French Revolution: the tax burden

Exam task

Section B Question 1 – French Revolution

Source image

french revolution


“Using both the source and your own ideas, explain how the grievances of commoners contributed to the development of the French Revolution to August 1789.” (6 marks)

Student response

“These kinds of visuals were common in the late 1780s and they addressed the key issues of debate facing French society. Following Calonne’s conflict with the Assembly of Notables (February 1787) and Brienne’s confrontation with the parlements, whereby both Calonne and Brienne sought to gain aristocratic approval for their fiscal reforms, the privileged estates were effectively able to harness the high levels of popular discontent with the monarchy by portraying themselves as the “champions of the people” (Fenwick and Anderson). In doing so, the popular crowd became politicised and supported the aristocracy in their defiance of royal despotism, as exemplified in the Day of the Tiles at Grenbole (June 1788). Moreover, once the King was forced to call an Estates-General (November 1788), hostilities erupted between the Third Estate and the privileged estates over the question of ‘voting by head’ (as demanded by Abbe Sieyes in “What is the Third Estate?”, January 1789) This cartoon would have been created due to the heightening of political awareness of the general populace in first half of 1789 brought about by the drawing up of the cahiers de doleance as well as the voting process for the Estates General.”


“Explain the usefulness of this source for understanding the causes of the French Revolution to August 1789. In your response, refer to other views and historical perspectives.” (10 marks)

Student response

“The graphic is reliable in a number of ways in presenting the causes of the revolution up to August 1789. By depicting the numerous taxes coming out of the peasant’s pockets, the graphic is reliably depicting the inequalities in relation to taxation, whereby the burden of the taxation fell upon the Third Estate, together with the tithe and feudal dues; in spite of the fact that three quarters of the state’s wealth resided with the First and Second Estate. Moreover, by depicting the privilged estates as indifferent to the Third’s suffering, the graphic is useful in understanding the hostilities that emerged between the Third Estate and the landed wealth at Versailles, whereby the Third Estate insisted on voting by head as they believed that the privileged estates would combine to outvote the Third in regards to protection of privilege. Additionally, the graphic is useful in explaining the influence of the Enlightenment, which highlighted the inequalities in French society and criticised the status of the Third Estate in the ancien regime. However, as a piece of propaganda the graphic fails to depict some of the other causes of the revolution. The graphic fails to address the influence of the financial crisis in causing the revolution. While Doyle argues that the financial crisis itself caused the revolution, Schama avers that the perception of economic problems, not the debts themselves, caused the anxiety and unrest that fuelled the revolution. Either way, the fact that Louis XVI was unable to improve France’s financial situation through the series of failed attempts at reform, led to an increase in revolutionary sentiment and leaving Louis being publicly perceived as an incapable and inept ruler. Moreover, by depicting the Third Estate as a peasant, the document fails to explain how the rise of the bourgeoisie contributed to the revolution, which according to Lefebvre was the primary cause of the French Revolution. After being influenced by revolutionary ideas such as “utility” and “merit,” the bourgeoisie felt they should be able to play a role in the nation’s life matching their talents and abilities, as exhibited in many of the Third Estate’s cahiers. Similarly, the graphic fails to depict the impact of the series of bad harvests throughout the 1780s which resulted in a rise in bread prices (to 88% of a man’s daily wage) and rapid inflation, thereby heightening tensions within French society and contributing to the development of the revolution.”

Teacher feedback

Both answers demonstrate a strong understanding of the revolution and its causes, while both contain some good specific information. The first does not respond directly to the question, however, and there is a sense the student has regurgitated a pre-prepared answer rather than addressing the question. While it’s tempting to do this, it should be avoided, as the assessors do look for a close answer to the question.

The central idea of the source is that the “commoners” (the Third Estate) were carrying the financial burden of the nation. The student’s first response should have begun with this, describing the unfair tax regime, commercial restrictions and seigneurial dues levied on the Third Estate, as well as the privileges enjoyed by the clergy and nobility. Instead, it began with a discussion of the fiscal crisis, rather than the structural problems and inequalities that precipitated it. Remember, your answer should focus on the key terms of the question and the main idea(s) of the source.

The student’s second response is ambitious in length but better focused and more relevant. He/she begins with a summary of the old regime’s fiscal inequalities (this really should have been included in the first response). There is some critical analysis of the source, acknowledging its limited value and its focus on only one or two causes of revolution. The student suggests the source “explains the influence of the Enlightenment”, which is not apparent. The response ends with a good discussion of historians’ perspectives. Together these responses would score in the region of 14 out of 16. Had the first response been more relevant, they may have achieved full marks.

All content on this page is © Alpha History 2016. Content on this website may not be republished or distributed without permission. Subscribers must adhere to the Terms of Use when using Alpha History or its content.