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Grounds of the French Revolution

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The French Revolution, like any major event in the history of mankind was caused by an interwoven complex of factors, including social, political and economic reasons for the outbreak. As political causes that led to the Revolution were more “on the surface” and much more visible than the economic factors, it seems plausible to suppose that they were not primary reasons that caused the Revolution. Out of these diverse grounds economic factors are of special importance as they are the main reason for the collapse of the French monarchy.

Economic factors behind the French Revolution

On the eve of the Revolution the French monarchy found itself on the verge of bankruptcy. The government debt was mounting, threatening to lead to the depletion of the Treasury. The only hope of the sovereign was to raise money through the introduction of new taxes that could help to fill the emptied fund. The king’s officials tried to replenish the Treasury through the introduction of the land tax, yet were unable to put this measure into effect. The King was even forced to abolish the Parliament, yet later brought the Parliament bask into the nation’s political life in search for strengthening faltering public support.

This intention conflicted with the distrust the public had in the monarchy. An attempt to remedy the situation by imposing new taxes and boosting the level of existing ones collided with the opposition from the aristocracy.

The real power had long been in the hands of the bourgeoisie, a class that virtually controlled the nation’s economic riches. It was no longer possible to squeeze the class that controlled the country’s economic life from political power.

Mr. R. McNair Wilson in his The Mind of Napoleon wrote about the power of the oligarchs: «This oligarchy … controlled money; it controlled the Press; it controlled the funds of both the great political parties. Thus it was in command of the whole patronage of the Crown on the one hand, and of the whole body of political patronage on the other» (Economics of the French Revolution).

It cannot be said however that the French Revolution was precipitated solely by economic causes. Rather, economical background was the foundation for other processes in other spheres, such as intellectual, social and political realm. Economic factors were the driving force behind other processes and led up to the events that later triggered the revolutionary outbreak.

Intellectual causes

On the intellectual plane, France in late 18th century had a much broader educated class, with liberal ideas gaining popularity among all classes, especially the so-called «Third Estate» that included bourgeoisie and common people, such as artisans and peasants.

Liberal ideas laid the framework for the contemporary capitalist ethic: liberals insisted on the sanctity of private property, independence of business from the state control, equality of every estate under the law, preservation of human rights. Rousseau, Diderot, Voltaire and other great thinkers were embracing the ideals of democracy turning to the ancient republics for examples of civil nobleness. Voltaire, in particular, contributed to the increasing divergence of contemporary thought from the clerical vein in which all the previous philosophy was created.

Intellectual movements have in all times been motivated by broader by other social processes and arisen as a response to political and economic happenings in the society. Thus, one can claim that the intellectual ideals of equality and freedom were a reaction to the self-will of the king and aristocrats. Voltaire’s “godlessness” was also a response to the iniquities perpetrated by the church, “the first estate”. His ideas were able to garner support among vast layers of population that witnessed lack of piety and morality in the clergy.

Social causes

The social causes were deeper and more far-reaching than the intellectual influence.

At the time, the bourgeoisie made up 8% of France’s population and owned 20% of the land, very often employing peasants as farmhands on their land. This class was very influential. In the Middle Age, education was almost exclusively the privilege of the upper classes. On the eve of the Revolution, the new rich class, the bourgeoisie could compete with the aristocracy on erudition. Even so, the bourgeoisie did not have real political power in their hands as they belonged to the so-called «third estate». The real power was with the first and second estates, the clergy and the nobility.

Both first estates owned substantial chunks of the nation’s land and had an opportunity to tax peasants. These privileges caused the ire of third-estate members who saw the priests and aristocrats as parasites who had little to contribute to the society and were merely using others as a source of their wealth.

Social structure was at the time before the Revolution in conflict with the economic reality. The stale social conventions separated the growing bourgeoisie from the other mighty classes, aristocracy and clergy, which did not chime in with the concentration of wealth in the nation. Business owners had long been able to earn as much as or even more from their businesses than aristocrats from their family legacies. However, the political deprivation of the third estate put bourgeois class in the same league with peasants and the city poor, although their interests were largely different, as the revolutionary events later demonstrated.

Political causes

By 1789, the once absolute power of French kings had begun to deteriorate. If Louis XIV often used his power to exploit people, he was nevertheless a strong leader and admired by many. After his death his successors were weak copies of France’s most powerful monarch.

Louis XV who ruled France in 1715-74 had a poor education and spent more time on his lovers than on the state affairs. The country was de-facto run by Madame de Pompadour from 1721 to 1764. The next sovereign, Louis XVI was even less concerned with the state matters. It became obvious that the country that relies on monarchy for governance was destined to have poor rulers intermittent with brilliant ones, and at times had to be run by its king’s mistresses

The weakness or the kings led parliaments to demand more power from the monarchy, a desire that resulted in the appeal to grant parliaments right of veto. As a result of political struggles, parliaments were abolished in the 1770s by Rene Maupeau, during the reign of Louis XV to be revived by Louis XVI.

The attempt of Louis XVI to call the Estates General so that the King could use the assembly to improve the government’s financial situation, the representatives of the Third Estate protested the setup of the Estates and left it to establish their own assembly, called the National Assembly. One of the triggers to this event was the dismissal of the Finance Minister Neckar who enjoyed prestige among the third estate. The real start of the Revolution was the assault of the Parisian prison Bastille on July 14, 1789.

One more incident showing that the economy was the main driver that led to a popular upheaval was the failure of Calonne’s Plan that envisaged a reform on property taxation that excluded evasion of taxes by aristocrats. The plan stuck against the opposition from the nobles in the parliaments and in the Assembly of Notables 1787 that aimed at squeezing other estates out of power and delegation of greater authority to the nobility in defiance of Estates General. As the aristocracy was the main political power in society, the king was forced to follow its lead and dismiss Calonne.


Thus, the weakness of the monarchy and unpopularity of the kings after Louis XIV led to the ultimate collapse of the monarchy. But the imperfections of the kings as personalities could hardly lead to such a drastic overhaul of the society as the revolution indeed was. If the king’s inadequacies had been the crux of the matter, the public discontent could have been resolved through a coup, as happened earlier in the nation’s history. The true reason was the discrepancy between the political structure of the society and the economic power. The bourgeoisie had accumulated sufficient wealth in its hands, yet the social conditions blocked the way to power for representatives of the third estate.


Causes of the French Revolution. http://www.cyberessays.com/History/108.htm (March 19, 2005)


Economics of the French Revolution. http://www.charm.net/~kzucker/osg/rev_cause.htm (March 19, 2005)

Halsall, Paul. Modern Western Civilization. Class 10: The French Revolution – Origins. http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/lect/mod10.html (March 19, 2005)

Muhlberger, Steve. Causes of the French Revolution. http://www.nipissingu.ca/department/history/muhlberger/2155/revcause.htm (March 19, 2005)

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