The French Revolution: Social and Political Crisis in France

The French Revolution was a watershed period of social and political crisis in France and its colonies that began in 1789 and lasted until the late 1790s. This period consisted of the French citizens that were razed and wanted to redesign their country’s political landscape by uprooting absolute monarchy and the feudal system. The French Revolution played a critical role in overthrowing their own monarchy, establishing a republic, and shaping modern nations by showing the rest of the world the power inherent in the will of the people. The constitutional revolution and the radical revolution in France grew from the convergence of political, social, and economic tensions present in France and the Atlantic World in the 1780s and 1790s. The constitutional revolution tensions were created by the inefficient taxation system, the Church acquiring land and food shortages. The radical revolution was created by establishing the distinction between active and passive citizens, the overthrow of the monarchy in 1792, and the rise of the revolutionary leader Maximilien Robespierre.

The political tension was a conflict between the Monarchy and the nobility over the reformation of their tax system which led to paralysis and bankruptcy. The social tension refers to the antagonism between two rising groups: the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie. The economic tension dealt with the hardship of the food shortages France was facing. I will be supporting my argument with material from Klooster’s Revolutions in the Atlantic World, from class lectures, and the Discussion of Citizenship under the Proposed New Constitution, a primary source in Hunt’s French Revolution and Human Rights. The constitutional revolution tensions arose from the citizens of France not believing that their government was running efficiently. One of the main problems in France was how to pay for their eighteenth-century wars. Almost every war they participated in was financed by a mixture of borrowing and taxation. The monarchs and the nobility were exempted from most taxes and refused to contribute any type of taxation towards the French government. This unfair taxation arrangement did not appeal to the common people of France.

Klooster writes “The tax system that was in place proved inadequate, in part because indirect taxes counted for little”. (Klooster, Revolutions in the Atlantic World, 49). Their tax system depended far too much on revenues from agriculture, which at that time was their weakest economic sector. Following France trouble financial problems, a political tension that launched the constitutional revolution began with the attacks on the Catholic Church corruption and the wealth of the higher clergy. The Catholic Church owned a small percentage of land throughout France and the church was exempt from direct taxation on its earnings. In 1789, the National Assembly seized the properties and land that were held by the church. (Carlson, OCTOBER WHAT Lecture). The Catholic Church at this time may have been the church of the majority in France, but because of their wealth and previous abuse of their powers meant that the people did not always have their trust. Between 1787 and 1789, Harvest failures, high food places and weather all shaped the course of the economic tension of the constitutional revolution. The size of the harvest determined how lower-class citizens would live in the upcoming year and their agricultural productivity was not keeping up with their population growth. France also experienced one of their coldest winters in 1788 and much of northern France suffered with from temperatures which also contributed to the decline of productivity in the process of growing food. (Carlson, OCTOBER WHAT Lecture). Klooster states “Poor peasants and urban workers, neither group able to store or sell grain yet both consumers of bread, were often reduced to hunger and despondency, anxiously awaiting for the new harvest”. (Klooster, 56). Because citizens did not have any type of food source, they would search out for merchants, millers, and others that were suspected for hoarding grain or bread. These harvest failures contributed to the constitutional revolution by leaving the French state short of food crops, which created grain and bread shortages and drove up food prices that were particularly in France’s cities and towns.

Arguably the most important cause of the radical revolution roughly began after September of 1792 when the National Assembly came forth and established that France was no longer going to be an absolute monarchy. The radical revolution shook the political and social reforms of France. One of the social tensions that took place was when the constitution of 1791 created two distinct class of citizens active and passive citizens. The distinction of the two classes was between the active citizens who could vote and hold office and the passive citizens who enjoyed equal protection under the law in matters of marriage, property, or religion but could not participate directly in forming a government or excising governmental authority. (Hunt, The French Revolution and Human Rights, 19). The two classes limited the right of voting to those citizens who annual paid taxes in an equal amount to at least three days’ wages for unskilled labor in their towns. (Carlson, OCTOBER WHAT Lecture). Active citizens were wealthy men who elected officials and deputies where the passive citizens took no place in any voting election. The Assembly classifications contradict Lynn Hunts, Discussion of Citizenship under the Proposed New Constitution of April 29,1793, taking the question up of citizenship. Hunt describes how the French debated over citizenships and rights reveal a recurring clash between the ideals of human rights philosophy and the reality of eighteenth-century prejudices.

While citizens were being categorized into two social parties, there was an unrest of excitement within the population of France that radicalized the revolution. This significant moment in time cumulated in the rise of Maximilien Robespierre and the Jacobins. The Jacobins were the radical revolutionaries who created the downfall of King Loui XVI and were connected with a period of violence during the revolution which was famous to be known as the Reign of Terror. One of the most influential members of the Jacobins and a powerful member of the Committee for Public Safety was Max Maximilien Robespierre. The Jacobins party gained control of the revolution, but they were afraid that the revolution was going to fail because of the internal civil war France was having an on-going battle between foreign countries such as Austria and Prussia. (Carlson, OCTOBER WHAT Lecture). During the revolution, Robespierre and the Jacobins initiated a state of “Terror”. Under this law, they would arrest anyone would they thought was suspected of treason and a plethora number of people were executed if they opposed this new rule of law. (Carlson, OCTOBER WHAT Lecture). The citizens eventually realized the path that the Jacobins and Robespierre were creating would result in death and execution and began dismantling the Terror. Klooster states “In the southeast, especially the cities of Marseille and Lyon, which had seen such brutal oppression, the end of the Terror signaled the start of the massive anti-Jacobins actions”. (Klooster, 84).

The people of France fought back and overthrew Robespierre, having him executed. Members of the Jacobin party either attempted to flee the country or were executed if caught. The result of the impact between Robespierre and the Jacobins weakened the political rule in France by the aristocrats and paved the way of rights to birth above rights of wealth. The constitutional and revolution completely changed the social nature and political aspects of France. The French Revolution was not an isolated series of events, rather it took place at a time where privilege came increasingly under fire as the eighteenth-century advanced. Both revolutions contributed to putting an end in feudalism, French monarchy and took political influence away from the Catholic Church. The constitutional revolution and the radical revolution in France grew from the convergence of political, social, and economic tensions present in France and the Atlantic World in the 1780s and 1790s. The revolutions brought forth new ideas to Europe including liberty and freedom for the average citizen as well as setting up the process of the abolishment of slavery and the rights of women. These new ideas continued to influence European nations for many decades and helped shaped the many European modern-day governments.

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