4 Causes of the French Revolution: Ending the Aristocracy

Table of Contents

Liberty Guiding the People

Liberty Guiding the People (1830)

By Eugène Delacroix

Source: Artsy

The French Revolution (1789-1799) completely changed one of the major world powers at the time. French citizens realized their collective power, and the royalty fell. While historians rarely disagree about the causes of the French Revolution, they continue to argue about which was the most significant. 

Experts generally identify the following four factors as causes of the French Revolution: 

  • Extreme socio-economic inequality
  • Rise of the Enlightenment and the Bourgeoisie
  • Financial Crisis
  • Poor Harvests

Before the revolution, France’s economy depended on the taxation of commoners. The funds extracted from the citizenry allowed the aristocracy and royal family to live lives of indulgence without having to work at all. While you might think that kind of exploitative socioeconomic system remains a relic of the past, perhaps you should reconsider. In this article, the Zero Theft Movement will explore the causes of the French Revolution and how the injustices of the past might not be so different from those in the modern-day U.S. economy.

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1. Socioeconomic Inequality

Prior to the French Revolution, France operated as a de jure absolute monarchy. The system stratifying French society was known as the Ancien Régime. Atop the hierarchy sat the King. The few clergy (First Estate) and nobility (Second Estate) occupied the spots below but still had influence over the throne. Lastly, all the rest (Third Estate) sat at the bottom of the totem pole. 

Extreme socioeconomic inequality against the Third Estate was one of the main causes of the French Revolution.

The Ancien Régime, or Estates System,

Source: Sutori

The Ancien Régime, or Estates System, established an extremely unfair society, where most of the social privileges, luxuries, and money went to everyone but 98% of French society. Granted, membership in the First and Second Estate did not guarantee a lavish lifestyle, nor did membership in the Third Estate necessarily mean a life of hard manual labor. For example, 90% of the clergy (parish priests, nuns, and monks) experienced similar living conditions to the peasantry. 

Privileges & Taxes

The King obviously possessed the most privileges and enjoyed luxuries none of the Estates could. In particular, Louis XV gained a reputation for extreme self-indulgence and promiscuity. His lengthy romantic history, along with his incompetence as a leader, remains his legacy today. 

Also, Marie Antoinette, the wife of Louis XVI, would represent the unsavory extravagance and excess of the upper class, contributing to the revolt of the Third Estate.

revolt of the Third Estate.

Source: Miss Francine’s Website

The First Estate represented about 0.5% of the total population. As noted earlier, most of the First Estate did not receive the benefits and advantages of their status. The 10%, known as the upper clergy (abbots and bishops), lived as aristocrats off of land taxes predominantly paid by the Third Estate. 

The Second Estate represented ~1.5% of the total population. The noble class had two groups: the “nobility of the sword” and the “nobility of the robe.” Just like the upper clergy, the Second Estate ‘made’ most of its money from land taxes. Furthermore, the nobility did not have to pay most forms of taxes, including the corvée royale (unpaid labor on the roads in lieu of taxes), the gabelle (salt tax), and perhaps most importantly, the taille (the oldest form of direct taxation). 

Everybody else (~98%) was just another member of the Third Estate. From the wealthy business owners of the bourgeoisie to the farmers tending to their crops. Commoners had to pay all of the taxes listed above and did not enjoy any special privileges whatsoever. Much of most members’ incomes went to the aristocracy and the king.

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) published a 2019 study estimating the gross average tax gap (amount of unpaid taxes). The Agency estimated the unpaid taxes at $441 billion. The infamous Paradise Papers and Panama Papers revealed an alleged global network of kleptocrats executing money laundering schemes totalling trillions of dollars.


2. Rise of the Enlightenment Thinkers & the Bourgeoisie

The rise of the bourgeoisie and the development of Enlightenment philosophies were another cause of the French Revolution. 

