The French Revolution that spanned from 1789 to 1799 marked a turning point in the history of France. It transformed the country from a monarchical state with strong adherence to social hierarchy to a modern nation with loose social structure. The event also became one of the defining moments of the Age of Enlightenment and it produced prominent historical figures to include Napoleon Bonaparte, as well as other French politicians and thinkers, while leaving far-reaching outcomes in France and elsewhere in the world.
Origins: The Causes of the French Revolution
The causes of the French Revolution are complex. Scholars have presented numerous origins and grounds of different events that provoked a massive revolt against the “Ancien Régime” and the established norms and standards in the society. Nonetheless, the emergence of a revolutionary atmosphere in France can be attributed to the following interrelating factors:
1. Deregulation of the Grain Industry and the Public Reaction
France started experimenting on free-market principles due to the influence of the physiocrat economics that emerged from the Age of Enlightenment. One of the adherents of this economic thought was Turgot who served as the Controller-General of Finances of King Louis XVI. He released an edict that deregulated the grain trade in 1774.
However, the deregulation was enacted a year before a widespread grain shortage in 1775. The abrupt deregulation also triggered a runway price increase that was intensified further by harsh winters that affected agricultural output and trade routes. Some French towns and provinces suffered from feminine. The Flour War of 1775 ensued as waves of riots transpired in the northern, eastern, and western parts of France.
Nonetheless, although the Flour War was controlled, it had a lasting impact. The deregulation and shortage of flour broke the confidence of the public in the ability of the monarchy to feed its people, as well as in the effectiveness of the feudal system. The disappointment was expressed further through rumors that the Louis XVI orchestrated the shortage to inflate the prices and starve the poor. Unrest remained in rural areas and it led to the Great Fear in August 1789 characterized by peasants and townspeople mobilizing against their landlords.
Modern analyses, such as the work of French history professor Nicolas Bourguinat argued that the deregulation of the grain trade and the subsequent Flour War, as well as the sustained discontent of the public, especially the members of the peasantry, collectively served as a prelude to the French Revolution.
2. Political Opposition Between the Monarchy and the Nobility
Louis XVI of the House of Bourbon was the king of France before and during the French Revolution. Although he was supposed to hold absolute authority over all his subjects, the reality was that numerous rights and privileges were held by provinces, towns, and corporate bodies, as well as the aristocracy or French nobility and the clergy that left the monarchy with limited freedom to govern.
Conflict between the monarchy and nobility characterized the Ancien Régime prior to the French Revolution. Even the predecessors of the Louis XVI had tried to suppress the authority of the nobles but with limited success.
Because of the debts incurred by France due to its involvement in the American Revolution, the monarchy higher taxes as part of its fiscal reform and overall royal order. However, because the peasantry was already overburdened by taxes, the reform involved taxing all landowners regardless of their privileges. Provincial parlements headed by members of the French nobility resisted this scheme, this leading to the Aristocratic Revolt in 1788.
The struggle between the monarchy and the nobility has been regarded as one of the causes of the French Revolution because such made the entire government system vulnerable from other external attacks due to the persistence of internal political struggle.
3. The Spread of Ideologies from the Age of the Enlightenment
In the middle of the conflict between the monarchy and the nobility was the growing realization about the realities of social inequality in France. Before the fiscal reform of the French monarchy, members of the nobility and the clergy owned vast tracks of lands, and they were exempted from paying taxes. Members of the Third Estate or the commoners and the peasantry had to pay taxes to the government and tithes to the church, thus aggravating their impoverished situation.
However, a new ideology was spreading across Europe. The book “The Enlightenment: History of An Idea” by renowned historian Vincenzo Ferrone mentioned that the ideas about equality and freedom presented by thinkers such as Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Denis Diderot, among others became widespread in France. A growing number of the French citizenry started embracing these ideas while contemplating on the current state of the monarchy and the nobility.
The influence of the Age of Enlightenment in the history of France was demonstrated primarily by the emergence of thinkers and writers. Ferrone noted that the number of authors who tackled ideas related to Enlightenment doubled between 1750 and 1789. Voltaire was one of these leading authors whose works criticized the hypocrisies and injustices of the Ancien Régime, as well as the unequal balance of power between the three Estates of the French society. Suffice to say that these works were instrumental in education France about the realities of social inequality.
4. Emphasis on Material Factors that Lead to a Bourgeois Revolution
Marxist scholar explained that the causes of the French Revolution stemmed from material factors. To be specific, due to the increasing number of population, shortage in the food supply became inevitable. Land area also became smaller that forced landowners to exploit their sources of revenues, particularly after the deregulation of the grain trade and the subsequent grain shortage in 1775.
In addition, Marxist scholars have also argued that the French Revolution was a bourgeois and capitalist revolution. Henry Heller, a specialist in early French modern history, especially in his book “The Bourgeois Revolution in France, 1789-1915” discussed that capitalism was becoming widespread in France during the 18th century. Capitalism marked the rise of the bourgeois or the middle class who gained wealth from their respective trades. Note that the bourgeois were originally part of the Third Estate or the class of commoners who evolved to have a class of their own due to their unique agenda.
Due to the extent of capitalism in France, the wealth of the middle class became sufficient enough to seize political power from the monarchy and traditional nobility amid the social and political tensions in the French society. The landed nobility did not pay enough attention to the rising influence of the moneyed bourgeois due to their existing conflict with the French monarchy. In addition, some of the nobles allowed the bourgeois to rise in power to challenge the existing monarchial rule.
Understanding the Origins of the French Revolution
No single reason outclasses all other causes of the French Revolution. Although some historians and scholars have argued for a particular point of origin, the fact remains that the insurgency in France that began in 1789 and lasted until 1799 was a result of separate but interweaving factors that collectively demonstrate the weakness of the Ancient Régime, especially the French monarchy and the feudal system. Nonetheless, the French Revolution was one of the defining moments in modern human history because of its far-reaching outcomes that affected not just France but also Europe and the rest of the world. Photo credit: Eugène Delacroix/La Liberté guidant le peuple/1830/Public Domain/Adapted
FURTHER READINGS AND REFERENCES
- Bourguinat, N. 1997. “L’État et les violences frumentaires en France sous la Restauration et la Monarchie de Juillet.” Ruralia. Retrieved online.
- Ferrone, V. 2015. The Enlightenment: History of an Idea. Oxford: Princeton University Press. ISBN: 978-0-691-161457
- Heller, H. 2009. The Bourgeois Revolution in France, 1789-1915. New York: Berghahn Books: ISBN: 978-1-84545-169-1