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The French Revolution (1789)

The French Revolution (1789)


  • Political Causes
    • Louis XIV’s death in 1715 caused Royal absolutism’s (Royal absolutism – a monarchy without constitutional limits) demise too. His great-grandson, Louis XV neither had the capacity nor the ability to govern the country effectively.
    • Numerous wars such as those of Austrian succession and the Seven Years war, resulted in huge financial burden and loss of empire. Poor peasants who could not pay the taxes were sent to prison and those who spoke against royal despotism and tyranny also suffered. King Louis XV neglected the affairs of the state and appointed his favourites to important offices. He also adopted a policy of repression by imposing curbs on the freedom of the press and speech. The king did little to alleviate the sufferings of the common people. Louis XV’s successor was Louis XVI. Even though he was intelligent and well intentioned, but he had no will to carry out some bold reforms to set right the deteriorating conditions prevailing in France. His judgment was influenced by flattering courtiers and his ill-advised queen, Marie Antoinette.
    • Unfortunately, France had no uniform code of laws. A law which was regarded as just and fair in one province was not so in another. Nepotism and corruption in every government department further alienated the sympathies of the people.
    • The Bourbon monarchy discarded the practice of consulting the Estates-General on state matters since the days of Louis XIII. However, towards the end of the eighteenth century, the French monarch was not having such able ministers to guide the destiny of the country.
  • Social Causes
  • Unpleasant distinctions and unjust privileges marked the character of the French society which was divided into 3 classes.
  • The First Estate (the Church)
    • The Church owned one-fifth of the cultivated lands in France and enjoyed great influence with the Government. Like the nobles, the higher clergy was. also exempt from paying most of the taxes. With the nobles they supported absolute monarchy. The Church collected tithe, a tax from the people for providing community services. It also maintained institutions of learning. The lower clergy lived in miserable conditions. The French Revolution (1789)
  • The Second Estate (the nobles)
    • Even though feudalism disappeared in France since the days of Richelieu, these families continued to enjoy all the privileges such as non-payment of most of the taxes, avenues to higher positions in the French administration, and income from various feudal dues of the peasants.
  • The Third Estate (the common people)
    • The bulk of the French population belonged to the third estate. They were the middle class members, the peasants and artisans. The government hardly cared for their welfare. It was from them that the main thrust for the revolution came. The peasants complained of overburdening taxes which reduced them to penury. The peasants were further subjected to humiliation when the nobles destroyed their fields while hunting animals. The French artisans complained of the regulation of trade-guilds which favoured their masters and left them with meagre income.
  • Economic Causes
    • The French system of taxation was both unjust and unfair. Nevertheless, French peasants suffered due to oppression of the tax-farmers and uncertain imposition of the taxes. The privileged classes did not pay most of the taxes and the burden was naturally shifted on shoulders of the poor peasants.

Intellectual Awakening | The French Revolution (1789)

  • France produced great philosophers during the eighteenth century. Voltaire became internationally famous as a great writer and critic whose style and pungent criticism were inimitable. It was through his plays and writings that he launched his bitter attacks against the existing institutions like the church and the state. He made fun of the eccentricities of the nobles.
  • While Voltaire would have liked enlightened despotism, Montesquieu (1659-1755) a good student of constitutional government, preferred constitutional monarchy in France. In his work De /’ Esprit des Lois he popularised the theory of separation of powers and of its exercise by the three branches of government – the legislative, the executive, and the judiciary.
  • Probably the greatest French philosopher of the age was Jean Jacques Rousseau. In his Social Contract, he explained that the king and his subjects are parties to a contract, and therefore if the king does not rule the people according to their general will, he loses their loyalty. Rousseau was advocating popular sovereignty theory. His writings cast such a spell on his admirers that they were ready to revolt against the oppressive monarchy. Diderot was another intellectual of the time who prepared an Encyclopaedia containing the latest knowledge. He exposed the rotten system of administration in France and suggested several remedial measures. The French Revolution (1789)

The Role of the King | The French Revolution (1789)

  • When the American colonists revolted against the oppressive rule of the mother country and won a resounding victory at Saratoga, the French government decided to help them with men, money and materials. It caused a serious strain on the finances of the country and cast a heavy burden on the poor peasants. Turgot was appointed as the Minister of Finance to suggest remedies. He advised the king to tax the privileged class. He was summarily dismissed at the instance of the queen. Unfortunately, France witnessed near-famine conditions in 1788 with the result that there was a serious food shortage. Coupled with this, there was unusual and severe winter in 1798. It was at this critical juncture that the king was advised by his courtiers to summon the Estates-general (French Parliament) to get approval for further dose of taxation.

