Source Collection: Social Causes of the French Revolution


Instead of bringing unity and a quick, political resolution to the questions of 1789, as intended by its originators, the Revolution was producing further conflicts. What had happened? Had the revolutionaries expected too much? Did the fault lie with the new political elite, because they excluded the lower classes from the optimistic prospects for change? Or did the leaders, despite their commitment to social equality, find it impossible to avoid making private property (and the differences in wealth it necessarily generated) the cornerstone of the new society? The events of the 1790s brought France no closer to determining how and whether social equality could be achieved through political measures. This very issue continues to vex modern society—long after the social stresses of 1789 have dissolved into the dustbin of history. Indeed, it remains one of the most vibrant legacies of the French Revolution.

This source collection includes an informational essay and 53 primary sources.


A leading cause of social stress in France during the Revolution was its large population. At the beginning of the eighteenth century, France had 20 million people living within its borders, a number equal to nearly 20 percent of the population of non-Russian Europe. Over the course of the century, that number increased by another 8 to 10 million, as epidemic disease and acute food shortages diminished and mortality declined. By contrast, it had increased by only 1 million between 1600 and 1700. Also important, this population was concentrated in the rural countryside: of the nearly 30 million French under Louis XVI, about 80 percent lived in villages of 2,000 or less, with nearly all the rest in fairly small cities (those with fewer than 50,000 inhabitants).

The foremost exception, of course, was Paris, which was home to about 600,000 by 1789. Only a handful of other cities—notably Lyons, Bordeaux, and Marseilles—had more than 100,000 within their limits. These demographics had an enormous impact, both inside and outside France.

In addition, the eighteenth century saw the intrusion of capitalism into everyday life. Thanks to a large expansion of overseas trade and a longer-term development of domestic trade, the money economy experienced continued growth. Although self-sufficiency or local exchange remained the preponderant way of economic life, these incursions of capitalism began drawing everyone into some form of regional and even international exchange.

Amid these broad economic and population shifts, daily life in the countryside remained much the same, particularly on small family farms. Their owners and workers were known as peasants, although they differed considerably in wealth and status. A few could claim to be "living nobly," meaning they rented their land to others to work, but many were day-laborers desperate for work in exchange for a place to stay and food to eat. In the middle were others, including independent farmers, sharecroppers, and renters. Historians have estimated that in lean years 90 percent of the peasants lived at or below the subsistence level, earning only enough to feed their families. Others inhabited the countryside, most notably small numbers of noble and non-noble owners of manors, conspicuous by their dwellings, at the least. Consequently, documents on life in the countryside at this time reflect the omnipresence of poverty. One of the most well-known observers of the late-eighteenth-century French countryside, the Englishman Arthur Young, considered these small farms the great weakness of French agriculture, especially when compared with the large, commercial farms he knew at home. Others commenting on the lot of impoverished peasants before 1789 blamed the tensions between rich and poor on the country's vast social differences.

Although home to the wealthy and middling, cities tended to be even more unsavory places to live than the countryside. Exposed daily to dirty air and water, urban dwellers could expect to have a shorter life span than their country brethren. Louis-Sébastien Mercier, a writer who adored life in Paris and wrote extensively about all aspects of it, often lamented not only the poor health of city workers but also the strict conditions governing their employment. Guilds regulated almost every sector of the economy and thus limited the number who could enter a trade as an apprentice, become a journeyman, or set up a workshop and retail store as a master. With experience, a worker could theoretically move up the social hierarchy, but in practice such ascent was extremely difficult to achieve, as the limited number of masterships in any given industry tended to be passed down within a family. Thus in some trades and in some cities journeymen complained of feeling restricted and expressed greater solidarity toward their counterparts in other trades than toward their own masters.

Bread constituted the staple of most urban diets, so sharp price increases were felt quickly and were loudly protested at grain markets or at local bakers' shops. Most people directed their anger at bread suppliers rather than political authorities, although it was often the municipal and royal authorities who tried to alleviate shortages and prevent such protests. As a result, the credibility and popularity of government officials came to be linked to the functioning of the grain and bread markets.

In addition to economic differences, early modern French society was legally stratified by birth. Its three traditional divisions, or "orders," were the clergy, the nobility, and the common people. Nobles ruled over commoners, but even among commoners, specific individuals (such as officeholders) or groups (such as a particular guild or an entire town) enjoyed privileges unavailable to outsiders. Because these privileges were passed on primarily through inheritance, they tended to constrain social mobility—although without preventing it, since they could also be bought or sold. Thus individuals and groups constantly negotiated with one another and with the crown for more and better privileges. Even as these privileges maintained a close grip on eighteenth-century imaginations, writers of the Enlightenment found them too rooted in tradition and proposed that talent supersede birth as the main determinant of social standing. Even when based on merit, they argued, social differences should not be defined by law, as they were in the old regime's orders. Traditionalists countered that a hierarchy of social orders was necessary to hold society together.

