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The Causes of the French Revolution: Economic & Social Conditions

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  • 0:05 Background
  • 0:48 Failures
  • 2:31 The People
  • 3:16 The Enlightenment
  • 4:53 Assembly of Notables
  • 5:37 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we explore the social, economic, and political conditions in late 18th-century France, out of which the French Revolution exploded in 1789.

Background

Humans, by nature, like it when things are easily determinable: when questions have 'yes' or 'no' answers, when someone is wrong or right, or when choices are chocolate or vanilla. Simply put, it makes things easier. Complications - like when someone's premises can be right but have the wrong answer - make things harder. This is partially why so many people find the French Revolution - one of the most complicated and chaotic events in Western history - so hard to understand.

But, try to understand we must. In this lesson, we will explore French politics, society, and the economy during the second half of the 18th century to first understand the unique background to one of the more convoluted revolutions in early modern history.

Failures of Empire & Economy

In the 17th and early 18th centuries, France was at the height of its European power. The 'Sun King,' Louis XIV, had expanded French possessions eastward into Central Europe and huge swathes of North America, from Canada to Louisiana, were under French control. This empire and the wars, which acquiring such expansive territory required, however, came with an enormous bill. When Louis XIV died in 1715, he left the French state wracked with massive debt.

France's subsequent rulers, Louis XV and Louis XVI, not only had to contend with this state debt, but were forced to spend much of the 18th century maintaining an enormous standing military trying unsuccessfully to hang on to many of these possessions. The Seven Years' War (known as the French and Indian War in North America) caused particular harm to the state's finances, as France participated in both European and North American theaters of the conflict and, in the end, merely lost huge amounts of territory as a result. Their subsequent participation in the successful American Revolution further drained money from the French state, while achieving little tangible results for France other than the humiliation of their chief Western European rival, Great Britain.

While the French state was wracked in debt from the expenditures that came with war and empire, French fiscal restraint at court was nonexistent. Both Louis XV and Louis XVI operated the French court from the Palace of Versailles, an enormous and ostentatious palace located outside Paris and built by Louis XIV. For example, Louis XVI's wife, Marie Antoinette, had a yearly clothing allowance in the millions of dollars, despite France being unable to pay even the interest on the loans it had taken out to finance its empire.

The People

The money to pay for the spendthrift practices of France's rulers, both at home and abroad, had to be paid for by someone, and much of this money came from taxes. In 18th-century France, the nobility and the church were both exempt from taxation, which meant that nearly all tax money came from the incomes of the poorest - and most populous - portion of French society.

To make matters worse, the French peasantry - who often owned only enough land to feed themselves and their families - were in the midst of a series of seasonal crop failures, and they could hardly afford to spare any money or resources to pay for the armies and lifestyles of their royalty. Indeed, a particularly acute crop failure took place in 1788 - an event most historians consider one of the touchstones of the ensuing popular uprising.

The Enlightenment

This series of poor economic circumstances and lackadaisical government coincided with arguably the most important intellectual movement of Western Europe: the Enlightenment. During the Enlightenment, French philosophes occupied coffee shops and held dinner parties where discussions ranged from logic and reason to political and natural philosophy. Naturally, in the midst of such poor government, many philosophes attacked existing French institutions in their writing. Moreover, many philosophes championed the personal liberties and rights to personal property that were first espoused by the English philosopher John Locke in the 1690s. Indeed, as the 1780s wore on, it became increasingly apparent that the American Revolution was going to succeed and implement a democratic, representative form of government that enshrined many of those same liberties. Many French intellectuals looked to the American experiment as a model for the type of practices that could be implemented piecemeal into France.

While the Enlightenment provided many of the high ideals and political philosophy that opposed the existing French order, popular literature in the streets of Paris - nicknamed Grub Street literature - gave voice to the popular anger at the opulence and ineffectiveness of France's rulers. Numerous pamphlets, for example, were produced showing Marie Antoinette at court orgies and poking fun at her bouffant hairstyles and inability to produce a male heir.

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