the french revolution
History

The French Revolution – Why it happened? The hidden mystery in simpler words

There was a king and a queen. Both of them died. The end. If one has to summarise the French Revolution in one line, this is the only way. But obviously, this story is quite complex. Full of twists and turns. But it is an important story. The French Revolution is considered to be one of the most important revolutions in history. Because after this revolution, democracy began to spread throughout the world. This was the origin of phrases such as ‘left wing’ and ‘right wing.’ let’s understand the French Revolution. “French history has been marred by several violent and bloody revolutions.” “Revolution is an extraordinary moment when people begin to believe that you can actually recreate almost everything in society.” “And a new republic would be born in blood.” “The blood of the French revolution.” Let’s start our story from the 17th Century. The 1600s. What did the world look like then? The world was ruled by kings and emperors. And these kings and emperors loved fighting each other. To see who could have the biggest empire. Who could become the most powerful. That’s why you can see so many wars all around the world. In Europe, the 30-Year War was underway. The Congo War in Africa. The Ming-Qing War in China. The Mughal-Maratha War in India. But how did the common people fare in the midst of these wars? For the common people all around the world, friends, there was a strict social hierarchy in the society. The class distinction was severe between the social classes. The classes were broadly divided into three. On the top were the rulers and their families and advisors. We call them the aristocracy and nobility. Then were the clergy. The bishops or priests or the ulema. The clergy were named differently based on the region and country. And the third class was of the common people. The peasants; the farmers. I’ll address the third section as farmers mainly, because then, most people were employed in the agricultural sector. This social hierarchy is quite similar to the caste system in India.

the french revolution
Image via theculturetrip.com

It begs the question was this going on for years? People had accepted this system for thousands of years. Did they have no problems with it? Why were they tolerating this discrimination? The one-word answer to this would be Religion. Most of the people believed that the rulers were chosen by God to rule. Known as the Doctrine of Divine Right of Kings. That the kings are selected by God. And that’s why there should be no accountability of a king. And the clergies, of all religions, claimed that they were chosen by God to be the guardians. The guardians of spirituality and religion. So what about the peasants, the lowest of all? They accepted their suffering as decreed by God. The circumstances of their birth they believed it was because of the sins of their past lives. I’m just broadly classifying things. The reasoning differed a little in each country and religion. There were various specific reasons. But these were the basic excuses. During the 1600s, a new intellectual movement began in Europe. People started using their brains. People asked themselves, should the existing system continue? Who gave the right to the ruler to rule? This era is known as the Age of Enlightenment. Using one’s brain. RenĂ© Descartes was a French philosopher and mathematician. Known as the Father of Modern Philosophy. One of his most famous statements was The reason for my existence is my ability to think for myself. These became the foundation of the age of enlightenment. The Bible contained that the Sun revolves around the Earth. But Galileo observed Jupiter with his telescope and saw Jupiter’s moons revolving around Jupiter. With this, he came up with his scientific theory contrary to the widely held notion, he claimed that the Earth revolves around the Sun. This infuriated the guardians of the religion, they berated him for questioning the Bible. They sentenced Galileo to life imprisonment. But Galileo wasn’t the only one. Isaac Newton then published the three Laws of Motion. Many such scientists came forward with scientific explanations for the things that happen all around us. What was religion? Every so often, a guy would claim himself to be the messiah or the reincarnation of God, and would hold out a religious scripture. And you would have to believe what’s written on it. It couldn’t be questioned. But people started questioning them. It became quite difficult to justify religion. And so a new ideology came up known as Deism. Started by writer Edward Herbert in England. He said that the things written in the scriptures can be questioned. He claimed that miracles and prophecies don’t exist. They’re baseless. He said that even if God had created the world, He has stopped interfering with the world. And if people want to reach God, the need to use reason. They need to use their brains. This ideology challenged the authority of the Church. He asked how any person, any clergy can direct how they need to live their lives. John Locke opposed the Doctrine of Divine Right of