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Causes of The French Revolution
By: Jason Frezza

The boulevards were like all the other streets, brilliantly illuminated, with immense
numbers of people walking up and down on this late February evening. Men, women, and
children were rejoicing, as the terrible struggles of the day had ceased. Near the Hotel
des Capucines there was a heavy force of military troops, who’s main purpose seemed to be
directing traffic. All was tranquil for some time; presently a column of unarmed students
and artisans marched down the boulevard singing. Suddenly a shot echoed throughout the
city, an entire squadron of troops charged the crowd with muskets blazing and swords
drawn. Percy B. St John was an eyewitness to the events herein described; the following
was taken from his notes compiled at the time. “The sight was awful. Husbands were seen
dragging their fainting wives from the massacre; fathers snatching up their children, with
pale faces and clenched teeth, hurried away to put their young ones in safety, and then to
come out in arms against the monarchy. Women clung to railings, trees, or to a wall, or
fell fainting on the stones… Afterwards Utter strangers would be seen shaking hands and
congratulating one another on their escape.”1 Shortly after the deputy General, commanding
the National Guard was on the spot making inquiries into the cause of this most tragic and
atrocious event. The Deputy addressed the Colonel, who commanded the squadron with this
remark...”you have committed an action, unworthy of a French soldier.” The Colonel,
overwhelmed with shame, replied that the order to fire was a mistake. Apparently a
soldiers gun had gone off, accidentally striking his horse’s leg in the process. The
Colonel, thinking he was under attack, gave the order to discharge. At this the Deputy
replied, “you are soldier, I believe in your good faith; but remember that an awful
responsibility rests on your head.” A tremendous responsibility indeed, for because of
this action, the Colonel had started a flame that would eventually engulf the entire
monarchy. In his journal Percy B. St John gives a frighteningly accurate description of
what it was like to be a citizen living in France during the French Revolution. Although
he does not delve into the politics or causes behind the Revolution, he does give the
reader a unique opportunity to explore the thoughts and opinions of the common people
living in France, as told in the first person perspective. There have been numerous books
written about the French Revolution, not surprisingly since it’s still one of the most
controversial events in modern history. One such book is simply called The French
Revolution and is written by a Frenchman named George Rudé. The core of the book is a
fairly straightforward narrative account, covering social and economic changes, as well as
political and military events. The book starts off with the question “Why was there a
Revolution in France?” and finishes discussing the effects on Europe and the world.
However Rudé’s inclusion of a brief historical outline in his book is particularly
welcome. Rudé goes on to describe the basic causes of the French Revolution “to be rooted
in the rigidities of French Society, particularly in the 18th century nobility.”2 Lines of
distinction between classes were tightly drawn, and opportunities for social advancement
were very few. Rudé goes on to say the economy was not growing as fast as it should have
been. The needs of an increasing population were not being met. Crops failed, and trade
was stagnant. The people could no longer be taxed, but the revenue had to come from
somewhere. The only solution was to tax the privileged classes. Many people of this class
were not completely willing to contribute to additional taxes, according to Rudé, most
didn’t care, or just didn’t know how bad the current economy was. When the French aided
the Americans during the American Revolution, they sent men, ships, and guns as well as
financial aid. As a result, the budget of the French government was thrown out of balance.
It was soon necessary to vote new taxes after economic depression made the growing dept
even greater. But the king’s power was not absolute; no new taxes could be decreed unless
registered in the district courts. However since the courts consisted mainly of the
privileged class, who were always ready to oppose the king, Louis XVI had to find another
way to legalize his edicts. As a result the States-General was called and convened in May
1789. After persuasion by the nobility, they converted themselves into The National
Assembly in June 17, 1789. They then proceeded to draw up a new constitution for France,
which the king was forced to accept. Louis plan of tax reform had turned against him.
France proceeded deeper and deeper into debt as bad crops and famine contributed to
unrest. On July 14 a Paris mob stormed and demolished Bastille, an old fortress housing
political prisoners. The storming of the Bastille’s was carried out by the peasants. It
also signified the start of the Le Grande Peur. The Le Grand Peur was a period in which
the popular masses rose up and attacked the nobility and privileged few.3 The National
Convention, which reigned from September 1791, to October 1795, was the government that
executed the king in 1793. David Dowd, a New Yorker and author of The French Revolution
offers a slightly different perspective to this much debated event. Dowd believes the
French Monarchy was successful in running deficit budget after deficit budget. This was
aided by large costs brought on from previous spending by Lois XV and Louis XIV. This did
not stop Louis XVI from adding to the troubles. Dowd is less generous toward the actions
of Louis XVI. He argues that a stronger king would have been able to crush the nobility or
to force taxes upon them. Instead Louis was insistent on not annoying the nobility.
Therefore Louis had to borrow the differences in expenditures and revenue, this action saw
a constant loan cycle develop. When Turgot tried to stop this he was overthrown by Marie
Antoinette’s hatred of him and the nobility’s wish to see him fired. When Turgot tried to
change this Necker replaced him as financial manager; this showed the power that the
nobility had over the king regarding tax concessions. Dowd continues to say that Louis was
more concerned with his own personal interests than that of the State and the Court. Often
these matters bored him and he left it up to his advisors and ministers. Even worse he
would make hasty decisions that would cause more consequences to France. Dowd argues
government was inefficient and unrepresentative; that France’s support for the American
Revolution was more a revenge policy by the monarchy after France’s drawn out Seven Year’s
War with England. Dowd believes that Louis XVI should have been capable of overcoming his
problems with the nobility. He should also never have allowed himself to call the
Estates-General. Instead Dowd discusses the possibility of mild reforms to gain the
support of the public again.4 Financial problems in the year 1788 proved to be a trying
time for all. All classes were discontent at the Ancien regime and wanted change. Louis
XVI did not take advantage of this situation to introduce reforms and gain the support of
the people. A few reforms would have prevented Lois from summoning the Estates General.
Instead this provided a stronger force against absolutism in France. When the nobility
decided to reject the king’s vote at the Estates General, Louis decided to close down
their assembly hall. However the third estate, now calling themselves The National
Assembly, vowed to crush the monarchy. This marked the beginning of the end for Louis. All
four books offer a unique outlook on the causes of the French Revolution. Each one
contains particular information and/or theories pertaining to this unfortunate and highly
disputable period of our modern history. Bibliography Braudel, Fernand. Capitalism and
Material Life 1400-1800. Miriam Kochan (tr.). 1973 Dowd, David L. The French Revolution.
New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1965. Percy B. St. John, The French Revolution
of 1848: The Three Days of February, New York, 1848. Rudé, George. The French Revolution.
London: Phoenix, 1988.


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