Historians have long debated the causes of the French Revolution. Perhaps this is because it was a result of a multitude of factors as opposed to just a single one. A combination of several social, political and economic causes led to upheaval of the Ancien Régime, the system of law and government in France prior to the French Revolution in 1789.
During the eighteenth century, French society was divided into three classes, or estates: the clergy, nobility and the common people. The clergy came to be called the First Estate while the nobility and the common people came to be called the Second and Third Estates, respectively. This social system in France was so corrupt that the few, the First and Second Estates, held all the power while the majority, the Third Estate, was left to suffer. The first two estates had many privileges over the Third Estate, the most important of which was that they paid fewer taxes. The intendants who were in charge of collecting taxes from the administrative districts that France was divided into often bent the rules at will for family or friends because of the enormous power they had. As a result, those who did not have much to begin with were burdened with even more taxes (Young). In addition, they had certain expenditures, such as the one which prevented peasants from killing animals that destroyed their crops simply so that they could be preserved as game for the nobles. Moreover, they also controlled the courts and the local government (Young). Emmanuel Joseph Sieyes, a French clergyman and political writer at the time, described the government as “the patrimony of a particular class, it has been distended beyond all measure ; places have been created not on account of the necessities of the governed, but in the interests of the governing … (Sieyes). However, a few commoners took advantage of the new trading opportunities and industries at the time and were thus able to gain considerable knowledge, wealth and power. Some were even able to buy noble positions (The Causes of the French Revolution). As a result, the bourgeoisie, as this group came to be called, ended up leading the entire Third Estate in a social revolution against the large disparity between the nobility and the common people resulting from the rigid social structure established during the Middle Ages.
In addition, ideas from the Enlightenment helped generate ideas of liberty and equality among the general populace of France. Although Enlightenment philosophers did not call for a violent revolution, their ideas did challenge the status quo at the time (Taylor). For example, John Locke’s idea that taking up arms against tyranny was right and that all men should have certain rights were ones that appealed to the French. These ideas, in turn, helped create a new, revolutionary mindset among the people. Hence, new Enlightenment ideas about politics and society helped leaders define issues and seek solutions.