Pre-Revolution French Government

At the end of the 18th century, France was in ruins. The treasury was empty. The commoners were starving. The King, Louis XVI, the Queen, Marie Antoinette, and many high-ranking nobles lived a lavish lifestyle in a palace called Versailles. Versailles was set apart from the rest of France and because of this, the King and his nobles were out of touch with the common people. The result of this was a growing resentment in the common people for the French Monarchy and what it represented. Everything was pointing towards Revolution and the creation of a new government. The French Revolution was induced by the political and economic difficulties that plagued the French government. These problems would result in the revolution of the common people against the French monarchy which would have repercussions that are seen in modern times.

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From 1774 until 1793, King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette ruled France. King Louis XVI was born in August 1754 to the French royal family (Louis XVI (1754-1793)). While Marie Antoinette was born in November of 1755 to the Austrian royal family (Marie-Antoinette). In 1770, an arranged marriage was set to happen between Marie Antoinette and King Louis. The marriage was arranged so that a lasting alliance between Austria and France could be created. In May 1774, King Louis, at the age of nineteen, ascended to the French throne (Louis XVI). King Louis was fairly smart and recognized his responsibilities, however, he proved a mediocre king, relying excessively on his advisors and showing insufficient interest in the business of state. Louis preferred his regular leisure pursuits to reading dispatches, consulting ministers or considering policy (Louis XVI). In the French government, there were three social classes, the first, second and third estates. The first estate was comprised of all ordained catholic Church members. The First estate was responsible for, social policy and welfare and also carried out some functions of the state. Its clergy conducted and registered marriages, baptisms, and funerals; they delivered education to children and distributed charity to the poor (The First Estate). Because the Church was very powerful, they were able to gain a large amount of wealth quickly. In addition, during the 18th century, many French citizens had a growing dissent for the church. Many citizens believed that bishops acted on their own interests rather than the interests of God or the church (The First Estate). Next, the second estate was comprised of all French nobility. Members of the second estate mainly worked as financiers, administrators, magistrates, or court officials. The nobility were depicted as, an extravagantly wealthy and lazy group, disconnected from the realities of French society (The Second Estate). In addition, all members of the second estate were exempt from taxes. Lastly, the third estate was comprised of everyone else.

As time went by under King Louis XVI’s rule, commoners became more enraged over the government and the church’s actions. During this time, the third estate made up of ninety-eight percent of the French population (French Revolution). The third estate was the only estate that was taxed by the government. In addition, they were often poorly represented. It was their grievances that were the main causes of the French revolution. During this time, an event was going on called the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment was a period between 1685 and 1815 where study areas such as politics, philosophy, science, and communications were greatly improved (Enlightenment). Another topic that came up during the Enlightenment was the questioning of the absolute rule of kings. Enlightenment thinkers such as Charles Montesquieu and Jean-Jacques Rousseau were very vocal in their belief that the certain parts of the government should not be more powerful than others. First, Charles Montesquieu was born in France in 1689 in France under the rule of King Louis XIV (Development in Democracy). He opposed the French monarchy and concluded that, the best form of government was one in which the legislative, executive, and judicial powers were separate and kept each other in check to prevent any branch from becoming too powerful (Developments in Democracy). This would set the precedent for the American government that would be formed after the American Revolution. Lastly, Jean-Jacques Rousseau was born in 1712 in Switzerland, a democracy; however, he moved to Italy and France to get a better education (Developments in Democracy). First, he believed that, the powerful rich stole the land belonging to everyone and fooled the common people into accepting them as rulers (Developments in Democracy). He also believed that the problem:

was to find a way to protect everyone’s life, liberty, and property while each person remained free. Rousseau’s solution was for people to enter into a social contract. They would give up all their rights, not to a king, but to the whole community, all the people (Developments in Democracy).

His beliefs resulted in a form of a direct democracy in which everyone voted for laws or other ideas to show what the people wanted. These two men and many others inspired many people in France to revolt. Another way people, in France, were inspired to revolt was because they were starving from a lack of money in the treasury. Before King Louis XVI’s rule, many French kings participated in many wars which drained the money in the treasury. Even though King Louis knew this, he decided to help the Americans in the American Revolution. This put France in a bigger debt than it had ever been before. All goods in France rose because of inflation, and many people started to starve. However, the rich still lived in luxury. Overall, the French people were done with the Monarchy, and they had only one choice; revolt.

