PinkMonkey Online Study Guide-World History
The French system of taxation was unjust owing to inequality. The clergymen and noblemen owned about three-fifths of the entire land. However they paid less than one-fifth of the total direct taxes in the country. On the other hand, a member of the Third Estate paid 152 francs as income tax, whereas he should have paid only 14 francs, if the distribution were equal. Further the nobles and clergy were totally exempted from direct taxes levied on personal property and land.
The empty national purse was the spark that set the French Revolution aflame. While the French peasants were starving and dying, the nobles were enjoying themselves. The French government mishandled the national economy. It had no regular budget. It wasted money without proper planning. The national debt kept on increasing. Nacker, the Controller of Finance in 1776, was succeeded by Claonne who borrowed 300 million dollars in 3 years. The result of his "philosophy of borrowing" was that the royal treasury became completely empty by the August of 1786.
One of the most important factors leading to the Revolution was the influence of the philosophy of the age. The three great intellectual giants of the age were Montesquieu, Voltaire and Rousseau, who revolutionized the thinking of the members of the Third Estate with their new ideas and revolutionary solutions.
(a) Charles Montesquieu (1689 - 1775), a lawyer and student of constitutional government summed up his ideas in his book L’ Esprit Des Lois (The Spirit of the Laws). Here he puts forward the theory of the separation of powers. According to this theory, the legislature, the executive and the judiciary should be separate and independent of each other. If not, there would be dictatorship and tyranny. Through his writings, Montesquieu exposed grand monarchy in France, in its true colors and deeply influenced the minds of the people.
(b) Francis Aronet Voltaire (1694 - 1778) was an internationally
famous writer and critic, much sought after by Louis XV of France,
Frederick the Great of Prussia and Catherine the Great of Russia.
Through his poems, biographies, histories, essays and dramas he
attacked traditions and beliefs as well as existing institutions
like the church and the state. Macaulay rightly comments about Voltaire
who launched the French people on a fresh course of political thought,
"Of all the intellectual weapons ever wielded by man the mockery
of Voltaire was the most terrible."
(c) The spirit behind the French Revolution was Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712 - 1778), one of the greatest philosophers of the age. His famous work Social Contract influenced the people greatly. He stated that originally there was a contract between the king and the people, to the effect that the king would promote and protect the interests and welfare of the people and in return, the people would offer sovereignty and loyalty to the king. This contract had been broken by the French king. Hence the people had to revolt and overthrow the autocratic government. They had to break free of the feudal bonds. The ’Social contract’ lit the outrage of revolution.
(d) There were other intellectuals such as the Encyclopaedists who condemned slavery, inequality in taxation, unjust things, the incompetence of government and the wasteful wars. Diderot was the editor of the ’Encyclopedia’ which prepared the people for the Revolution intellectually.
(e) Thomas Paine an English writer penned The Rights of Man and escaped from England to France to avoid imprisonment.
Religious intolerance persisted in France. For example, the Edict of Nantes had been revoked by Louis XIV and the Huguenots were persecuted. Thus the misery of the people increased, owing to religious persecution.
Influence of the English and the American Revolutions
The Bloodless or Glorious Revolution had a deep influence on the French philosophers. It inspired them to active political and economic reforms. The American Revolution had a greater influence on them. They felt that if the Americans could revolt and overthrow the government of England, they should also revolt and overthrow the corrupt and autocratic government of Louis XVI. The French had been led by Lafayette in the American Revolution and were so highly influenced by it that Arthur Young remarked, "The American Revolution has laid the foundation for another in France, if the government does not take care of itself."