When the King called for an Estates-General in 1789, the social tensions plaguing the old regime emerged as a central issue of the Revolution. Traditionally, estates representatives had belonged to one of the three orders of society, and in principle each order had an equal voice before the King. Because nobles dominated the clergy, however, the majority of representatives actually came from the two privileged orders, even though they stood for only 5 percent of the population at most. Because each voter actually would exercise one vote in the assembly, this configuration allowed the nobility two of the three votes. The King subsequently agreed to double the size of the delegation of the Third Estate, but this move failed to appease critics of the political system. Many pamphlets appeared suggesting that representatives should vote by "head" rather than by "order" (meaning all representatives should vote together as a single assembly, rather than as three separate bodies representing three separate orders).

The purpose of such pamphlets was not merely to win greater representation for the Third Estate. Their authors were making the case for a new concept of society, in which commoners, especially the educated middle classes, had the same value as the other orders. Despite the social rifts surrounding the political debate of mid-1789, most contemporaries fervently sought social unity. This suggests that social unrest may not necessarily have been the basic cause of the outbreak of the Revolution. Indeed, one wonders if the nobility's fear of losing its privileges, rather than the assertiveness of the middle classes, might have been the most important factor in the events that followed.

Far beyond the deputies' meeting hall in Versailles, another kind of social unrest was brewing in the countryside. Upon hearing about the taking of the Bastille, peasants decided they, too, could press for social change through drastic actions. In the summer of 1789 hundreds of thousands mobilized to attack lords' manors and destroy the bitter symbols of seigneurialism: weather vanes, protective walls, and especially property deeds setting forth feudal dues that peasants were required to pay the lord. When news of this rural unrest reached the newly renamed National Assembly in Paris, its deputies, feeling pressured to stay ahead of events in the countryside, responded by announcing the "abolition of feudalism." Their decrees of 4 August represented the first step toward the destruction of the theoretical basis of old regime's system of privileges. Within the year, the assembly would do away with the whole concept of nobility, setting off a vigorous anti noble propaganda campaign in the press.

Urban workers, too, found an opportunity to express their discontent, through elections to the Estates-General. Elections were held in the form of neighborhood gatherings, at which participants collectively designated a representative and compiled cahiers de doléance (lists of grievances) to present to the King, who would communicate them to guide the representatives. Many of these petitions expressed opposition to the privileges of nobles and officeholders. The National Assembly decrees of August 1789 against privilege—which had been the centerpiece of the French social order—were no doubt cheered by the populace.

For all its momentousness, however, the elimination of privilege did not bring an end to the social conflicts underlying the Revolution. Instead, it marked the beginning of another system of social distinctions, set forth in a new constitution introduced by the National Assembly. The most notable of these was the distinction between "active" citizens, who were granted full rights to vote and hold office, and "passive" citizens, who were subject to the same laws but could not vote or hold office. Membership in one class or the other was determined by one's income level, gender, race, religion, and profession. With the Le Chapelier Law of 1791, the National Assembly further differentiated workers from property owners and banned worker associations as being harmful to national unity.

The National Assembly seemed unwilling to grant workers full political and social participation in the new society. One reason for this reluctance was the widespread fear of further unrest. Another was the strong belief among spokespersons for the Enlightenment that only those with a propertied stake in society could be trusted to exercise reason, or to think for themselves. Furthermore, many reform-minded revolutionaries argued that economic-based "combinations" formed by workers too closely resembled corporate guilds and would impinge on the freedom of the individual.

Whatever the assembly's motives, its actions were met with strong opposition. Workers were not untrustworthy or retrograde traditionalists, they retorted, but hard-working, uncomplicated, and honest citizens, unlike the effete and "feminized" rich. Calling themselves sans-culottes to indicate that they wore pants, not knee breeches (a symbol of luxury), they glorified direct action, strength, candor, and patriotism, ideals that radical journalists associated with artisanal work and found lacking in property ownership alone. The fact that such radicals as Elisée Loustallot, Jacques Roux, and Jacques-Réné Hébert were educated men who did not exactly work with their hands for a living led some to question whether their discussions of sans-culottes expressed ideas held by workers themselves. Moreover, one may wonder whether the views associated with the sans-culottes extended much beyond Paris. All the same, the sans-culotte concept took on increasing political significance, because those in authority saw reflected in it the genuine working man. Thus the use of the sans-culotte in radical rhetoric led contemporaries to believe that rich and poor were in conflict throughout the Revolution. How this perception influenced the course of revolutionary events may be seen in the case of Gracchus Babeuf. Before the Revolution, Babeuf had been an agent for seigneurial lords, but after 1789, he became increasingly attracted to the idea of social and political egalitarianism. By 1795, he was leading a conspiracy, although his goals and plans remained vague. Nevertheless, the political authorities worried about class war; they considered him a dangerous egalitarian revolutionary and arrested him. At his trial, Babeuf delivered an inspiring attack on private property and endorsed a system of property sharing that many see as a forerunner of socialism.