Kings, and said that everyone is equal. No person has the right to rule over others. And if someone is given the power to govern, they should take permission from the people first. This was the original idea of democracy. The purpose of the government should be to protect the natural right of the citizens. And if a government cannot do so, the people should have the right to overthrow the government. Montesquieu, Thomas Hobbes, and Rousseau, were some other philosophers who promoted similar ideas. Rousseau’s famous quote says Though man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains. Why so? Every citizen should have Liberty. But what is liberty? Liberty basically means the freedom to do as one wishes as long as one doesn’t harm someone else. And everyone should be guaranteed this freedom equally, by the law. Everything I told you till now, these were the fundamental ideologies of the time, on which the French Revolution was based. Now, let’s talk about what had exactly happened. Friends, at the time, in France, the hierarchy that I told you about, the same hierarchy existed in France too. Nobility, Clergy, and Peasantry. The clergy, the people of the religion, imposed a religious tax on the common people. Known as Tithe. It was one-tenth of any agricultural produce. Whatever money a farmer earned from his produce, he had to pay one-tenth of it to the clergy as religious tax. In addition to this, the nobility had also imposed a direct land tax on the commoners. Known as Taille. But the nobility and the clergy paid negligible taxes then. The common people shouldered most of the taxes. The farmers. They had to pay heavy taxes. The paintings of the time describe this situation. Showing how the nobility and clergy were riding on the backs of peasants. In total, the nobility and clergy in France were about 2% of the population then. while the other 98% were made of peasants and farmers. At the time, the three categories were known as the Three Estates. Talking about the 1750s-1760s, the economy of France was struggling. France would frequently go on a war against Britain because both were colonial powers. So there were many conflicts and wars between the two. And in the Seven Year War, from 1756 to 1763, France was almost bankrupt. It was under large debts. During this time, in 1774, King Louis XVI was anointed the new king. He was 20 years old when he became the king. Famines were quite common then. So the crops grown by farmers were closely monitored by the government. So that if any area in France was faced with a famine, then the other areas that had a surplus of grains, a good amount of agricultural produce, they could import the grains from there to avert famine. They had Grain Police for this. To supervise and ensure that it was done properly. And if someone was hoarding grains, they were strictly punished. When Louis XVI became king, he made Robert Jacques Turgot his finance minister. A close friend of Adam Smith. His ideology was basically that government shouldn’t interfere in anything at all. Jacques Turgot applied the same ideology in France then. In September 1774, Turgot passed new farm laws. Think of them as the Black Farm Laws. because these laws stopped the government’s interference. The grain merchants could buy the crops. They could hold the crops and sell them later at artificially inflated prices. This led to grain prices increasing rapidly. Food became very expensive. There was unprecedented inflation. And as a result, in April-May 1975, people started rioting. Called the Flour War. Riots over the flour. Turgot’s intention wasn’t wrong. He sincerely believed that without the government’s interference, people would benefit from it. But when he saw that this wasn’t successful, Turgot proposed to levy taxes on the nobility and clergy as well. So that they could improve the financial position of their country. But why would the people in power, the nobility and clergy, allow this? Turgot was removed from the post of Finance Minister in 1776. Interestingly, 1776 was the year when America became an independent country. The revolutionaries and freedom fighters of America, did you know who supported them to get independent? France’s king, Louis XVI. The simple reason behind it since America was a British colony, and France and Britain were enemies then, France helped America become independent because it would mean that Britain would have to surrender the area. Doing so was expensive for France. This was followed by another war between France and Britain. The Anglo-French War. 1778-1783. The debt on France increased further to 2 billion Livre. Imagine the situation. People were living in poverty. While the king of France built a massive palace for himself. How would the people react? King Louis did this and spent a lot of money on it. A huge amount was spent on the Palace in Versailles for maintenance. And on King Louis’s debauchery. Interestingly enough, friends, King Louis wasn’t the only one in his family to do so. his wife, Marie Antoinette, was a bigger libertine. If you make a list of libertines that ever existed, Marie Antoinette would be at the top of the list always. Wife of Louis