To What Extent Was The French Revolution Caused By Economic Depression In June 1789 the French revolution had begun. For the next five years there would be bloodshed throughout France, the country was going through a radical change, the change in sovereignty and the failure of the constitutional monarchy being two examples of this. But to what extent was all this caused by economic distress? Before being able to answer the question, one would have to establish the definition of ‘economic distress’ it could be defined as the misery people (especially the peasantry) faced due to low income and tax inflation or the misery that the entire country was in due to the enormous debts, which had accumulated due to the wars, which were fought. The economic situation was only one of the elements that caused the people to question the monarchy in pre-revolutionary France. France was in great debt and almost bankrupt but this did not stop them from fighting wars. The debt – an economic problem – turned into a social one, when the peasants were taxed heavily in order to pay for the debt, this caused them to question greatly their position in society and the effectiveness of their monarchy.
Drought and other natural disasters ruined crop production, causing food prices to rise dramatically. With taxes rising and prices too, peasants were living in famine and in poor living conditions. The enlightenment was able to inspire revolutionary thoughts within the people. People began to abandon their beliefs in divine right and focused more on the thoughts of equality and society being run for the benefit of all. The economic situation only made people realize other problems concerning politics and society.
A revolution (The complete overthrow of an established government or social order by those previously subject to it) would mean complete reform of political, ideological and economical beliefs, so for such a drastic change to be necessary there would need to be problems in all of these areas to begin with. In Pre-revolutionary France there were three estates – the first estate (clergy), the second estate (nobles) and the third estate (bourgeoisie, peasantry and urban workers). Most of the clergy came from noble backgrounds, as it was usual for the youngest sons of wealthy families to join the church in order to share its wealth. The church’s wealth came from tithes (a proportion or the each year’s crop paid to the church by landowners) and the vast amount of land that it owned. They clergy were exempt from taxes; instead they negotiated a don gratuit with the king. The don gratuit was an annual payment to the crown and was always much less than what would have to be paid in normal taxation.
The church had a great deal of power too as the state religion was Catholicism, it was their duty to spread to ideas of divine right. The second estate was by far, the wealthiest and most powerful. They were exempt from paying direct taxes (until the 1749 vingtieme when they still paid less than they would have done if they were from the third estate) and doing military service such as the corvee (forced labour on roads) and made their money through the land they owned (between 15% and 25% of all land in France). They also receives seigneural (feudal) dues which were fees that the peasants were obligated to pay in order to use the lord’s mill, oven, wine press, breeding stock, death taxes, inheritance taxes and sale-of-property taxes. The third estate was made up of three parts; the bourgeoisie, who were the wealthiest and most educated part of the estate, many of them being financiers, landowners, doctors, writers and civil servants.
It was also possible for wealthy bourgeoisie to buy venal offices to become nobles (however, most ennobling offices requires at least two generations of owners before nobility could be bought. The other part of the estate was the peasantry. It was the least wealthy and most numerous (85% of the French population lived in the countryside and most were peasants). Many of the peasants were laboureurs (people who grew enough food to feed themselves, these were the people who found it especially hard when the crop was damaged due to bad weather conditions in 1769-71, 1778-79, 1781-82, 1785-86 and above all 1788-89. Other peasants who were also greatly affected by this were the sharecroppers who had no capital and gave half their produce to their landlords.
All peasants had to pay feudal dues such as the corvee, tithes to the church and also had to pay taxes such as the taille, vingtieme, capitation, and gabelle. Peasants also had to pay rents, which increased greatly between 1705 and 1789 to add to their expenses. The third part of the estate was the urban workers who were unskilled and poor. They were subjected to appalling living and working conditions and the famine hit them the hardest as they could not afford the bread which formed three quarters of the workers diet. Pre-revolutionary France was run under an autocratic regime. The monarchy was absolute, its powers consisted of: The National System of Justice, their role with the catholic church, the right to order taxation and leader of the military forces, a successful leader would need to be able to handle this power with confidence and good judgment.
Louis XVI was too weak, far too indecisive and all in he was not the sort of person who should have held such responsibilities. The basis of the revolution was established when Louis XIV came to the throne. He was an absolute monarch who caused the nobles dislike of monarchy by reducing their power and taking them away from their land. In 1661 Louis spent $100 million to build the Versailles palace, his lavish spending left the country with a huge debt. He also spent a great deal of money fighting a series of wars in an attempt to dominate Europe. Louis XV was no more successful, he attempted to reform the unjust taxation by forcing the formerly exempt nobility and clergy to pay tax – this was amended after his death.
In 1771 the parlements were regrouped and stripped of their powers to obstruct royal decrees, this introduced the idea of the king being a despotic leader (a leader who acts illegally). Louis XV also spent vast amounts of money on 3 unsuccessful wars; the war of the Polish succession, the war of the Austrian Succession and the seven years war where France lost all of its overseas colonies to Britain, adding to the debt and causing the people to believe that the king was responsible for France’s loss of power. Louis XVI was weak foolish and extremely indecisive. His weakness was evident when instead of implementing tax reforms he avoided the nobility and just kept on borrowing money, creating a cycle of constant loans, by 1786 the debt totaled 3 billion livres and the deficit had come to 125 million livres. Another thing, which the French public hated about the monarchy, was that the queen was Marie Antoinette; to them she was the symbol of an unnatural alliance with Austria, which had led to France’s defeat in the seven years war.
She greatly influenced the decisions of the king, for example the comptroller-general, Turgot, was sacked because she disliked him. Louis’ indecisiveness is shown in the way he dealt with extremely important matters, for example; it took six months to discuss the recall of the parlement in 1774, in 1778 the entry into the American war of independence took two years of deciding and the convocation of the assembly of notables in 1787 (where there was urgency) took five months. It was clear that Louis was not fit to be a king. The biggest long-term problem next to the king and the extreme social inequality was tax. The main direct tax – the taille – that was a tax on land only applied to peasants, exemptions were granted to towns and nobles.
Another tax was the capitation (poll tax) and the vingtieme (five per cent levy on all incomes). Along with the direct taxes, there were also indirect taxes such as the gabelle (salt tax), aides on food and drink and the octrois on goods entering the town. These posed more of a problem for the peasantry and the urban workers, as it did not take into account their low income. The tax therefore became a controversial issue as it caused the peasants to question their role in society and wants to change it. It was intended for the money from taxes to cover the expenditure, but due to bad tax collection methods they rarely received as much money as they were supposed to.
Indirect taxes were collected by the farmers-general who would pay a lump sum to the government in advance and ke …