The previous post explained some of the proposed causes of the French Revolution, both long and short term. This post will deal with the immediate lead up to the Revolution and the Revolution itself.
France was now bankrupt, due to its expensive wars and the monarch’s ludicrous spending habits. The already overburdened bourgeoisie could not pay more tax and nor could the peasantry, so Louis XVI attempted to impose taxes on the nobility that they had previously been exempt from. The nobility refused to pay the tax. In an attempt to resolve the deadlock that he was faced with, the King called the Estates General in May 1789, which was a body consisting of representatives of the clergy, nobility and the rest of the population. Elections were held to elect the representatives for the Third Estate, in which all tax paying men over twenty-five had the franchise. The Third Estate called for genuine representation of the people; they wanted equal votes to the Second and Third Estate combined and equal taxation across all the Estates.
However, the Estates General failed- there was an irreconcilable difference in the opinions of the Estates; the nobility did not believe that commoners should have power whereas commoners believed the true power was with them. There were also disagreements in how voting should be done, whether it should be by Estate, or by members. These differences became too difficult to get anything done, and instead, the Third Estate formed an alternative group, the National Assembly. This ran from June to July of 1789 and declared that it was not of the Estates but of the people, refusing to recognise the authority of the King and looked to the support of emerging capitalists.
One of the most important actions of the National Assembly was to create the Tennis Court Oath, in which its members swore: “not to separate, and to reassemble wherever circumstances require until the constitution of the kingdom is established”. The clergy voted to join with the Assembly as well as some of the nobility. The situation quickly spiralled downwards and tension skyrocketed when Louis brought in troops, French and foreign mercenaries, which caused outrage. The National Assembly reconvened as the National Constituent Assembly and demanded the withdrawal of troops. By now Paris was at fever pitch.
Just before the Estates General Assembled, the French government had lifted censorship to allow debates over the voting in the Third Estate, and Paris’s public sphere had exploded into a fevered political discussion, and the age of enlightened thought had brought radical new ideas that were spread rapidly over Paris by pamphlets and newspapers. The calling of the King’s troops seemed to be the last straw that ignited the city in revolt. On 14th July the Bastille, a weapons store and symbol of royal power was stormed, and the King backed down amidst the violence. Order around France quickly broke down and attacks on chateaus of the nobility were common.
In August, the National Assembly abolished feudalism, revoked the privileges of the nobility, and swept away Church tithes. They also established the Rights of Man and His Citizen, which stipulated that amongst other things; all men are born free and equal in rights, the need for public tax and equal contribution, and that sovereignty lies in the nation. In 1791 the Constitution is established, but the following year the constitutional monarchy fail and are executed.
There is no doubt that the French Revolution is one of the pivotal points in history and this brief outline of events is unable to capture and explain every detail of the Revolution.The next post in will explain some of the longer term results of the Revolution and its significance in history, which is undeniably far-reaching yet much debated.