French Revolution 1: Ancien Regime

The French Revolution desired to replace the ancien régime ("the old or former regime", that is, the absolute monarchy and associated institutions) with a Republic in which the non-noble classes could be equal participants. In the old system, France was divided into Three Estates:

Louis XVI, by Duplessis

Marie Antoinette, by Vigée-Le-Brun

The grievances of the lower classes were many. Louis XIV, who died in 1715, ominously predicted the troubles of the 18th century when he said "Après moi, le déluge" ("After me, the flood"). There was great financial instability. Public debt was quite high, even though government spending continued at great pace in a series of wars. Nobility resisted tax reform. The king resisted any controls placed on him. Those in power generally resisted reforms of the legal and judicial systems that kept them in power.

The French reformers were greatly inspired by the American Revolution, which seemed to prove the superiority of the republican form of government. Reform ideas from the Americans included a moral imperative to overthrow tyranny, "no taxation without representation," and the inalienable rights of citizens.

Matters came to a head in the reign of Louis XVI (1754-1793), an unpopular monarch often painted as vain and clueless about the troubles of his people. In 1770 he married Marie Antoinette (1755-1793), daughter of the Austrian Empress Maria Theresa, and came to the throne in 1774. Louis XVI proved unable to cope with financial troubles and scandals involving his ministers.

Part 2: Reforms

Websites of Interest

Liberty, Equality, Fraternity. Exploring the French Revolution
American Social Productions, Inc. A rich site full of original documents and interpretative essays. The principal authors are Lynn Hunt and Jack Censer.
Rodney Hilton provides a brief summary, part of Peder Larson's French Revolution Home Page
Biography of Louis XVI

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Last update: July 3, 2003
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