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.