French Revolution, also frequently referred to as the Revolution of 1789, represented a movement that took place in France from 1787 to 1799 and reached its first climax there in 1789. The term “Revolution of 1789,” is denoting the end of the ancien régime in France and serving as a distinguishment of an event from the later French revolutions of 1830 and 1848.
Origins of the Revolution
The French Revolution had reasons that were common to all the revolutions of the West that took place at the end of the 18th century and particular purposes that describe why it is considered by far the most violent and the most significant of these revolutions. The first of the general elements was the social structure of the West. The feudal regime had been reduced step-by-step and had already passed in parts of Europe. The numerous and wealthy elite of rich commoners like manufacturers, merchants, and professionals, often referred to as the bourgeoisie—sought to increase political influence in those countries where it did not already hold it. The peasants, many of whom had land, had achieved an advanced level of living as well as education and wanted to get rid of the last vestiges of feudalism to acquire the absolute rights of landowners and to be able to increase their holdings.
Furthermore, from about 1730, raised standards of living had considerably decreased the mortality rate among adults, which, together with other factors, had led to a growth in the population of Europe unprecedented for a few centuries. In essence, it doubled between 1715 and 1800. For France, which with 26 million citizens in 1789, was the most populated country of Europe, the problem was most acute.
Increase of population
A larger population formed a higher demand for food and other consumer goods. The discovery of different gold mines in Brazil had commenced a significant rise in prices throughout the West from about 1730, showing the prosperity of the economic situation. From about 1770, this trend decreased, and financial crises, provoking alarm and even revolt, became common.
Arguments and challenges
Arguments for social reform started to advance. The philosophes—intellectuals whose works inspired these arguments—were undoubtedly affected by 17th-century theorists such as Benedict de Spinoza, René Descartes, and John Locke. Still, they came to very different conclusions about political, social, and economic matters. A revolution seemed essential to apply the ideas of Voltaire, Montesquieu, or Jean-Jacques Rousseau. This Enlightenment was spread between the educated classes by the many “societies of thought” that were established at that time: agricultural societies, masonic lodges, and reading rooms.
It is uncertain, however, whether a revolution would have come without the added presence of a political crisis. Challenged with the massive expenditure that the wars of the 18th century entailed, the leaders of Europe attempted to raise money by taxing the nobles and clergy. This method in most countries had hitherto been exempt, but to justify it, the rulers similarly invoked the arguments of radical thinkers by adopting the role of “enlightened despots.” This motivated reaction throughout Europe from privileged bodies, diets, and estates. In North America, this backlash provoked the American Revolution, which started with the refusal to pay a tax commanded by the king of Great Britain. Monarchs tried to prevent this reaction of the aristocracy, and both rulers and the privileged classes sought allies among the peasants and nonprivileged bourgeois.
Commonly named causes
Even though the scholarly debate about the exact roots of the Revolution continues, the following reasons are frequently mentioned: