Beginning in the 1300s, France experienced social tensions and economic instability that lasted into the nineteenth century. Starting with the Hundred Years’ War and progressing through the American Revolution, France experienced mounting war debts. The monarchy’s common solution was to tax the lower classes, angering the peasants to occasional revolt. Years of a negligent government led to peasants’ anger and resentment toward the French monarchy. On the eve of the French Revolution, famine and economic depression spread across the country. The long-term and immediate instability of France, coupled with the ideals of Enlightenment thinkers, sparked the revolution that French lower classes had desired for centuries.
The predominant causes of peasant revolt in France were the crippling taxes imposed on the Third Estate. Before the French Revolution, the Estate System dominated social status in France. The first two estates, the clergy and nobility, represented only about one-percent of the French population. Combined, they owned about a third of all private property, paid the least in taxes, and held the greatest power in government next to the monarch.
Meanwhile, the Third Estate held all of France’s peasantry and middle class. Despite these citizens being at the low end of the wealth distribution, they paid the most in taxes. The peasantry frequently called for relief, sometimes revolting against the monarchy, but always being stifled before any progress was made. The Jacquerie revolt of 1358 set the tone for future peasant revolts in France. The peasants, rising up against the already oppressive taxes of the time, were crushed by the nobility. With the exception of the monarchy ignoring the revolts, this pattern of oppression lasted until just before the French Revolution.
It is important to recognize why the peasant revolts went on for so long without any progress toward their cause. To do so, it is necessary to understand the nature of the revolts. Rather than an organized movement against the government, the peasants generally acted in an angry mob-like fashion. They were angry and spontaneous, rather than rational and planned. The peasantry needed a sort of leadership. Without someone to channel their anger in the right direction, they simply attacked anyone that stood in their way who seemed like an appropriate target, mainly the nobility. But the revolts were short-lived and weak. Without a reasonable leader, the peasants simply vented their frustration without a true purpose.
A more immediate factor contributing to the outbreak of revolution was the social and economic instability in France during the late-eighteenth century. After fighting a number of wars, France faced a mountain of debt. Without a national currency, the government could not...