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Home / What Caused The French Revolution Tom Mullaney

What Caused The French Revolution Tom Mullaney

What Caused The French Revolution Tom Mullaney Otosection Teded Sashko Danylenko Robespierre American Guillotine Flag Liberte Egalite Fraternite Bastille Day

What rights do people have, and where do they come from? Who gets to make decisions for others and on what authority? And how can we organize society to meet people's needs? These questions challenged an entire nation during the upheaval of the French Revolution. By the end of the 18th century, Europe had undergone a profound intellectual and cultural shift known as the Enlightenment. Philosophers and artists promoted reason and human freedom over tradition and religion. The rise of a middle class and printed materials encouraged political awareness, and the American Revolution had turned a former English colony into an independent republic. Yet France, one of the largest and richest countries in Europe was still governed by an ancient regime of three rigid social classes called Estates.

The monarch King Louis XVI based his authority on divine right and granted special privileges to the First and Second Estates, the Catholic clergy, and the nobles. The Third Estate, middle class merchants and craftsmen, as well as over 20 million peasants, had far less power and they were the only ones who paid taxes, not just to the king, but to the other Estates as well. In bad harvest years, taxation could leave peasants with almost nothing while the king and nobles lived lavishly on their extracted wealth. But as France sank into debt due to its support of the American Revolution and its long-running war with England, change was needed. King Louis appointed finance minister Jacques Necker, who pushed for tax reforms and won public support by openly publishing the government's finances.

But the king's advisors strongly opposed these initiatives. Desperate for a solution, the king called a meeting of the Estates-General, an assembly of representatives from the Three Estates, for the first time in 175 years. Although the Third Estate represented 98% of the French population, its vote was equal to each of the other Estates. And unsurprisingly, both of the upper classes favored keeping their privileges. Realizing they couldn't get fair representation, the Third Estate broke off, declared themselves the National Assembly, and pledged to draft a new constitution with or without the other Estates.

King Louis ordered the First and Second Estates to meet with the National Assembly, but he also dismissed Necker, his popular finance minister. In response, thousands of outraged Parisians joined with sympathetic soldiers to storm the Bastille prison, a symbol of royal power and a large storehouse of weapons. The Revolution had begun. As rebellion spread throughout the country, the feudal system was abolished. The Assembly's Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen proclaimed a radical idea for the time -- that individual rights and freedoms were fundamental to human nature and government existed only to protect them.

Their privileges gone, many nobles fled abroad, begging foreign rulers to invade France and restore order. And while Louis remained as the figurehead of the constitutional monarchy, he feared for his future. In 1791, he tried to flee the country but was caught. The attempted escape shattered people's faith in the king. The royal family was arrested and the king charged with treason.

After a trial, the once-revered king was publicly beheaded, signaling the end of one thousand years of monarchy and finalizing the September 21st declaration of the first French republic, governed by the motto liberté, égalité, fraternité. Nine months later, Queen Marie Antoinette, a foreigner long-mocked as Madame Déficit for her extravagant reputation, was executed as well. But the Revolution would not end there. Some leaders, not content with just changing the government, sought to completely transform French society -- its religion, its street names, even its calendar. As multiple factions formed, the extremist Jacobins lead by Maximilien Robespierre launched a Reign of Terror to suppress the slightest dissent, executing over 20,000 people before the Jacobin's own downfall. Meanwhile, France found itself at war with neighboring monarchs seeking to strangle the Revolution before it spread.

Amidst the chaos, a general named Napoleon Bonaparte took charge, becoming Emperor as he claimed to defend the Revolution's democratic values. All in all, the Revolution saw three constitutions and five governments within ten years, followed by decades alternating between monarchy and revolt before the next Republic formed in 1871. And while we celebrate the French Revolution's ideals, we still struggle with many of the same basic questions raised over two centuries ago..

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