French Revolution/Causes


The Causes of the French Revolution were the significant historical factors that led to the revolution of 1789 in France.

Although France in 1785 faced economic difficulties, mostly concerning the equitability of taxation, it was one of the richest and most powerful nations of Europe. The French people also enjoyed more political freedom and a lower incidence of arbitrary punishment than any of their fellow Europeans. However, Louis XVI, his ministers, and the widespread French nobility had become immensely unpopular. This was a consequence of the fact that peasants and, to a lesser extent, the bourgeoisie, were burdened with ruinously high taxes levied to support wealthy aristocrats and their sumptuous, often gluttonous, lifestyles.

The fall of the ancien régime in France may be blamed, in part, on its own rigidity. Aristocrats were confronted by the rising ambitions of the merchants, tradesmen and prosperous farmers, who were allied with aggrieved peasants, wage-earners and intellectuals influenced by the ideas of Enlightenment philosophers. As the revolution proceeded, power devolved, from the monarchy and the privileged-by-birth, to more-representative political bodies, like legislative assemblies, but conflicts among the formerly allied republican groups became the source of considerable discord and bloodshed.

A growing number of the French citizenry had absorbed the ideas of "equality" and "freedom of the individual" as presented by Voltaire, Denis Diderot, Turgot, and other philosophers and social theorists of the Enlightenment. The American Revolution demonstrated that it was plausible for Enlightenment ideas on how a government should be organized to actually be put into practice. Some American diplomats, like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, had lived in Paris where they consorted freely with members of the French intellectual class. Furthermore, contact between American revolutionaries and the French troops who served as anti-British mercenaries in North America helped spread revolutionary ideals to the French people. After a time, many of the French began to attack the undemocratic nature of their own government, push for freedom of speech, challenge the Roman Catholic Church, and decry the prerogatives of the nobles.

Revolution was not due to a single event but to a series of events, that together irreversibly changed the organization of political power, the nature of society, and the exercise of individual freedoms.