The French Revolution of 1789 led to the development and insertion of new political forces such as democracy and nationalism which was inspired by the Enlightenment of the mid-eighteenth century. It questioned the authority of the King, priests, nobles and religion on a whole; namely Catholicism. The revolution gave new meaning to the political ideas of the people. France’s involvement in the American Revolution had left the country in a massive financial crisis. Debt, inflation a lack of food and King Louis XVI lavish spending and heavy taxation on the Commons of society served to anger the people and so they demanded a new system of government.
The Old Regime and Social Stratification in France
Under the system of the Old Regime the King was seen in society as being the absolute monarch whose rule was ordained my God. The King had centralized power in the Royal Bureaucracy. In unison the King and the bureaucracy preserved royal authority and maintained a system of social stratification stipulated by the Old Regime.
The society in France was legally stratified by birth, divided into three Estates. The First Estate consisting of the clergy, the Second Estate; the nobility and the Third Estate the Commons which consisted of the bourgeoisie, city workers and peasants. The First Estate, the clergy which was also made up of members from the nobility enjoyed various privileges which were unavailable to those below their station in society. They paid no taxes and to support activities of the church collected tithes or taxes on income. The Second Estate, the nobility hardly paid taxes despite their great wealth. Their source of income came from rents and dues collected from the use of their farms and estates. The Third Estate resented the privileges enjoyed by the clergy and nobility. They were forced to pay taxes, tithes to the church and rent and dues to landlords for the land they occupied. This served to cause an upset in the society as it prevented the commons from entering into upward social mobility which was primarily based on the order in which one was born. Due to these occurrences the Commons wanted to have some form of equality in the French society. Thus they were in constant negotiation with the Crown for better and more privileges.
The Estates-General (1789)
As a result of King Louis XVI was forced to call a meeting on Estates-General on May 5, 1789 at Versailles. This was the place where representatives from each social Estate could be represented and their grievances voiced. Social tension plaguing the Old Regime was the central grievance of those representing the Third Estate. Because the First and Second Estates were primarily made up of citizens of the nobility they were allowed to override the Third Estates as they contained two out of the three votes available. As a result the Third Estate was left voiceless.
The Third Estate offered a vision that privilege in society was to be determined by usefulness rather than birth. Writers of the Enlightenment; Voltaire, Montesquies and Rousseau served to be an encouraging factor to those seeking equality in society as they viewed these privileges enjoyed by the nobility as being rooted in tradition. As a result the Third Estate invited the other estates to join a new legislature. They eventually renamed themselves the National Assembly which was based on the people rather than Estates. By doing this they revealed their intention of becoming the official legislative body of France. In the summer of 1789the National Constituent Assembly declared itself the full authority of the nation. This led to the abolition of feudalism and the system of privileges under the Old Regime.
Figure 1. The Estates-General inFrance
The Role of the Enlightenment
The Enlightenment of the mid-eighteenth century was a philosophical movement that proposed that talent replaced birth as the main determinant of ones...