• The French Revolution was an influential period of social and political upheaval in France that lasted from 1789 until 1799. Inspired by liberal and radical ideas, the Revolution profoundly altered the course of modern history, triggering the global decline of theocracies and absolute monarchies while replacing them with republics and democracies. Through the Revolutionary Wars, it unleashed a wave of global conflicts that extended from the Caribbean to the Middle East. It was one of the most important events in human history.

(A) Causes of Revolution:

(1) Social Inequality:

  • The population of France in the 1780s was about 26 million, of whom 21 million lived on agriculture. Few of these owned enough land to support a family and most were forced to take on extra work as poorly paid labourers on larger farms. There were regional differences but, by and large, French peasants were generally better off than those in countries like Russia or Poland. Even so, hunger was a daily problem which became critical in years of poor harvest and the condition of most French peasants was poor.
  • The fundamental issue of poverty was aggravated by social inequality as all peasants were liable to pay taxes, from which the nobility could claim immunity, and feudal dues payable to a local seigneur or lord.
  • Similarly, the destination of tithes which the peasants were obliged to pay to their local churches was a cause of grievance as it was known that the majority of parish priests were poor and the contribution was being paid to an aristocratic, and usually absentee, abbot.The clergy numbered about 100,000 and yet they owned ten percent of the land.
  • As an institution, the Church was both rich and powerful. As with the nobility, it paid no taxes and merely contributed a grant to the state every five years, the amount of which was self-determined. The upper echelons of the clergy had considerable influence over government policy.
  • Dislike of the nobility was especially intense. Successive French kings and their ministers had tried with limited success to suppress the power of the nobles but, in the last quarter of the 18th century, “the aristocracy were beginning once again to tighten their hold on the machinery of government”.
  • The emergence of an influential Bourgeoisie which was formally part of the Third Estate (commoners) but had evolved into a caste with its own agenda and aspired to political equality with aristocracy.

French nobility is generally divided into the following classes:

(a)The Nobles of the Sword:

  • They were the noblemen of the oldest class of nobility in France dating from the Middle Ages and the Early Modern periods, but still arguably in existence by descent. This was originally the knightly class, owing military service in return for the possession of feudal landed estates.
  • In later centuries, a nobleman of the sword was only recognized as such if his family had held this status for at least four generations. The nobles of the sword also provided non-military services to the king.
  • However, from the Renaissance on kings upset the old nobility by the creation of a new “nobility of the robe”, the first such men coming into the nobility through their own merit, by being appointed to various judicial or administrative offices, and later members buying the offices which carried such status. This angered the nobles of the sword, who saw their own opportunities being lost to the bourgeoisie.
  • In the 17th century the nobility of the sword began to demand that the new nobility of the robe be limited in its access to the court, but to maximize its income the government of the French Kings continued to sell even more positions, causing conflict within the two groups of the nobility.This trend had other benefits for the monarchy, as it reduced the power of the old nobility and made it less able to revolt against the Crown.
  • However, the nobility of the sword continued to provide much of the officer class of the French army and navy, so the kings of France needed to maintain good relations with them.
  • The French nobility was always divided into those who had the right to carry a sword and those who did not. In the seventeenth-century, the nobles of the robe did not have this right, making the distinction between the nobility of the sword and the nobility of the robe very clear.
  • Nobles of the sword, who had greater prestige, were given control of the French provinces and were seen to hold power at Versailles. The members of the nobility of the robe, however, bought their positions, and had a higher income than most nobles of the sword.

(b) Nobles of the Robe or Nobles of the Gown:

  • They were French aristocrats whose rank came from holding certain judicial or administrative posts. As a rule, these positions did not of themselves give the holder a title of nobility, such as baron, count, or duke, but were almost always attached to a specific function. The offices were often hereditary.
  • The most influential of them were the 1,100 members of the thirteen parlements, or courts of appeal. They were distinct from the “Nobles of the Sword”, whose nobility was based on their families’ traditional function as the knightly class, and whose titles were usually attached to a particular feudal fiefdom, a landed estate held in return for military service.
  • Together with the older Nobles of the Sword, the Nobles of the Robe made up the Second Estate in pre-revolutionary France.
  • Nobles of the Robe played key roles in the French Enlightenment. The most famous, Montesquieu, was one of the earliest Enlightenment figures. During the French Revolution, the Nobles of the Robe lost their place when the parlements and lower courts were abolished in 1790.

