What were the causes for the French Revolution?

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  • What were the  causes for the French Revolution?
    • The French economy (according to Peter Campbell)
      • Doing well from about 1730 onwards
        • especially in terms of rises in production and foreign trade
        • population rise kept benefits for many in check, but consumerism was on increase
          • strikingly so in some sectors
      • Social mobility increasing whilst economy prospered
        • particularly marked rise in numbers of prosperous middle classes
      • Economic downturn began in around 1778
        • Sharply exacerbated in late 1780s with effects of commercial treaty and bad harvests for wine and grain
      • In 1789, France was in grip of particularly bad economic crisis
        • Some historians have seen the downturn as generating significant revolutionary tension
        • Other historians argue that this tension was background to more political revolution that might have succeeded without general disorder and intervention of crowd
    • Social causes (according to Peter Campbell)
      • France was undergoing changes and increased tensions during C18th
      • Paradoxically, as social mobility and movable wealth expanded, privilege was on increase
        • and there were more, and perhaps more often embittering, divisions in society
      • Those without relatively easily acquired privileges of offices or nobility felt slighted, and new nobles resented older nobility's attempts to remain more exclusive
      • Bourgeoisie was beginning to feel more self-confident in its own privileges and merits
      • Artisans resented exclusive and restrictive guild practices, however, while rural poor displayed mounting anti-seigneurial attitudes and behaviour
      • No doubt all this tension was not enough to cause a revolution, but it did shape choices people made in 1789
    • Cultural causes (according to Peter Campbell)
      • France was undergoing  significant changes especially from mid-century onwards
      • Luxury trades and availability of commodities from New World, such as coffee and tea, drunk in cafes and meeting places, led to a new degree of consumerism
      • A more commercial  culture was developing
      • Changing aspects of culture that helped to create a public sphere in which discussion took place
        • The availability of periodicals
        • a 'reading revolution'
        • Famous art exhibitions in Louvre from 1737 onwards
        • The parterre of theatre
        • the critical subtexts to paintings and plays
        • Promenades with newsmongers
        • Clandestine pamphleteering
      • Religious controversies over Jansenism
        • led to a more politically aware Parisian bourgeoisie
      • Famous trials became vehicle for public discussion of government and social injustice
      • Combined with notions of patriotism and citizenship, these changes prepared sections of population to make new choices when opportunity arose in 1788-89
    • (According to Peter Campbell) everyone agrees most obvious reason for collapse of regime lay in financial problems
      • French monarchy had always had such problems, but C18th saw great rise in cost of warfare
      • France had insufficient revenue to maintain role as great power
        • although some historians argue that its revenue was sufficient but its credit mechanisms, unlike those of Britain with its Bank of England, were deficient
          • If this is the case, then the problem was more political than fiscal, as the reform of institutions would have been key to survival
      • In the event, the American War of Independence involved a costly naval war with Britain and the budgetary problems were so great a major reform initiative was put before an Assembly of Notables in 1787
        • who rejected most of it
        • attempts to impose the reforms led to major political crisis in 1887-88 that developed into revolution in 1789
    • A revolution has to be conceivable before it can take place, it is argued, so the intellectual origins have always been a major area of inquiry (according to Campbell)
      • The Enlightenment's critique of society and institutions, especially of despotism and Church, laid foundations for a new order
      • Historians of differing political persuasion and different ideas of nature of revolution have singled out several aspects of C18th ideologies
      • Ideas of liberty, equality, the fellowship  of man against oppression, democracy as an idealised solution, have all been accorded important role
        • Undermining respect for traditional elites and order of things
      • Hippolyte Taine (1828-1893)
        • Saw French nation, even peasants and artisans, thrown into turmoil by babblings of philosophes
      • Major issue has been how far  ideas remained those of a narrow elite or permeated down social scale to those artisans and peasants
    • Political causes (according Campbell)
      • Political institutions so bound up with social and fiscal privilege that reform was dangerous enterprise likely to arouse fierce opposition
      • Divided political elite, whose factional manoeuvres undermined reform, was closely identified with monarchy
      • The King and Queen badly mismanaged the situation, along with their ministers
      • parlements resisted reform on grounds that it was despotic extension of central government, and Paris parlement blocked loans that might have seen monarchy through without major reform
      • Once reform was attempted from 1787, political crisis snowballed, until cries for Estate General to meet, as only body competent to do root and branch reform, were too loud to resist
      • Ministry had no choice but to capitulate to these calls as financial crisis was so severe that there was no further room for manoeuvre
      • The electoral process in early 1789 certainly helped to politicise the lower orders
        • if only in an elemental sense that change was about to occur
        • A more sophisticated politicisation occurred among better off, who also had access to hundreds of political pamphlets published each month
      • In context of evolving opinion, failure of monarchy to seize initiative in early days of Estates, in May 1789, was disastrous
      • An exasperating deadlock developed between two privileged orders
        • Nobility and clergy
        • Third Estate with its numerous lawyers
          • Although equal in numbers to other two orders combined, it feared much needed reforms of fiscal privilege would be blocked by having two votes against one
      • Exasperation led to radicalism, to declaration of national sovereignty by Third Estate on 17 June
        • After failure of royal compromise on 23 June, to an enforced union of orders into National Assembly at end of June
      • As country fell into disorder with food riots and increasing peasant attacks on chateaux, a conservative reaction was prevented by popular support which led to Fall of Bastille on 14 July

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