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During the turbulent and unstable years of the French Revolution, there were many changes in the aims and ideologies of the revolutionaries. The Storming of the Bastille on 14 July 1789 sparked off events that caused the upheaval of French society, as the three Estates sought to protect and advance their interests. Many factors influenced the changing of the revolutionaries aims, and perhaps none more so than the abolishment of the constitutional monarchy. From the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, it can be assumed that the aims of the revolutionaries in 1789 were for the benefit of the French people of every class, but the desire for exclusive political power had undermined this.
With mounting social and economic unrest, the French monarchy was under constant scrutiny in the years prior to the Revolution. The Enlightenment had served to cause a change in perception of the French people, from the nobility to even common artisans. The blind faith in the Aristocracy was waning, and the Third Estate, the majority of the population, had much cause to complain. The Third Estate enjoyed few privileges, and were subject to feudal obligations and heavy direct and indirect taxes (e.g. taille and gabelle) as well as the hated corvee royale. The peasants’s lives were ruled by the seigneurial obligations, the payment of tithes, and the scarcity and expenses of common essentials such as bread heightened the dislike for the monarchy who led extravagant lifestyles. The peasant class sought only to improve their standard of living.
The bourgeoisie felt an increasing sense of frustration as opportunities for social and employment advancement were limited. The nobility and clergy occupied the higher social classes, and had the privilege of birth, but the business leaders of the Third Estate could not penetrate those circles. While the general consensus among the bourgeoisie was for a constitutional monarchy, they also desired a more significant say in the running of France. The heavy taxation on the Third Estate was regarded as unfair, and the bourgeoisie desired a system of taxation that was based on equality. With the meeting of the Estates-General, the representatives of the Third Estates aimed to address these issues of the ancien regime that affected them.
The Second Estate, the Nobility, in favour of the Estates-General, sought only to further their own interests. In the economic crisis of 1769, King Louis XVI attempted to pass reforms that would remove some of the Nobility’s tax exemptions. The Nobility revolted, which contributed to the king calling a meeting of the Estates-General. Therefore we can deduce that the motives of the Nobility in 1789 were solely to preserve their privileges.
The Declaration of the Rights of Man was drawn up, and in it was the general principles that reflected the liberal and enlightened thinking of the French population in 1789. The Declaration righted many of the complaints from all three Estates. The Night of 4 August 1789, saw the ending of class privileges. The manorial system in which peasants were tied to their landlords through obligations and fees were gone, as was the corvee and all tithing to the church. The nobility and the clergy gave up their exemptions from taxation.
Various factors explain the radical shift in the revolutionaries aims. One significant issue was the popular support of sans-cullotes to the Jacobin Club. The sans-cullotes had an increasing influence on the course of the Revolution, and often achieved their goals by violent means. Jacobin leaders like Robespierre endorsed their extreme measures in the summer of 1792 to overthrow the Girondins, an opposition to the Jacobins. The King was also partly responsible for the failings of the Monarchy, and the rise of the Republic. His decisions to use his veto against legislation that seemed to threaten the interests of the Nobility and Clergy, portrayed him as a biased ruler. He was also found to have had secret dealings with the Revolution’s enemies.
When the Royal Family attempted to flee from Paris to Austrian territory in June 1790, they were captured in Varennes. The effect was catastrophic for the monarchy. Brought back in humiliation to Paris, it finally proved that the King could not be trusted. For the first time, the aims of the revolutionaries shifted to the establishment of a democratic republic, and the abolition of the constitutional monarchy. The Jacobin Club, a radical political force now led by Maximilien Robespierre, was at the head of the calls for a republic. Petitions by the radicals and the sans-culottes were sent demanding the King be put on trial for treason. The King had not been embracing of the Revolution, and his actions to counter it led to his execution on 21 January 1793.
In conclusion, the aims of the French revolutionaries had gone through a series of radical changes from 1789 to 1793. From the Storming of the Bastille to the Declaration of the Rights of Man, the motives for the Revolution were generally moderate: to improve the standard of living, and promote equality and fairness. However, this was marred by the three Estate’s only looking only after their own interests, and the power struggle between revolutionary leaders. From the end of 1789, the motives of the leading revolutionaries grew increasingly radical and repressive, and in the ensuing Terror thousands would yet lose their lives in the name of the Revolution after 1793.