French Revolution 2 Essay, Research Paper
There was a loud “thunk” as the blade hit the wood block. Silence and then a cheer rose from the crowd, as yet another nobleman’s head rolled down. Deaths like this occurred often in the French Revolution, one of the bloodiest revolutions in history, it was responsible for taking the lives of thousands of Frenchmen. But what was the cause of this carnage? As former Vice President Hubert Humphrey said, “History teaches us that the great revolutions aren’t started by people who are utterly down and out, without hope and vision. They take place when people begin to live a little better – and when they see how much remains to be achieved.” This is almost exactly what started this most significant and influential revolution which has forever changed the course of World History. The people s glimpse of a better life of freedom and equality is what brought this historical event to arms.
When the French Revolution began in 1789, the rest of Europe watched in shock. For more than 100 years France had been one of the largest, most prosperous, and powerful of European nations. In a short time the monarchy lost much of its power and a group of elected representatives voted to execute the king. These representatives then formed a set of laws and created a constitution. This great change made many of the people feel as though they were living in a new era, an era which promised a more fulfilling and favorable life, and soon they began to refer to the period before the revolution (1789) as the Old Regime. (Doyle)
But what caused the French Revolution? For this one must look back at the Old Regime. It was during this time in which the French kings created an absolute monarchy in which whatever the king wished, happened. It was also during this time when the French first organized their society into three different classes or estates. (Carlyle)
The First Estate made up less than 1 percent of the entire French population and consisted of the clergy of the Roman Catholic church. They were not obligated to pay any taxes yet they still agreed to make donations of money to the French king. One-tenth of all the land in France was owned by these clergy, and they received unbelievable amounts of money from rents, taxes, and fees that the lands brought in. As a result of their wealth many of the clergy became lazy and neglected many of their spiritual duties.
The nobility composed the Second Estate, and represented only 2 percent of the population. They had special privileges and customs that had come out of the feudal times, such as the right to bear a sword, and function themselves as lord of the manor. They paid few taxes and collected feudal dues from the peasants. This estate was regarded by the others as thoughtless, irresponsible, and extravagant. (Bosher)
The rest of the people of France made the Third Estate. This estate itself, since it consisted of the majority of the population, was broken into 3 sub-groups. At the top stood the bourgeoisie, who were the city-dwelling middle class people, who were merchants, manufacturers, and professional people such as doctors and lawyers. Many of them were wealthy and well-educated. Below the bourgeoisie came the laborers and artisans of the cities. At the bottom of all of this stood the peasants who often led miserable lives in poverty, their lives in the hands of their landlords and the king. (Bosher)
In the mid-1700 s discontent in France began to grow. Many factors contributed to this discontent. The first came from the rapid growth of the French population. Families had more children to support, and they need more food and money. This was made even harder for those in the Third Estate for many economic changes took place which caused even more discontent within France. In an attempt to get more money, the nobles, clergy, and some of the bourgeoisie who owned land raised the rents they were charging peasants for it. This combined with the heavy taxes and other needs caused a great dilemma for the peasants and artisans. Prices on items such as food and other essentials for life also started to rise, yet at the same time the peoples wages were not going anywhere. This created much hatred towards the wealthier people who were able to provide their families with food and large houses. Soon the poor began to blame their problems on the king for allowing the prices to get so high. It got so bad that often the poor would riot against these higher prices and taxes. People who visited France at this time told of the much robbery and violent crimes which had come about during this time. (Carlyle)
Even the bourgeoisie who prospered during the 1700 s became discontented. They wanted political power equal to their economic strength. They wanted a say in government policy mainly because the government interfered with business Also the merchants and manufacturers hated the fact that they were made to pay taxes while the nobles and the clergy did not have to. (Bosher)
The discontent with the conditions in France was not only found in the Third Estate but was also found in the First and Second Estates, too. Since the reign of Henry IV, the nobility had disliked the increasing concentration of power in the hands of the French kings. As France was becoming larger the kings were becoming much more powerful, and this caused the nobles and clergy to loose much of their influence, which caused a strong dislike for the king. (Bosher)
The King at the time, Louis XVI sought help from financial experts on how to rid France of the great debts it had, which were causing all these problems with its citizens. Everyone he asked told him to tax the first two estates. This however outraged the nobles and they too led riots against the king and refused to cooperate. By 1787 the country had exhausted its credit, and bankers refused to give the government anymore money. France faced financial disaster. (Cobb)
Finally Louis XVI decided to gather at Versailles in May 1789 , with the Estates-General. He hoped that by calling together the representatives of all three estates, and not just of the nobility he might be able to get approval for his plan to tax the wealthy. Yet again, another problem arouse. In the past the three estates had met separately, and each estate had cast one vote. This procedure had always allowed the clergy and nobles of the First and Second Estates to outvote the Third Estate. To this the Third Estate now protested and claimed that the Estates-General represented the French people, and not the three classes and for this reason they said that all the representatives should meet together and vote as individuals. (Cobb)
Louis XVI however failed to acknowledge this option and as a result on June 17, 1789, the Third Estate proclaimed itself the National Assembly. They invited the First and Second Estates to join them in working for the welfare of France. Even though the three estates in France lived totally different lifestyles and had different discontents with the way the country was being run, they all shared the same ideas. They all talked of liberty and equality as their natural rights. For the lower classes this meant the rights to eat and to have some reward for their labor. For the bourgeoisie these words meant the freedom to trade without restrictions, and also to be able to raise their level in society based on their merit, which they liked to call equality of opportunity. For the First and Second Estates liberty and equality meant the liberty to enjoy their ancient privileges and to limit the authority of the king. Even though they meant different things to different people, these common ideas of liberty and equality unified all the people of France in an enormous challenge against the kings power. Together they gathered at the meeting place of the Third Estate but the king had locked them out. So they resided at a nearby tennis court. It was there on June 20, that they made a pledge not to adjourn until they had written a constitution for France and had seen it adopted. Finally the king gave in and allowed the three estates to meet in Versailles. (Cobb)
However Louis XVI still tried to save his power and authority as a king and tried to secretly bring troops to Paris and Versailles, where the representatives were meeting. In fear that the king planned to drive out the National Assembly by force, the people of Paris took action. It was on July14, 1789 that they stormed and captured the Bastille, a hated prison-fortress, in search of weapons. It was these weapons which they would use to defend the National Assembly against the royal troops.