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French Revolution Begins. Social inequalities, enlightenment ideas & economic conditions lead to a new political order. THE OLD REGIME. Old Regime (Ancien Régime ) - social and political system in France since the Middle Ages Estates - three social classes of France's Old Regime.

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french revolution begins

French Revolution Begins

Social inequalities, enlightenment ideas & economic conditions lead to a new political order

the old regime

Old Regime (Ancien Régime) - social and political system in France since the Middle Ages

Estates - three social classes of France's Old Regime

Monarchy is not part of the estate system


First Estate: Catholic clergy

  • • 1% population
  • • owned 10% of land, paid few taxes, received tithes
  • • used money for charitable purposes and grand lifestyles
  • • lower clergy (parish priests) resented practices of higher clergy (bishops); socially part of Third Estate
  • Second Estate: Wealthy nobles; aristocrats
  • • 2% population
  • • owned 20% of land
  • • held high posts in government and military; some lived at Versailles
  • • got money and crops (feudal dues) from peasants who farmed their lands

French satire on inequality of taxation: caricature of over-taxed peasant carrying a nobleman and a cleric on his back. Engraving, 1789.


Third Estate: Everyone else

    • • 97% of people are peasants, urban workers, middle class (bourgeoisie)
    • • doctors, lawyers, merchants made up bourgeoisie; many well-educated; owned 20% of land
    • • artisans from Paris' slums were part of Third Estate
    • • peasants lived in rural areas; owned 40% of land but poor because of payments to other Estates: tithe, feudal dues, fees & fines to nobles, land tax to king
    • • few privileges, pay heavy taxes, want change, no voice in gov’t

An Englishman traveling in France saw this growing unrest reflected in a conversation he had with a peasant woman:

Walking up a long hill. . . I was joined by a poor woman who complained of the times, and

that it was a sad country; . . . she said her husband had but a morsel of land, one cow, and a

poor little horse, yet they had 42 pounds of wheat and three chickens to pay as rent to one lord, and four pounds of oats, one chicken and one shilling to pay to another; besides very heavy tailles and other taxes. (from Arthur Young, Travels, 1789).

the forces of change

1. Social inequalities (i.e., estate system)

2. Enlightenment ideas of Rousseau and Voltaire influenced some in Third Estate (esp. bourgeoisie). People began questioning long-standing ideas about gov’t and spoke of equality and liberty. Also inspired by the success of the American Revolution of 1776.

Years later, in prison, Louis XVI saw the works of Rousseau and Voltaire, and said: “Those two men have destroyed France!”


Many shared the beliefs of a friend of Rousseau:

The Third Estate is the People and the People is the foundation of the State; it is in fact the State itself; the other orders are merely political categories while by the immutable laws of nature the People is everything. Everything should be subordinated to it . . . . It is in the People that all national power resides and for the People that all states exist. (Comte d'Antraigues).

the forces of change1

1. Social inequalities

2. Enlightenment ideas

3. Economic conditions

High taxes and rising costs led to an economic crisis by 1780s

• The 1700s had begun with debts from the wars waged by Louis XIV

• The opulent court of Louis XV had further increased this debt

• King Louis XVI and his wife Marie Antoinette known for extravagance • Support for the American Revolution had further increased the debt

• Louis XVI doubles nation's debt; banks refuse to lend more money

• Crop failures caused bread shortages in 1788 and 1789.


Louis had married his wife, Marie Antoinette, when he was 15 and she was 14. Because Marie was a member of the royal family of Austria, France's long-time enemy, she became unpopular as soon as she set foot in France. As queen, Marie spent so much money on gowns, jewels, and gifts that she became known as Madame Deficit.

In her defense, Marie never said "Let them eat cake" when she was told that the French people had no bread to eat.

Marie Antoinette "I WANT CANDY"

a weak leader
A Weak Leader

Louis' poor decisions and lack of patience added to France's problems.

• He spent his time hunting and tinkering with locks.

• When he finally tried to tax the privileged Estates, they forced him to call a meeting of the Estates-General (meeting of delegates from all three estates) for approval.

• The Estates-General had not met since 1614.

dawn of the revolution

The National Assembly

Third Estate had little power under old rules (each Estate had one vote, so privileged Estates would always outvote the Third Estate).

Third Estate delegates called for a mass meeting of the three estates, with each delegate voting as an individual. This would give the Third Estate a majority vote.


Abbé Sieyès, a clergy member who supported the Third Estate, argued:

Therefore, what is the Third Estate? Everything; but an everything shackled and oppressed. What would it be without the privileged order? Everything, but an everything free and flourishing. Nothing can succeed without it, everything would be infinitely better without the others.

Louis XVI refused the Third Estate's request for a mass meeting and insisted the estates meet separately according to the medieval rules.


June 17, 1789: the Third Estate delegates vote to set up a National Assembly, a new legislature to make reforms and draft a constitution (in effect ending absolute monarchy and beginning representative gov’t). This was the first deliberate act of revolution.

June 20, 1789: delegates locked out of meeting room; broke into nearby tennis court building and pledged to remain until they had written a new constitution. This pledge is the Tennis Court Oath.

Painting by Jacques-Louis David of the National Assembly making the Tennis Court Oath


The king recognized the power of the National Assembly and saw the danger of letting the Third Estate alone draw up a constitution.

He ordered the first two estates to join the Third Estate in the National Assembly.

Fearing trouble, he also called for troops to concentrate in areas around Paris (used Swiss mercenaries, since he no longer trusted French soldiers).

storming the bastille
Storming the Bastille

Rumors fly in Paris that Louis wants to suppress National Assembly and that foreign troops are coming to massacre French citizens.

July 14, 1789: Mob attacked and seized the Bastille (a Paris prison) to steal weapons needed to defend the National Assembly.

While the prison only had 7 prisoners at the time, the fall of the Bastille became a symbolic act of revolution, and is now a French national holiday.

The Bastille had long been a symbol of royal tyranny.


Ninety-eight attackers and one defender had died in the actual fighting.

The governor of the Batille, de Launay, was seized and dragged towards the Hotel de Ville in a storm of abuse. Outside the Hotel a discussion as to his fate began. The badly beaten de Launay shouted "Enough! Let me die!"

De Launay was then stabbed repeatedly and fell, and his head was sawed off and fixed on a pike to be carried through the streets.


Storming of the Bastille released a wave of violence in France called the Great Fear. When rumors spread wildly that nobles had hired outlaws to kill peasants and seize their property, the peasants took action.

Fear fanned the peasants' anxiety into violence. Peasants broke into manor houses, robbed granaries, and destroyed feudal records showing the duties they owed. Swearing never again to pay feudal dues, they drove some landlords off their property.

Burning chateaux as the peasants riot in the countryside


October 1789: Parisian women revolted over rising price of bread. They (and many men) broke into the palace at Versailles and killed two guards. They demanded action and forced Louis to leave Versailles for Paris to be nearer to the people. The king agreed, and he and his family were “imprisoned” at Tuileries Palace.

The first wave of the French Revolution had struck.

To Versailles, to Versailles. Women of Paris march to Versailles to bring back Louis XVI.

Final scene of Marie Antoinette film