International School History - International Baccalaureate - MYP History

MYP4 Last update - 06 June 2018  
Unit 4 - Lesson 3 - Causes of the French Revolution.
Image result for the three estates in pre-revolutionary france cartoon  
This is the first lesson on the most important event in modern history, the French Revolution. It is one of the few events that is studied in history lessons all around the world. To some extent, you already know why it is going to happen. The old feudal order, the 'ancien regime' of powerful great landowners (aristocracy), had slowly been decaying in the face of Protestant individualism and international merchant capitalism. The political form of feudalism, the absolute monarch, had been replaced or weakened in the economically advanced countries of Britain and the Netherlands. Even where 'enlightened' absolute monarchs still ruled, their enlightened reforms throughout the 18th century, often weakened the institution of absolutism itself.

And then, there were the radical new ideas. Beginning with the Scientific Revolution, the application of reason resulted in rapid developments in our understanding of the natural world. When this same rational approach was applied to the science of society and politics, the works of Locke, Voltaire and Rousseau condemned the idea of the 'divine right of kings' to the dustbin of history. If kings remained in power, it was not because it was rational for them to do so, but because they were willing to reject reason itself. Those, like Voltaire, who had seen alternatives to absolutism up close were full of praise for constitutionalism.

'The way the English run their country is excellent. This is not normally the case with a monarchy, but because there is a parliament, English people have rights. They are free to go where they wish; they can read what they like. They have the right to be tried properly by law and all individuals are free to follow the religion of their choice.' - Voltaire, Lettres Anglaises, written in about 1750

The Seven Years' War was, in many ways, the last of the wars of religion. The Protestant nations of Britain and Prussia defeated the largely Catholic forces led by France. The economic consequences of French defeat and her subsequent successful, though expensive, support of the American revolutionaries, almost bankrupted the French state. But above all, it was the example of the American revolt, an ordinary people overthrowing a 'tyrannical monarchy', that was was most important about 1776. The Marquis de Lafayette the young French noble who went to fight with the Americans against the British at the age of 19,  'returned home to his native land full of ideas about liberty and republics.' As Joseph Weber, a relative of Mane Antoinette wrote 'He and others like him, believed in the night of people to throw out any government that was unfair. Little did he know what would happen as a result of this.' The radical ideas of Tom Paine's Common Sense and Jefferson's Declaration of Independence, 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal', provided a rational but revolutionary basis for the legitimating the power of the state. Democracy was to be the future.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau's portrait

'Even the best king will do what he likes, if he feels like it. There is one reason why a republic will always be better than a monarchy. If the people have power, they will appoint men of talent and experience to the highest post. Ministers appointed simply by a nod from the King are often a disgrace to their position.'

Rousseau, 'Kings and Republics', about 1760

Long-term causes of the French Revolution

As in our lesson on the causes of the Reformation, (Unit 2 - Lesson 6) Understanding causes is central to what history is about. Historians like to link different events together that share something in common. For example, as we saw in Unit 1, historians use categories like political, economic, social and cultural (PESC) to explain clearly why things happen. Another way of organizing causes (and consequences) is to divide them into long-term and short-term. Long-term causes take place a long-time before the event and are not an obvious, direct cause of the event. They often provide the context in which the event is more likely to happen. Short-term causes happen immediately before the event and are obviously and directly linked to the event. In explaining the causes of French Revolution, we are going to combine a short-term/long-term analysis with PESC.

First a reminder about teleology.  We studied the Black Death because it was important in explaining why feudalism began to collapse. We studied the Seven Years' War because it helps explain the American Revolution. But as I said last time, to give importance and meaning to events simply because they cause something afterwards is to be overly teleological. These events are important in their own right. But, if we are to fully understand what came later, we can only do so in the light of what came before.


From ancient Greek philosophy. To define the quality of something in terms of what it has the potential to become. Aristotle claimed that an acorn's telos is to become a fully grown oak tree, yet in reality very few acorns do.

