History 104: Western Civilization since 1648
Lecture: Political Revolutions

Causes of the French Revolution Click here for Audio

There are many causes of the French Revolution. I'm going to reduce them to two: one long-term and one short-term:

Enlightenment

The rational thinking of the Enlightenment had led to a belief in rational governance of human beings. Locke had originated the idea of the right to rebel in the 1680s, then Jefferson had added the concept of inalienable rights in the 1770s. In France, Voltaire had been the major proponent of the crushing of superstitions and intolerance, and the need for rationalism. Rousseau had added his ingredient: the idea of the sovereignty of the people. Indeed, Rousseau's emphasis on the general will of the people, and his dedication to freedom and liberty for individuals, caused some to blame him for the French Revolution even though he was dead by then.

oppressive Ancién Regime

To begin with, the tax system in France was skewed. Peasants and urban workers (bakers, grave-diggers, road workers, lace makers, merchants, etc.) paid the taxes. The elites (both aristocrats and clergy) were exempt from taxes.

The political power was unbalanced. The Estates-General was a representative body made up of the three estates: (1) the clergy, (2) the nobility, and (3) everybody else. Each estate had one house to represent them, meaning that the First and Second estates simply outvoted the Third on any issue. But it didn't matter anyway, because the absolutist king decided. In fact, the Estates-General hadn't met since 1614, when Richelieu had arranged their dismissal. The only threat to the king's power was the Parlement, which was the high court of justice (don't confuse it with the British Parliament!). Only they could stop tax measures, and they were controlled by the nobility.

The elites were completely out of touch with the ordinary folk. Queen Marie Antoinette is a startling example.

Isn't she lovely? She apparently thought so too. Although she didn't say "Let them eat cake" about the peasants not having bread, and she has a new crop of defenders, she was also known to dress up as a milkmaid and go "play peasant" in her own private village at the palace.

3. Stages of the French Revolution ->

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