Causes of the Revolution
author Gilda Stoica, May 2016
The origins of the French Revolution can be traced back to four revolutionary movements in the latter part of the 18th century. These movements shook French society and royal power to their foundations.
The origins of the French Revolution can be traced back to four revolutionary movements in the latter part of the 18th century. These movements shook French society and royal power to their foundations.

The first revolution was the aristocratic revolution. The aristocrats wanted to protect and extend their privileges. With the support of parliaments and the Assembly of Notables, they opposed the Crown’s attempts to withdraw part of their fiscal privileges. The aristocrats called for a meeting of the representative body of the Estates-General. This led to the outbreak of the bourgeoisie revolution.

The bourgeoisie leaders also declared themselves the leaders of the Third Estate. They could not accept that the first two estates had more votes. Thus, the fight against the aristocrats was started. The bourgeoisie fought for equal rights and for the removal of the privileges enjoyed by the nobles and clergy. They demanded a system where promotion to high positions would be earned by merit, not by a person’s background. Taxes should be paid at the same rates by everyone, and all should be equal before the law.

The fourth revolution was that of the peasants. It was sparked by the economic crisis and poor harvests. The peasants fought for the abolition of feudal obligations and taxes. The National Assembly tried to end it with the August decrees, but without success.

The bourgeoisie supported the aristocracy in its resistance against ministerial despotism up until the moment when the Parisian Parliament decided to form the Estates-General, a representative assembly of the French population. The format of this assembly meant that the two privileged estates, the clergy and the nobles, would have a greater number of votes than the third estate, which was made up of the bourgeoisie, the peasants and the laborers, who together formed the majority of the population. The third estate opposed the Parliament’s decision, thus ending its support for the aristocracy.

The bourgeoisie needed the support of the Parisian population in their fight against the king and the privileged estates, who banded together in their resistance against the bourgeoisie attack.

The popular revolution was the third revolution. It was generated by the economic crisis and the increase in the price of bread. The king tried to forcibly dissolve the National Assembly, the new form of the Estates-General. He was prevented by the insurrection of the poor population made up of the craftsmen and laborers of Paris. The uprising ended with the Fall of the Bastille, which saved the National Assembly and ensured the success of the revolution.

The French government became bankrupt due to the very expensive wars it had been involved in for 20 years, such as: The Austrian War of Succession, The 7 year war and The American War for Independence. Financial failure was evidenced by a deficit of almost one-quarter of the total income of the crown. This deficit led to an increase in national debt, caused by large loans.

Some historians believe that the main cause of the French crisis was the structure of the financial system. Part of the money raised by taxes never made it to the king’s treasury. Unless control was reestablished over finance, there could be no fundamental reform. The deficit couldn’t be reduced even if the nobility and the clergy, who enjoyed privileges and exemptions, had paid taxes.

During the American War, Jacques Necker, a protestant banker from Geneva, was appointed General Director of Finances. He knew the financial system and managed to obtain loans to cover the costs of the war. However, he had to agree to pay high rates of interest in order to convince investors to lend. The crown’s debts grew. 50% of all income was used to pay interest.

Jacque Necker wrote Report to the king in order to assure the creditors that the interest payments on their loans were guaranteed. This was the first public declaration of royal finances, and produced a sensation. Normal expenditure during times of peace was listed separately from war expenditure. He tried to obtain control over the greatest consumers of funds, the war ministry and the marine ministry, and asked for a seat in the royal council. The other ministers threatened to quit. The king was not able to support his reforming minister, and Necker was dismissed.

The general director of the king’s finances, Jacques Necker, published the work called Compte rendu au roi, ‘Report to the king,’ which showed a financial surplus. In reality, though, there was a deficit. The general controllers were no longer able to raise taxes in time of peace, since Necker had survived a costly war without tax increases. In order to gain control over the king’s finances, he proposed replacing the independent financiers, who had purchased their positions, with salaried workers whom the general controller could appoint and remove from office. In this way, he managed to cleanse the system of the most influential general tax officials. He started work on creating a central treasury into which all taxes would be paid, and from which all expenditures made.

Calonne and other finance ministers undid all of Necker’s accomplishments. They brought the avaricious noble-born financiers back to their old positions. Joly de Fleury and Calonne, the new general directors of state finances, obtained greater loans than Necker.

Very soon, the sources of loans for France dried up. Calonne, the general director of finances, had to begin a reform of the fiscal system. He proposed replacing taxes such as poll tax and vingtieme with a standard property tax, which must be paid by everyone, even by nobles and the clergy.

