Causes of the French Revolution

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The Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire.

The causes of the French revolution can be attributed to several intertwining factors:

All these factors created a revolutionary atmosphere and a tricky situation for Louis XVI. In order to resolve the crisis, the king summoned the Estates-General in May 1789 and, as it came to an impasse, the representatives of the Third Estates formed into a National Assembly, against the wishes of the king, signaling the outbreak of the French Revolution.

The Revolutionary Situation[edit]

The essence of the revolutionary situation which existed in France in the 1780s was the bankruptcy of the King, and hence the State. This economic crisis was due to the rapidly increasing costs of government and to the overwhelming costs incurred by fighting two major wars: the Seven Years' War and the American Revolutionary War. These costs could not be met from the usual sources of state revenue. Since the 1770s, several attempts by different ministers to introduce financial stability had failed.[1] The taxation system was burdensome upon the middle class and the more prosperous peasants, given that the nobles were largely able to exempt themselves from it. As a result, there was "an insistent demand" for reform of these abuses of privilege, for an equitable means of taxation and for improved government processes.[2] David Thomson argued that the bourgeoisie and peasantry had "something to lose, not merely something to gain" in their demands for a fairer society and this fear too was a major factor in the revolutionary situation.[3]

Social inequality[edit]

The population of France in the 1780s was about 26 million, of whom 21 million lived in agriculture. Few of these owned enough land to support a family and most were forced to take on extra work as poorly paid labourers on larger farms. There were regional differences but, by and large, French peasants were generally better off than those in countries like Russia or Poland. Even so, hunger was a daily problem which became critical in years of poor harvest and the condition of most French peasants was poor.[4]

The fundamental issue of poverty was aggravated by social inequality as all peasants were liable to pay taxes, from which the nobility could claim immunity, and feudal dues payable to a local seigneur or lord. Similarly, the destination of tithes which the peasants were obliged to pay to their local churches was a cause of grievance as it was known that the majority of parish priests were poor and the contribution was being paid to an aristocratic, and usually absentee, abbot.[5] The clergy numbered about 100,000 and yet they owned ten percent of the land. It maintained a rigid hierarchy as abbots and bishops were all members of the nobility and canons were all members of wealthy bourgeois families. As an institution, the Church was both rich and powerful. As with the nobility, it paid no taxes and merely contributed a grant to the state every five years, the amount of which was self-determined. The upper echelons of the clergy had considerable influence over government policy.[5]

Dislike of the nobility was especially intense. Successive French kings and their ministers had tried with limited success to suppress the power of the nobles but, in the last quarter of the 18th century, "the aristocracy were beginning once again to tighten their hold on the machinery of government".[6]

Enlightenment ideas[edit]

A growing number of the French citizenry had absorbed the ideas of "equality" and "freedom of the individual" as presented by Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Denis Diderot and other philosophers and social theorists of the Enlightenment. The American Revolution demonstrated that it was plausible for Enlightenment ideas - about how a government should be organized - to actually be put into practice.[7] Some American diplomats, like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, had lived in Paris where they consorted freely with members of the French intellectual class. Furthermore, contact between American revolutionaries and the French troops who served as anti-British mercenaries in North America helped spread revolutionary ideas to the French people.

Economics and finances[edit]

France in 1787, although it faced some difficulties, was one of the most economically capable nations of Europe. The French population exceeded 28 million; of Europe's 178 to 188 millions, only Imperial Russia had a greater population (37 to 41 million).[7] France was also among the most urbanized countries of Europe,[8] the population of Paris was second only to that of London (approximately 500,000 v. 800,000),[7] and six of Europe's thirty-five largest cities were French.[9]

Other measures confirm France's inherent strength. France had 5.3 million of Europe's approximately thirty million male peasants.[10] Its area under cultivation,[10] productivity per unit area,[11] level of industrialization, and gross national product [12] (about 14% of the continental European product, excluding Russia, and 6–10 percent above the level elsewhere in Europe [13]) all placed France near the very top of the scale. In short, while it may have lagged slightly behind the Low Countries, and possibly Switzerland, in per capita wealth, the sheer size of the French economy made it the premier economic power of continental Europe.


