It is impossible here to explore the complex question of the origins of the French Revolution. Dale Van Kley has made a compelling case that religious debates themselves, and above all the writings of Jansenists, were of central importance in 'desacralizing' the monarchy and thus delegitimizing the ancien régime. Other historians have argued that any such desacralization was far less profound in its impact than Van Kley contends; and that insofar as it did exist, it was a much longer-term phenomenon, by no means specific to the late eighteenth century.4 In any case, the grave fiscal crisis of the 1780s that placed the French state on the brink of bankruptcy (engendered in large measure by France's involvement in the American Revolution) and the failure of leadership by King Louis XVI were probably far more important in initiating the events of 1789 than the impact of religion or ideology.
When the deputies to the Estates General arrived in Versailles in May of that year, summoned by the king to advise him on the crisis, few of them anticipated the sweeping transformations of the French clergy which would soon be instituted. To be sure, on the basis of their pre-revolutionary writings and personal correspondence, a number of the commoner deputies of the 'Third Estate' appear to have held strongly anticlerical sentiments and personal beliefs close to deism. Yet, as many of the eighteenth-century philosophical
Was this article helpful?