Modern history


How Things Stood

France under Louis XVI

The king, he said, was the most generous of princes, but his generosity could neither relieve nor reward everyone, and it was only his misfortune to be amongst the number.

– Laurence Sterne, A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy

A needless revolution?

Whatever the title we give it, this first chapter is very far from being merely a backdrop set up before the start of the action: what is at stake here is a choice between two contrasting views of the French Revolution. For a whole lineage of historians stretching from Tocqueville to Furet, the substance of what is generally seen as the revolutionary upheaval was already under way, if not completed, by the end of the Ancien Régime. An American-style revolution, calm and democratic, would have led to the same end result, while avoiding sound, fury, and the guillotine: ‘The Revolution finished off suddenly by a convulsive and painful effort, without a period of transition, throwing caution aside and without any consideration, what would have automatically been finished gradually and by slow degrees.’1 And in his commentary on Tocqueville, Furet argues that the Ancien Régime was already dead: ‘The revolutionary consciousness, from 1789 on, was informed by the illusion of defeating a state that had already ceased to exist.’2He reaches the following verdict, where paradox verges on absurdity: ‘nothing resembled French society under Louis XVI more than French society under Louis-Philippe.’3

Tocqueville emphasizes the modernization already under way in France in the 1780s. He explains how centralization was established on top of ‘a diversity of rules and authorities, a tangle of powers’ that were the debris of the feudal order. At the summit was the royal council, which was the supreme court of justice as well as the higher administrative authority, and ‘subject to the king’s approval [had] legislative powers; it could debate and propose most laws; it fixed levies and distributed taxes’.4 Internal affairs had been entrusted to a single individual, the controller-general, who ‘gradually monopolized the management of all affairs involving money – in other words, the whole public administration’. In the provinces, in parallel with the governors – an honorary and remunerative office – the intendant was ‘the sole representative of the government’ in his sphere. Under him, the subdélégués represented the central power in the small constituencies that were attributed to them. In short, ‘we owe “administrative centralization” not to the Revolution or the Empire, as some say, but to the old Regime.’5

This point of view was adopted by Taine (‘for it is the Monarchy, and not the Revolution, which endowed France with administrative centralization’)6 and subsequently by Furet (‘the administrative state and the egalitarian society whose development was the main achievement of the old monarchy …’7).

Such presentations invite the question: how could such a well-oiled administration disappear at the first shock, evaporating without resistance in the summer of 1789? Elements of an answer can be found in the picture drawn by Albert Mathiez:

Confusion and chaos reigned everywhere … The controller-general of finances admitted that it was impossible for him to draw up a regular budget owing to the absence of a clearly defined financial year, the vast number of different accounts, and the absence of any regular system of accountancy. Everybody kept pulling in a different direction … One minister would protect the philosophes while another was persecuting them. Jealousies and intrigues were rife. Their chief aim was not so much to administrate as to retain the favour of their master or of those about his person. The interests of the public were no longer protected. The divine right of absolutism served as an excuse for every kind of waste, arbitrary procedure, and abuse. And so the ministers andintendantswere generally detested, and, far from strengthening the monarchy, the imperfect centralization which they represented turned public opinion against it.8

Here we have no longer a needless revolution but an inevitable one.

The peasantry

In describing French society of the 1780s, it is customary to follow the divisions made in the Estates-General – nobility, clergy, and Third Estate. This has a certain logic, provided we keep in mind that these ‘orders’ were not compact and homogeneous blocs, as the train of events would very shortly demonstrate.

The Third Estate made up the great majority of the 27 or 28 million inhabitants of France. ‘What is the Third Estate? Everything’, Sieyès wrote in January 1789.9 But this celebrated dictum should not lead us to forget that ‘Third’ was not a name but a number,10and that this ‘everything’ was made up of very different groups that would each play their part in the course of the Revolution.

