French Revolution

Origins of the Revolution

Historians disagree in evaluating the factors that brought about the Revolution. To some extent at least, it came not because France was backward, but because the country's economic and intellectual development was not matched by social and political change. In the fixed order of the ancien régime, most bourgeois were unable to exercise commensurate political and social influence. King Louis XIV, by consolidating absolute monarchy, had destroyed the roots of feudalism; yet outward feudal forms persisted and became increasingly burdensome.

France was still governed by privileged groups—the nobility and the clergy—while the productive classes were taxed heavily to pay for foreign wars, court extravagance, and a rising national debt. For the most part, peasants were small landholders or tenant farmers, subject to feudal dues, to the royal agents indirect farming (collecting) taxes, to the corvée (forced labor), and to tithes and other impositions. Backward agricultural methods and internal tariff barriers caused recurrent food shortages, which netted fortunes to grain speculators, and rural overpopulation created land hunger.

In addition to the economic and social difficulties, the ancien régime was undermined intellectually by the apostles of the Enlightenment. Voltaire attacked the church and absolutism; Denis Diderot and the Encyclopédie advocated social utility and attacked tradition; the baron de Montesquieu made English constitutionalism fashionable; and the marquis de Condorcet preached his faith in progress. Most direct in his influence on Revolutionary thought was J. J. Rousseau, especially through his dogma of popular sovereignty. Economic reform, advocated by the physiocrats and attempted (1774–76) by A. R. J. Turgot, was thwarted by the unwillingness of privileged groups to sacrifice any privileges and by the king's failure to support strong measures.

The direct cause of the Revolution was the chaotic state of government finance. Director general of finances Jacques Necker vainly sought to restore public confidence. French participation in the American Revolution had increased the huge debt, and Necker's successor, Charles Alexandre de Calonne, called an Assembly of Notables (1787), hoping to avert bankruptcy by inducing the privileged classes to share in the financial burden. They refused in an effort to protect economic privileges.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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