What caused the French Revolution?

The French Revolution started in 1789 by the middle class who had shaken the oppressive upper classes. The people revolted against the cruel king. This revolution brought forward several ideas, such as liberty, fraternity and equality, that are applauded even today.

The revolution began on 14 July 1789 when a group of middle-class people stormed into the fortress-prison, the Bastille. It was hated by all because it showed the cruel deeds of their king. The fortress was successfully demolished (destroyed) and the prisoners in it were set free.

The term ‘Old Regime’  is usually used to describe the society and institutions of France before 1789.

French Society During the Late Eighteenth Century

In 1774, Louis XVI was the king of France. Under his term, the finances of France had suffered a lot. Long years of war had drained the financial resources out of the empire. Added to this, a lot of money was spent each year to maintain the king’s court and palace. Under Louis XVI, France helped thirteen American colonies to get their independence from their common enemy, Britain. These wars cost France a billion litres (the currency of France until 1794) and thus added as a burden on the already weak treasury (the funds or revenue of a state). To cover these huge expenses on wars, the government of France took loans from leaders who now started demanding a 10 per cent interest on them.

To make up for these huge expenses, the government of the king forcefully increased the taxes that they charged only from the people of the third estate.

French society was divided into three levels or estates. This society of estates was part of the feudal system (a feudal system is a type of social and political system in which landholders provide land to renters/tenants in exchange for their loyalty and services). The peasants (positioned in the 3rd estate) made up about 90 percent of the population. However, only a small number of them had their own lands to cultivate on. In France, about 60 percent of the land was owned by the nobles, the Church, and a few richer members of the third estate.

The members of the first two estates i.e. the clergy and the nobility, enjoyed several privileges, such as exemption from paying taxes to the state, by birth.

The peasants were obliged to render their services to their lords (feudal lords), to serve in the army, to participate in doing construction work for the government, etc.

Apart from the taxes levied by the state, the church too extracted its share of taxes, called tithes, from the peasants.

The struggles of everyday lives

As the population of France grew, the demand for food grains also increased. But the production of grain couldn’t match its growing demand. So the price of bread, which was a staple in the diet of the French, rose rapidly. When the workers demanded their masters to increase their wages too, they denied.

All these situations further widened the gap between the rich and the poor.

There was an everyday struggle for the poor members of the third estate to survive. When droughts or famines occurred, they worsened this situation. Such instances happened frequently in France during the Old Regime.

Growth of the Middle class

Though France had seen several revolts by the peasants and workers against the taxes imposed, these revolts had never transformed into full scale due to lack of means.

The 1700s witnessed the emergence of social groups, called the middle classes, who expanded their wealth through overseas trade and from manufacturing goods that were bought by the rich in the society and were not as poor as the lower class. In addition to these merchants, the third estate also included professions such as lawyers and administrative officials. All of them were educated and were strongly against the idea of privileges by birth.

These ideas started becoming increasingly popular. Several philosophers who spread these ideas were discussed in salons and coffee houses. It also spread amongst people through newspapers and books. For those who couldn’t read, these were frequently read aloud.

The Outbreak of the Revolution

In France of the Old Regime, the king did not have the powers to increase the taxes according to his will alone. Rather, he had to take permission of a political body called the Estate Generals.

The Estate Generals was made up of the representatives of each of the three estates. Each estate had one vote during voting to take a decision.

On May 5, 1789, Louis XVI called the committee to discuss about his proposal of increasing the taxes. For the meeting, the first and the second estates sent a total of 300 representatives, who were seated in rows facing each other on two sides, while the 600 representatives from the third estate had to stand at the back. The third estate was represented by the more prosperous and educated members. Peasants, artisans and women were denied entry.

During this meeting, the members representing the third estate demanded to change the voting pattern to give each member one vote. But the king denied this proposal and the members of the third estate walked out of the assembly in protest.

The Tennis Court Oath and Constitution

On 20 June, the representatives of the third estate, who viewed themselves as spokesmen for the whole nation, assembled in the hall of an indoor tennis court in the grounds of Versailles and declared themselves a National Assembly and swore not to disperse till they had drafted a constitution for France that limited the powers of the monarch.

While the National Assembly was busy in drafting a constitution, the rest of France was dealing with increased prices of bread. There was a situation of unrest and revolt because of high prices and low supply of bread. At the same time, the king had to go to Paris.

On 14 July, the angry crowd stormed and destroyed the Bastille. Peasants in several districts attacked the residence of the kings and noblemen. They looted grains and burnt down documents that contained records of their dues to the state.

