Major Causes of the French Revolution

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By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Feb 3, 2012

Major Causes of the French Revolution

Royal policies were a major cause of the French economic crisis of the late 1700s. Foreign and domestic policies both proved ruinous to the stability of the realm.

The Economy

By 1789, France’s economy was in turmoil. Ministers had raised taxes to pay for foreign wars, some of which were being fought across the Atlantic. Since aristocrats and the clergy were tax-exempt, the entire burden fell on the classes least able to afford it: the peasants, artisans, and bourgeoisie. This caused great popular resentment. Royal extravagance and a poor grain harvest further dam- aged the economy.

During the French and Indian War, France spent large sums to send troops and supplies across the Atlantic. After losing the war, France immediately began improving the army and rebuilding the navy—an expensive project. In 1778, France entered the American Revolution as an ally of the colonists. By the time of the American victory in 1783, France had spent more than a billion livres on the military.

From 1783 to 1788, the government survived by borrowing money; the king’s ministers attempted to reform the tax laws so that the wealthy landowners would have to contribute something, but the attempt failed to become law. In 1787 and 1788, a cycle of drought and then fierce hailstorms and flooding destroyed most of the nation’s grain crop; this led to soaring prices, high unemployment, and conditions of near-famine by the spring of 1789. Throughout the countryside, people went on rampages, breaking into storehouses and stealing everything edible.

The Monarchy

The most important obstacle to reform in French society was the conservative nature of the monarchy. An absolute monarch, being in a position of power, had no incentive to reform society. Both Louis XIV and Louis XV believed that they ruled by divine right and that their judgment should never be questioned. Instead of embracing a system of checks and balances and a government with multiple branches of authority, the king of France believed that in his own person, he was the government—courts, legislature, and executive. L’etat, c’est moi (the government and I are one entity)—Louis XIV may never actually have said this, but he lived and believed it and passed the belief on to his successors.

Louis XIV died in 1715, when his heir was a five-year-old child. The Duc d’Orléans ruled France until 1723, when the king reached legal adulthood at age thirteen. Although Ivan the Terrible had taken firm hold on power in Russia at the same age, Louis XV showed no great desire to end the regency; his tutor and chief minister ruled the nation in fact, if not in name, for another seventeen years. Once Louis took over the actual business of governing in 1740, he relied heavily on the advice of his closest ministers. Their inconsistent advice led France into costly wars, with no plan for paying off the war debts besides raising taxes on the poorest classes of society, which could least afford them.

Louis XVI succeeded his grandfather Louis XV in 1774. At a time when France needed a strong, practical leader, Louis was timid and weak. His marriage to Austrian princess Marie Antoinette did nothing to strengthen his position with his subjects, as Austria and France were old enemies. His dismissal of many of the experienced government ministers certainly proved a mistake. Some of these men had attempted to reform the tax system by establishing a tax on the landed aristocracy; this chance of reform was gone when the ministers were dismissed from office.

Louis XVI and his ministers, unable to find any way to solve the problems on their own, called the Estates General to a meeting at Versailles. This was the first time the nation’s only assembly had met since 1614.

Practice questions for these concepts can be found at:

The French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars Practice Test

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