Causes of the french revolution long term reasons

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GCE Level History M. Nichols BWIC 2007



Guillotining of Louis XVI, 1793

M. Nichols GCE Level History BWIC 2007

The French Revolution was, like the Russian Revolution of 1917, the result of a combination of short-term and long–term factors, triggered off by the momentous events of a single year, in this case 1789.

  • The Estates System. France was a rigidly classified society divided into three estates. These estates had their own rights and privileges in the case of the first two, and lots of onerous duties and responsibilities in the case of the Third.

This rigid system meant even the 1st Estate was increasingly the preserve of the nobility, while just to be an officer in the army required generations of noble ancestry. The King was advised solely by the nobility. Opportunities were thus closed to men of education and talent with no title. It is not a coincidence that, as Christopher Hibbert has stressed, the main leaders of the Revolution would be highly educated members of the middle class and in particular failed writers and lawyers. Danton, one of the leaders of the Revolution, would say that “the ancien regime drove us [to revolution] by giving us a good education, without opening any opportunity for our talents”.

Insufficient revenue e.g. not only lack of taxes, but their inefficient collection
he 2nd Estate was regarded as parasitical, as it enjoyed its many droits without living up to any of its responsibilities. The economic problems of the 1770s and 1780s were increasingly passed down to the peasantry by their noble landlords, who had nothing but contempt for their tenant farmers. In France, the local squire certainly did not play cricket on the village green with his tenants - nor did he pay his way. A bankrupt France was not allowed to tax the very people who had all the money!

High Ordinary Expenditure e.g. palaces

Poor financial administration e.g. borrowing = interest to pay

Costs of wars e.g. in America

Massive Debts!


The 2nd and 3rd Estates may have detested each other, but they also despised the monarchy’s absolutism and so had a common cause.
What is historiography? Is it important? How should we utilise it in our answers?

  • Royal Absolutism. Since the times of the dictatorial and bigoted

Louis XIV, French kings had been invested with enormous powers (e.g. the infamous lettres de cachet, censorship, etc.).
Louis XIV had been heavily responsible through his innumerable wars for the parlous state of the French monarchy’s finances by 1789. A megalomaniac, he had developed the ideas of absolutism and had strived for hegemony of Europe. His Chief Minister, Cardinal Mazarin taught him belief in divine kingship, along with a cynicism and contempt for his fellow Man. He was a spendthrift womaniser with an insatiable sexual appetite. However, Louis had also been capable, charming, accomplished and competent. He had been an ideal king.
However, unlike the Sun King, the present monarch, Louis XVI was not a prepossessing figure. Kind, generous, a loving family man, he was also indolent, indecisive and vacillating. A pious man with an enormous appetite, who preferred to hunt rather than attend to the affairs of state, it did not help that he was short and fat (1.70m and 120kg), and hardly looked very regal. His hobbies were also rather plebeian. His two brothers: the Counts of Provence and Artois were extreme reactionaries and rarely gave their elder sibling sensible advice.
His extravagant Austrian wife, Marie-Antoinette, hardly helped with his image. Grant and Temperley have even claimed that she was a “powerful and dangerous counsellor” to her husband. She had helped in the dismissal of the progressive finance minister Turgot, for instance.
The royalist system would be referred to as the ancien regime, so anachronistic was it. The nobility were becoming increasingly resentful of royal power and attacks on its institutions, like the parlements or law courts. They were also disinclined to pay any new taxes, which the increasingly insolvent monarchy needed to impose, in order to pay its debts. It was Louis’ willingness to contemplate an erosion of the 2nd Estates rights that would drive them into an alliance of convenience with the 3rd Estate. They demanded the re-calling of the Estates General, a type of parliament that had not sat since 1614, hoping to put pressure on the King. To the 3rd Estate, the Estates General would give them a chance of representation, at last.
S. J. Lee is very critical of Louis whom he says oversaw the loss of direction of government policy and refers to his “chaotic economic and fiscal system” which, for example, saw him sign a free trade treaty in 1786 with GB, which unleashed the forces of laissez faire at the exact time when the struggling economy most needed protection. This made the 3rd Estate even more determined on a parliamentary monarchy so that its commercial interests could be represented. The well-meaning, but incompetent and ineffectual antics of the King’s finance ministers like Calonne and Necker hardly helped matters or endeared the King to the nobility whom they were threatening to tax. It was this attack on the most privileged of classes (whose discontent had been apparent as early as 1787) that ironically spurred the French Revolution into life.
The 3rd Estate wanted a review of all the inequitable taxes and a reduction, but not abolition, of the monarchy’s powers. These ideas were expressed often in the words of liberal and Enlightenment philosophers like Voltaire, Rousseau and Montesquieu, though Lee (and Matthews) stresses they were used merely to articulate the demands of the reformers rather than having drawn up their policies. In the same way, the American war of Independence (1775-1781), in which many Frenchmen had fought (and which more importantly had contributed to France’s insolvency), had an influence on the thinking behind the demands of the 3rd Estate (and even some of the Second).

