The French Revolution The years before the French Revolution (which started in 1789 AD.) were ones of vast, unexpected change and confusion. One of the changes was the decline of the power of the nobles, which had a severe impact on the loyalty of some of the nobles to King Louis XVI.
Another change was the increasing power of the newly established middle class, which would result in the monarchy becoming obsolete. The angry and easily manipulated peasants, who were used by the bourgeoisie for their own benefit were another significant change, and finally the decline of the traditional monarchy, that for so long had ruled, were all factors to the main point that the French Revolution was caused by a political base, with social disorder and economic instability contributing to the upheaval. All of the sub-factors relate with one-another, but are separate in their own ways. For centuries, the French noble was well set in society.
He found prosperity and security in the old regime, and all he had to do was pay homage to the king, and provide the king with his services. This all came to a gradual stop, however beginning with the loss of the noble’s power over their own land at the hands of Louis XIV.1 This was the foundation of the revolte nobiliaire in the fact that it formed a basis of mistrust, and anger for the monarch.2 In that time the feudal system was still being practiced, so social status was based on the amount of land you could attain. With no land, the nobles saw themselves to be as common as the common folk. Even in their arrogance they saw that they were losing power. The next blow to the pride of the nobles came from Louis XV, who passed a bill to let wealthy commoners purchase prominent spots in political and social positions.
This event shows how corrupt and money hungry the government had become, by letting anyone get high up in the political chain just by feeding the gluttonous king. The next king, Louis XVI saw that the majority of France (75%) was peasants and serfs. Consequently, to try to ensure their happiness (and prevent the Revolution), he had the Estates-General abolish the feudal system, in which they held no ranking.4 This made the nobility extremely unhappy. With no feudal system, they no longer were much higher up politicly than the commoners.
The next noble atrocity came with Louis XVI making the nobles pay taxes. Ever since the foundation of the monarchy, the nobles and the clergy were exempt from paying taxes. The burden was left to the commoners. But, with the deficit being so high and France supporting the Americans in their war, something had to be done.5 This proved to be unfortunate for the king, however, this proved to the straw that broke the camels back. The nobles were sick of being treated like low-class peasants so they formed their revolt.
Now would be a good time to explain that the Revolution was not just one Revolution, it was a “series of revolutions, very different in their aims…”6 and subsequently the revolte nobiliaire began in 1787. It was a revolt limited to the aristocrats, however, because they wanted to get all the power of France. It should also be said that not all the nobles were against the king. The young nobles, and some of the old ones, who had not yet gotten obscene on their own power still supported the king. These people were called Royalists, and were beheaded for their faith. Before their own selfish revolution, the nobles had lost so much power, that their economic and political situation affected the other people in France, and led to the French Revolution and remotely, the rise of the middle class.
In the obsolete practice of feudalism there is no middle class. The simplicity is beautiful; there are the extravagantly rich and the woefully poor. In the eighteenth century, the rise of a middle class (bourgeoisie) in France proved to be too much change at one time. The middle class were the wealthy land owners, the lawyers, the scientists, the writers and other such people in society. Politically, the system had to change to accommodate them. The growth of the middle class was originally stimulated by the commercial prosperity of the post 1776 era, and it threatened the traditional established aristocraticy.7 They were getting more power in government, allowed to buy seats in legal standings and generally getting as powerful as the nobles.
Along with the peasants, the bourgeoisie felt the burden of poor economic times in pre- revolutionary France. Prices were rising but wages were not, taxes were steep and this left the bourgeoisie angry toward Louis XVI whom they left responsible. This led the middle class to gather up the less educated peasants on a quest for a better government, which they wanted to be a major factor of. Unlike the American Revolution where everyone was fighting for a noble cause, everyone in France had there own reasons for sticking their neck out. This includes the bourgeoisie who fought because of economic difficulties and hope for a better political standing, but the only group that could be partially excluded from this rule are the peasants.
The peasants had their own simple, non-deceptive reasons for fighting. That had terrible economic and somewhat political problems. Heavy grape harvests meant bad times for wine making, and since wine was made throughout the country, this was devastating. The price of wine fell by 50%, and therefore the peasants got less money and subsequently poorer.8 The next to fall was grain prices. Combine the fact that grain was scarce in France at the time and there were heavy tariffs for imports, and you get a bad grain economy. The grain harvests in France had collapsed a few years earlier and that is why the situation was so desperate.
All of this meant that the French common person had nothing to fall back to when there was no income. The standard of living dropped and there was a consequent famine. Also, to contribute to the massive famine the population was growing faster that the food supply. Combine all these factors with the fact that the peasants (like everybody) were being heavily taxed, and you get people who are going to easily manipulated by a more ambitious group: namely the bourgeoisie. The bourgeoisie would use the peasants as little puppets in their game for more power and control over the aristocrats. The peasants were suffering political problems as well.
For hundreds of years, they were being represented in parliament by one vote. That doesn’t look bad when there are only three votes, but then you see that the country is made up of a 75% peasant population. The result is an outcry for better representation that would make the peasants more eager to revolt if the time should happen to come. Mostly, in the eighteenth century, all peasants really had to worry about was the farm crops, or other such things, but at the time of the French Revolution the peasants were affected by economic and political factors; and also a changing, weakening monarchy.
In the feudal system, a kingdom is only as strong as its king. Unfortunately for eighteenth century France, Louis XVI wanted a more equal and democratic nation. He would see that people would not be swayed from tradition easily, however. When they saw that he gave up much of his power in the name of equality, they pounced on him. In the beginning, Louis XVI was an absolute ruler, he was the highest authority.9 But, as the years progressed he saw that the rights and privileges were to be retained by the provinces, towns, corporate bodies and the nobility.
This equal spread of power left himself out of the equation. Additionally, the legal and administrative system could be brought to question by anyone. It used to be that the monarch was untouchable. Seeing as how Louis was to get his head chopped off, that resolution may not have been a good idea.
To make things even more equal and just, the commoners had one of the three votes his Estates-General. This meant fair representation, but it also meant that the nobles were upset with their decline of power and the commoners wanted more of their new-found power. All of these ideas seem to be good ones, but ones that would, and did harm his position. One evidently bad move was to heavily tax everyone. The peasants were already heavily taxed, so they were then brought to famine, the nobles were never taxed before and consequently disgruntled and the middle class just did not like it. If Louis XVI were alive today he would probably be a good politician-too bad the people were not ready for him in 1789.
Historians have argued for centuries over what started the French Revolution: some say economics, some say politics some say the change of social structure. The only logical answer, then is that it was a little (or a lot) of all three, resulting in the decline of nobility, the rise of the middle class, the anger of the peasants and the fall of monarchy.