In rural areas, social cleavages were as deeply rooted as in the cities. Peasants, in their lists of grievances of 1789, expressed hostility to noble landlords; and, as noted earlier, this hostility intensified after Bastille Day. From July through September 1789, word of the National Assembly's decisions and of the popular revolts in Paris and other cities spread across the French countryside. It was also rumored that frightened nobles were sending groups of armed "brigands" to burn fields, steal crops, and attack villages in order to keep down the peasantry in this moment of crisis. Propelled by what became known as "the great fear," peasants in various regions of France took matters into their own hands, forming armed groups to defend their fields and their villages. The 4 August decrees, largely a response to this upheaval, initially quieted the countryside and soon cemented the peasants to the revolutionary cause.

Like the workers and small property owners in cities, peasants questioned the settlement reached by the National Assembly in 1791. In contrast to Parisian artisans, however, who began pushing for a more far-reaching revolution in 1792–94, large numbers of cultivators hankered for a return to stability in their villages. But this seemed a remote possibility as the Revolution and its wars expanded.

For the peasantry, the foremost cause of instability during the Revolution was the Civil Constitution of the Clergy of 1790. The Civil Constitution, like the Revolution itself, originated in the fiscal crisis that the National Assembly inherited from the crown. Needing substantial revenues, the assembly targeted church lands, which accounted for 10 percent of all landed wealth in France. The legislature divested the church of its property and in exchange took charge of its expenses and administration. The revolutionaries, imbued with the Enlightenment's criticism of the Catholic religion, suspected bishops and archbishops of resisting all change. To ensure the loyalty of parish priests, the assembly (in whose employ the priests now found themselves) added to the Civil Constitution a requirement that all clergy swear an oath of allegiance to the nation. However, almost half refused to do so. Because most "refractory priests" (those who refused the oath) lived in the countryside, the Civil Constitution—designed to promote national unity and prevent religion from becoming a source of resistance to the Revolution—instead generated considerable resentment among the peasantry. This resentment increased with the decree of 9 March 1792, authorizing the confiscation of grain to prevent "hoarding." Chapter 7 shows how this early hostility developed into an armed counterrevolution.

Thus in both towns and countryside, it seemed that the Revolution was not producing the hoped-for results. Instead of bringing unity and a quick, political resolution to the questions of 1789, as intended by its originators, the Revolution was producing further conflicts. What had happened? Had the revolutionaries expected too much? Did the fault lie with the new political elite, because they excluded the lower classes from the optimistic prospects for change? Or did the leaders, despite their commitment to social equality, find it impossible to avoid making private property (and the differences in wealth it necessarily generated) the cornerstone of the new society? The events of the 1790s brought France no closer to determining how and whether social equality could be achieved through political measures. This very issue continues to vex modern society—long after the social stresses of 1789 have dissolved into the dustbin of history. Indeed, it remains one of the most vibrant legacies of the French Revolution.

Primary Sources

Poverty Observed!: Journal of a Country Priest

Village priests served as community leaders in a variety of respects, including keeping a register of births, marriages, and deaths. One such curate, the abbé Lefeuvre, also included in his register impressions of life during the severe winter of 1709, which give a sense of the difficult and fragile lives of the poor in rural towns in the eighteenth century.

Poverty in Auvergne

The difficulty of life in rural regions led some to leave home and seek a better life elsewhere, particularly in the growing cities. Such migration worried some observers, who feared villages would be emptied and no one would be left to work the land. In the excerpt below, a local government official in the Auvergne region comments on the causes and effects of emigration.

Two Peasants Repairing a Cart

This image of peasants repairing a cart demonstrates both the hard work done by cultivators and their fragile economic situation, which could easily be imperiled by a broken cart. Under such circumstances, poor people constantly repaired durable and personal goods, such as carts or clothing, because they could not afford to replace them with new ones.