Economic causes

Economic and social factors are often combined. They provide what the great Anglo-American poet T.S. Elliot called the 'vast impersonal forces'; the gradual, seismic changes that are beyond the control of any individual. As we saw at the beginning of Unit 2, the 19th century German philosopher and revolutionary Karl Marx, spent most of life explaining why feudalism was replaced by the modern 'capitalist' world. He argued that fundamental economic changes were the key to understanding historical change; that our ideas are largely determined by the age in which we live. He once put it very simply:

‘Social relations are closely bound up with productive forces. In acquiring new productive forces men change their mode of production; and in changing their mode of production, in changing the way of earning their living, they change all their social relations. The hand-mill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill society with the industrial capitalist.’  
Karl Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy 1847

As capitalism developed in the 18th century, countries that had embraced the changes began to dominate world trade. This economic strength was matched by military might, the Seven Years' War was won by countries that had future orientated economies. The losers incurred debt and pressure from their people for reform and modernise (see social causes below). Those who wanted to change the political system, did so because they wanted a government more responsive to the needs of new businesses. But the ruling classes, the aristocratic landlords, still wanted a political system to govern in its traditional feudal interests, so they were resistant to reform. As the economic situation worsened, the state could only pay its debts by raising more from taxation. The diagram below shows you how bad the French government's financial situation was in 1786.

The problem with increasing the taxes was that it fell disproportionally on the poor. The aristocracy and the church were often exempt, or found a way of evading payment of taxes. The main tax on land or income was called the taille. Everyone paid it except the clergy and nobles. In addition, the peasants who made up about 80% of the population, still had to pay the traditional feudal taxes like the tithe or taxes to use the lord's mill or wine press etc. In addition, they still had the traditional labour service called the corvée which meant they had to give up their time to help maintain roads or bring in the lord's harvest.

How do you interpret this contemporary cartoon?

Image result for the three estates in pre-revolutionary france cartoon


Social causes

When we looked at medieval Europe, we examined how the feudal system controlled people socially. We were interested in how the social system affected people's everyday life. The social causes of the French revolution are best understood as the gradual breakdown in the social system that had more or less remained unchanged since medieval times. In France this was known as the system of the Three Estates.

How the estates system was supposed to be. How the estates system was in reality by the 1780s

By the 1780s the Estates system was no longer working. The development of capitalism and the growth of towns, gave rise to new social classes - the urban working class (proletariat) and merchants and businessmen (bourgeoisie) - who didn't fit into the traditional three estates. The bourgeoisie, in particular, were increasingly important,  not least because they might be very rich but have no political power whatsoever. France remained an absolute monarchy, supported by the First and Second Estates. It was a system of mutual support which resisted change.  The monarch ruled through divine right which the Catholic Church reinforced. The Church in return benefitted from the tithe, land ownership, exemption from taxation and its own legislative body to advise the king. The aristocracy provided regional governance, law and order and in return it was also exempt from many taxes, received feudal dues and had its own legislative body to advise the king. It was this social system that many French people believed needed to change.

These two contemporary cartoons provide an identical message, what is it?

Image result for the three estates in pre-revolutionary france cartoon Image result for the three estates in pre-revolutionary france cartoon

To bring about change you need clear ideas about what is wrong and what needs to be done. All of which brings us on to the cultural causes, the essence of which you are already very familiar.


Cultural causes

The political ideas of the Enlightenment were particularly widespread in France. As we have seen the most important of the Enlightenment political philosophers were French, they are known to history as the philosophes. They were public intellectuals, widely read but also heard in the many salon soirées hosted by prominent ladies amongst the French social elites.  They strongly endorsed progress and tolerance, and distrusted organized religion (most were deists) and feudal institutions. Many also contributed to Diderot's Encyclopédie. Perhaps most importantly, the radical ideas of the philosophes had recently inspired a successful revolution in America. And nothing helps an idea spread quickly better than an idea that has been applied successfully.

