There are many factors for the emergence of the French Revolution. In a simple way let us say, there are various reasons for the arrival of the French Revolution. The revolution took place for 10 years from 1789 to 1799. The revolution is one of the most important events in world history. There are no single reasons that cause the emergence of the French Revolution. Various reasons attribute to the outburst of this important event of the world.
- The Emergence of the French Revolution are:
- Based on Divine Right
- Actual Administrative Control
- Confusion and Disunity in Administration
- Luxuries of the Royal Court
- Incapacity of Louis XVI
- The Unjust Social Order
- The Three Estates
- The Clergy – First Estates
- The Nobility – Second Estates
- The Third Estate
- Condition of the Peasants
- The Rise of the Bourgeoisie
- The Influence of the Political Philosophers
- France Awakened
- Montesquieu (1686-1755)
- Voltaire (1694-1778)
- Jean Jacques Rousseau 1712-78
- Financial Bankruptcy
- Extravagance Leads to Bankruptcy
- Efforts at Stabilizing Finances Fail
- The American Adventure
- The Estates-General & the National Assembly
- The Estates-General is summoned
- The Opening of the Estates-General
- Conversion into National Assembly
- THE REVOLUTION BREAK OUT
The Emergence of the French Revolution are:
Based on Divine Right
During the 18th Century, French Monarchy has shown the worst form of absolutism on the continent of Europe. The old Regime of France was based on the principle of Divine Right. So, the French King was responsible and have the power for all the laws making and actions in the Country.
Thus, the French King (Louis XVI) levied various taxes as he wishes. Besides, the French King was so autocratic and powerful, he made war and peace. He even calls himself “I am the State. But, the drawback of the king was, he could not possibly devote all his time to the affairs of the state.
The King was busy with several personal things. He often goes for hunting expeditions and finds time for gambling. Besides, King Louis XV (1715-1774) had also spent most of his time with mistresses. As a result, the ministers and advisers take care of the King’s duties. Besides, the King would spend most of his time on personal pleasure or foreign wars.
Thus, the King has formed a Royal Council, consists of 6 Chief Ministers and around 30 Councillors of the King. This Royal Council takes care of most of the affairs of the state. The King will interfere only sometimes with state affairs.
From the above points, we can say that the French Monarchy and the principle of Divide Right that was prevalent in France was another reason for the emergence of the French Revolution.
Actual Administrative Control
For purposes of local government, France was divided into forty divisions. The salary of the Governors of France was fat but they practically don’t have much work to do. They live mostly at the royal capital Versailles. Real local administration was in the hands of the Intendants.
An Intendant was a very powerful official like the District Magistrate of the British time in India. He had his representative in every village. The King’s ministers appoint the intendant. These intendants had become rapacious and tyrannous.
The intendants kept law and order and were also responsible for recruitment to the army. He collects all the taxes through his assistants. His permission was necessary for the repair or construction of any public building in the ‘Illaqa’. He got forced labor from the peasants on the orders of the royal council. Thus, the real administration of France was in the hands of the intendant. He was like a petty despot in his district. Thus, the administration of France led to the emergence of the French Revolution.
Confusion and Disunity in Administration
Confusion and disunity in the administration was another cause for the emergence of the French Revolution. The government of France was confusing in administration. Various branches of this government were overlapping and complicated. There was the Royal Council, the Parliament of Paris, the provincial estates, the governors, the intendants, mayors, town councils and village assemblies. All these political bodies asserted their powers and rights and thus made the confusion worse confounded.
France had a highly centralized monarchy and yet was thoroughly disunited. There were different laws in different parts of the country as many as four hundred different sets of laws.
Besides, laws were mostly written in Latin. So, the common man could not even understand them. Very often towns of the same district were governed by different laws – what was lawful at one place was illegal at the other.
Courts were feudal and rotten ones, and no justice could be expected from them by the common man.
Besides, weights and measures in different provinces of the country were different and confusing. There were provincial tariff walls and the goods paid custom duties as they move from one to the other province. Each province was equally jealous and guarding it’s commercial and tariff right. The result was that the price of the goods increases tremendously as it moves from one part of the country to the other.
Luxuries of the Royal Court
While Paris was the capital of France, but the King lives 12 miles away from the capital, in a quiet and gay surrounding of Versailles. There, the King maintained a splendid court, which dazzled the whole of Europe.
Besides, the King and his 200 courtiers were busy in a perpetual round of pleasures and luxuries. The King had thousands of servants in attendance on the royal family. The servants work under the King and Queen, their sons and daughters, and to every branch of the royal family.
