Below is a rather short paper that I wrote regarding the French Revolution and its causes. The requirement was that it could not exceed 5 pages in length which forced me to distill arguments down to their base level. The very basic ideas present, however, are worth considering for students just learning about the Revolution with regard to its root causes. Who knows? Maybe it will jump start your thinking on this rather interesting topic. A full bibliography is available should anyone want one.
Once and still a topic of great interest, the French Revolution continually seems to reveal more each time it is reopened for study.
For every answer that shows itself concerning it’s causes, another question comes to the fore.
The event itself is fascinating as it was a perfect storm of threads coming together at a precise time in history, in precisely the right place to affect change throughout Europe.
In order to analyze the Revolution properly, one should take into account many factors.
For example, which school of historiography should be the approach?
Certainly a Marxist approach would consider the root causes different than a Prussian School historian.
The Marxist might see “revolution as a product of irresistible forces, which culminate in a struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat.”
This would suggest that not only a difference in class but class culture should be considered a root cause.
A member of the Prussian School might suggest that force would determine which side of the revolution was correct.
Robert Southard, while discussing the formation of the Prussian School in 19th Century Germany held that members “now saw force as the real source of legitimacy and were deeply embarrassed ever to have thought that mere parliamentary decrees would affect what only an army could accomplish”
These are but a couple in the myriad ways to look at the root causes of the French Revolution.
For this short essay, a more basic approach is warranted.
Simply stated, the root causes of the French Revolution can be distilled down to massive French debt,
the unwillingness of Louis XVI to hold the French nobility accountable for their share of the tax burden, and the influence of a more liberal way of thought introduced by the philosophes
All of this lead to a willingness to challenge the existing social and political order, resulting in the French Revolution.
When examining French debt as one of the root causes of the Revolution, it stands to reason that an assessment of tax collection must be brought to bear.
More specifically, it is important to understand the French system of collecting taxes.
The power to create any new taxes, or any new loans, rested with the Parlement of Paris.
The power to determine spending, however, rested with the Crown.
This created a fiscal disconnect between what the Crown desired and what the Parlement of Paris was willing to give.
This was an arrangement that was to have dire consequences as pointed out by Eugene Nelson White.
He states that, “The result of this constitutional arrangement was that tax rates changed very little, as the Parlement was only willing to grant small, temporary increases to fund wars.”
The ultimate result is that even though France was not crushing its population with taxation, it was not able to keep up with paying its debtors.
White goes on to show that “debt payments accounted for over 50 percent of expenses.”
In short, revenues could not keep up with expenditures, or “past due” bills.
It should be noted that this did not occur in totality under the regime of Louis XVI, but rather under Louis XIV and extended under Louis XV due in large part to the numerous wars France found herself in.
It is also important to point out that Louis XV had financial problems of his own and took pains to address the Parlement of Paris to reassert his absolute power.
William Doyle points out that “clashes continued, as it proved impossible in peacetime to reduce the burden of taxes first justified by the demands of mid-century wars.”
These “clashes” were of local variety, with some of the local parlements trying to wrest themselves from the control of the crown.
One might characterize these as opening salvos against the authority of the Crown and the existing order.
It is as though the stirrings of revolution were already in the air in the decades before 1789.
It is also important to recognize that while the massive French debt was certainly a burden that had become almost too much to bear for the French Government, it cannot go unnoticed that the nobility, indeed the Assembly of Notables, should shoulder their share of the blame for the coming revolution.
It was the Assembly of Notables that was beginning to fan the flames of change in the French government.
It was their unwillingness to support new taxes as requested by the Crown, as well as their quiet circulation of republican ideas that questioned and even challenged the traditional royal authority in France.
It was they, along with other members of French society, most notably the more influential members of the Third Estate, who were pressing for representative government, the very antithesis of what had been the order in France for many centuries.
Vivian Gruder explains that while there was negotiation with the Crown behind the scenes, it was also understood that the Notables were pressing for government reform and were not shy about their intentions.
She states that “These statements and recommendations became known, despite rules of secrecy, to interested bystanders and an attentive press, circulating through letters, newssheets, and word of mouth, read or heard by Frenchmen and women in public and in private.”
