Causes of the French Revolution

As the world neared the end of the 1700s, it was apparent that France had established itself as one of the wealthiest and most powerful countries in Europe. Although the individuals in the poorest classes would never reap the benefits of that status, France had positioned itself highly among the other European nations. However, the status quo could not prevail, and within a few short years, the French Revolution would completely capsize all sense of normalcy that had pervaded the country for so long. This Revolution would eventually result in the death of the King, his wife, and others. The causes can be narrowed to five main factors: the Estate System, Absolutism, ideas stemming from the Enlightenment, food shortages, and The American Revolution.

The Estate System in France was essentially a caste system that ranked and placed people into groups based on wealth and power. Those in the highest tier, the 1st Estate, were the most powerful. Those in the lowest, the 3rd Estate, were the poorest, had the fewest rights, and paid half their income in taxes. This created resentment toward the nobility and the church, who all comprised the highest levels of the Estate System.

To further fuel the anger of the French population - 90% of which was in the 3rd Estate - King Louis XVI had absolute power over his subjects, a practice known as absolutism. Louis XVI was convinced that his status came from God, and that gave him the right to maintain the highest level of power in the country.

It was quite common for Louis XVI to ensure that the people in the highest tiers of society were taken care of, and that they had adequate amounts of food. Conversely, the bottom tiers of society were practically starving. Food shortages ravaged the country, and there was a low supply of bread due to poor harvests. Thus, as the demand for bread increased, so did the prices of bread, since it was so hard to come by. This in turn increased tension and anger among the 3rd Estate individuals.

Many ideas about how society and government should work were emerging around this time. These ideas would come primarily from the Age of Enlightenment, or the period of time in which thinkers promoted concepts such as science and reasoning over tradition. Enlightened thinkers championed new ideas regarding government, equality, and democracy.

The people of France were also inspired by the American Revolution in which America had successfully gained independence from Britain. This served as an example of a proper revolution, and provided a sort of guideline as to how a country could revolt against its oppressor.


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