One of the most important events of European history in the 18th century was the French Revolution. This event affected social values and political systems first in France, then Europe, and finally throughout the world.
After the Renaissance in the 15th century, there began a period known as the Enlightenment, which lasted into the 19th century. The Enlightenment was marked by the creative ideas and writings of scientists, mathematicians, and philosophers, who began to look beyond the traditional teachings of the Catholic Church and the conventional wisdom of their times. People like Rene Descartes, Isaac Newton, and John Locke had new and different ideas that they were able to logically explain to others, and these ideas led to still other new ideas.
John Locke, for example, wrote about a contract between the citizens of a nation and those who ruled the nation. His writings, along with those of a French writer named Montesquieu (who described a government with a legislative, executive, and judicial branch to protect the balance of power), had a tremendous influence on Thomas Jefferson and others who created the American system of government. People began to question the things they had always been taught, including the idea that a king had a divine right to rule his people, and that he had no direct responsibilities toward the people, only to God. They began to believe that they had the right to demand certain things from their king. In fact, after the Americans won their Revolution and set up their own government without a king, other nations began to pay attention. In addition, the French had an influential role in helping the Americans win the Revolution. They helped provide money, leadership and ships, all of which were in very short supply in America. This exchange of ideas, resources, and people had a great influence on the French, who began to wonder if the problems in their own country could be solved if they got rid of their king, too.
The Three Estates
In France in 1789 there existed a social class system called the Old Regime, which had its roots in the feudal system of medieval Europe. The Old Regime divided people into three social classes called “estates”. These classes were very rigid, and a person could not move from one class to another, since the levels were primarily determined by the family into which a person was born. A person born into a certain estate was only allowed to do certain types of work, own certain kinds of property, or live in certain places, and if he were born into the third estate, he would not be allowed to hold a high political office.
The First Estate consisted of the clergy, or religious leaders. This group was very wealthy and powerful, owned about one-tenth of the land of France and one-fourth of its wealth, but they paid no taxes. They did help the people, however, by running schools, hospitals, and orphanages. There were two groups within the First Estate which had different influences on French society. The Higher Clergy came from wealthy families, lived like the aristocrats, and had considerable political power in the government, as well as holding all the important church government offices. Many of the Higher Clergy came from noble families, and often they purchased their offices, or received the positions as reward for some service to the church or one of leaders. Many did not even know much about the church or its beliefs or policies. The Lower Clergy was made up of the parish or village priests, who had no political power, but had tremendous influence in the daily lives of the people. The Lower Clergy were usually commoners, worked hard for very little, and lived much like the people they served. During the events of the Revolution, they usually sided with the common people, not the rest of the First Estate.
The Second Estate consisted of the nobles, who were also highly privileged, and this was a very small group, making up just over 2% of the population. Even though the Second Estate owned almost one-fourth of France’s land, they paid practically no taxes. Not all of the nobles were rich, but all of them valued their privileges very highly, and lost no opportunities to take advantage of the common people, believing that they were superior to the commoners. Most nobles either owned land, businesses, or property, or held positions in the military, royal courts, government, or the church. Yet the nobles were not allowed to actually do the work of their business, but had to have others perform the work. Had they done any physical work, their noble status would have been lost, so many of them preferred to be poor and noble, rather than have money while being forced to give up their privileges and live as the commoners did.This group also held a great deal of political power. Those nobles who did not have other responsibilities kept busy trying to expand their wealth and influence with the royal court. Like the First Estate, the nobles had tremendous power over the lower classes. They collected taxes and fees from all kinds of activities, even though the peasants actually did all the work (like growing food, raising cattle, grinding grain into flour, etc.). The nobles hunted wild game through peasant grain fields and vegetable gardens, and demanded payment that amounted to most of the crops produced by the peasants, simply because the land belonged to the nobles.
The Third Estate was also divided into two groups, the bourgeoisie (pronounced boor/JWAH/zee) and the peasants. The bourgeoisie consisted of middle -class workers, such as bankers, lawyers, doctors, merchants, and skilled craftsmen and tradesmen. While this group was not considered wealthy, they often owned small properties such as shops, offices, tools, equipment, etc., and most of them could read. The peasants were the poorest group in French society, and usually owned little or nothing. They were usually unskilled and illiterate, often little more than slaves, and worked as servants, farmers or day laborers, being paid just enough to eat and perhaps keep a roof over their heads. The Third Estate was the largest of the three, consisting of 97% of the population. The peasants had the largest number of people of all three estates, and they had to struggle to make a living, but they paid the heaviest taxes because they had no political power. The bourgeoisie had money and education, but they also paid taxes and lacked the prestige and influence that came with noble birth in 18th century
At his death, King Louis XIV, the “Sun King”, had left the country deeply in debt.
This was partly due to the French alliance with the United States during the American Revolution from 1776-1781. The assistance France gave to the U.S. was a major part of the French government’s money problems, but the extravagant lifestyles of the royal family were also a contributing factor.