The Age of Enlightenment (17th-18th centuries) was a major intellectual and philosophical movement that dominated much of European thought. The Enlightenment challenged absolute monarchies and the state’s ‘marriage’ with the church. Major intellectuals of the time include the likes of John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

A Reading of Voltaire’s Tragedy

A Reading of Voltaire’s Tragedy “L’Orpheline de la Chine” in the Salon of Madame Geoffrin (1812)

By Anicet Charles Gabriel Lemonnier

Source: Sotheby’s

Locke, for example, argued that the people had more power than they realized. A King cannot expect to last without the acquiescence or consent of the public, he argued. Therefore, if the ruler does not keep the public happy enough, he will have an all-out revolution on his hands. The French Revolution, of course, ended up supporting Locke’s beliefs.  

France, an intellectual and cultural hotbed, served as the perfect environment for the circulation of Enlightenment ideas. These philosophical developments happened to dovetail perfectly with the growth of the bourgeoisie, upstarts from the Third Estate who had managed to achieve great success in business. 

The bourgeoisie developed into its own caste, although still subjected to the lack of privileges and extreme taxation suffered by the rest of the Third Estate. This new group of ‘self-made’ individuals loathed the leeching and undue privileges of the First and Second Estate, but also wanted to achieve greater equality socially, politically, and economically. The growing wealth of the bourgeoisie, coupled with Enlightenment ideas, made the Third Estate realize that they possessed a great deal of power if they organized themselves. 

The first proof of the public’s power emerged with the Tennis Court Oath, right before the French Revolution proper. Essentially, a number of disasters (we’ll get to that later) angered the Third Estate. King Louis XVI decided to gather the Estates-General for the first time since 1614, in order to gauge public sentiment and decide on a way forward. Representatives of the Third Estate found the proceedings unfair, gathering on a tennis court to take a vow to reform the structures in place. 

3. Financial Crisis

To be fair, Louis XVI inherited a mess of an economy from his father. France’s participation in the War of Austrian Success and the Seven Years’ War left the empire in bad economic condition. Louis XVI exacerbated the nation’s economic struggles by joining the American Civil War.

The Victory of Montcalm's Troops at Carillon

The Victory of Montcalm’s Troops at Carillon

By Henry Alexander Ogden

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Furthermore, the lack of productivity from and taxation of the First and Second Estates meant that the Third Estate was generating all of France’s revenue. That didn’t amount to much, considering peasants constituted ~85% of the total population. Whenever the finance minister proposed radical reform to the tax system, the privileged classes made sure to vehemently oppose change. The government even established the Vingtième, another tax to try and compensate for all the money spent on wars. 

Jacques Necker, Louis XVI’s most popular financial minister, attempted to keep France afloat by taking out massive loans, which naturally accrued interest. Ironically, he won over the public with his apparent transparency when he released the Compte rendu au roi, a document showing the Crown’s accounts. He actually performed some creative accounting to make the economy seem healthier than its moribund reality. Eventually, France’s true finances and Necker’s incompetence got exposed.

On the corporate front, in FY 2019 business paid $230.2 billion, only 6.6.% of total government revenue. The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy alleges that 55 corporations paid a total of $0 in federal corporate taxes. Do you think megacorporations should be able to avoid taxes to such a degree?


4. Poor Harvests

The final major causes of the French Revolution were the poor harvests and consequent famine. 

In June 1783, the eruption of Laki volcano in Iceland shot volcanic ash high into the atmosphere. The ash not only caused a harsh winter across Europe but also widespread droughts as well. France’s harvests suffered, drastically reducing food supplies. The harsh weather conditions lasted for a decade

Repeated poor harvests had a domino effect. The price of flour spiked, thus causing bread prices to shoot up. Most French citizens ate bread as a staple part of their diet. So much so that they spend 70%-90% of their daily income on food. Louis XVI tried to deregulate the grain market, but that just raised the price of bread even more. The Third Estate blamed the King for not providing an effective solution to the famine. 

In 1775, the citizens rioted in the streets for months. Marie Antoinette supposedly showed her ignorance when she stated, “Let them eat cake!”  

Learning from the Causes of the French Revolution

However you give weight to the various causes of the French Revolution, it was likely a confluence of factors that sparked the widespread uprising that completely changed the nation. The Estates System not only stacked the deck against the vast majority of people but also contributed to the nation’s bankruptcy. 

Even in the modern-day, we have much to learn from the causes of the French revolution in relation to the current issues with the U.S. economy. We at the Zero Theft Movement are asking: is the U.S. economy rigged to benefit the privileged few at the expense of the average American citizen?

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