Why did the ancien regime collapse in 1789?



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Zaffran Jami

Why did the ancien regime collapse in 1789?
The causes to the collapse of the ancien regime can be divided into long-term causes and short-term causes. The long-term causes included the third estates constant battle with high taxes which led to starvation and also because of the impact Enlightenment. However the short-term causes consists of the Financial crisis where wars left France into a huge debt, the failure of the reform process, the political crisis and the economic crisis. All these factors had contributed to the explanation of the collapse of the anicen regime in 1789.
One of the main long term causes of the collapse of the ancien regime was the grievances of the third estate. When the people of France heard that the Estates General was to be held they quickly took the opportunity to express their grievances with the state of affairs within France. The citizenry compiled their grievances in Cahiers. The third estate economic grievances were mainly about taxation. They had to pay tax but the first and second estate didn't have to which the felt so unfair and Therefore wanted to make taxes equal. They wanted to abolish indirect taxes and want fair pricing on goods as the price of bread was so expensive that there wasn't enough money left to buy other things. Taxes took between 5 and 10 per cent of the peasants income. The impact on the third estate by taxation was so bad that they couldn't even afford food such as bread and wine and unemployment was rising at the same time as the cost of living therefore most had to lives of the streets. As a result of the economic crisis, the polarization and the starvation, the politicisation of the majority of the third estate began. This shows that the grievances led to the collapse of the ancien regime as these grievances led to people wanting a change in class system.
Another grievance is that the Estates General don't meet that frequently. The third estate felt that they should meet every 3 years to express their grievances particularly on taxes. This is the most important because it is the only way they get to make known their problems and lobby for a change. Also traditionally, each order would vote as a group have one vote; which meant that the First and Second Estates could outvote the Third Estate two to one. The Nobles rejected the Third's Estates demands, all these grievances and oppression led to the formation of the National Assembly and later the Tennis Court Oath where “All members of this assembly shall here and now take a solemn oath never to abandon the Assembly and to go on meeting wherever it has to until the Constitution of the Realm is set up.” This led to the dismantling of the anicen regime as the formation of the Nation Assembly and the tennis court oath was a direct challenge to the authority of the king and would promise to stand until all their grievances were solved as they felt they now represented the whole Nation. The Nation Assembly had a crucial role in ending the ancien regime as they created the August Decrees which led to the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. The August Decrees were very important in starting the process of dismantling the ancien regime as they marked the end of noble power and the privilege of birth by establishing a society based on civil equality. Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen condemned the practices of the ancien regime and outlined the rights of citizens, as demanded in the cahiers of all three orders. Thus leading to the dismantling of the ancien regime.
Another long-term cause is the enlightenment. The Enlightment was a intellectual movement of writers and thinkers. The most famous philosophes were Voltaire, Montesqieu and Rosseau. These philosophes challenged and undermined the position of the church, with these revolutionary ideas attacking all the assumptions on which the ancien regime was based on they infuenced many who became revolutionaries. It made many more aware of politics and join to take action to change the way of life enforced on them. Also in 1789 there was another event that made influenced people to raise questions about the acien regime. This is when there was increasing spread of pamphlets in France, one of the most influential was Sieyes which was named “what is the third estate?”. The increasing popularity of Sieyes led to him representing the Third Estate of Paris in the Estates-General where he also drew up the tennis court oath and contributed to the declaration of the Rights of man. He expressed the grievances of the third estate and influenced third estate to demand for change which led to the collapse of the ancien regime.
However a short-term cause of the collapse of the ancien regime was the Financial crisis. By far the huge deficit that the government was building up. It was anticipated that for 1789, receipts would amount to only 325 million livres and that the interest payment on the deficit would amount to 63 per cent of the receipts. One of the reasons to explain why there was a deficit was taxes, the crown was not receiving much of the money collected in taxes and until it recovered control of its finances, no basic reforms could be carried out. Another reason was the huge amounts of money spent on wars such as the war of Austrian Succession (1740-8), the Seven Years War (1756-63) and the American War of Independence (1778-83).The American War of Independence in particular allowed French soldiers who had fought in this war to be exposed to ideas such as liberty and democracy and many demanded similar rights for the people of France. This huge debt was one of the short-term causes of the collapse of the ancien regime.
Necker and Callone unsuccessfully proposed to revise the French tax system to tax the nobles. Such measures encountered consistent resistance from the parlement. This was because the parlement was mostly made out of nobility which they refused to pay taxes and wanted to keep their priveleges. This unwillingness from the first and second estate to change the taxation system in order to keep their privileges led to the collapse of the ancien regime as action and change could no happen unless the first and second estate agreed to it. This led to the dismissal of Necker which inspired a large-scale popular demonstrations against the King. The population of Paris feared that this marked the start of Louis attempt to restore his power by means of force. This kind of thinking led to the Storming of the Bastille which was a significant event that led to the dismantling of the ancien regime because Louis had to share his power with the National Assembly who were prepared to draw up a constitution. Also the news of the fall of the Bastille spread through France and intensified activity among the peasantry. Thus contributing to the dismantling of the ancien regime.
Once reform was attempted from 1787, the political crisis was created. This shows that the Parlement were very uncooperative in trying to solve the debt especially if it means being taxed themselves and losing privileges. The crisis also showed the limitations of royal power. Although Louis was in effect an Absolute ruler, in reality he was unable to impose his government's reforms on the State. The forces of opposition detected clear signs of weakness in the Crown. This was one of the factors to the cause of the collapse of the ancien regime.
These problems were all compounded by a great scarcity of food in the 1780s which was a economic crisis. Different crop failures in the 1780s caused these shortages, raising the price of bread. The two years previous to the revolution saw bad harvests (1788, 1789), which obviously hurt the lives of the peasantry. When the price of bread rose by 88 per cent in 1789, it was cause for popular uprising. The peasantry became a class with the ambition to counteract social inequity and put an end to food shortages. The 'bread riot' evolved into a central cause of the French Revolution. Also production and employment in the textile industries, which accounted for half half of industrial production, fell by 50 per cent in 1789. The peasantry suffered doubly from the economic and agricultural problems. The economic crisis created a dangerously unstable situation and contributed to the emergence of a 'popular movement'. Protests among workers and small traders were directed against the government because of its inability to deal with the economic crisis. This led to significant event of the march of women and the October days. Following the October days the Assembly issued a decree that changed the title and status of the monarch, from 'King of France and Navarre' to 'Louis, by the grace of god and the constitutional law of the state, King of the French'. This is significant because it shows the shift in the balance of power towards Paris and its increasingly politicized population as Louis was now subordinate to the law, and his subjects now became citizens. Thus leading to the dismantling of the ancien regime.
In conclusion, the long-term causes especially the grievances of the third estate led to the collapse of the ancien regime because it was these grievances that made the third estate more involved in politics and cause the setting up of the National Assembly which created the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. The short-term causes such as financial crisis, political crisis, economic crisis led to the events such as the October days, March of women and the Storming of the Bastille which contributed significantly to the collapse of the ancien regime. This is because it led to jornees which attacked the ancien regime and the king. Therefore both long-term causes and short-term causes led to the collapse of the ancien regime.


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