Fundamental cause of the french revolution

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From Irving L. Gordon’s World History


  1. Political

    1. The king was an absolute monarch

    2. The king selected his ministers based on noble birth not on merit

    3. The king censored speech and press

    4. By using letters de cachet, the king imprisoned his enemies indefinitely

    5. The king denied the people a voice in government

  2. Social

    1. First (clergy) and second(nobility) estates made up of 3% of the people

      1. owned most of the land

      2. collected feudal fees

      3. enjoyed signeurial and eminent property privileges

      4. controlled hunting, fishing, and collected fees on all village crafts and services such as baking

      5. exempt from taxes

      6. enjoyed special treatment (i.e. they didn’t work for a living).

    2. the third estate made up of 97% of the people were the underprivileged class. They resented the arrogance of the nobility in living like they did and not deserving it.

  3. Economic: The third estate bore almost the entire tax burden

    1. peasants, the most numerous group paid the following taxes

      1. the taille

      2. corvee (forced labor on roads and bridges)

      3. the tithe to the church

      4. gabelle (tax on compulsory salt purchase)

      5. feudal dues

    2. the bourgeoisie was the most influential group was hampered by

      1. provincial tariffs on trade

      2. guild restrictions on manufacturing

      3. government mercantilistic regulations

c. The country was bankrupt in 1788 with virtually nowhere to turn.

  1. The French Bourgeoisie

    1. well-educated and ambitious and was the

most powerful group in continental Europe.

    1. Resented arrogance of the nobility

    2. Wanted a say-so in government

    3. Provided many revolutionary leaders

    4. Wanted the gov’t to see mercantilistic policies

    5. Practice laissez faire

2. The French Philosophers

3. Influence of the English and American Revolutions. France was influenced by the Puritan Revolution because

a. the two countries were geographically close

b. many Englishmen had taken refuge in France

c. the French philosophes praised the English government

They were influenced by the American Revolution because

  1. Lafayette and others fought in it

  2. Ben Franklin and TJ resided in France and influenced them

  1. Incompetent and Unpopular Government. Louis XVI (1774-1792).

    1. Louis was dull

    2. Weak in character

    3. Not overly bright

    4. Lacked leadership qualities

    5. Marie Antoinette was foreign and not well liked.


  1. Louis XVI brings France to the edge of bankruptcy (by 1788). Most of debt was past wars. Only 5% was lavish life style. Instead of instituting reforms, he

    1. spent heavily to aid the American Colonies

    2. maintained a lavish court

    3. refused to tax the privileged

    4. failed to heed the advice of Turgot, Necker, and Colonne (pg. 349). Colonne

      1. in 1786 suggested representative government

      2. replace taille with general tax with no exemptions

      3. lightening of indirect taxes and eliminating tariffs

      4. confiscation of some of church property

      5. establishment of provincial assemblies in which everyone would be represented equally.

      6. Convened an assembly of notables to consider it.

  1. Louis summons the Estates General for the first time in 175 yrs.

    1. significance: it signaled that he needed help from the EG thus giving them leverage

    2. Undemocratic features of the EG

        1. representation

        2. voting

    3. The cahiers, a list of third estate grievances was presented.


  1. The Estates General becomes the National Assembly

    1. When the king refused to recognize them and give them equal representation, they declared themselves the National Assembly

    2. In the Tennis Court Oath they pledged to provide France with a democratic constitution

    3. Confronted with mobs of demonstrators, Louis gave in and named them the National Assembly

  2. The Bastille is destroyed on July 14, 1789 by revolutionaries looking for arms to protect themselves from the alleged attack by the king’s troops headed to Paris.

    1. this triggered the Great Fear in the countryside

    2. peasants used it as an excuse to pillage the properties of those to whom they owed taxes and fees

    3. destroyed legal records

  3. Work of the National Assembly (1789-1791)

    1. abolition of special privileges

    2. Declaration of the Rights of Man

    3. Financial matters

        1. confiscated church properties and issued assignats

        2. confiscated some property of nobles and sold it

    1. Religious measures were taken to take power from the church Nationalized the church by passing the Civil Constitution of the Clergy

        1. clergy became civil servants

        2. no allegiance to Pope

        3. required oath of loyalty to church

        4. lambasted by the Pope who condemned the Revolution

        5. non oath takers were called nonjuring

        6. non juring priests ran churches called refractory churches

    2. Reform of local government: The National Assembly replaced

        1. old provinces with 83 departments ruled by local assemblies

        2. the old provincial taxes, tariffs, and regulations with uniform laws and taxes

        3. local allegiance with national allegiance

    3. Constitution of 1791: The National Assembly wrote a constitution providing for a limited monarchy.

        1. hereditary king retained limited powers and a suspensive type veto over legislation

        2. the elected legislative assembly passed the nation’s laws

        3. unicameral legislature with reps based on population

        4. members of the LA had to be property owners elected by taxpayers

        5. provisions favored the bourgeoisie


  1. Supporters: Most of the bourgeoisie and many peasants were well satisfied with the gains under the Revolution. These groups supported the limited monarchy and wanted to end the excitement and change. This was impossible because too many groups weren’t satisfied with the Revolution and the limited monarchy.

  2. Opponents favoring a Republic

    1. Girondists were moderate politically favoring a middle class republic such as that in the US.

    2. Jacobins were radical politically. Mostly city workers who as non property owners were not represented in the LA. They opposed the King and the bourgeoisie. Favored a poor man’s republic. Got very close to the people because

      1. their many clubs throughout Europe

      2. their skillful use of newspapers and street demonstrations

      3. their capable leaders Marat, Danton, and Robespierre

  3. Opponents favoring the Old Regime

    1. Louis XVI resented the loss of absolute power. Conspired with the émigrés and foreign powers in a counterrevolutionary mode. In 1791 attempted to flee the country but were caught and brought back.

