Feudalism: of disconnect between the people and the monarchy.

The Catalyst for the French Revolution

            **INTRO** The outdated feudal system
in France, which perpetuated the exploitation of peasants and was harmful to
the common people of France, was the most important factor that led to the French
Revolution. Alexis de Tocqueville’s analysis of the key causes of the French
Revolution coupled with Abbe Sieyes’s account of the continued oppression of
the third estate despite its hard work reveal that the central most cause of the
French Revolution was the feudal system.

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            Throughout the 18th century,
tensions in France continued to rise as the societal and economic problems
became more apparent and frustrating to the French people. The feudal system in
France, composing of the first, second, and third estate, was becoming
increasingly more divided as disdain between the estates grew.1
In addition to the division between classes, there was also a large amount of
disconnect between the people and the monarchy. Monarchs were unable or
unwilling to deal with social realities and problems, which was further
revealed as bad harvests in 1787 and 1788 began a manufacturing depression and
led to starvation, fast rising prices, and unemployment.2
As ideas of philosophes spread and parlement stubbornly avoided reform, tensions
continued to rise.3 In
the late 1780s, the French economy went into a tailspin, with the government
gravely in debt and prices of necessities soaring. The French government soon
owed nearly 4 billion livres in debt, but the existing government had neither
the resources nor will to solve the crisis.4
This financial crisis was the immediate spark for the revolution, leading to an
Estates-General that led to four consecutive government assemblies that brought
about the Reign of Terror, leading to extensive death and bloodshed. This
turmoil was long lasting and devastating for many citizens, and it begs the question:
what was the most important cause of the revolution?

            Alexis de Tocqueville argued there
were three main causes of the French Revolution: feudalism, the nobility, and
the absolute monarchy in France; however, the his text itself suggests the most
important cause was the feudal system.5
He describes, the feudal system which “while retaining the characteristics
which made it so irksome to, and so much resented by, the masses, had most
completely disregarded all that could benefit or protect them.”6
Tocqueville underscores the fact that the feudal system no longer benefits the
majority, the third estate, but instead exploits them. Labor taxes, the
mandatory tithe, food shortages, massive inflation, and increasingly bad
conditions with no government aide are prime examples of what to which the
third estate was being subjected. Tocqueville also mentions the French nobility,
whose ineptitude and isolation would not have been as amplified without the
feudal system that enabled them to separate from the rest of the estates.
Tocqueville himself underscores this point, stating “while ceasing to be a
ruling class, they had remained a privileged, close group, less and less… an
aristocracy and more and more a caste.”7
Tocqueville highlights how the feudal structure held in place even after those
within it were not filling out their intended purposes, instead only reaping
the benefits. Finally, Tocqueville highlighted how through intense
centralization and no representation for the people, the French monarchy played
a role in the relatively easy downfall of its own government. Again, the feudal
system can be blamed for this absolute monarchy. The foundation of the three
estates allowed France to build an absolutist, overly centralized rule, leading
to its eventual downfall. It is clear that without the shaky foundation of
feudalism, these detrimental causes would have been far weaker and most likely
not led to Revolution. The three estates, which continued exploitation of
peasants and divisions between classes, created hatred of the government and
fuel for a revolution to begin. The third estate’s disdain for the government
and higher classes created tensions that exploded during the French Revolution.

            In “What is the Third Estate?” by Abbe
Sieyes, it is clear the level of unhappiness and dissatisfaction the third
estate felt. Sieyes said, “What is the Third Estate? Everything. What has it
been thus far in the political order? Nothing. What does it demand? To be
something.”8 Sieyes
captures the common sentiment of the third estate, the desire to have their
voice heard. Making up 98% of the population, the third estate was by far the
largest estate, but still had no representation or voice in policy.9
Impoverished due to massive inflation and the lack of government aide,
oppressed by labor taxes and tithes, the third estate was carrying a burden the
weight of a nation with no help from the other classes. As Sieyes comments, the
third estate performs all the “efforts which sustain society,” but yet were continually
excluded from moving up in society and not given the respect they deserved.10
Sieyes describes this exclusion as “a social crime against the Third Estate.”11
The feudal system was the foundation of this inequality and division, which
grew increasingly stark as time progressed. This system furthered separation of
the peasants from the nobility and clergy, preventing peasants from moving up in
the ranks which increased hostility.12
The feudal system left behind outdated policies, including the payment of fees to
use community facilities, tithes to the clergy, and the nobility’s right to
hunt of peasants’ land.13
Many became increasingly frustrated with the feudal system, which granted privileges
on a rigid social order based on the concept of estates with no chance of
moving up based on merit.14
All of these frustrations and inequalities were based around the antiquated
foundation of the feudal system.

            It is clear that the feudal system
was the most important leading factor to the French Revolution, creating animosity
between classes and allowing those in power to hoard it from others who it
should rightfully belong to. Though some may argue the isolated nobility or absolute
monarchy were most important in causing the French Revolution, both of these problems
stem back to the shaky feudalistic system the country was founded on. It was
the feudal system that allowed nobles to take all the privileges while exerting
no work, the feudal system that allowed monarchs to have unchecked power and
control.15 In
fact, the very first act of the French Revolution was destroying the old
regime, beginning with the class system it had held for so many years.16
The Revolution was officially spurred by the Fall of Bastille, when peasants
had taken to the streets to fight against the oppression and inequalities
facing the third estate.17
It is often said that actions speak louder than words. In this case, it is
clear that the feudal system was the primary cause of the French Revolution.




1 Spielvogel, Jackson J. Western Civilization: Since 1300, 10th
ed. Stamford: Cengage, 2016, 563

2 Spielvogel, Western Civilization Since 1300, 565

3 Spielvogel, Western Civilization Since 1300, 565

4 Spielvogel, Western Civilization Since 1300, 565

5 Alexis de Tocqueville, The Old Regime and the French Revolution
(USA: Doubleday, 1983), 203

6 Tocqueville, The Old Regime and the French Revolution, 203

7 Tocqueville, The Old Regime and the French Revolution, 204


8 Sieyes, as quoted in Spielvogel, Western Civilization Since 1300, 566

9 Class notes, Down w the old regime

10 Abbe Sieyes, “What is the Third
Esate?”, 1789, Modern History Sourcebook, **LINK?**


12 Spielvogel, Western Civilization Since 1300, 565

13 Spielvogel, Western Civilization Since 1300, 564

14 Spielvogel, Western Civilization Since 1300, 564

15 Spielvogel, Western Civilization Since 1300, 565