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French Revolution

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As the tragic events of the French Revolution unfolded, King Louis XVI of France soon found himself in the centre of it and gradually became one of the victims. In the morning of Tuesday 21st January 1793, he was woken by his guards and taken to Place de la Revolution. “My people, I die an innocent man” were his last words to the crowd, and moments later, his head was held up to the crowd . However, what caused the end of monarchy? Was Louis XVI completely responsible for his own downfall? There is no questioning that Louis XVI is, in fact, partially responsible for his own downfall, but other factors, both short term and long term, also contributed to his downfall.

Awkward and timid, Louis XVI found himself on the throne at the age of twenty, succeeding his grandfather Louis XV. Soon, after 15 years, he found his crown being taken away. His downfall is partially caused by his nature of being indecisive and lazy. Louis XVI’s wife, Queen Marie-Antoinette, though she knew very little of state affairs, often interfered with in government. King Louis XVI was never able to oppose her for a long time. This was mainly because before their downfall, Queen Marie-Antoinette had quite a lot of power. Besides, the King was indecisive, allowing the Queen to take a lot of advantages from him. For example, in 1776, Marie-Antoinette managed to bring down Louis’s reforming minister, Jacques Turgot, because he had offended one of the Queen’s favourites—the Count de Guines. The arrogant Queen not only wanted Louis XVI to demote him, but to also send him into prison at the Bastille.

King Louis XVI could be viewed as a lazy King, because he never truly cared about his country, France. Instead of using his mind on trying to improve his country, Louis XVI tends to enjoy the simple pleasures of a king’s life, especially hunting. He was often seen riding in the forests surrounding the palace of the Versailles. Also, he had a huge appetite. “One observer noted that Louis once consumed for breakfast, ‘four cutlets, a chicken, a plateful of ham, half a dozen eggs in sauce and a bottle and a half of champagne’ ” . With his nature of being lazy and indecisive, King Louis XVI gradually lost control of the government and his people, giving them chances for overthrowing him. Moreover, his flight to Varennes at midnight on 20 June 1791 enabled the French to lose trust on him, Queen Marie-Antoinette and his family.

Therefore, we can say that the King himself is partially responsible for his own downfall. However, the behaviours of Louis XVI himself are not the only contributing factors to his downfall. Certainly, other factors, both long term and short term also contribute greatly to his loss of power. Some short term factors include the influences of the philosophers, helping the Americans with the American Revolution; some long term factors include population increase and financial difficulties.

During the 18th century, all the major countries of Europe experienced strong influences by the Enlightenment. France was at the center of the movement. The ideas of French thinkers such as Voltaire, Rousseau and Montesquieu were widespread. Their writings greatly influenced the bourgeoisie and strongly encouraged them to rebel against tyranny. For example, Rousseau believed that everyone should have equal rights . This idea is very dangerous to the government. The reason is that before the French Revolution, there are three estates, the clergy, the nobles and the peasants. The first and second estates, the clergy and the nobles, though only forming 3% of the people in France, were relatively wealthy and, perhaps, powerful. They even had privileges such as not needing to pay the taxes. Meanwhile, the third estate, which was made up of mainly peasants and workers, needed to pay very heavy taxes despite the fact that they were poor and often did not have enough money to buy sufficient food.

Besides, they never had any say in the running of the country. Since Rousseau’s idea of everyone having equal rights is contradicting with how the French society was divided at that time, his idea would be considered very dangerous. His idea may influence people of the third estate, who always longed for a say in the running of the country, and cause them to think that it was extremely unfair for them to have no political power when they paid most of the taxes, which supported the country. This, may continue, and cause rebellions. The ideas of the philosophers were all against the teachings of the Church. They also questioned whether kings should be absolute monarchs. Gradually, they influenced many people, and began to question the entire political system of France: Should the absolute monarch and his government be overthrown? Should a new government, which was based on the will of the people, be developed?

;In the 1770s, the Americans started the American Revolution. Always at odds with Great Britain, King Louis XVI managed to see that by helping the Americans, he can, at the same time, reduce the powers of the Great Britain to prevent further attacks or destructions on France. Therefore, more than 9,000 French soldiers and sailors fought in the American Revolution, performed well in the war and earned praises from both the French, and the American citizens . However, there were disadvantages for helping the Americans. Some of the soldiers that returned came back to France with revolutionary ideas from America. American’s independence gave the soldiers an idea that rebelling against King Louis XVI and his government could earn them more freedom too, since the war taught them that tyranny can be challenged . Besides, expenses for the war were huge, adding more debt to France.

Overall, during the eighteenth century, the French economy improved. However, since 1778, business failing and prices falling began to occur. In 1787, it was observed that prices began to rise. In this case, it was due to the bad harvest, which caused extreme shortages of food. The peak prices of July 1789 were up to 150 percent for wheat and 165 for rye. However, wages had only risen 5 percent since 1770 . The shortage of food and the rapid price-rise was one of the triggers that caused the French Revolution and the downfall of Louis XVI. The debt of France was building up every year. Two reasons which caused the increasing debt were the selfishness of the nobility and the expenses for helping the Americans in the American Revolution. As mentioned in the previous paragraph, the cost of the American Revolution was staggering. ‘By the late 1780s payments on the French public debt took up half of the crown’s revenue, having tripled in the years between the start of the American war and the sound of the last shot fired’.

As we can see from the quote, the American Revolution has caused the debt of France to triple between 1775 and 1783, which was only about eight years. Another reason of France being bankrupt was due to noble selfishness – they refused to pay taxes and charging high interests when the King borrowed money from them. King Louis XVI could have forced the first two estates, the clergy and the nobles, to pay more taxes. However, by refusing to pay any tax, the tax-load for the third estate became heavier and heavier, and gradually led to anger in the third estate. As time passed, the King and his government eventually needed to start borrowing money from the nobles. Over the years, huge amounts of money were borrowed. ‘In 1788 50% of all the government’s spending went just on paying interest to people who had loaned it money’. This shows how selfish the nobles were. Instead of helping France, the nobles were simply increasing her debts! The King knew he must find another way of getting more money instead of borrowing. So, he called in the Estates General on 5 May 1789 . However, things soon went out of his control since then.

The social factor which led to the downfall of Louis XVI was the population increase. The population has increased by 44 percent since 1715 – from about 18 million to 26 million, or even more. In Paris, 10 percent of the people were always unemployed, and half of this were professional beggars and thieves . The population increase increased the number of people unemployed. With more people unemployed, the possibility of deaths caused by starvation would increase, especially when bad harvests occurred slightly before the revolution. This would, further, raise the anger in the third estate, because not only did they not have enough money and food, they also needed to pay heavy taxes when the other estates did not need to. The anger would then cause revolution and overthrowing of the absolute monarch, King Louis XVI and his government.

The French Revolution was in fact, extremely successful. The revolution unified France, and tore down the ancient structure of France, and later, the entire Europe. It gave birth to the ideas of liberalism and nationalism, and these two ideas began to spread in Europe due to the Napoleonic Wars. France managed to play a leading role in most revolutions of the 19th century. For example, the Italians and Germans, who were inspired by the ideas of liberalism and nationalism, demanded for unification and independence, and finally succeeded in the 1870s. Besides, the French Revolution also acted as a trigger of the American Civil War in the 19th century, which resulted in the end of slavery and another equal nation . With the French Revolution, France was never the same. In fact, the World would never be the same again.


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