The French Revolution was a series of political, economic and social disorders which took place throughout France between 1789 and 1799. Before the revolution, France used a system called the ancien regime to govern their country. It was headed by an absolute monarch who, at this point of time, was King Louis XVI. He held complete power over the country and answered to no one but God. As a result many people believed that the King held too much power. However, this was not the sole cause and it was a combination of long-term, short-term and trigger factors which resulted in the bloody affair now known as the French Revolution.
Before the revolution France’s people were divided into 3 groups known as the Estates of the Realm. This was the first of a series of long term causes of the French Revolution. The first estate was comprised of the clergy and the second with nobles. Finally, the third estate was composed of everyone who didn’t make the first two estates and therefore made up the bulk of society. The different estates not only defined who a person was in the eyes of society, but also came with certain privileges and advantages. Conversely, it was not the peasants which received these benefits. Rather, the privileges were only a right given to the first two estates- the people who needed the least.
One such privilege was exemption from tax. Clergyman and Noblemen were not required to pay most taxes like the peasants were. As a result, this angered many of the third estate who could not afford to pay such heavy taxes. On top of this, the peasants were also required to pay feudal rights and dues to their landlords as well as pay a tithe to the Church. This, combined with the ever increasing prices of bread- a staple food in the Frenchman’s diet, resulted in an inability for the peasants to purchase basic necessities. Countless people demanded to know why they should hand over so much money to the Church, who not only was robbing them of their livelihood, but was also extremely wealthy.
The animosity felt by commoners towards their given situation was only further fuelled by the Enlightenment, a group of educated people who questioned the way France was being run. These philosophes, included journalists, scientists and writers. An example of such a person is Voltaire, a writer who questioned the power and beliefs of the French (Catholic) Church. As a consequence he helped to achieve religious tolerance within the community and change certain public opinions.
In addition to the aforementioned long term causes, there was also a variety of short-term causes. The first of these was France’s foreign policy. The Seven Years War had resulted in France’s having lost much of its overseas territory in 1763. This was seen by the French as a humiliating defeat, particularly because they had lost to their rival, Britain. However, in the years of 1776-83, King Louis XVI saw a chance to avenge this humiliating defeat by supporting the American colonies against Britain in their War of Independence. Although, America gained its independence and France’s honor was satisfied, the government had provided a lot of financial and military support. This resulted in significantly worsening France’s already weak financial situation. Also it had exposed French soldiers to the ideas of liberty and democracy. This strengthen their want to be independent of the oppressive French society. France’s financial situation was ever worsening with an increasing deficit. This was due to two main reasons. The first was the war and the Foreign Policy which had cost France of 1066 million livres. The second was taxes. The French government was not receiving enough money in lieu of taxes and the privileged classes, who did not pay tax, were able to access an untapped source of revenue. This resulted in the Controller General’s announcement on the 20th August 1786 that France was on the verge of bankruptcy. In an attempt to save the economy, Calonne, the finance manager, proposed to instigate a single land tax that would affect everyone.
The land tax was to come and replace the capitation and the vingtieme, both of which were paid solely by the third estate. There would be no exemptions from the new tax and everyone, including the privileged clergymen and nobles were expected to pay. However, to get the reforms passed, the government were required to have them approved. A handpicked Assembly of Notables were summoned to the represent the nation; a group which consisted of the King’s most loyal men. Conversely, the assembly refused to agree to the reforms which would now require them to pay tax and advised the King to call together the Estates General. Again, the land tax failed to be approved. In opposition to the King, the Estates General, led by the third estate, further demanded the right to have a parliament for the people.
France’s financial crisis was followed by the economic crisis. A series of terrible harvests hit France’s general agricultural prosperity from 1778-88. Consequently, this led to an increase in food prices and a widespread famine. People stopped buying manufactured goods in order to afford food and other basic necessities. This gave rise to high unemployment levels and an inability for workers to increase their wages. Soon grain and food riots took place on the streets. People had their food stolen from them by gangs of hungry men, women and children and shopkeepers who were thought to be hoarding any food were killed instantly, their shops robbed completely of any food traces.
The French Revolution was the result of a combination of long and short term issues. However, of all these causes, perhaps the most important was the food crisis. This is because it directly affected survival. Without food, man can not live. France’s food crisis resulted in the deaths of millions’. It was the final trigger which started the revolution and, in a sea of important triggers, is by far the most important of all.