Louis XVI was not as astute and clever as Louis XIV who had used the support of the bourgeoisie to keep the nobility under control and so relatively docile. Nor was he as ruthless as other French kings like Louis XI, the infamous ‘Spider King’. Such ‘divide and rule’ principles, as utilised by Le Soleil Roi, were beyond the later Louis’ limited political understanding. By calling an Estates General, says Lee, Louis was acknowledging “the collapse of absolutism and the existence of a political vacuum at the centre”. Grant and Temperley put it more clearly, describing how it was “not inflexibility, but weakness of will that was his bane”. While Matthews comments that: “the king can be said to bear major responsibility for bringing things to a head in June 1789”.

  • Common problems affecting Europe. Lee, like Palmer and Godechot, has also stresses that France’s revolution was part of a general wave of unrest in Europe and even North America. Enormous population growth (from 100 to 200 million people between 1700-1800); the severe economic crises of the 1770s and 1780s, and the innate instability of government were not restricted to France. France, however, experienced the most momentous and lasting changes because it had the strongest bourgeoisie and elements of social co-operation, while the peasantry also supported the Revolution. Consensual factors that were absent in other countries.

Ultimately, though the fundamental reasons for the events of 1789 were the result of the above factors, the short-term more direct considerations were of even more paramount concern. Grant and Temperley are certainly convinced that France was in no danger of revolution until the late 1780s.

Summaries of the Estates’ Demands

It is one of the many ironies of the French Revolution that it was not brought about by un-ending misery, but quite the reverse.
The middle class (bourgeoisie) were prospering throughout most of the 18th century. Famines were actually decreasing and were nothing like those that had happened in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. With this prosperity there came increasing aspirations and an expectation of continued progress. The droughts, famines and increased prices that thus hit France from 1785 were an even more traumatic shock than they might otherwise have been. The suddenness of the terrible downturn in prosperity that came in 1788 and 1789, after the disastrous harvests of those years, says S. J. Lee, had “a far more dangerous psychological impact” than normal. The deep resentment and growing bitterness aimed at the entrenched Second Estate thus had a focus: if we are now suffering why do they continue to do so well?
Louis, ever the reactionary, tried to halt the meeting of the Estates General (the first since 1614) who then met instead at an indoor tennis court. There they signed the famous tennis court oath, vowing not to go home until they had secured their political and human rights.
The calling of an Estates General had helped to turn a crisis into outright revolution. Arguments over voting rights led the 3rd Estate to convene a National Assembly and a determination by the bourgeoisie to keep the (political) rights it had won by July 1789.
However, the Assembly members were not particularly radical. They were much less interested in social reforms, than in securing their political rights first and foremost, and it was left to the Parisian poor to really push the revolution in a more radical, new direction.
The storming of the Bastille on July 14th, 1789, was a massive symbolic event, which had also involved great bloodshed. But it was also a reaction to the King’s attempts to suppress the Revolution. The assistance of the regular army French Guards, showed how the revolution was spreading. The Bastille’s fall helped to radicalise the revolution and gave it a lasting memorial and day of celebration. To Grant and Temperley it symbolised the takeover of the Revolution by Paris, which then began to attract the desperate and unemployed from the provinces. Even the King and his family were forced to live in Paris and abandon their beloved Versailles, from October, 1789.
The peasants in the countryside though also took matters into their own hands and the Grand Peur of the late summer (soudure) of 1789 saw them seize land and destroy the last vestiges of the hated seigneurial droits and terriers.
Revolution needs all classes’ involvement to succeed and in France this was pretty much the case, with even Louis himself ending up wearing the new, revolutionary tricolour in the days that followed (the tricolour being a combination of the red and blue of Paris - and the white of the king). Grant and Temperley have even claimed Louis wanted revolution to help sort out the nation’s problems, just not the Revolution he was to get.


