Analyzing Causes
Use a web diagram to
identify the causes of
the French Revolution.
Causes o
The French Revolution and Napoleon 651
ECONOMICS Economic and
social inequalities in the Old
Regime helped cause the
French Revolution.
Throughout history, economic
and social inequalities have at
times led peoples to revolt
against their governments.
Old Regime
Louis XVI
•Marie Antoinette
•Tennis Court
Great Fear
SETTING THE STAGE In the 1700s, France was considered the most advanced
country of Europe. It had a large population and a prosperous foreign trade. It
was the center of the Enlightenment, and France’s culture was widely praised
and imitated by the rest of the world. However, the appearance of success was
deceiving. There was great unrest in France, caused by bad harvests, high
prices, high taxes, and disturbing questions raised by the Enlightenment ideas
of Locke, Rousseau, and Voltaire.
The Old Order
In the 1770s, the social and political system of France—the Old Regime
remained in place. Under this system, the people of France were divided into
three large social classes, or
The Privileged Estates Two of the estates had privileges, including access to
high offices and exemptions from paying taxes, that were not granted to the
members of the third. The Roman Catholic Church, whose clergy formed the
First Estate, owned 10 percent of the land in France. It provided education and
relief services to the poor and contributed about 2 percent of its income to the
government. The Second Estate was made up of rich nobles. Although they
accounted for just 2 percent of the population, the nobles owned 20 percent of
the land and paid almost no taxes. The majority of the clergy and the nobility
scorned Enlightenment ideas as radical notions that threatened their status and
power as privileged persons.
The Third Estate About 97 percent of the people belonged to the Third Estate. The
three groups that made up this estate differed greatly in their economic conditions.
The first group—the bourgeoisie (
BUR•zhwah•ZEE), or middle class—were
bankers, factory owners, merchants, professionals, and skilled artisans. Often, they
were well educated and believed strongly in the Enlightenment ideals of liberty and
equality. Although some of the bourgeoisie were as rich as nobles, they paid high
taxes and, like the rest of the Third Estate, lacked privileges. Many felt that their
wealth entitled them to a greater degree of social status and political power.
The workers of France’s cities formed the second, and poorest, group within
the Third Estate. These urban workers included tradespeople, apprentices, laborers,
and domestic servants. Paid low wages and frequently out of work, they often
The French Revolution Begins
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652 Chapter 23
went hungry. If the cost of bread rose, mobs of these workers might attack grain
carts and bread shops to steal what they needed.
Peasants formed the largest group within the Third Estate, more than 80 per-
cent of France’s 26 million people. Peasants paid about half their income in dues
to nobles, tithes to the Church, and taxes to the king’s agents. They even paid taxes
on such basic staples as salt. Peasants and the urban poor resented the clergy and
the nobles for their privileges and special treatment. The heavily taxed and discon-
tented Third Estate was eager for change.
The Forces of Change
In addition to the growing resentment among the lower classes, other factors
contributed to the revolutionary mood in France. New ideas about government,
serious economic problems, and weak and indecisive leadership all helped to gen-
erate a desire for change.
Enlightenment Ideas New views about power and authority in government were
spreading among the Third Estate. Members of the Third Estate were inspired by
the success of the American Revolution. They began questioning long-standing
notions about the structure of society. Quoting Rousseau and Voltaire, they began
to demand equality, liberty, and democracy. The Comte D’Antraigues, a friend of
Rousseau, best summed up their ideas on what government should be:
The Third Estate is the People and the People is the foundation of the State; it is in fact
the State itself; the . . . People is everything. Everything should be subordinated to it. . . .
It is in the People that all national power resides and for the People that all states exist.
COMTE D’ANTRAIGUES, quoted in Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution
Economic Troubles By the 1780s, France’s once prosperous economy was in
decline. This caused alarm, particularly among the merchants, factory owners, and
The Three Estates
First Estate
made up of clergy of
Roman Catholic Church
scorned Enlightenment ideas
Second Estate
made up of rich nobles
held highest offices in government
disagreed about Enlightenment ideas
Third Estate
included bourgeoisie, urban
lower class, and peasant farmers
had no power to influence
embraced Enlightenment ideas
resented the wealthy First and
Second Estates.