Arthur Young Views the Countryside

Arthur Young, an Englishman, traveled across France on the eve of the Revolution recording his impressions of life there, particularly those aspects that seemed to him to compare unfavorably with his native land. In the excerpt below, he comments on the peasantry’s landholdings, remarking on the multiple arrangements of land tenure and on the small size of peasant farms, all of which seemed strange to him, because, in England at this time, most of the arable land belonged to absentee landlords who hired others to work their large farms for them.

The Traditional Order Defended

This newspaper article considers the question of equality from the opposite point of view—arguing that without social distinctions making clear who should lead and who should follow, society cannot hold together. In particular, the article emphasizes that economic changes such as reliance on the market to set prices undercut older ideas of protection by the elite, shifting notions of social morality.

People under the Old Regime

This image shows "the people" as a chained and blindfolded man being crushed under the weight of the rich, including both clergy and nobility. Such a perspective on the period before 1789 purposely exaggerates social divisions and would have found few proponents before the French Revolution, but the image does reveal the social clash felt so intensely by the revolutionaries.

The Saint–Marcel Neighborhood

The writer Louis–Sébastien Mercier recorded in his Portrait of Paris detailed and witty commentaries on many aspects of life among the common people. In this article on the Saint–Marcel neighborhood, he comments on the difficulties faced by urban workers.

Apprentices and Masters

Unlike the Marquis de Mirabeau, (see document Tension between Rich and Poor) Jacques Savary sought to promote commerce and those who engaged in it. In this excerpt from his 1757 edition of The Perfect Merchant, which was widely read, Savary comments on the proper relations between apprentices learning a trade and the masters who owned the shop. Although his views in general were favorable to the chance for personal advancement made possible by commerce, he also retained a clear preference for hierarchy.

A Bread Riot

Bread was the basic staple of most people’s diets, and variations in the price of bread were keenly felt by the poor, especially by women who most frequently bought bread in the marketplace. Women would sometimes protest against what they thought to be unjust price increases for bread in what were known as "bread riots." As this excerpt shows, these were not usually violent, nor did they involve looting, but instead were a collective action designed to force bakers to sell bread at a "just" or "moral" price rather than at whatever price the market would allow. This passage is taken from a well–known chronicle of the reign of Louis XV by Etienne–Joseph Barbier.

Voltaire’s Understanding of Inequality

This passage from François–Marie Arouet, pen–named Voltaire, who was perhaps the best–known writer of the eighteenth century, illustrates the spirit of investigation of the Enlightenment. The philosophes wanted to understand the rationale behind inequality, were particularly interested if there were natural reasons for it, or if inequality came wholly from social conventions. From a well–to–do middle–class background, Voltaire condemned arbitrary inequality and the social conditions that spawned it.

Montesquieu’s Attack on the Nobility

In his Persian Letters, published anonymously and abroad in 1721, Charles–Louis de Sécondat, Baron de Montesquieu, president of the Parlement of Bordeaux and a noble himself, made a scathing critique of nobility that set the tone for the philosophes’ attack on the inequality of eighteenth–century French society.

Beaumarchais’s Understandings of Inequality

Like his predecessors of earlier generations, playwright Pierre–Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais—who became an important figure of the late Enlightenment because of the controversy surrounding his work The Marriage of Figaro [1784]—believed that a truly rational society would not tolerate arbitrary inequality.

Tension between Rich and Poor

The Marquis de Mirabeau, a well–educated nobleman, worried about the migration of French nobles to the cities and the passing of lands into the hands of "new men," wealthy commoners without a sense of paternal obligation toward the peasants on that land. In a 1756 treatise entitled The Friend of Men, or Treatise on Population, he expressed concern about rising tensions between wealthy landowners and poor peasants, which he thought signaled a decline in morality.

Royal Decree Convoking the Estates–General and the Parlementary Response (1788)

By the fall of 1788, parlementary opposition to royal reforms had brought about a stalemate, with the Parlements refusing all reforms to the tax system. To gain the Parlement of Paris’s acceptance of new loans to keep the monarchy from going bankrupt, the new finance minister (Louis XVI’s fifth), Étienne–Charles Loménie de Brienne, decided to convoke an Estates–General for the first time since 1614. In his memoirs, he claims that he sought to keep conservative nobles from dominating the Estates–General and obstructing reforms by giving the Third Estate twice as many deputies as the other orders and by allowing all deputies’ votes to count equally. In this way, he hoped to build a working majority in favor of reform in the Estates–General. This decision was announced by a royal decree of 25 September 1788. The Parlement of Paris accepted this decree. However, it committed what became a major tactical error by demanding that the Estates–General follow the "forms of 1614," meaning that each order should have the same number of representatives rather than allow a "doubling of the Third" and that each estate should vote independently. When this resolution was published, it set off an outpouring of pamphlets and newspapers opposing the Parlements and calling for the Estates–General to vote "by head" rather than "by order."

