The Origins of the French Revolution


The French Revolution of XVIII century is generally viewed by historians as a truly significant event in the development of European society. Despite the visual blossom of the country in the selected historical period, it had numerous interior problems. The specter of these problems varied from social to economic reasons. Moreover, it is claimed to be aggravated by the exterior factors, among which was the rapid development of England. The international strength of France before the Revolution had been gradually weakening. Furthermore, the existed social structure of the country did not allow it to quickly react towards the challenges in the economy and international relations. Despite the fact this subject has been thoroughly investigated, the opinions towards the general driving force still differ. The following paper examines various approaches towards the origins of the French Revolution of XVIII century. Moreover, it argues that this revolution had social origins, and the French society was the major driving force for this event to occur.

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The Historical Context of the French Revolution of XVIII Century

France of XVIII century was a military state regulated by the centralized law. Participating in various wars and discovering new territories it gained various kinds of resources allowing supporting its citizens. Throughout the XVIII century, the king made political and economical decisions consulting only with the representatives of the noble class. To some extent this was due to the fact that the nobility was the only layer of the French society that was officially allowed to bear arms. Gradually, the clergy was allowed the right to consult with the king. However, the predominant part of the population in the country “did not form a corps within the state”. With the course of time so called “Third Estate” was formed from the ordinary population to be represented in the assemblies on par with the king, the nobility and the First Estate. However, that participation was purely formal, and the citizens had no practical power to influence the policy or the economy of the country. The mentioned position of the Third Estate raised a great deal of social debate which never resolved in giving its equal privileges with the other Estates. Moreover, at the same time the country’s treasury was drained by numerous wars and the inefficient tax policy. Emerging and spreading commerce demanded greater financial stability but greatly depended on the country’s debts. All the mentioned processes influenced the critical views of the French philosophers. The philosophic attitudes towards the monarchy were predominantly critical, and the thinkers sought the model of the society that could make the life of the citizens better. Furthermore, the ideas of the Enlightenment as a new philosophical approach were spreading through the country’s population. Being incompatible with monarchic ideas the new philosophical movement raised the questions of the revolutionary social order. Faced with deep socio-economical crisis, the king attempted to introduce political and economic changes, which boosted the processes of revolution. The emerging middle class used the king’s political changes to form the bodies of power opposed to him.

Economic Origin of the Revolution

First, it has to be mentioned that one group of scholar believes the economy to be the primary origin of the French Revolution. The reason for that lies in the financial state of the country that deserved to be better. As it is stated by Gail Bossenga, at the end of the XVIII century France had a state deficit of 101 million livres. Therefore, almost half of the expenses of the king were spent to serve this debt. The structure of the monarchy made it impossible to overcome the troubles of such character. Moreover, the issue had three basic sources for the economy of the country to be gradually becoming bankrupt. The first one was participation in various wars. Any kind of war turned out to be too expensive for the king. Such expenditures were not covered by the profit from the wars. The system of taxes, in its turn, was not capable of producing enough revenue to compensate the military expenses. The third factor was the last one to destroy the country’s economy raising the bankruptcy level of the state. The monarch had huge loans with high rates of interest, which made it not capable of meeting its monetary obligations. Bankruptcies of different extent are claimed by the scholars to be common for France after or during the wars. The last Seven Year’s War of 1756 – 1763 and the American War of Independence 1776 – 1783 before the revolution cost France around 2.625 billion livres in total financial difficulties. The attempts of solving a problem of such debts by means of convocation of the Estates-General is argued to be one of the steps for the revolution. This feature of the monarchy of solving the financial problems by changing responsible institutions was viewed as effective only in the short term perspective. Furthermore, the new institutions partially solved the problem of bankruptcy making the expenses even costlier with time. The reason of it to the great extent lies in the social dependency from the debts. As it is stated by Amalia Kessler “in a society … where even noblemen required credit to purchase the venal offices and lordly attire … a single bankruptcy could destabilize countless creditors, thereby generating a wave of bankruptcies”.

Another factor that enlarged the general debt of the country is the increase of consumption by the whole parts of the society. The end of XVIII is well known for its luxury. One of the features denoting this luxury was the wig. It is an interesting fact that scholars like Michael Kwass traced the raising level of consumption by the nobility by means of defining the variety of consumed wigs. The wig trade of late XVIII century is claimed to be tremendously popular and spread throughout the whole country, even in the countryside. Furthermore, it is claimed that the intermediate zone of consumption expanded dramatically to become a prominent and permanent feature of the late modern economy.

