France: Enlightenment & Revolution

by Helen Clulow

The eighteenth century is often called the Age of Reason or The Enlightenment. During this time, France, like many other European countries, was caught up in the ideas of such men as Voltaire, Rousseau, Montesquieu and Diderot. In the popular coffee houses of Paris people from all walks of life were meeting to discuss these new philosophies. There were five basic ideas of the Enlightenment: reason, nature, happiness, progress and liberty. For the people of France, the most important of these was the doctrine of Liberty.

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In France at this time there were numerous restrictions on personal liberty in such areas as freedom of speech, freedom of religion and freedom of trade. To the middle class thinkers, these restrictions seemed increasingly antiquated in an age of intellectual expansion. However, it would be wrong to call those debating these new ideas revolutionaries. They thought of themselves as reformers, believing stongly that reason, not violence would prevail to overcome the problems of France. Many of them still believed in the monarchy and hoped for rule by an “Enlightened Despot” ( a ruler who used reason and curbed the powers of the aristocracy) The concept of democracy was still a radical theory at this stage and it was other factors that led France to violent revolution. Among these were economic problems, the weak leadership of Louis XVI and the most important problem, social inequality.


More important than the search for liberty was the search for equality. The French populace had been traditionally divided into what were called the Three Estates. The First Estate consisted of the nobility while the Second Estate was comprised of the clergy. The Third Estate was the largest, representing 95% of the population and included peasants, artisans, merchants and the professions. The Third Estate had the least power and had long been subject to the powers of privilege that the nobility and clergy exercised. In the country the peasants, many of them struggling to survive at a subsistence level, found themselves paying unfair taxes, taxes that the nobility were exempt from. They had to pay these taxes regardless of failed crops or hard times. In the cities, where the middle-class members of the Third Estate were embracing the ideas of the Enlightenment, they found it impossible to gain high political office. Once again the powers of the privileged elite prevented equality. Hereditary privilege even extended to the church; every bishop in France was a member of the nobility.

Economic Problems

As well as social and political inequality, France had suffered a downturn in its agricultural economy. The years of 1787 and 1788 saw severe weather and the failure of crops. This resulted in a grain shortage and an increase in the price of bread. Despite this peasants were still expected to pay their taxes. On top of this, the French government was in serious debt. The involvement of France in both the Seven Years War and the American War of Independence had drained France’s finances. To successfully reform the tax system Louis XVI would have had to attack the privileges of the aristocracy, something he found impossible to do.

The King & Queen

Had France had a strong monarch, the course of the revolution may well have been different. Unfortunately, Louis XVI was not such a King. He was a man of simple tastes, preferring hunting to attending affairs of state. Although he did on occasion attempt reform, when faced with opposition from the aristocracy he invariably backed down. Initially Louis and his queen Marie Antoinette were very popular, but years of extravagant living and scandal tarnished their image. Some of the rumours about Marie Antoinette were undoubtdly false. Marie was Austrian by birth and so viewed with the natural suspicion awarded to foreigners. Her own probably innocent changes at court in relaxing protocol, alienated those nobles who held hereditary places at court and also diminished her in the eyes of the common people. Where once there had been an air of mystery surrounding royalty, now they saw someone not much better than themselves. Finally there was no denying the extravagant expense of a royal court when much of the country were suffering. The court’s expenses were not the most damaging of France’s financial problems but they were a visible symbol of the great gulf between noble and commoner.

The American Revolution

A further encouragement to the French was the example of the American War of Independence. Its success illustrated two political ideas of the Enlightenment that were to have future significance. These were the idea of constitutional government and the idea of democracy. The War of Independence had seen a dissatisfied people revolt and succeed in installing its own selection of governors and government. To the French suffering social and economic hardship it must have seemed inspirational.

The Estates General

Loius XVI’s failure to enforce his will against the Parliament of Paris caused a meeting of the Estates General to be called in 1788. At this meeting the representatives of the Third Estate demanded reforms and when this was not successful they declared a National Assembly to represent the people of France. Louis reacted by banning the Third Estate from their traditional meeting place. They reassembled instead in a unused tennis court and refused to leave until their demands were met. This could have been Louis XVI’s chance to act but he again only offered partial reforms and also began to mass troops around Versaille and Paris.


Spurred on by the rumours of troops arriving, a mob of citizens stormed the Bastille ( a royal prison) in the search for weapons. The fall of the Bastille became a symbol of the French Revolution (France’s national holiday is still July 14.) After the fall of the Bastille a new municipal government was formed and a national guard of citizens was organized. In the provinces the peasants also revolted. They had waited for reform but seen little, so they took matters into their own hands, burning the castles of local lords and destroying the records of their taxes.

The Declaration of the Rights of Man

These revolts made a strong impression on both the king and the nobles. Some nobles now began to flee France; others stayed and threw their lot in with the revolutionaries in the hope of retaining their estates. One night the nobility and the clergy renounced their privileges (however, not all the peasants taxes were yet abolished). The creation of the Declaration of the Rights of Man followed shortly thereafter. Its basic ideas were:

  • All men were free and equal
  • There were no class privileges
  • There was to be freedom of thought, speech and religion
  • Laws and taxes could only be made with the participation of citizens or their representatives

Even at this late stage of the revolution there were still reformers who wished to reconcile the king with the new ways of the revolution. They looked to the English model of a constitutional monarchy. However, Louis XVI refused at first to even recognise the declaration and only another angry mob marching on Versailles forced him to. In 1791 he and the royal family tried to escape France and join the counter-revolutionaries. He was caught and swore to obey the new constitution. He now had little credibility and was eventually found guilty of treason and executed in 1793.

The Reign of Terror

When people think of the French Revolution, the overwhelming image is that of the guillotine. It was the Committee of Public Safety that used the guillotine for execution in what became known as the Reign of Terror. The Committee was established to quell internal disorder and handle external war but in the suspcious atmosphere it took on a life of its own. The terror was used against royalist uprisings but it was also used against local peasant revolts and as a tool of revenge against personal enemies. In the end it even consumed its own creators. As many as forty thousand people were executed, most of them peasants.

Eventually more moderate men returned to power but France was still shaky and in need of strong leadership. It found that in the person of Napoleon Bonaparte who ruled using many of the ideas of an “Enlightened Despot”. This was however, at the expense of the personal liberty that the French people had gained, as Napoleon enforced his rule with censorship and police action.

The French Revolution changed the shape of European history forever; no longer did the powers of privilege rule. The ideas of equality, liberty, democracy and nationalism were firmly established and heralded the beginning of the modern era. These same ideas sparked off various revolutions throughout Europe that did not end until 1850. Coupled with the coming industrial age, the social structure of Europe was permanently changed.


  • Compton’s Interactive Encyclopedia ( Compton’s New Media ) 1995
  • Davison M.W. (ed.) Reader’s Digest: Everyday Life Through the Ages. Reader’s Digest Assoc. Inc. (London, 1992.) pgs. 254-256 and pgs. 258-259
  • HRH Princess Michael of Kent. Crowned in a Far Country: Portraits of Eight Royal Brides. Arrow Books ( London, 1987.)
  • Strayer J and Gatze H. The Mainstream of Civilization, 3rd ed. Harcourt Brace Jovanich Inc.(New York, 1979) pgs. 522-532.


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