Calonne claimed that through his reform, he would bring in an extra 80 million livres, which was still less than the predicted deficit. Knowing that the parliaments would oppose his plans, he persuaded the king to call an Assembly of the Notables, with members chosen by the king, to approve the reform. What Calonne did not predict was the serious opposition which would follow.

The king was forced to follow the age-old procedure of choosing members of the Assembly of Notables. This led to calling up leading members of parliaments, princes, nobles and elders, who attacked Calonne’s proposals. The clergy had the most to lose from the reform, since it would have to start paying the same taxes as everyone else.

The king dismissed Calonne because of the opposition, replacing him with Lomenie de Brienne, archbishop of Toulouse. Lamoignon, president of the Parisian Parliament, became minister of justice. The Assembly of Notables didn’t get along any better with Brienne than with his antecessor. Thus, the session was closed.

The Notables demanded to receive a report of the crown’s income and expenditures so that they could judge the financial situation for themselves. They did not like the idea of the property tax, because it was set for an indefinite number of years. However, Calonne refused their demand. The Notables did not oppose his decision, but insisted that it was necessary to have the agreement of the whole nation. Thus, they requested that the Estates-General was called.

Brienne was harshly criticized, but managed to keep the property tax. He also began a comprehensive plan of reforms, through which he would eliminate the purchasing of positions in the financial sector, create a new central treasury, introduce laws, reform the educational system, institute religious tolerance, and make the army more cost-effective. Brienne had to submit his reforms to the Parisian Parliament for them to be registered. The parliament refused and declared that only the Estates-General could approve new taxes.

The opposition of the Parisian and provincial parliaments paralyzed the government, preventing the Crown from obtaining the money it needed. The popularity of the monarchy was rapidly waning. The king exiled the Parliament to Troyes. He was later forced to give in, allowing the Parliament to return to Paris. The new taxation system was abandoned and Brienne accepted the convocation of the Estates-General.

The Parisian Parliament upheld the fundamental laws of the kingdom. According to these, the Estates-General was the only body with the right to vote on taxation. According to the same laws, French citizens could not be sent to prison without a fair trial, and the king could not modify the privileges and customs of the provinces. As a result, Lamoignon reduced the rights of the parliaments, especially the right to register royal decrees and to protest against them. The result of this act of force was the aristocratic revolt.

Brienne agreed to a meeting of the Estates-General and suspended payments from the royal treasury. The crown was bankrupt. He persuaded the king to call Necker back, then resigned. Necker took back his position. He abandoned Lamoignon’s reform and called Parliament again. The king was forced by the financial crisis and by the opposition of the parliaments to abandon the reforms of his ministers. He accepted the convocation of the representative body of the Estates-General. He was sure this body would diminish his power.

There was unrest in several of the provincial capitals in which parliaments met: in Rennes, Brittany and Grenoble, Dauphiné. In all areas of the country, nobles met in unauthorized gatherings to organize support for the parliaments. An assembly of the clergy also joined the side of the parliaments in condemning the reforms, breaking a long tradition of loyalty to the crown. As a result, the clergy voted to pay a don gratuit of less than one-quarter of what the crown had requested.

The protesters’ actions were not coordinated. In Paris, the general population did not support the revolt of the nobles. Their cause was advanced by the fact that the financiers no longer wished to lend money to the government, due to the economic crisis and the edicts of Lamoignon. The royal treasury was empty.

The Parisian Parliament returned. But it quickly lost its popularity when it declared that it was calling a meeting of the Estates-General in the same conditions as in 1614. This meant that the clergy and nobility retained their privileges.

The bourgeoisie had not participated much in the political agitation led by the nobles, the clergy and the Assembly of the Notables. Now it was time for the bourgeoisie, the leaders of the Third Estate, to step up. There were suspicions that the privileged orders opposed ministerial despotism because they wanted the power for themselves. The representatives of the bourgeoisie demanded double representation for the Third Estate and individual votes instead of estate votes. They knew they would hold the majority of the votes, since most representatives of the First Estate, together with the poor priests, would support the Third Estate.

The unrest was organized by a political club, The society of thirty. The club had 60 members, nobles by birth, but with liberal views. Through propaganda, they stirred up indignation against privileges. Thus a conflict was produced between the Third Estate and the other two estates. Dissatisfaction with the king moved to second place.

The Royal Council approved the doubling of the number of deputies for the Third Estate. However they didn’t mention individual votes. Thus there was confusion at the meeting of the Estates-General. The Third Estate thought it would have individual votes, while the first two estates did not agree.

