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French Revolution
French Revolution

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2 Death of the Old Regime

2.1 The bankrupt monarchy

The immediate cause of the Revolution was that the French monarchy faced imminent bankruptcy. (This was partly because of the enormous sums it had spent assisting the American Revolution between 1778 and 1781 in order to discomfort the traditional enemy, Britain.) Neither nobility nor clergy paid direct tax. Without the consent of the established orders of society to a reorganization of the tax burden so as to restore its finances, the government could no longer function. Successive ministers tried to win over influential sections of the nobility to various reform proposals, with inconclusive results. In 1788 the helpless King Louis XVI was advised to turn for help to the nation as a whole in the shape of its representatives duly elected and convened in ancient form: the Estates-General.

On 5 May 1789, this body was therefore assembled at Versailles for the first time since 1614. It consisted of elected representatives of the three orders or estates of the realm: clergy, nobility and the Third Estate, or commoners, the remaining 95 per cent of the population. The representatives of the Third Estate were mainly officials, lawyers, landowners and merchants. If the precedent of 1614 was followed, each of the orders would assemble separately, and if the clergy and nobility voted as estates, they could outvote the Third Estate by two to one. In 1789, however, ‘nobody knew what the Estates-General would do … There was a complete vacuum of power. The French Revolution was the process by which this vacuum was filled’ (Doyle, 2001, p. 36).