97% (Third Estate)
less than 1%
(First Estate)
2% (Second Estate)
Percent of Income Paid in Taxes
Population of France, 1787
40% 60% 80% 100%
2% (First Estate)
0% (Second Estate)
50% (Third Estate)
tithe: a church tax,
normally about one-
tenth of a family’s
SKILLBUILDER: Interpreting Charts and Political Cartoons
1. Drawing Conclusions How do the chart and the graphs help explain the
political cartoon?
2. Making Inferences Why might the First and Second Estates be opposed to
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deficit: debt
bankers of the Third Estate. On the surface, the economy appeared to be sound,
because both production and trade were expanding rapidly. However, the heavy
burden of taxes made it almost impossible to conduct business profitably within
France. Further, the cost of living was rising sharply. In addition, bad weather in
the 1780s caused widespread crop failures, resulting in a severe shortage of grain.
The price of bread doubled in 1789, and many people faced starvation.
During the 1770s and 1780s, France’s government sank deeply into debt. Part of
the problem was the extravagant spending of
Louis XVI and his queen, Marie
Antoinette. Louis also inherited a considerable debt from previous kings. And he
borrowed heavily in order to help the American revolutionaries in their war against
Great Britain, France’s chief rival. This nearly doubled the government’s debt. In
1786, when bankers refused to lend the government any more money, Louis faced
serious problems.
A Weak Leader Strong leadership might have solved these and other problems.
Louis XVI, however, was indecisive and allowed matters to drift. He paid little atten-
tion to his government advisers, and had little patience for the details of governing.
The queen only added to Louis’s problems. She often interfered in the government,
and frequently offered Louis poor advice. Further, since she was a member of the
royal family of Austria, France’s long-time enemy, Marie Antoinette had been unpop-
ular from the moment she set foot in France. Her behavior only made the situation
worse. As queen, she spent so much money on gowns, jewels, gambling, and gifts
that she became known as “Madame Deficit.
Rather than cutting expenses, Louis put off dealing with the emergency until he
practically had no money left. His solution was to impose taxes on the nobility.
However, the Second Estate forced him to call a meeting of the
an assembly of representatives from all three estates—to approve this new tax. The
meeting, the first in 175 years, was held on May 5, 1789, at Versailles.
The French Revolution and Napoleon 653
Louis XVI
Louis XVI’s tutors made little effort to
prepare him for his role as king—and it
showed. He was easily bored with
affairs of state, and much preferred to
spend his time in physical activities,
particularly hunting. He also loved to
work with his hands, and was skilled in
several trades, including lock-making,
metalworking, and bricklaying.
Despite these shortcomings, Louis
was well intentioned and sincerely wanted to improve the
lives of the common people. However, he lacked the
ability to make decisions and the determination to see
policies through. When he did take action, it often was
based on poor advice from ill-informed members of his
court. As one politician of the time noted, “His reign
was a succession of feeble attempts at doing good,
shows of weakness, and clear evidence of his inadequacy
as a leader.
Marie Antoinette
Marie Antoinette was a pretty,
lighthearted, charming woman.
However, she was unpopular with the
French because of her spending and
her involvement in controversial court
affairs. She referred to Louis as “the
poor man” and sometimes set the
clock forward an hour to be rid of
his presence.
Marie Antoinette refused to wear
the tight-fitting clothing styles of the day and introduced a
loose cotton dress for women. The elderly, who viewed the
dress as an undergarment, thought that her clothing was
scandalous. The French silk industry was equally angry.
In constant need of entertainment, Marie Antoinette often
spent hours playing cards. One year she lost the equivalent of
$1.5 million by gambling in card games.
RESEARCH LINKS For more on Louis XVI and Marie
Antoinette, go to
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Dawn of the Revolution
The clergy and the nobles had dominated the Estates-General throughout the
Middle Ages and expected to do so in the 1789 meeting. Under the assembly’s
medieval rules, each estate’s delegates met in a separate hall to vote, and each estate
had one vote. The two privileged estates could always outvote the Third Estate.
The National Assembly The Third Estate delegates, mostly members of the bour-
geoisie whose views had been shaped by the Enlightenment, were eager to make
changes in the government. They insisted that all three estates meet together and
that each delegate have a vote. This would give the advantage to the Third Estate,
which had as many delegates as the other two estates combined.
Siding with the nobles, the king ordered the Estates-General to follow the medieval
rules. The delegates of the Third Estate, however, became more and more determined
to wield power. A leading spokesperson for their viewpoint was a clergyman sympa-
thetic to their cause, Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès (syay•YEHS). In a dramatic speech,
Sieyès suggested that the Third Estate delegates name themselves the
Assembly and pass laws and reforms in the name of the French people.
