As you all know, the French Revolution was a long period of social and political upheaval in France and its various colonies which began in 1789 and ended in 1799 with the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte. A combination of social, economic, intellectual and political reasons led to this revolution.
Let us look at the causes of the revolution one by one.
The very first reason for the outbreak of the revolution was the bankruptcy of the treasury. Under the French king Louis XVI, France had helped thirteen American colonies in gaining freedom from their common enemy- Britain. The French government had spent a lot of money on the war and had incurred a debt of over 2 billion livres. The treasury was being used up for paying back the loans which the government had taken and to maintain Louis XVI’s flamboyant and extravagant court at the palace of Versailles. Thus, to meet its regular expenses like maintaining the army, the court, the universities, running of government establishments etc, the government had to increase the taxes.
Now, we first need to understand that the French society was divided into three estates or classes- the Clergy, the nobility and the peasantry. The first two estates enjoyed a lot of privileges which included exemption from paying taxes. Hence, now the entire tax burden was on the shoulders of the poor peasantry who did not even have the resources to afford a decent living. Thus, this new burden of paying increased taxes enraged them.
- STRUGGLE TO SURVIVE
The second reason which led to resentment amongst the French was the struggle they had to go through for survival. The population had increased from 23 million to about 28 million between 1715 and 1789. This led to an increase in the demand for bread but unfortunately, the production of grain did not grow in tandem with the rise in demand. Thus, the price of the bread rose rapidly.
Now since the wages of the workers were fixed, they could not afford buying bread at increased prices which led to widespread hunger and malnutrition amongst the people and the economic gap between the rich and the poor also increased.
- GROWING MIDDLE CLASS
The third reason was the growth of a middle class. Throughout the 17th and the 18th century, there was a growth in the production of textiles and subsequent rise in overseas trade. Consequently, by the 18th century, a new middle class emerged which was engaged in this trade. The members of this class believed that no group in the society should be privileged by birth. Rather, a person’s social position must depend on his merit. Philosophers like John Locke and Rousseau put forward the idea of a society based on freedom and equality. Their ideas slowly became popular amongst the common people who would widely discuss their philosophies in salons and coffee houses.
- ADMINISTRATIVE ISSUES
The last reason was the inefficiency and corruption in the administration, which did not pay attention to the peasantry. Added to this was the injustice the third estate (which was essentially the peasantry) was facing because of its social position.
Hence, all these reasons forced the people of France to attack the wealthy aristocratic class including the monarch.