It is feared that the Revolution like Saturn will end up devouring its own children” Citizen Vergniaud (A Moderate, Guillotined during the Terror)
After the first tentative months, the Revolution became genuinely radical. The Parisian sans-culottes under their acerbic leaders like the journalist Marat, had a say in government and enormous political clout. The Legislative Assembly was divided into radical and more moderate factions, the Montagnards and Feuillants, respectively. Conservatives sat on the right-hand side, radicals on the left, establishing a convention that exists to this day. The struggle to take the revolution in different directions would dominate the years after 1789 with first one faction and then the other triumphing. The Revolution though, would ultimately end up fizzling out and, as so often happens in history, events would ironically end up producing a system that was reminiscent of the ancien regime, which the Revolution had meant to dismantle.
The events of the early phases of the Revolution between 1789-92 can be summarised as:

  • The destruction of the Bastille prison in July 1789, a hated symbol of royal power, though also another example of the many ironies of the Revolution in that it contained only 7 prisoners, none of whom were even political detainees (4 were forgers, one a lunatic, one a sex-offender and one a foreigner!) - and that conditions there were a lot better than in most other (more over-crowded) French prisons; the actual storming though, unlike that other great Revolutionary symbolic event, the storming of the Winter Palace in 1917, was genuinely bloody. Hundreds were killed and it ended with the governor of the prison, the Marquis de Launay, being decapitated by the mob and having his head placed on a pike; Lee says the events symbolised the bankruptcy of royal authority; Louis’s further attempts to stem the direction of the events of 1789 would result in the famous October march on Versailles (orchestrated by the women of Paris) and his removal to Paris;

  • Events in the countryside especially where, during the Grand Peur, the peasants had taken matters into their own hands, resulted in a number of radical changes: feudalism and the tithe were abolished; Church lands put up for sale and the Declaration of the Rights of Man drawn up; the aristocratic parlements were dismantled; de-centralisation, with the establishment of the departments system, was introduced; the National Assembly became the more egalitarian Constituent Assembly;

  • Other more moderating influences though were already apparent; the franchise was restricted to taxpayers and property owners, (with a definition of ‘active’ and ‘passive’ citizens) though this still meant 4.3 million voters; the 1791 Constitution, however, opened up a Pandora’s Box according to J. Roberts, that could not be closed;

As so often in revolutions, the initial altruistic aims were hijacked by those of a more conservative and even reactionary frame of mind, and they in turn were opposed by the fanatics. The King, a very reluctant supporter of the new constitution of 1791 was determined not to see any further erosion of his powers which now saw him termed not ‘King of France’, but ‘King of the French’. The Left agitated in response for a republic, and radicals like the incorruptible Maximilien Robespierre denigrated a system that had not introduced universal male suffrage. The radicals even started in-fighting amongst themselves with the Montagnards triumphing over the slightly more moderate Girondins.