The elections were biased, since all adult male members of the first two privileged estates had one vote for choosing their deputies. The representatives of the Third Estate were to be chosen through a complicated system of indirect votes. Men over 25 years of age were able to vote in their parish or guild assembly only if they had paid their taxes. They chose representatives who then chose deputies.

Before the meeting of the Estates-General, the electorate of the three states wrote books of grievances and suggestions for reform. Through these, they were petitioning the king to make reforms which would serve their interests.

The books or lists of grievances from the First Estate asked for bishops to have just one diocese. They requested that those without noble origins should be allowed to become bishops, as long as they were willing to give up their fiscal privileges, but were not willing to compromise on the dominant position of the church. Catholicism must remain the only official religion, in order to maintain control over education. Protestantism was not tolerated.

The Third Estate’s books requested regular meetings of the Estates-General, and expressed its support of civil liberties and the provincial Estates. It asked for the elimination of taxes without consent, fiscal equality, individual votes and promotion based on merit alone. They were however more liberal than the nobility in their aspirations for a market economy.

The books or lists of grievances of the Second Estate dealt with the willingness of the nobles to give up their fiscal privileges, and opposed individual votes. They showed a desire for change and declared that they were ready to admit merit and not birth as a condition for obtaining high positions. They attacked the government for its despotism, inefficiency and injustice.

In the parish books of the Third Estate, the real grievances of the peasants were reflected. They wanted fiscal equality, regulation of commerce in cereals, and the abolition of the tithe and feudal rights. However, when the Third Estate’s books were written, the bourgeoisie preferred not to include the requests of the general population, with which it did not agree.

The books of the three different estates also had a lot in common. They were all against absolute power for the monarchy. They wanted a king whose role would be limited by a representative assembly, which would have the right to vote on taxes and laws. Only one major difference separated the Third Estate from the other two: individual votes. This disagreement would produce major conflict at the meeting of the Estates-General.

When the Estates-General met, the government could have taken control of the situation. However, it didn’t propose a single program and it didn’t mention the constitution which all the books of grievance asked for. Thus, the government missed its opportunity to reestablish its footing.

The Estates-General met in three separate groups. The Third Estate insisted that the mandates of those elected must be verified in a general meeting. The nobles rejected the Third Estate’s demands and organized themselves into a separate order, followed by the clergy. The Third Estate refused to work until the other two orders joined them. Thus several weeks went by in an impasse.

The Third Estate voted a motion for the verifications to begin. After a small group of priests joined the Third Estate, they passed a resolution with 491 votes for and 90 against, to call themselves the National Assembly. The Third Estate now claimed to have the right to solve its own problems and to make decisions regarding taxation, since it represented the majority of the nation. Things were getting out of control for the government, since the clergy had voted to join the Third Estate.

The king was forced to respond. He decided to call a royal meeting, at which all three estates would be present. At this meeting, he would propose a series of reforms.

The king intervened in favor of the privileged orders, declaring the decisions made by the representatives of the Third Estate to be null and void. The king did not allow discussion of the privileges of the nobles and clergy. He was however willing to accept restrictions on his own power.

The deputies of the Third Estate realized that the hall in which they were due to meet had been closed in preparation for the royal meeting. As they had not been informed of this, they were infuriated. They met in a hall close by and made an oath known as the Tennis Court Oath. In this, they swore not to separate until they created a constitution, thus declaring that the king had no right to dissolve their Assembly.

When the first two estates joined the meetings of the Third Estate, the National Assembly was formed. They requested sovereignty, considering themselves to be the representatives of the nation.

The National Assembly, through its members, considered itself the representation of all French citizens, without discrimination. This important revolutionary action was made possible due to the unrest in France directed against the government. Thus, the king was forced to accept this new change. He could no longer rely on the army and stopped supporting privileges for the first two estates.

The king’s acceptance of the National Assembly and the cessation of concessions for the first two estates created a clear division between those who were in favor of revolution and those against. Depending on the place in which they sat in relation to the king in the National Assembly - to his left or his right - the members of the Assembly were known as defenders or opponents of revolution. To the king’s right were the conservatives, supporters of the old regime and the monarchy. To his left were the liberals, those who fought for change and a republic. Thus, the right-left spectrum was formed, on which all modern political parties would later position themselves.

The main task of the National Assembly was formulating a Constitution. However, this led to a change in the regime and the existing political system. After the adoption of the constitution, the National Assembly was dissolved. However, it did rule on nationalisation of Church lands, the abolition of the feudal system, the creation of a new central system of government, the granting of equality before the law and separating executive power from legislative.

