A study guide by Swansea University Historians

Historians have identified multiple causes of the French Revolution, both long and short term. Early, royalist and clerical interpretations of the Revolution cast it as a conspiracy orchestrated by Enlightenment philosophes. From the late nineteenth century, explanations based on the theories of Karl Marx became dominant. In this reading the Revolution resulted from a struggle for power between the old feudal nobility, whose status was based on the ownership of land, and the bourgeoisie, who acquired wealth through trade, finance and the professions. In 1789 the bourgeoisie made common cause with the peasantry and the urban labouring classes to begin the Revolution.

The Marxist interpretation of the French Revolution was increasingly challenged after 1945. Critics pointed out that there were many nobles amongst those clamouring for reform in 1789. Moreover, the distinction between noble and commoner was not as clear as once supposed. Nobles were also involved in trade and finance, whilst many wealthy bourgeoisie purchased patents of nobility. Indeed, the French nobility was relatively open and rich commoners bought and married their way to social mobility. Economic and social status were, therefore, revealed to be a poor guide to political behaviour and the idea of monolithic ‘classes’ out for their own economic interests increasingly untenable.

This critique increasingly led historians to move away from social and economic causes as explanations for the Revolution. Instead, they focused on the role political and cultural causes played in fomenting the Revolution. The emergence of a revolutionary political culture has been identified. This culture was expressed in the increasing number of journals, newspapers, pamphlets and books and found a forum in the spread of coffee shops, salons, societies and clubs. It was this culture, these revisionist interpretations argued, that prompted the events of 1789.

The post-war period also saw interest in the Revolution shift to encompass previously overlooked groups. The spread of second and third wave feminism led to more interest in the role of women in the French Revolution. There was also more interest in events outside of Paris and in the French Empire.  

In the last decade ‘revisionist’ accounts of the Revolution that emphasise politics and culture have themselves been challenged. Questions have been raised about how political ideas were translated into concrete action on the streets of Paris? How could the revolutionary political culture mobilise the peasantry and urban poor? Several historians have argued that there must be a re-examination of the social causes of the Revolution. How did cultural and political developments identified by revisionist historians interact with the social and economic changes experienced by the wider French population?

Nevertheless, historians acknowledge that the Revolution was caused by a multiplicity of factors. The rest of this essay will provide an overview of these factors.

La Grande Nation: France as a Great Power

At first glance eighteenth-century France was the powerhouse of Europe. It was the foremost of the five Great European Powers (France, Britain, Austria, Russia and Prussia). It was the largest state in western Europe. Moreover, its population was almost 28 million, making it the most populous state in Europe after Russia.

France also had a colonial empire in the Caribbean and outposts elsewhere. It’s colonial possessions were not as extensive as those of the British, but by 1780s they comprised the richest colony in the world in Saint Domingue (later Haiti). In 1780 Saint Domingue supplied half the world’s exports of coffee and sugar and generated twice as much revenue as Spain’s richest colony, Mexico. In the late 1780s France sent more trading vessels to India than Britain and, between 1787 and 1791, even shipped more slaves from Africa than the British. 

The most vibrant economic sector in France was, therefore, the slave/sugar trade that operated out of the Atlantic ports of Nantes and Bordeaux. However, other areas of the economy also underwent expansion in the eighteenth century. In the Paris basin commercial farming had spread, whilst Lyon remained the centre of banking and the silk trade. 

By 1789 France’s GDP was three times that of Britain. Its large population and vibrant colonial trade provided a potentially large tax base through which France could finance its military. As a consequence, France boasted the largest European army and a powerful navy. The power of that military had been illustrated by the crucial aide France had provided the American revolutionaries in their struggle against the British during the American War of Independence.

Aside from its military might France also enjoyed a great deal of ‘soft power’. French was the second language of the educated across most of Europe. French forms in literature, theatre, fashion and cuisine were greatly influential. French philosophers and writers, such as Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Diderot, also played an important role in the eighteenth-century Enlightenment.  

