Why the French Revolution Happened
An essay detailing the incompetence of the government and monarchy, the failure of the estates system, and the influence from America.
The French Revolution was a major turning point in the history of France, this was the point at which France stopped being a medieval dictatorship and became a modern country. However, this was not something that happened in an instant, the roots of a revolution had been building up for a long time. In a changing world, France was becoming out-dated in terms of how the country was run: The hierarchy was corrupt, the monarchs were incompetent and the people were in poverty. These are not signs of a good country.
The reason for France being run in a bad way is that Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were not very good at ruling. Louis did not particularly care about his job. He was far more interested in pursuing his hobbies than he was in controlling his country. Louis also suffered from a very poor figure and had limited visual capability. Marie-Antoinette, meanwhile, was rowdy and undisciplined, so was hard to educate. The result was that the "pair of nincompoops" were not respected by the people, nor aware of the problems which were arising beneath them. These were not the only problems: the French Parliament spent far more money than they received, so the debts grew and grew.
While the monarchy squandered money, the people of France had none. In the years leading up to the revolution, the cost of bread (which made up most of a French peasant's diet) rose by 45%, whereas the wages received by the "Third Estate" did not reflect this, and only rose by 22%. This caused most of France to go hungry. One reason for the strangling of the cash flow was that members of the lowest had to pay inordinately large taxes to the government, but the money never reached its destination. Huge chunks of the tax funds were kept by greedy tax collectors, eager for the chance to make themselves wealthy. Between the debts of the government and the poverty of the poor, the French economy was twisting into a tight knot which would eventually tear it apart.
Another major result of France's backward ruling was the fact that, even in the 1780s, the country was still following the medieval Estates system. The general idea was: Members of the church were rich, Nobles were rich, the monarchs were very rich and everybody else was effectively slaves. Thus, clergies and rich families lived in splendour while the peasants were worked to death and stripped of all wealth. This was the country which Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette saw. However, the reality was fast moving away from this because many Third Estate members were beginning to accumulate power and wealth, while the cash of the first two estates was dwindling. French social hierarchy was o longer as simple as the king and queen thought, and action should have been taken to adapt the system to suit the changes. But this did not happen. Instead, the ignorant Louis and Marie-Anne were practically oblivious to the changes which were happening, and took no action as a result. This meant that France was quickly transforming into something new, but the country was simply not ready for the change.
While France was falling apart, America was only just emerging as a country. In the 1770s, American colonists were fighting for their rights as an independent nation against the controlling arm of the British Empire. The French government was glad for a chance to take a shot at Britain, so soldiers were sent to assist the Americans in their struggle. The foundation of America's fight for independence was the idea that no people should have to pay taxes without gaining the rights to participate in making the country's rules. The French soldiers agreed with this, so much that they tried to make it work for their own country, by rebelling against "the Toffs". Personally, I think that sending French soldiers to America was one of the worst ideas in the history of government. If the king and queen had been paying more attention, they would have foreseen the effects of this decision and put a stop to it. They should have taught their subjects that the Americans were anarchists and criminals. If siding with Britain was to be too risky then the French government should not have poked their noses in at all. Then they would have avoided wasting vast amounts of money in transforming their soldiers into revolutionaries.
Overall, I believe that the French Revolution was the result of some dreadful leadership by Louis and Marie-Antoinette, combined with a changing world. As a result, France did not gradually shift into the modern era, but was instead dragged along the ground by the might of a revolt, becoming smashed and mangled as a result.
Originally written December 2010 by Robin Taylor. Given National Curriculum Level 6A.