King Louis the 16th promised that taxes would no longer be imposed without the agreement of the nation’s representatives. Les lettres de cachet would be abolished and there would be freedom of the press. Internal taxes, la gabelle and la corvee would be done away with. But the Third Estate was not satisfied. So, the king ordered the deputies to meet separately.

The king’s order for the deputies to meet separately triggered dissatisfaction. The clergy joined the Third Estate, followed after a short time by a series of nobles, including a member of the royal family, the duke d’Orléans. In Paris, the general population held demonstrations in favor of the Assembly, sparking conflict with the king.

The king gave in and ordered the nobles and clergy to join the Third Estate and support the individual vote. Paris was ecstatic and it seemed that the three estates were ready to work together in harmony. However, at the same time the king gave the order to bring armed troops to Paris and Versailles. There were 4,000 soldiers brought in, amongst whom were 2,800 foreign soldiers who surrounded Paris.

Paris was alarmed, but the government claimed the soldiers were there to maintain order. The number of troops continued to grow, from 4,000 to over 20,000. The king and his advisors were prepared to break up the National Assembly by force. However, the Assembly was saved by the revolt of the Parisian population.

Journalists and followers of duke d’Orleans established a permanent general headquarters at Palais Royal. Here, thousands of people gathered every evening to hear the speeches of the revolutionaries. The popular Parisian movement was directed from Palais Royal.

The news of Necker’s dismissal reached Paris. The Parisians gathered at Palais Royal, where speakers encouraged them to arms. In the same day, poor Parisians attacked the customs points around Paris which charged taxes for goods brought into town, including food. 40 of the 54 customs posts were destroyed.

Louis had 30,000 soldiers around Paris and Versailles. He felt strong enough to dismiss Necker, considered to be the principal supporter of the people’s cause in government. The deputies were alarmed, since they thought Louis would dissolve the Assembly and arrest its most important members.

In order to prevent chaotic destruction of property and an armed uprising without leadership, the designated electors of Paris formed a committee to act as the city’s government. The committee members were the representatives of the 60 electoral districts, who had chosen the deputies for the Estates-General. They formed The National Guard or citizen’s military, from which laborers were excluded. The National Guard was charged with protecting properties from the attacks of the poor population and defending Paris from the royal troops. The Electors and supporters of duke d’Orleans transformed a spontaneous revolt into a general insurrection.

The Bastille was a medieval fortress in Paris, which had become the symbol of royal despotism. It was used as a state prison and a place of detention for important people.

The Parisian people’s need for arms made them head for the Hôtel des Invalides, an old home for soldiers used as an arsenal deposit. They found and took 28,000 muskets and 20 cannons. But since they did not have enough gunpowder or bullets, they headed for the Bastille fortress. The government sent troops to suppress the uprising, but they turned out to be unreliable.

The soldiers from the French Guard, who in their free time practised various jobs in Paris and mixed with the population, were influenced by the agitators from the Palais Royal. Discipline rapidly deteriorated in this elite unit. Thus, two companies refused to go on the mission, and 5 out of 6 battalions of the guards deserted, some of them joining the Parisians storming the Bastille.

There were 5,000 soldiers from other troops close by. The officers told their commandant that they could not count on their men. The army retreated from the streets of Paris towards Champ de Mars in the suburbs, and did not intervene. The Parisians laid siege to the Bastille without intending to storm it. But when they managed to enter the interior courtyard, governor De Launay refused to give them gunpowder, and ordered his troops to shoot. Thus, 98 of the insurgents were killed before the soldiers of the French Guard intervened. They had the cannons taken that morning from the Hôtel des Invalides. De Launey was forced to surrender, then was killed and beheaded.

Those who participated in the attack on the Bastille were not members of the rich middle class. They were revolutionary craftsmen, laborers and construction workers from the laborers’ neighborhoods. In the peak of the rebellion, around one-quarter of a million Parisians were armed.

The conquest of the Bastille had major consequences, since the king lost control of Paris. Here, the electors instituted a new form of government called a Commune, and appointed La Fayette as commander of the National Guard.

The Assembly took the title National Constituent Assembly. Its purpose was to create a constitution which would no longer be threatened by the king’s intervention. The power had effectively passed from the king’s hands to the elected representatives of the people. Louis could no longer dictate orders to the Assembly, because he could no longer count on the army.

When he came back to Paris, the king was received with hostility by the multitudes. Louis was forced to acknowledge the new revolutionary council made up of the Commune and the National Guard. He wore the red, white and blue ribbon of revolution in his hat.

