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French Revolution


History >> French Revolution

The French Revolution began in 1789 with the Storming of the Bastille. Over the next 10 years. the government of France would be in turmoil, the king would be executed, and groups of revolutionaries would battle each other for power. But what caused the revolution to occur in the first place?

Before the Revolution

Cartoon of the French Three Estates or Orders
A Commoner (Third Estate) Carrying the
Nobility and Clergy on his back
Trois Ordres by M. P. 1789
Source: Bibliothèque nationale de France
To understand what caused the French Revolution, we have to understand what France was like before it all happened. France was a monarchy ruled by the king. The king had total power over the government and the people. The people of France were divided into three social classes called "estates." The First Estate was the clergy, the Second Estate was the nobles, and the Third Estate was the commoners. Most of France belonged to the Third Estate. There was little chance for people to move from one estate to another.

Major Causes

There wasn't one event or condition that led to the French Revolution, but, rather, a number of factors came together to cause a perfect storm leading to the revolt of the people against the king.

Debt and Taxes

In 1789, the French government was in a major financial crisis. The king had borrowed heavily to maintain a lavish lifestyle. Also, the government had borrowed to fight Great Britain in the Seven Years' War and to help the Americans in the Revolutionary War.

With such great debt, the king had no other option than to try and raise taxes. The commoners of France (the Third Estate) had to pay the majority of the taxes. The nobles and the clergy were largely exempt from paying taxes. Higher taxes angered the common people, especially since the nobles didn't have to pay their share.

Famine and Bread Prices

France was experiencing famine at the time. The common people mostly ate bread to survive. However, the cost of bread skyrocketed and people were hungry and starving.

Portrait of King Louis XVI of France
King Louis XVI by Antoine Callet
Changes in Culture

For hundreds of years the people of France had blindly followed the king and accepted their place in life. However, in the 1700s, the culture began to change. The "Era of Enlightenment" presented new ideas such as "liberty" and "equality." Also, the American Revolution represented a new type of government where the people ruled rather than a king.


Before the Storming of the Bastille, King Louis XVI had been losing power within the French government. He was a weak king and didn't realize how bad the situation was for the commoners in France. The members of the Third Estate formed the National Assembly to force the king to make reforms. Not only was the king in conflict with the commoners, but the king and the nobles could not agree on reforms.

Interesting Facts about the Causes of the French Revolution Activities

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  • More on the French Revolution:

    Timeline and Events
    Timeline of the French Revolution
    Causes of the French Revolution
    Estates General
    National Assembly
    Storming of the Bastille
    Women's March on Versailles
    Reign of Terror
    The Directory
    Famous People of the French Revolution
    Marie Antoinette
    Napoleon Bonaparte
    Marquis de Lafayette
    Maximilien Robespierre

    Symbols of the French Revolution
    Glossary and Terms

    Works Cited

    History >> French Revolution

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