The queen alone had 500 servants in her service. The daughter of Louis XVI, when she was one month old, she had eighty persons in her service. The royal palace was a spacious and luxurious establishment.
Also, Royal stables had 1900 horses and over 200 carriages. Expenses only for the luxurious and gay court in 1789 amounted to 20,000,000 dollars. Thus, the luxurious lifestyle of the Royal Court was another reason for the emergence of the French Revolution.
Incapacity of Louis XVI
The Incapacity of French Ruler, Louis XVI was one of the main reasons for the emergence of the French Revolution. Louis XVI ascended the throne in 1774 when he was only 23 years old and his wilful queen was nineteen. Both of them were unhappy to be rulers at so young age.
Besides, Louis XVI does not have any training to carry such a great burden. His dominating queen Marie Antoinette was the daughter of Maria Teresa of Australia. She was beautiful and gracious, but strong, wilful, and intriguing. But, she lavished public money on her friends’ amusements. She aggravated the situation and hastened the catastrophe. Thus, she becomes a burden towards the progress of France and a cause for the emergence of the French Revolution.
The Unjust Social Order
The Three Estates
Like the monarchy, the French social order too was most unjust. French society was divided into three distinct.
These three distinct are the First Estates, the Second Estates, and the Third Estates of France. The clergy constituted the first, the nobility the second, and the bulk of the French people the Third Estate. The first two estates were privileged ones.
Thus, the first and second estates enjoy all the favors and rights and they need not pay any taxes of the state. The clergy had the right to collect tithes and the nobles to exact feudal dues in their respective territories. On the eve of the Revolution, France consisted of about 25,000,000 souls. Out of them, the clergy consisted of 1,30,000 and the nobility of 1,500,000 souls. Thus one man in every hundred, in France belonged to the favored lot. This minority class was differentiated from the rest by artificially created advantages and distinctions.
The Clergy – First Estates
The 1st Estates of the French society were the Roman Catholic Clergy. This clergy owns one-fifth of the total land in France and claimed revenues of another two-fifth. The church had, of course, several welfare duties to perform. But they never perform their duties. Besides, the great churchmen take most of the income of the church.
There were about 134 such bishops and archbishops. Sons of the nobility occupy these offices and they never perform their duties. To quote just one example the archbishop Strasbourg had an income of 3, 00,000 dollars.
On the other side, the lesser clergy and thousand of village priests were practically on the starvation level. The lesser clergy who worked in poverty and were excluded from all high promotion shared in the misery and sympathized with the man in the street.
Hence, there were imbalances of privileges and facilities receives between the Clergy and the common man.
The Nobility – Second Estates
The nobles are famous as the second Estate of France. Nobles of the court and nobles of the Provinces were two well-marked divisions in this class. Around thousands of the nobles of the court lives at Versailles and add luster to the King’s court with their presence. These nobles looked after all major appointments of distinctions in the army and the church.
The Nobles enjoys handsome pensions. Military posts increases for the benefit of the nobles.
Also, the Nobility enjoys several rights and privileges over the peasantry and one of them was the right to hunt. They might trample the fields with their horses, in pursuit of the game, and the peasants had no business to disturb them. Apart from these rights, the nobles enjoy several other rights. Thus, there was large scale oppression of the peasants, so that the nobles may enjoy themselves.
The Third Estate
The vast majority of the population in the cities and the villages, which did not fall under the first two heads, are the 3rd Estate. This 3rd Estate had only duties and no rights. So, they paid all the taxes to the State and enjoyed no rights in return. This social order or the 3rd Estate consists of the workers, peasants, and beggars.
Surprisingly, the 3rd Estate also includes people such as richest bankers, manufacturers, industrialists, illustrious men of letters, physicians, lawyers, and teachers. However, duties and taxes fell most heavily on the workers and peasants.
Thus, from the above point, we can say that the social structure was another reason for the emergence of the French Revolution.
Condition of the Peasants
France was an agricultural country. Over two crores of its people livelihoods depend on the land. Many peasants who produced a wealth of the nation from the land were a miserable one. He had to part with a large part of his income for the sake of others.
Sadly, out of every hundred rupees of a net profit to the peasant, they need to pay 53 to the state as direct taxes, 14 as church tithes; and another 14 as feudal dues. Thus only 19 remain with the peasant and they yet have to pay for the salt tax and certain other indirect taxes. It thus seems incredible that the peasant can survive at all, under such ruthless extortion.
The peasants of France led a difficult life. Their houses were hovels, without windows and with earthen floors. The entire family lived in a one-room straw hut even in the severest cold weather. Shoes were little known to the peasants. A man possessed neither furniture nor beds. Their food rarely includes meat or wine.