It was debt that led to the long-running financial crisis of the French government. It is said that before the revolution, the French debt had risen from 8 billion to 12 billion livres. Extravagant expenditures on luxuries by Louis XVI, whose rule began in 1774, were compounded by debts that were run up during the reign of his even-more-profligate predecessor, Louis XV (who reigned from 1715 to 1774). Heavy expenditures to conduct the losing the Seven Years' War (1756–1763), and France's backing of the Americans in their War of Independence, ran the tab up an even further 1.3 billion livres [14]

Louis XV and his ministers were deeply unhappy about Britain's victory in the Seven Years' War and, in the years following the Treaty of Paris, they began drawing up a long-term plan that would involve constructing a larger navy and building an anti-British coalition of allies. In theory, this would eventually lead to a war of revenge and see France regain its colonies from Britain. In practice, it resulted in a mountain of debts.

Louis XV had spent liberally to establish Versailles as a showplace city worthy to be the French capital, in function if not in fact. There, he built a Ministry of War, a Ministry of Foreign Affairs (where the Treaty of Paris (1783) ending the American Revolutionary War was signed), and a Ministry of the Navy.

In Louis XV's high council, the parti dévot ("devout" party), led by the Comte d'Argenson, secretary of state for war, and the parti philosophique ("philosophical" party), which supported the Enlightenment philosophy and was led by Machault d'Arnouville, controller-general of finances, vied for power.

On the advice of his mistress, the Marquise de Pompadour, the king supported the policy of fiscal justice designed by d'Arnouville. In order to finance the budget deficit, which amounted to 100 million livres in 1745, Machault d'Arnouville created a tax of 5 percent on all revenues (the vingtième), a measure that affected the privileged classes as well as the rest of the population. Still, expenditures outpaced revenues.[15]

Ultimately, Louis XV failed to overcome these fiscal problems, mainly because he was incapable of harmonizing the conflicting parties at court and arriving at coherent economic policies. Worse, Louis seemed to be aware of the anti-monarchist forces that were threatening his family's rule, yet he failed to do anything to stop them.[16] Louis XV's death in 1774 saw the French monarchy at its nadir, politically, morally, and financially.

Under the new king, Louis XV's grandson, Louis XVI, radical financial reforms by his ministers, Turgot and Malesherbes, angered the nobles and were blocked by the parlements who insisted that the king did not have the legal right to levy new taxes. So, in 1776, Turgot was dismissed and Malesherbes resigned. They were replaced by Jacques Necker, who supported the American Revolution and proceeded with a policy of taking out large international loans instead of raising taxes.

France sent Rochambeau, Lafayette and de Grasse, along with large land and naval forces, to help the Americans. French aid proved decisive in forcing the main British army to surrender at the Battle of Yorktown in 1781.[17] The Americans gained their independence, and the war ministry rebuilt the French army. However, the British sank the main French fleet in 1782, and France gained little, except for the colonies of Tobago and Senegal, from the Treaty of Paris (1783) that concluded the war. The war cost 1,066 million French livres, a huge sum, that was financed by new loans at high interest rates, but no new taxes were imposed. Necker concealed the crisis from the public by explaining only that ordinary revenues exceeded ordinary expenses, and by not mentioning the loans at all.[18]

When Necker's tax policy failed miserably, Louis dismissed him, and replaced him, in 1783, with Charles Alexandre de Calonne, who increased public spending in an attempt to "buy" the country's way out of debt. This policy also failed; therefore, Louis convened the Assembly of Notables in 1787 to discuss a revolutionary new fiscal reform proposed by Calonne. When the nobles were told the extent of the debt, they were shocked; however, the shock did not motivate them to rally behind the plan – but to reject it. This negative turn of events signaled to Louis that he had lost the ability to rule as an absolute monarch, and he fell into depression.[19]

Britain, too, was heavily indebted as a result of these conflicts; but Britain had far more advanced fiscal institutions in place to deal with it. France was a wealthier country than Britain, and its national debt was no greater than the British one. In each country, servicing the debt accounted for about one-half the government's annual expenditure; where they differed was in the effective rates of interest. In France, the debt was financed at almost twice the interest rate as the debt across the Channel. This demanded a much higher level of taxation and less flexibility in raising money to deal with unforeseen emergencies. (See also Eden Agreement.)