Louis XVI finally recognised the National Assembly and accepted the principle that his powers would be checked from now onwards by a constitution. The Assembly passed an order banning the feudal system and taxes. All the members of the first and second estates were forced to give away their privileges.

The National Assembly completed the draft of the constitution in 1791. It mainly focussed on restricting the powers of the monarchy and not completely ending them. The snatched powers of the monarchs (though was given veto power) were divided between different institutions – the executive, legislature and judiciary.

Elections

The constitution gave the law making powers to the National Assembly which was indirectly selected. The citizens had to vote for a group of electors, who in turn chose the members of the assembly. But not all citizens had a right to vote. One men who were 25 years old or above, who paid taxes equals to at least 3 days of a labourer’s wage, had the right to vote (called active members). Women were not given these rights (called passive members).

Revolution turns radical

In April 1792, the newly elected legislature declared war on Austria and Prussia. Meanwhile, in France, political crisis took a turn when a group of rebels led by the Jacobins attacked the royal residence in Paris and arrested the king in August 1792.

As men were sent away to fight, women were left behind to earn a living and look after their families. A large section of people believed that the revolution should be carried forward as the Constitution of 1791 gave political rights only to the richer sections of the society. Political clubs became famous discussion points of government’s policies and the people’s discontent towards them. One majorly successful club was the Jacobins, whose members belonged to the less prosperous sections of the society. Their leader was Maximilian Robespierre. The Jacobins wore long striped trousers similar to those worn by the dock workers. They were also known as the sans culottes, meaning, without knee breeches. In addition to this, they also wore red caps, which symbolised liberty. Women however were not allowed to do this.

The following month saw a lot of rebellion, violence and massacres. The Legislative Assembly was replaced by the National Convention, which promised the abolition of the monarchy and the establishment of the French Republic.

On January 21, 1793, King Louis XVI was killed for his actions that pointed out his betrayal of the French nation. He was punished for his crimes against the state.

The Reign of Terror

Following the king’s murder, war with various European powers and intense divisions within the National Convention converted the French Revolution into its most violent phase.

In mid 1793, the Jacobins forcibly held control over the National Convention and carried out some radical measures, like executing and killing masses, taking down churches and converting them into barracks and offices, etc.

This also led to the bloody Reign of Terror which lasted from 1793 to 1794. It was a 10 months long period in which thousands of suspected enemies of the revolution, such as the ex-nobles, clergy and members of political parties  and even members of their own club who did not agree with his methods, were killed brutally.

The Jacobins’ leader, Robespierre, issued a law placing a maximum ceiling on wages and prices. This meant that the prices of goods could’t go above the ceiling price set. Meat and bread were rationed. More expensive white flour war forbidden, and people were forced to eat the equality bread made of wholewheat.

After some time, everyone demanded moderation from his strict policies. Finally in July 1794, he was convicted by a court and executed the next day.

End of the Revolution: Rise of Napoleon

On August 1795, the National Convention approved a new constitution that created France’s legislature.

The powers of the executive were given to the Directory of five members, which was appointed by parliament. The Jacobins protested against this new regime but were silenced by the army, which was led by a young but very powerful general named Napoleon Bonaparte.

The four years in which the Directory functioned saw several financial crises, population’s dissatisfaction, inefficiency and political corruption.

By the late 1790s, the directors relied almost entirely on the military to forcefully establish their authority.

On November 9, 1799, the frustrated people and their leaders raised their voices, demanding a revolution. Bonaparte performed a coup d’état, abolishing the Directory and appointing himself the first ‘consul’ of France. This event marked the end of the French Revolution and the beginning of the Napoleonic era.

References:

NCERT class IX

www.history.com

Quiz Time!

  1. Fill in the blanks-

a. The term __________ is usually used to describe the society and institutions of France before 1789.

b. The_______ wore long striped trousers similar to those worn by the dock workers. They were also known as the _________, meaning, without knee breeches.

c. The __________ which lasted from 1793 to 1794 was a 10 months long period in which thousands of suspected enemies of the revolution were killed brutally.

d. ___________ was the first consul of France.

2. The revolution began on _______ when group of middle class people stormed into the fortress-prison, the Bastille.

a. 14 June 1789        b. 9 November 1799.       c. 14 July, 1789       d. 14 July, 1774

3. In 1795, the powers of the executive were given to the __________ of five members, which was appointed by parliament.

a. Louis XVI        b. Napoleon Bonaparte         c. Directory          d. National Convention

4. Describe the Reign of Terror.

5. Describe the divisions between the society during Old Regime in France. (the three estates)

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