Causes and Effects of the French Revolution
Length: 2273 words (6.5 double-spaced pages)
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Revolution? The major cause of the French Revolution was the disputes between the different types of social classes in French society. The French Revolution of 1789-1799 was one of the most important events in the history of the world. The Revolution led to many changes in France, which at the time of the Revolution, was the most powerful state in Europe. The Revolution led to the development of new political forces such as democracy and nationalism. It questioned the authority of kings, priests, and nobles. The Revolution also gave new meanings and new ideas to the political ideas of the people.
The French Revolution was spread over the ten year period between 1789 and 1799. The primary cause of the revolution was the disputes over the peoples' differing ideas of reform. Before the beginning of the Revolution, only moderate reforms were wanted by the people. An example of why they wanted this was because of king Louis XIV's actions. At the end of the seventeenth century, King Louis XIV's wars began decreasing the royal finances dramatically. This worsened during the eighteenth century. The use of the money by Louis XIV angered the people and they wanted a new system of government. The writings of the philosophes such as Voltaire and Diderot, were critical of the government.
They said that not one official in power was corrupt, but that the whole system of government needed some change. Eventually, when the royal finances were expended in the 1780's, there began a time of greater criticism. This sparked the peasants notion of wanting change. Under the Old Regime in France, the king was the absolute monarch. Louis XIV had centralized power in the royal bureaucracy, the government departments which administered his policies. Together, Louis XIV and the bureaucracy worked to preserve royal authority and to maintain the social structure of the Old Regime.
At this time in French history, the social classes played an important role in the lives of the people. The social structure of France was divided among three groups: the First Estate, the Second Estate, and the Third Estate.
Each social group had a varied type of people within their structure, which presented the different views of the people. The First Estate was the Church. During the ancien regime, the church was equal in terms of its social, economic, and spiritual power. The First Estate owned nearly 10 per cent of all land in France.
It paid no taxes but, to support church activities such as school running and caring for the poor, they collected a tithe, or a tax on income.
About one-third of the entire clergy in France served as parish priests. Also included in this estate were the nobles. Some of the nobles lived in luxury in major cities in France, such as Versailles or Paris. Parish priests usually lived a hardworking life. This Estate was the minority of the people in France, having approximately 1 to 2 per cent of the population.
The Second Estate in French life was the nobility. They enjoyed extensive rights and privileges. They made up less than 2 percent of the population. They, like the First Estate, paid hardly any taxes. Economically, the nobility was characterized by great land wealth. Nobles were generally the richest members of the society. Typical sources of income were rents and dues for the use of their farms or estates. The First and Second Estates were grouped together because they had similar political beliefs.
The Third Estate consisted of the commoners. It included the bourgeoisie, peasants and city workers. The bourgeoisie, or the middle class, were by far, the wealthiest. In the bourgeoisie, there were the merchants and manufacturers, lawyers, doctors and others similar to those types of professions. Peasants made up the largest group within the Third Estate. They were forced to pay hefty taxes, tithes to the church, and rents to their landlords for the land that they lived on. The last group within the Third Estate were the city workers. They were servants, apprentices, and household maids.
The major cause of the Revolution were the differences these three groups had. However, there was another important factor during these times. France suffered from harsh economic problems. Poor farm harvests by farmers hurt the economy, and trade rules from the Middle Ages still survived, making trade difficult. However, the most serious problem was the problem facing the government during this time. The French government borrowed much money to pay for the wars of Louis XIV. Louis still borrowed money to fight wars and to keep French power alive in Europe. These costs greatly increased the national debt, which was, at the time, already too high.
When King Louis XVI came into power, he realized that these problems existed. At first he did not know what to do, until he found a man by the name of Robert Turgot. He eased the financial crisis of France, but he had difficulties when he tried to introduce a major reform, that of taxing the nobles. He had such difficulties because the king could not tax the nobles unless the Parliament approved of the new tax laws. The people in the courts that voted on these laws were the nobles, called nobles of the robe, and therefore rejected Turgot's reform. After Turgot was rejected, the king fired him from his office. This led Louis XVI to summon the Estates General in 1789. The Estates General was the place where representatives from each social class could be represented. Here, many issues would be discussed, and at this time in French history, it would be centered around the economic crisis. When the Estates General met in 1789, the deputies, or representatives, from the Third Estate demanded that the three estates meet together, with each deputy having an equal vote. That way, the First and Second Estates could outvote the Third Estate. When the king heard of this, he demanded that the three estates meet separately. This caused anger within the Third Estate. The deputies from the Third Estate declared themselves the National Assembly. Louis XVI quickly rejected these deputies from the meeting hall. After a while, Louis XVI decided that it would be best if the three estates met together. He ordered the other two estates to join the Third Estate in the National Assembly.
Although now the three estates met together, there were divisions among them. Some wanted to protect their rights, while others wanted to establish a limited, constitutional monarchy. This sparked some change in the French people.
Immediately after the National Assembly secretly began working on a constitution, the peasants and workers expected relief from taxes and other dues that they paid. Little happened, and they still faced their same problems of unemployment and inflation. Then there were reports that Louis XVI was bringing troops to Paris. This increased the peoples' fears.
