“The American Revolution, with its combined messages of colonial revolt, constitutional government, individual freedom, and equality under law, inspired many peoples at the time and over the centuries. But in comparison with European countries and their experiences, America and its revolution were unique. Building on already existing British freedoms and fighting a war against a distant colonial government, the leaders of the revolution were an educated, comfortable elite. The French Revolution, on the other hand, was an internal revolt against entrenched feudal, clerical, and monarchical privilege within the most populous and most powerful European state of its time. The French Revolution affected all of Europe, most of the western hemisphere, and indeed the whole world.
The French Revolution, like the English Civil Wars of the 1640s, was triggered by the king’s needs for funds. Much like Charles I, King Louis XVI decided to solicit these funds by convening leaders of the French People through the Estates-General in 1789. France was divided, hierarchically, into three Estates: the clergy, numbering about 100,000 and controlling perhaps 10 percent of the land of France; the nobility, perhaps 300,000 men, who owned approximately 25 percent of the land; and everyone else. The Third Estate included a rising and prosperous group of urban merchants and professionals, as well as working-class artisans, and the four-fifths of France who were farmers. The wealth that the king wished to tap was concentrated in the first two estates and the bourgeoisie, or leading urban professional and commercial classes, of the third. The Estates-General had not been convened since 1614, and the procedures for its meeting were disputed, revealing grievances not only against the king but also among the representatives. The nobles wished to seize the moment to make the Estates-General into the constitutional government of France, with the king subordinate to them. The Third Estate, which had long regarded the nobility as parasitic and resented their multitude of special privileges, viewed the new proposals with suspicion. The members of the Third Estate drew their inspiration for a more democratic, representative, inclusive, and accountable government from the writings of the philosophes, and the experience of the revolutions in England and, especially, in America. The leaders of the Third Estate asked for an end to the privileges that had enriched and empowered the clergy and the nobility while reducing opportunities available to everyone else and impoverishing the French crown. They proposed that the entire Estates-General meet in a single body. When the Parliament of Paris ruled that the three estates should meet separately, as the nobility had wished, the Third Estate was enraged. For six weeks its members boycotted the Estates-General when it was convened in May 1789. On June 13 a few priests joined them, and four days later the Third Estate, with its allies, declared itself the ‘National Assembly.’ The King locked them out of their meeting hall. On June 20 they met on a nearby indoor tennis court and swore the ‘Oath of the Tennis Court,’ claiming legal power, and declaring that they would not disband until a new constitution was drafted.” ~ The World’s History