Some sections here focus on breadth, while others concentrate on depth. Some relate internal debates among historians, while others survey the landscape of discussion. Some concentrate on the changes within a subfield, while others tend to explain how the subfield has impacted broader interpretations. The intellectual history essay by Jack Censer reveals the centrality of politics to current scholarly debates about the intellectual forces—including both ideas or systems of ideas languages —that led to the eruption of the Revolution in The essay on cultural history by Sophia Rosenfeld explains the powerful jolt given to revolutionary historiography by historians who examine culture as a set of assumptions that frame understanding, as well as a set of activities and texts, including the theater, revolutionary songs, and more.
Exploring global history, the newest field of inquiry in the study of the French Revolution, Paul Cheney describes the worldwide interactions that developed in the eighteenth century, for better and worse. Although historians often cast the Revolution as reinforcing traditional sexual norms, Suzanne Desan in her analysis of gender historiography powerfully argues that the Revolution also enabled a broader elaboration of gender roles.
Likewise, in the essay on political history, Paul Hanson confounds the usual tendency to make Paris the geographical focus of political history and insists instead on the potent role played by the provinces. From these different perspectives emerge an up-to-date road map, at least for the present. Oxford University Press is a department of the University of Oxford. It furthers the University's objective of excellence in research, scholarship, and education by publishing worldwide.
Sign In or Create an Account. Sign In. Advanced Search. Article Navigation. Close mobile search navigation Article Navigation. Volume Article Contents. Address correspondence to Jack R. Censer, jcenser gmu. Oxford Academic. Google Scholar. Cite Citation. Permissions Icon Permissions. Besides, many- nobles sank into poverty as a result of indulging in heavy drinking, gambling and profligation.
During the idle and weak rule of Louis XVI, the feudal lords made efforts to revive their lost political prestige but their objective was frustrated although they hatched on several conspiracies.
Eventually they became supporters of political upheavals. That is why they supported the demand for convening a session of the Estates General. The intellectual philosophers of France exposed inequality, corruption, and religious superstitions rampant in the French society and lay bare before the public the profligate living of the nobility.
Voltaire slashed the Church by exposing the luxurious ways of priests. Rousseau gave top priority to public will. He emphasized that the ruler should be accountable to the public and the public is fully empowered to dethrone a king who neglects them. Montesquieu introduced the outstanding concept of the separation of powers in order to specify the functions of different organs of the government.
On the strength of their writings, the French intellectuals produced an intellectual atmosphere in the French public and prepared a psychological basis for the revolution. Impressed by the thoughts of the learned writers of the 18th century, the administration in many European states had begun to flow towards public not withstanding absolute monarchy. Under the spell of the intellectual absolute reign, many steps were taken for public welfare and promotion of business. Prior to the revolution, there had been no other intellectual and liberal rulers than the Prussian ruler Frederick, the Great the Austrian emperor Joseph II , the Russian empress Catherine the Great , and the Spanish ruler Charles III If in view of changing times France had adopted intellectual absolutism in place of hereditary despotism the revolution could have been averted for some time.
It should be remembered that to run the centralized state, it is imperative that the ruler should have intelligence and an impressive personality, but Louis XV and Louis XVI proved to be incompetent rulers. Needless to say, a conscious group is required to understand the concept of revolution and France had such an enlightened group.
Other countries of Europe were devoid of the rich, progressive and vigilant middle-class. Even after enjoying a good economic status, the middle-class was not rewarded with influential ranks in the French government and it perturbed them, the middle-class was much impressed by the French intellectuals. It did not enjoy social esteem also. Hence they wanted to strengthen their social positions. In addition to it, the nobility ridiculed the middle-class on so many occasions. The incident of bankruptcy of France annoyed the middle-class because many members of the middle-class had lent enough money to the government.
Therefore, they wanted a change in the contemporary political and social organization. Besides, because of several restrictions on business they desired for a change in the government. It was the middle-class which led the peasant to revolt successfully. The French farmers had little concern that they were completely deprived of political rights but the huge burden of taxes nailed them to abject poverty. On the whole, the middle-class played a decisive role in the French revolution.
