The causes of the French Revolution are complicated, so complicated that a debate still rages among historians regarding origins, causes and results. In general, the real causes of the Revolution must be located in the rigid social structure of French society during the ancien regime. As it had been for centuries, French society was divided into three Estates or Orders. The First Estate consisted of the clergy and the Second Estate the nobility. Together, these two Estates accounted for approximately 500,000 individuals. At the bottom of this hierarchy was the vast Third Estate which basically meant everybody else, or about 25 million people. This social structure was based on custom and tradition, but more important, it was also based on inequalities which were sanctioned by the force of law.
Eighteenth century France was, in theory, an absolute monarchy. Royal absolutism was produced as a result of the Hundred Years' War. By the early 18th century, French kings had nearly succeeded in wresting all power from the nobility. Thanks in part to the effort of Louis XIV, absolute monarchy was, in both theory and practice, a reality. France had no Parliament. France did have an Estates General which was a semi-representative institution in that it was composed of representatives from each of the Three Estates. The last time the Estates General had been convened was in 1614! Was the Estates General a truly representative body? Hardly. The way the French administered the country was through a bloated bureaucracy of officials. By 1750, the bureaucracy had overgrown itself - it was large, corrupt and inefficient. Too many officials had bought and sold their offices over the years. Furthermore, despite the efforts of Charlemagne(742-814) in the 9th century, France had no single, unified system of law. Each region determined its own laws based on the rule of the local Parlement.
There were thirteen distinct regions in France before 1789 and each was under the jurisdiction of a Parlement. Each Parlement contained between fifty and 130 members. They were the local judges and legal elites. They tried cases for theft, murder, forgery, sedition and libel. They also served as public censors and sometimes were responsible for fixing the price of bread. They were hated by almost everyone, including the king. Of course, the king also had his royal lackeys, the intendents. The intendents were even more hated than the Parlement. Created to help curb the power of the nobility, the intendents became known for their habit of arbitrary taxation and arrest of the peasantry. Such a situation made for the inefficient operation of Europe's largest and strongest country.
By 1789, France was bankrupt. The country could no longer pay its debts, debts that were all the result of war. One example says a great deal about this situation. By 1789, France was still paying off debts incurred by the wars of Louis XIV, that is, wars of the late 17th and early 18th century. Furthermore, a number of social groups and institutions did not pay taxes of any kind. Many universities were exempt from taxation as were the thirteen Parlements, cites like Paris, the Church and the clergy, the aristocracy and numerous members of the bourgeoisie. And of course, it was simply brilliant planning to continue to tax the peasants - peasants who, having nothing to contribute were, over the course of the century, forced to contribute even more.
The effect of the Enlightenment on the French Revolution has created a debate which will not soon be resolved. But, in general, it can be said that there is no causal relationship between the philosophes of the Enlightenment and the outbreak of the French Revolution. Few philosophes, if any, advocated revolution and the reason is fairly clear. No philosophe advocated the violent overthrow of the existing order of things because violence was contrary to human reason. But because the philosophes of the Enlightenment attacked the established order together with authority of any kind, their ideas helped to produce what can only be called a revolutionary mentality. One modern historian has correctly observed that:
18th century philosophy taught the Frenchman to find his condition wretched, unjust and illogical and made him disinclined to the patient resignation to his troubles that had long characterized his ancestors . . . . The propaganda of the philosophes perhaps more than any other factor accounted for the fulfillment of the preliminary condition of the French Revolution, namely discontent with the existing state of things. (Henri Peyre, "The Influence of Eighteenth Century Ideas on the French Revolution," Journal of the History of Ideasvol. 10, No. 1 (January 1949).
I suppose what I mean is this: the philosophes advocated the use of Reason in all human affairs. They knew that Reason, together with its sister, criticism, could effect change: a change in morals, a change in human knowledge, a change in human happiness. Voltaire, of course, was a case in point. He had few problems with monarchy. All he wanted was an enlightened monarch. Was Voltaire a liberal? Or a republican? Hardly. And for all his talk about representative governments, social contracts and civil society, Rousseau had more to do with the origins of totalitarian society than he did with democracy. Still, two people can read Rousseau and leave with two different perspectives. And Rousseau's thought certainly led to divergent opinions as to what really mattered. The point is this: the 18th century had no Karl Marx (1818-1883). The 18th century had no prophet of revolution. Why? Because the prophets of revolution, like Marx, were made by the French Revolution. The French Revolution was not made by prophets.
The American Revolution
Lastly, there is little doubt that the American Revolution of the 1770s and the formation of a republic in the 1780s served as a profound example to all European observers. Hundreds of books, pamphlets and public lectures analyzed, romanticized and criticized the American rebellion against Great Britain. For instance, in 1783 the Venetian ambassador to Paris wrote that "it is reasonable to expect that, with the favourable effects of time, and of European arts and sciences, [America] will become the most formidable power in the world." American independence fired the imagination of aristocrats who were unsure of their status while at the same time giving the promise of ever greater equality to the common man. The Enlightenment preached the steady and inevitable progress of man's moral and intellectual nature. The American example served as a great lesson - tyranny could be challenged. Man did have inalienable rights. New governments could be constructed. The American example then, shed a brilliant light. As one French observer remarked in 1789, "This vast continent which the seas surround will soon change Europe and the universe."
Those Europeans who dreamed about the dawn of a New Jerusalem were fascinated by the American political experiment. The thirteen colonies began with a defensive revolution against tyrannical oppression and they were victorious. The Americans showed how rational men could assemble together to exercise control over their own lives by choosing their own form of government, a government sanctified by the force of a written constitution. With this in mind, liberty, equality, private property and representative government began to make more sense to European observers. If anything, the American Revolution gave proof to that great Enlightenment idea - the idea that a better world was possible if it was created by men using Reason. As R. R. Palmer put it in 1959 (The Age of Democratic Revolution: The Challenge):
The effects of the American Revolution, as a revolution, were imponderable but very great. It inspired the sense of a new era. It added a new content to the conception of progress. It gave a whole new dimension to ideas of liberty and equality made familiar by the Enlightenment. It got people into the habit of thinking more concretely about political questions, and made them more readily critical of their own governments and society. It dethroned England, and set up America, as a model for those seeking a better world. It brought written constitutions, declarations of rights, and constituent conventions into the realm of the possible. The apparition on the other side of the Atlantic of certain ideas already familiar in Europe made such ideas seem more truly universal, and confirmed the habit of thinking in terms of humanity at large. Whether fantastically idealized or seen in a factual way, whether as mirage or as reality, America made Europe seem unsatisfactory to many people of the middle and lower classes, and to those of the upper classes who wished them well. It made a good many Europeans feel sorry for themselves, and induced a kind of spiritual flight from the Old Regime.(p. 282)