Important Events of the Revolution | The French Revolution (1789)

  • When the Estates-general was summoned, the king ignored the importance of the third-estate (600 representatives elected by the common people) and tried to consult the representatives of the three estates separately. The representatives of the third estate advised the king to bring together the representatives of all the three estates at one place for discussion of state problems. The king discarded their advice. Subsequently, it led to a quarrel between the king and the representatives of the third estate. They, along with a few representatives from the other two estates, took a pledge (Tennis court oath) not to return home till the drafting of the new constitution was completed. The new constitution was to be framed to limit the powers of the king. When the king dismissed Turgot, rumour spread that he might dissolve the National Assembly also. It was then that an unruly mob in Paris stormed a medieval fortress—prison of Bastille (July 4, 1789), standing as a symbol of royal despotism. The Swiss guards were killed and a few political prisoners were set free. The royal power was weakened further when the revolutionaries drove out royal officials from Paris and established their own government in Paris (i.e., the Paris commune). The king summoned troops to frighten the Paris mob. It led to further escalation of-mob fury. Hungry women of Paris marched to the royal palace of Versailles and demanded bread. When there was no proper response, the mob entered the palace and ransacked it. They forced the king, the queen and their children to live in Paris. The National Assembly completed the drafting of the constitution in 1791. According to this new constitution the King’s powers carne to be reduced. Laws were to be made by the Legislative Assembly, and members of this assembly were to be elected by tax-paying citizens. The king was not happy at the civil constitution of the clergy. However, he gave his consent to abide by the laws of the new constitution. Looking at the tense situation prevailing in the countryside (where the peasants rose in revolt against the nobles) and also a possibility of a war breaking out with Austria on the borders, the king thought it fit to flee the country. In June 1791, he attempted to flee with his family but was apprehended at the border town of Varennes. Thus, ended the hopes of the Moderates who desired a constitutional monarchy. The Extremists gained ground in popularity and power. It led to the deposition of the king and his subsequent execution (1793). France was fast drifting towards a war with her neighbours as their monarchs were shocked at the execution of King Louis XVI. A total anarchy prevailed with the new constitution being set aside. The National Convention which met in September, 1792, began to draft a new constitution. It abolished monarchy and declared France as a Republic. Then it established a committee of Public Safety which was headed by the extremist leaders like Danton and Robespierre. These leaders enjoyed unlimited authority. The Girondins who were moderates were executed and the reign of terror began (Sept. 1792—July 1794.). France witnessed the guillotining of thousands of nobles and innocent men who had supported monarchy. Among the famous women who were executed were Queen Marie Antoinette and Madame du Barry.
  • The National Convention framed a new constitution for France in I795 according to which the executive powers were vested with the Directory of five persons who were to be advised by a legislative body consisting of two chambers. When there was royalist uprising in Paris against the new constitution troops were ordered to crush it. Corsican youth named Napoleon Bonaparte took charge of the command, and after a ‘whiff of grapeshot’ dispersed the unruly mob which was about to attack the National Convention. This young officer was destined to rule France from 1799 to 1815.

Results of the Revolution: | The French Revolution (1789)

  • It destroyed the vestiges of feudalism and liberated the serfs.
  • It established a constitutional monarchy which also disappeared in due course of time. The declaration of the Rights of Man came to be included in the new Constitution as an article of faith. The nobles and the Church lost their property and their lands were distributed to the peasants. Slaves in the French colonies were set free. The watchwords of the French Revolution such as Liberty, Equality and Fraternity reflected the coming of a new democratic and social order in Europe.
  • The revolution roused national feelings. The, common people were prepared to die for the sake of protecting the gains of the revolution. The French Citizen-militia fought the enemies on the French borders.
  • The French Revolution had a lasting effect on the people of Europe in the 19th century. Europe was convulsed by frequent revolutions aimed at overthrowing oppressive governments.The French Revolution (1789)


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