Nowhere in history do we find any other middle-class which could be a match for the intelligent and progressive middle-class of France at the time of revolution. The peoples of other countries of Europe were facing man difficulties at that time but there was nobody to steer the cause of adverse circumstances and stand as an ideal. Therefore, revolution did not occur in other countries. The French capital Paris had become the hub of political and administrative activities. That is why the entire nation greeted the revolutionary forces when they took possession of Paris.
In other countries of Europe, centralized administration was either absent or in an elementary stage. It follows that the reactionary steps taken in a province did hardly influence other parts of the country. Further the distress at the center did not affect other provinces because the provincial rulers were not bound to wait for the orders issued by the central rulers. But the matter in France was different because of the excessive centralization of administration; a slight commotion in Paris influenced the entire country. Unlike France, a few select people did not accumulate immense wealth in other parts of Europe.
In other countries, feudal lords lived among their dependent farmers and money did not flow from villages to cities. But the entire money of villages in France flowed from villages and got pooled in a few cities. Therefore, farmers would seek the help of rich feudal barons in cities whenever, famine struck villages as it happened in the winter of They would make a comparative study of the severity of famine and the paying capacity of farmers. In this way, the incompatible conditions like abject poverty and miseries of the lower class and immerse wealth and luxurious living of the feudal lords proved conducive to the revolution.
After gaining victory in the war of American independence, when the French soldiers came back to France, it flashed through their mind that they should strive hard to better their bitter conditions as they had redeemed America from the cruelties of England. Such an idea did not strike the mind of soldiers in other countries. Besides it, the war of American independence influenced France in so many ways.
In other words, the public is the real master of the sovereign authority not the king or the ruler. In this way, the war of American independence injected new political awareness in France.
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The French army was also discontent with the government. Soldiers had not been paid their salaries for many months. They got neither good clothes nor good food. The armed forces of other countries were not displeased so bitterly with their respective rulers. The army showed readiness in suppressing any revolt against the government. But the discontent among the French soldiers had reached such a disgusting level that they cooperated and supported the revolutionaries. In a nut-shell, we may conclude that a great revolution erupted only in France because of certain pinching factors like an enlightened middle-class, disgusting feudal set up, an irresistible greed among the feudal lords for catching political power, a perpetual influence of the philosophers, want of competent rulers, a strong desire in farmers for improvement in their wretched condition, great importance of Paris, decisive participation in the war of American independence and great discontent among soldiers.
Three factors, in particular, contributed to the breakdown that produced revolution.
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The first was inability of the monarch to carry forward the centralized administrative processes, which Louis XIV had instituted, and which even he had found it difficult to sustain. When Louis XVI had pressed for new taxes to be levied on the nobility as well as the rest of the community after the expensive Seven Years War, the Parliaments successfully blocked the proposal, insisting upon their right to exemption from major national taxes. The Paris Parliament, whose members claimed that Turgot was trampling upon ancient prerogatives and privileges as indeed he was, steadfastly and successfully opposed these innovations.
The continued opposition to centralization on the part of the aristocracy was a symptom of the second major factor contributing to the outbreak of revolution; growing antagonism within and between the various social orders that composed French society.
There was tension within the Roman Catholic Church, the so-called first estate of the realm. Its rulers- bishops, archbishops, and cardinals were in the main recruited from the aristocracy. They enjoyed large incomes, derived from property that had been willed to the Church over the centuries and that the Church continued to claim-successfully-was exempt from taxation by the state.
Income from both property and tithe was inequitably distributed among the ranks of the clergy. Parish priests received very little. This imbalance in the distribution of revenues was resented not only by the priests, but by peasant tithe payers, who hated to see their taxes spent to support a distant and haughty ecclesiastical hierarchy, rather than their own, often very deserving, local clergy.
Included in this group were talented men such as the philosopher the baron de Montesquieu, the lawyer the Comte de Miradeau, and the statesman the marquis de Lafayette, who had represented France in America at the time of the revolutionary war. Among these nobles of the robe were men who would play prominent roles in the French Revolution. In contrast to this group stood the nobles of the sword or noblesse de race, as the group enjoyed calling itself whose title extended back to the Middle Ages. These aristocrats regarded the nobles of the robe as upstarts.
