Stern, Eric

The American Revolutionary War caused many French citizens to become wary of their government’s monarchical structure. Prior to the revolution, people were categorized into three estates—the first, second, and third. Clergy and noblemen in the first and second estates were highly regarded, and therefore, possessed more rights than the peasants in the third estate. Those in the first and second estates were exempt from taxation; however, the third estate was not. As a result, the revolution largely revolved around issues of social class. In addition, debt from the American Revolutionary War and the Seven Years’ War negatively affected the French economy. In addition to the economic crisis, France peasants grew even angrier from a severe drought in 1788. When the Age of Enlightenment spread across Europe, more citizens began to express their contempt for the current social structure—no longer were they going to tolerate these unfair, feudal laws. As a result, in what is often considered the beginning of the French Revolution, citizens organized a raid on the Bastille in search of weapons. The image above depicts a mob attacking the guards in an attempt to advance toward the building. When Louis XVI asked an advisor if the situation at the jail was a revolt, he responded, “No Majesty, this is a revolution.”

Although there is no sole cause of the French Revolution, it is certain that these uprisings significantly contributed to the introduction of a new structure of nationalism and democracy among the French people. Due to the Age of Enlightenment, art, literature, and reason flooded the French culture with new ideas concerning social change. Neoclassical artists like Marie-Guillemine Benoist impacted the French culture by painting historical genre images that symbolized individualism among women. Because the Enlightenment introduced reason, the Catholic Church slowly became an establishment of the past. And after the beheading of Louis XVI, the French were able to experiment with new styles of government. The aristocracy and feudal lifestyle quickly ended and an ideological shift in social structure occurred—one that provided a newfound power and freedom to the common people. Now all citizens had the opportunity to flourish. The Declaration of the Rights of Man, an influential Enlightenment document, spearheaded economic change with one of its ideas: the amount paid in taxes should directly correlate to one’s wealth. In the revised economic structure, all citizens were taxed. Although the French Revolution incited turmoil among the society’s structure, the decade long fight for equality proved to be a beneficial change, transforming French ideological, social, and economic structures.

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