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Causes of the French Revolution

By jramztucson Nov 11, 2010 2386 Words
Assignment I: Causes of the French Revolution

There was not one single decisive reason that was unequivocally responsible for the French Revolution. Many years of feudal repression and economic negligence were factors as to why the general public of France were ripe for revolt. There were also various class orders of people that participated in various ways in propelling the nation into a Revolution, with direct and indirect actions. Documenting a descending fiscal record in the late 1700s, King Louis XVI consulted financial consultants to evaluate the damaged French treasury. Every consultant gave the king the same proposal—that France required a fundamental modification in the methods of taxation on the public—and afterward, all consultants were promptly dismissed.

Ultimately, King Louis XVI recognized that the taxation dilemma actually needed to be dealt with, so he selected a new Controller General of Finances and First Minister, Charles de Calonne. Calonne was a French statesman whose pains to restructure the configuration of his nation’s finance administration hastened the governmental disaster that eventually led to the Revolution. Calonne recommended that France start taxing the formerly exempt nobility. But the nobility rejected this proposal, even when Calonne implored with them throughout the Assembly of Notables in 1787. After this, financial deterioration consequently appeared on the horizon. The Aristocracy pushed themselves unwittingly toward the Revolution due to their unwillingness to compromise, and to accept responsibility that it was time for something to change, before a financial crisis occurred. They seemed to believe there would not be consequences for their actions, and that the people, or “huddled” masses could be easily controlled and would always be subservient. The lavish lifestyles of the Aristocracy and the Monarchy forced the peasants and bourgeoisie into positions of outrage and rebellion when there were economic crises; such as the grain shortage in 1788, when despite loss of crops due to harsh weather conditions, the peasants were still expected to pay their taxes.

Among these wide-ranging economic and population swings, every day life in the rural areas remained unchanged, especially on family farms. The owners and workers of these small farms were peasants, though they varied significantly in wealth and status. A handful could declare to be "living nobly," which meant that they would rent their land to others to work, but many were day-laborers who were anxious to work the land to be able to have a place to stay, and food to eat. Halfway between these people were independent farmers, sharecroppers, and tenants. It’s estimated that in harder times, 90 percent of the peasants lived at or below the survival level, and earned barely enough to provide food for their families. The other people who resided in the countryside were most predominantly small numbers of nobles, and non-noble landlords of manors, who were prominent by their residences. As a result, information known of life in the countryside during this time indicate the ever-presence of poverty. Obviously, the hostility between the rich and poor was a major factor of the country's immense social disparities. While home to the wealthy and average of citizens, a city was more apt to be even more unpleasant of a place to live than the countryside was. Metropolitan residents could usually be expected to have a shorter life span than those that lived in the countryside. Not only were they exposed for prolonged periods of time to dirty air & water, but the Guilds controlled nearly every segment of the economy and as a result, restricted the amount of people who could enter a trade as an apprentice, or set up a workshop and retail store as a master. In theory-with enough experience, a worker could elevate through the social ladder, but in practice, such rise was exceptionally hard to realize, since the rationed number of masterships in any given trade had a tendency to be passed down through their families. As a consequence, in some trades and in some cities, tradesmen protested of feeling limited and controlled, and they articulated more feelings of commonality toward other tradesmen in different trades than to their own masters. (Lefebvre, 41) There is a theory related to this type of society, in that the idea of liberty and equality, when equality is interpreted as the equality of income or the equality of property, is contradictory. It would be contradictory because if this class of equality had to be enforced by power by the central government, then after a while, the group supporting the concept of greater equality became the promoter of greater central power. (Connelly, 3) In 1789, emerging dissatisfaction with France's feudal style authority rapidly blew up into a direct rebellion, which attracted the awareness of the rest of Europe. The subsequent bloodshed and worldwide participation prompted more than twenty years of virtually uninterrupted conflict as a number of opposing empires wanted to inflict their own ideas of fair rule. There were numerous military actions that were disputing over large regions on behalf of various groups—so much so that this period of time has ironically been referred to as the original world war.

The time period itself can be divided into two phases; The French Revolution, followed by the Napoleonic Empire. The Revolution and resulting republic ensured the collapse of the long-standing French monarchy and its proxy by a string of intermittently brutal national governments. At the climax of the vicious period; most widely known as "The Terror," the previous king Louis XVI and his wife, Queen Marie Antoinette, were ruthlessly executed publicly. This action roused the other states of Europe to be hostile toward France, and assured that whatever developments could possibly be achieved, the ensuing nation would in no way benefit from the assistance of Europe's remaining authorities. (Lefebvre, 110)