The Weaknesses of the Eighteenth-Century French State 

Despite the advantages, however, the French state suffered from several structural weaknesses that belied its great power status. First, France suffered from financial problems throughout the eighteenth century. The nobility enjoyed many tax exemptions. They were exempt, for example, from the taille, the principal land tax. The Catholic Church, which owned a tenth of the land in France, was completely exempt. Instead, the Church negotiated a don gratuit (free gift) with the Crown in lieu of taxation. As a consequence the tax burden fell disproportionately on those least able to bear it, the peasantry. Between a third and a half of a peasant’s income were siphoned off by seigneurial dues, the Church tithe and taxes. Moreover, 56 per cent of the tax burden also fell on landed property, the least dynamic sector of the economy.

Second, numerous attempts were made to reform the tax system and the economy in the eighteenth century, but all failed because of the resistance of the nobility and the parlements. Resistance was fostered by the widespread system of venality, whereby wealthy individuals could purchase certain public offices, such as seats on the parlements. In the seventeenth century this practice had provided the Crown with a cash flow in the short term, but it also meant that it was difficult to remove public officials without recompense. The parlements, law courts responsible for registering royal decrees so they could become law, in particular became centres of resistance of royal authority and attempts to overhaul the tax system. 

Third, although parts of the French economy, such as its colonial trade, were flourishing, economic development elsewhere was hindered by guild restrictions, internal customs barriers and tolls. The development of manufacturing and early industrial enterprises therefore lagged behind other countries like Britain. Although new crops and agricultural techniques, such as potatoes and crop rotation, were introduced they were slow to spread across France. A series of harvest failures in the 1770s and in the late 1780s led to increased food prices, poverty and hardship for large sections of the population.

Fourth, French structures of administration and governance were not uniform. The French state had expanded from the early middle ages through a mixed process of conquest, marriage and inheritance. As a result law codes varied between different regions and provinces. In the pays d’election regional autonomy had been subordinated to the Crown, but in the pays d’états provincial estates continued to exist. Some regions enjoyed special privileges. Brittany, for example, was exempt from the unpopular salt tax, the gabelle.  The jurisdiction of the thirteen parlements also varied widely. The parlement of Paris, for example, encompassed around a third of France, but the others covered much smaller areas. The complexity of the this system hindered attempts at reform.

Fifth, demographic and social changes also created their own problems. The growth of the population and the widespread system of partible inheritance, whereby land was divided among sons, created pressure of agricultural land. Some peasants were able to purchase extensive tracts of land and enjoy considerable prosperity, but a much larger segment led a more precarious existence. Around half the peasantry were landless or farmed just a small plot. A poor harvest could have devastating consequences for these communities.

Stagnating agricultural production and rising inflation further eroded the purchasing power of the peasantry. As bread prices rose and real wages fell increasing proportion of the poor’s income was allocated to subsistence. This undermined demands for manufactured goods fell, which in turn had a negative impact on textiles and other industries. In Troyes, for example, some 10,000 textile workers were unemployed by 1788. 

A process of polarisation was also evident at the other end of the social scale. The nobility dominated the higher echelons of the Catholic Church, but the parish priests were relatively poor. They were also more intimately connected with the local peasant and urban communities. 

Meanwhile, the traditional nobility was often resentful of the entry of rich commoners into the ranks of the aristocracy. This was particularly the case amongst the old ‘sword’ nobility, many of whom had seen a deterioration in their fortunes over the last century. Meanwhile, rising land rents meant that those aristocrats with larger estates were becoming less dependent on royal appointments, sinecures and pensions, than they had been in the seventeenth and early eighteenth century.

The failure to reform taxation meant that although France was a wealthy country the Crown had to turn increasingly  to borrowing to meet its expenditures. To make matters worse the costs of waging war rose exponentially in the eighteenth century as France’s global commitments expanded.

Military and Diplomatic Defeats

France suffered a series of military and diplomatic reversals in second half of the eighteenth century. In 1756, in the so-called ‘Diplomatic Revolution’, France broke its alliance with Prussia and allied itself with its traditional rival, Austria. Between 1756 and 1763 it fought both Britain and Prussia in the Seven Years’ War in Europe. Simultaneously, it was at war with Britain and its colonies in North America in the French and Indian War, whilst a proxy war was conducted by the French and English East Indian Companies in India.

