The French Revolution was the most important event in modern history. It destroyed the old order of society and government and brought about modern changes in the world. It swept away the last remnants of feudalism and made the bourgeoisie the dominant class of modern society.
In 1789 France was the most populated nation in Europe and had been growing in wealth and prestige since the time of Louis XIV. Despite this economic growth, it was still a very backward nation socially and politically: socially, because it was still divided into feudal classes of people (clergy--those who pray, nobles--those who fight, and the peasants--those who work); politically, because they were still ruled by an absolute monarch who believed in the divine right of kings.
| The causes of the Revolution |
The Revolution was the result of three related crises that fell ~ above France simultaneously; one social, one political, and one economic.
| The Social Crisis |
Feudatogether France was neatly divided into three social classes, or Estates, with different jobs and privileges: the clergy was the First Estate, the Nobles were the Second Estate, and the peasants were the Third Estate. Needless to say, the Third Estate was the largest and had practically no rights at all.
One of the major problems that upset this order was the incredible growth of the bourgeoisie in wealth and in number. This class of people--dedicated to self-improvement, hard work, education and entrepreneurial adventures-- had no place in the tidy system of feudal society: they were independent; they did not work to support the nobles, they did not fight to protect the population, nor did they pray or perform any religious function. However, they were becoming extremely wealthy and influential in French society. Soon they began to clash with the nobles (The nobles, you remember, were the aristocratic people who came from high-born families, inherited their wealth and were given to lives of extravagant spending.) Thus this clash was between the bourgeoisie who earned and worked for their wealth (the "new money") and the noble families who inherited their land, wealth and status. Even though the bourgeoisie"s wealth was growing to match that of the nobles, they were given none of the social privileges that the nobles enjoyed. (For example, nobles could inherit land and did not have to pay taxes, and they were treated with great respect.) In fact, the nobles stuck the bourgeoisie in the Third Estate with the peasants. French society looked like this:
First Estate Second Estate Third Estate
Clergy Nobles Peasants and Bourgeoisie
130,000 400,000 27,000,000
The political crisis centered on the king, Louis XVI. Unlike the Sun King, Louis XVI was not very popular. He married a foreigner and hired English workers as soon as France was suffering high unemployment. He seemed not to care about the troubles of the French people. He refused to relax his extravagant lifestyle, even when inflation and unemployment were crushing the French people. Then in 1787, his armies were easily defeated by the Prussians, a humiliating event after which France"s nobles and aristocrats lost all respect for him.
But much of the political crisis had to do with changing ideas about government. In 1776 the American colonies had declared their independence from the king of England and were engaged in a battle to govern themselves. In France , new philosophies were circulating about why people should obey a king (or, what makes his power legitimate.) The belief in the divine right of kings, where a king is legitimate because God placed him in power, was crumbling; people were coming to believe instead that a government is only legitimate if it has the consent (or approval) of its people. Absolutism seemed to be on its deathbed.
The political crisis reached a climax when the king responded to France "s severe economic crisis (described below). In 1788, Louis XVI decided to call up the Estates-General, a parliament-type representative body made up of representatives of the three Estates (see above, The Social Crisis). Absolute Monarchy was finished in France .
| The Economic Crisis |
By 1786 the French government was broke. King Louis XVI had just spent millions of francs helping the American colonies fight versus France "s archenemy, England also . Because of this and other debts, just the interest payments on loans took up over half the France "s yearly income. To make things worse, unemployment had been on the rise for some time while grain prices skyrocketed. Then in 1788 France was hit by a terrible drought that nearly destroyed the entire year"s harvest. The jobless, starving people began to riot. Louis pleaded with the nobles to help the monarchy financially, but they refused. Finally, the king was forced to summon the Estates-General. When this group met, the representatives of the Third Estate (the bourgeoisie and peasants--most the France ) declared that they were the French government and the other Estates were irrelevant. A bloody 10-year struggle began for the soul of France .
Although a violent and bloody time, the French Revolution had important permanent results. Absolute Monarchy was terminated; the Revolution also destroyed the feudal privileges of the nobles. Serfdom was abolished. The Declaration of the Rights of Man declared that all humans are equal under the law and should have freedom of religion and the press, although these rights were suspended during the course of the revolution. Feudal payments to lords and mandatory tithes to the Church were eliminated. The power of the Church in politics was shattered.
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Large feudal manors were broken up, and all social classes had to pay taxes. From the French Revolution we get the metric system and our political labels "left" and "right." France set the model that much the Europe was to follow into the modern age.