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French Revolution


What were the causes and the effects of the French
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
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
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
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
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
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 const
itution. 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
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. Te 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. 



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