French Revolution, Cause and Effect 1789

Last Updated: 27 Jan 2021
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The pivotal event of European history in the eighteenth century was the French Revolution. From its outbreak in 1789, the Revolution touched and transformed social values and political systems in France, in Europe, and eventually throughout the world. France's revolutionary regime conquered much of Western Europe with its arms and with its ideology. But not without considerable opposition at home and abroad. Its ideals defined the essential aspirations of modern liberal society, while its bloody conflicts posed the brutal dilemma of means versus ends.

The revolutionaries advocated individual liberty, rejecting all forms of arbitrary constraint: monopolies on commerce, feudal charges laid upon the land, vestiges of servitude such as serfdom, and even (in 1794) black slavery overseas. They held that political legitimacy required constitutional government, elections, and legislative supremacy. They demanded civil equality for all, denying the claims of privileged groups, localities, or religions to special treatment and requiring the equality of all citizens before the law.

A final revolutionary goal was expressed by the concept of fraternity, which meant that all citizens regardless of social class, region, or religion shared a common fate in society, and that the well-being of the nation sometimes superseded the interests of individuals. The resounding slogan of Liberty, Equality, Fraternity expressed social ideals to which most contemporary citizens of the Western world would still subscribe. I. Origins

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Those who made the Revolution believed they were rising against tyrannical government, in which the people had no voice, and against inequality in the way obligations such as taxes were imposed and benefits distributed. Yet the government of France at that time was no more tyrannical or unjust than it had been in the past. On the contrary, a gradual process of reform had long been underway. What, then, set off the revolutionary upheaval? What had changed? An easy answer would be to point to the incompetence of King Louis XVI 1774-1792) and his queen, Marie Antoinette. Good-natured but weak and indecisive, Louis was a man of limited intelligence who lacked self-confidence. Worse yet, his young queen, a Hapsburg princess, was frivolous, meddlesome, and tactless. But even the most capable ruler could not have escaped challenge and crisis in the late eighteenth century. The roots of that crisis, not its mismanagement, claim the principal interest of historians. The philosophes In eighteenth-century France, as we have seen, intellectual ferment preceded political revolt.

For decades the philosophes had bombarded traditional beliefs, institutions, and prejudices with devastating salvos. They undermined the confidence that traditional ways were the best ways. Yet the philosophes were anything but revolutionaries. Nor did they question the fact that elites should rule society, but wished only that the elites should be more enlightened and more open. Indeed, the Enlightenment had become respectable by the 1780s, a kind of intellectual establishment. Diderot's Encyclopedia, banned in the 1750s, was reprinted in a less expensive format with government approval in the 1770s.

Most of France's 30 provincial academies_learned societies of educated citizens in the larger towns had by that time been won over to the critical spirit and reformism of the Enlightenment, though not to its sometimes extreme secularism. Among the younger generation, the great cultural hero was Rousseau (see picture), whose Confessions (published posthumously in 1781) caused a sensation. Here Rousseau attacked the hypocrisy, conformity, cynicism, and corruption of high society's salons and aristocratic ways.

Though he had not exemplified this in his personal life, Rousseau came across in his novels and autobiography as the apostle of a simple, wholesome family life; of conscience, purity, and virtue. As such, he was the great inspiration to the future generation of revolutionaries, but the word "revolution" never flowed from his pen. Underground literature More subversive perhaps than the writings of the "high enlightenment" was the underground literature that commanded a wide audience in France. The onarchy's censorship tried vainly to stop these "bad books," which poured in across the border through networks of clandestine publishers, smugglers, and distributors. What was this fare that the reading public eagerly devoured? Alongside a few banned works by the philosophes, there was a mass of gossip sheets, pulp novels, libels, and pornography under such titles as Scandalous Chronicles and The Private Life of Louis XV. Much of this material focused on the supposed goings-on in the fashionable world of Paris and Versailles. Emphasizing scandal and character assassination, this literature had no specific political content or ideology.

But indirectly, it portrayed the French aristocracy as decadent and the French monarchy as a ridiculous despotism. II. Fiscal Crisis When he took the throne in 1774, Louis XVI tried to conciliate elite opinion by recalling the Parlements or sovereign law courts that his father had abolished in 1770. This concession to France's traditional "unwritten constitution" backfired, however, since the Parlements resumed their defense of privilege in opposition to reforms proposed by Jacques Turgot, Louis, new controller general of finances.

