Nearly all the leaders of the revolution were drawn from the numerically small class of the “bourgeoisie” which included merchants, traders, industries, lawyers, doctors and other professional groups.
The merchants and industries lived mainly in the towns, for the feudal conditions of the countryside and special heavy taxation of land had prevented them from purchasing country estates. In the reign of Louis XVI (1774-1792) they were reasonably prosperous. They enjoyed many exemption free taxation, though( to their great annoyance) there exemption were far greater for the nobility and clergy. They usually enjoyed exemption from service in the militia. The owned most of the nonagricultural wealth of the country, being also bankers, moneylenders and the controllers of the rich governing corporation of the towns. With their wealth, they endowed town schools, where their sons received a good education.
But the bourgeoisie had serious causes for discontent. In the first place, they were almost completely excluded from the government of France. In other words, they had very little political power, despite the fact that they were both wealthy and educated. Real political power was concentrated in the hands of the king, the Royal council,a small section of the privileged nobility at Versailles and, in the provinces, the intendants or royal officials.
There was also no prospect of promotion for the bourgeois class in the French army, where the commissioned ranks were the preserves of the nobility. It is no wonder, therefore, that the writings of those great thinkers of the eighteenth century who challenged the existing order, such as Rousseau and Voltaire, found considerable favour with this class.
Besides political grievances the merchants and industrialist had economic grievances. The finances of the government went from bad to worse in the reign of Louis XVI. The cost of France’s assistance to the American in the War of independence (1775-1783).
The blatant extravagance and luxury of the court at Versailles and bad financial management led to a situation in which the expenses of the government far exceeded its income. The government tried to meet the situation by raising huge loans from the nobility, the bourgeoisie and even from the church. This meant a vast increase in the National Debt and, as things became worse a growing uncertainty among the bourgeoisie as to whether they would ever recover their money. Above all, they needed a government whose credit was sound, yet, long before 1789, France was bankrupt. And amidst all this financial chaos the nobility clung obstinately to their exemption from taxation if France had possessed an expanding empire, perhaps the bourgeoisie would have been less discontented, but India and Canada had been lost to great Britain in the seven years war(1756-1763).
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