The causes of the French Revolution, the uprising which brought the regime of King Louis XVI to an end, were manifold. France in 1789 was one of the richest and most powerful nations in Europe; only in Great Britain and the Netherlands did the common people have more freedom and less chance of arbitrary punishment. Nevertheless, the ancien régime was brought down, partly by its own rigidity in the face of a changing world, partly by the ambitions of a rising bourgeoisie, allied with aggrieved peasants and wage-earners and with individuals of all classes who were influenced by the ideas of the Enlightenment. As the revolution proceeded and as power devolved from the monarchy to legislative bodies, the conflicting interests of these initially allied groups would become the source of conflict and bloodshed.
Absolutism and privilege
France in 1789 was, at least in theory, an absolute monarchy, an increasingly unpopular form of government at the time. In practice, the king\\\'s ability to act on his theoretically absolute power was hemmed in by the (equally resented) power and prerogatives of the nobility and the clergy, the remnants of feudalism. Similarly, the peasants covetously eyed the relatively greater prerogatives of the townspeople.
The large and growing middle class — and some of the nobility and of the working class — had absorbed the ideology of equality and freedom of the individual, brought about by such philosophers as Voltaire, Denis Diderot, Turgot, and other theorists of the Enlightenment. The example of the American Revolution showed them that it was plausible that Enlightenment ideals about governmental organization might be put into practice. Some of the American revolutionaries, such as Benjamin Franklin, had stayed in Paris, where they were in frequent contact with the French intellectuals; furthermore, contact between the American revolutionaries and the French troops who had assisted them resulted in the spread of revolutionary ideals to the French. Many in France attacked the undemocratic nature of the government, pushed for freedom of speech, and challenged the Catholic Church and the prerogatives of the nobles.
There is controversy over exactly how deeply Enlightenment ideals penetrated the various classes, and over the degree to which these ideals were simply cover for bourgeois self-interest. For example, Karl Marx writing in the Neue Rheinische Zeitung shortly after the Revolutions of 1848 wrote that in both the English Revolution of 1648 and in the French Revolution \\\"the bourgeoisie was the class that really headed the movement. The proletariat and the non-bourgeois strata of the middle class had either not yet evolved interests which were different from those of the bourgeoisie or they did not yet constitute independent classes or class divisions. Therefore, where they opposed the bourgeoisie, as they did in France in 1793 and 1794, [that is to say, during the Reign of Terror] they fought only for the attainment...