(2) Financial and Economic Crisis:

  • France in 1787, although it faced some difficulties, was one of the most economically capable nations of Europe. The French population exceeded 28 million; of Europe’s 178 to 188 millions, only Russia had a greater population. France was also among the most urbanized countries of Europe, the population of Paris was second only to that of London. Other measures confirm France’s inherent strength. France had 5.3 million of Europe’s approximately thirty million male peasants. Its area under cultivation, productivity per unit area, level of industrialization, and gross national product (about 14% of the continental European product, excluding Russia, and 6–10 percent above the level elsewhere in Europe ) all placed France near the very top of the scale. In short, while it may have lagged slightly behind the Low Countries, and possibly Switzerland, in per capita wealth, the sheer size of the French economy made it the premier economic power of continental Europe.

(a) Debt:

  • It was debt that led to the long-running financial crisis of the French government. It is said that before the revolution, the French debt had risen from 8 billion to 12 billion livres. Extravagant expenditures on luxuries by Louis XVI, whose rule began in 1774, were compounded by debts that were run up during the reign of his even-more-profligate predecessor, Louis XV (who reigned from 1715 to 1774).
  • Economic crisis was due to the rapidly increasing costs of government and to the overwhelming costs incurred by fighting two major wars: the Seven Years’ War and the American Revolutionary War. These costs could not be met from the usual sources of state revenue. Since the 1770s, several attempts by different ministers to introduce financial stability had failed.
  • Louis XV and his ministers were deeply unhappy about Britain’s victory in the Seven Years’ War and, in the years following the Treaty of Paris, they began drawing up a long-term plan that would involve constructing a larger navy and building an anti-British coalition of allies. In theory, this would eventually lead to a war of revenge and see France regain its colonies from Britain. In practice, it resulted in a mountain of debts.

(b) Taxation:

  • In the matter of assessment of taxes there were 3 evils, ” privilege, concession and exemption“. In the matter of collection there were ” extravagance, waste and corruption“.
  • Louis XVI, his ministers, and the widespread French nobility had become immensely unpopular. This was a consequence of the fact that peasants and, to a lesser extent, the poor and those aspiring to be bourgeoisie, were burdened with ruinously high taxes levied to support a wealthy monarchy, along with aristocrats and their sumptuous, often gluttonous lifestyles.
  • Because of some political inertia at the head of the state since the reign of Louis XIV, but also because of often approximately determined and unstable land boundaries, France used to raise most of its tax revenue internally, with a notable deficit regarding external customs tariffs.
  • Taxes on commerce consisted of internal tariffs among the regions of France. This set up an arbitrary tax-barrier at every regional boundary, and these barriers prevented France from developing as a unified market. Collections of taxes, such as the extremely unpopular salt tax, the gabelle, were contracted to private collectors (“tax farmers“), who, like all farmers, preoccupied themselves with making their holdings grow. So, they collected, quite legitimately, far more than required, remitted the tax to the State, and pocketed the remainder. These unwieldy systems led to arbitrary and unequal collection of France’s consumption taxes.
  • Peasants were also required to pay a tenth of their income or produce to the church (the tithe), a land tax to the state (the taille), a 5% property tax (the vingtieme), and a tax on the number of people in the family (capitation). Further royal and seigneurial obligations might be paid in several ways: in labor (the corvée), in kind, or, rarely, in coin. Peasants were also obligated to their landlords for: rent in cash (the cens), a payment related to their amount of annual production (the champart), and taxes on the use of the nobles’ mills, wine-presses, and bakeries (the banalites). In good times, the taxes were burdensome; in harsh times, they were devastating. After a less-than-fulsome harvest, people would starve to death during the winter.
  • Many tax collectors and other public officials bought their positions from the king, sometimes on an annual basis, sometimes in perpetuity. Often an additional fee was paid to upgrade their position to one that could be passed along as an inheritance. Naturally, holders of these offices tried to reimburse themselves by milking taxpayers as hard as possible. For instance, in a civil lawsuit, judges required that both parties pay a bribe (called, with tongue-in-cheek, the épices, the spices); this, effectively, put justice out of the reach of all but the wealthy.
  • The system also exempted the nobles and the clergy from taxes (with the exception of a modest quit-rent, which was an ad valorem tax on land). The tax burden, therefore, devolved to the peasants, wage-earners, and the professional and business classes, also known as the third estate. Further, people from less-privileged walks of life were blocked from acquiring even petty positions of power in the regime. This caused further resentment.

