[World History] The French Revolution • Social Economic and Political Causes • 1787-1815


In this post you will learn about the causes of the French Revolution, its impact on the world, the four different phases of the revolution. Till now we are done with –

What is The French Revolution?

The French Revolution was a movement that shook the France between 1787-1804. It started against absolutism of King Louis XVI, led to military dictatorship under Napoleon. Eventually, political ideas of liberty, equality and fraternity spread across Europe like wildfire.

There were four phases of French Revolution which we will deal at the end. We will start with the cause of the French Revolution. 

Causes of the French Revolution


  • American Revolution: Inspired political ideas. Spread of ideas of liberty and equality.
  • Enlightenment: Enlightenment ideas led to rationalism. French started questioning old order. Which created rift in society.
  • Montesquieu: In his book spirit of the laws gave idea of separation of power between 3 organs. 3 organs- legislature, executive and judiciary. France was monarchy, and king was absolute ruler. So the theory of separation of power opposed absolute arbitrary rule of king.
  • Rousseau: In his notions of good government in Social Contract (1762) explained that state is outcome of the people and the ruler. 

Social Causes of French Revolution

  • Divided: Society was divided in three estates.
  • First Estate: Clergy, priestly class of Roman Catholic Churches. Paid no taxes. (look fig)
  • Second Estate: Nobles. Paid little taxes.
  • Third Estate: No say in governance and paid maximum taxes (almost all of it) 
  • First and Second estate enjoyed special privileges and controlled all wealth of the land.

In 1787, French society was unevenly divided into three estates. Ninety-seven percent of the people belonged to the Third Estate. They had no political power, paid high taxes, and owned only 65 percent of the land. The First Estate, made up of the clergy, and the Second Estate, made up of rich nobles, held the power, the wealth, and more than their share of the land. Both opposed change and took advantage of the Third Estate.

Political Causes of French Revolution

  • Rift between the Monarchy and Aristocrats over the “reform” of the tax system
  • Third estate wanted greater representation especially bourgeoise class.
  • Louis XVI: was a weak and indecisive ruler. He was not interested in court affairs.
  • Absolutism: Most people denied basic rights and any say in governance

Economic Causes of French Revolution

  • Seven Years War: Frequent wars with Britain has drained France wealth. Wars and royal extravagance created debt.
  • Marie Antoinette: was unpopular as people called her Madame Deficit. She partied a lot when people were dying of hunger. 
  • Hailstorm: Bad harvest and crop failure in 1788-89 –> No food to eat. France was populous country in Europe. So, food prices doubled. As a result, inflation and famine created unrest.
  • High Taxes: Third estate carried financial burden of all of the France. 

Four Phases of the French Revolution

The French Revolution is divided into four phases:

  • Moderate Phase (1789-1791)—> Constitutional Monarchy led by the National Assembly 
  • Radical Phase (1792-1794)—> The Reign of Terror —> the Committee of Public Safety led by Maximilian Robespierre 
  • Reaction Phase (1795-1799) Moderates took over —> set up Directory —> a reaction to extremism
  • Age of Napoleon (1799-1815) The phase of consolidation of ideas.

#1. Moderate Phase 1789 – 1791

  • Tennis Court Oath: promised to create a limited monarchy in France (separation of power) to check absolutism. 
  • Bastille Day: People searching for arms and ammunition to protect themselves stormed into Bastille, did not found what they were looking for but destroyed Bastille brick by brick.
  • Declaration of the Rights of Man —> It was modelled after the American Declaration of Independence it provided. Also, it formed the preamble of the constitution. It said that – 
    • All men were born free and all males are equal before the law. 
    • Also it talked about religious freedom.
  • Constitution of 1791: Limited monarchy + legislative assembly to collect the taxes and form laws.
  • Slogan: Liberty, Equality, Fraternity was the slogan of the French Revolution
  • Split of the National Assembly
    • Right Wing – The revolution had gone far enough let us turn the clock and go back
    • Center – We are doing good keep supporting moderate reforms
    • Left Wing: The radicals known as Jacobins —> Abolish the King
  • Left wing won —> Gained upper hand and wanted to spread the revolution to Austria, Prussia and Britain.

#2. Radical Stage 1792-94

  1. France declared war on Austria, Prussia, and Great Britain to end tyranny (absolutism) 
  2. 1792: Radicals took control of the Assembly and abolished the monarchy
  3. Maximilian Robespierre: used violence to keep the revolution safe from potential threats. He wanted to create state of virtue. He said The king must die so that the country can live.
  4. 1793: the king, Louis XVI executed for treason. This event lead France into the Reign of Terror.
  5. End of Reign of Terror: Thousands of people were executed. Soon reign of terror ended with the execution of Robespierre

#3. Reaction Phase

Here Moderates took over in 1795 and established a five-man Directory. Directory was was weak and inefficient

#4. Napoleonic Stage

  • Napoleon Bonaparte rose quickly in the military 
  • 1799: Napoleon overthrew the Directory in a military coup i.e. coup d’etat 
  • Coup d’état: Revolt by military leader. why? to overthrow a government
  • In three years he becomes “Emperor of the French”

Napoleon Bonaparte Brought Reforms

  1. Political: Napoleonic Code: Legal code that included police code (like CrPC). Also, Enlightenment ideas such as legal equality of citizens and religious toleration
  2. Education: University of France – government supervised public school system
  3. Economic: Napoleon controlled inflation, supported new industry and built infrastructure (roads and canals)

End of Nepoleon 

  • Napoleon’s wars made France the most powerful player in Europe
  • But his defeat in Russia weakened his armies and led to his total defeat at Waterloo 

Conclusion: The Impact of the French Revolution

  1. Spread political ideals of Justice – Equality – Fraternity across the world
  2. Equality and Justice: Napoleonic Wars and early events spread the ideas of democracy and opposing social injustice and inequality
  3. Nationalism and Fraternity: Napoleon stirred nationalism in people. Inspired the Italian and German states. Eventually led to unification of Germany and Italy. 

So, in the next post we will learn about the unification of Germany and Italy.

WATCH: French Revolution Explained

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