The French Revolution

International: struggle for control and Empire outstrips the government revenue resources of the state

Political conflict: conflict between the Monarchy and the nobility over the “reform” of the tax system led to paralysis and bankruptcy.

The Enlightenment: impulse for reform intensifies political conflicts; reinforces traditional aristocratic constitutionalism, one unmovable of which was laid out in Montesquieu's Spirit of the Laws; introduces new notions of good government, the most radical being popular sovereignty, as in Rousseau’s Social Contract [1762]; the attack on the regime and privileged class by the Literary Underground of “Grub Street;” the broadening influence of public opinion.

Social antagonisms between two rising groups: the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie

Ineffective ruler: Louis XVI

Economic hardship

The French Revolution was essentially a class war between the emerging Bourgeoisie     against the Privileged class, this meant they saw the Privileged class as the only hurdle between themselves and equality within French society. Many of the ideas they pursued stemmed from the enlightenment and they believed that in order to gain their full economic, social and political potential and gain equality, the Bourgeoisie had to eradicate the privileges that were halting their rise in society. To do this they had to seize power for themselves and gaining power within the government and making badly needed changes, such as, improving the tax system, creating a fair system of production where profits went to the producer, improving the whole fiscal system of the government, improving the geographical divisions of France and the problems they caused, plus many more. The revolution was a fight for equality and recognition by the Bourgeoisie, it was not a revolt against poverty, for many of the French people had been living in poverty for centuries and had learnt to live with it.

For more than a century before the accession of Louis XVI in 1774, the French government had undergone periodic economic crises, resulting from the long wars waged during the reign of Louis XIV, royal mismanagement of national affairs under Louis XV, the losses incurred in the French and Indian War (1756-63), and increased indebtedness arising from loans to the American colonies during the American Revolution (1775-83). The advocates of fiscal, social, and governmental reform became increasingly vocal during the reign of Louis XVI. In August 1774, Louis appointed a liberal comptroller general, the economist Anne Robert Jacques Turgot, baron de L'Aulne, who instituted a policy of strict economy in government expenditures. Within two years, however, most of the reforms had been withdrawn and his dismissal forced by reactionary members of the nobility and clergy, supported by Queen Marie Antoinette. Turgot's successor, the financier and statesman Jacques Necker, similarly accomplished little before his downfall in 1781, also because of opposition from the reactionaries. Nevertheless, he won popular acclaim by publishing an accounting of the royal finances, which revealed the heavy cost of privileges and favoritism. During the next few years the financial crisis steadily worsened. Popular demand for convocation of the Estates-General (an assembly made up of representatives of the clergy, the nobility, and the commoners), which had been in adjournment since 1614, finally compelled Louis XVI in 1788 to authorize national elections. During the ensuing campaign, censorship was suspended, and a flood of pamphlets expressing ideas derived from the Enlightenment circulated throughout France. Necker, who was reinstated as comptroller general by Louis in 1788, supported the king in his decision that the third estate (commoners) would have as many representatives in the Estates-General as the first estate (the clergy) and the second estate (the nobility) combined, but both he and Louis failed to make a ruling on the method of voting.

On April 6 the convention established the Committee of Public Safety as the executive organ of the republic and reorganized the Committee of General Security and the Revolutionary Tribunal. Agents were sent to the departments to supervise local execution of the laws and to requisition men and munitions. During this period rivalry between the Girondists and the Montagnards became increasingly bitter. A new Parisian outburst, organized by the radical journalist Jacques René Hébert and his extremist colleagues, forced the convention to order the arrest of 29 Girondist delegates and the Girondist ministers Pierre Henri Hélène Marie Lebrun-Tondu and Étienne Clavière on June 2. Thereafter, the radical faction in control of the government of Paris played a decisive role in the conduct of the Revolution. On June 24 the convention promulgated a new constitution, the terms of which greatly extended the democratic features of the republic. The document was never actually put into effect, however. Leadership of the Committee of Public Safety passed, on July 10, to the Jacobins, who completely reorganized it. Three days later the radical politician Jean Paul Marat, long identified with the Jacobins, was assassinated by the aristocrat Charlotte Corday, a Girondist sympathizer. Public indignation over this crime considerably broadened the Jacobin sphere of influence. On July 27 the Jacobin leader Maximilien Robespierre was added to the Committee of Public Safety and soon became its dominant member. Aided by Louis Saint-Just, Lazare Carnot, Georges Couthon, and other prominent Jacobins, Robespierre instituted extreme policies to crush any possibility of counterrevolution. The powers of the committee were renewed monthly by the National Convention from April 1793 to July 1794, a period known in history as the Reign of Terror.

The more intangible results of the Revolution were embodied in its watchwords, “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.” These ideals became the platform of liberal reforms in France and Europe in the 19th century and remain the present-day passwords of democracy. Revisionist historians, however, attribute to the Revolution less laudable effects, such as the rise of the highly centralized (often totalitarian) state and mass warfare involving total wars of nations-in-arms.