From where we sit, the two most interesting of the philosophes were Rousseau (because he was born in Geneva) and Voltaire (because he ended up there).

Rousseau museum Geneva Voltaire's house at Ferney
Image result for rousseau museum geneva

Review our work from lesson 1, read my textbook and ideally watch the two videos from the earlier lesson on Rousseau and Voltaire. Which ideas of Rousseau and Voltaire do you think would be most dangerous to the French monarchy and the ancien regime?

See my textbook IB History of Europe Course Companion pages 1-10. An edited extract on the ideas behind the revolution is here.

For the third lesson in a row I recommend this video!

Political causes

In any political revolution, political causes are central. In the end, the people must be willing to forcibly remove rulers whom they feel are responsible for the country's ills. The economic and social problems of France created a context in which people wanted change. The ideas of the philosophes provided arguments about what should change and why. But history shows that revolution can be avoided when rulers are skilled, determined and ruthless. Unfortunately for the future of the French monarchy, Louis XVI was none of these things.


Individuals in history can make a difference, even if in simplistic historical explanations there is a temptation to explain too much based on simple character traits. The documentary at the top of this page is typical of this 'bad King John' theory of history. There is little doubt that Louis and his wife Marie Antoinette were not ideal monarchs for a time of crisis. Louis was not interested in ruling and their personal difficulties and extravagance did much to undermine their authority. But the fact that at Versailles they lived a life of extraordinary opulence, surrounded by sycophantic courtiers and were literally detached from the French people in a 1000 room palace, 18km from Paris, was not their fault. This was how it had always been.

Unlike in many other European countries the French state had not been significantly changed. The only nominal legislative body (parliament) was the Estates General which had three separate assemblies for each of the Three Estates: the clergy, nobility and the rest.  It had  power in its own right - unlike the English parliament it was not required to approve royal taxation or legislation - instead it functioned as an advisory body to the king. It was appointed and dismissed by him and it hadn't met since 1614.

In reality, France was governed by the thousands of noblemen who lived alongside Louis XVI at Versailles. In the absence of any checks and balances on their power, this rule became increasingly despotic. One of the best examples of this was the widespread use of lettres de cachet or sealed letters. Lettres de cachet were royal warrants ordering the exile or imprisonment of the person named in it. The king could sign these and give them to his ministers to use as they wished, it was up to them to put a name in it. Quite often they were used by ministers to imprison rivals or critics of the government. Voltaire, for example,  received two Lettres de cachet. They could be entirely arbitrary, without either justification or right of appeal. During the reign of Louis XVI 14,000 such letters issued.  For many, Lettres de cachet were a potent symbol of the injustice of the King's rule.

Bad King John theory of history.

Expounded by historian E.H. Carr in his famous 'What is History?' lectures in the 1960s. This is the tendency for popular history to explain the essence of an age, its successes and failures, as being the result of the actions of individuals, whether good or bad. Carr call's this tendency 'childish'.





Short-term causes of the French Revolution

The French Revolution was actually two revolutions. The first was led by intellectuals and lawyers, the men who led the Third Estate. The key event in this first stage of the revolution was 'The Tennis Court Oath', a dramatic moment when the representatives of the Third Estate defied the king. The second stage of the revolution happened less than a month later, when the ordinary people of Paris violently stormed the Bastille prison in search of gunpowder in order to defend themselves from the kings soldiers. This was the day the French chose to be their national day, 14th July, Bastille Day.

Into the long term context we have outlined above, a series of events begin to unfold in five discernible phases.


1. The Assembly of Notables refuses a tax reform

By 1786, Louis had run out of money. He was unable to borrow any more. Charles de Calonne, his finance minister, came up with a simple solution. As things stood, the richer a person was, the less tax he or she paid. Calonne said another tax was needed. Everybody should pay this new tax, even the clergy and the nobles. To try to get the nobles on his side, Calonne called together some nobles to agree to his new tax on land. This Assembly of Notables met in 1787, but Calonne's idea was rejected and he was dismissed. The king then dismissed the nobles and tried to force the Paris Parlement to agree to the new law. They refused and insisted that only the Estates General could approve such a measure.