XVI. It’s said that she was so profligate, every year, she would order 300 new outfits. She undertook the landscaping the gardens outside the Palace, you can still see them in Versailles. It’s only 20 km from Paris. She created expensive perfumes for herself. Some exclusive fragrances for herself. And perhaps the most extraordinary of all was her hairstyle. She had literally put a boat on her head as a hairstyle. Can you imagine it? There’s a painting of it too. Though celebrities don weird outfits nowadays, but to have a boat on one’s head, such a hairstyle is unthinkable, even now. Marie had several love affairs too. She used to send love letters to a Swedish nobleman, Axel Fersen. You’d ask what love affairs have to do with a revolution. As I told you, friends, people used to think that rulers were sent by God. The Divine Right of Kings theory that I talked about. People considered the King and Queen to be sent by God. So when they saw their queen having love affairs outside her marriage, people were certain that she wasn’t sent by God. So the people had many reasons to hate King Louis. There was a lot of hatred among the people. There was no end to these problems. When people are so infuriated, it can lead to riots and civil wars. But if this anger could be given a direction, then the anger can be turned into a revolution. The age of enlightenment was the source of direction for this anger. the philosophers, newspaper, and books of the time, were talking about these. How the rulers weren’t deserving. How there should be equality among people. Even the illiterate were listening to these ideas they started thinking and reasoning too. There were many slogans related to this. One of the most famous slogans of the time was This is still the motto of France. King Louis tried to appease the people. He wanted to do something to calm down the masses. His new finance minister, Charles Alexander de Calonne was consulted. His suggestions were akin to Turgot’s. He said that if they intend to improve the financial situation of the country, they would need to impose a new tax on the clergy and nobility. But the nobility and clergy could not let this happen. Charles lost his job too. The king continued trying to think of a solution. He summoned the Estate Generals. The Estate General was like a government of the time. Although there weren’t governments like we know them, they were a body of people who worked as a government, and acted as advisor to the king. The actual decision-making power was with the king alone. This advisory body could merely advise the king. But the most interesting thing about the Estate Generals was that it had representatives from all three estates. Another interesting fact was that the Estate Generals weren’t summoned in the preceding 175 years. 1614 was the last time they were summoned. King Louis XVI summoned them again on 5th May 1789. Why did he do so? Because the nobility and clergy weren’t allowing the financial advisor’s advice to be implemented. They were creating a ruckus in the Parliament in Paris. That’s why Louis XVI thought to use the Estate Generals as rubber stamps. Each of the three Estates had a single vote. The Clergy had one vote, the Nobility had one vote, And one vote to the rest of the 98% of the population. Three votes in total. And whenever they had to make a decision, it would be 2:1. The Clergy and Nobility joined hands, to vote against the people. So they couldn’t reach a favourable decision. Frustrated by this, the commoners then wanted one vote to each individual member. Instead of one vote to a group, they wanted one vote for each individual. The king didn’t take this demand seriously. So the members of the third estate, the representatives of the commoners, didn’t want to remain a part of the Estate General. They decided to form their own Estate General. Their government. Wherein every person would get equal votes. When King Louis found out about this, he locked the hall so that the commoners couldn’t enter the hall. He wanted to prevent them from forming a government by locking the hall. So the commoners went to a tennis court nearby. It was an empty lot. On this tennis court, they took the famous Tennis Court Oath. They declared their independent government on 17th June. It is known as the Declaration of National Assembly. They said that they wouldn’t be stopped from creating a new Constitution for France. They wanted to write a constitution which would provide equal treatment for all. So that there’d be true equality in the country. The liberals from the nobility and clergy became a part of this National Assembly. King Louis was shocked to see this. He saw that he couldn’t prevent them from forming a new government. He feared that they would soon overthrow him. They might even kill him. So on 27th June, King Louis acknowledged this National Assembly. He agreed to the National Assembly forming the new government. When people were seated in the National Assembly’s hall, the people on the left were from the Third Estate. The commoners who support the revolution. They represented 98% of the population. They were seated in the Left Wing of the National