Long- and short-term causes of the French Revolution

EDIT JAN. 26 2015, 10:05 P.M.: Hey -- so, this post gets slightly more hits than everything else on my blog combined, so I can only imagine that people are finding it in searches for the answer to homework questions. So, I feel like I should give some follow-up: I didn't do great on this assignment.

I didn't do awful, but I lost some credit for failing to construct the points in a continuous narrative that addressed causal relationships between the elements. 

So, if you're using this as a rough guide for your homework, keep that in mind.

I have an assignment due for Western Civilization II on Friday -- a short essay on the long- and short-term causes of the French Revolution.

I forgot about this assignment.

Fortunately, today, the professor went over the sort of thing he was looking for in an essay, and he used as an example "Describe the long- and short-term causes of the French Revolution."

Here's a photo from the board:

Photo of a whiteboard. Text reads: 1. Long-term A. Enlightenment B. Am. Rev. (American revolution) C. Class Injustice D. Poor Leadership 2. Short-term A. War Debt B. Estates Gen. (Estates General) C. Oath (The Oath of the Tennis Court) D. Bastille (The storming of the Bastille)


So, here's my assignment.

Causes of the French Revolution, Short and Long-term

I. Long-term causes

  1. The Enlightenment
    1. The Enlightenment was a movement in Europe towards 'rational' understandings of the mechanisms of every aspect of human civilization. Politically, as explored by writers like John Locke, this meant challenging the narrative that governments ruled by divine mandate, and instead beginning to construct a notion that governments ruled by consent of the people. Locke argued that if a government failed to protect its people's basic rights -- to Life, Liberty, and Property[1. and also health, but that one usually gets left out.] -- then the people are morally entitled to overthrow that government, and install a new one.
  2. The American Revolution
    1. In an effort to gain European support, the American independence movement used the language of Enlightenment-style revolution in the propaganda they sent out across Europe. Consequently, the success of America's war for independence lent a narrative of legitimacy to the idea of an Enlightenment-style revolution.
    2. Also, the French support of the American war for independence contributed to significant war debt, which according to the whiteboard isn't important until section II:a.
  3. Class Injustice
    1. French society at this point had begun to drift into the capitalist style of stratification: the people who controlled the production and sale of goods were becoming significantly more powerful. But according to the pre-industrial class structure, which was still the formal system of organization in French politics, those capitalist upper-class were still members of the less-privileged Third Estate, after the First and Second Estates -- the Church and the Nobility. The newly powerful members of the Third Estate chafed against the institutions that gave special privileges to the First and Second Estates, whose pre-industrial advantages had become less and less valuable.
  4. Poor Leadership
    1. Louis XV, the king prior to the revolution, had been largely irresponsible, and took advantage of the prosperity of France at the time to enjoy kingship and leave the consequences to Louis XVI -- who inherited a nation severely in debt and without any particular mechanism for repaying it. While he may have been somewhat sympathetic to the revolutionary cause and the needs of the Third Estate, he wasn't very good at making use of his political power, so his governance consisted mainly of the inertia of the status quo.

II. Short-term causes

  1. War debt
    1. I'm actually pretty sure the war debt is a long-term cause? Anyway, France had been in several wars, including losing one against the Americans then winning one on behalf of the Americans -- during both of which they took on a lot of debt, and following neither of which they acquired any significant economic assets. Because of the aforementioned privileges of the First and Second Estates, about two thirds of the people with the money -- the Catholic Church and the nobility -- were almost-or-entirely exempt from taxation, and the newly emerging upper class within the third estate weren't happy about the whole burden of the war debt being placed on them in taxes -- especially since they'd done a fair amount of the lending.
  2. The Estates General
    1. Louis XVI convened an old institution in which representatives of all three estates would gather and try to make decisions about the future of the country. Unfortunately, nobody was really sure how it was supposed to work -- especially how the voting would go; Estates 1 and 2 felt that each estate should get one vote, because that would mean they controlled two thirds of the vote, while Estate 3 felt the vote should be representative of the population, because that would mean they controlled about 95% of the vote.
  3. The Oath of the Tennis Court
    1. After being locked out of the meeting room (the hall of mirrors, I think) representatives of the Third Estate got fed up and found an empty room to have a meeting in. It was a tennis court. There, they (along with some members of the first and second estates) took an oath not to leave Versailles (where the Estates General had convened) until France had a constitution.
  4. The Storming of the Bastille
    1. The Bastille was a fort and political prison in Paris, where lots of weapons were stored. After the Oath of the Tennis Court, members of the Third Estate (meaning: just tons of people from all over Paris) stormed the Bastille (which is where they got the name) to assemble weapons with which to fight a revolution, should one arise.  This is generally considered the official start of the French Revolution.


Dear friends here and on Twitter and Tumblr -- I know a lot of you know way more about the French Revolution than me, probably in significantly more depth than this class is going to cover. If I've got anything really wrong here, please let me know!