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In this lesson, we explore the social, economic, and political conditions in late 18th-century France, out of which the French Revolution exploded in 1789.


Humans, by nature, like it when things are easily determinable: when questions have ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers, when someone is wrong or right, or when choices are chocolate or vanilla.

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Simply put, it makes things easier. Complications – like when someone’s premises can be right but have the wrong answer – make things harder. This is partially why so many people find the French Revolution – one of the most complicated and chaotic events in Western history – so hard to understand.

But, try to understand we must. In this lesson, we will explore French politics, society, and the economy during the second half of the 18th century to first understand the unique background to one of the more convoluted revolutions in early modern history.

Failures of Empire ; Economy

In the 17th and early 18th centuries, France was at the height of its European power. The ‘Sun King,’ Louis XIV, had expanded French possessions eastward into Central Europe and huge swathes of North America, from Canada to Louisiana, were under French control. This empire and the wars, which acquiring such expansive territory required, however, came with an enormous bill. When Louis XIV died in 1715, he left the French state wracked with massive debt.

France’s subsequent rulers, Louis XV and Louis XVI, not only had to contend with this state debt, but were forced to spend much of the 18th century maintaining an enormous standing military trying unsuccessfully to hang on to many of these possessions. The Seven Years’ War (known as the French and Indian War in North America) caused particular harm to the state’s finances, as France participated in both European and North American theaters of the conflict and, in the end, merely lost huge amounts of territory as a result. Their subsequent participation in the successful American Revolution further drained money from the French state, while achieving little tangible results for France other than the humiliation of their chief Western European rival, Great Britain.While the French state was wracked in debt from the expenditures that came with war and empire, French fiscal restraint at court was nonexistent.

Both Louis XV and Louis XVI operated the French court from the Palace of Versailles, an enormous and ostentatious palace located outside Paris and built by Louis XIV. For example, Louis XVI’s wife, Marie Antoinette, had a yearly clothing allowance in the millions of dollars, despite France being unable to pay even the interest on the loans it had taken out to finance its empire.

The People

The money to pay for the spendthrift practices of France’s rulers, both at home and abroad, had to be paid for by someone, and much of this money came from taxes.

In 18th-century France, the nobility and the church were both exempt from taxation, which meant that nearly all tax money came from the incomes of the poorest – and most populous – portion of French society.To make matters worse, the French peasantry – who often owned only enough land to feed themselves and their families – were in the midst of a series of seasonal crop failures, and they could hardly afford to spare any money or resources to pay for the armies and lifestyles of their royalty. Indeed, a particularly acute crop failure took place in 1788 – an event most historians consider one of the touchstones of the ensuing popular uprising.

The Enlightenment

This series of poor economic circumstances and lackadaisical government coincided with arguably the most important intellectual movement of Western Europe: the Enlightenment. During the Enlightenment, French philosophes occupied coffee shops and held dinner parties where discussions ranged from logic and reason to political and natural philosophy. Naturally, in the midst of such poor government, many philosophes attacked existing French institutions in their writing.

Moreover, many philosophes championed the personal liberties and rights to personal property that were first espoused by the English philosopher John Locke in the 1690s. Indeed, as the 1780s wore on, it became increasingly apparent that the American Revolution was going to succeed and implement a democratic, representative form of government that enshrined many of those same liberties. Many French intellectuals looked to the American experiment as a model for the type of practices that could be implemented piecemeal into France.While the Enlightenment provided many of the high ideals and political philosophy that opposed the existing French order, popular literature in the streets of Paris – nicknamed Grub Street literature – gave voice to the popular anger at the opulence and ineffectiveness of France’s rulers. Numerous pamphlets, for example, were produced showing Marie Antoinette at court orgies and poking fun at her bouffant hairstyles and inability to produce a male heir.

While popular anger was directed at the court, upwardly-mobile groups of merchants, professionals, and proto-industrialists were upset with their lack of political involvement. The prosperous businessman’s livelihood was affected by decisions made at the highest levels of government – levels from which they were entirely shut out.

Assembly of Notables

It was in this acrimonious climate that Louis XVI’s chief financial advisor, Charles-Alexandre de Calonne, called the Assembly of Notables in 1787, comprising the nobility, clergy, and a few representatives of this group of businessmen.

There, Calonne introduced a plan that would eliminate the French state debt (now perilously high at well over 100 million livres) through the removal of the nobility’s tax-exempt status. Unsurprisingly, the nobility resisted. Calonne attempted to enforce the reforms without their approval, but was met with considerable resistance from the regional courts, the parlements.

With all avenues exhausted, Louis XVI was forced to call the Estates-General, a body of the French representative government that had not been called since 1614.

Lesson Summary

The decay of 18th-century France had as much to do with its economic disposition as anything else. Indeed, had France’s crippling debt not threatened to ruin the state, Louis XVI would likely not have been forced to make the fateful decision of calling the Estates-General. Additionally, it’s unlikely the French Revolution would have unfolded the way it did if not for the highly unfavorable view of the French court by the people. Also, the economic crisis coincided with the flowering of an intellectual movement that attacked the very philosophical pillars on which the divine-right, monarchical government of France was based.

Even considering all of these factors, it was still impossible to predict, at this juncture, the varied, nuanced – and at times, borderline insane – characteristics the French Revolution eventually exhibited.

Learning Outcomes

When this lesson is done, you should be able to:

  • Understand the economic devastation caused during Louis XIV’s reign
  • Discuss the Enlightenment and French philosophes
  • Recall the Assembly of Notables and why Louis XVI called the Estates-General

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