The Old Regime in 1789

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Section 3: The Causes of the French Revolution Notes

ESSENTIAL LEARNING: Students will understand the pattern of a revolution.

The Old Regime in 1789

  • French society in 1789 looked much as it did during the past two hundred years. Social classes were divided between the privileged and very underprivileged. An unfair tax burden was still placed on the poor. The government was an absolute monarchy supported by a system of nobles.

  • The king at this time was Louis XVI, a well-meaning but ineffectual leader. His wife was Marie Antoinette, an Austrian by birth. She was considered by the French people to be thoughtless and extravagant. Selfish friends looking out for their own best interests led both astray and neither was very good at taking good advice if it meant personal sacrifice.

The Division of French Society

French society was divided into three groups or estates. These divisions were unfair. The first and second estate had all the privileges, own most of the land and paid few taxes. The third estate was forced to support the lavish lifestyle of the king, the nobility and clergy through high taxes.

First Estate: Religious leaders and clergy

Less than 1% of population

Owned/controlled one-fifth of all French lands

Special Rights (free from taxation)

Second Estate: Nobles

Less than 2% of population

Controlled large amounts of French lands

Paid very few taxes

Held key political positions
Third Estate: Serfs

Middle Class (some very rich)

Peasants & servants

Doctors, & lawyers

Skilled & unskilled labourers

Teachers & shopkeepers

95 -97% of population

Backbone of country (paid most of the taxes)

Few privileges

Little political influence or power

The Estates-General

  • The Estates-General was the law-making group (Parliament) in France. Unfortunately it had very little democratic influence. It had been in existence since 1302, but it did not meet regularly. The system of voting established in the Estates-General was done by estate. The problem with this system was that the Third Estate could never get laws passed that benefited it because the other two estates would always out vote it two to one. This situation caused a great deal of political tension, as the Third Estate was continually frustrated with its lack of power.

Economic Causes

  • One of the most immediate causes of the French Revolution was debt.

  • Running the government of France and paying for the lavish lifestyle at Versailles had put France into huge debt.

  • Along with fighting wars and supporting the American Revolution, led to bankruptcy.

  • Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette did nothing to improve the situation. They continued to waste money. They also didn’t listen to advice from wise finance ministers like Jacques Necker who could have saved the French economy.

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