The French Revolution (History Channel)

The French Revolution (1789--1799) was a period of political and social upheaval in the political history of France and Europe as a whole, during which the French governmental structure, previously an absolute monarchy with feudal privileges for the aristocracy and Catholic clergy, underwent radical change to forms based on Enlightenment principles of democracy, citizenship, and inalienable rights.

These changes were accompanied by violent turmoil, including executions and repression during the Reign of Terror, and warfare involving every other major European power. Subsequent events caused by the revolution include the Napoleonic wars, the restoration of the monarchy, and two additional revolutions as modern France took shape.

Over the next 75 years, France would be governed, variously, as a republic, a dictatorship, a constitutional monarchy, and two different empires before 1900.

Historians disagree about the political and socioeconomic nature of the Revolution. Under one interpretation, the old aristocratic order of the Ancien Régime succumbed to an alliance of the rising bourgeoisie, aggrieved peasants, and urban wage-earners. Another interpretation asserts that the Revolution resulted when various aristocratic and bourgeois reform movements spun out of control. According to this model, these movements coincided with popular movements of the new wage-earning classes and the provincial peasantry, but any alliance between classes was contingent and incidental.
However, adherents of both models identify many of the same features of the ancien régime as being among the causes of the Revolution. Among the economic factors were:
• The social and psychological burdens of the many wars of the 18th century, which in the era before the dawn of nationalism were exclusively the province of the monarchy. The social burdens caused by war included the huge war debt, made worse by the monarchy's military failures and ineptitude, and the lack of social services for war veterans.
• A poor economic situation and an unmanageable national debt, both caused and exacerbated by the burden of a grossly inequitable system of taxation.
• The Roman Catholic Church, the largest landowner in the country, which levied a harsh tax on crops known as the dîme. While the dîme lessened the severity of the monarchy's tax increases, it nonetheless served to worsen the plight of the poorest who faced a daily struggle with malnutrition.
• The continued conspicuous consumption of the noble class, especially the court of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette at Versailles, despite the financial burden on the populace.
• High unemployment and high bread prices, causing more money to be spent on food and less in other areas of the economy;
• Widespread famine and malnutrition, which increased the likelihood of disease and death, and intentional starvation in the most destitute segments of the population during the months immediately before the Revolution. The famine extended even to other parts of Europe, and was not helped by a poor transportation infrastructure for bulk foods. (Some researchers have also attributed the widespread famine to an El Niño effect.).[1]
In addition to economic factors, there were social and political factors, many of them involving resentments and aspirations given focus by the rise of Enlightenment ideals:
• Resentment of royal absolutism;
• Resentment by the ambitious professional and merchantile classes towards noble privileges and dominance in public life (with a clear picture of the lives of their peers in The Netherlands, The Germanies, and Great Britain etc.);
• Resentment of manorialism (seigneurialism) by peasants, wage-earners, and, to a lesser extent, the bourgeoisie;
• Resentment of clerical privilege (anti-clericalism) and aspirations for freedom of religion;
• Continued hatred for (perceived) "Papist" controlled and influenced institutions of all kinds, by the large protestant minorities;
• Aspirations for liberty and (especially as the Revolution progressed) republicanism;
• Hatred toward the King for firing Jacques Necker and Anne Robert Jacques Turgot, Baron de Laune (among other financial advisors) who represented and fought for the people.
Finally, perhaps above all, was the almost total failure of Louis XVI and his advisors to deal effectively with any of these problems.

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