The king, knowing of the commoners growing restlessness, sent troops to Paris to make sure nothing bad happened. However, at night, on July 14, 1789, the commoners, being fed up, decided to storm the Bastille. The Bastille was a place where the French government held ammunition. However, to the commoners, it was a symbol of the tyrannic French government (Bastille Day). First, the commoners surrounded the Bastille and sent delegates inside to tell the government their grievances. They took a long time talking making the commoners believe that their delegates had been imprisoned, so they were able to lower the drawbridge and enter the courtyard. They killed all of the soldiers in the Bastille including the governor (Bastille Day). This event was widely known as the beginning of the French Revolution. The next main event in the French Revolution was a few months later on October 5, 1789, and is known as the Women’s March on Versailles. This event was when thousands of Parisians, many of them women, marched 12 miles from Paris to Versailles in a hope to bring their grievances peacefully straight to the King’s palace (October March on Versailles). As they arrived at Versailles, they rushed into the hall where the national assembly met, mainly to escape the harsh rain. A few hours later, six women were sent to bring the people’s grievances to the palace. At the same time, another group of women broke into the palace with the intent to kill the queen (October March on Versailles). Marie Antoinette had to run through the maze of bedrooms in the palace in order to escape the women. Eventually, the band of women were stopped by French soldiers. The pinnacle of the day was when King Louis and his wife Marie Antoinette, fearing for their lives, came out onto a balcony at Versailles and said, I shall go with you to Paris, with my wife and children. It is to my good and faithful subjects that I confide all that is most precious to me (October March on Versailles). Finally, on the afternoon October 6, the king, his family, his royal retinue and several deputies to the Assembly departed Versailles for Paris. Their carriages were accompanied by the crowd, the procession numbering between 30,000 and 40,000 people (October March of Versailles). When King Louis and his family arrived at Paris they were taken to Tuileries, an old royal residence. The King and his family thus became prisoners of the revolution (October March of Versailles). The last step in completing the revolution was creating a new Constitution. The constitution was written by the French government on August 4, 1789. It was titled The Declaration of the Rights of Man and was, a statement of democratic principles grounded in the philosophical and political ideas of Enlightenment thinkers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau (French Revolution). The document gave the new government the power to replace the old monarchy with a new democracy. After many months of debating, the government finally adopted The Declaration of the Rights of Man on September 3, 1791 (French Revolution). The constitution established a constitutional monarchy where the king could veto laws and appoint ministers. However, many influential radicals such as Maximilien de Robespierre disagreed with the new constitution and began to gather support for a more republican form of government (French Revolution). This constitution had many flaws in it and would eventually be replaced by a different constitution a couple years later.

At the end of the French revolution, a period began called the Reign of Terror (French Revolution). The Reign of Terror lasted from April 1972 until July 1974. It was a period in which suspected enemies of the revolution, by the thousands, were executed. At the time of the Reign of Terror, a group of revolutionists called the Jacobins had taken control of the government and were led by Maximilien de Robespierre. The Reign of Terror ended when Maximilien de Robespierre was executed. On August 22, 1795, France’s first real ruler after the revolution was instated. His name was Napoleon Bonaparte. Napoleon showed Europe how France could still be a powerful country even after the ravages of the revolution. Even after Napoleon’s rule, the effects of the revolution affected Europe greatly. In the original French government, before the revolution, the church and the state were very intertwined. However, after the revolution, in 1905, the French government decided to separate the church and the state (Astier). Before the Revolution, many people were starting to have dissatisfaction for the amount of power the church had in France (The First Estate). Another influence that the French Revolution caused on the world is it inspired other revolutions across the world. These revolutions included the Haitian Revolution in 1791, the Irish Rebellion in 1798, the Russian Revolution in 1905 and the revolutionary wars in Latin America (Motadel). Many of these uprisings were founded on the same ideas as the French Revolution, the concepts of the Enlightenment.

In conclusion, Pre-Revolution French government was plagued by many problems and those problems were thus forced on the common people. The common people reacted by revolting against the French monarchy and that revolt would have many impacts that are seen today. First, Pre-Revolution French government, nobility and church were very corrupt. In addition, the government was close to bankruptcy after their ruler, King Louis XVI helped the Americans in the American Revolution, even though France was already poor. Second, The political and economic issues that plagued the French government supported the start of the revolution greatly. Third, in 1789 the commoners had enough. They finally revolted and overthrew the monarchy in order to instate their own government based on Enlightenment ideas. Lastly, The French Revolution left lasting effects on the world as a whole. Overall, the French government influenced the people into revolution which ruined the lives of many people and might have even led to a worse government.

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Pre-Revolution French Government. (2019, Jun 26). Retrieved November 29, 2022 , from
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