Assembly. On the other side, on the Right Wing, were the representatives of the clergy and nobility, who supported the monarchy. As you would’ve guessed by now, the two commonly used phrases when discussing politics, Left Wing and Right Wing, this was the origin of both phrases. The fundamental ideologies of the left wing, are of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity. On the other hand, the ideology of the right wing, was the reaction to the ideologies of the left wing. You can think of it as the counter-revolution. They weren’t actually based on principles. But the ideas they practised, can be categorised as Traditionalism and Conservatism. The traditions passed down from generations, they wanted them to continue. This was the fundamental ideology of the right wing. From the perspective of the French Revolution, our rulers and monarchy, they wanted to uphold them. That was their ideology. People in the left wing demanded equality. So that people could be treated the same in society. Without any hierarchies. The people on the right wing used religion and traditions saying that God has decreed the king to rule. And so he should. They wanted to continue the tradition because it was a tradition. We can still see this ideology at sp many places nowadays. Many people from the Right-Wing take this to the extreme. When they are asked about the discrimination between men and women. Discrimination between castes. Discrimination between races. Their reply is often that it is the tradition. Since the tradition has been carried down for ages, it would be continued forever. In the French National Assembly, 98% of the people were supporting the left wing, the right wing had the support of the king, 2% of the people, and the security forces. They were the security guards of the king, paid by the king. Next, a rumour started spreading. That King Louis was planning on attacking Paris to overthrow the National Assembly. This rumour turned the people violent. There were riots. They attacked the Bastille Fort on 14th July. They hoped to find gun powder and weapons so that they could start a revolution. There, they found 7 prisoners, whom they set free. And because of this event on 14th July, today, the National Day of France is celebrated on 14th July. This was the first spark of the French Revolution. When others got to know about this incident, they started to realise that they too could fight. They wanted the oppression by the clergy and nobility to stop. So when the tax collectors went to the farmers to collect the taxes, they refused to pay any tax. The tax collectors were beaten and thrown out of the fields. Many nobles started fleeing to other European countries. Because France was the only country with the uprising. The other European countries were still content with monarchies. With each day, the power of the National Assembly kept on increasing. The security guards of the king, were now paying attention to what the National Assembly was preaching. On 9th July, a National Constituent Assembly was formed from the National Assembly. And on 26th August, this Constituent Assembly adopted the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. This document can be seen as the first draft of the French Constitution. This was the first attempt at adopting a Constitution. This small document contained 17 articles. This Constitution was based on the principles of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity. But King Louis refused to sign this document. On 5th October, another spark of revolution ignited. The cost of food, the price of bread hadn’t decreased yet. The country was still struggling with high inflation. The economic situation hadn’t improved. On 5th October, thousands of women gathered at a market in Paris. They agreed that things had become unbearable. Changes needed to be adopted quickly to improve the economy of the country. For 6 hours, thousands of women walked 13 km to the Palace in Versailles. King Louis was on a respite there. When these thousands of women walked down the road, people were motivated by this. Some men and soldiers joined them. This event is called the March of Versailles. After reaching the Palace in Versailles, they entered the palace. Seeing these women in the palace, King Louis and his his wife Marie were forced to accept their terms. This was when King Louis finally signed the document. After this movement, women demanded equal rights in the National Assembly. In September 1791, the French activist and feminist, Olympe de Gouges, published the Declaration of the Rights of Woman and of the Female Citizen. And this was the beginning. Unfortunately, over the next 150 years, women weren’t given equal rights in European countries. Elections were called in 1791, and in 1792, the monarchy was completely abolished. And thus France became a republic country. King Louis and Marie Antoinette, were imprisoned for their crimes. Later, they were put on trial and sentenced to death. They didn’t enforce capital punishment by hanging then. There was the Guillotine. A sharp blade would be dropped from a height, and it would cleanly chop off the head. They were the king