In general, they lived at the royal court at Versailles, where they enjoyed making political mischief, leaving the management of their estates to bailiffs. In , they pressed successfully for a law which restricted the sale of military commissions to men whose aristocratic lineage extended back at least four generations. If they could not prevent the general debasing of their order, they reasoned, they could at least ensure that the army remained their preserve. The tensions between the nobles of the robe and the sword kept the aristocracy fragmented and at odds with itself, and hence unable to form together into anything more than a negative and potentially destructive force.
Another social group, urban middle class or the Bourgeoisie, a large group, was by no means homogeneous. At the top stood government officials, talented professionals, and large-scale financiers and merchants.
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Lesser nobles were to be found throughout the ranks of the 3rd estate. Movement from the upper ranks of the 3rd estate into the nobility had been possible in the past for wealthy, ambitious members of the middle orders. Yet to increasing numbers of the urban bourgeoisie it appeared by about that the nobility of the sword was more determined than ever to turn back their advances.
They were now excluded from participation in the political life of the nation. No matter how much money a merchant, manufacturer, banker, or lawyer might acquire, he was still excluded from political privileges. He had almost no influence at the court; he could not hold high political office; and except in the choice of a few petty local officers, he could not even vote. As the middle orders achieved affluence and greater self-esteem, their members were bound to resent such discrimination. Above all, it was the demand of the commercial, financial, and industrial leaders for political power commensurate with their economic position that turned members of the third estate into revolutionaries.
The hatred rural peasants felt for their aristocratic overlords dwarfed resentment of the aristocracy on the part of the urban bourgeoisie. In addition, peasants were forced to pay a disproportionate share of both direct and indirect taxes the most onerous of which was the gabelle or salt tax levied by the government. For some time the production of salt had been a state monopoly; every individual was required to buy at least 7 pounds a year from the government works.
The result was commodity whose cost was often as much as 50 or 60 times its actual value. During the 18th century they also came under pressure as a result of the increasingly frequent enclosure of what had been common land. These common lands, particularly extensive in the west of France, were an important resource for the peasants.
In addition to the right to pasturage, they enjoyed that of gathering wood and of gleaning cultivated fields following a harvest. Anxious to increase their income by increasing the efficiency of their estates, the landlords attempted to enclose these common lands, thereby depriving the peasants of the open pasturage they had come to depend on.
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No events as all-encompassing as the French Revolution occur in an intellectual vacuum. The Parliament and provincial Estates, or governing assemblies, were the constituted bodies which would provide a check to royal power. Rousseau developed an altogether different conception of sovereignty from that of other Enlightenment political theorists. Whereas Locke and his followers had argued that only a portion of sovereign power is surrendered to the state, the rest being retained by the people themselves, Rousseau contended that sovereignty is indivisible, and that all of it became vested in community when civil society was formed.
He insisted further that individuals in becoming a party to the social contract gave up their rights and agreed to submit absolutely to the general will. The sovereign power of the state was thus subject to no theoretical limitations. Social antagonism thus contributed in important ways to the tensions that eventually produced revolution. Those tensions were heightened by the third major, and eventually precipitation, cause of the revolution, a continuing and deepening financial crises brought on by years of administrative improvidence and ineptitude.
This crisis was compounded by a general price rise during much of the 18th century. It worked hardship on the peasantry and urban artisans and laborers, who found their purchasing power considerably reduced. Families found themselves spending more than 50 percent of their income on bread in ; the following year the figure rose to as much as 80 percent. Poor harvests contributed to a marked reduction in demand for manufactured goods; families had little money to spend for anything other than food.
Peasants could no longer rely on the system of domestic industry to help them make ends meet, since they were receiving so few orders for the textiles and other articles they were accustomed to making at home. Many left the countryside for the cities, hoping to find work there, only to discover that unemployment was far worse than in rural areas. Evidence indicated that between and the unemployment rate in many parts of urban France was as high as 50 percent. The financial despair produced by this unemployment-fueled resentment and turned peasants and urban workers into potential revolutionaries.
Not only was taxation tied to differing social status, it varied as well from region to region, some areas, for example, subject to a much higher gabelle than others. The myriad special circumstances and exemptions that prevailed made the task of collectors all the more difficult.
