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THE FRENCH REVOLUTION
The French Revolution was one of the greatest rebellions of the people against the government, but what were the issues that caused it to happen? What possessed the citizens of France to rise up against such a powerful monarchy? Long- term issues relating to the economy and social structure, the new philosophies in France, and the decreasing power of the king were the main reasons that this uprising precipitated.
It is a common misconception that the French Revolution was an uprising of the peasants against the aristocrats. In actuality, the French Revolution was a revolt started by the middle-class and finished by the peasants. In the eighteenth century trade and commerce was growing in France. This economic change brought a rise to the Bourgeoisie or middle-class. Although many members of the middle-class had a larger income than members of the nobility, the taxes they were required to pay, prevented them from moving up in society.
Throughout time and empires, problems with the economy have ruined civilizations, and eighteenth century France was no different. Preceding the revolution France had taken active roles in many wars. These wars included the Wars of Louis XIV, Seven Years War, and the American War for Independence. In the Seven Years War France lost many of its colonies to Britain, this caused resentment in France. All these wars over time had put the French government in large debt. The only way for the government to return borrowed money was to increase taxes. The government created tension in the social system because a vast majority of French society thought the taxation was unjust because only a certain group of people was taxed.
The social system in France was divided into what was called Estates. The first estate was the Roman Catholic Church, the second estate was the aristocracy, and the third estate consisted of both the peasantry and the bourgeoisie (middle-class). Another characteristic of French society was the feudal system. In this system a feudal lord (land lord) would own a large plot of land where peasants would farm and live. These feudal lords, who were members of the second estate, were paid in harvest as well as in currency. This feudal system was also called the manorial system. This system did not the peasantry happy, because their well being depended on their harvest, which caused problems when the crop was bad. For example, if there were a famine on the grain harvest, the bread prices would rise. This expressed the economic idea of supply and demand, where supply decreases, price increases.
In French society, the first and second estates were tax exempt, leaving only the third estate to bear the burden of the debt of their country. The taxes that were to be paid were the Tithe (one-tenth of their yearly income to be paid to the church), the Taille (land tax), the Vingtieme (one-twentieth of yearly income only during war time), Capitation (poll tax), and the Gabelle (salt tax). This extremely large percent of income taken by the French government prevented the third estate from gathering wealth and moving up in the estate system. Another inefficiency of this taxation system was that the debt the French government had too big of a debt to depend on only the third estate. Over time this led to major problems in the relationship between the people and the government.
One more burden that added to the troubles of the third estate was the three masters that added many more costs to daily life. The first master was the landlord. Along with paying money and grain to maintain land, a member of the third estate had to pay to use the wine press. Also, the third estate had to pay for bread (ironically, they were paying for the bread that was made with their own grain). The second master was the Church. The Church was another burden to the third estate because the Roman Catholic Church collected the Tithe. Finally, the third master of the peasants was the king, who collected all taxes except the Tithe.
Being the first estate of French society, the Roman Catholic Church had a powerful influence on the masses. Problems with the Church started arising during the Enlightenment. This occurred because people began to question the authority and the ideology of the Roman Catholic Church. The roots of these doubts lay in the Scientific Revolution. This revolution of thought was to put beliefs into science rather than religion, and to emphasize truth rather than faith. The disproof of the Geocentric Theory (the belief that the earth revolves around the sun) by Galileo made people doubt the validity of the Church s beliefs. Also, the numerous cases of heresy claimed by the Church showed how worried the Church was about being overpowered, or exposed . The Church tried to suppress this scientific movement by claiming that scientists of the time that were speaking out against the church were committing heresy.
Tension towards the Roman Catholic Church and the French judicial system were already mounting but the Calas Affair set off a major movement against these institutions. The Calas affair took place in Toulouse, France in the early 1760s. Jean Calas was a French Calvinist and a prominent merchant. In 1761 one of his four sons, Marc-Antoine hung himself inside one of his father s warehouses. Immediately it was suggested that Jean Calas was guilty of murdering his own son to prevent him from converting to Christianity. On March ninth, 1762, by a vote of eight to five, Jon Calas was wrongly sentenced to torture. He was brutally tortured for day, and eventually broken at the wheel (when one is tied up and every bone in one s body is broken with a steel bar) and burnt. After his brutal death, his family went to Voltaire to argue their case. Voltaire proved that Jean Calas was innocent of the crime he was executed for, and the parliament of Toulouse immediately pronounced Calas innocent. This enraged many people, and led people to speak out against the church and government.
After the John Calas Affair made people more aware of he imperfections in their government. During the late eighteenth century, the French citizens were dissatisfied with the monarchy in France. People realized that in the past century, kings were spending money in a very grandiose manner (the Ch teau in Versailles was an example of this). They were spending more money than they had, and this offended the citizens because an increase in spending would result in the elevation of taxes for the third estate. These factors made the Roman Catholic Church and the French monarchy vulnerable to public criticism. This dislike of the church and the king led to a time called the Enlightenment. This was a time when a group of people called the Philosophes brought about a new ideology in France. Three main people influenced the anti-church anti-monarchy thought in France. These men were Voltaire, Diderot, and Montesquieu. Voltaire weakened the Roman Catholic Church through his various publications. Diderot attacked the church through public speaking and publications. Finally Montesquieu attacked the French government.
Although there were many issues that led up to the French Revolution, there was only one conflict that set off the French Revolution. The government had finally fallen into bankruptcy in 1787, and Louis XVI had realized that the only way to be able to pay of the debts the country had was to tax the nobles. The problem with this idea was that the nobility refused to pay. The second estate declared that the only way that they would agree to pay taxes was if the king called an Estates General and the people of France voted on taxing the nobles. Some historians believe that the Estates-General could have been avoided if Louis XVI had been more decisive and made mild reforms on his own. If he did this, a large public congregation could have been averted. Louis XVI decided he needed to take his chances and call an Estates General in Versailles. At this Estates General was where the problems arose. Along with the main problem with taxes many citizens brought other ideas for the government, but they were turned down. This built tension inside the third estate. When the vote for the taxes was declined, the third estate became enraged that they were ninety five percent of society, and yet their vote meant close to nothing. Due to their strong opposition to the government, many members of the third estate gathered on an indoor tennis court in the Palace of Versailles and refused to leave until a new constitution was written. This was known as the Tennis Court Pact.
One very recent event that may have inspired the French in their uprising was the American Revolution. There are four main ideas that the French adopted into their own movement. The first idea is that it is right to take up arms against tyranny. The second idea is the very famous idea that there should be no taxation without representation. The third is that all men should have liberal freedoms, and lastly a republic is superior to a monarchy. These ideas ran contrary to the ideology behind the Ancien Regime otherwise known as the French monarchy.
Although the Tennis Court Pact was a large movement towards the revolution, the fire of the revolution was not sparked until July fourteenth, 1789. The Bastille, which had long been a symbol of political oppression, was attacked by the third estate. It was initially approached for the gunpowder in it, but when confusion outside began, shots were fired, and the people stormed the Bastille. This was the beginning of the French Revolution.
Anger led up to the French Revolution. This anger was built up over decades of taxes, injustice, and partiality of the government towards the upper neck of society. Anger was not the only cause of the revolution, the new ideology brought from the Enlightenment made people doubt the power of the government and the Roman Catholic Church. The French Revolution forever stands as a symbol of the people versus the government. This revolution as well as the American Revolution stand as precedents of the idea that the people in unity stand tall against the government.
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