It can be assumed that by this evidence, the Assembly of Notables had change on their mind, undeniably fanning the flames of change that could ultimately benefit them.
Further, Gruder explains that while they did pay their taxes, they were somewhat less than the lands they rented.
She states that “Their taxes may not have increased as much as did their rents as proprietors and their gains from selling surplus crops at rising prices.”
This would suggest that they, like everyone else, did not want to pay more taxes no matter what concerns the Crown had.
The Notables were quite astute when it came to playing political games, and as the opportunity presented itself, they were going to take advantage of it.
Finally, one must take the time to examine the role of the philosophes
with regard to the French Revolution.
There are two views on their influence and both are diametrically opposed.
One view suggests that the ideas of the philosophes
contributed to the Revolution and became the impetus for change.
Roland Stromberg takes issue with that assessment when he states that “The philosophes
wanted to work through the established forms, including the monarchy and even the Church.”
He further states that “Among the difficulties with seeing the Revolution as deriving from the ideas of the Enlightenment, perhaps chief is the surviving philosophes
almost all rejected it, in most cases virtually from the start.”
There is no question on which side Stromberg falls, but there is an opposing view.
Paul Meyer, who wrote The French Revolution and the Legacy of the Philosophes
points out that those who survived the Revolution and were contemporaries of Voltaire, Denis Diderot, and Baron de Montesquieu did feel that the philosophes
and their ideas contributed to the Revolution.
While writing about Jean Franҫois de La Harpe, Meyer points out that de La Harpe “almost certainly became the first systematically to arraign the philosophes
as instigators of the French Revolution.”
Since there are views on both sides, the question then turns to the degree they should they be indicted?
There is no question that the movement toward challenging the existing order of things was a drift that began as far back as the Scientific Revolution.
Each successive discovery called into question that which had been in existence for centuries.
It seems to follow that this examination of science, when applied to society would follow the same curve, accelerating with each successive decade.
Further, the ideas of free speech, toleration (both religious and political) and social reform espoused by the philosophes
would seem to have encouraged those revolutionaries to a fairly significant degree, even though they may have been against the aggregate violence that ensued.
It may not be so much a place as a time.
It is a telling point made by Doyle when he states in his opening paragraph that “So the argument was heard, even in the highest circles, that the elaborate consecration of Louis XVI, arranged for 11 June 1775 in the traditional setting of Rheims cathedral, was a waste of public money.”
It seems almost implausible, except in England, that this thought could be conceived of prior to this age.
If it was, it was done so tacitly.
There is no doubt, however, that it was the beginning of a new age not only for France, but Europe as a whole.
Raymond Tanter and Manus Midlarsky, “A Theory of Revolution,” The Journal of Conflict Resolution
11, no. 3 (September 1967): 264, http://www.jstor.org/stable/172594 (accessed June 14, 2010).
Robert Southard, Droysen and the Prussian School of History
(Lexington, Ky: University Press of Kentucky, 1995), 197.
Eugene Nelson White, “The French Revolution and the Politics of Government Finance, 1770-1815,” The Journal of Economic History
55, no. 2 (June 1995): 229, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2123552 (accessed June 15, 2010).
William Doyle, The Oxford history of the French Revolution
(Oxford [England: Clarendon Press, 1989), 36.
Vivian R. Gruder, “‘No Taxation without Representation’: The Assembly of Notables of 1787 and Political Ideology in France,” Legislative Studies Quarterly
7, no. 2 (May 1982): 263, http://www.jstor.org/stable/439671 (accessed June 15, 2010).
Roland N. Stromberg, “The Philosophes and the French Revolution: Reflections on Some Recent Research,” The History Teacher
21, no. 3 (May 1988): 325, http://www.jstor.org/stable/492999 (accessed June 15, 2010).
Paul Meyer, “The French Revolution and the Legacy of the Philosophes,” The French Review
30, no. 6 (May 1957): 432, URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/383864 (accessed June 14, 2010).
Doyle, Oxford History, 1.