French revolution (1789) is one of the greatest events not only in the history of France and Europe but also in the history of the world at large. It gave humanity the message of freedom, equality, and social justice and paved new roads leading towards the protection of human rights and self-respect of all individuals without any discrimination of caste, class, community, region, race, and gender.
It affected all the social classes prevailing in Europe, particularly the lower classes of the continent, and left an indelible impact on the pages of history.
The revolution was actually a strong reaction of the exploitation and despotism had been inflicted upon the poor classes by the despot kings, cruel nobility, and hypocrite clergy, which united the deprived and the suppressed people under one banner to fight for their rights related to social justice and equality.
Hence, the most dominant cause behind the revolution was the unequal distribution of wealth, resources, opportunities, and status. On the eve of the French revolution, European society had been divided into nobility, clergy, and peasantry, among which the first two strata were the privileged one and exploited the unprivileged classes, especially the peasantry.
Both nobility and clergy made only one percent of the French population but enjoyed over ninety-five percent of the resources and wealth of the country. They were the privileged part of society and were free from paying any taxes to the state or government.
The taxes were only for the middle, and lower classes consisted of shop-keepers, teachers, laborers, and peasants, among which the poor peasantry was the most wretched community of society and was always looked down upon. They had to bear severe punishments on very petty matters from the nobles.
They had to pay a significant part of their income to the clergy and nobility as taxes and were bound to salute them whenever they passed near them on the road. Over eighty percent of their income was deducted in paying different taxes to the state. These taxes included taille or land tax, vingteime or income tax, gabelle or salt tax, corvee or road tax, and much more.
Their kitchen seldom had wine or meat even in the winter season. Many of them did not have adequate shoes in chilly cold and had to work bare-footed in the fields to earn their bread. It has been estimated that after paying all the dues, the French peasant was left with only about 19% of his total income. With the best of their harvest, they were found themselves unable to make both ends meet.
A dry summer or a long winter completely destroyed them. (Mahajan, 2001: 23). It was not only the condition with French peasantry, but also this stratum faced almost the same cruelties all over Europe. Their exploitation existed in every country in Europe. They had to labor hard to keep the wolf from the door.
The peasantry worked in the fields of the landlords without claiming any compensation against their labor. The peasantry was not allowed to enter into marital-knot even without the permission of the landlord in Russia. The farmers were also maltreated in Prussia, Austria-Hungary, England, and Turkey before the French revolution.
The French revolution brought the happy news of reformation and improvement in their life. It gave the suppressed classes the new ray of hope of liberty and security in life.
The fall of Bastille on 14th July 1789 was not only the fall of Ancien Regime of King Louis XVI, but also it felled down the age-old wretchedness, injustice, discrimination and exploitation of the individuals and mitigated the differences between the privileged and unprivileged at national level, which wide opened new avenues of reforms in the future years to come.
The demarcation between haves and haves-not had created despair and discouragement among the farmers. They had to cultivate the piece of land by continuous toil and got almost nothing in the end. The middle classes of France raised their voice in the name of reforms and demanded some social reforms in the society before the beginning of the French revolution.
It seriously perturbed the nobility and clergy, and they started threatening the middle classes and refused their claim of sitting in the parliament as one single body. The Third Estate consisted of the middle and lower classes, which looked for social reforms and preparation of laws to provide all the people an opportunity of equal growth, but the king and the privileged deputies refuted their demands.
Hence, they started their struggle against the cruel policies prevailing under a monarch, and it gave motivation to the general public. Consequently, the people stood up against the monarch, fought bravely for the cause of individual liberty, got their recognition in the parliament, and won freedom from despotism. The laws were passed, and all the individuals were declared equal in the eyes of the law.
The whole scenario and lifestyle got significant alteration, which affected all the classes and communities of not only France but also influenced the societies of all Europe at that time. National customs, traditions, and maltreatment of the peasants were abolished in France.
Serfdom and slavery were condemned, and the equal status of the citizens was admitted and announced by the Directory. The poets, writers, philosophers, intellectuals, and painters depicted the images of liberty and equality in their works all over Europe, which influenced the condition of peasantry and labor classes in all parts of the continent.
The French revolution was, in fact, the emergence of a new political set up in which people shared equal status and opportunities to grow. All the European governments announced new and comfortable schemes which were beneficial for the public in general and the peasantry in particular. The European monarchs were afraid of revolts and revolutions in their country.
The King of Prussia introduced the Edict of Emancipation, which viewed the agricultural reforms and new methods of tax collections. It also defined the application of taxes from all classes. Czar Alexander I of Russia emancipated the serfs of the northern provinces of the country and introduced many reforms for their betterment.
Since the Prussians had acknowledged that no neighboring country was interested in supporting the unification; rather, their policies were continuously weakening Prussia by creating differences and suppressing peoples’ voice for reformation plans.
C A Leads. European History Sixth Edition M&E Books 1989
V. D. Mahajan. International relations Since 1900. S. Chand & Company Limited. Ramnagar India 2001