France Prior to the Revolution

Perhaps one of the most interesting of France’s many time periods happened just before its revolution. By examining both the social and economic structures used in France at this time, it was easy to see that a revolution was fast approaching. Not only that, but independence was sparked in France by thirteen tiny American colonies, which led many French to believe that it could happen also to them.

Social Classes
France was, in the times before its revolution, using an outdated caste system. In this system the three distinct estates, or social classes, were made up of clergy, the first estate, nobles, the second estate, and the common people, the third estate.

The first estate was the smallest, occupying only .5% of the population. Despite such small numbers, the clergy owned nearly 10% of the land, a figure grossly larger than it should have been for so many men and women who took vows of poverty. While many rural priests were just as poor as their congregations, the majority of peasants began to disdain the church for its extravagance and its taxes. This was the first estate and its way of functioning.

The second estate was made up of 1.5% of the French population. It was probably the richest class, due to its right to tax local peasants and merchants, yet not pay any taxes to the king. This class, in some figures, owned nearly 40% of the land, which was also a very disporportional figure based on population. Many in the second estate began to lose loyalty towards the king in this time because of his repeated attempts towards taxation and his “unenlightened” way of conducting national affairs. It is for this reason that during the revolution, many nobles called for the radical changes proposed by the third estate.

The third estate is perhaps the most interesting class due to the fact that it was really the place the revolution began. Making up nearly 98% of the poulation, the third estate was comprised of mainly peasant farmers, but also included anyone from factory workers to merchants to artaisans to servants. In and around this time period, the third estate owned only 50% of the land. This of course led to an overall very depressing poverty which, no matter how hard they tried, they could not escape due to the first and second estates brutal taxes. As it was put by beloved French Ambassador Thomas Jefferson “the people are illy clothed. Perhaps they havee put on their worst clothes at the moment as it is raining. But I observe women and children carrying heavey burthens and labouring with the hoe. This is an unequivocal indication of extreme poverty.”
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The Action Begins
Despite the social unrest caused by the outdated social classes, the people of France would only begin to truly speak of rebellion during the reign of Louis XIV. Due to years of deficit spending, or using more money than the government brought in, France began to accumulate a massive debt. Louis XIV’s extravagance, when added to the cost of wars and inflation, began to cause the economy to crumble.

This really became a problem in the mid 1780’s when bad harvests sent food prices soaring, creating hunger for most of the third estate. The riots inevitably began among peasants who demanded food. In the country members of the third estate began attaching noble’s homes. Throughout this time it became increasingly apparent that the king would need to do something, anything, to help his people.

Louis XIV’s grandson, Louis XVI, was perhaps not the best ruler for pre-revolutionary France. While he meant well and generally strove to help his people, he was indecisive and easily intimidated. In order to help him act, the king elected Jacques Necker, one of the finest financial masterminds in France, to be his main adviser. Necker began almost immediately making reforms to the government and to the many laws that dampened the effectiveness of France’s colony. It was only after he proposed a tax to the First and Second Estates that he was removed from the king’s service.

Unable to decide what the best course of action would be without his chief advisor, Louis XVI finally drove the final nail into pre-revolutionary France’s coffin by calling together the Estates general for the first time in almost 150 years.

The Estates General
In May of 1789, Louis XVI called to order the meeting of the Estates General in Versailles. The Estates General was a meeting in which all three of the estates got together and voted on issues. Members of every estate brought to the meeting many complaints, but the most common included fairer taxes, freedom of speech, and most importantly bread. Other complaints demanded the right to kill animals destroying peasants, crops, and that years of hard work allow for some sort of reward.

Last, but certainly not least of the issues, was the complaints over the many social classes. The Third Estate in particular was tired of being thrown around and demanded some rights in the law and government. This desire led to the next chapter, the Tennis Court Oath.

Tired of wasting time in a political staring contest, delegates of the Third Estate took a radical step towards reform. Calling themselves the National Assembly, they claimed to represent the people of France and began to draft a new Constitution. The National Assembly then invited all members of the other estates to help them and many took them up on their offer.

A few days later, under order of the king, the hall where the new constitution was being written was locked. Believing that the king intended to send them home, the Third Estate and their political allies took a vow, swearing not to leave or disband until a constitution was written. They called this the Tennis Court Oath. Finally, unable to cope with the pressure forced upon him, Louis XVI grudgingly accepted the Constitution of France.

It Begins
On July 14, news of an occupation force marching into Paris was sweeping the city. Distraught over the thought, nearly 1000 Parisians assembled and began to try to procure fire arms. Finding the Bastille, a medieval prison now used to hold political prisoners; the crowd turned into a full scale riot and stormed the prison. After killing the commander and procuring the needed firearms, the people of Paris were ready to fight anything the king sent their way.

When he heard about the attack, Louis XVI asked “Is it a revolt?” “No sire,” said a nearby noble, “It is a revolution.”


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