Moreover, as a result of increased consumption, the French economy of the described period involves the raising role of commerce among the population. The commerce had been gradually becoming the biggest part of the economy. Thus, merchants had become serving public interests instead of their own. Serving public but being not noble people and lacking the ability to govern the state raised social and political controversy. That is why they required being honorable. This social demand is mentioned by Kessler in the Chamber of Commerce of Guienne, “The trader is no longer what he once was: avidity is no longer the quality that distinguishes him… he has applied himself to knowing the political administration of commerce; he knows how to distinguish the gain of the state from that of the individual”. Due to this change, merchants perfectly suited to serve as the Estate-General and counsel the king. The merchants understood this and searched for the possibility to have their delegates at the Estate-General. Thus, the Third Estate, including merchants, entered politico-economic discourse in France in the end of the XVIII century. They understood their role in promoting the state concerns and sought the way to help their country and better their economic condition as well. Moreover, the merchant courts were expanding their power through other institutions. Thus, the growing economic role of the Third Estate accumulated additional social pressure on the monarch.

Therefore, the conditions of constant national debt and rising levels of consumption might be viewed as a crucial factor in accumulating the social will for revolution. Furthermore, the rising economic role of the Third Estate required this part of the society to play an active role the politico-economic life of the country. Thus, the strong point of the theory of economic reason of the French Revolution is that the society had high consuming demands with poor buying power. Moreover, the economic structure of the monarchy made it unable to regulate bankruptcy on the proper level. The attempts of the monarch to regulate the financial crisis of late XVIII century by creating new institutions opened the way for further aggravation of the economic situation. The latter has motivated social masses to react actively. However, the weak position of this assumption is that the society has to be culturally mature and educated to realize it needs the country to restructure by means of dethronement of the monarch. This fact directs the discussion towards the cultural origins of the revolution.

Cultural and Intellectual Origin of the Revolution

The scholars that support the idea of cultural origins of the French Revolution claim that the social mind has to be intelligent to realize the corrosion of monarchy. Moreover, the society is required to realize that nothing could be done for this system to be changed but manual regulation. Thus, the action of revolution should be provided by the revolutionary thought. Roger Chartier gives example of this thought by citing Hippolyte Taine “monarchical and religious dogma was intact; once that dogma was worn down by its excesses and overthrown by the scientific view of the world, the classical spirit inevitably the theory of abstract, natural man and the social contract”. Taine was a representative of the growing Enlightenment movement, which turned out to be a revolutionary philosophical approach.

One of the characteristics of the philosophers and writers if France of the period of Old Regime was their social status. Mostly being aristocrats, they lacked real power. Whereas in England, the representatives of this occupation had a chance to be a politician and participate in governing the country. Thus, French philosophers of that time were pure theoreticians that lacked the capability of putting the force of their mind into practice. Their theoretical concentration on the subject influenced the politicization of literature of that time. French philosophers of the Enlightenment movement argued about the simple rules arising from the ideas of human rationale and natural rule. The subjects studied by philosophers of that time varied but were not separated from ideas about people. Thus, politics and sociology obtained various new terms and ideas about the organization of society. That is why the French monarchy had become opposed to and pressured by a huge variety of social ideas claiming to substitute the existing social order. Moreover, the more ideas and approaches of the Enlightenment movement spread and reached the public, the more social dissatisfaction arose. Gradually, the new political culture was emerging. However, the representatives of this culture were powerless on practice.

Despite the lack of practical power, the philosophers and thinks of that time had a possibility to share and spread their ideas. Chartier claims that numerous salons, cafes, clubs and periodicals were actively exercised making them a tribunal of aesthetic criticism. By these means a critical community had been created. It forced the ordinary people to exercise their ideas about the state system and the policy and share them. Moreover, their exclusion from the active political actions because of illiteracy required them and their ideas to be presented by their teachers.

A great deal of political and social debates among the mentioned public turned out to exclude the ideas of monarchy and was concentrated on the ideal of parliamentary social order. The debates were focused on three major ideas. One of them was the absolutist theory that the king is the only representative of the kingdom and its bodies. Another theory was judicial. It argued on the necessity of parliaments that represented the will of the nation. The third theory was the administrative and argued about the rational representation of social interests to municipal congresses established on property and not on privilege. Moreover, with the course of time the ideas of reason shared by the biggest part of the community required concrete actions. One of such actions was driven by the necessity to create a written constitution. This step was needed in order to assure each individual’s rights. The need for the equality of rights between the social classes was demanded because of the social inequality. Being the minority, the nobility and the first estate held all the regulating mechanisms in the economy and the policy. The latter resulted in social reaction of the disadvantaged majority towards assuring its rights.

