King Louis XVI
's government was blamed for mishandling the fiscal crises in the 1780s.
Historians have pointed to many events and factors within the Ancien Régime that led to the Revolution. Rising social and economic inequality, new political ideas emerging from the Enlightenment, economic mismanagement, environmental factors leading to agricultural failure, unmanageable national debt, and political mismanagement on the part of King Louis XVI have all been cited as laying the groundwork for the Revolution.
Over the course of the 18th century, there emerged what the philosopher Jürgen Habermas called the idea of the "public sphere" in France and elsewhere in Europe. Habermas argued that the dominant cultural model in 17th century France was a "representational" culture, which was based on a one-sided need to "represent" power with one side active and the other passive. A perfect example would be the Palace of Versailles, which was meant to overwhelm the senses of the visitor and convince one of the greatness of the French state and Louis XIV. Starting in the early 18th century the "public sphere" emerged which was "critical" in that both sides were active. Examples of the public sphere included newspapers, journals, masonic lodges, coffee houses and reading clubs where people either in person or virtually via the printed word debated and discussed issues. In France, the emergence of the public sphere outside of the control of the state led to the shift from Versailles to Paris as the cultural capital of France. Likewise, while in the 17th century the court had decided what was culturally good and what was not, in the 18th century the opinion of the court mattered less and consumers became the arbiters of cultural taste. In the 1750s, during the "Querelle des Bouffons" over the question of the quality of Italian vs. French music, the partisans of both sides appealed to the French public "because it alone has the right to decide whether a work will be preserved for posterity or will be used by grocers as wrapping-paper". In 1782, Louis-Sébastien Mercier wrote: "The word court no longer inspires awe amongst us as in the time of Louis XIV. Reigning opinions are no longer received from the court; it no longer decides on reputations of any sort ... The court's judgments are countermanded; one says openly that it understands nothing; it has no ideas on the subject and could have none." Inevitably, the belief that public opinion had the right to decide cultural questions instead of deferring to the court transformed itself into the demand that the public also have a say on political questions as well.
The economy in the Ancien Régime during the years preceding the Revolution suffered from instability. The sequence of events leading to the Revolution included the national government's fiscal troubles caused by an unjust, inefficient and deeply hated tax system – the ferme générale – and by expenditure on numerous large wars. The attempt to challenge British naval and commercial power in the Seven Years' War was a costly disaster, with the loss of France's colonial possessions in continental North America and the destruction of the French Navy. French forces were rebuilt, and feeling bitter about having lost many of France's overseas colonies to the British Empire during the Seven Years' War, Louis XVI was eager to give the American rebels financial and military support. After the British surrender at the Battle of Saratoga, the French sent 10,000 troops and millions of dollars to the rebels. Despite succeeding in gaining independence for the Thirteen Colonies, France was severely indebted by the American Revolutionary War. France's inefficient and antiquated financial system could not finance this debt. Faced with a financial crisis, the king called an Estates General, recommended by the Assembly of Notables in 1787 for the first time in over a century.
France was experiencing such a severe economic depression that there wasn't enough food to go around. Poor harvests lasting several years and an inadequate transportation system both contributed to making food more expensive. As with most monarchies, the upper class was always ensured a stable living, so while the rich remained very wealthy, the majority of the French population was starving. Many were so destitute that they couldn't even feed their families and resorted to theft or prostitution to stay alive. Meanwhile, the royal court at Versailles was isolated from and indifferent to the escalating crisis. While in theory King Louis XVI was an absolute monarch, in practice he was often indecisive and known to back down when faced with strong opposition. While he did reduce government expenditures, opponents in the parlements successfully thwarted his attempts at enacting much needed reforms. The Enlightenment had produced many writers, pamphleteers and publishers who could inform or inflame public opinion. The opposition used this resource to mobilise public opinion against the monarchy, which in turn tried to repress the underground literature.
Many other factors involved resentments and aspirations given focus by the rise of Enlightenment ideals. These included resentment of royal absolutism; resentment by peasants, labourers and the bourgeoisie towards the traditional seigneurial privileges possessed by the nobility; resentment of the Catholic Church's influence over public policy and institutions; aspirations for freedom of religion; resentment of aristocratic bishops by the poorer rural clergy; aspirations for social, political and economic equality, and (especially as the Revolution progressed) republicanism; hatred of Queen Marie-Antoinette, who was falsely accused of being a spendthrift and an Austrian spy; and anger towards the King for dismissing ministers, including finance minister Jacques Necker, who were popularly seen as representatives of the people.
Freemasonry played an important role in the revolution. Originally largely apolitical, Freemasonry was radicalised in the late 18th century through the introduction of higher grades, which emphasised themes of liberty, equality, and fraternity. Virtually every major player in the Revolution was a Freemason and these themes became the widely recognised slogan of the revolution.