The French revolution changed the entire history of France. Many short terms as well as long term factors are responsible for the beginning of French revolution. These causes can be classified as-Economical, political and social in nature. Revolutions cause a far reaching change in the society. The French Revolution was violent in nature and caused the power to shift from the King who was the absolute monarch in to the hands of the common people.
King Louis XVI
France was in the hands of absolute monarchy meaning that the king Louis the 16th had absolute powers. King Louis thought he was chosen by god so he didn’t doubt his skill. However, King Louis XVI was indecisive and was a weak king. He used to spend his wealth in order to maintain an extravagant lifestyle and wasn’t concerned about his citizens and the way the country was run. Due to King Louise’s negligence the aristocrats tried to take advantage by gaining power. He used to spend money on things which were irrelevant instead of trying to solve the problems arising due to taxation system for example he built Versailles. France used to also engaged in wars. In order to support the army and buy weapons for the war, he increased the taxes which put more burdens on the third estate.
French Tax System Before Revolution
Famine occurred in Paris as they couldn’t afford a basic staple diet since they had to pay the taxes because Louis XVI could not persuade the 1st and the 2nd estate to pay taxes and share the burden. Due to the famine; hungry people travelled from Paris to Versailles to tell the King their problems. King Louis had to move back to Paris from Versailles where he was like a prisoner for almost 3 years.
Influence of Marie Antoinette
Marie Antoinette was hated by the French citizen especially the third estate because may be as she was a German and she used to spend huge amount of money to maintain an extravagant lifestyle. She used to order clothes, jewelleries when the countries economy was suffering. She was unaware of the political, economical and the social issues the country was going through. A piece of gossip revealed that when someone told her to tell King Louis to reduce taxes on bread because the third estate couldn’t afford it, her reply was well- “Tell them to eat cake instead”. This is how removed she was from the reality.
The Estates General
In 1789, the government was short of money therefore, Louis XVI arranged the meeting of the Estates-General comprising of all three estates. They came to a conclusion that they should increase taxes. However, at that time the 3rd estate couldn’t afford to pay so many taxes. The 3 rd estate in desperation declared it self the sovereign National Assembly. This led to the revolution because the French citizen once again couldn’t cope with taxes but couldn’t change it because they didn’t have power. Thus, they wanted a say in how the country was run.
Role of Philosophers in French Revolution
In the 18th century French people gave up conventional thoughts and began adopting the enlightened views and outlook. The rationalism and the spirit of free enquiry reinforced by Renaissance reached its apex in the 18th century. Prominent French intellectuals carried the cause of enlightenment forward like Montesquieu; Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, Quesnay, Tourge and D ‘Alembert. These philosophers infused independent thinking among the people. The French philosophers took a leading part in the exposition of the rationalist spirit of the age. They directed their free enquiry upon the existing institutions of France. Reason was the medium of their test. The philosophers exposed the defects of all institutions and customs found in their writing. The intellectual movement of that time applied scientific outlook on life. The main aspect of their thought was the establishment of a liberal, progressive and ideal society. They supported the cause of laissez-faire, elimination of prevalent disparity in taxation and the rights of autonomy in administration. They laid bare inequality, exploitation, cruelty, religious intolerance, corrupt and absolute monarchy, financial restrictions etc. They revealed the hollowness of the French institutions through satire and humor, criticism and scientific explanation.
The true intellectual revolution in France started with Montesquieu who exposed the privileges enjoyed by the French aristocracy and the corruption rampant in the royal court. In his book Spirit of Laws he openly attacked the absolute monarchy of France and pointed out that the shortcomings of political institutions and mental outlook of the people governed. He advocated constitutional monarchy that would serve the interests of the French people. He also preached that liberty of individuals could never be safe guarded without separation of powers of the government into three independent organs – legislature, judicial and executive. Montesquieu exercised a profound influence on the people. His criticism of the existing laws and institutions destroyed the prestige in which these institutions.
The foremost figure in the 18th century intellectual world was Voltaire. His imprisonment by the government converted him into a social thinker and critic. He examined the condition of contemporary society and highlighted the tyranny, cruelty and absurdities prevailing in France. He wrote a famous critical history named The Age of Louis XIV and also wrote numerous essays, tales and satires. The other famous work was the Philosophical Dictionary. He attacked the decadent customs and notions prevalent in the society. But his main target was the Catholic Church. He criticized the French Church as privileged nuisance, monument of bigotry and den of superstitions. He said that the church held human thoughts in perpetual bondage. He gave a battle cry to destroy it and criticized the government and society. His powerful writings attacked the citadel of tradition. He demolished its sanctity and prestige.