During 1792-94, the Revolution entered its most radical stage; the catalyst for this being war with Revolutionary France’s many foreign enemies and counter-revolution in the Vendee. The search for internal enemies after attacks by the Prussians resulted in the truly barbaric massacres of September 1792, in which the prisons were emptied of ‘traitors’. Louis’ fate was sealed after his attempt to escape France and re-capture at Varennes (and the activities of his aristocratic supporters in exile abroad). With the declaration of a republic in September 1792, he was executed in January 1793, the blade of the guillotine finding it difficult to slice through his fat neck. The Montagnards then turned on the Girondins who were also executed.
The introduction of the Terror in 1793, which lasted to 1794, saw the radicals, led by the priggish Robespierre, decimate both their political and class enemies, and anyone presumed to be a threat to the new republic. Traditionally seen as an attack on the privileged, in reality, as Hibbert points out, only 9% of its victims were nobles, 6% members of the former 1st Estate, and the remaining 85%, members of the class the Revolution was meant to benefit. In all, 16 -18 000 people were executed. Most were ordinary people.
The Committees of Public Safety and General Security, which now ran the country, paradoxically extended the franchise, but at the same time tended to concentrate power in their own hands. Equally contradictory was the emphasis on liberty at the expense of individual freedom, which Marat and Robespierre symbolised. The latter persecuted atheists, while introducing an absurd new religion: the Cult of the Supreme Being and new calendar, and felt compelled to make men free, even if this meant the use of terror. The Jacobins also used the Terror to eliminate their political rivals both those they found too moderate (Dantonists) and those too radical (Hebertists). In many ways it was the kind of bloody purge of political enemies that the 20th century dictatorships of Stalin and Hitler would also resort to.
Robespierre has been seen favourably by French historians like Mathiez, and Lefebvre, and even US historians like Jordan, as the most sincere and dedicated of revolutionaries. When Lenin came to power he erected a statue outside the Kremlin walls to a man he much admired. I prefer to see him as a cold, deluded fanatic completely out of touch with reality and having lost sight of the practical purposes of revolution. We should avoid caricaturing him as did a variety of nineteenth century writers from de Stael and Carlyle to Dickens, but even so there seems little in him to find truly attractive.
A detached, vain, ambitious, provincial lawyer who probably died a virgin, he had few pleasures other than clothes and a fastidious hair-style. He was also fond of oranges, loved by his sister Charlotte and kind to animals. He had been deserted by his dissolute lawyer father at six, by which time his mother had also died. He was brought up by two aunts. Educated at the best school in France, Louis Le Grand, where he had been an outstanding scholar and the protégé of the Bishop of Arras, he had become a judge at a young age. In 1788-89, he had defended an innocent soldier called Louis-Marie Hyacinthe Dupond who had spent 14 years in prison because of a royal lettre de cachet. According to Jordan, this case made him the radical he was to become.
His later promotion of the Cult of The Supreme Being as an alternative to Christianity was not only absurd and unpopular, but alarmed many atheists, as well as Catholics. According to Jordan, Robespierre the man and Robespierre the revolutionary were inseparable. He lacked Danton’s warmth and rough bonhomie and Marat’s approachability. He would readily give interviews, but only on receipt of formal, written notice - in advance.
He grew to be so hated that when he was at last overthrown, someone shot him in the face the night before his execution. He went to the guillotine with his jaw hanging off, covered in blood and jeered by the very masses he proclaimed to be saving. It is hard to feel much sympathy for him nor for the equally repulsive Marat who was assassinated in his palliative bath by the far more attractive Charlotte Corday; an event immortalised in the painter Jean-Jacques David’s masterpiece.
Lee gives Robespierre and the Committees some credit for saving France from its external enemies, but says overall he and the government of this period were largely a failure. One of their very few surviving reforms other than the military system of conscription (the highly effective levee en masse), was the decimal system, which would be revived by Napoleon.
On January 21, 1793, Louis XVI of France went to the scaffold after his conviction for treason and the proclamation of France’s First Republic. He had been unable to stop or adapt to the early events of the French Revolution, and his clumsy attempts to regain control with the help of Austria and other foreign monarchies had set him on a collision course with the radical Montagnard deputies in the National Convention. He was executed because he was the king and all that he symbolised, not because he was the nonentity, Louis Bourbon.
In October, the 37 year old Marie-Antoinette was also decapitated. ‘Madame Deficit’ had not only lost a lot of money, now she had also lost her head. During her trial, absurd accusations had been made against her, and most cruelly, even her young son (Louis XVII) had been forced to invent lurid tales about his mother’s sexual activities. Since the diamond necklace affair of 1786, when she was meant to have contracted syphilis from the Cardinal de Rohan and had affairs with men like the Swedish Count Fersen, Marie-Antoinette had been the victim not so much of radical gossip, as small-minded, French xenophobia.
It was a Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, a deputy since 1789, who had introduced a law requiring that all public executions be performed by a decapitating machine, which was felt to be more egalitarian and humane than traditional methods. Ironically, the guillotine was to become the most lasting image of the inhumane tyranny of the Reign of Terror – and of French culture. (Murder in France was still punishable by the guillotine when I was a boy!).
The Terror however did not solely utilise the guillotine. In 1793, in Nantes, mass executions took place by drowning; in Lyons, victims were lined up in front of cannons and peppered with grapeshot. The anti-Revolutionary reaction in the Vendee region saw 200 000 perish, while the earlier (September,1792) massacres in Paris had been conducted with cudgels and butchers’ blades.
