The French Revolution was an important event in modern history because it catalyzed many changes which have had far reaching consequences. French Revolution initiated the change from monarchy to democracy. This revolution initiated the new system of various rights granted to individuals. At present, whatever benefit we are getting in most of the democracies in the world could become possible because of French Revolution. In this lesson, you will learn about the French society and economy during eighteenth century. You will learn about various factors which resulted in a revolution in France. You will also learn about effect of French Revolution on France as well as on other countries of the world.
During the eighteenth century the French Society was divided into three groups, viz., First estate, Second estate and Third estate.
First Estate: Clergy belonged to 1st estate of then French Society. Clergy were the group of persons who were invested with special functions in the church, e.g. fathers, and other members of church.
Second Estate: Nobility belonged to 2nd estate. Nobility was hereditary and hence a person could get nobility by birth. However, new members were also awarded nobility by monarchy after paying heavy taxes or outstanding service to the monarchy, i.e. nobility could be purchased also.
Third Estate: The 3rd estate was further divided into three categories. Big businessmen, merchants, court officials, lawyers, etc. belonged to the first category of 3rd estate. Peasants and artisans belonged to the second category. And small peasants, landless labors and servants belonged to third category, and were considered as the lowest class in the society. Members of the third state had to pay all types of taxes including tithes and taille. Tithe was a religious tax collected by the churches, while taille was composed of direct and indirect taxes and was collected by the state.
Clergy and Nobility were privileged class. They had certain special privileges; in addition to feudal privilege. They were exempted from paying any types of taxes. They paid feudal taxes extracted after the members of the third estate.
Livre: Unit of currency of France. This was discontinued in 1794.
Louis XVI, of the Bourbon dynasty, became the ruler of France in 1774. By that time, long years of war, maintenance of the court of the immense palace of Versailles made the treasury empty. In addition to this, France had helped the thirteen American colonies in the war of independence against the British. The war for American independence resulted in a debt of 10 billion livres. The state was already reeling under a debt of 2 billion livres. The king was thus forced to increase taxes, resulting in resentment among the members of the third estate.
The population of France was increasing at a healthy pace. This resulted in increased demand of food grains. Poor production of food grains, frequent draught or hail, diseases, epidemics, further worsened the situation. The price of bread (staple diet of people) increased as a result. On the other hand, wages of workers could not keep pace with price rise. So, for most of the poor it resulted in subsistence crisis. A situation in which people are unable to buy even the basic necessities is called subsistence crisis.
Many people of the third estate had earned wealth through overseas trade and manufacturing goods. They were termed as middle class. It was a new social group, which also comprised of court officials, lawyers and administrative officials.
In the past, peasants and labors had started various revolts against high taxes and food scarcity. But they could not bring a change due to lack of means and lack of concrete programme. So, now the responsibility of changing the socio-economic order fell on the middle class.
People of middle class were educated. They were against the privileges on the basis of birth and believed that a person’s merit and effort should decide his position in the society. Philosophers, such as John Locke and Jean Jacques Rousseau were envisaging a society based on freedom, equal laws and opportunity for all. American war of freedom also influenced the people of France.
These ideas of then philosophers and political thinkers began to spread far and wide among people. People started discussions to bring the change in society as well as government based on those ideas. Such discussions began to take place in salons, coffee house, etc. Many books were published based on new ideas. Some persons used to read those books and newspaper aloud among people at public places for the benefit of illiterates.
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