France suffered a serious of heavy defeats on all fronts in this first global conflict. The British conquered New France to create the colony of Canada. The French East India Company’s influence in India was greatly reduced and Britain would come to dominate the sub-continent. In Europe, meanwhile, the French army was humiliated by Frederick the Great and the Prussians at the battle of Rossbach in 1757. Napoleon Bonaparte would later claim the Revolution had began 1757, when Prussia had humbled Bourbon military might.

France enjoyed more military success in the 1780s when it allied itself with the American rebels against the British Crown. However, King Louis XVI’s hopes that this alliance would lead to preferentially trading rights after the war were dashed as the new American Republic renewed its trading links with Britain.

French involvement in the Seven Years’ War and the American War of Independence added substantially to the state’s debts. Jacques Necker, finance minister from 1777 and 1781, had largely funded France’s war effort through loans. As a result the state debt ballooned to between 8 and 12 billion livres by 1789. Serving that debt consumed an increasing share of state revenue. Moreover, worries over France’s creditworthiness meant loans could only be acquired at higher rates of interest.

Fiscal and diplomatic problems came together in 1787. The international prestige of the monarchy was undermined when it was unable to intervene in the conflict between republican and Orangist forces in the neighbouring United Provinces because of a lack of funds.

The Enlightenment and the Rise of the Public Sphere

The French involvement in the American War of Independence had an impact beyond the financial. The American rebels had fought under the slogan of ‘no taxation without representation’. Yet the French officers and soldiers did not enjoy the same political rights that their American allies were fighting for. The incongruity of an absolute monarchy fighting in defence of a republic founded on universal male suffrage (excluding slaves) was not lost on many commentators in France and Europe. The Marquis de Lafayette, who had served alongside George Washington, became a hero on both sides of the Atlantic. The Declaration of Independence provided inspiration to would-be reformers and revolutionaries in France. Indeed, the Declaration of Independence would provide a template for the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen in 1789.

Debate over domestic political reform was conducted in the pages of periodicals, books, pamphlets and journals that mushroomed in the eighteenth century. Rising literacy levels meant an increased audience for the written word. Some historians, such as Rolf Engelsing, have argued that eighteenth century Europe also witnessed as ‘reading revolution’. The literate began to read more widely rather then reading and rereading a small number of work, such as the Bible. This argument has been challenged. The Bible and other religious works remained very popular. However, the number of books published in Europe did rise exponentially during the eighteenth century. The Crown operated a system of censorship and controversial works, such as Voltaire’s Lettres philosophique and Dictonnaire philosophique, were burned. Banned works were, however, smuggled across the border from the Austrian Netherlands and the Dutch Republic, regimes with more liberal attitudes towards publishing.

This vibrant literary world was crucial to the spread of the public sphere. The term was coined by the German philosopher, Jürgen Habermas, and describes a social space where public opinion was formed. The development of the public sphere was also fostered by the spread of coffee shops. By 1789 Paris had 1,600 cafés. These often offered newspapers and periodicals to read as well as food and drink. They were, thus, spaces were ideas could circulate and be discussed. The salon, usually hosted by an aristocratic lady, provided a similar forum for discussion, albeit a more exclusive one than the coffee shop. Masonic lodges also spread in the eighteenth century and provided a network for the dissemination of ideas. 

It was through literature and in the public sphere that ideas for political and social reform were articulated. In 1748 Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws had identified three different forms of government - monarchical, republican and despotism - and advocated a separation of judicial, legislative and executive power. Voltaire praised England’s constitutional monarchic his Lettres philosophique, whilst Rousseau celebrated republican values. Foreign philosophers, particularly the work of John Locke, was also influential. All these intellectual currents fed into the intellectual ferment in the run up to the French Revolution and deeply influenced the attitudes of deputies of the National Assembly.