The third phase of the Revolution (1794-1799) saw a swing to the right, as the middle classes, for and by whom the Revolution was arguably orchestrated, began to assert their control.
The coup that overthrew Robespierre, however, known as Thermidor, was the result of both those who saw Robespierre as too moderate and those who found him too radical. In many ways the Thermidorians were a disparate bunch whose only common feature was a fear for their lives and a desire to reverse the more radical aspects of the revolution.
The risings by the sans-culottes of Germinal and Prairial, 1795 were brutally crushed by the government and its loyal troops (including Napoleon).
The new regime saw reforms including the creation of oligarchic institutions like the Council of 500 and the Council of the Elders (men 40 plus), as a well as a five-man Directory, to run the country. Lee calls the reforms of the new government “not unimpressive”, including: reform of the paper currency, a return to a metallic coinage, communications improved and poor relief reorganised. Fashionable people (Les Incroyables) were even free to tastelessly mock the guillotine by wearing red ribbons around their throats.
The new system’s opposition to party-politics, however, allowed the accession to power of a dictator, one Napoleon Bonaparte in 1799. He was helped by his brother Lucien the real hero of the Brumaire Coup who had fortified his quavering older brother’s resolve.
Bonaparte would go far to overturning much of the achievements of the Revolutionary period and betray the very revolution that had made him.
The Wider Impact of the French Revolution
Human blood has a terrible power against those who have spilt it…The Terrorists have done us immense and lasting harm. Were you to go into the last cottage in the farthest country of Europe, you would meet that memory and that curse (Michelet)
The French Revolution has been generally seen as one of the most momentous events in world history. In 19th century France, it created an idea of the state being a permanently revolutionary nation. France experienced numerous revolutions in the 19th century: the overthrow of the Bourbons in 1830; the revolutionary activities of 1848-51, as well as 1870-71. A parliamentary enquiry in 1871 even commented that: “Other peoples have had revolutions more or less frequently; but we have revolution permanently”!
Even in the 20th century, ever turbulent France was in danger of various possible revolutions and coups, most notably in the 1950s and 1960s.
Myths grew up about the 1789 Revolution which persist to the present day. In reality, there were no barricades, no tricoteuses (inventions of Dickens) on the scaffolds, no liberation of political prisoners form the Bastille. However, this in no way denigrates the impact of the Revolution nor its radicalism, as myths can be more effective than the truth in promoting a desired image.
France’s initial revolution’s impact then and now was, and is, wide-ranging.
Eric Hobsbawm has pointed out how “France provided the vocabulary and the issues of liberal and radical-democratic politics for most of the world”. The tricolour of some kind dominates many countries emblems. Revolutionary France would provide universal codes of law, measurement and ideology. Given one in five Europeans were French, it is not surprising the ideas of France came to dominate the continent. Hobsbawm believes the French Revolution unlike any other 18th century one was ecumenical – it was designed to be spread. It had influence in Latin America, even India to radical nationalists like Simon Bolivar and Ram Mohan Roy respectively. Hobsbawm terms it simply: “the revolution of its time”.
Contemporaries either took hope from it (such as the English radical, Tom Paine) or denounced it as an evil aberration (the Irishman, Edmund Burke).
Most of Europe’s rulers viewed it with a mix of alarm and disgust. The autocratic emperors of Austria (Joseph II and Leopold) and Russia (from Catherine the Great to Tsars Paul and Alexander I) were understandably antagonistic to a system that proclaimed ‘Equality, Fraternity and Liberty’ for all. However, even relatively liberal states like GB, with its constitutional, parliamentary democracy, were quickly alienated by the goings on in France after 1789, especially given the universal promises of its ‘Declaration of the Rights of Man’.
The reactionary states of Austria and Prussia formed the first anti-French coalition in 1792. The French then fought the British and the Dutch in 1793. Austria was consistently anti-French, also joining the later coalition of GB, Russia and the Kingdom of Naples.
Russia was a little more ambivalent, at least initially, in its response. Catherine the Great (who died in 1796) was always more concerned about the Jacobin influences on her near neighbour Poland, than with France directly. However, even she eventually supplied ships to help the British Royal Navy in its activities in the North Sea against France. Her son, Tsar Paul (murdered in 1801) was more overtly anti-Revolutionary, especially after France had invaded Malta (1798), an island he had a romantic obsession with. Russia had even allied with its traditional arch-enemy, Turkey, in 1798, alarmed at French encroachments into the eastern Mediterranean, which threatened Russia’s Black Sea ports.
GB though would be the staunchest enemy of Revolutionary France. Historically, both countries had always been at loggerheads and the execution of Louis had been especially disturbing to an essentially conservative nation like GB. The Revolution paradoxically though brought Britons of all classes closer together. Portrayed as an anarchic menace dripping with blood, most British people thus continued to regard France as its prominent national enemy and this over-riding nationalism helped to consolidate the British state.
The Republican USA and France, however, maintained relatively cordial relations, though perhaps more because their mutual interests rarely clashed than out of purely ideological compatibility.
The Revolutionary armies had initially fought defensive campaigns against those like the Austrians determined to crush it. However, like the Terror, these high ideals quickly gave way to selfish and atavistic interests. What had initially been defensive actions, soon became wars designed to spread the Revolution, provide friendly or at least amenable neighbours, and eventually gain a Republican empire in vulnerable areas like the Holy Roman Empire and Italy. Such expansionist policies were to be further developed by Napoleon I.
Re-Cap Acrostic















