The Catalyst for the French Revolution

            **INTRO** The outdated feudal system
in France, which perpetuated the exploitation of peasants and was harmful to
the common people of France, was the most important factor that led to the French
Revolution. Alexis de Tocqueville’s analysis of the key causes of the French
Revolution coupled with Abbe Sieyes’s account of the continued oppression of
the third estate despite its hard work reveal that the main root (redundant?) cause of the French
Revolution was the feudal system.

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            Throughout the 18th century,
tensions in France continued to rise as the societal and economic problems
became more apparent and frustrating to the French people. The feudal system in
France, composing of the first, second, and third estate, was becoming
increasingly more divided as disdain between the estates grew.1
In addition to the division between classes, there was also a large amount of
disconnect between the people and the monarchy. Monarchs were unable or
unwilling to deal with social realities and problems, which was further
revealed as bad harvests in 1787 and 1788 began a manufacturing depression and
led to starvation, fast rising prices, and unemployment.2
As ideas of philosophes spread and parlement continued to avoid reform, tensions
continued to rise.3 In
the late 1780s, the French economy went into a tailspin, with the government
gravely in debt and prices on necessities souring. The French government soon
owed nearly 4 billion livres in debt, but the existing government had neither
the resources nor will to solve the crisis.4
 This financial crisis was the immediate
spark for the revolution, but it begs the question: what were the key causes of
the revolution?

            According to Alexis de Tocqueville,
there were three main causes of the French Revolution: feudalism, the nobility,
and the absolute monarchy in France.5
He describes, the feudal system which “while retaining the characteristics
which made it so irksome to, and so much resented by, the masses, had most
completely disregarded all that could benefit or protect them.”6
Tocqueville underscores the fact that the feudal system no longer benefits the
majority, the third estate, but instead exploits them. Labor taxes, the
mandatory tithe, food shortages, massive inflation, and increasingly bad
conditions with no government aide are prime examples of what to which the
third estate was being subjected. Tocqueville also mentions the French nobility,
which have become have become “more and more a caste” that inspires “that
intense jealousy of the ‘upper class’ which rankles still today.”7
The nobility, who no longer lead or pay tax, contribute nothing to society and
are essentially just drawing society down. Due to poor leadership, enriching
themselves at the expense of others, and their complete isolation from the rest
of the population, the nobility helped spur the revolution. Finally, Tocqueville
brings up the absolute monarchy in France which “had brought under its direct
management all public business, even the most trivial… owing to the
centralization of power, Paris, which had until now been merely the capital
city, had come to dominate France.”8
He highlights how through intense centralization and no representation for the
people, the French monarchy played a key role in the relatively easy downfall of
its own government. All of these causes were detrimental to pre-1789 France,
but which was the most important?

1 Spielvogel,
Jackson J. Western Civilization: Since
1300, 10th ed. Stamford: Cengage, 2016, 563

2 Spielvogel,
Western Civilization Since 1300, 565

3 Spielvogel,
Western Civilization Since 1300, 565

4 Spielvogel,
Western Civilization Since 1300, 565

5 Alexis
de Tocqueville, The Old Regime and the
French Revolution (USA: Doubleday, 1983), 203

6 de
Tocqueville, The Old Regime and the
French Revolution, 203

7 de
Tocqueville, The Old Regime and the
French Revolution, 204

8 de
Tocqueville, The Old Regime and the
French Revolution, 204


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