The public sphere, however, was not limited to high-minded discussion of political reforms and social matters. Several historians have pointed to the growth of politicised pornography in the later eighteenth century. Much of this literature featured those in positions of authority, such as clergymen and leading aristocratic statesmen. The royal family itself was also subject to this kind of writing. The Queen, Marie-Antoinette, was a particular target of slander and satire. As a Habsburg princess, she was associated with the disastrous Austrian alliance during the Seven Years’ War. She and Louis XVI also failed to produce a male heir until October 1781, eleven years after their marriage. Libels accused Marie-Antoinette of decadence, promiscuity, adultery and homosexuality.

Marie-Antoinette’s reputation was further tarnished by the ‘Affair of the Diamond Necklace’. In 1785 Cardinal de Rohan was duped in to buying a diamond necklace in order to curry favour with the Queen. The conmen, however, stole the necklace. The Queen had nothing to do with the ‘Affair’, but it was widely believed that she had instructed Rohan to buy the jewellery. The ‘Affair’ occurred against the background of a poor harvest and increased hardship for the poor. The extravagance of the jewellery solidified the image of the Queen as a spendthrift, more interested in her own luxury than the welfare of France.

Such slurs may not have led directly to the fall of the monarch, they nevertheless undermined the majesty and prestige of the Bourbons.

The Constitutional Crisis

In 1787 the French finance minister, Calonne, presented the king with a package of economic reforms aimed at addressing France’s financial problems. Calonne recognised that these reforms would take time to be effective. In order to meet the Crown’s immediate need for money Calonne suggested that the King summon a Council of Notables to approve the reforms. This would reassure lenders as to the solvency of the French state and allow it to borrow more money at better rates of interest.

The Council of Notables, however, refused to approve Calonne’s economic reforms. Led by the Duke of Orléans, Louis XVI’s cousin, the Notables demanded political reforms as the price of agreement. Louis XVI dissolved the Council and Calonne was dismissed. Brienne, Calonne’s replacement tried to force the reforms through the Parlement of Paris. The Parlement refused to register the reforms and also demanded political change. Louis responded by exiling the Parlement. A vigorous political debate emerged as the Parlement portrayed itself as the centre of resistance to royal despotism.

Brienne was dismissed and replaced by Necker. Necker persuaded the King to call the Estates General as a means of breaking the political deadlock. The Estates General, however, had not met since 1614 and represented a medieval view of how society functions. It was divided into three estates. The first represented the clergy, the second the nobility, whilst the third encompassed the mass of society in the commons. Each estate held its own elections, which were accompanied by the drawing up of lists of grievances, the so-called cahiers de doleances, that the deputies were to present to the King.

Initially, each estate was to have the same number of deputies, but a pamphlet campaign prior to the elections forced the King to agree reluctantly to double the number of deputies of the Third Estate. A key work in the debate was the manifesto What is the Third Estate? written by the Abbé Emmanuel Sieyès, in which he asked, ‘what is the Third Estate? Nothing. What does it wish to be? Everything’.

The 330 strong First Estate was dominated by deputies drawn from the parish clergy, whilst the old ‘sword’ nobility were the majority in the Second Estate. Some two-third of the deputies voted to the Third Estates were professional men, lawyer, notaries or judges who had experience of public debate and oratory.

Each estate voted en bloc. It was, therefore, still possible for the First and Second Estate to unite to block proposals from the Third. This proved a recipe for political stalemate. Whilst liberal-minded nobles wanted to work with the Third Estate, their conservative colleagues refused to abandon voting by bloc and insisted on defending their social status.  The deputies of the Third Estate called on the First and Second Estate to unite with them to deliberate and vote in common,  but they were ignored. Finally, on 10 June Sieyès suggested that the Third Estate proceed unilaterally. On 12 and 19 June several priests left the First Estate to join the Third. No longer representative of commoners alone the Third Estate voted on 17 June to range itself the National Assembly.

The King tried to reassert control over the Third Estate by locking it out it customary meeting place at the palace of Versailles on 20 June. The deputies gathered in the royal tennis court and swore an oath not to disband until they had provided France with a written Constitution. This Tennis Court Oath was a direct challenge to the authority of the King. More deputies from both the First and Second Estate now joined the National Assembly. On 23 June Louis XVI ordered the Estate to meet separately, but was ignored. The Comte de Mirabeau, a nobleman elected to the Third Estate, announced ‘we will not lave our seats except by the force of bayonets’. Finally, on 27 June Louis XVI, fearing popular unrest, ordered the remaining deputies of the First and Second Estates to join the National Assembly. The power and authority of the King had been badly undermined.

