To What Extent Was The French Revolution Caused By Economic Depression

.. ep any extra, direct taxes were collected by accountants (venal office holders who bought their positions and could not be dismissed), they often used the money for their own purposes. The lack of a central treasury meant that the comptroller-general could not track the fiancs of the country; it was therefore difficult to judge how much money there was to spend. Due to the lack of money being received through taxes, the government had to borrow money, so payment of interest became a large part of government expenditure in the eighteenth century. The lack of fiscal equality and the circumstances under which taxation was issued (unsuccessful wars) caused great resentment among the third estate, it caused them to want change and to have a say in the way the country was run.

These long-term problems caused a number of short-term problems, beginning with the summoning of the Estates-General. After Turgot was dismissed in 1776, the king appointed Necker who forced him to make all classes to pay tax. However, the 13 parlements (which had to vote for an act in order for it to be passed) opposed many of the royal edicts, which proposed change to the system of taxation and proclaimed that any change in the system of taxation ought to be voted on by the nation, so immediately an estates-general was set up. It was hoped that this would remedy the problem over taxation but this only caused more dislike for the monarchy and for the classes to firstly become hostile toward each other, and then united in the fight against the monarchy. When the first and second estates called for a vote on the matter of taxation, the third estate declared that they should have double representation and voting by head instead of order (each person’s vote counted instead of each estate).

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This was so that issues concerning inequality might not go unheard. On June 20th 1789, the members of the third estate went to the Hotel des menus for a meeting that had been called to sort out the conflict between the estates however, the door was locked in order to prepare for a royal session. They then went to a nearby tennis court where they made an oath: “Let us swear to God and our country that we will not disperse until we have established a sound and just constitution, as instructed by those who nominated us”. They then decided to call themselves the ‘National Assembly’ and following this, 151 clergy and 47 nobles joined the third estate, and the estates were now united – against the king. Another of the short-term problems was to do with agriculture.

In the late 1700’s 20 million of the 26 million people in France lived from land. Many peasants were too poor to afford their own livestock to many of them were metayers or sharecroppers. This meant that the landlord provided the equipment and livestock in exchange for the labour and half of the produce of the peasants. Peasants with minimum income found it extremely difficult as they had to give up almost everything they had; half of produce to the lord, paid feudal dues (fees they had to pay to the lord to use his mill, oven, wine press, breeding stock, death taxes, inheritance taxes, and sale-of-property taxes) and also the taxes demanded by landlord, church and state. As the country edged more and more towards bankruptcy the peasants were faced with tax inflation, this caused great tension between second and third estates.

A lot of the people from the third estates were the lords who were responsible for the growing burden of seigneural dues. Had the nobles paid taxes, the burden on the peasants would have been considerably less, as it would have been more spread out amongst the population. In the years of 1769-71, 1778-79, 1781-82, 1785-86 and 1788-89 there were repeated harvest failures due to drought and other natural disasters, causing there to be a shortage of food leaving the country in recession. This caused there to be less demand for manufactured goods, causing peasants and urban workers to become unemployed. This was disastrous for them because the food prices were going up and because they were now unemployed they had no income to pay for their food, this caused over 70% of the population to be in famine, while the other 30% were either just being able to get along or benefiting from the rise in prices. Normally, a worker would spend up to 50% of his earnings on bread, but between August 1788 and February 1789 prices had gone up by 50%. So by the time it got to spring 1789, a worker would find himself paying 88% of his wages on bread.

This famine, which spread across the country, caused a number of riots from peasants. On April 28th the house and factory of a wallpaper manufacturer – Reveillon – was burned down because it was rumoured that he would reduce the wages of his workers, Also, some peasants in Versailles entered the kings palace and threatened to kill Marie Antoinette demanding that they give them bread it was clear to see that they were in desperation, and this just showed the lengths they were willing to go to. The peasantry, who, for centuries had remained completely content in their social position were now making sure that their voice was heard in the only way they could – through violence. The tension between the estates and the monarchy and against each other was becoming disastrous and changes had to be made. Peasants started to listen to the ideas of the bourgeoisie, who had adopted revolutionary ideas from America (because a lot of them went to fight there).

The peasants related to the hardships of the bourgeoisie but it seemed that although they were fighting to defend the rights of the third estate by establishing a constitution, they had lost track of what was really wrong – the famine. The peasants and the bourgeoisie started to become divided in their priorities. Before, they were united against the monarchy, but the problems with agriculture and inflation meant that the peasantry was much worse off, causing them to want different things, especially within the economy. The peasantry wanted a controlled economy with no free trade, while the bourgeoisie wanted free trade and a completely capitalist state. The ideas of the enlightenment evoked revolutionary ideas in both second and third estates although many of the ideas of the philosophes themselves were not entirely revolutionary.

The ideas of such people as Montesquieu, Voltaire, Diderot and Rousseau were able to reach everyone, as there was a rise in literacy and publishing. The need for equality and freedom was reflected in the work of Rousseau and Voltaire and the concepts of general will was founded on the basis of Rousseau’s “Forcing Man to be Free”. The “Declaration des Droits de L’homme et du citroyen” (Declaration of the rights of man) caused people to question the ‘letters de cachet’ (the rights that the king had to imprison someone at his own will) however, it did not in any way mention a change in the way the peasants were able to have a say in the social or political aspects. Philosophical thinkers such as Overall, we cannot put the cause of the revolution completely down to the economic distress that the country was facing as this was only really aimed at the peasants. For a revolution to occur, there would need to be a swift, radical change in social, economical and ideological beliefs, so there must have been a huge problem in all three of these areas to begin with, not just one. Past problems with the wars (e.g.

the seven years war) caused the country to be in debt as well as causing resentment amongst the people and for them to question how successful the monarchy was. It was left to the peasants to carry the load of the debts, which kept on increasing while the first and second estate did not have to pay any taxes, this made them aware of the unfairness of the social hierarchy. They became even more aware of this when they faced starvation and the wealthy landowners benefited in the high prices of grain causing them to want a change in the economical situation of the country (more controlled and less free trade). The nobility could hold as much blame for the revolution as the king as they were the people who made up the parlement and refused to accept any reform to taxes, which was what caused the most conflict. Although the monarchy and church blamed the philosophers of the enlightenment for spreading revolutionary ideas, their ideas were not actually revolutionary.

The church was worried because their beliefs brought about an alternative to Christianity and the social hierarchy, which they had lived with for so long European History.


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