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French Revolution [1789-1799]

1. Introduction

The French Revolution had a profound impact on the world altogether. It was like breaking event from the chains of events of the medieval era. It signalled the emergence of a new political and socio-economic system in a new world.

However, the study of French revolution was not limited to the single event of July 14, 1789 rather it was built on the understanding of a series of events that led to the final outbreak.

The events began with the year 1774 which saw the rise of LOUIS XVI of the Bourbon family with his Austrian princess, to the throne of France. At this time, the French treasury was empty, and indebtedness prevailed. The lenders began to charge 10% more interest. Along with this, the King also increased taxes on the French people. This situation was often considered as a trigger for the already vexatious people to rise in form of a revolt.

King Louis XVI

2. The Reasons for the Revolution

The French revolution was driven by the underlying political, economic and social divisions existing within the French society.

2.1 Political Causes

More than two decades of wars fought between the English and French from 1714 to 1763 had pushed France into a financial crisis. The situation was worsened further by the increased cost of financing the American Revolution from 1776-1783.

The inefficient and corrupt rule of the Bourbon dynasty had also failed to increase the agricultural productivity, which led to high prices, and the situation deteriorated further by the recurrent floods during the 1780s.

2.2 Economical Causes

France was a deeply unequal society. It was divided into various classes (called estates) – the 1st and 2nd estates composed of priestly class and nobility. Together they constituted only 2% of the population but owned more than 60% of the wealth. On the other hand, the 3rd estate, which includes 98% of the people, owned merely 40% of the wealth. It also suffered from a high burden of taxation.

Moreover, the Church extracted tithe (1/10th of agriculture produce) from peasants, and all the 3rd estate people needed to pay an additional tax (taille) directly to the State. Many indirect taxes were also levied on the articles of everyday consumption such as salt and tobacco, which were mainly borne by the 3rd estate alone.

To recover from huge war debt, the King proposed to impose new taxes. The decision was strongly resisted by the 1st and 2nd estates. On the other hand, it was also feared that any further increase in the burden of taxes on the 3rd estates could trigger public unrest.

2.3 Social Causes

The French society was deeply divided due to the prevalence of feudalism. The Feudal Lords extensively exploited the labour of serfs or tillers, who enjoyed no freedom of occupation. The guild system was riddled with nepotism and corruption. It limited the entry of new individuals into the existing guilds. Further, all the key higher administrative and military positions were reserved for the 1st and 2nd estate individuals.

In addition to this, the population of France grew from 23 million in 1715 to 28 million in 1789. This led to an increase in the demand for food grains, while the production had not increased proportionately which resulted in a subsistence crisis (a situation where essential means of livelihood is endangered).

The Church in France was also a powerful entity that could grant ‘Letter of indulgences’ (which could grant pardon from sins upon the payment of certain fees). As a result, no equality before the law existed as 1st and 2nd estates could often obtain pardon for their crimes.

2.4 Role of Enlightenment Thinkers

With the wider prevalence of education, the people of the 3rd estate had become prosperous and came up with new ideas for social and political order. Furthermore, a section of people popularly known as the Middle class also emerged, who earned wealth through expanding the overseas trade. This prosperity of the 3rd estate led to the ideas that no one must be privileged by birth, and a person’s social position must depend on his merit alone.

The rise of several scholars and their ideas also played an important role in the development of events which led to the French revolution. Some of these are:

Image: Two treaties of government by John Locke
  • John Locke, who in his Two Treatises of Government, refused to accept the Doctrine of the divine and absolute right of the monarch.
  • Rousseau, in his Social Contract, proposed a form of government based on a social contract between people and their representatives.
  • Montesquieu, in his Spirit of Laws, proposed a division of power within government between the legislature, executive and judiciary. This was put into force in the USA when 13 colonies gained independence from Britain.

The American constitution and its guarantee of individual rights was also an important example for political thinkers in France to implement the same at home.

Several sections of the French army refused to fire upon the protestors during the French revolution and instead sided with them. This reflects the discontent existing within the army.

The salaries of soldiers were also not paid on time. Moreover, many of the French soldiers had fought alongside the American soldiers during American Revolution. Thus, they argued for upholding similar ideas of rights and liberty at home.

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3. Events during French Revolution

There were several occasions in France which provided impetus to the occurrence of the French Revolution. For instance, on July 14, 1789, the Bastille Prison was stormed and later on July17 – Tennis court oath was organised where the3rd estate declared themselves as the national assembly.

Image: Storming of Bastille Prison

Then in August, Louis XVI reconvened the Estate General where the dissolution of the ancient regime was agreed upon. They decided to abolish all the hereditary privileges of the 1st and 2nd estate and the system of feudalism. It also approved the removal of all the taxation powers of Church and its ownership of land. As a result, form now the monarchy primarily derived its power from Estates-General (National Assembly). (It is to be noted that Monarchy is not yet abolished).

In 1791 National assembly also completed the draft constitution of France that limited the powers of the monarchy and established the idea of separation of powers among the organs of the government. Consequently, Elections were held through active citizens who were basically the men above 25 years of age and those who paid taxes.

The constitution which came into being, began with a Declaration of Rights of Men & Citizens which included the right to life, freedom of speech, freedom of opinion, and equality before law etc., as inalienable rights. These rights challenged the idea of the divine rule and argued that the State’s power to rule was derived from the people.

Europe in 1789
Image by Bryan Rutherford – Own work, based on File:Europe 1748-1766 en.png, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

4. Summary

The French Revolution was one of the major revolutions in the history of mankind. The revolution stood for protecting and maintaining the rights of individuals. Several factors such as the rise of enlightenment scholars and prevalence of feudal system in the society etc. played an important role for its outbreak. Furthermore, it also prepared the ground for setting up the constitutional norms and statutes in various countries including India.

  • According to UPSC Syllabus
  • Includes Previous Year Questions
  • PYQ Analysis
  • Plenty of Maps, Images for Illustration
  • Also useful for State PSC Examinations
  • A must-have book for all UPSC Aspirants

5. Multiple Choice Question

1] The political causes of the French revolution were:
a) War between French and English
b) Corruption in the administration
c) Both a and b
d) None of the above

Show Answer

Ans: c) Both a and b

2] The work ‘Social contract ‘was written by whom:
a) Hobbes
b) Locke
c) Machiavelli
d) Rousseau

Show Answer

Ans: c) Machiavelli

3] The 1791 Assembly established which form of government in France?
a) Representative government
b) Monarchical
c) Constitutional monarchy
d) Authoritarian dictatorship

Show Answer

Ans: c) Constitutional monarchy

4] The draft constitution laid emphasis on:
a) Separation of principle
b) Division of powers
c) Unitary powers of the Centre
d) More powers to the monarchy

Show Answer

Ans: a) Separation of principle

5] Economically, the following conditions prevailed in French society:
a) Feudal dictatorship
b) Financial crisis
c) High prices of food
d) All of the above

Show Answer

Ans: d) All of the above

6] The main argument of the Two treaties of government was:
a) Rejection of theory of divine rights
b) Favouring the monarchical government
c) Separation of powers
d) Ways to govern the society

Show Answer

Ans: a) Rejection of theory of divine rights

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