The Revolution characteristic saw an absurd series of governments—absolute monarchy, constitutional monarchy, (in different forms), a representative republic, an authoritarian republic, and a bourgeois republic. (Connelly, 2) The following events were characteristic of past revolutions—in that a military figure apprehended domination of the former government. But this figure-General Napoleon Bonaparte was of uncommon intellect and charm, and he managed to take control of a very powerful establishment. The existence of this enigmatic military mastermind as the leader of France caused difficulties for Europe's political scene and expanded the tone of conflict which was certain to persist in anticipation of conquest on one side or the other. (Connelly,5) Napoleon could not resist the struggles for power either, and it was not until 1815 that the wars finally ended with the Battle of Waterloo, and the subsequent homecoming of King Louis XVIII to Paris. One central source of collective tension in France throughout the Revolution was its large population. At the start of the eighteenth century, France had 20 million citizens residing inside its limits, a figure that was equivalent to almost 20 percent of the populace of Western Europe. Throughout the century, the population grew by an additional 8 to 10 million, as disease and severe food scarcities lessened and deaths waned. By comparison, the population rose by barely 1 million during the periods of 1600 and 1700. Furthermore, this mass of people was clustered in the rustic countryside. Of the almost 30 million French people under the rule of Louis XVI, roughly 80 percent resided in rural communities of approximately 2,000 inhabitants. Practically all of the rest of the population lived in smaller sized cities with less than 50,000 people. The primary exclusion was Paris, which during that time had a population of about 600,000 people by 1789. Just a few other cities, particularly Lyons and Marseilles, were home to more than 100,000 people living within the city limits. These demographics had an enormous impact, both inside and outside France. Additionally, the invasion of capitalism into daily existence occurred in eighteenth century. Due to a considerable increase in foreign trade and continuing expansion of national trade, the capital financial system underwent constant growth. While autonomy or regional trade continued to be the prevailing way of financial existence, these ventures of capitalism instigated the appeal to people into various forms of local and even global trade. An important examination of this period is whether or not the French Revolution was genuinely required in order for the French people to obtain an improved government, which would consequently lead to a change for the better in their everyday lives. Lefebvre and Connelly both accepted that the Revolution was necessary, and alleged that it was virtually inevitable. One also ascertains from the description of the various classes of people, that the general theory was that all of the social classes facilitated the Revolutionary progress. Each class group, whether they were a member of the Monarchy and French Aristocracy, or the Peasants—had their own intentions and motivations for “provoking and pushing forward” the revolutionary responses to the status quo. Though each class was revolting for different reasons, they all provided a directional push. Obviously, the reputations and popularity of the king and queen played a part in the Revolution as well. Louis XVI was both aloof and antagonistic, and had no sincere need or desire to relate to his subjects. He was seldom seen by the population and almost certainly did not have much interest for their concerns or troubles. In contrast, Marie Antoinette, the queen and wife of Louis XVI, was perceived as a promiscuous, frivolous foreigner. The population constantly circulated pornographic pamphlets about the Queen, and used her as a scapegoat for many of the financial troubles in the country. The assumption is that if the Monarchy were not running the country, the events surrounding the Revolution would have had a completely different outcome. (Lefebvre, 25). Two crucial elements of the French way of life throughout this period were land ownership, and taxation. The quantity of land that a person owned indicated which societal class in which one belonged, which determined the amount of taxes, if any, you paid. There were three orders in Old France. These orders included the Monarchy, the Clergy, and The Third Estate. The clergy being the most honored and fortunate of the three orders; possessed close to one-tenth of French land. (Lefebvre, 7). The nobles, in contrast, held about one-fifth of the French land. The third-estate members were able to own land, but the amount differed depending on where you resided. (Lefebvre, 10) The French Revolution was, in reality, made of four distinct revolutions occurring in France: the aristocratic, the bourgeois, popular, and the peasant revolutions. Recognizing each individual rebellion and how they all connected to one another shows the strength behind the movement, as various groups of people had their own reasons for rebelling. The aristocracy comprised of the clergy and nobles were essentially in rivalries over who had more power or authority to influence the crown. Both were favored classes; the majority of the people included in these groups were exempt from paying taxes, and essentially were seen as honorable positions. But, after it was suggested that they pay the taxes they had been exempt from for so long, they became fearful that this would drop them down, closer to the lower class-the peasants, which would be humiliating as well as expensive for their lavish lifestyles. When the Monarchy attempted to make reforms, and the court resisted, the king was not strong enough to pursue these changes, and so nothing would be improved. The bourgeoisie was largely consumed by the concept of blending with what they viewed as superior levels of society. There were members of the bourgeoisie who were able to rise up into the aristocratic high society, but the challenges of that ascension continued. It was disconcerting to the bourgeois that they could never be truly considered a Noble in society, because they were not born into that position. (Lefebvre, 11) The peasant’s role in the French Revolution was, for the most part, one of the most critical positions of the French Revolution. The French government mostly overlooked the peasants; the peasant troubles were not of importance to the aristocracy. The peasants were the constituents of French society who were in receipt of the worst conduct, being required to pay taxes and then volunteer for the militia. Furthermore, the peasants were required to ultimately feed and support the upper classes with the taxes that they paid, while they themselves perished from hunger, sickness, and disease. Lefebvre noted that “…begging was not a disgrace,” (Lefebvre, 108) but was merely a means of survival. The Peasants actually propelled themselves into a Revolution by storming the Bastille (a royal prison) to search for weapons. This was prompted by rumors of troops arriving, after citizens refused to leave a meeting place until their demands for reform were met. (Lefebvre,76). The collapse of the Bastille became a sign of the French Revolution (still celebrated as France's national Independence holiday) after the fall of the Bastille, a temporary community government was formed and a national guard of citizens was coordinated. (Lefebvre, 110) The peasants in the provinces revolted as well. After waiting for reform but not seeing it after so long, they burned the castles of neighboring lords and destroyed the tax records. (Lefebvre, 123) An additional inspiration to the French was the instance of the American Revolutionary War against Britain. The success of this war exemplified two political beliefs of the Enlightenment Movement that were to have imminent impact. These were concepts of constitutional government and the notion of democracy. The American War of Independence saw a discontented people rise up and successfully establish its own choice of government. To the French that were enduring starvation, social and economic destitution, it more than likely was an encouragement. This independence in France held until World War II, when it was overtaken by the Vichy Regime. The next phase of the Revolution was the Napoleonic Era, in which Napoleon Bonaparte became more power hungry, and within the first ten years of the nineteenth century, Napoleon turned the armies of France in opposition to practically every chief European power, and taking over continental Europe through a lengthy run of ruthless military victories until he was defeated in 1815 at The Battle of Waterloo.

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