Sieyès, "What Is the Third Estate?" (1789)

Emmanuel–Joseph Sieyès was born at Fréjus, 3 May 1748. He was educated at a Jesuit school, became a licentiate of the canon law, and was appointed vicar–general by the bishop of Chartres. He first came into prominence with the publication of his pamphlet, "Qu’est ce que le tiers état?" In 1789, he was elected delegate to the Estates–General from Paris, and in the preliminary struggle for organization was made spokesman of the Third Estate. The policy indicated in his pamphlet was one actually carried out in the conservative period of the Revolution. As the Revolution progressed, Sieyès dropped out of sight and had the good fortune to escape death. When asked, at a later period, what he had done during the Terror, he summed up his whole experience in the words: "I existed." In 1795, he again came forward and was appointed member of a commission to draft a new constitution. His views did not obtain prominence in the constitution of 1795, and he refused to accept a position in the directory of the new government. Sieyès took part with Napoleon in the coup d’état of 18 Brumaire and was made one of the provisional consuls with Napoleon and Ducos. Later on he was made a count of the empire and given extensive estates as a reward for his services to France. This marks Sieyès’s final retirement from public life. He fled to Brussels on the second return of the Bourbons, returned after the revolution of 1830, and died in Paris on 20 June 1836.

The Joyous Accord

This allegorical image represents the sentiments of social unity that the National Assembly sought to promote through the Festival of the Federation of 14 July 1790 during the French Revolution. This festival, though technically but a military parade of units from around the country, also implied to most observers the unity of all orders and classes.

General Federation of the French

This image provides a visual overview of the Festival of Federation of 14 July 1790. Commemorating the fall of the Bastille one year earlier this massive military parade of troops from all regions of the kingdom converged on a triple–tiered triumphal arch where all the soldiers swore an oath to serve the king and the National Assembly. The pageant drew nearly a million spectators and represented the apex of the social, geographical and political unity that reformers and early revolutionaries hoped would solve France’s problems. This festival was a powerful counterpoint to those who believed that the social question ultimately would undermine the French Revolution.

Through Me You Are All Brothers

Reflecting the sentiments of the French Revolution, this image shows the three orders unified by religion. The Virgin standing at right in a cloud holds a cross from which rays emanate to three figures representing the clergy, nobility, and Third Estate. A hooded figure with a serpent’s tail, representing the dangerous traditionalism of the old regime, clings to the robes of the priest and noble, holding them back from merging with the nation.


This piece of crockery further demonstrates the sentiments of social unity so prevalent at the 1790 Festival of Federation celebrating the French Revolution. The crossed sword, pike, clerical staff, and bonnet symbolize the union of the nobility, peasants, clergy, and workers, respectively.

Awakening of the Third Estate

With the Bastille being destroyed in the background, a member of the Third Estate breaks his shackles. Here, the clergy and nobility recoil in fear, thereby emphasizing the conflict between the estates during the French Revolution.

I Was Sure We Would Have Our Turn

Class solidarity was never universal, as this print celebrates the victory of the peasantry over the nobility and clergy. The two defeated orders, linked together to create a horse, support the peasant who with his newly-won freedom, carries the result of a hunt--an activity not legal for commoners under the Old Regime. The peasant also proclaims, “Vive le roi [the King]. Vive la Nation.” This indicates that this was published early in the French Revolution, for by 1792, Louis XVI would no longer be popular.

Oath of the New Horaces

Social discrimination against old regime elites continued in this parody of a famous painting prior to the French Revolution, The Oath of the Horatii, by Jacques–Louis David which focused on the courage of three brothers who thrust their arms bravely forward to signal their willingness to sacrifice themselves for their country. In this image, three officers recruited from the nobility offer a weak salute, suggesting their irresolute allegiance to the king and a lack of leadership ability.

We Must Hope That It Will Soon Be Over

A common complaint of pre-revolutionary rural petitions was the abuse of seigneurial dues owed by French peasants to lords supposedly in exchange for protection and supervision. This image demonstrates the view that peasants envisioned their lords not as protectors, but as exploiters who constantly turned the screws on them to extract ever more rent or other payments.