In addition, the fall harvests of both 1787 and 1788 were very poor ones, and the winter of 1788-1789 was particularly hard. To make matters worse, the population of France had grown by one-third between 1740 and 1790, with no increase in food production. Although the country has some of the richest farmland in all of Europe, the farming practices were very primitive. Since it was already so hard to feed families, the farmers were afraid to try any new techniques. Because of the crowding caused by the population increase, landlords nearly doubled rents. Since many families could no longer pay the high costs of food, rent, and the oppressive taxes, they lost their homes. This caused widespread homelessness. These families were now forced to beg for a living, which became so common that it was considered just another job. All the vagrants wandering the countryside looking for a handout frightened the country people. This group was afraid to turn the beggars away, but they also had barely enough food for their own families. Sometimes when the beggars could not beg for food, they turned to crime, and robbery outside the cities was frequent. Sometimes the beggars banded together into roving gangs of outlaws.
By the spring of 1789 there was widespread hunger in France, especially among the poor people. By late summer of the same year, the peasant unrest in the countryside was so dangerous that this time became known as the Great Fear. By this time the economy of France was falling apart. The government tried to bring in money by raising taxes, but the decline in the economy (which resulted in widespread unemployment) and the food shortages caused riots to break out. King Louis XVI wanted to tax the nobles and perhaps even the church, but, knowing this would be unpopular with these two estates, he sought the support of the people’s representatives. Previously unused for 179 years, he summoned a group called the Estates General to meet in Versailles.
The three estates were told to organize cahiers (KAH/hee/ay), or notebooks. In these notebooks, the people throughout all the regions of the country were allowed to have someone list their opinions on the problems of France (this was unusual, since they did not vote, and most of the time no one seemed to care what they thought). Most of the cahiers called for fairer taxes and freedom of the press. This list was then to be discussed with the Estates General, which was a committee of representatives from each of the three estates, whose task was to solve the country’s problems. In the Estates General, each estate had one vote. Since the First and Second Estates usually had similar interests (like not paying taxes and protecting wealth and power), they usually also voted together. Once the Third Estate realized that they would be out-voted again by the other two groups, they took a daring step. They declared themselves a new governing body called the National Assembly. They then claimed that the National Assembly was the only true representative of the French people, and set out to write a constitution. They were no longer allowed to meet in the room they had been assigned, so they went to a nearby indoor tennis court to meet. They all took the “Oath of the Tennis Court”, in which they vowed not to disband until they had drawn up a constitution for France. Eventually, King Louis XVI was forced to accept this constitution.
The Declaration of Rights
It took the National Assembly three months to draft the constitution. They also wrote a Declaration of Rights. This was an outline that would indicate the intentions of the constitution. The publication of the Declaration of Rights also represented, for many Frenchmen, the death of the Old Regime.
The March to Versailles
Because of the problems with the economy, merchants were forced to raise their prices. Bread was the most important part (about 75%) of the French diet, and most people in France spent three-fourths of their wages just to buy bread for their families. Few people had ovens to bake their own bread, so the people were very dependent on the baking industry. When the price of bread went up because grain was scarce, men encouraged the women to protest. On March 5, 1789, the women (and a few men in disguise) began their march from Paris to Versailles, armed with pitchforks, muskets, and crowbars. Versailles was a small but important town outside Paris where the government officials worked, and it was also where the royal court and king’s palace were located. The common people believed that Versailles, a place of extravagance, wealth, and parties, had a plentiful supply of food. Over 6000 women participated in this march. Along the way they killed a baker who was trying to sell his bread at a very high price. When the women reached Louis XVI’s palace, they stormed through the gates, carrying the dead baker’s head on a pole. They demanded that more bread be available at lower prices. Louis XVI was frightened and immediately gave in to the women’s demands. He ordered all the bread from Versailles to be delivered to Paris. He was also forced to move his royal court to Paris so that he could be in closer touch with the French people and their lives and needs.
The Fall of the Bastille
The Bastille was a famous prison in Paris, governed by an old nobleman named de Launay. On July 14, 1789, a mob marched to the Bastille in search of the gun powder and prisoners that Louis XVI had taken, since the Bastille was also used to store weapons and military supplies. De Launay had heard rumors that there would be a mob attack on him and his men, so he began his preparations on July 7. A small group of Swiss mercenaries on guard duty helped with the defense. The Bastille was ready for a disorganized mob attack, but not a siege. The huge mob easily broke into the Arsenal and the First Courtyard. At first, de Launay was not ready to surrender, and turned his cannons on the crowd. The mob broke down the huge doors with axes, and de Launay’s men opened fire. Over 80 of the mob were killed, but the rest brought a stolen cannon up to the gates. De Launay surrendered, but the mob no longer cared. They stormed through the gates, and de Launay and several of his men were captured. The mob dragged the defenders of the Bastille through the streets, and cut off de Launay’s head to be displayed on a pole. This dramatic event has generally been considered the beginning of the French Revolution.