Those collectors were in many cases so called tax fanners, members of a syndicate which loaned keep for itself the difference between the amounts it took in and the amounts it loaned. The system of disbursal was at least as inefficient as was revenue collection. Instead of one central agency there were several hundred private accountants, a fact which made it impossible for the government to keep accurate track of its assets and liabilities. The financial system all but broke down completely under the increased expenses brought on by French participation in the American war of Independence.
By the chaotic financial situation, together with severe social tensions and an inept monarch, had brought absolutist France to the edge of political disaster. Not only were the royal coffers depleted, but two decades of poor cereal harvests, drought, cattle disease and skyrocketing bread prices had kindled unrest among peasants and the urban poor. Many expressed their desperation and resentment toward a regime that imposed heavy taxes yet failed to provide relief by rioting, looting and striking. The non-aristocratic members of the Third Estate now represented 98 percent of the people but could still be outvoted by the other two bodies.
In the lead-up to the May 5 meeting, the 3rd Estate began to mobilize support for equal representation and the abolishment of the noble vetoin other words, they wanted voting by head and not by status. While all of the orders shared a common desire for fiscal and judicial reform as well as a more representative form of government, the nobles in particular were loath to give up the privileges they enjoyed under the traditional system.
By the time the Estates-General convened at Versailles, the highly public debate over its voting process had erupted into hostility between the three orders, eclipsing the original purpose of the meeting and the authority of the man who had convened it. Within a week, most of the clerical deputies and 47 liberal nobles had joined them, and on June 27 Louis XVI grudgingly absorbed all 3 orders into the new assembly. On June 12, as the National Assembly known as the National Constituent Assembly during its work on a constitution continued to meet at Versailles, fear and violence consumed the capital.
Though enthusiastic about the recent breakdown of royal power, Parisians grew panicked as rumors of an impending military coup began to circulate. A popular insurgency culminated on July 14 when rioters stormed the Bastille fortress in an attempt to secure gunpowder and weapons; many consider this event, now commemorated in France as a national holiday, as the start of the French Revolution.
The wave of revolutionary fervor and widespread hysteria quickly swept the countryside. Revolting against years of exploitation, peasants looted and burned the homes of tax collectors, landlords and the seigniorial elite.
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Drafting a formal constitution proved much more of a challenge for the National Constituent Assembly, which had the added burden of functioning as a legislature during harsh economic times. For instance, who would be responsible for electing delegates? Would the clergy owe allegiance to the Roman Catholic Church or the French government? Perhaps most importantly, how much authority would the king, his public image further weakened after a failed attempt to flee in June , retain? This compromise did not sit well with influential radicals like Maximilien de Robespierre , Camille Desmoulins and Georges Danton , who began drumming up popular support for a more republican form of government and the trial of Louis XVI.
In April , the newly elected Legislative Assembly declared war on Austria and Prussia, where it believed that French emigrant were building counterrevolutionary alliances; it also hoped to spread its revolutionary ideals across Europe through warfare. On the domestic front, meanwhile, the political crisis took a radical turn when a group of insurgents led by the extremist Jacobins attacked the royal residence in Paris and arrested the king on August 10, The following month, amid a wave of violence in which Parisian insurrectionists massacred hundreds of accused counterrevolutionaries, the Legislative Assembly was replaced by the National Convention, which proclaimed the abolition of the monarchy and the establishment of the French republic.
On January 21, , it sent King Louis XVI, condemned to death for high treason and crimes against the state, to the guillotine; his wife Marie-Antoinette suffered the same fate 9 months later. In June , the Jacobins seized control of the National Convention from the more moderate Girondins and instituted a series of radical measures, including the establishment of a new calendar and the eradication of Christianity.
Many of the killings were carried out under orders from Robespierre, who dominated the draconian Committee of Public Safety until his own execution on July 28, Royalists and Jacobins protested the new regime but were swiftly silenced by the army, now led by a young and successful general named Napoleon Bonaparte By the late s, the directors relied almost entirely on the military to maintain their authority and had ceded much of their power to the generals in the field. No one factor was directly responsible for the French Revolution. Years of feudal oppression and fiscal mismanagement contributed to a French society that was ripe for revolt.
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