Also, a bad harvest was sufficient to bring them to the very brink of starvation and despair. Conditions in the cities were none better. Out of a total population of 6, 50,000 in Paris, more than.1, 20,000 were paupers and on the starvation level.
Thus, the harsh condition of the peasants led to the emergence of the French Revolution.
The Rise of the Bourgeoisie
The rise of the Bourgeoisie is another cause for the emergence of the French Revolution. With the coming of the industries and new manufacturers, a new class was fast rising in France. This consisted of the rich industrialists, wealthy merchants and bankers; and of the lawyers, scientists, intellectuals, and teachers. Most of the magistrates too were from this class.
Hence, the number of middle classes in France was rising very sharply. While the bourgeoisie possessed wealth and influence, they had no share in the administration of the country.
Many of them have high education, energetic and intelligent. They were very keen for a share in the administration of the country.
But, when this share was denied by the upper classes, they prepared an intellectual movement for the revolution. If the bourgeoisie had been given some share and was satisfied, the French revolution might not have broken in France for many more years.
The Influence of the Political Philosophers
Various political philosophers attribute in many ways to the emergence of the French Revolution. Let us discuss their political philosophies that led to the emergence of the French Revolution:
Denial of Civil Liberties
Before, there were no Civil liberties in France. So, any person could be arrested and kept in prison for any length of time, without facing any trial.
Besides, any persons can be behind bars by “letters de cachet” or with the arbitrary arrests orders issued by the King. There was no Parliament of an Assembly in France.
Also, people did not have the right to hold any political meetings. People were governed from above and they do not have the right to question any arbitrariness in administration. Thus, France was sullen, in despair.
Sullen and unhappy France was awakened from its deep slumber by its great political philosophers of the eighteenth century. These philosophers exposed the evils of the French political system. The centuries-old discontent and indignation got a vocal expression from these philosophers. Thus a flood of new ideas swept France and later engulfed it like a wildfire.
Some of these versatile philosophers are:
Montesquieu was one of the main philosophers which led to the emergence of the French Revolution. He was a noble and a lawyer. He opened the campaign against the rotten and autocratic regime of France. Besides, he spent 20 years on the production of his great work, “The Spirit of Laws”. Thus, this study of political philosophy opens the eyes of Frenchmen.
Besides, he had great praise for the British institutions and stood for the separation of the legislative, executive, and judicial powers of the government. In the government of France, all the powers were in the hands of the executive and hence the negation of the liberty in the country.
Voltaire was one of the greatest literary men of his age. He was also a poet, a historian, and a dramatist. Also, he was a warrior for the cause of justice and right.
As a result, several times he had to suffer imprisonment in defense of liberty. He had incurred the enmity of the great and influential people in France. He attacked the hypocrisies, cruelties, and bigotries of the age in particular.
Also, he came into conflict with the state and the church both. He denounced the arbitrary powers, defective judicial system, and the tortures. He did not attack monarchy as an institution. Rather he stood for “benevolent despotism”.
So, Voltaire’s chief attack was on the church and religion. He called it the “infamous thing”. However, he was not all atheists. He believed in God, but his God was universal who dealt out “rewards and punishments”. He even believed religion but it must be a “natural religion”, free form obscure dogmas and inhuman rites. To him, all historical religions were absurd and Christianity was no better than the rest.
According to him, the priests were “rogues”, who exploited the crowds. They foster superstition and fanaticism in order to dominate the people. Thus, they were the worst enemies of free thought.
Jean Jacques Rousseau 1712-78
He was the son of a Genevan watchmaker. He led a very hard life. Also, he adopts several professions and was not successful even in one. He was also immoral and was faithful neither to his wife nor to his children.
Besides, he stood for a total reform of society. He believes that Liberty was not possible without a complete overhand of the existing system. According to him, a man was good by nature but the institution of the property had corrupted him.
To him, the first effects of the possession of poverty were rivalries, conflicting interests, a desire to gain at the expense of others and continued blood struggles between the “haves” and “have not’s”.
Rousseau’s great work – that influenced the revolutionary ideas the most, was the “Social Contract”. He says, “Man was born free and is everywhere in chains”. His ideal was the “State of Nature” where a man lived with freedom before the coming into existence of the civilized state. People made a contract and sacrificed this state of nature and with it their natural rights in order to enjoy the benefits of a good government. They thus had a right to change a government that was not to their liking. He gave the theory of the sovereignty of the General Will.
Thus, “General Will” could only be possible in a direct democracy in which a whole population rules, without delegating its powers to any authority.