Among these groups, by far the most numerous was the peasantry; the number of Louis XVI’s subjects that lived on the land is estimated at 23 million. In the years leading up to the Revolution, however, the forms of landed property and cultivation underwent significant change.

For centuries, the lord’s seigneurie had been made up of two parts: the réserve, land over which the lord enjoyed exclusive rights, and the censive, where rights were divided between lord and peasants; the latter paid a cens to the lord – who was most often noble, but could also be ecclesiastical or a commoner – but they could not be expropriated, and transmitted their tenure to their heirs. Alongside the seigneuries were communal lands that were the collective property of the village community: woods, pastures, and cultivated fields whose products were divided (unequally) among its members.

From the 1760s onward, the ideas of the Physiocrats and English influence began to change the old French system in depth.11 In England, from the start of the century, the nobility had carried out a major reallocation at the peasants’ expense, dividing up the common lands (enclosure) and creating big farms from which the landlords drew rental income. The same logic was at work in France, but with too great a delay to have given rise as yet to major upheavals. The lords tried to appropriate the commons (especially woods for hunting) and increase their reserve at the expense of the censive: the cens, being monetary, was constantly devalued along with the currency, whereas the rent from leasing out land – for farms or sharecropping (métayage) – was far more advantageous.

On the eve of the Revolution, a large proportion of cultivators rented from landowners the soil that they tilled. Some of these were farmers, others sharecroppers. The latter, Arthur Young explains, are ‘men who hire the land without ability to stock it; the proprietor is forced to provide cattle and seed, and he and his tenant divide the produce; a miserable system, that perpetuates poverty and excludes instruction’.12 This ‘miserable system’ prevailed in the poorest regions, such as Brittany, Lorraine, and the centre and south of the country. Even among the farmers, there were great differences of condition: the exploiters of large cereal farms in the Paris basin and the north had nothing in common with the small farmers of the bocage or the mountain regions.13

Those who worked the land were not always tenants. Over the course of the century, many peasants became owners of land, and it is estimated that before the Revolution they possessed a third of the total cultivable area – a proportion that varied according to the region, being low in the rich wheat-growing lands and high in those provinces where cultivation was hardest. At the top of the ladder a prosperous peasantry began to form; these grew rich with the rise in commodity prices, as their production gave them a surplus to sell over and above family subsistence. This stratum of well-to-do peasants was not very large: most peasant proprietors possessed a small parcel that barely allowed them to lead a self-sufficient existence. They were often obliged to seek additional income from rural industry, or to go and work elsewhere as seasonal labourers.

No matter what their condition, the peasants were subject to taxes: the taille to the state, the dîme to the Church, and seigniorial dues to the lord. In Tocqueville’s The Ancien Régime and the French Revolution, the first chapter of Book II is entitled ‘Why feudal rights had become more hated among the people of France than anywhere else’. Jaurès explained this as follows:

There was not one action in rural life that did not require the peasants to pay a ransom. I shall simply cite with no further commentary: the right of assise over animals used for ploughing, the right of seigniorial ferries for crossing rivers, the right of leide that was imposed on goods at markets and stalls, the right of seigniorial police on minor roads, the right of fishing in rivers, the right of pontonnage on small watercourses, the right to dig wells and manage ponds …, the right of garenne, with only the nobles allowed to keep ferrets, the right of colombier which gave the lord’s pigeons the peasant’s grain, the right of fire, fouage and chimney which imposed a kind of building tax on all the village houses, and finally the most hated of all, the exclusive right to hunt … Feudal rights thus extended their clutches over every force of nature, everything that grew, moved, breathed; the rivers with their fish, the fire burning in the oven to bake the peasant’s poor bread mixed with oats and barley, the wind that turned the mill for grinding corn, the wine spurting from the press, the game that emerged from the forests or high pastures to ravage vegetable plots and fields.14

In the books of grievances for the Estates-General, hatred of seigniorial rights is a constant, and at the time of the Great Fear of summer 1789, when the châteaux were stormed, this was above all, as we shall see, in order to destroy the documents that set down the origin of these rights.

