The Years Before the French Revolution

Famine, starvation and a bankrupt nation lead by a feeble King was one recipe for strife and disaster in France. Once Louis XVI emptied his coffers, funding military aid for the Americans during the American War of Independence, he was faced with a big problem—how he was to replenish the royal treasury. To make matters worse, he did not know how to deal with the aristocracy. Unlike his grandfather, Louis XVI shared his power with the nobles. In other words, the nobility under Louis XVI flourished. They become wealthier, more powerful and more arrogant.

The only way Louis might have alleviated much of France’s debt is if he extended the taxes to all classes, with the heaviest levied on the nobles. However, when this idea was presented to Louis it caused an outrage, not only amongst the aristocracy, but the king was outraged himself. He was afraid that if he taxed the rich, he would be dethroned. So, Louis XVI shut them up by promising them that he would allow them to keep their ancient rights. But, this only added fuel to the fire.

No matter how wealthy the bourgeoisie got, they were still kept from all high positions in society. And, they were still forced to pay taxes. But, as mentioned, the heaviest taxes were forced upon the poor. While the bourgeoisie were exempt from some taxes, the poor were required to pay a tax on salt, grain and an additional tithe to the church. This left many French citizens impoverished, homeless, hungry and angry.

Underrepresented and driven by hardship, the working class citizens and peasants (who made up the Third Estate) demanded total equality before the law at the Estates General in the spring of 1789. They demanded political representation and to have the same rights as the aristocracy. When Louis XVI failed to grant them these privileges, all hell broke loose.


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