Late 18th century France is a time and place in human history when enlightened thinkers sparked a country into action and overthrew a system of kings, queens, and clergy that had been in place for over a thousand years. The desperation of a hungry and poor majority would cause chaos across France as the printing presses pumped out newspapers calling for heads to roll! Neighbours spied on neighbours, power was in the hands of an angry mob, and you could be killed if you didn’t agree with the revolution enthusiastically enough.
It’s the French Revolution. And in order to fully appreciate it, you first need to understand what caused it.
In the years leading up to the revolution, France would experience the perfect mixture of bad circumstances that would result in one big revolutionary stew.
Long before 1789 (when the French Revolution kicked off), France fought a war against Britain called The Seven Years War. You’ll never guess why it’s called that, but I’ll just casually mention it lasted from 1756-1763. Both powers were trying to expand their empires, and this war was fought all over the globe. North America, South America, Europe, Africa, Philippines, all over the place!
And you know the thing about fighting a war like that? It’s freaking expensive.
France ended up losing that war to Britain and lost many of its overseas territories, and was left with a massive debt.
But it didn’t stop there. With yet another expensive endeavour, in 1776 when British colonies in America decided they were going to form a revolution against Britain, France jumped at the opportunity to help weaken their old foe. The French contributed troops, ships, cannons, guns, and money to the American Revolution in order to help the United States gain independence from Great Britain.
Sadly for France, when all was said and done the Americans had their independence, and all France had to show for it was a colossal debt (on top of the massive debt they already had).
To help lead them out of the fiscal thicket in which the French populace currently found itself… was Louis.
King Louis XVI was… well, he was a king, which is about the only leadership quality the guy possessed. But, sadly for France, that was enough to make him in charge of the entire country. The poor guy was made king at the age of 20, and couldn’t even make the easiest of decisions with confidence. He held the opinion of whomever he had spoken to most recently and stuck to it until he received even the slightest resistance.
The future of France rested squarely on his shoulders.
The tool (other than King Louis) that the French government had to battle this economic crisis was a taxation system that was so backwards and convoluted no one seemed to understand who was paying how much and why. What everyone did understand, however, was that the only people who were paying taxes were the regular Joes. The rich nobility, and the leaders of the church (who had most of the money) didn’t have to pay very much at all.
Then in both 1788 and 1789 there were terrible crop harvests that left France without much grain. The winters in those years were harsh and bread was running out. Eventually a loaf of bread became so expensive it equalled a month’s worth of wages. The poor, heavily taxed citizens of France were now hungry.
Our rich and overweight friend King Louis wasn’t alone at the top. He was married to Marie Antoinette, the daughter of the Emperor & Empress of The Holy Roman Empire (modern day Austria & Germany). Marie Antoinette was known throughout France for her exquisite clothing, fancy jewellery, and huge, intricate hairstyles. She and Louis ate the finest food, hosted extravagant parties, and lived in a golden palace 13 miles outside of Paris in a place called Versailles (sounds like ver-sigh).
While all of this was happening in France there was a new wave of thoughts and ideas that was spreading across Europe. It was being called “enlightenment” and it emphasized the use of reason, logic, and science to question how society should operate. This school of thought was heavily skeptical towards the Catholic church and monarchy. Lo and behold, that just happened to be the two groups that were causing such a problem for regular French citizens. Educated individuals started sharing enlightenment thinking in Paris and began spreading the idea that maybe citizens should be treated equally. Maybe the king isn’t appointed by God to be the ruler of everyone else, and maybe the hierarchy that separated France into different social classes wasn’t the best way of doing things.
French citizens agreed.
The popularity and availability of the printing press made these ideas easy to spread. Newspapers were popping up all over Paris and pamphlets were circulated with a speed that was unachievable before this point. The French people were becoming increasingly informed… and they were informed that their sucky situation might just have a solution, but it isn’t gonna be easy.
So, quick summary:
What caused the French Revolution?
- Large national debt
- Terrible taxation system
- Incompetent leadership
- No food
- Enlightenment ideals (do we really need the king?)
And that’s how it came to be that an irate populace and a very unsure king are going to try and work out a solution to their current problems. It’s gonna be messy, but it sure makes for a good piece of history…
I’m working on the next article! For now, head back home