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The Impossible French Revolution: The Religious, Political, and Economic Elements that Incited the French Revolution

Updated on May 11, 2015

“No great historical event is better calculated than the French Revolution to teach political writers and statesmen to be cautious in their speculations; for never was any such event, stemming from factors so far back in the past, so inevitable yet so completely unforeseen.”
-- Alexis de Tocqueville


In his quote above, de Tocqueville hints at the inevitability of the French Revolution; however, reading through the beginning pages of his book, attitudes of contemporaries during the period never believed in the inevitability of a French Revolution, even as it occurred-for the Revolution that is known to us today was nothing more than a “…passing maladies to which all nations are subject from time to time and whose only practical effect is to open up new political possibilities to enterprising neighbors” (de Tocqueville 1). To express it bluntly: no, the French Revolution neither was inevitable nor was it expected by contemporaries. What was it then? Perhaps the French had grown to despise the Church because of anti-Christian dogmas preached by Jacobin philosophers, so they revolted against a hierarchical system dominated by priests who systematically exploited the poor and middle-class? Alternatively, perhaps they had grown to despise the monarchy as vehemently as they did the church, the former another hierarchical system that oppressed the intellectual potential of men and systematically exploited the poor and middle-class? Lastly, what if the French Revolution was almost entirely produced simply because men who were once slaves to a dour system achieved independence wrought by a financial revolution, one that necessitated a group of men capable of controlling an economic system dependent on broader financial freedom? Piecing these questions together produces one question that this paper will attempt to answer: what were the causes of the French Revolution? Using de Tocqueville’s “The Old Regime and the French Revolution” and other primary and secondary sources to determine what occurred in French society that led up to the revolution, the answer to the question posed will be one amalgamated by multiple issues-religious, political, economic-to determine its causes.


To begin with, the general public was not at the helm when new standards and dictates were issued upon France during the revolution. Instead, a relatively small body of men, the philosophers and social critics, many of whom belonged to the Jacobin mode of thought, controlled the figurative pen of France and, therefore, the minds of its people. These men, according to de Tocqueville, carried personal vendettas against the Churches in France that had positioned themselves in a mutually beneficial relationship with the political institutions. Unlike the latter institutions, however, the formers imposition of censorship over the pens of those same philosophers and social critics was, “frequently in conflict with our litterateurs” (de Tocqueville 152). In other words, in order for the thinker’s pens to flow freely without constraints, their first target had to be the Church. So was the French Revolution an upheaval inspired by the general public who finally realized the limitations for social mobility caused by the Church? It would seem that the answer to that question is: no, although the masses were in some ways limited by the Churches relationship with the political institutions, a solid majority of them would not have blamed the Church for inequalities had it not been for the radical thinkers who inspired the anti-Christian sentiment of the time.

Regardless of France’s distaste with the Church, whether it be sincere or manufactured, reforms were forced upon it that, although they changed the underlying structural system, they did not annihilate it completely from the socio-political structure of France. This is indicative of the partial control the thinkers owned over the beliefs of the public. The French public supported their cause, but they were still religious. Therefore, what these reforms aimed to accomplish was to force the Church to run at the same level as the new political order. Following this logic, the National Assembly drew up reforms and proceeded to mandate these changes. Article I of Title II in “The Civil Constitution of the Clergy” states, “Beginning with the day of publication of the present decree, there shall be but one mode of choosing bishops and parish priests, namely that of election.” If grievances against the Church played any role in inspiring the revolution, surely the thinkers would have steered it towards the complete destruction of it as an entity in France. Aware of the devoutness of most of the French public, their only option was to reform the Church and reconstruct it in their image. As a historian contemplating the revolution retrospectively, de Tocqueville is a gateway to a future France, one that is distant from the revolution, that has readmitted religion and the Church back into society. He says, “Trained in the hard school of successive revolutions, all the various classes of the French nation have gradually regained that feeling of respect for religious faith which once seemed lost forever” (de Tocqueville 154). The efforts that the thinkers undertook to slowly undermine and destroy the powerful position of the Church were for naught, so it seems.

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Their efforts would have proven more productive had they primarily focused their revolution around political and economic grievances. Land ownership to a Frenchmen was a basic right he had earned early in French history. It was in this freedom where he discovered the eternally empty pockets of his government and surrounding nobles. Although French peasants, according to de Tocqueville, enjoyed more freedom than their German and British counterparts, they experienced first-hand dealing with “…the tithe, irredeemable ground rents, perpetual charges, lods et ventes, and so forth…” (de Tocqueville 29). How could a man feel independent if a substantial amount of his earnings were forced from his pockets into the pockets of other, less prosperous, lazier men? Now would be a timely point to state that it is in the opinion of this paper that one of the reasons why the revolution occurred as it did in France is because of the general freedoms Frenchmen enjoyed, like owning land and having to pay the aforementioned taxes, collections, and expenses. Like de Tocqueville states, “If the peasant had not owned his land he would hardly have noticed many of the charges which the feudal system imposed on all real estate” (Tocqueville 30). The peasant was indeed aware of the feudal system, and he was unsatisfied with his lot. If the revolution was an attempt by men to overthrow all elements of the feudal, noble system, the aforementioned taxes give reasonable justification for inciting it, unlike attempting to justify the revolution through grievances against the Church.