and queen of France; executed by the revolutionaries. And with this, we come to the end of the French Revolution. A happy ending. With the end of monarchy in France, and France becoming a democratic, republic country where everyone was equal and we witnessed complete equality in France. Had the French Revolution been shown in a Bollywood film, this is how it would have ended. But unfortunately, friends, the reality, was completely the opposite. First of all, the story I told you, the bravery of the revolutionaries and their courageous acts, they weren’t so simple. There was a lot of bloodshed during the French revolution. Many nobles and clergies were murdered mercilessly. Their decapitated heads were put on pikes and taken around the city by the revolutionaries. Overall, people were very violent. You’d argue that people were generally more violent then, it was the norm. But the second problem was that the revolutionaries didn’t agree with each other. Though they were on the same page about Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity. They believed in it and agreed with each other. But when it came to discussing the actual details, there were a lot of disagreements, among the revolutionaries. First, there were arguments, then there were physical fights among the revolutionaries. Maximilien Robespierre, one of the major revolutionaries then, after the French Revolution, he was afraid. France was surrounded by European countries with existing monarchies. None of them wanted to have a revolution like France in their country. So the rulers of the surrounding countries would try their best to overthrow the Republic of France, and to re-establish a monarchy. This was a valid fear. France had initiated wars against the surrounding countries for it. But Robespierre was carried away in his fear, he started believing that there were some in France, who were openly supporting the monarchy. There were. But Robespierre thought that if they wanted to protect the republic country, the supporters of monarchy had to be executed. Either by shooting them or by hanging, they had to be executed. The people whom Robespierre suspected of supporting the monarchy, were executed. Most of the time, there was no proof of supporting the monarchy. They were executed simply on suspicion. Thousands of people were killed. This period following the Frech Revolution, is called the Reign of Terror. Several revolutionaries were against Robespierre. They started a movement against Robespierre, and Robespierre was finally executed by another group. There was a lot of bloodshed after the French Revolution. There was chaos, the economic condition didn’t improve by much. Things continued like this till 1799. In 1799, General Napoleon Bonaparte took control of the reign. And established his control over France. Interestingly, a few years later, Napoleon declared himself to be the Emperor of France. He became the new monarch of France. He ruled for many years. Many historic events happened under this reign. That’s a story for some other time. We can talk about them in some other article. But one thing that I want to let you know now, Napoleon’s rule was different from the rule of the past monarchs. Though he was a dictator, he was a secular dictator. Under his rule, the power of the Church was on a decline. The ideas of the French Revolution weren’t completely erased. Under his rule, these ideas spread to other European countries. That’s why, at a glance, you’ll think that French Revolution was a massive failure. Because even after a revolution to overthrow the monarchy, a new monarch arose from the revolution. But in reality, the ideas of the French Revolution, have a great impact on other European countries and the rest of the world. Till today, the constitutions of several countries implement these ideas in the Constitution. In fact, in the Preamble to the Indian Constitution as well, the slogan of the French Revolution is penned down. In 1927’s Mahad Satyagraha, the great Dr Ambedkar had said, his aim wasn’t simply to drink from the same tank that the upper classes drank from, his goal was the same as that of the French Revolution. A society without discrimination. Where people would be treated equally. Several other ideas came out of the French Revolution. The idea of a Republic country. The idea of Democracy originated here. The idea of Secularism was also born here. It says that religion is the private affair of an individual. The government shouldn’t interfere in the affairs of an individual. The idea of Freedom of Expression was also from here. One of the famous slogans for it: Today, we take Liberty for granted. But do remember, there was a time when every person was in chains. Every person was suffering under a ruler. The failure of the French Revolution, was realised by the Indian Freedom Fighters like Mahatma Gandhi. Mahatma Gandhi had said that their aim is not only to get Freedom, but also to get freedom in a peaceful, non-violent way. Because Gandhi didn’t want to repeat the violence used in the French Revolution he didn’t want to repeat the bloodshed in India. This was the inspirational story of the French Revolution.