The French RevolutionThe French Revolution (1789-99) violently transformed France from a monarchical state with a rigid social hierarchy into a modern nation in which the social structure was loosened and power passed increasingly to the middle classes. There is considerable controversy over the causes of the Revolution. Marxist scholars emphasize material factors: as the population increased, food supplies grew short; land had become divided into such small parcels that most Frenchmen lived close to the subsistence level; and after 1776 agricultural recession forced property owners to exploit their sources of revenue. Marxists also maintain that commercial prosperity had stimulated the growth of a monied middle class that threatened the position of the established landed aristocracy. Other social historians emphasize the importance of the growing discrepancy between reality and the legally defined social structure, which distinguished men by hereditary or acquired rank and recognized corporate rather than individual
rights. They also emphasize, however, the complexity of French society and question the importance of capitalism.
The first phase of the Revolution was marked by moral and physical violence. The National Assembly established a new legal structure by abolishing privileges, venality, and "feudal" obligations (August 4); formulating a Declaration of Rights (August 26); and specifying basic constitutional principles that left the king as the chief executive officer but deprived him of any legislative power except a suspensive veto. In 1789-91, a comparatively peaceful period, the National Assembly did much to modernize France. Despite the Declaration of Rights, the reformed franchise still excluded the poor; but the public maintained its faith in freedom and unity. In 1791 the call for a clerical oath of loyalty crystallized the conflict between the new sovereignty and traditional loyalties and split the whole country. In 1791-92 the hard-won constitution collapsed.