Charles de Calonne

2. Louis backs down and agrees to call the Estates General.

Over the next year, the crisis worsened. There were riots in many towns and Louis still needed money. In August 1788, he made the following announcement: 'We need an assembly of our faithful subjects to help us get over our difficulties with money. We have decided to call a meeting of the estates of all the provinces so that they may tell us their wishes and problems. Every kind of abuse will be reformed.' This was a dangerous promise that raised people's expectations. The Estates-General, was to meet in May 1789 for the first time since 1614. This was what many people had wanted for years.

3. The Estates General meets amidst a social and economic crisis.

On 13 July 1788 a massive hailstorm had destroyed cornfields, vegetable plots, orchards and vineyards all over central France. This was followed by a drought. As a result, the harvest in 1788 was very poor.  The drought was followed by the coldest winter in living memory. Rivers froze over, stopping watermills from grinding flour. Blocked roads prevented food from reaching markets. And when the snow suddenly thawed in the spring, floods ruined huge areas of farmland. The price of bread increased dramatically, leaving people with less money to spend on other essentials. This led to a fall in demand for many goods which resulted in unemployment and even less demand. There were riots and strikes in may parts of the country.  At this point, in the spring of 1789, electors were invited to draw up lists of complaints they wanted the Estates General to discuss with the king. These cahier de doléances were produced all over France and listed in detail everything the people thought was wrong with country. Most importantly, they raised expectations still further that the Estates General was going to solve France's problems.

Image result for cahier de doléances



4. The Third Estate defies the king.

When the Estates-General met in the Palace of Versailles in May 1789, there were 1,201 deputies, or representatives. They were divided up as follows: First Estate - 300 deputies. Second Estate - 291 deputies. Third Estate - 610 deputies However, each estate had only one vote, so any ideas put forward by the Third Estate could be rejected if the clergy and the nobility were opposed to them. The Third Estate,  felt it was absurd that the nobles and clergy could outvote them. On 17 June 1789, the Third Estate declared that they were in charge. They called themselves the National Assembly. On 20 June, Louis locked them out of the hall, so they went instead to the indoor royal tennis court at Versailles. There they swore an oath, and promised to keep together until France was governed fairly. This was known as the Tennis Court Oath which was immortalised in the famous painting by Jacques Louis David.


On 9 July, Louis gave in and ordered the other two Estates to join them. So far, the power struggle had been fought with words. It was soon to become violent.

5. The storming of the Bastille.

Setting up the National Assembly was a great victory for the third estate but a defeat for the king. Louis XVI had lost control of the Estates General. Riots in nearby Paris showed that he risked losing control of the capital too. Urged on by the queen and members of his court, Louis ordered 20,000 royal troops to move into the area around Paris. He said this was to keep order there, but most people suspected that the troops were going to break up the National Assembly. People in Paris started to feel afraid. Their fears grew on 12 July. News came from Versailles that Louis had sacked the popular finance minister, Necker, and replaced him with a hardliner who opposed the third estate. People assumed that Louis was about to crack down on the National Assembly. Angry and frightened crowds started looking for weapons to defend themselves against the king's troops. The search for weapons went on for two days. Crowds broke into arms stores and stole thousands of guns. On the morning of 14 July rumours went round that there were tonnes of gunpowder in the Bastille, an old fortress in the cast end of Paris. The rest, as they say, is history and we'll be continuing with it after the exams.


1. With reference to the origin, purpose and content, examine the value and limitations of Jacques Louis David's Tennis Court Oath as evidence about the causes of the French Revolution.

2. Design an essay plan that enables you to consider the relative importance of long-term/short term factors and relative importance of political/economic/social and cultural factors.

3. Was the French Revolution inevitable? Explain your answer.  

Penalty shootout quiz



About I Contact Richard Jones-Nerzic