Author: Helena Wiles-Ploski

The French Revolution was caused by many factors, including political, social, and economic problems. Another noticeable factor was the influence of the Philosophes, in particular the influence of Voltaire, Rousseau, Montesquieu, and Adam Smith. For the French people, perhaps the most pressing concern was that of their many economic woes, brought on by kings who spent money lavishly. The monarchial system was not working for France, and something had to be done in order to repair the state of the country. Although Revolution was not easy to attain, the French people knew that change was needed, through violent means if necessary.

The French system had many political problems which negatively impacted the people. Although many issues involving the monarchy such as the Divine Rights of Kings had occurred before Louis XVI’s reign, it was during his reign that the French Revolution occurred. He continued the same ill-conceived ways of his predecessors, such as being an absolute monarch, along with holding unlimited power over government finances, foreign policy, and laws. Much like Louis XIV, Louis XVI also expected the members of the nobility and his personal advisors to be “yes men”. In addition, the government continued to be run very inefficiently as the officials were all noblemen who were unconcerned with anything serious. The noblemen were paid a hefty sum in order to do their jobs, but instead of actually doing their jobs they only showed up twice a month in order to be paid.

The king also censored speech and the press, allowing no news of the American Revolution to get to the common people. He feared that the French would learn from the Americans and try to better their living situation. Besides censoring the fact that the American Revolution existed, Louis XVI also censored the writings of American ambassadors Franklin and Jefferson. If any individual spoke against the king or his policies in any way, they would be arrested and imprisoned with no representation or trial, particularly if the offender was a member of the Third Estate. Members of the Third Estate made up 96 percent of the population, had the lowest incomes, and yet, they paid the majority of the taxes. Years before, during Louis XIV’s reign, indeed it was the Third Estate who paid for his massive palace at Versailles.

France was also riddled with social problems. For most of common memory, French society was divided into three classes. This created a great deal of resentment on the part of the Third Estate, along with creating a feeling of superiority among members of the First and Second Estates.  The division of land and resources was not distributed fairly, creating a great deal of imbalance. For example, the clergy, or the First Estate, consisting of only two percent of the total population, was given 40 percent of the land. The church could also collect tithes, censor books, and control the people through their control of the school system. When the Edict of Nantes was revoked, the church received even more power, as there were no Protestants left that could publically challenge the church or its theology without fear of discovery.

The Second Estate, or the nobility, added even more social issues to the mix. If an individual was born into the nobility, they were the first to receive rank in the military. Even though there may have been a better, more experienced candidate for the job, that person did not have a chance unless they were of the nobility. The nobility was also given most of the government jobs, along with being exempt from taxes. The nobility also continued to collect feudal dues from the peasants who worked their land. The nobility owned approximately 40 percent of the land. Members of the Second Estate also loved to spend lavishly, gamble, and attend long parties, particularly at Versailles.

The Third Estate consisted of two main groups, the Bourgeoisie and the peasants. The Bourgeoisie were the equivalent of the Middle-Class, including individuals such as merchants, businessmen, bankers, craftsmen, doctors, and intellectuals. The Bourgeoisie owned small estates and fervently believed in the ideals of the Enlightenment, resenting the nobles who wished the social structure to remain stagnant. The Bourgeoisie also wished to have a voice in government affairs, wishing to begin reforms in government structure. One of the main reforms that the Bourgeoisie wanted was that they wanted the government to have a laissez-faire, or hands-off, approach to business. However, the First and Second Estates continued to look down on the Third Estate, continuing to build an air of resentment and tension between the Estates.

The peasants, who composed 85 percent of the population, owned small farms, a large garden, or no land at all. The peasants who did not own any property often worked as tenant farmers, frequently working two or more jobs just to have enough money to keep their families alive. Besides having to hold two or more jobs, prices of goods rose faster than wages, creating serious issues. Because of this, many peasants were forced to become beggars and highwaymen. Peasants that were able to avoid become either of the previous became urban laborers. These urban laborers worked in cottage industries, other small scale industries, and as manual laborers for businesses.