Turgot, a disciple of the philosophes and an experienced administrator, hoped to encourage economic growth by the policy of nonintervention or laissez-faire. When agitation against him mounted at Versailles and in the Paris Parlement, Louis took the easy way out and dismissed his troublesome minister. The king then turned to a Protestant banker from Geneva with a reputation for financial wizardry, Jacques Necker. A shrewd man with a strong sense of public relations, Necker gained wide popularity.

To finance the heavy costs of France's aid to the rebellious British colonies in North America, Necker avoided new taxes and instead floated a series of large loans at exorbitant interest rates as high as 10 percent. Short of a complete overhaul of the tax system, little improvement in royal revenues could be expected, and the public would bitterly resist any additional tax burdens that the monarchy simply imposed. Facing bankruptcy and unable to float any new loans in this atmosphere, the king recalled the Parlements, reappointed Necker, after tarying several other ministers, and agreed to convene the Estates General in May 1789.

III. Estates General to National Assembly The calling of the Estates General created extraordinary excitement across the land. When the king invited his subjects to express their opinions about this great event, hundreds did so in the form of pamphlets, and here the liberal or "patriot" ideology of 1789 first began to take shape. The Third Estate While the king accorded the Third Estate twice as many delegates as the two higher orders, he refused to promise that the delegates would vote together ("by head") rather than separately in three chambers ("by order").

A vote by order meant that the two upper chambers would outweigh the Third Estate no matter how many deputies it had. It did not matter that the nobility had led the fight against absolutism. Even if they endorsed new, constitutional checks on absolutism and accepted equality in the allocation of taxes, nobles would hold vastly disproportionate powers if the Estates General voted by order. In the most influential of these pamphlets, Abbe Emmanuel Joseph Sieye posed the question, "What is the Third Estate? " and answered flatly, "Everything. " The enemy was no longer simply absolutism but privilege as well.

Unlike reformers in England, or the Belgian rebels against Joseph II, or even the American revolutionaries of 1776, the French patriots did not look back to historical traditions of liberty that had been violated. Rather they contemplated a complete break with a discredited past. As a basis for reform, they would substitute reason for tradition. Cahiers For the moment, however, the patriots were far in advance of opinion at the grass roots. The king had invited citizens across the land to meet in their parishes to elect delegates to district electoral assemblies, and to draft grievance petitions (cahiers) setting forth their views.

Highly traditional in tone, the great majority of rural cahiers complained only of particular local ills and expressed confidence that the king would redress them. Only a few cahiers from Iarger cities, including Paris, alluded to the concepts of natural rights or popular sovereignty that were appearing in patriot pamphlets. Very few demanded that France must have a written constitution, that sovereignty belonged to the nation, or that feudalism and regional privileges should be abolished. Elections Virtually every adult male taxpayer was eligible to vote for electors, who, in turn, chose deputies for the Third Estate.

The electoral assemblies were a kind of political seminar, where articulate local leaders emerged to be sent by their fellow citizens as deputies to Versailles. These deputies were a remarkable collection of men, though scarcely representative of the mass of the Third Estate. Dominated by lawyers and officials, there was not a single worker or peasant among them. In the elections for the First Estate, meanwhile, democratic procedures assured that parish priests rather than Church notables would form a majority of the delegates.

And in the elections to the Second Estate, about one third of the delegates could be described as liberal nobles or patriots. "National Assembly" Popular expectation that the monarchy would provide leadership in reform proved to be ill-founded. When the deputies met on May 5, Necker and Louis XVI spoke to them only in generalities, and left unsettled whether the estates would vote by order or by head. The upper two estates proceeded to organize their own chambers, but the deputies of the Third Estate balked.

Inviting the others to join them, on June 17 the Third Estate took a decisive revolutionary step by proclaiming its conversion into a "National Assembly. " A few days later 150 clergymen from the First Estate joined them. The king, who finally decided to cast his lot with the nobility, locked the Third Estate out of its meeting hall until a session could be arranged in which he would state his will. But the deputies moved to an indoor tennis court, and there swore that they would not separate until they had given France a constitution. Ignoring this act of defiance, the king addressed the delegates of all three orders on June 23.

He promised equality in taxation, civil liberties, and regular meetings of the Estates General at which, however, voting would be by order. France would be provided with a constitution, he pledged, "but the ancient distinction of the three orders will be conserved in its entirety. " He then ordered the three orders to retire to their individual meeting halls. This, the Third Estate refused. When the royal chamberlain repeated his monarch's demand, the deputies, spokesman dramatically responded: "The assembled nation cannot receive orders. Startled by the determination of the patriots, the king backed down. For the time being, he recognized the National Assembly and ordered deputies from all three estates to join it. Thus the French Revolution began as a nonviolent, "legal" Revolution. IV. The Convergence of Revolutions The political struggle at Versailles was not occurring in isolation. Simultaneously, the mass of French citizens, already aroused by elections to the Estates General, were mobilizing over subsistence issues.