When news of the fall of the Bastille spread in the country, the peasants’ revolt began, spread and intensified. The Paris revolt caused many nobles to emigrate, led by the king’s brother, count d’Artois. Approximately 20,000 nobles fled France in the space of two months.

On the foreign front, the Great Powers, through their representatives: the duke of Dorset, the British ambassador, and Governor Morris, the American ambassador, concluded that the revolution was over and that the authority of the French king and nobles had been neutralized. France was a free country.

The municipal revolt refers to one of the consequences of the Paris revolt.

In most French towns and in Paris, the king’s authority was shattered. Now, his orders would be obeyed only if they were approved by the Constituent Assembly. In many towns, such as Marseilles, citizen militias were formed, whereas in other towns, the revolutionaries seized power. Most provincial towns waited to find out what was happening in Paris before taking action.

The municipal revolution spread, with the bourgeoisie playing a major role in its outbreak and coordination. The revolts differed from each other. In some towns, the old councils simply enlarged their membership conscription and continued as before. In Bordeaux, however, the electors of the Third Estate took over leadership, following the example of Paris.

In most towns, for example Lille, Rouen and Lyon, the old municipal corporations were forcibly removed. In almost every town, a national guard was formed. This had the task of keeping violence under control and preventing counter-revolutionaries. Almost all the regional administrators left their posts. The king lost control of Paris and the provincial towns. Following the peasant revolution, he also lost control of rural areas.

The peasants did not play a role in the events leading up to the revolution. They were mobilized because of the consequences of the poor harvest, and the poverty and suffering in the country regions.

Most peasants didn’t have enough land to be self-sufficient and had to buy their own bread. Thus, they were profoundly affected by the increase in the price of bread. Added to this was the effect of unemployment in the textile industry, since peasants also spun their own material, selling this to survive. As a consequence of their dire poverty, they began to attack transports of grain and the properties of those suspected of stockpiling.

The convocation of the Estates-General produced unrest amongst the peasants. They believed that the king had not allowed them to note their problems in the books of grievances, and that he had no intention of doing anything to resolve them. The fall of the Bastille also had an unprecedented effect in the countryside. Uprisings burst out in Normandy and Franche Comté against taxes, tithes and feudal obligations. Law and order seemed to be collapsing everywhere.

There were large deposits of grain on the big estates of the church and other landowners. These had been collected in the form of rents, feudal rights and tithes. These were the only places where grain was kept in large quantities. Hereditary landowners were considered to be stockpilers and their castles were attacked, because they also kept les terriers there. Hundreds of castles were raided and many burned down. The landowners and their people were killed if they resisted.

The attack on the castles was part of a series of events called The Reign of Terror. This was inspired by the events happening in Paris.

Based on the rumor that bands of thieves working for the aristocracy would destroy the harvest, the peasants took up arms and laid in wait. When the thieves didn’t turn up, they turned their fury on the landowners. The Reign of Terror spread over the whole of France, except for outlying areas such as Brittany, the Alsace and the Basque region.

The National Assembly was in a difficult situation. It couldn’t ask the king’s troops to repress the peasant uprising, because it could have turned against them. But they couldn’t let anarchy reign in the rural areas either.

The leaders of the patriots’ groups came up with a plan in which the liberally-minded nobles would propose the abolition of the feudal system. Viscount de Noailles and Duke D’Aiguillon, one of the richest landowners in France, proposed that the obligations pertaining to personal servitude be abolished without compensation, including serfdom and la corvee. Other rights, such as champart and lods et ventes, were considered forms of property which must be redeemed, with peasants paying for them.

According to the same August decrees, all elders’ tribunals would be done away with, with no compensation. All forms of tithe were conditionally abolished. Other alternatives were sought for, which would cover the costs of the priesthood. The corruptibility of juridic positions was abolished, with justice being administered for free. Financial privileges obtained from taxation were abolished. The special privileges of the provinces, principates, regions, towns and villages were abolished. All citizens were eligible to run for any position, regardless of their background.

The peasants were still very much affected by the obligations they were obliged to redeem, so they didn’t enjoy the limited reforms of the Assembly. Decrees were given through which the National Assembly ended the feudal system for good, including feudal rights and obligations. At the same time, personal servitude would be ended, without compensation. The other rights were declared to be redeemable, at a price which would later be settled.

The August decrees marked the end of the reign of nobility and birthright, and established a society based on civic equality. All French citizens had the same rights and responsibilities. They had access to any profession according to their ability, and paid the same taxes. These rights were especially beneficial for the bourgeoisie, which was much better educated than the other categories. The provincial estates were disbanded, and a national, uniform system of administration was applied.