Edmund Burke, no friend of the revolution, wrote in 1790: "the public, whether represented by a monarch or by a senate, can pledge nothing but the public estate; and it can have no public estate except in what it derives from a just and proportioned imposition upon the citizens at large." Because the nobles successfully defended their privileges, the King of France lacked the means to impose a "just and proportioned" tax. The desire to do so led directly to the decision in 1788 to call the Estates-General into session.[20]

The financial strain of servicing old debt and the excesses of the current royal court caused dissatisfaction with the monarchy, contributed to national unrest, and culminated in the French Revolution of 1789.


Louis XVI, his ministers, and the widespread French nobility had become immensely unpopular. This was a consequence of the fact that peasants and, to a lesser extent, the poor and those aspiring to be bourgeoisie, were burdened with ruinously high taxes levied to support a wealthy monarchy, along with aristocrats and their sumptuous, often gluttonous lifestyles.[21]

Because of some political inertia at the head of the state since the reign of Louis XIV, but also because of often approximately determined and unstable land boundaries, France used to raise most of its tax revenue internally, with a notable deficit regarding external customs tariffs.[22] Taxes on commerce consisted of internal tariffs among the regions of France. This set up an arbitrary tax-barrier (sometimes, as in Paris, in physical form) at every regional boundary, and these barriers prevented France from developing as a unified market. Collections of taxes, such as the extremely unpopular salt tax, the gabelle, were contracted to private collectors ("tax farmers"), who, like all farmers, preoccupied themselves with making their holdings grow. So, they collected, quite legitimately, far more than required, remitted the tax to the State, and pocketed the remainder. These unwieldy systems led to arbitrary and unequal collection of France's consumption taxes. (See also Wall of the Farmers-General, Jean Chouan, Octroi, Claude Nicolas Ledoux, and the Indian salt tax.)

Hôtel de la gabelle (House of the Salt Tax) in Bernay, Eure, Upper Normandy, built in 1750 by Bréant and Ange-Jacques Gabriel.

Peasants were also required to pay a tenth of their income or produce to the church (the tithe), a land tax to the state (the taille), a 5% property tax (the vingtième), and a tax on the number of people in the family (capitation). Further royal and seigneurial obligations might be paid in several ways: in labor (the corvée), in kind, or, rarely, in coin. Peasants were also obligated to their landlords for: rent in cash (the cens), a payment related to their amount of annual production (the champart), and taxes on the use of the nobles' mills, wine-presses, and bakeries (the banalités). In good times, the taxes were burdensome; in harsh times, they were devastating. After a less-than-fulsome harvest, people would starve to death during the winter.

Many tax collectors and other public officials bought their positions from the king, sometimes on an annual basis, sometimes in perpetuity. Often an additional fee was paid to upgrade their position to one that could be passed along as an inheritance. Naturally, holders of these offices tried to reimburse themselves by milking taxpayers as hard as possible. For instance, in a civil lawsuit, judges required that both parties pay a bribe (called, with tongue-in-cheek, the épices, the spices);[23] this, effectively, put justice out of the reach of all but the wealthy.

The system also exempted the nobles and the clergy from taxes (with the exception of a modest quit-rent, an ad valorem tax on land). The tax burden, therefore, devolved to the peasants, wage-earners, and the professional and business classes, also known as the third estate. Further, people from less-privileged walks of life were blocked from acquiring even petty positions of power in the regime. This caused further resentment.

Failure of reforms[edit]

During the reigns of Louis XV (1715–1774) and Louis XVI (1774–1792), several ministers, most notably Turgot and Necker, proposed revisions to the French tax system so as to include the nobles as taxpayers, but these proposals were not adopted because of resistance from the parlements (provincial courts of appeal). Members of these courts bought their positions from the king, as well as the right to transfer their positions hereditarily through payment of an annual fee, the paulette. Membership in such courts, or appointment to other public positions, often led to elevation to the nobility (the so-called Nobles of the Robe, as distinguished from the nobility of ancestral military origin, the Nobles of the Sword.) While these two categories of nobles were often at odds, they both sought to retain their privileges.