After a long night of excited debate, the delegates of the Third Estate agreed to
Sieyès’s idea by an overwhelming majority. On June 17, 1789, they voted to estab-
lish the National Assembly, in effect proclaiming the end of absolute monarchy and
the beginning of representative government. This vote was the first deliberate act
of revolution.
Three days later, the Third Estate delegates found themselves locked out of
their meeting room. They broke down a door to an indoor tennis court, pledging
to stay until they had drawn up a new constitution. This pledge became known
as the
Tennis Cour
t Oath
. Soon after, nobles and members of the clergy who
favored reform joined the Third Estate delegates. In response to these events,
Louis stationed his mercenary army of Swiss guards around Versailles.
Storming the Bastille In Paris, rumors flew. Some people suggested that Louis
was intent on using military force to dismiss the National Assembly. Others
charged that the foreign troops were coming to Paris to massacre French citizens.
Analyzing Motives
Why did the
Third Estate pro-
pose a change in
the Estates-
General’s voting
mercenary army: a
group of soldiers
who will work for
any country or
employer that will
pay them
The attack on the
Bastille claimed the
lives of about 100
Page 4 of 5
People began to gather weapons in order to defend the city
against attack. On July 14, a mob searching for gunpowder
and arms stormed the Bastille, a Paris prison. The mob over-
whelmed the guard and seized control of the building. The
angry attackers hacked the prison commander and several
guards to death, and then paraded around the streets with the
dead men’s heads on pikes.
The fall of the Bastille became a great symbolic act of rev-
olution to the French people. Ever since, July 14—Bastille
Day—has been a French national holiday, similar to the
Fourth of July in the United States.
A Great Fear Sweeps France
Before long, rebellion spread from Paris into the countryside.
From one village to the next, wild rumors circulated that the
nobles were hiring outlaws to terrorize the peasants. A wave of
senseless panic called the
Great Fear rolled through France.
The peasants soon became outlaws themselves. Armed with
pitchforks and other farm tools, they broke into nobles’ manor
houses and destroyed the old legal papers that bound them to
pay feudal dues. In some cases, the peasants simply burned down the manor houses.
In October 1789, thousands of Parisian women rioted over the rising price of
bread. Brandishing knives, axes, and other weapons, the women marched on
Versailles. First, they demanded that the National Assembly take action to provide
bread. Then they turned their anger on the king and queen. They broke into the
palace, killing some of the guards. The women demanded that Louis and Marie
Antoinette return to Paris. After some time, Louis agreed.
A few hours later the king, his family, and servants left Versailles, never again
to see the magnificent palace. Their exit signaled the change of power and radical
reforms about to overtake France.
The French Revolution and Napoleon 655
TERMS & NAMES 1. For each term or name, write a sentence explaining its significance.
Old Regime estates Louis XVI Marie Antoinette Estates-General National Assembly Tennis Court Oath Great Fear
2. Select one of the causes you
listed and explain how it
contributed to the French
3. Why were members of the
Third Estate dissatisfied with
life under the Old Regime?
4. How did Louis XVI’s weak
leadership contribute to the
growing crisis in France?
5. How did the purpose of the
meeting of the Estates-General
in 1789 change?
Conduct research on how Bastille Day is celebrated in France today. Use your findings to
create an annotated collage titled “Celebrating the Revolution.
changes in the French government were inevitable? Explain.
7. ANALYZING MOTIVES Why do you think some members of
the First and Second Estates joined the National Assembly
and worked to reform the government?
8. COMPARING AND CONTRASTING How were the storming
of the Bastille and the women’s march on Versailles
similar? How were they different?
9. WRITING ACTIVITY In the role of a
member of the Third Estate, write a brief speech explaining
why the French political system needs to change.
Bread was a staple of the diet of the
common people of France. Most
families consumed three or four 4-
pound loaves a day. And the
purchase of bread took about half of
a worker’s wages—when times were
good. So, when the price of bread
jumped dramatically, as it did in the
fall of 1789, people faced a real
threat of starvation.
On their march back from
Versailles, the women of Paris
happily sang that they were bringing
“the baker, the baker’s wife, and the
baker’s lad” with them. They
expected the “baker”—Louis—to
provide the cheap bread that they
needed to live.
Causes o
How did the
women’s march
mark a turning
point in the rela-
tionship between
the king and the
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