The French Revolution

There was a loud "thunk" as the blade hit the wood block, silence and then a cheer rose up from the crowd as yet another nobleman's head rolled. The French Revolution was one of the bloodiest revolutions in history, it was responsible for taking the lives of thousands of Frenchmen. But what was the cause of this carnage? As former Vice President Hubert Humphrey said, "History teaches us that the great revolutions aren't started by people who are utterly down and out, without hope and vision. They take place when people begin to live a little better - and when they see how much remains to be achieved."


The French Revolution and the Estates General. The roots of the French Revolution of 1789 can be traced back to the reign of Louis XIV, an absolute monarch. He established the basis of the French Revolution by reducing the power of nobles, taking them away from their land, the roots of their power. Then came Louis XV who allowed political and social positions to be bought by wealthy commoners, enraging nobles even further. These events culminated in Louis XVI, his Estates General and the French Revolution.


During the time of the French revolution there where three estates or social classes in France, described by Thomas Jefferson, the American Ambassador as "Clergy, Nobles, and Commons." The Clergy were representatives of the church and served as judges, Nobles were militaristic, and finally the Commoners were divided into the Bourgeoisie, who were wealthy land owners, and the poor peasants. Stands taken between the three estates and Louis XVI caused the French Revolution. Despite their efforts to bring France into a new form of government, one which would serve the needs of the common people, France still fell into a state of corruption.


At the young age of 12 Louis XVI had already begun to create his own ideas of government. "Thus, by our primordial origin , all men without exception are my equals. Liberty is one of the rights of man and government is established to conserve it. The objects of all laws is to preserve for mankind, the rights which belong to him. There are four natural rights which the King is obliged to conserve for each of his subjects. These come from God and are older than all laws, political or civil. They are life, honor, liberty, and property." Because of these views on government, Louis XVI brought the Estates General, a ruling body which would represent the common people, into existence, to give all of the estates a say in government. Jefferson described what he believed Louis XVI's reasons were, "the honest man in his kingdom, and the most regular and economical... I believe he will consider the opinion of the States General as the best evidence of what will profit and please the nation and (he) will conform to it." This new form of governing was a far cry from the traditional monarchy, which had ruled France for so long.


Louis XVI greeted the Estates General warmly on May 5, 1789 with an opening speech. "Sirs, this day which my heart awaited since a long time has finally arrived and I see myself surrounded by the representatives of the nation which I am honored to command." However his speech was not to be all good news, "The debt of the state, already immense on my coming to the throne, has accumulated during my reign... The increase in the tax has been the unavoidable result and has been rendered more painful by their unequal distribution." Until that time, Nobles and Clergy were exempt from tax, leaving only the lower third estate to pay the debt. So Louis proposed a solution to the Estates General, "A general anxiousness in and an exaggerated desire for change, have taken over the public mind.. if we didn't hasten to stabilize it. It is with my confidence, gentlemen, which I have gathered you together... (for) the first two orders to renounce their financial privileges." Louis XVI's solution to the high taxation on the third estate was to force the first and second estate to begin paying taxes, like the peasantry. This strengthened his ideals of equality in a society.


The Nobility and Clergy had their land taken away by Louis XIV, their