Because the need to raise taxes placed the king at odds with the nobles and the upper bourgeoisie, he appointed as his finance ministers, "rising men" (to use François Mignet's insightful term), usually of non-noble origin. These commoners, Turgot, Chrétien de Malesherbes, and Jacques Necker lobbied for reforms in taxation and other moves toward moderation, such as Necker's attempts to reduce the lavishness of the king's court. Each one failed. Instead, the "Parkinson's law" of bureaucratic overextended waste prevailed, to the detriment of the gentry and other non-seigneurial classes.

In contrast, Charles Alexandre de Calonne, appointed finance minister in 1783, restored lavish spending reminiscent of the age of Louis XIV. By the time Calonne brought together the Assembly of Notables on 22 February 1787 to address the financial situation, France had reached a state of virtual bankruptcy; no one would lend the king money sufficient to meet the expenses of the royal court and the government. According to Mignet, the loans amounted to 1.64 billion livres, and the annual deficit was 140 millions.

Calonne was succeeded by his chief critic, Étienne Charles de Loménie de Brienne, archbishop of Sens, but the fundamental situation was unchanged: the government had no credit. To address this, the Assembly of Notables sanctioned "the establishment of provincial assemblies, regulation of the corn trade, abolition of corvées, and a new stamp tax", but the assembly dispersed on 25 May 1787 without actually installing a longer-term program with prospects for success.


French bread

These problems were all compounded by a great scarcity of food in the 1780s. A series of crop failures caused a shortage of grain, consequently raising the price of bread. Because bread was the main source of food for poor peasants, this led to starvation. Contributing to the peasant unrest were conspiracy theories that the lack of food was a deliberate plot by the nobility.[24] The two years prior to the revolution (1788–89) saw meager harvests and harsh winters, possibly because of a strong El Niño cycle [25] caused by the 1783 Laki eruption in Iceland.[26]

The Little Ice Age also affected farmers' choices of crops to plant; in other parts of Europe, peasant farmers had adopted the potato as its staple crop. The potato had been introduced to France during the 16th century and despite resistance had largely supplanted the turnip and rutabaga in France.[27] Despite encouragement from individuals like Antoine Parmentier and Louis XVI, grain was still a much more popular staple crop in France. This was partially because potatoes were seen as more difficult to transport and store than grain.[28]

In 1789, a normal worker, a farmer or a laborer, earned anywhere from fifteen to thirty sous per day; skilled workers received thirty to forty. A family of four needed about two loaves of bread a day to survive. The price of a loaf of bread rose by 67 percent in 1789 alone, from nine sous to fifteen.[citation needed] Many peasants were relying on charity to survive, and they became increasingly motivated by their hunger. The "bread riots" were the first manifestations of a roots-based revolutionary sentiment. Mass urbanization coincided with the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, and more and more people moved into French cities seeking employment. The cities became overcrowded with the hungry, destitute, and disaffected, an ideal environment for revolution.

"Bakers' queues" became the term for the long line-ups at shops when bread was short. The phrase is quite rarely used, and it is generally only seen in references to Thomas Carlyle's book The French Revolution: A History. Carlyle uses the phrase at once to condemn the revolutionaries for their failure to meet basic public needs, and as synonym for the angry French public after the French Revolution started to sour.[29]


H. F. Helmolt argued that the issue was not so much the debt per se, but the way the debt was refracted through the lens of Enlightenment principles and the increasing power of third-estate creditors, that is, commoners who held the government's paper.

Properly speaking, the people ought to have been accustomed to the fact that the French government did not fulfill its financial obligations, for since the time of Henry IV, that is, within two centuries, it had failed to meet its obligations fifty-six times. In earlier days such catastrophes had not been announced and publicly discussed. Now all France, which for two generations had been worked upon by the party of rationalism, shared the outcry against the financial situation.[30]

The struggle with the parlements and nobles to enact reformist measures displayed the extent of the disintegration of the Ancien Régime. In short order, Protestants regained their rights, and Louis XVI was pressured to produce an annual disclosure of the state of his finances. He also pledged to reconvene the Estates-General within five years. Despite the pretense that France operated under an absolute monarchy, it became clear that the royal government could not successfully implement the changes it desired without the consent of the nobility. The financial crisis had become a political crisis as well,[30] and the French Revolution loomed just beyond the horizon.