The winter and spring of 1788-1789 had brought severe economic difficulties, as crop failures and grain shortages almost doubled the price of flour and bread on which the population depended for subsistence. Unemployed vagrants and beggars filled the roads, grain convoys and marketplaces were stormed by angry consumers, and relations between town and country were strained. This anxiety merged with rage over the behavior of "aristocrats" in Versailles. Parisians believed that food shortages and royal troops would be used to intimidate the people into submission.

They feared an "aristocratic plot" against the Third Estate and the patriot cause. Bastille When the king dismissed the still-popular Necker on July 11, Parisians correctly assumed that the counter-revolution was about to begin. Instead of submitting, they revolted. Protesting before royal troops (some of whom defected to the insurgents), burning the hated toll barriers that surrounded the capital, and seizing grain supplies, Parisian crowds then began a search for weapons. On the morning of July 14 they invaded the military hospital of the Invalides where they seized thousands of rifles without incident.

Then they laid siege to the Bastille, an old fortress that had once been a major royal prison, where gunpowder was stored. There the small garrison did resist and a ferocious firefight erupted. Dozens of citizens were hit providing the first martyrs of the Revolution, but the garrison soon capitulated. As they left, several were massacred by the infuriated crowd. Meanwhile, patriot electors ousted royal officials of the Paris city government, replaced them with a revolutionary municipality, and organized a citizens militia or national guard to patrol the city.

Similar municipal revolutions occurred in 26 of the 30 largest French cities, thus assuring that the capital's defiance would not be an isolated act. The Parisian insurrection of July 14 not only saved the National Assembly from annihilation but also altered the course of the Revolution by giving it a far more active, popular dimension. Again the king capitulated. Removing most of the troops around Paris, he traveled to the capital on July 17 and, to please the people, donned a cockade bearing the colors of white for the monarchy and blue and red for the city of Paris.

This tricolor was to become the flag of the new France. The Great Fear These events did not pacify the anxious and hungry people of the countryside, however. The sources of peasant dissatisfaction were many and long standing. Population growth and the parceling of holdings were reducing the margin of subsistence for many families, while the purchase of land by rich townspeople exerted further pressure. Seigneurial dues and church tithes weighed heavily upon most peasants. Now, in addition, suspicions were rampant that nobles were hoarding grain in order to stymie the patriotic cause.

In July peasants in several regions sacked the castles of the nobles and burned the documents that recorded their feudal obligations. This peasant insurgency eventually blended into a vast movement known as the Great Fear. Rumors abounded that the vagrants who swarmed through the countryside were actually "brigands" in the pay of nobles who were marching on villages to destroy the new harvest and cow the peasants into submission. The fear was baseless, but it stirred up hatred and suspicion of the nobles, prompted a mass recourse to arms in the villages, and set off new attacks on chEteaus and feudal documents.

Peasant revolts and the Great Fear showed that the royal government was confronting a truly nationwide and popular revolution. The night of August 4 Peasant insurgency worried the deputies of the National Assembly, but they decided to appease the peasants rather than simply denounce their violence. On the night of August 4, representatives of the nobility and clergy vied with one another in renouncing their ancient privileges. This set the stage for the Assembly to decree "the abolition of feudalism" as well as the tithe, venality of office, regional privilege, and social privilege.

Rights of Man and Citizen By sweeping away the old web of privileges, the August 4th decree permitted the Assembly to construct a new regime. Since it would take months to draft a constitution, the Assembly drew up a Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen to indicate the outline of its intentions. A rallying point for the future, the Declaration also stood as the death certificate of the old regime. It began with a ringing affirmation of equality: "Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions may be based only on common utility. The Declaration went on to proclaim the sovereignty of the nation as against the king or any other group, and the supreme authority of legitimate law. Most of its articles concerned liberty, defined as "the ability to do whatever does not harm another . . . whose limits can only be determined by law"; they specified freedom from arbitrary arrest; freedom of expression and of religion; and the need for representative government. The Declaration's concept of natural rights meant that the Revolution would be based on reason rather than history or tradition.

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French Revolution, Cause and Effect 1789. (2017, Apr 12). Retrieved from

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