The strength of the theory of cultural and intellectual origin of the French Revolution is in its part in the creation of collective knowledge about people. The majority of French citizens were illiterate and, thus, bridged from those who held the power in the country. With the spreading ideas of the Enlightenment made the citizens aware of the possibility of social changes. However, one should not reject the role of the social factor in the reasons of revolution. That is why the weakness of the theory of intellectual and cultural origins of French Revolution in XVIII is the absence of the role of the social factor.

Social Origins of Revolution

Despite the described theories of economic and cultural origins of the French Revolution of XVIII century it is impossible to characterize it without tracing its social origins. As it was mentioned earlier, a group of representatives of the Third Estate gained enough financial and economic power to demand more rights. The merchants demanded their own niche in the mechanisms of regulating the state power and economy. The factor that influenced their lack of required powers was the absence of their nobility status and the status of the First Estate. Therefore, merchants were the representatives of the Third Estate disregarding their wealth and social position, which was higher than the countrymen. The mentioned factors indicate arising of the new social class that did not fit the existing social system. The fight of this class for its social recognition is claimed by some scholars to be the leading factor of revolution. For instance, Jay M. Smithcriticizes Tackett for highlighting only legal powers and cultural expectations of people, Kwass as well as Jones and Shovlin for stressing only economic reasons of the revolution. The scholar claims that his colleagues highlight narrowly-political or event-driven accounts of the old regime’s collapse. That is why one should not focus on narrow approaches and seek general factors that might influence the society to react against the monarchy and the aristocratic hegemony. At the same time, Michael Sonenscher argues that the Third Estate later formed the bourgeoisie, which happened to hold constituting power. Thus, one can assume that the new social formation that struggled for it recognition during the French Revolution was bourgeoisie. One of the reasons of its social struggle is highlighted by Colin, “the French bourgeoisie had become aware of the increasing disparity between its wealth and social usefulness, on the one hand, and its social prestige and opportunities, on the other”. Consequently, the social struggle of bourgeoisie can be viewed as a social clash between the emerging progressive capitalistic and parasitic aristocratic classes. The changes of social recognition in France at that time were shifting from being noble to being rich. As it was stated by Shovlin, money, not virtue, has become the basis of the world of that time. That is why, having enough financial power, the emerging bourgeoisie felt the abilities of regulating the economic and cultural context of their country. The stagnation, maintained by aristocracy and the First Estate, forced the middle class to fight for its rights. Moreover, its demands required written Constitution for the equal rights to be declared on the legal basis. The ideas of the mentioned scholars are shared by Sarah Maza criticizing Garrioch’s statement that a self-conscious bourgeoisie can be characterized as a consequence of the Revolution than as its cause. On the basis of the analyzed materials one assures that the bourgeoisie, as the part of the emerging middle class, was an active participant of the revolutionary social processes.

Alongside with the bourgeoisie in France in late XVIII century there was another category of people that required social recognition being non merchants and manufacturers. Jones claims these people to be the intellectual offshoots: writers, middlemen, and professionals criticizing his colleagues for separating these representatives of the Third Estate. No wonder, the mentioned category of people fight for their recognition being the leading force of the French Revolution. As a result of their fight, “over time, the status of “bourgeois” developed into a variable set of obligations and privileges”. Thus, one may assure that the social origin of the French Revolution might be the most powerful. The reason for it is that it partially encompasses the economic, political and intellectual ones. The reason for it is that all the mentioned factors had accumulated among the representatives of the emerging social class. Consequently, its formation and fight for its rights resulted in the revolution in France in late XVIII century.


The reasons of the French Revolution of the XVIII century are still a subject of wide debates among historians. Various scholars consider different factors to play the leading role as the origins of this phenomenon. For instance, one group of scholars considers economical reasons of crisis and the bankruptcy of the state to accumulate the forces for revolutionary changes. They see the reasons of revolution in the financial instability and the need for deep changes in the economic structure of the country. Another group of scholars gives priority to cultural and intellectual changes in the society to be the reason of social dissatisfaction with the monarchy. The representatives of this thought claim that the society needed powerful ideology that inspired it to act against the monarch. The third group of historians criticizes the approaches of the first two calling them deliberate and not comprehensive. They claim social factors to be the origin of revolution. Moreover, they indicate that the emergence of the new social class of bourgeoisie had been impossible without existing economic and intellectual conditions. Therefore, one comes to conclusion that the origin of the French Revolution of XVIII century was definitely social. However, the process of social formation of bourgeoisie was impossible without the discussed economic and cultural conditions.