The French rationalist philosophy swung to a radical channel with the advent of Jean Jacques Rousseau. He scorned the dry rationalism of the philosophers and pointed that right feelings are important along with right thinking. In his writings he poured his contempt on selfishness and cunning way of the rich and the educated. In his essay- what is the origin of inequality among men, Rousseau showed how vanity and greed had corrupted men. Rousseau had an intense faith in the dignity and goodness of man. In his book- Social Contract, he investigated the origin of state and government. He adopted Lock’s main proposition of state of nature, the idea of contract and the sovereignty of the people. He declared that Government, Law and State were the outcome of a contract with people. The collective will of the people called the general will was the sovereign power. The king remained on the throne under the obligation to obey the contract. If the king failed in his duty, the contract was broken and the general could depose him will. The people had a right to revolt against a bad government.
After destroying the old feudal order of France, the National Assembly undertook the task of framing new Constitution for France and declared itself as the Constituent Assembly on 9th July. The King was forced to accept the decision. The Constituent Assembly drafted the constitution for the first time in 1791.It was the first written constitution in the history of France. The supreme power of the state was vested in the public. The structure of the French government remained monarchic but the rights of the king were curbed. The king was vested with veto. The king lost his power of legislation but he could stop the implementation of any law passed by the legislature.
The document contained following declarations:
The assembly declared that man is invested with some natural rights that he acquires by birth such as the right of individual security.
Right to private property was declared as the fundamental right. Private property was declared inviolable and sacred right no one shall be deprived thereof except in case of public necessity.
Law is the expression of common will and originates from the combined efforts of the people.
Every individual has the right to participate in running the administration and making laws.
No person shall be accused, arrested or imprisoned except in the cases and according to the forms prescribed by law.
The security of public rights is the duty of the state.
Sovereignty was invested in the nation instead of state or Parliament.
All people have the right to acquire government ranks according to their merits.
Every citizen was given the right to practice and propagate any religion within the prescribed limits of the law.
Freedom lies in those activities that do not harm others.
The constitution of 1791 framed by the Constituent Assembly provided for the separation of powers and legislative authority was vested in Legislative Assembly elected indirectly by citizen who paid taxes. The constitution provided for a hereditary king who had a veto power. Religious tolerance was proclaimed. The clergy was brought under the state and they were asked to take oath of allegiance to the new constitution. The constitution reflected the ideas of Rousseau, Montesquieu and Voltaire. The Constituent Assembly caused destruction of the established norms of the society. After completing its work of drafting new constitution the Constituent Assembly decaled itself dissolved and election were held to elect new legislative assembly on the basis of constitution. The first session of the Legislative Assembly began in Oct 1791. With the formation of new government people expected that it would initiate a new epoch and open the doors of happiness and prosperity by strengthening the monarchy in the new set up. But the Assembly could not complete its tenure of two years. It witnessed the decline of monarchy and turn towards blood shed.
The National Convention was elected to draft a new constitution for France after the suspension of the king by the legislative assembly. The elected NC started its session in September 192.The convention consisted of 782 members elected on the basis of universal male franchise. The members differed on ideological basis. Girondists were stern supporters of democratic republic. Brissot, Condorcet and Thomas Penn were prominent Girondists leaders. The Jacobin leaders were extremists who occupied prominent positions. They were called Mountainists.Robespierre, Danton, Corneu, Camille were prominent Jacobins. The NC introduced various reforms in France to consolidate and strengthen the ideals of revolution. The convention abandoned the draft constitutions of the Girondins and Jacobins and enacted a new constitution. It began with a declaration of duties as well as of the rights. The constitution framers ignored the practical value of executive leadership resting on legislative support. The administration of the country at large under this constitution was a compromise between the centralization of the old regime and the decentralization of the constitutional monarchy. The new constitution proclaimed France as a Republican state. The codification of the national laws was taken in hand and it was provided that there would be no imprisonment for debt or slavery at French colonies.
The price of grain and other necessities of the life were fixed along with the wages. The convention established Normal School, the Polytechnic School, Museum of Louvre, the National Library and Institute De France. A new and uniform system of weights and measures called the metric system was introduced in the country. Women were given right to property and children had equal share in the father’s property. The property of the émigrés was confiscated. Persons of wealth, clergymen and nobles were treated as suspects. Large landed estates of the émigrés was disbanded and offered for sale in small parts to the ordinary people. A large number of peasant-proprietors were created. All distinctions of high and low born were eliminated. The use of silk stockings and knee breaches a privilege of the aristocracy was forbidden. The new republican calendar was introduced according to which the year was divided into 12 months named after the appropriate weather or crops. Each month was to be of three weeks and the weeks of 10 days each. Every tenth day was declared a holiday. The new calendar was to date from September 23,1792 being the date of the proclamation of the Republic. The convention exhibited hostility towards the traditional form of Christianity and made efforts to change it. Churches were transformed into temples of reason. An atheistic religion of reason was inaugurated in the Cathedral of Notre Dame at Paris in July 1794.