(c) Failure of reforms:

  • On the advice of his mistress, the king Louis XV supported the policy of fiscal justice designed by d’Arnouville. In order to finance the budget deficit. Machault d’Arnouville created a tax of 5 percent on all revenues, a measure that affected the privileged classes as well as the rest of the population. Still, expenditures outpaced revenues.
  • Ultimately, Louis XV failed to overcome these fiscal problems, mainly because he was incapable of harmonizing the conflicting parties at court and arriving at coherent economic policies. Worse, Louis seemed to be aware of the anti-monarchist forces that were threatening his family’s rule, yet he failed to do anything to stop them. Louis XV’s death in 1774 saw the French monarchy at its nadir, politically, morally, and financially.
  • During the reigns of the new king, Louis XV’s grandson, Louis XVI (1774–1792), several ministers, most notably Turgot and Necker, proposed revisions to the French tax system so as to include the nobles as taxpayers, but these proposals were not adopted because of resistance from the parlements (provincial courts of appeal). Members of these courts bought their positions from the king, as well as the right to transfer their positions hereditarily through payment of an annual fee, the paulette. Membership in such courts, or appointment to other public positions, often led to elevation to the nobility (the so-called Nobles of the Robe).
  • Because the need to raise taxes placed the king at odds with the nobles and the upper bourgeoisie, he appointed as his finance ministers, like Turgot, Chrétien de Malesherbes, and Jacques Necker  called “rising men” ,usually from non-noble origin.
  • Radical financial reforms by his ministers, Turgot and Malesherbes, angered the nobles and were blocked by the parlements who insisted that the king did not have the legal right to levy new taxes. So, in 1776, Turgot was dismissed and Malesherbes resigned. They were replaced by Jacques Necker, who supported the American Revolution and proceeded with a policy of taking out large international loans instead of raising taxes.
  • The American war cost a huge sum, that was financed by new loans at high interest rates, but no new taxes were imposed.
  • Britain, too, was heavily indebted as a result of these conflicts; but Britain had far more advanced fiscal institutions in place to deal with it. France was a wealthier country than Britain, and its national debt was no greater than the British one. In France, the debt was financed at almost twice the interest rate as the debt of Britain. This demanded a much higher level of taxation and less flexibility in raising money to deal with unforeseen emergencies.
  • Necker realized that the country’s extremely regressive tax system subjected the lower classes to a heavy burden, while numerous exemptions existed for the nobility and clergy. He argued that the country could not be taxed higher; that tax exemptions for the nobility and clergy must be reduced; and proposed that borrowing more money would solve the country’s fiscal shortages. Necker’s attempts to reduce the lavishness of the king’s court also failed.
  • When Necker’s tax policy failed miserably, Louis dismissed him, and replaced him, in 1783, with Calonne, who increased public spending in an attempt to “buy” the country’s way out of debt and so restored lavish spending reminiscent of the age of Louis XIV. But he quickly realized the critical financial situation and proposed a new tax code.The proposal included a consistent land tax, which would include taxation of the nobility and clergy. Faced with opposition from the parlements, Calonne organised the summoning of the Assembly of Notables in 1787. But the Assembly failed to endorse Calonne’s proposals and instead weakened his position through its criticism.This negative turn of events signalled to Louis that he had lost the ability to rule as an absolute monarch, and he fell into depression. Louis was forced to dismiss Calonne.
  • Calonne was succeeded by his chief critic, Brienne, but the fundamental situation was unchanged: the government had no credit. To address this, the Assembly of Notables sanctioned “the establishment of provincial assemblies, regulation of the corn trade, abolition of corvées (Corvée, or statute labour, is unpaid labour imposed by the state on certain classes of people, such as peasants), and a new stamp tax”, but the assembly dispersed on 25 May 1787 without actually installing a longer-term program with prospects for success. In 1788 as the country had been struck by both economic and financial crises, and Necker was called back to the office of Director-General of Finance to to save France from financial ruin.
  • Because the nobles successfully defended their privileges, the King of France lacked the means to impose a “just and proportioned” tax. The desire to do so led directly to the decision in 1788 to call the Estates-General into session.
  • The financial strain of servicing old debt and the excesses of the current royal court caused dissatisfaction with the monarchy, contributed to national unrest, and culminated in the French Revolution of 1789.

(3) Famine:

  • Problems were all compounded by a great scarcity of food in the 1780s. A series of crop failures caused a shortage of grain, consequently raising the price of bread. Because bread was the main source of food for poor peasants, this led to starvation.
  • The Great Fear was a general panic that occurred between 17 July and 3 August 1789 at the start of the French Revolution. Rural unrest had been present in France since the worsening grain shortage of the spring, and fueled by the rumours of an aristocrat “famine plot” to starve or burn out the population, peasant and town people mobilized in many regions. In response to rumours, fearful peasants armed themselves in self-defense and in some areas, attacked manor houses. The content of the rumours differed from region to region -– in some areas it was believed that a foreign force were burning the crops in the fields while in other areas it was believed that bandits were burning buildings.
  • The two years prior to the revolution (1788–89) saw meager harvests and harsh winters.
  • The price of a loaf of bread rose by 67 percent in 1789 alone. Many peasants were relying on charity to survive, and they became increasingly motivated by their hunger. The “bread riots” were the first manifestations of a roots-based revolutionary sentiment. Mass urbanization coincided with the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, and more and more people moved into French cities seeking employment. The cities became overcrowded with the hungry, destitute, and disaffected, an ideal environment for revolution.
  • Bakers’ queues” became the term for the long line-ups at shops when bread was short.
  • The deregulation of the grain market, advocated by physiocrats also resulted in an increase in bread prices. In period of bad harvests, it would lead to famines which would prompt the masses to revolt.

