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Q3. How did the Intellectual Movement contribute to make French Revolution a success? What were the reasons of the outbreak? 


Discontent or even abject poverty is not enough to make a successful revolution. Revolutionary thinking and ideas must precede revolutionary action to focus on an ‘enemy’ and provide ideals to fight for.

Enlightenment philosophers rejected hierarchical government and religious superstition.

Writings attacking religion fed the fires of revolution because the Church gave support to autocratic monarchy and the old order. Voltaire, one of the most famous French writers of the time, though not an atheist, believed all religions absurd and contrary to reason.

Christianity had taught that man was born to suffer but the French revolutionary philosophers asserted that man was born to be happy. They believed that man can attain happiness if reason is allowed to destroy prejudice and reform man’s institutions. They urged faith in reason and opined that the power of reason alone was sufficient to build a perfect society. In place of God they asserted the doctrine of ‘Nature’ and the need to understand its laws.

The clergy were the first to feel the brunt of the French philosophers.

A long series of scientific advances dating from the Renaissance helped to support their cause and remove the stranglehold of the clergy.

The French economists or ‘physiocrats’ believed in “Laissez faire” i.e. a person must be left free to manage and dispose of his property in the way he thinks best. Physiocrats said that taxes should be imposed only with the consent of those on whom they were levied. These ideas were a direct denial of the privileges and feudal rights that protected the upper classes.

The philosopher-writer, Montesquieu, thought about the kind of government that is best suited to man and outlined the principles of constitutional monarchy.

However, it was Jean Jacques Rousseau who asserted the doctrine of popular sovereignty and democracy. He said, Man is born free, yet everywhere he is in chains.’ He talked of the ‘state of nature’ when man was free, and said that freedom was lost following the emergence of property. He recognized property in modern societies as a ‘necessary evil’. What was needed, said Rousseau, was a new ‘social contract’ to guarantee the freedom, equality and happiness which man had enjoyed in the state of nature. Rousseau’s theories also contained a principle that had been written into the American Declaration of Independence: no political system can maintain itself without the consent of the governed.

Obvious example of the effect of the enlightenment on the course of the revolution is in the ‘rights of Man’ -“All men are created equal and are endowed with certain inalienable rights…life, liberty and pursuit and happiness”

Without the ideas spread by revolutionary thinkers and philosophers, the French Revolution would simply have been an outbreak of violence.


The events leading to the outbreak of the Revolution

France was involved in 3 major wars during the middle of the eighteenth century. These were:

  1. The war of Austrian Succession
  2. American War of Independence
  3. Seven Years’ War – Britain vs France fought in the British and French colonies of N. America and India. These wars were funded by borrowing loans, or taxation.

Ordinary expenditure was also high the palaces at Versailles needed to maintain and other members of the royal family had extravagant palaces built. There was a lack of uniformity in the tax system and as some taxes were collected by the farmers general which were corrupt. There were no accounting procedures to measure expenditure

1789, Louis XVI’s need for money compelled him to agree to a meeting of the ‘Estates General’— the old feudal assembly which represented all three estates the social tensions plaguing the old regime emerged as a central issue.

On 17 June 1789, members of the Third Estate, claiming to represent 96 per cent of the nation’s population, declared themselves the National Assembly. On 20 June, they found their meeting-hall occupied by royal guards but, determined to meet, they moved to the nearby tennis court to work out a constitution. its members took the Tennis Court Oath, swearing that they would not relent in their efforts until a new constitution had been agreed upon.

Louis then made preparations to break up the Assembly. Troops were called: rumors spread that leading members of the Assembly would soon be arrested. This enraged the people, who began to gather in their thousands, were soon joined by the guards and they surrounded the Bastille, a state prison. On 14 July. After a four-hour siege, they broke open the doors, freeing all the prisoners. The fall of the Bastille symbolized the fall of autocracy.

Social unrest was also brewing in the countryside. Upon hearing about the taking of the Bastille, peasants decided to press for social change through drastic actions. In the summer of 1789 hundreds of thousands mobilized to attack lords’ manors and destroy the bitter symbols of feudalism. Urban workers also found an opportunity to express their discontent, through elections to the Estates-General. Dubbed the “Great Fear, these rural attacks continued until the early August issuing of the August Decrees, which freed those peasants from their oppressive contracts. Shortly thereafter, the assembly released the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, which established a proper judicial code and the autonomy of the French people. After 14 July 1789, Louis XVI was king only in name. The National Assembly began to enact laws.

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