When Louis brought troops to Versailles, many citizens feared that he wanted to get rid of the National Assembly. As a result, they stormed the Bastille. Other disturbances also broke out. People were caught up in what was called the "Great Fear". Rumors passed from village to village that robbers were destroying homes all over France. When no robbers showed up, the peasants turned to their landlords. They destroyed grain towers, and destroyed tax records, showing that they will never pay any taxes, fines or dues ever again.
These events forced Louis to summon the National Assembly on August 4th. They people discussed possible reforms. On this day, the National Assembly ended serfdom. Towards the end of August, the National Assembly adopted the Declaration of the Rights of Man. It stated that democratic principles would be the basis for French government. The job of turning these ideas into a constitution still remained.
While the constitution was in the process of being made, an angry crowd in Paris rioted, forcing the National Assembly to recognize their demands. Some of these rioters were women. They were angry about food prices. They also thought that the king and queen were going against the National Assembly. They demanded that Louis return to Paris where they could watch him. To prevent any further uprisings, he agreed.
Throughout France, all ancient customs were thrown away by the revolution. The National Assembly called for freedom of worship and abolished all special activities and privileges of the Catholic Church. To raise money that was needed, the government began selling off church lands, which angered many Catholics.
In 1791, the National Assembly brought forward a new constitution. It made France a limited monarchy and established a system of separation of powers. Under the constitution, the old distinctions between the clergy, nobles, and commoners disappeared.
Few people were satisfied with the constitutional monarchy. Louis XVI was frightened at the actions of the National Assembly. He fled the country with his wife, but he was later arrested and brought back to accept the constitution. After this action by the king, moderate revolutionaries still wanted to preserve the constitutional monarchy, while the radicals distrusted the king and wanted a republic. These were the causes of the French Revolution. Many peoples' lives were changed during this time. Peoples' ideas also changed.
After the war between France and Austria and Prussia, prices increased dramatically, and food shortages occurred. When Louis XVI and his wife fled to the Legislative Assembly, they were imprisoned. They called for a national convention to write a new constitution. The National Convention met in September. The National Convention tried and convicted Louis XVI of treason. He was sentenced to death.
News of his death spread all throughout Europe. Monarchs of European nations feared that the Revolution would spread. By 1793, the French armies occupied the Austrian Netherlands and were about to invade Prussia. But, in 1793, Great Britain, the Dutch Netherlands, and Spain went along with Prussia and Austria in a war against France. With these five powerful nations fighting against France, the French were outnumbered and outmatched. This one war was very hard for France. This war caused many deaths at home due to starvation. At this point in the Revolution, some people thought that the Revolution had gone too far and should be put to an end.
In the effort to restore temporary peace in the society, the National Convention made a constitution that created a Committee of Public Safety. It campaigned against people who were considered enemies of France. Maximilien Robespierre led the Committee of Public Safety. He wanted to create a "Republic of Virtue". The Committee went all over France to help other groups find traitors to France. During the Reign of Terror, trials for the people were held often. Many people were brought to the guillotine and killed. Most of the victims were commoners. This time of terror had scared the people, and their revolts towards the government ended. The Committee of Public Safety organized new and powerful armies to protect itself from foreign invasion. The Committee also set limits on prices and salaries.
By early in 1794, the French armies were winning battles again, but supporters were asking if these executions of the people were still needed in society. The National Convention then arrested Maximilien Robespierre, and executed him, which ended the Reign of Terror.
Between the years of 1789 and 1794, French life had changed dramatically. There were changes in the lifestyle of the people, as well as in clothes and art. The monarchies were gone, and the king no longer ruled. The National Convention abolished all feudal customs and ended all slavery. Revolutionary leaders also established the metric system. They wanted to set up free public schools, but that never came about, due to the economic problems. In 1795, after the total ending of the Reign of Terror, the National Convention established another constitution. It established a new system of government called the Directory. This Directory, however, faced many problems. The legislative deputies begged and "bought" political votes, and prices rose sharply, something which the poor classes of society didn't like. Along with these problems, it still followed a foreign policy. It built the largest army in Europe during this time. This army were headed by a great military leader, Napoleon Bonaparte.
In 1793, Napoleon won many battles against the British, and at this time, he was a general. He next won battles over Italy, and in 1798, he invaded Egypt. He defeated Egypt's army, but he had to pay for his victory. At sea, the Egyptian Navy, led by Horatio Nelson, destroyed the French fleet at the Nile river. This loss meant that the fleet could not take the soldiers back to France, so, Napoleon left them there and he went back to France. Unbeknownst to the people of France about the tragedy in Egypt, he was still welcomed as a hero. When talking to the people at home, he found that many people were not satisfied with the Directory. With the help of troops, he overthrew the government in 1799.
Under this new government, Napoleon was called the First Consul. His military talents helped him to win popular support. With his support, he was named the dictator of France. This time in French History was important to the people of France because of the different types of government they had. Socialism, liberalism and nationalism all were results of the French Revolution. It gave people the idea that if they tried, they could reorganize a society whenever it was needed. The greatest legacy of the French Revolution, however, was that people could change anything that they wanted with political ideas, words and laws.