The French Revolution in 1789 happened for many reasons, including economic factors, social factors and intellectual factors. France was one of the wealthiest and most powerful nations in Europe at the time of its revolution. But corruption and greed among the aristocracy undermined the inherent strength of French society and gave rise to dissatisfaction and unrest, culminating in a bloody revolution.
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In the late 18th century, new ideas were circulating in Europe and in the American colonies. These ideas were part of the Enlightenment, which resulted from the growth of science, industry and the bourgeoisie in the preceding centuries. Intellectuals began questioning the old feudal order of monarchy and church. Instead they posited a new, modern regime based on equal rights for all men, and an end to the power of the church and the clergy. Science would replace superstition and religion. The American Revolution had grown out of these ideas. Some French people had fought on the side of the Americans in that war and had absorbed some of these new ideas. After the American Revolution, Americans such as Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin served as diplomats in France and spread their theories about democracy and liberty to French intellectuals.
The French Monarchy and Aristocracy
Many people in France were receptive to ideas about equality and democracy because the French aristocracy was unpopular in the years leading up to the Revolution. King Louis XV and his successor, King Louis XVI, led lavish, even gluttonous lifestyles at the court at Versailles. The nobility was not taxed, but a high burden of taxes fell on the growing middle class, the urban proletariat, and the peasantry. Although tax changes were proposed, the nobility continued to reject them. The judicial system was corrupt, the tax collectors were corrupt, and the perception was that the whole system was rigged to benefit the aristocracy and exploit everybody else.
France's Dire Financial Straits
On the eve of the revolution, France was essentially bankrupt, despite having a wealthy and productive economy. The government had taken out big loans to finance two wars, the Seven Years War against England, and the American Revolution, in which France fought on the side of the Americans against their old enemy England. The palace at Versailles continued to be a huge drain on the country's resources during the reigns of both Louis XV and Louis XVI. Instead of taxing themselves to pay for all this, the nobility borrowed money at ruinous interest rates. They also continued to tax the peasantry to the point that some families starved to death. All this led to tremendous resentment against the regime.
The last straw was probably the famine that ravaged France in 1788 and 1789. Weather conditions caused the wheat harvest to be much smaller in those years. France did not have much of a potato crop, as did other European countries during that period, so they had nothing to fall back on when drought and floods ravaged crops. This conditions in the rural parts of France led to peasant revolts in the summers of 1788 and 1789, immediately prior to the French Revolution.
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