How the Privileged Classes Influenced the French Revolution


By Lynne Ann HartnettVillanova University

The French Revolution required a matchstick. And that was to be the fall-out of the American Revolution. Colonized people now proposed—with the rhetoric of liberty and equality—to throw off monarchical rule and introduce a new system of government. At the same time, the French involvement in the American Revolution put an unsustainable strain on the French economy.

Statues of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinnette
The reckless spending of the king and queen of France certainly didn’t help their financial problems. (Image: SchiDD/Public domain)

Stuck Between a Rock and a Hard Place

French assistance came on top of reckless spending by the king and queen when growing numbers of subjects were struggling to cope with the drastically rising prices of basic goods, including bread. To make matters worse, a rigid feudal structure made the French clergy and nobility tax-exempt, leaving Louis with limited means to revive his depleted treasury.

The monarch had no choice but to appeal to representatives of the higher orders for help. Instead of rubberstamping a new tax system as Louis requested, the king’s privileged subjects called for a meeting of an “Estates General”, a country-wide representative body that had last met in 1614. The hope was that through this national body, French elites could establish greater liberty and solvency while also making inroads against the monarch’s absolutism.

Portrait of Louis XVI
King Louis XVI was pressured into agreeing with the convening of the national deliberative body. (Image: Joseph-Siffred Duplessis/Public domain)

Brought to a heel, King Louis XVI agreed to convene the national deliberative body. The Parlement de Paris—the main law court—decreed that the Estates General would meet exactly as it had in 1614: each of the three estates of French society; the clergy, the French nobility, and the peasants and merchants would sit separately, and all votes would proceed by order. 

While the Third Estate would have a voice in national affairs, the deck was nevertheless still stacked in favor of the elites. The First and Second Estates, the clergy, and the French nobility formed a natural coalition, a sort of voting bloc or informal caucus, that served as a perennial check on the Third Estate.

The First Act of the French Revolution

A flurry of protests gripped the Parisian society. A clergyman by the name of Abbé Sieyès wrote a profound yet easily understandable pamphlet, titled What Is the Third Estate? Sieyès observed that the Third Estate constituted well over 95% of the population but until now had been accorded no voice in the political order. Beyond the particular complaints, the very experience of freely articulating social grievances helped to politicize whole new groups of French subjects.

When the Estates General opened in May 1789, the number of representatives representing the Third Estate doubled. But voting by order remained, so they still held no more power than it had in 1614. Then, on June 17, 1789, invoking the logic of the clergyman Sieyès, the Third Estate deputies took a truly revolutionary stance: declaring themselves the true representatives of the nation and forming a new National Assembly. In taking this step, they didn’t ask anyone’s permission. Instead, they acted on the belief that the supreme power of the land rested with French citizens, rather than with the king. This was the first act of the French Revolution.

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National Assembly

For a few days, the other orders of the Estates General continued to meet. And on June 20, the king seemingly moved to reclaim sovereignty. That morning, National Assembly members arrived at their usual meeting place only to find the doors locked. 

So, the group moved to a nearby indoor tennis court, where it resolved to hold together, and meet wherever “circumstances required until the Kingdom’s Constitution is established and grounded on solid foundations”.

Over the next week, a growing number of clerical and noble representatives defected from the Estates General to the National Assembly. And on June 27, 1789—only 10 days after the transformation in power began—King Louis XVI formally recognized the new assembly.

Privileged Members

Revolutions are made not by the downtrodden but rather by those who feel their positions are in jeopardy or insufficiently validated. Such was the case here. 

The revolutionary delegates of the National Assembly weren’t members of the working class. Instead, they were the more materially privileged members of the Third Estate. Many of them were professionals and almost all were educated. But they sought to upend the glass ceiling in the social hierarchy they’d encountered at birth. And they succeeded.

The Storming of the Bastille

Upon learning that Louis XVI had recognized the assembly, Parisians took to the streets in joyous celebration. Soon, however, the festivities turned to fresh concern. On July 11, Louis XVI secretly fired his finance minister, Jacques Necker, who was considered a champion of the common man. In addition, massive troop buildups began on the outskirts of the capital. 

Portrait of the storming of the Bastille
The storming of the Bastille took the lives of 98 Parisians and one soldier. (Image: Jean-Pierre Houël/Public domain)

Rumors spread that the king was preparing to suppress the National Assembly. On July 14, a massive crowd made its way to the Bastille fortress. And the fort’s aristocratic commander, Bernard René Jourdan de Launay, made the fateful decision to try to stop them. 

By the end of the day, the people’s numerical advantage, along with the questionable loyalty of some of the fort’s defenders, prevailed over superior firepower. One soldier died defending the Bastille, while 98 Parisians who stormed the stronghold were killed. There was one more casualty as well. 

After de Launay challenged his captors, the victors stabbed him to death, cut off his head, and paraded it on the streets of Paris. The storming of the Bastille confirmed the arrival of ordinary Frenchmen and women to the struggle, bringing broad popular support.

Common Questions about How the Privileged Classes Influenced the French Revolution

Q: How did the American Revolution affect the French Revolution?

The American Revolution was inspired by the notion of liberty and equality which greatly inspired many French citizens. Also, France’s role in the American Revolution put a strain on its economy which already wasn’t in good shape. Ironically, this helped to bring about the French Revolution.

Q: What was the subject of the pamphlet that Abbé Sieyès wrote?

Abbé Sieyès wrote What Is the Third Estate? The pamphlet noted that 95% of the general population made up the Third Estate. But even though they were the overwhelming majority, their voices weren’t heard compared to the voices of those in the First and Second Estates.

Q: What happened at the Bastille fort on July 14?

On July 14, a massive crowd made its way to the Bastille fort. The commander of the fort made the decision to stop them but failed. One soldier was killed along with 98 Parisians. In the end, the victors cut off the head of the commander of the fort and paraded it in the streets.

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