Much like the revolution in America, the French Revolution had its roots in economics, but the French Revolution and its causes are much more complicated than simple economic turmoil. Social factors, class tensions, and class struggle certainly played a role in the outbreak of the revolution. Many revolutionaries had political reform as their primary concern; others wanted political power for themselves. Many French revolted simply because they were hungry and the mob mentality proved too hard to resist. Historians have hotly debated the causes and nature of the revolution but probably all agree that there was no single cause. Most also probably agree that, on the eve of the revolution, King Louis XVI was in a no-win situation.
Thanks, Sun King
Louis XIV left a legacy that defined French culture and set a new standard for European militaries. He also left an insurmountable debt that crippled the French economy. His expenditures for constructing his military, fighting his wars, and building his palace at Versailles were staggering. His spending in these areas left little money for less important things—like the people of France.
When Louis XIV died in 1715, the throne passed to five-year-old Louis XV (17101774), his great-grandson. The Duke of Orleans ruled as regent until 1723 and restored vast amounts of power to the parlements, the high courts in France, in an attempt to please the nobles. The parlements had the power to check any decree of the crown before it became law. Later in his reign, the young King Louis XV turned his attention away from the ladies just long enough to take the power away from the parlements. When King Louis XVI took the throne in 1774, probably hoping he would be appreciated, he restored power to the parlements.
Trouble over Taxes
King Louis XVI inherited a nation burdened with tremendous debt not only from Louis XIV but also from Louis XVI’s Seven Years’ War. He inherited a power struggle between the crown and the parlements. Louis XV’s efforts to raise taxes had been met with resistance from the parlements, and Louis XVI’s efforts were met with the same. The parlements, nobles who had long had exemptions to certain taxes, resisted all efforts to tax the wealthy.
In 1776, Louis XVI tried to increase taxes to fund the Americans’ fight for independence, but his request for new taxation was denied. He was forced to borrow money to help the rebellious Americans. The economy could hardly stand it. The debt soared as the government practiced dangerous deficit spending. Louis and his ministers decided to call an assembly of notables, a meeting of wealthy and powerful nobles and clergymen from around France. Louis presented a plan for a new tax, but the assembly wasn’t impressed, informing Louis that his far-reaching taxation could be approved only by the Estates-General, the legislative body of France.
The problem was, the Estates-General hadn’t met in over 150 years. Louis ran off the notables and decreed a new tax anyway. It didn’t last long because the parlement in Paris disallowed the new tax. Enraged, Louis tried to dismiss the judges of the Paris court but the public did not react favorably to that idea. Realizing that he really wasn’t the absolutist he thought he was, Louis XVI conceded and called for a meeting of the Estates-General.