• In 1774 , Louis XVI of the Bourbon family , 20 years old and married to the Austrian princess Marie Antoinette, ascended the throne of France .
  • Upon his ascension, the king found an empty treasury because of the long years of war that drained the financial resources of France. Added to this was the cost of maintaining an extravagant court at the immense palace of Versailles.
  • Under Louis XVI, France helped the thirteen American colonies to gain their independence from the common enemy, Britain .
  • The war added more than a billion livres to a debt that had already risen to more than 2 billion livres
  • Lenders who gave the state credit now began to charge 10 per cent interest on loans. 
  • Forcing the French government to spend an increasing percentage of its budget on interest payments alone.
  • To meet its regular expenses, like the cost of maintaining an army , the court , and running government offices or universities , the state was forced to increase taxes. Yet even this measure was not enough.

A Society of Estates  - Teachoo.png

  • French society in the eighteenth century was divided into three estates , and only members of the third estate used to pay taxes .
  • The society of estates was part of the feudal system that dated back to the middle ages. The term Old Regime is used to describe the society and institutions of France before 1789 .

The spider and the fly (with text) - Teachoo.png

  • The above image shows a poor fellow bringing everything , grain, fruits, money, and salad. The fat lord sits there, ready to accept it all . He does not even care to grace him with a look.
  • The nobleman is the spider , the peasant the fly.
  • In french society, peasants were about 90 per cent of the population but only a small number of them owned the land they cultivated.
  • About 60 per cent of the land was owned by nobles , the Church and other richer members of the third estate.
  • The members of the first two estates, the clergy and the nobility had certain privileges by birth.
  • The most important privilege was the exemption from paying taxes to the state.
  • The nobles further had feudal privileges . These included feudal dues , which they extracted from the peasants.
  • Peasants were obliged to provide services to the lord like working in his house and fields – serving in the army or participating in building roads .
  • The Church too had its share of taxes called tithes from the peasants.
  • Members of the third estate had to pay taxes , which included a direct tax , called taille , and indirect taxes which were imposed on the products of everyday consumption like salt and tobacco .
  • The burden of financing the state through taxes was borne by the third estate alone.

The Struggle to Survive

  • The population of France was 23 million in 1715 which rose to 28 million in 1789 .
  • This led to a rapid increase in the demand for food grains .
  • Production of grains could not keep pace with the demand which led to the increased price of bread which was the staple diet of the majority.
  • Most of the workers who were employed as wage labourers in workshops were not able to keep up with the rise in price because the owners had fixed their wages that did not keep pace with the rise in prices.
  • This widened the gap between the rich and the poor .
  • Things became even worse when the harvest got reduced by drought or hail.
  • This led to a subsistence crisis , something that occurred frequently in France during the Old Regime.

How a Subsistence Crisis Happens


A Growing Middle Class Envisages an End to Privileges

  • In the past, peasants and workers had participated in revolts against increasing taxes and food scarcity
  • But they lacked the means and programmes to carry out full-scale measures that would bring about a change in the social and economic order .
  • This was left to those groups within the third estate who had become prosperous and had access to education and new ideas .
  • The social groups , termed as middle class emerged in the eighteenth century, who earned their wealth through expanding overseas trade and the manufacture of goods such as woollen and silk textiles that were either exported or bought by the richer members of society.
  • In addition to merchants and manufacturers, the third estate included professions such as lawyers or administrative officials .
  • All these were educated and believed that no group in society should be privileged by birth . Rather, a person’s social position must depend on his merit .
  • Philosophers such as John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau put forward the idea of a society based on freedom and equal laws and opportunities for all.

Two Treatises of Government by John Locke - Teachoo.png

  • In his Two Treatises of Government , Locke sought to refute the doctrine of the divine and absolute rights of the monarch.
  • This idea was carried forward by Rousseau who proposed the idea of a form of government based on the social contract between people and their representatives.

The Spirit of the Laws by Montesquieu - Teachoo.png

  • In The Spirit of the Laws , Montesquieu proposed a division of power within the government between the legislative , the executive and the judiciary .
  • This model of government was put into force in the USA , after the independence of thirteen colonies from Britain .
  • The American constitution and its guarantee of individual rights was an important example for political thinkers in France .
  • The ideas of these philosophers were discussed intensively in salons and coffee houses and spread among people through books and newspapers
  • These were frequently read aloud in groups for the benefit of those who could not read and write
  • The news that Louis XVI planned to impose further taxes to be able to meet the expenses of the state generated anger and protests against the system of privileges .


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Davneet Singh

Davneet Singh has done his B.Tech from Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur. He has been teaching from the past 14 years. He provides courses for Maths, Science, Social Science, Physics, Chemistry, Computer Science at Teachoo.