, cause poverty. The French exchequer needed to find a way to raise more funds and they had to raise tax in order to do this. The area where most tax colud be raised was from the nobility, who had been, up until this time largely untouched by taxation. The aristocracy and the parlements refused to pay taxes without an extension of their privileges. Hobsbawm writes, “The first breach in the front of absolutism”, was in 1787 when the Assembly of Notables met to pass the governments wishes. Jones goes even further than that to say that the Asembly of Notables was seen by some as the first stages of a national assembly, but also writes of the fact that there were few members of the third estate in it, this would limit the wider appeal of the Assembly. The summoning of the Estates general in May 1789 was the final action which brought the end of the old regime in France. It seems curious that the Estates General which was the old style of fuedal representation should bring about the end of the autocracy. The last time that the Estates General had met was in 1614, so in bringing up an old fuedal system the French autocracy was undoing its own dominance. It was therefore an old system of government which caused the revolution, not a new idea brought to fruition. The Estates General was summoned because of the need for extended taxation and from this the national assembly was born. The Estates General was based around the three orders meeting seperatley and the voting on issues was done by order, this meant that there was a bias in favour of the clergy and nobles who could block the third order, the commoners. The third order also felt that it was entitled to double representation because it was representing the largest section of society and by virtue of the fact that it paid taxes to the state. When Louis XVI agreed to increase representation to the third estate P.M. Jones feels that even the king himself “…seemed to acknowledge that the nation, as understood hitherto, was in need of some redefinition.”, although Ramm feels that the increase of deputies to the third estate was influenced by Necker, the Director-General. It seems therefore that even in the upper echelons of society there was some desire for change. This change started to come into being on June 17th 1789 when the third estate made the authoritative decision of declaring illegal taxes. Six weeks after the convening of the Estates General the third estate declared themsevles and anyone who would join them a National Assembly which would re-write the constitution and vote indiviually, not by orders. This was the political break through which was the start of the revolution in earnest. However the this is not the stereotypical image of the French revolution which has been handed down through history. The heavily symbolic storming of the Bastille which happened on July 14th was caused by the threat of counter-revolution and the terrible social and economic conditions of the mass of the people. The storming of the Bastille was caused, it can be argued, by the popular fear of counter-revolution. The King, Louis XVI, had ordered troops to advance on Paris and this alarmed the population en masse because they thought that the Royal forces would come to put down the fledgling National Assembly. The Hotel de Ville, were the National Assembly met set about organising a government and set up a National Guard of armed citizens which took to the streets. These were joined by regular soldiers who had decided to fight on the side of the revolutionaires in the defence of the rights of the Parisiens. On July 14th they took the Bastille, the prison in Paris where the regime’s political prisoners were held. At the time of the revolution there were few prisoners inside and there were few soldiers garrisoned in the Bastille, however this was not important. It can be argued that the storming of the Bastille really signified the end of the Kings power and despotism. This meant that a proper Municipal Government could be set up with M. Bailly at its head as mayor. As well as the fear of counter-revolution, there was also the fact that the people wanted the poor conditions and the poverty in which they lived to be alleviated. The peasants wanted an end to the fuedal system which existed and the townsfolk also wanted reform of cutoms duties, the salt tax, tithe and seigneurialism, also there was the fear of the harvest failing. This would mean that the seigneurs and the tithe would take its cut from the people, as Jones puts it, “..unrest began to build afresh.”. So there were also economic reasons for the people to come out on to the streets in support of the revolution. After the storming of the Bastille in July there was some important legislation passed in August which abolished fuedalism. This law was passed on August 4th, it abolished fuedalism and all the inherant privileges which accompany it. This was caused, primarily, by the so-called ‘Great Fear’ which was an upsurge of anti-seigneuial violence in rural areas and stories of gangs of brigands which may have been in the employ of the aristocracy but was an ambiguous term. These stories, although they may have been mere rumour and speculation, caused great panic among the rural population. On 15th September more revolutionary legislation was passed putting an end to the Kings right to veto laws that the National Assembly tried to pass. This was a real limit to royal power which was limited even further on 5th October when King Louis XVI was brought back to Paris and had his movement restricted. Although it must be borne in mind that, as the narrative of the French revolution developed over the next few years the position of the monarch detoriorated from that of constitutional King to overthrown and imprisoned King in 1792. Louis XVI was executed in January 1793 in the Jacobin terror. This is part of the legend, the folklore of the revolution but the basic reasons for the initial phases of the revolution are less dramatic, though their effect upon French society was still, none the less, profound. To give a reason as to why there was a French revolution, there has to be a consideration of the underlying causes as well as the short term ‘catalysts’. The longterm causes of the revolution are that the French people had had enough of the divisions and privileges which characterised the fuedal system. The lower orders of France created the most wealth through farming, commerce and industry and were taxed to a great extent. The nobility and clergy, both holding great amounts of land and capacity for wealth paid virutally no tax. So the majority of the people paid for the country but had only limited representation in government due to the autocratic nature of the French monarchy. The run of poor harvests in the period before the revolution meant that the rural and urban population was becoming poorer and progressively more hungry as time went on. This would, it can be argued, only exacerbate the perception of privilege and division. There was also the fact that the educated classes, leading the third order, for example the lawyers, merchants and writers had taken on board the ideas of the Enlightenment. These ideas about government, based on civil rights, reason and equality, gave them a coherent basis for their constitutional reforms. These long term factors however were not enough to bring about the revolution in France. The French revolution, just like the Russian revolution over a century later, was dependant on there being certain conditions at the right time to bring about change. These reasons were, it can be argued the short term economic crisis and the calling of the Estates General. France, just prior to the revolution,was to all intents and purposes bankrupt. Expenditure on war debts and loan repayments meant that new taxes had to be raised. To do this the old style fuedal Estates General had to be called. This gave a forum for the third order, represented by the bourgeoisie to demand more representation. They formed a National Assembly and set up the new constitution (as described above). It was only when the threat of counter-revolution was brought to the fore that the people of Paris took to the streets and sacked the Bastille. It is easy to think of the French revolution only in this sense, of the crowds rampaging through the streets, beheading the monarch and the aristocracy. But it is important to remember that these images came later, after the revolution had had a chance to develop and get a momentum of its own. The revolution in its early stages was, primarily, a peaceful, transfer of power from the King to the National Assembly. This was brought on by the deep inequalities of wealth and privilege in France at this time and the fact that in the Estates General the bourgeoisie found an outlet for their grievances.

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