Index Previous Page Next Page

Origins

FRENCH volunteers and the French navy had assisted the Americans to make their Revolution a success. A few years later France itself awoke to Revolution (1789).

The way had been well prepared for new ideas by the writings of Voltaire and Rousseau. Voltaire (died 1778) had pleaded for the truth as he saw it. He attacked what he called the superstitions of the Church -- "Crush the infamous thing!" he had said. He championed the persecuted. He compared the condition of France unfavourably with that of England. His famous epigram, L'etat, c'est moi -- "I am the State " -- might well have been the boast of Louis XIV and his successors; and he saw where this doctrine was leading. "Everything I see is scattering the seeds of a revolution. Happy the young, for their eyes shall see it!"

Where Voltaire left off, Rousseau began. His famous book, The Social Contract (1762), was read by thousands of Frenchmen. It argued that the People is the State, and that kingly power is based on the General Will, the subjects' consent. Its opening sentence electrified mankind: "Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains. One supposes himself the master of others, who is none the less for that more of a slave than they are."

As historians, we know that it is nearer the truth -- at any rate, so far as the civilized European of today is concerned -- to say that he is born 6,000 years old or considerably older. But thought (even when it errs) is "stronger than artillery parks."

Now the state of their country made Frenchmen ready to listen to the new doctrines. Even despots must be efficient if they are to succeed, and Louis XIV's successors were not efficient. They had lost Canada and India. The numerous wars had been very costly, and bad finance made matters worse. The French State was almost bankrupt. Yet nobles and clergy, who owned nearly two-thirds of the land, were exempt from taxes, and the main burden had long fallen upon the peasants.

The real causes of the French Revolution thus go very deep; it was the result of a long chain of causes in feudal and monarchical France.

Because of his financial troubles, Louis XVI (1774-93) did what no king of France had done for nearly two centuries -- he assembled the "Estates" of France.