National Assembly Relinquishes All Privileges

This image, part of a series produced to show the most important events of the Revolution, focuses on 4 and 5 August 1789, when the system of privileges came to an end. This legal structure, characteristic of the old regime, guaranteed different rights for different people. Most obviously, nobles had advantages over commoners, but the system was a far more general phenomenon that encompassed guilds, cities, and regions. Almost, everyone participated in this system, but grievances were most obviously directed against the nobility. In destroying privilege, the National Assembly meant to set up a new system, in which every individual was equal before the law. This source is a part of the Legacies of the Revolution source collection.

Decree of the National Assembly Abolishing the Feudal System, 11 August 1789

The abolition of the feudal system, which took place during the famous night session of 4–5 August 1789, was precipitated by the reading of a report on the misery and disturbances in the provinces. The voting was carried in a fervor of enthusiasm and excitement that made some later revision necessary. The decree given here was drawn up during the following days and contains some alterations and important amplifications of the original provisions as passed in the early morning of August 5th.

Abolition of Nobility

The major principle underlying the 4 August decree found legislative expression in the decree of 19 June 1790. Situated in the broader context of the French Revolution, this document legally abolished the nobility, all its privileges, and, as the excerpt demonstrates, those aspects that seemed particularly contrary to reason.

The Welcoming of a Marquis in Hell

Reflecting French Revolutionary sentiments, the image points out the destruction of the nobility, depicting the arrival in Hell of a "marquis" and several other "aristocrats," described in the legend as "conspirators" and "traitors."

The Crushed Aristocracy

This image uses the classical figures of an angel and a cherub to celebrate the achievements of Louis XVI on the base of a statue. The words state that he has destroyed the "aristocracy" and established the liberty of the French people. The monarch’s action is equated with the other great reminder of national emancipation and the French Revolution, the Bastille, seen in the background.

Cahiers—A Parish Cahier

The cahiers de doléances ["lists of grievances"] drawn up by each assembly in choosing deputies to the Estates–General are the best available source of the thoughts of the French population on the eve of the Revolution. This excerpt from a parish cahier in the sénéchaussée of Aix–en–Provence demonstrates that popular unrest stemmed in large part from the privileges enjoyed by nobles and by officeholders, and that such offices were not usually open to the most qualified individuals.

Three Cahiers from Orléans

The cahiers de doléances ("list of grievances") drawn up by each assembly in choosing deputies to the Estates–General are the best available source of the thoughts of the French population on the eve of the French Revolution. The following excerpts from workers’ cahiers in various towns around the kingdom again show an important complaint: that nobles and officeholders enjoyed numerous privileges and that such offices were not usually open to the most qualified members of society.

Cahiers from Rural Districts: Attack on Seigneurial Dues

The petitions from rural communities decried the abuse of seigneurial dues that peasants owed to lords in exchange for which they were supposed to receive protection and supervision. But by 1789, on the verge of the French Revolution, these excerpts demonstrate how peasants had come to see their lords not as protectors, but as creditors, constantly turning the screws on them for ever more rent or other payments.

Departure of the Three Orders for Versailles

Although 14 July 1790 was a high point in the aspiration for unity during the French Revolution, the preparation for the Estates–General set the stage for later problems. In this image, representatives of each of the three orders depart together in a cart for the 1789 meeting of the Estates–General at Versailles, where they will advise the King on behalf of the nation. The social differences depicted here and shown in the cahiers would not long remain under control.

Beware the Wealthy Bourgeoisie

The term "bourgeoisie" had many meanings in eighteenth–century France, from the most literal sense of "citizens of a city" to a more sociological meaning of talented and cultivated members of the Third Estate. Some eighteenth–century writers also used the term to refer to merchants. However, it did not yet connote upper–middle–class status or adherence to certain dominant social norms, as the term would suggest today. In this passage, from the newspaper Révolutions de Paris, the journalist distinguishes between the "bonne bourgeoisie," who he says are "aristocratic" and "monarchist by instinct" and who fear that any political change will cost money, and the "petite bourgeoisie," who are allied with "the people" and have shown themselves to be patriotic supporters of the French Revolution.

Populace Awake

In the view of the most radical commentators, such as those writing for the newspaper Révolutions de Paris, the French Revolution had to be the work of more than just the deputies of the National Assembly; it had to be an effort of the common people. To encourage that effort, the newspaper here calls upon all good patriots to form groups in their towns and villages whose purpose will be to debate the major issues of the day, form opinions on them, and, most important, hold demonstrations so as to make certain that the National Assembly will hear of the input of the "good people" of France and not merely that of the "aristocrats."