Rousseau’s “General Will” implies unanimity and this unanimity is infallible since it is accepted by a moral law acceptable by all. Thus, Rousseau stood for the wholesale destruction of the existing French institutions.
Financial bankruptcy was another reason for the emergence of the French Revolution. Let us explain the financial conditions of the French:
Extravagance Leads to Bankruptcy
The finances condition of France was in terrible confusion because Louis XVI (1643-1715) had misused a lot of treasury on his grand wars. However, on his deathbed, he had advised his five 5-year-old successors Louis XV, not to follow him and to live in peace.
But the young monarch forgot the good advice when he became his own master. This new King also misused not only money on expensive wars but also lavished princely presents and gifts on his mistresses.
Besides, these mistresses living at Versailles in the royal palace, they spend huge money on useless pursuits, criminally interfered in politics.
Therefore, it increases the debts and taxes on the poor. As a result, when Louis XV died in May 1774, he left France in a very poor state with huge annual deficits because of his wars and extravagance.
Efforts at Stabilizing Finances Fail
On his accession to the throne, Louis XVI’s (The successor of Louis XV) first concern about France was the conditions of the finances. In the beginning, he gave the work of national finances in the hands of a very capable and successful man Turgot. This new Finance Minister was good in the economy and development of wealth through the industry.
Under him there was no bankruptcy; no increases in tax, and no more borrowing. As a result, he has saved millions by reducing useless expenditure. Besides, he had the public welfare at heart. Therefore, he disregarded every sort of vested interest and thus heaped up difficulties for him.
Subsequently, the queen and her friends could not find enough money for their extravagances. So, they start being loud at Turgot. But, the King defended his minister against this hostility till April 1776.
However, at last, the pressure from the queen, higher clergy and nobility won the day, this results in the dismissal of Turgot from his duties on 10th May 1776. Thus, an honest effort to stabilize the national finances came to an end.
The American Adventure
Another reason for the dismissal of Turgot was that he did not agree to plunge into the Anglo-American War. But, the war was declared against England and the Court officials plundered the royal treasury to their heart’s content.
Thus, participation in the American war was another reason for the state’s bankruptcy. The cost of this war was a huge one. Hence, the war gave a great setback to the nation’s finances and led inevitably to the final crisis of 1788-89.
The Estates-General & the National Assembly
The Estates-General is summoned
With financial bankruptcy and disappointment from all sides, the King had no option but to summon the Estates-General to tide over the grave crisis. This body was to meet in May 1789 at Versailles. The absolute monarchy of France had acknowledged defeat and the revolution was in sight. The Estates-General had first been called in 1302 by King Philip the Fair. Since then, it had met at irregular intervals. It had the last meet in 1614. Functions of the Estates-General had been purely advisory, and very often the rulers had ignored and violated its enactments.
Though it not called for the last hundred and seventy-five years, the Estates-General was considered to be a part of the ancient regime of France. It was entirely a feudal institution. Each Estate – the clergy, the nobility, and the commons, elected the representatives separately and they took their seats in separate wings. The voting was by orders and not by heads. Thus, each unit voted separately and had one vote each.
The Opening of the Estates-General
Elections to the Estates-General take place throughout France in the winter of 1789. The Estates-General met on May 5, 1789. It consists of 1139 members of whom 291 represented the clergy, 270 the nobles, and 578 the commons.
In other words the Third Estate had been granted representation equal to the other two orders put together. But they had only one vote. At the same time, the Third Estate represented more than nine-tenth of France. The commoners had wisely elected a host of brainy and educated men to represent them in the Estates-General.
Lawyers, judges, scholars, and philosophers formed a majority of the members from this order. Strangely enough, of the total members from this order, only ten belong to the lower class. Such a class of people was neither going to play into the hands of the Court nor to be brow-beaten by royalty. In fact, they had come, prepared for a showdown with the old order.
The commons had a great leader in the person of Mirabeau – he was a noble by birth but disowned by his own order and thrown out. Later, he had become the leader of the people. The nobles had refused to elect him. Mirabeau (1749-1791), the son of an old Marquee was a problem for his father. He was unruly and immoral. In order to keep him away from doing mischiefs, his father got him into prison several times.
Mirabeau, however, had super-human energies and they found their outlet when the revolution broke out in France. For two years (1789-91) he was the most influential and prominent man of France.
Then, he died prematurely in 1791 and with his death, the cause of a constitutional government in France met its doom.
Conversion into National Assembly
The King welcomed the Estates-General at Versailles on May 5, 1789, with pompous ceremonies. However, he made it clear that the business of the august body would only be to get him out of the financial bankruptcy.
