The French Revolution is a much debated moment in history, in terms of its intent, its causes, and its effects. Being on the brink of early modern and modern history, there is discussion as to whether this can be identified as the ‘trigger’ of the modern period. There is widespread agreement that it was an iconic moment in the developing ‘Age of Revolution’, but we must be careful not to add anachronistic labels to the Revolution, and remember what the actual achievements of it were.
The French Revolution is easier to understand when it is put into its correct context. Pre-Revolutionary France was made up of around 80% rural dwellings reliant on or directly involved with agriculture. Society was organised into three tiers, known as “Estates of the Realm”. The First Estate was comprised of clergy, the Second of nobility and the Third Estate included ‘everyone else’ in society, including the newly emerging bourgeoisie class.
Power in France resided almost exclusively with the King, as an absolute ruler who executed his power through the ‘Letter de Cachet’, which were sealed arbitrary orders with no right of appeal. Absolute power included powers over taxation, which was put heavily and disproportionately upon the bourgeoisie and peasantry. The wealthy nobility were exempt from Crown taxes despite attempts by some French monarchs to change this. This led to the nobility becoming more and more unpopular with the growing bourgeois class and general dissatisfaction. France was also cripplingly in debt. The financial situation was only exacerbated by Louis XV, who held an extravagant and extremely expensive court at Versailles and his successor Louis XVI was reluctant or simply unable to make any changes. Massive loans were taken out to support unnecessary wars, including the Seven Years War that France lost and their part in the American Revolution that gained them nothing. Compared to England’s loans, these were taken out at a much higher interest rate.
The growing bourgeois class also came with an increasingly uncensorable public sphere. In the eighteenth-century, there was a boom in newspapers, journals, and coffee houses and whilst these would have been heavily censored, it would have been impossible to censor what people were thinking privately, and people’s unspoken opinions on important matters. Urbanisation meant that Paris had one of the largest concentrations of intellectual, enlightened thought which created a thriving debate forum. The public opinion increasingly began to demand the right to decide policy, superseding the royal court and questioning the authority of the Church and the legitimacy of monarchical power.
There were also a few short term factors that helped aggravate the situation. The Agrarian Crisis in 1788-89 coincided with the deregulation of the grain market, leading to a massive increase in grain prices and massive inflation. But the underlying tensions and increase in public debate led to a dramatic standoff between government, monarch and people, and create a Revolution not uncommonly seen as the beginning of the modern world.