Le Chapelier Law

In the spring of 1791, as the National Assembly worked on political and social reforms, workers in Paris took economic matters into their own hands by staging a series of strikes and demonstrations against their employers. To many deputies, most prominently Isaac–René–Guy Le Chapelier, the workers were still thinking in terms of a guild concept, and they were acting on a collective rather than an individual basis. Thus Le Chapelier found their demands for higher wages contrary to what he claimed were the new principles of the French Revolution. To prevent continued associations of workers based on such economic interests, he introduced a measure (passed into law on 14 June 1791) that historians remember by his name, the "Le Chapelier law." It barred craft guilds and would bar trade unions until 1884.

Abuses to Suppress

This French Revolution era print depicts the Third Estate—represented by the peasant at the rear of the chariot, the worker leading the horse, and the merchant driving—delivering to the National Assembly a petition listing "abuses" to be remedied.

Active Citizen/ Passive Citizen

This cartoon mocks the distinction between active and passive citizens. Many revolutionaries hated this difference, essentially dividing those with property from those without. The propertied (active) were the only ones who could participate in the political process.

The Good Sans–Culotte

Reflecting values of the French Revolution, Male and female sans–culottes were supposed to embody frugality, thrift, hard work, and, above all, honest devotion—whether to pets, the nation, or fellow comrades.

Père Duchesne Idealizes the Sans–culottes

The sans–culotte [without the breeches of the wealthy] became the symbol of the committed, patriotic revolutionary everyman. This newspaper article describes the ideal sans–culotte, emphasizing his industriousness as a handicraft worker, his honesty, his simplicity, his willingness to act directly, and above all his commitment to sacrifice for the Revolutionary cause. This description is from a radical newspaper, "Father Duchesne" was, like the sans–culotte, a figure drawn from popular culture: a good–hearted, honest–speaking, hard–working stove repairman who would report to his companions in layman’s terms the strange doings of the wealthy he overheard while in their homes to fix stoves, a luxury item in the eighteenth century.

Manifesto of the Enragés

Jacques Roux, a former priest turned radical French revolutionary, became the leading voice for a group known as the "Enraged," because they expressed constant anger at the unfairness shown toward the ordinary, poor people who made up the bulk of the patriotic citizenry and whose plight Roux demanded the government redress by any means necessary. In this speech to the Convention on 25 June 1793, Roux laid out the basic economic demands of this group: more stringent economic measures against the rich, hoarders, speculators, and profiteers, who should be made to justify themselves to the hard–working, honest patriots for whom Roux claimed to speak. Here Roux explains his understanding of equality and trade.

Inside a Revolutionary Committee during the Reign of Terror

The extremely respectful view of sans–culotte militancy is evident in this image, engraved by the French Revolutionary sculptor Berthault and based on a painting by Fragonard, the son of the famous old regime painter. Imitating an old master’s interior scene, it shows a committee somberly meting out revolutionary justice.

The Carmagnole

Sharing its name with a popular dance, this song heaps scorn upon the queen (Madame Veto), believed to be a traitor, and the "aristocrats" who support her. Like "It’ll Be Okay", the simple tune of the "Carmagnole" permitted even the illiterate to learn lyrics with which to proclaim their conviction in the Revolution’s progress.

President of a Revolutionary Committee Distracting Himself with His Art While Waiting

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The shoemaker shown here is president of his neighborhood revolutionary committee. Although this engraving does not portray a specific political activity, the character evokes hostility toward laborers and artisans who involved themselves in politics. The president hardly seems presidential.

President of a Revolutionary Committee After the Seal Is Taken Off

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Critics of popular action first mastered the art of searing attacks and here sharpen their propaganda skills against this activist worker, who appears to be walking off with his "loot" after the locks have been broken.

Babeuf’s Trial

Long after sans–culotte influence on the government had waned, social conflicts continued to drive some revolutionary events. Throughout 1794 and 1795, urban and rural radicals alike demanded "bread and the constitution of 1793," meaning that the government should feed the people and grant universal male suffrage. One such radical, who took the name Gracchus Babeuf, supposedly organized the "Conspiracy of Equals," a secret group that he hoped to lead in a surprise insurrection to take power and use it to distribute land equally among all citizens. When the "conspiracy" was betrayed, Babeuf was arrested and tried. Before being sentenced and executed, Babeuf offered a statement of his principles and a defense of his action. His attack on private property scandalized many at the time, but others later called him the first socialist. In short, to those who would look back to the French Revolution as the unsuccessful birth of socialist movements, Babeuf would remain an inspiration. To his contemporary critics, who were influenced in part by the Directory’s successful propaganda, Babeuf’s conspiracy demonstrated the instability of the Republic and the need for forceful government repression of popular political activity. In their view, such an approach would ensure stability and prevent a return to the chaos of the Terror.

