The causes of the French Revolution (1789-1799) are many and complex.
Deep, long-term factors included
The wide social and economic gap between ordinary citizens (known as the Third Estate) and the country’s elite, the Catholic clergy (First Estate) and aristocracy (Second Estate)
The frustrated ambitions of the growing middle class, who possessed wealth and education but, because they belonged to the Third Estate, like the lower classes, were barred from social advancement
The influence of the ideas of the Enlightenment, whose philosophers, many of whom were French, made powerful arguments in favor of fair government, equal treatment of all citizens, the separation of governmental powers, and civil rights of various types
Added to this list were the political ineptitude of the last two absolute monarchs of France, Louis XV and Louis XVI (1774-1792), and a serious, long-standing financial crisis in France.
Another ingredient was the example of the American Revolution of 1775 to 1783, which France supported economically (adding to its financial troubles) and militarily, and which the French people admired.
Little did the French government realize that by helping the American Revolution succeed, it would be encouraging revolution in its own country shortly afterward.
Financial Crisis in France:
The immediate cause of the French Revolution was the impeding bankruptcy of the French government in the mid-to-late 1780s.
Saddled with debts piled up by the previous king, having spent even more money on America’s revolution, unable to tax the rich First and Second Estates, and burdened with a wife, Marie Antoinette, who spent lavishly, Louis XVI could not solve France’s financial crisis.
By 1787 and 1788, inflation, unemployment, poor harvests, food shortages, and rising prices were tormenting the entire country.
The Estates General and the Beginning of the French Revolution:
In 1789, desperate for a solution, Louis XVI summoned the Estates General: a national assembly composed of delegates from each of the three estates.
The delegates of the Third Estate – mainly middle-class lawyers and civil servants – fully expected to negotiate seriously about changing the tax system and granting middle- and lower-class French citizens basic civil rights.
By June, however, it was clear that neither Louis XVI nor the First and Second Estates were prepared to reach any kind of useful compromise.
This clash of wills sparked ten years of revolution that changed France, Europe, and the world forever.
On June 20, 1789, the delegates of the Third Estate, joined now by a few liberal members of the First and Second Estates, withdrew from the Estates General to an indoor tennis court at Versailles, calling themselves the National Assembly.
With its so-called Tennis-Court Oath, the National Assembly swore not to disband or leave Versailles until Louis XVI agreed to grant France a constitution.
In the beginning, Louis pretended to cooperate, but in secret, he summoned troops to come to Versailles to arrest the National Assembly.
When word of this leaked out, the National Assembly called upon the people of nearby Paris to rise up in support.
The people of Paris, especially lower-class radicals called sans-culottes, already weary of rising prices and food shortages, stormed the city streets and rioted for several days.
The climax of the Paris revolt was July 14, 1789, or Bastille Day, when crowds seized the dreaded fortress where political prisoners were kept.
Bastille Day is still considered to be the French day of independence.
Throughout the summer and fall of 1789, the revolution spread.
Other large cities rose up in imitation of Paris.
In the countryside, peasants revolted.
They burned noblemen’s estates and seized aristocrats’ land.
By October, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette had been taken into custody and brought from Versailles to Paris.
Phases of the French Revolution:
In the meantime, the National Assembly, the first of many revolutionary governments, had assumed political leadership in France.
Most historians divide the ten years that followed into three phases:
A moderate period (1789-1791)
A radical period (1792-1794)
A period of mildly conservative backlash (1794-1799)
The general pattern was that political power at first rested with the middle class and liberal members of the nobility.
As time passed and France’s various problems worsened, power shifted more and more to the lower classes (especially in the cities) and the politicians who represented them,
This stance was much more left leaning.
For a time, this extreme radicalism prevailed.
Afterward, however, there was a move back toward the middle.
By 1799, the French Revolution had exhausted itself.
It would end with the rise of Napoleon.
During the first phase, the goal of the National Assembly was to create a constitutional monarchy, based somewhat on Britain’s parliamentary system and inspired by the ideals of the Enlightenment and the recent American Revolution.
For example, a major figure in the National Assembly was the Marquis de Lafayette, a liberal nobleman who had fought on the side of George Washington’s troops.
do it because we've got too much equality
and it would be fun to upset the apple-cart
and see which way the apples would go a-rolling.
Don't do it for the working classes.
Do it so that we can all of us be little aristocracies on our own
and kick our heels like jolly escaped asses.
Don't do it, anyhow, for international Labour.
Labour is the one thing a man has had too much of.
Let's abolish labour, let's have done with labouring!
Work can be fun, and men can enjoy it; then it's not labour.
Let's have it so! Let's make a revolution for fun!