Before the French Revolution, France was ruled and governed by the king, his Grand Council of ministers, and 13 courts called parliaments. King Louis XVI ruled by “divine right,” believing that he had been put on the throne by the grace of God. France then was one of the most powerful and wealthiest countries, and had a strong army, and even stronger cultural influence. (Plain, 5) Louis XVI and his wife Marie-Antoinette were shielded from the daily lives of the ordinary people in France. When Louis XVI inherited the throne in 1774, he also inherited many problems left behind by the previous king, King Louis XV. The country had been involved in the Seven Years War, also known as the French and Indian War, and was left with many debts of the war.
France was divided into three groups, or estates with their own status and role to play in the country. The First Estate involved religious people in the country. The Second Estate involved all the nobles. These two estates had many privileges, and were the wealthiest group, but were only a small piece of the entire population. The Third Estate was everyone else in the country: the peasants, poor city dwellers, and the “middle class”. The Third Estate was the largest group, and had little to no power, even though it was the largest group. (Connolly, 8) In order to pay off national debts, Louis XVI increased taxes in the Third Estate, which impacted many of their lives. Because of the taxes, industry started to lag, and there were bread shortages in many places. People of the Third Estate relied on bread as their primary source of food, and when the bread ran out or the price increased, many people went hungry and riots broke out. (Plain, 19) Louis XVI shocked many people when he declared war against the British, even though they were already in massive debt because of the Seven Year’s War. King Louis XVI wanted to increase trade with America, and wanted revenge against the British for beating them in the Seven Year’s war. After the American Revolution, many Parisians were fascinated by Benjamin Franklin, the American Ambassador to France. Franklin told of the new American Republic, where representatives obeyed the will of the people. Talk about similar change spread through France.
Louis XVI tried to make reforms by ending the corvée in many provinces, and outlawed the use of torture to gain information. He also granted more rights to Protestants and Jews living in France, and allowed more freedom of press. However, it was becoming harder and harder to govern with a stubborn parliament. In order to pay off debts, Louis tried to impose a tax on all landowners, not just the Third Estate. The parliament of Paris claimed that only a special assembly could approve a tax, an assembly that hasn’t been called in over 170 years, the Estates-General. (French Revolution², 2) The Estates-General was an assembly where representatives of the three Estates could discuss what to do. Through May and into June 1789, the representatives argued about how many votes each Estate should have. The First and Second Estates bent the rules to their advantage, saying that each Estate should have only one vote, ensuring that they would win any conflict two to one. The Third Estate wanted a system of majority votes, since it would give it the most say. On Jun 17, the Third Estate broke away and declared itself the National Assembly, which was a direct offence to the people in power, including King Louis XVI. (Connolly,12)
The National Assembly created a new law that gave only it the power to decide on taxes. Louis XVI banned the National Assembly from its meeting hall upon hearing this. However, on June 20, 1789, the National Assembly responded by moving to the Versailles tennis court across the street and swore the “Tennis Court Oath.” The representatives swore that they would not break apart until they had drafted a constitution for the people of France, guaranteeing rights to the French people....
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