Attack on Seigneurial Dues

The petitions from rural communities focused in part on the abuse of seigneurial dues owed by peasants to lords for which, in principle, they received protection and supervision. But by 1789, on the verge of the French Revolution, these excerpts demonstrate that peasants considered their lords not as protectors but as exploiters who constantly turned the screws to extract ever more rent or other payments.

4 August Decrees

In late July 1789, as reports of several thousand separate yet related peasant mobilizations poured into Paris from the countryside, a majority of them against seigneurial property, the deputies of the National Assembly debated reforming not just the fiscal system or the constitution but the very basis of French society. In a dramatic all–night session on 4–5 August, one deputy after another stepped forward to renounce for the good of the "nation" the particular privileges enjoyed by their town or region. By the morning deputies of all orders had proposed, debated, and approved even more systematic reform, voting to "abolish the feudal system entirely." In effect, they had decided to eliminate noble and clerical privilege, the fundamental principle of French society since the Middle Ages. Nevertheless, the meaning was unclear, for the "feudal system" had ceased to exist in France several hundred years earlier. Thus working out the details of this decree became a primary objective of the National Assembly for the next two years.

A Democrat, or Reason and Philosophy

This cartoon by the popular British caricaturist James Gillray depicts the British politician Charles James Fox as a sans–culotte. Wearing a cockade in his wig and a bandage on his forehead, the unshaven Fox raises his bloody left hand as he lifts his left leg to break wind. Notice his torn shirt, the bloody dagger in his belt, and the fact that he wears no pants. He sings the popular revolutionary song, "Ça ira!" ["It’ll be okay."]

The Third Estate Marrying Priests with Nuns

The National Assembly also eliminated monasteries during the French Revolution, since monks and nuns had increasingly become figures of ridicule. This image depicts the dissolution of the religious orders, rather than the confiscation of lands, as the crucial element in religious reorganization. It shows "the National Assembly marrying nuns and monks" so they will become productive citizens.

Monks Learning to Exercise.

This image ridicules monks for contributing nothing to society, either economically or demographically, by depicting a group of them being taken from the monastery and drafted into the army, where they hope "to become good citizens" as was expected under religious restructuring during the French Revolution. To bring the clergy under the control of the new government, on 12 July 1790, the National Assembly passed the measure that became known as the Civil Constitution of the Clergy. It targets not Catholicism but past clerical abuses. The measure sought to create a "revolutionary" clergy, which would serve the people rather than rule over them.

Report by the Jacobin Society of Besançon on Refractory Priests

A Jacobin club in Besançon in the Franche–Comté on the eastern borders of France sent this report to the Jacobin Club of Paris on 8 January 1792. The club sees the continuing presence of those who did not take the clerical oath to the new regime ["nonjurors"] as a destabilizing factor and is concerned that their agitation will turn to open resistance. This worry would become more and more widespread in 1793, particularly in the west, but the roots of the problem can be seen here.

Letter from Rabaut de Saint–Étienne to the Minister of the Interior (27 February 1791)

In this document, Jean–Paul Rabaut de Saint–Étienne, a Protestant pastor from Nîmes who had been a deputy to the National Assembly and who would later be elected to the National Convention, warns the central government of the ongoing violence in the Midi and the role of refractory priests and religious issues in that violence. Throughout southern France, revolutionaries and counterrevolutionaries were involved in a struggle for power within the municipalities and more broadly. Rabaut de Saint–Étienne fears what would happen to the Revolution and by implication its supporters if, with help from abroad, counterrevolutionaries should seize control of the region.

Proclamation of the Department of the Seine–et–Oise (9 March 1792)

Despite the radical measures taken by the National Assembly, such as the abolition of nobility and the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, social conflicts continued to manifest themselves after the National Assembly completed its work in 1791. In the document below, we see evidence of continued friction over the circulation of grain and bread. Peasants continued to believe they were not getting all that was due them from urban merchants who bought their grain, while city dwellers continued to attribute the high cost of bread to the hoarding of grain by large landowners in the countryside. The government, seeking always to serve "the people," found itself caught between conflicting constituencies.


From LIBERTY, EQUALITY, FRATERNITY: EXPLORING THE FRENCH REVOLUTION, https://revolution.chnm.org/exhibits/show/liberty--equality--fraternity/social-causes-of-revolution

How to Cite This Source

"Source Collection: Social Causes of the French Revolution," in World History Commons, https://worldhistorycommons.org/source-collection-social-causes-french-revolution [accessed June 30, 2022]