Not all rural inhabitants, however, were subject to this. The great mass of those who were neither farmers nor sharecroppers nor proprietors, those who had nothing but their own hands, could only complain of the confiscation of common land, the suppression of free pasturage and the right of gleaning that took away from them the little that remained of the primitive communism of the countryside. These labourers, manouvriers as they were called, migrated to find work on a seasonal basis. When the countryside did not provide this, they sought employment in small rural industries – textiles above all, wool and linen in the north, silk in the south – or else they went to work in the city as builders, hawkers, chimney sweeps or water-carriers. The border is vague between these migrants and the tens of thousands of vagabonds and beggars who tramped the roads throughout the country, accompanied by their women and children.

Most historians see the situation in the French countryside as having improved in the course of the eighteenth century, and it is true that this period no longer saw famines of the kind experienced at the end of Louis XV’s reign, when thousands of peasants died of hunger. Yet dearth remained common, and when several bad harvests came in a row, the soudure – between June and October – remained a critical time, with infant mortality in particular reaching horrific levels.

Above all, such improvements as there were failed to benefit everyone. Those who had no land, or not enough, were often reduced to the condition that Arthur Young described around Montauban:

The poor seem poor indeed; the children terribly ragged, if possible worse clad than if with no cloaths at all; as to shoes and stockings they are luxuries. A beautiful girl of six or seven years playing with a stick, and smiling under such a bundle of rags as made my heart ache to see her: they did not beg, and when I gave them any thing seemed more surprised than obliged. One third of what I have seen of this province seems uncultivated, and nearly all of it in misery. What have kings, and ministers, and parliaments, and states, to answer for their prejudices, seeing millions of hands that would be industrious, idle and starving, through the execrable maxims of despotism, or the equally detestable prejudices of a feudal nobility. Sleep at the Lion d’Or, at Montauban, an abominable hole.15

Financiers and businessmen

‘The three estates that make their fortune in Paris today are the bankers, lawyers and builders’, Louis-Sébastien Mercier noted in his Tableau de Paris.16 The second half of the eighteenth century saw a transformation of Paris, with new districts springing up both on the right bank (the Chaussée d’Antin, among others) and the left (the extension of the faubourg Saint-Germain). The city’s population was estimated at six to seven hundred thousand, the largest in Europe after London. France’s other great cities shared in the same expansion: Lyon, Bordeaux and Marseille passed the 100,000 level before the Revolution.

At the apex of this urban population were the financiers. These were above all the fermiers généraux, who had bought the office of collecting for the state all indirect taxes – aides, gabelle, tobacco and stamp duty – as well as customs duties on all goods and commodities that entered the cities. It was the Ferme-Générale that collected duties at the fifty-five barriers of the new wall built around Paris between 1785 and 1788 under the direction of Claude-Nicolas Ledoux – hence its name, ‘the wall of the Farmers-General’. This oligarchy (there were forty members of the Ferme-Générale) had up to 25,000 employees for collecting taxes and suppressing contraband; they were not royal officials, but acted in the name of the king and could send smugglers to the galleys or even the gibbet. Half of the state’s receipts passed through the hands of the Ferme-Générale, and its members, who were in effect the king’s bankers, built up immense fortunes. They also built up a major capital of popular hatred, and many of them ended on the guillotine.

In high society, the farmers-general rubbed shoulders with bankers, arms suppliers and stock-exchange speculators, as shareholding companies were proliferating at this time – including the Compagnie des Indes, the Compagnie des Illuminations (street lighting), the Compagnie d’Assurances sur la Vie et contre l’Incendie (life and fire insurance), the Compagnie des Eaux de Paris (water), and the Compagnie des Carrosses de Place (carriages for hire).