(4) Transparency:

  • The issue was not so much the debt per se, but the way the debt was refracted through the lens of Enlightenment principles and the increasing power of third-estate creditors, that is, commoners who held the government’s paper.
  • Since the time of Henry IV, that is, within two centuries, French Government had failed to meet its financial obligations fifty-six times. In earlier days such catastrophes had not been announced and publicly discussed. Now all France, which for two generations had been worked upon by the party of rationalism, shared the outcry against the financial situation.
  • The struggle with the parlements and nobles to enact reformist measures displayed the extent of the disintegration of the Regime. Louis XVI was pressured to produce an annual disclosure of the state of his finances. He also pledged to reconvene the Estates-General within five years. Despite the pretense that France operated under an absolute monarchy, it became clear that the royal government could not successfully implement the changes it desired without the consent of the nobility. The financial crisis had become a political crisis as well, and the French Revolution loomed just beyond the horizon.

(5) Political:

  • Louis XVI faced virulent opposition from provincial parlements which were the spearheads of the privileged classes’ resistance to royal reforms.
  • All these factors created a revolutionary atmosphere and a tricky situation for Louis XVI. In order to resolve the crisis, the king summoned the Estates-General in May 1789 and, as it came to an impasse, the representatives of the Third Estates formed into a National Assembly, against the wishes of the king, signaling the outbreak of the French Revolution.

(6) Cultural and other factors:

  • The Enlightenment philosophy desacralized the authority of the King and the Church, and promoted a new society based on “reason” instead of traditions.
  • A growing number of the French citizenry had absorbed the ideas of “equality” and “freedom of the individual” as presented by Voltaire, Rousseau, Denis Diderot and other philosophers and social theorists of the Enlightenment.
  • The American Revolution demonstrated that it was plausible for Enlightenment ideas – about how a government should be organized – to actually be put into practice.
  • Some American diplomats, like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, had lived in Paris where they consorted freely with members of the French intellectual class. Furthermore, contact between American revolutionaries and the French troops who served as anti-British mercenaries in North America helped spread revolutionary ideas to the French people.
  • Many other factors involved resentments and aspirations given focus by the rise of Enlightenment ideals. These included resentment of royal absolutism; resentment by peasants, laborers and the bourgeoisie toward 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 toward the King for dismissing ministers, including finance minister Jacques Necker, who were popularly seen as representatives of the people
  • Freemasonry (fraternal organisation) played an important role in the revolution. Originally largely apolitical, Freemasonry was radicalized in the late 18th century through the introduction of higher grades which emphasized themes of liberty, equality, and fraternity. Virtually every major player in the Revolution was a Freemason and these themes became the widely recognized slogan of the revolution.
  • Revolution was precipitated by the economic factor, and the train which had been laid by philosophy was fired by finance.

(7) Responsibility of the Bourbon Monarchy:

  • The French monarchy lay midway between British constitutionalism and continental depotism. Under Louis XIV, French monarchy became absolutist and bureaucratic. The power and prestige of crown reached such a height that he could claim, ‘ The State, it myself’.
  • In reality however the absolute power of the crown was a myth. In reality, power was weilded by the aristocratiy in the name of the king. He prepared the path of its ruin by his extravangance, indolence, lack of reforming zeal, foreign wars and defeats. He did nothing to satisfy discontent of bourgeois by cutting down aristocracy’s privileges and regenerate sick economy.
  • Louis XV, however, had his natural wisdom to apprehend the dangerous consequences of his policy. So he declared, ‘”After me, the deluge“.
  • Weak Character of Louis XVI: He was dull, timid and irresolute with no capacity to govern. Under him, “a prodigal anarchy” reigned in France. The prevailing evils were the privileges enjoyed by the aristocracy and extravagance of the government. The bourgeois attacked the privileges and asked the king to put an end to them through reforms. The monarchy dared not face the aristocracy.
  • The Revolution came because the monarchy was unable to solve the question of privilege, it was enough to overthrow the remains of feudalism.

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