French Revolution had a profound impact on the world altogether. It was like breaking from the chains of the medieval era. It signalled the emergence of a new political and socio-economic system in a new world.
However, the study of revolution is not limited to the single event on July 14 1789. Instead, it is understanding a series of events that led to the final outbreak.
The year 1774 saw the rise of LOUIS XVI of the Bourbon family with his Austrian princess to the throne. At this time, the French treasury was empty, and indebtedness prevailed. The lenders began to charge 10% more interest. Along with this, the King also increased taxes on the French people. This is often considered as a trigger for the already vexatious people to rise in revolt.
The reasons for the revolution
The French revolution was driven by underlying political, economic, social divisions within the French society.
More than two decades of warfighting between the English and French from 1714 to 1763 had pushed France into a financial crisis. The situation was worsened further by the cost of financing the American revolution from 1776-1783.
The inefficient and corrupt rule of the Bourbon dynasty had failed to increase agricultural productivity. It led to high prices, and the situation deteriorated further by recurrent floods during the 1780s.
France was a deeply unequal society. It was divided into various classes (called estates). The 1st and 2nd estates composed of priestly class and nobility. Together they constituted only 2% of the population but owned more than 60% of the wealth. The 3rd estate, which included 98% of the people, owned merely 40% of the wealth. It also suffered from a high burden of taxation.
The Church extracted tithe (1/10th of agriculture produce) from peasants, and all 3rd estate people needed to pay an additional tax (taille) directly to the State. Many indirect taxes were levied on articles of everyday consumption such as salt and tobacco. These taxes were borne by the 3rd estate alone.
To recover from huge war debt, the King proposed to impose new taxes., The decision was strongly resisted by the 1st and 2nd estates. On the other hand, any further increase in the burden of taxes on the 3rd estates could trigger public unrest.
The French society was deeply divided due to the prevalence of feudalism. Feudal Lords extensively exploited the labour of serfs or tillers, who enjoyed no freedom of occupation. The guild system was riddled with nepotism and corruption. It limited the entry of new individuals into existing guilds. Further, all key higher administrative and military positions were reserved for 1st and 2nd estate individuals.
The population of France grew from 23 million in 1715 to 28 million in 1789. It led to an increase in the demand for food grains. However, the production had not increased proportionately. It resulted in a subsistence crisis (a situation where essential means of livelihood is endangered).
The Church in France was a powerful entity that could grant ‘Letter of indulgences’ (which could grant pardon from sins upon payment of certain fees.) Thus no equality before the law existed as 1st and 2nd estates could often obtain pardon for their crimes.
Role of enlightenment thinkers
With wider education, the people of the 3rd estate had become prosperous and came up with new ideas for social and political order. A section of people known as the Middle class emerged who earned wealth through expanding overseas trade. This prosperity of the 3rd estate led to the ideas that no one must be privileged by birth, and a person’s social position must depend on his merit alone.
Many thinkers such as ;
John Locke, in his Two Treatises of Govt., refused Doctrine of the divine and absolute right of the monarch.
Rousseau, in his Social Contract, proposed a form of govt. based on a social contract between people and their representatives.
Montesquieu, in his Spirit of Laws, proposed a division of power within govt. between the legislature, executive and judiciary. This was put into force in the USA when 13 colonies gained independence from Britain.
American constitution and its guarantee of individual rights was an important example for political thinkers in France to implement the same at home.
Causes related to army
Even sections of the French army refused to fire upon protestors during the French revolution and instead sided with them. This reflects the discontent within the army.
The salaries of soldiers were not paid on time. Many French soldiers had fought alongside the American soldiers during American Revolution. Thus, they argued for upholding similar ideas of rights and liberty at home.
Events During French Revolution
July 14 1789, Storming of Bastille Prison
June 17 – Tennis court oath where 3rd estate declared themselves the national assembly.
Aug 4 -Aug 14: Loius XVI reconvened Estate General. In this, the dissolution of the ancient regime was agreed upon. They decided to abolish all hereditary privileges of the 1st and 2nd estate., Abolished feudalism. Approved for removing all taxation power of Church and ownership of land. Now monarchy primarily derived its power from Estates-General (National Assembly ). (Monarchy is not yet abolished).
After the revolt, by 1791 National assembly completed the draft constitution that limited the powers of the monarchy and established separation of powers among government organs. Elections were through active citizens who were men above 25 years and paid taxes.
The constitution framed began with a Declaration of Rights of Men & Citizens. It included the right to life, freedom of speech, freedom of opinion, equality before law etc., as inalienable rights. They challenged the idea of divine rule and argued that the State’s power to rule was derived from people.