It was the financiers rather than the nobility who now built the finest hôtels in Paris, such as that of the farmer-general Marin de la Haye, with a hanging garden on its roof where two little Chinese bridges crossed a stream that distributed water to the building’s bathrooms;17 or the extraordinary Hôtel Thélusson – built by Ledoux for the widow of the Genevan banker who had been Necker’s first patron – ‘made of an immense hemispheric gallery through which could be seen a circular colonnade raised on bosses of sharp rock, interspersed with bushes’.18 In these dwellings and the follies they had built outside the big cities, the financiers socialized with the enlightened nobility; they had the same advanced opinions as the nobles, read the same books, married their daughters and shared their mistresses, and many were in due course ennobled themselves.

Finance was concentrated in Paris, just as were the property-owners who lived off their rents – ground rent or rent of buildings, but, above all, interest on state borrowing (the ‘rentes sur l’Hôtel de Ville’). In Necker’s accounts presented in 1789, the public debt had grown to more than four billion francs, of which around a half was held by ‘rentiers’, increasingly worried and hostile to the government as they risked being ruined by the unmitigated state bankruptcy that looked set to be the result of the financial crisis.

Merchants and manufacturers, for their part, were divided between Paris and the provinces. At the end of the Ancien Régime, some cities were enjoying strong economic expansion: Bordeaux and Nantes, thanks to trade with the American colonies, including the slave trade; Marseille, where shipbuilders had a stranglehold on exports to the Levant; and the textile towns that were thriving – wool and cotton in Normandy and the Nord, silk in Lyon and Nîmes, bonnet-making in Champagne, cloth in Languedoc …

As for industry in the modern sense, it was still in its early stages. The Compagnie des Mines d’Anzin (a joint-stock company, like almost all businesses of this type) that exploited the coal mines around Valenciennes was an early pioneer, along with the ‘fire machines’ at Le Creusot and the Dietrich foundries in Lorraine.


The greater part of manufacturing production still came from the immense artisan sector. The system of corporations, with its rigid hierarchy of masters, journeymen and apprentices, had been abolished shortly before the Revolution. In February 1776, Turgot, the controller-general and a convinced Physiocrat, suppressed the corporations by royal edict. From now on, ‘everything in Paris was free. All trades and skills were open to all. You could wake up as a tailor, baker, locksmith or whatever you liked. Some narrow minds who saw nothing large, however, found this system monstrous. They claimed that class and corporation were rooted in nature.’19

In May 1776, however, Turgot was dismissed and the corporations re-established, though now in a very different form. They were concentrated (reduced in Paris from 100 to forty-four) and strictly controlled by the police and the state bureaucracy. All that was needed to become a master was to pay the requisite taxes; the status of master now became more like a royal concession and a tax arrangement. A new hierarchical stratum was created, that of the agrégés, who enjoyed the same privileges as masters except that of having apprentices. Even women and foreigners could join the new system.

This apparent liberalization was accompanied by an increasingly tight control over the journeymen, and above all over day-labourers. They were forbidden to establish confraternities. In September 1781, letters patent compelled them to enrol on registers kept by the masters. They now needed written dispensation to leave their employer, and the use of the personal livret (workbook) was extended to all these previously unorganized workers. Lenoir, the lieutenant-general of police in Paris, decided to arrest all who lacked papers or official employment. He deployed nocturnal squads to round up any ‘workers without shops or certificates’. Deprived of the possibility of moving, choosing, or changing their minds, workers were now ‘no better off than the slaves of Algiers or the blacks who are used for work on sugar and indigo on the islands’ was the verdict of the journeymen printers.20

This conscription did not proceed without resistance. Mercier noted with regret that:

There has been visible insubordination among the people for several years now, and especially in the trades. Apprentices and lads want to display their independence; they lack respect for the masters, they form corporations [associations]: this contempt for the old rules is contrary to order … Formerly, when I went into a print works, the lads raised their hats. Today they just look at you and snicker, and you have scarcely crossed the threshold when you hear them speaking of you in a coarser way than if you were their mate. All the printers will tell you that the workers lay down the law to them, and provoke one another to infringe any restraint of obedience. The workers transform the print shop into a real smoke den, and delay as they please the printing of any text scheduled for a particular occasion.21

From snickering to rioting would be only a short step.