On the other hand, the commoners wanted the Estates-General to sit as a single body and each member to have one vote. They also desired to bring about sweeping reforms in the Government of France. A few liberal nobles and quite a good number of priests sided with them in these demands.
Besides, there was practically a famine in France and the entire nation was looking towards the Estates-General – as if expecting miracles out of it. The conflict between the Third Estate and the two privileged orders started on the second day of the meeting of the Estates-General.
Ultimately on June 17, 1789, the Third Estate solemnly proclaimed itself a National Assembly by 491 votes of 89. At the same time, it unanimously declared invalid any future taxation was not approved by the nation’s representatives and the existing taxes payable only so long as the National Assembly continued in session.
THE REVOLUTION BREAK OUT
The King fails to overawe the Commons
The decisions of the Estates-General looked to the court and the nobles like outrage and they persuaded the King to fight them out. On June 23rd, the King declared the decisions taken by the Third Estate on June 17, to be null and void. The commoners refused to abide by the orders of the King and swore to resist. On looking at the hot temper of the commons the King did not think it proper to disturb them any further.
He rather reversed his earlier decision of June 23 and directed the three Estates to sit together and vote by heads.
The Final Act Fall of Bastille
The privileged classes got prepared for a final showdown with the Third Estate. From July 1, royal and loyal troops start pouring into Versailles to overawe the Assembly. Thus, the court and the King were creating circumstances for a civil war in the country.
But, the Assembly request the King to remove these troops but the King refused. News travels from Versailles to Paris that the National Assembly was under the shadow of a serious crisis. Therefore, Camille Desmoulins, a brilliant journalist led the mob of Paris in support of the Assembly. For three days 12th, 13th, and 14th July, there were wild disorders in the city of Paris.
On the third day, the famous 14th of July, the insurgents stormed the citadel and prison of Bastille. This old-time prison was a symbol of despotism and reminds the people of the tyrannies of the ancient regime of France. Almost the entire garrison and the governor were killed. The fortress was destroyed and the head of the governor was carried on a pike through the streets of Paris. Thus, the Revolution had begun in France.
A Revolutionary Government in Paris
So wild was the enthusiasm throughout France that the 14th of July was declared a National holiday. On this day, they adopt a new flag – the tricolor – red, white, and blue, the new flag of revolutionary France.
Also, a National Guard was created in Paris and Lafayette was appointed its commander. Soon, it came to have a force of 48,000 strong. A piece of new governmental machinery, known as the “Commune” was set up for Paris by its people.
The Commune consists of the chosen representatives of the various localities of Paris. This revolutionary government was not to the liking of the Queen and the court and thus began counter-revolution attempts by these people. The King fell completely under the domination of the queen and her party.
The Loyal troops were summoned to Versailles from Flanders. A Lavish supper was given to these soldiers on the night of 1st October 1789. While Paris was starving, Versailles was gay with drinks and dinners. News of these happenings reached Paris and the people there grew excited.
Thus, on October 5th, 1789, Paris witnesses a strange and rude spectacle. Several thousand poor women, mad with hunger and rage, marched to Versailles accompanied by the riff-raff of the population to demand bread from their King and queen. Lafayette, together with some of the National Guards, followed them at a little distance, in order to prevent any untoward incident.
At Versailles, these women surround the royal palace and the situation was saved by the presence of Lafayette. The King and queen yielded and agreed to accompany these women to Paris and to make it the capital of the country. On October 6, precession reached back late at night with the King; queen, and the little prince.
Revolution throughout France
The old regime cracked and collapsed everywhere in France. The people demanded their rights and refused to pay age-old taxes. The King and the officials were all afraid of the Assembly and dare not force the people for payment. As the Assembly was busy with its struggle with the King and the Court, it neglected the administrative side of the government. Thus, the administrative machinery of France went out of gear.
People almost everywhere took the law into their hands and formed their own National Guards. It was now the turn of the oppressed to fall upon their oppressors and have their revenge. The feudal order broke down and some of the noble and their relatives were killed. Many others of their order sought shelter in safer places. Monasteries were plundered and ransacked.
The governors and other officials quitted their posts and the courts of justice ceased to function for a time. Thus, there was complete confusion and disorder in France during the summer of 1789.
From the above discussion, we can clearly say that there is no single reason for the emergence of the French revolution. There are many reasons that contribute to the emergence of the French Revolution such as Political Causes, Social Causes, Economic Causes, and Intelectual Causes.
Source: Md. Rafi Komol & O. Jnanendra.
A Guide to History of Modern Europe 1789-1945.
Imphal, Khumanthem Babudhon, 2018,
Note: There are some changes in the Length and Text of the Article.