To What Extent Was the Enlightenment the Cause of the French Revolution

Topics: French Revolution, Age of Enlightenment, Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen Pages: 11 (3941 words) Published: March 11, 2013
To what extent were Enlightenment ideas responsible for the outbreak of the French Revolution and the reforms of 1789? Included sources attached:
John Locke, “Two Treatises on Government”, 1690;
The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizens, 1789; Arthur Young “Travels in France during the Years 1787, 1788, 1789”

The ancien régime, the time before the outbreak of the revolution, was divided into three estates. The first estate, for the people of the highest position in France belonged to the clergy; this group contained the members of the religious rules such as Bishops, Monks and Nuns. However, the people of this estate were not popular among many people of especially the third estate. This was mainly because of the power they had over the people. France was a very religious country with Catholicism as the official state religion. The Church had much influence on the people of France. The Second Estate was the state of the nobility this was the most powerful estate of France. It contained all the noble people with most status and wealth. This state was the most privileged Estate in France. On top of having the best jobs available in France, the Second Estate had privileges such as being tried in special courts, they were completely exempted from military services and along with the gabelle (the very unpopular taxation on salt), the corvée (the forced labour on roads), they received a variety of feudal dues (workers), they had exclusive rights for hunting and fishing and a final privilege was that they had in many areas the monopoly right meaning that they had the exclusive possession or control of the supply or trade in a commodity or service. The third estate was the group of people who weren’t part of the nobility or the clergy group. This was the group with the most people in it, about 85 per cent and also the group with the most variation in wealth and status. It consisted of the bourgeoisie who were the middle class, the peasantry and the urban workers who were craftsmen or skilled workers. And the so called Sans-cullottes also belonged to the third estate; these people were the people with lack in regarding social class, the workers.

In the following excerpt, written by Author Young in ‘Travels in France during the years 1787, 1788 and 1789’ we can perceive what influence the Enlightenment had on the society of France before and after the ancien régime;

Pass Payrac [town in the South of France] and meet many beggars, which we had not done before. All the country, girls and women, are without shoes or stockings; and the ploughmen at their work have neither sabots nor feet to their stockings. This is a poverty, that strikes at the root of national prosperity; a large consumption among the poor being of more consequence than among the rich: the wealth of a nation lies in its circulation and consumption; and the case of poor people abstaining from the use of manufactures of leather and wool ought to be considered as an evil of the first magnitude. It reminded me of the misery of Ireland. 

We now observe that there definitely were not equal rights between the three Estates. It is obvious that a Movement like the Enlightment caused dramatical change in the thoughts of the French people. The thought of equality among the French people gave the Third Estate hope for a better country and the revolutionaries were born.

There were of course many issues that affected the French society because of the estates. The first estate had vast differences in wealth between the upper clergy and the ordinary priests. There was also resentment against the church regarding tithes, a charge paid to the church each year by landowners, and the don gratuit, a so called ‘free gift’ given to the crown. For the Second Estate the issues affecting the French society lay in the resentment against the nobility for the non-payment of direct taxes and the feudal rights were resented by the tenants. The Third Estate had...

Bibliography: From: John Locke, “Two Treatises on Government”, 1690
[On the state of nature]
From: The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizens, 1789
Two excerpts from: Arthur Young “Travels in France during the Years 1787, 1788, 1789”.
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