Besides both political and social issues, France also had a number of economic issues. France was a country that was very deep in debt. Part of this was due to the military expenditure of the French and Indian War by Louis XV. Another contribution to the debt was the great opulence of Louis XIV. In addition to this, Louis XVI added to the enormous debt by contributing to the American side of the American Revolution. When Louis XVI became involved in the American Revolution, he increased the size of the Navy, using money from Dutch bankers. France could not repay this debt. The kings were not alone in their massive spending; they were often joined in their lavish spending by their wives. Queen M. Antoinette was famously known as “Madame Deficit” for her uncontrolled spending.

France also suffered from a breakdown in internal trade, partially due to roads and bridges falling into disrepair. As if all of the previous problems were not enough, France suffered a little “ice age” from 1787-89. This destroyed crops, creating shortages, which led to the mass starvation of the Third Estate. The urban areas, along with villages, began to riot. The food shortages forced the people to buy off of the Black Market, causing business failures. When the businesses failed, small manufacturers were forced to close. When the manufacturers closed, workers were laid off. Farms were unable to produce crops, leading to agricultural laborers being laid off. No work was available for the peasants, thus generating no income. The French people began to loot, beg, and steal in order to survive. This desperation would provide the seeds to the revolution that was soon to come.

Years before the French Revolution took place, however, certain individuals attempted to better their world through their ideas, their philosophies. One of these philosophes was Voltaire. Voltaire often used his quick wit and use of satire against his opponents. These opponents included the clergy, the aristocrats, and the government. He was sent to prison twice for speaking out against the government, but that did not dissuade him from his mission. After Voltaire went to prison for the second time, he was exiled to England. Even this act did not stop him from speaking out against intolerance, prejudice, and superstition.

Another philosophe of the age was Jean Jacques Rousseau, known simply as Rousseau. Like Voltaire, Rousseau was very passionate about his beliefs. Unlike Voltaire and many other philosophes however, Rousseau believed that civilization corrupted the innate goodness of humanity. This was contrary to the beliefs of the other philosophes, because they believed in reason, science, and art, as ways to improve society. Rousseau also believed that man is born with natural and inalienable rights to life, liberty, and property. Included in his beliefs was the belief that man could find fulfillment in society if social and political reforms were made to eliminate privileged classes and incompetent government, along with allowing the common people to have a say in government. These beliefs would influence the French people, as they planted the ideas that all men should be equal, that all should have automatic rights to their own property, liberty, and life, free from the control of others.

The philosophe Montesquieu was another important contributor to the Enlightenment. He devoted his life to the study of political liberty. Montesquieu firmly believed that Britain was the best-governed country of his day. He wished for his native country, France, to follow in their example. In particular, Montesquieu wanted France to adopt the separation of powers among three different government branches. Montesquieu wished for the king and his ministers to hold executive power, the parliament to hold legislative power, and for the judges to hold judicial power, just as the English did. This would create a system of checks and balances in order to protect the personal liberties of citizens.

Finally, the philosophe Adam Smith added his unique stamp upon the Enlightenment by speaking out about the effectiveness of a free market economy vs. a command economy. He stated that there were many reasons why a free market economy worked so well, such as: those involved in business are profit motivated, that people act for selfish reasons, competition helps to lower prices, along with the established laws of supply and demand. Smith wished for his ideas to be remembered, so he detailed all of his views on Economics in his book called The Wealth of Nations. The main idea of his book however, was that ultimately; a free economy would produce far more wealth than that of a government controlled economy. Undoubtedly, Smith knew that the idea of having more wealth would be very enticing to people in all walks of life.

These four philosophes, along with several others, established the ideals of the Enlightenment, providing a path for people and governments to follow. For most countries these ideas would take a long time to catch on, but it was these individuals who began to change their world. The ideas of: freedom, personal liberty and property, natural rights, the division of power, a say in government for the common people, and many other ideas, would all continue to build in the minds and hearts of the French people.  This, along with all of France’s political, social, and economic problems, would provide the spark that would ignite the will of the French people to change their country. The situation came to a head on July 14th, 1789, when the people of France stormed the prison-fortress, the Bastille.


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