Louis XVI

Maximillien Robespierre

An aristocrat

Edmund Burke


An abbot

A workman is brought before the Committee for Public Safety

Positive Reforms
The French Revolution resulted in a number of improvements to peoples’ lives.
Ordinary people now had some __________ power. They had more of a say in running the country than they had ever had before. The estates system was ________. Titles were __________ and Church lands were __________. Some even found their way to the ________. Priests now had to answer to the _________ for what they did.
The legal system was also improved. ____________ was abolished. Judges now had to be _________ and so were less likely to be ___________.
Certain freedoms were introduced so newspapers were no longer __________. Couples could now __________ whom they pleased, without seeking permission.
There were more _________ opportunities and people could _________whatever god they wanted to. There were also laws to combat __________ discrimination, reflecting the universal aspects of the Declaration of the ________ of Man.
Negative Changes
The Committee for _________________ ended up bringing about a reign of cruelty known as the __________. The ___________that succeeded in ____ ended up using the _______to crush any opposition. France was going backwards!
A new paper currency called the ______________ was introduced, but quickly lost its value.
Revolutionary France also became a much more aggressive nation determined to export its ideas abroad and this brought France into conflict with countries like__________ and ____________, whose emperor was furious at the execution of his sister.
No Change
Ordinary people rarely got a chance to buy __________ lands, which were instead bought up by people who were _________even before the Revolution. They could also still not __________ despite the fact they paid___________.
In the end, France even stopped being a republic and went back to being a _________ when in _________ a Corsican tyrant called ____________ crowned himself the new ________________!
After his final defeat in 1815, even the _______________ monarchy returned.
Things, as they often do in history, had come full circle.



Timeline of the French Revolution






June 1789

July 1789

July/August 1789

October 1789




September 1792

January 1793









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