  1. ^ Thomson, pp. 24–25.
  2. ^ Thomson, pp. 25–26.
  3. ^ Thomson, p. 25.
  4. ^ Hibbert, p. 29.
  5. ^ a b Hibbert, p. 30.
  6. ^ Hibbert, p. 31.
  7. ^ a b Bairoch 1989, p. 941
  8. ^ Bairoch 1989, p. 942
  9. ^ Bairoch 1989, p. 943
  10. ^ a b Bairoch 1989, p. 945
  11. ^ Bairoch 1989, p. 946
  12. ^ Bairoch 1989, p. 949
  13. ^ Bairoch 1989, pp. 959–963
  14. ^ Stacy Schiff (2006). A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America. Macmillan. p. 5. 
  15. ^ Kenneth N. Jassie, "We Don't Have a King: Popular Protest and the Image of the Illegitimate King in the Reign of Louis XV". Consortium on Revolutionary Europe 1750–1850: Proceedings 1994 23: 211–219. Issn: 0093-2574
  16. ^ The Great Nation: France from Louis XV to Napoleon, (1715–99), a scholarly bibliography by Colin Jones (2002) pp. 124, 132–33, 147
  17. ^ Jonathan R. Dull, The French Navy and American Independence: A Study of Arms and Diplomacy, 1774–1787 (1975) ISBN 0-691-06920-4
  18. ^ On finance see William Doyle, Oxford History of the French Revolution (1989) pp. 67–74
  19. ^ John Hardman, Louis XVI, Yale university Press, New Haven and London, 1993 p. 126
  20. ^ The French Revolution. Retrieved on 2011-11-18.
  21. ^ For an overview of the time see, for example, F. A. M. Mignet History of the French Revolution from 1789 to 1814 (1824, available on Project Gutenberg): speaking of his arrival for the first session of the Estates, "the king appeared ... The hall resounded with applause on his arrival." Later, July 27, 1789, nearly two weeks after the storming of the Bastille, "when Louis XVI. had left his carriage and received from Bailly's hands the tricolor cockade, and, surrounded by the crowd without guards, had confidently entered the Hôtel de Ville, cries of "Vive le roi!" burst forth on every side. The reconciliation was complete; Louis XVI received the strongest marks of affection."
  22. ^ Jeff Horn, The Path Not Taken: French Industrialization in the Age of Revolution, 1750-1830 MIT 2006 ISBN=9780262083522
  23. ^ The épices were no bribes, as they did not go to the judge directly, but to a common fund - see Albert N. Hamscher, The Parlement of Paris after the Fronde 1653-1673, p. 66, but representing them as such contributes usefully to depict Ancien Régime justice as corrupt.
  24. ^ Kaplan, Steven. The Famine Plot Persuasion in Eighteenth-Century France. Pennsylvania: Diane Publishing Co, 1982. ISBN 0-87169-723-8
  25. ^ Richard H. Grove (1998). "Global Impact of the 1789–93 El Niño". Nature 393: 318–319. doi:10.1038/30636. 
  26. ^ Wood, C.A., 1992. "The climatic effects of the 1783 Laki eruption" in C. R. Harrington (Ed.), The Year Without a Summer? Canadian Museum of Nature, Ottawa, pp. 58–77
  27. ^ "Histoires de légumes" by M. Pitrat and C. Foury, Institut National de la recherche agronomoique, 2003, p167
  28. ^ Langer, pp. 51–66.
  29. ^ * The French Revolution – A History, Thomas Carlyle ISBN 0-7661-8764-0 (also Project Gutenberg etext 1301)
  30. ^ a b H. F. Helmolt, History of the World, Volume VII, Dodd Mead 1902, pp. 120–121.