The Fall of the Bastille and the October Days

In July, however, Louis XVI appeared to change course. Orders had been issued on 26 June for regiments to march on Versailles and Paris, whilst the garrison of the Bastille was reinforced. Meanwhile, on 12 July Louis XVI dismissed Necker as finance minister.

News of Necker’s dismissal and troop concentration caused a mix of fear and anger In Paris. An angry crowd had assembled at the Palais Royale to protest at Necker’s dismissal. Here the lawyer turned radical journalist, Camille Desmoulins, addressed the crowd and advocated insurrection. Wearing green ribbons, a colour associated with liberty, the crowd ransacked guardhouses for weapons and warehouses for food. Crucially, the French Guards refused to intervene and many instead joined the crowd. On 14 July attention turned to the Bastille. The Bastille was a prison, but, more importantly, it was also an arsenal. The crowd that besieged the Bastille were more interested in seizing the guns and munitions stored there than freeing the prisoners. The governor, the Baron de Launay refused initially to surrender the fortress and fired on the crowd. After some fighting the Bastille was surrendered. De Launay was stabbed to death, decapitated and his head paraded on a pike. The capital was in the hands of the revolutionaries. 

Louis XVI, meanwhile, was warned by his generals that his soldiers were unreliable and might not disperse the crowds in Paris. Louis was forced to order his regiments to stand down and recalled Necker on 16 July. On 17 July he visited Paris with the National Assembly. At the city hall he was handed a tricolour cockade which blended the red and blue colours of the city of Paris with the white of the Bourbon monarch.

Although Paris was, briefly, calm, unrest had now spread to the provinces and countryside. The National Assembly passed a series of laws in an effort to provide stability. On 4 August noble deputies vied with each other to renounce their noble privileges. On 11 August the Assembly announced the destruction of the ‘feudal regime’. The Church tithe was also abolished, a decision that would sow the seeds for the later radicalisation of the Revolution and bloody conflict.

Most famously, on 26 August the Assembly approved the 17 articles of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. This document was to have a lasting impacting. Both the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and the European Convention on Human Rights (1953) drew on the substance and even the wording of that earlier document.

Despite these reforms the National Assembly struggled to maintain order in Paris. After a brief period of stability, bread price began to rise again leading to mounting discontent. At the same time, the King voiced reservations about the Declaration of the Rights of Man. Rumours reached Paris of a banquet given by the King’s Bodyguard in the royal family’s honour at which the tricolour cockade had been trampled.

On 5 October market women gathered at the city hall to demand action on bread prices. Possibly orchestrated by the Duke of Orleans and the Comte de Mirabeau an armed crowd set out for Versailles to press their case on the National Assembly. A deputation met with the King to demand action on prices. On 6 October a small group of protestors broke into the palace and invaded the Queen’s apartments. Marie-Antoinette escaped just in time, but Lafayette, now commander of the National Guard, persuaded the royal family that the crowd would only disperse if addressed directly. The royal family addressed the crowd from a balcony, but the crowd demanded they return with them to Paris. His authority crumbling Louis XVI had no choice but to acquiesce. The King, his family and the National Assembly returned to Paris where they could be watched and influenced by the people of the city.


The so-called October Days marked the end of what has often been described as the ‘liberal’ phase of the French Revolution. Thereafter, the Revolution would be characterised by growing levels of violence and factionalism. There were multiple causes to the French Revolution. France was not unique in facing difficult economic, social and political conditions in the last quarter of the eighteenth century. All Europe states faced similar challenges. Britain faced rebellion in America. The Dutch Republic had its own revolutionary movement. There were peasant uprisings in Central Europe too. It was, however, the particular constellation of these challenges in France that lead to the Revolution. Where to put the emphasis, be it on the emergence of a particular political culture or on the polarisation of society due to demographic and economic change remains at the core of debate today.