    2. Devout Catholics led by the nonjuring clergy opposed the Revolution because of its treatment of the church and their fear for their salvation

    3. French nobles were indignant over loss of privileges and income. They fled as émigrés and encouraged foreign governments to invade and restore the monarchy and the Old Regime.

    4. Foreign monarchs especially in Austria and Prussia feared revolutionary ideas would spread to their countries. In 1792 these rulers ordered their troops into France to suppress the rebellion.

  4. End of the monarchy: The limited monarchy did not survive the foreign invasion of France. As Austrian and Prussian armies moved toward Paris, French antiroyalists mobs rioted. They accused the king of being in communication with the enemy (which he was). The French legislature thereupon deposed the king and called for election of a National Convention. It was to govern France and to draw up a new more democratic constitution.


  1. The First French Republic. The National Convention declared France the First Republic.

    1. tried Louis XVI for treason and executed him.

    2. Louis XVI’s death alarmed other monarch in Britain, Holland, and Spain and they invaded.

  1. Jacobin domination: the Committee of Public Safety. In the face of foreign invasion, the radical or extremist Jacobins seized control of the Convention, determined to protect the Revolution from within and without. They centralized the powers into the Committee led at first by Danton and later by Robespierre.

  2. Conscript armies repel foreign invaders:

    1. COPS (Committee of Public Safety) appealed to nationalism

    2. Mandatory draft (levee en masse)

    3. Inspired by revolutionary ideals and nationalism, fought with more dedication than mercenary armies of their enemies and won.

  3. The ROT (Reign of Terror) Crushes Domestic Enemies: The ROT was instituted by the COPS to protect against counterrevolution.

    1. arrested all suspected of treason regardless of how flimsy the evidence

    2. sentenced many thousands to death by guillotine

    3. ROT eventually turned the people against the Jacobins and brought an end to it. In 1794 the rival Jacobin leaders, Danton and Robespierre were both guillotined. The moderates or anti Jacobins now regained control of the National Convention.

    1. Fall of Robespierre stunned the country

    2. Triggered the Thermidorean Reaction; the “Terror” subsided

    3. According to McKay, the respectable middle class lawyers and professionals who had led the liberal revolution of 1789 reasserted their authority drawing support form their own class, the provincial cities, and the better off peasants.

    4. The Convention reduced the powers of the COPS. Reduced power of local governments where sans-culottes had their strength.

    5. Price controls and other regulations were removed resulting in inflation, putting the poor working class in a worse situation than ever.

    6. All the while wealthy bankers and newly rich speculators celebrated the sudden end of the Terror with an orgy of self-indulgence and ostentatious luxury, an orgy symbolized by the shockingly low cut gowns that quickly became the rage among their wives and mistresses. Shameless would be a good word for their behavior in the eyes of the poor. The collapse of economic controls, coupled with runaway inflation, hit the working poor very hard. The gaudy extravagance of the rich wounded their pride. Increasingly disorganized after Robespierre purged radical leaders, the common people of Paris finally revolted.

    7. Sporadic uprisings broke out including the one at Prairial in Year III (May, 1795). The army arrested and deported 10,000 of the insurgents.

    8. In the face of all these reversals, the revolutionary fervor of the laboring poor in Paris finally subsided. Excluded and disillusioned, the urban poor would have little interest in and influence on politics until 1830 (beginnings of socialism?).


  1. Democratic ideals

    1. Liberty

    2. Equality

    3. Fraternity

    4. Freedom from oppression and despotic rule

  2. Emphasis on nationalism: loyalty to the nation permeated all classes

    1. war became the concern of the entire nation

    2. The Marseillaise a patriotic song by Rouget de Lisle, was adopted as the national anthem

    3. July 14, Bastille Day, was proclaimed a national holiday

    4. State controlled education began to serve as a major agency for preserving the nation’s ideals.

  3. Worldwide influence

HISTORICAL ANALYSIS: Revolutionary Patterns: Using the French Revolution, the American Revolution, and the Russian Revolution, historians have sought patterns in revolution while acknowledging that all revolutions are unique. Democratic revolutions do share similarities- a logical series of events. The following is Dr. Crane Brinton’s analysis:

    1. on the eve of the Rev, the government has failed to meet the needs of the people, has denied power to emerging social and economic groups, and has lost support of the intellectuals.

    2. The Rev begins with a dramatic act that demonstrates the inability of the government to control the course of events

    3. The moderates of the Rev seize control and seek to institute moderate changes.

    4. The moderate program is decried by more liberal elements in the Rev and feared by foreign governments. Some violence.

    5. To preserve the revolution at the “crisis” stage, the extremists seize control and employ force and terror against enemies of the Revolution. Crane Brinton in his book, Anatomy of Revolution, summarizes these developments as a “tendency for power to go…..from the conservatives of the old regime to the moderates to the radicals or extremists.”

    6. With the crisis surmounted and the public sick of the bloodletting, the terror comes to an end.

    7. In the ensuing period of political instability, a powerful leader emerges, seizes power, and rules as a dictator. Crane Brinton states that “dictatorship and revolution are inevitably closely associated because revolutions to a certain extent, break down, or at least weaken, laws, customs, habits, beliefs which bind men together in society.”

    8. The public acceptance of the dictator is based on the belief that he will preserve some of the gains of the revolution while at the same time providing political stability and social cohesion.


  1. To what extent is the pattern accurate?

  2. I n what ways did the American Revolution diverge? What about the Puritan Revolution? How do you explain divergences?

  3. If revolutions for democracy end in dictatorship, are revolutions an advisable technique for seeking democratic reforms?

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