As a reaction against the unjust political system, the National Assembly gathered to create the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen.” Similarly to the “The Civil Constitution of the Clergy,” the declarations purpose was to restructure the political system from one controlled by absolutist, corrupt monarchs and their partisans to one controlled by the people. Naturally, safeguards were put into place that protected citizens from despotic politicians and greedy nobles. “The purpose of all political association,” declares article two of the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen”, “is the preservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of man. These rights are liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression.” The fact that liberty and property are prioritized first in the list and come in succession is no coincidence. Man must hold the right to manage his land and household with the same liberty once preserved for the ruling class. Unlike the anti-religion beliefs of a large minority of the population, the vast majority sympathized with the plights of those suffering under the oppressive measures mandated by the political class. These sentiments, along with the financial freedom experienced by a growing number of the population, helped cause the revolution.

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Besides the French revolting against despotic political regimes, an economic revolt occurred that thrust the middle-class alongside nobles, positioning them on equal ground, and poising them for even more financial gain and political power. De Tocqueville resonates the voice of a concerned noble who says, “Despite its privileges…the nobility is being starved out, and all its wealth passing into the hands of the third estate” (de Tocqueville 78). This fact was one of the driving forces that incited the revolution. As the third estate grew wealthier and better educated, they recoiled when they discovered the true nature of the ruling class and nobility, one that was once mysterious to them. How did this become a reality? In David Bells “The First Total War,” he mentions what had changed in French society that upended the existing social order and challenged the weakening position of the nobility-the change was commerce and industry. He says, “The development of commerce was further aided by the slow rise of “cottage industry” – textile piecework, which had transformed half the farmsteads in some areas of France, Britain, and the Netherlands into scattered elements of what amounted to a giant, primitive factory” (Bell 73). Ultimately, the French “workforce” had transformed from one that was dominated by lords and masters to one that saw individual households operate businesses-in a weak sense-from their homes. What need was there for a ruling class if the public could rule themselves? What this realization amounted to was an awakening of the French people whom now casted a resentful eye at the class that in a past time seemed so powerful and honorable. It was as if they had discovered that the nobility had been cheating on them for years, and they were now only discovering the truth.

Since the French who lived in the countryside found financial freedom in the cottage industry, their voices vociferously called for a change in the dues they owed their lords. According to the “Attack on Seigneurial Dues,” the peasants now “considered their lords not as protectors but as exploiters who constantly turned the screws to extract ever more rent or other payments.” In a past France, one where peasants relied on their lords for protection, an attack like this was unimaginable, for they were the servants of their lords and were entirely dependent on them for their livelihood. Leading up to the revolution this reality unraveled and peasants grew independent from their lords. It was in this independence were they able to look at their lords from outside of his realm. What they saw was a lethargic, obnoxiously wealthy man who did not earn his keep; he stole it, as far as they were concerned. In a long list of reforms, many of them call for abolishing specific taxes and fees and one of them demands that the ruling class pay the same taxes as the common people. The former states, “That élections [tax collecting officials], salt granaries, milking, and other special fees be abolished;” the latter demanding, “That all lords, country gentlemen, and others of the privileged class who, either directly or through their proxies, desire to make a profit on their wealth, regardless of the nature of that wealth, pay the same taxes as the common people.” Revolts against the political class and a financial revolution were two of the main forces that incited the revolution and pushed the third estate to act in its own favor. They grew conscious of the fact that the ruling class would not do that for them. Taking matters into their own hands they created mandates that clearly favored themselves and sucked power from the ruling class who they deemed to be useless.

Taking into consideration the religious, political, and economic attitudes of the French people leading up to the revolution, the reasons behind it become clearer. It was not building anti-Christian tension that pushed the French public over the edge to an explosive revolt that upended the social and political order of the old regime. Instead, the thinking “class,” in order to overcome censorship imposed onto them by the Church, forced anti-Christianity onto the French public. By doing so, they forced Church reforms and recreated the institution to reflect their liberal image. Political oppression and an unequal tax system incited the French public, who had earned great wealth as a result of expanding commerce and industry, to demand drastic change of government. Rather than depending on the old feudal system to manage their property and wealth, the third estate foresaw greater prosperity if they were at the helm. The National Assembly devised the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen” to establish new standards for the third estate. Many of the articles written in this document levied power and wealth from the first and second estates to the third estate. Finally, the financial revolution that occurred in 18th century France bestowed upon the third estate a new kind of freedom that necessitated a drastic change the way in which taxes were collected and how the money was used. With this newfound freedom, the mysterious mist protecting the nobles and lords world lifted, and the third estate saw before them the greedy and powerless beings that they had been all along. Ultimately, it is easy to look back at pre-revolutionary France and predict that a revolution was inevitable to occur. This is absolutely not true; for the French revolution occurred in such a distinct and unique fashion that its reproduction in other countries seems almost impossible. Moreover, many French contemporaries of pre-revolutionary France could not foresee what was to come, like the man who referred to the revolution as a “passing maladies.”

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