The attention of the police bore also on that part of the urban population who were often termed bas peuple. This comprised ‘the army of useless servants employed simply for show, the mass of the most dangerous corruption that could enter a city in which the countless and ever increasing disorders that arise from it threaten to bring sooner or later an almost inevitable disaster’.22

Also found here were

those known as gens de peine, who are almost all foreigners. The Savoyards are crossing-sweepers, polishers and sawyers; the Auvergnats are almost all water-carriers; the Limousins are builders; the Lyonnais are generally locksmiths and chair-carriers; the Normans are stone-cutters, pavers and pedlars; the Gascons, wigmakers or carabineers; the Lorrains are itinerant cobblers known as carreleurs or recarreleurs.23

All these immigrants, whose number has been estimated at two-thirds of the Paris population, had to request a passport in their region of origin in order to avoid being arrested en route as vagabonds and sent to the beggars’ colonies, a possible stepping stone to the galleys.

Finally, there were those women and men who were destitute, with no other shelter but the street: beggars, stray children, prostitutes, the unemployed. The litany of their wretched existence covers many pages of the Paris police archives, of which Arlette Farge has made an exemplary study:

2 September 1770. Ten in the evening. Posted at the Saint-Jean cemetery and doing the rounds on the rue des Arcis, arrested on the corner of the rue Vieille [and] place aux Veaux a woman soliciting passers-by who gave her name as Françoise Biquier, wife of Alexander, clock-maker, and her age as 28, native of Namur, herself a gold polisher by trade, dwelling place Saint Michel, and took her to the Saint Martin station.

3 September 1770. Eleven in the morning. Jacques Mézières, age ten and a half, native of Paris, living rue Sainte Marguerite, faubourg Saint-German, at the potter’s shop, arrested rue Neuve Notre Dame, found asking for alms during the last week by order of his mother to obtain bread.

3 September 1770. Seven in the evening. Gilles Fouchet, age fifteen, native of Yvetot in Normandy, in Paris for the last three days sleeping at the Lion d’Or in a street whose name he doesn’t know. He was asking people to buy brushes and a saddle, and 32 liards were found in his pocket. Sent to the Petit Châtelet prison.24

Arrests were not always that simple:

Report of 2 May 1785, at six in the evening from the Paris guard at the Vaugirard post. Florentin, sergeant of the guard at Vaugirard, having been called by monsieur Dupont, wine-seller, regarding a number of individuals who were drinking at his establishment and had caused damage, breaking earthenware jars and unwilling to pay for these or even the wine they had drunk, we proceeded there and most of those involved had escaped with the exception of Durant, a stone-cutter, who was arrested along with Hurlot, also a cutter. When we set off, some sixty other stonecutters ran behind us and attacked us to free the two arrested men, I ordered bayonets fitted and they, seeing that they could not approach any closer, took up stones and cobbles from the street and threw them at us, a certain Gateblie, a member of my squad, was struck in the legs, in the belly kidneys and in the face, and is dangerously wounded. The Vaugirard guard came out to help us, we were able to arrest the two mentioned above and also another, but informed that there was a further ambush I sent for two sections of infantry and the cavalry brigade from the Contrescarpe station as reinforcements and to take them to prison, following which we closed down the bars.25

Two infantry sections and a cavalry brigade, to take three stonecutters to prison. This affair – just one of many riots that plagued the last years of the Ancien Régime – is exemplary: the watch in the cities or the mounted constabulary in the countryside were often overpowered by an angry crowd. When things got rough they had to call in the army, and from the first days of the Revolution it became clear that this force was far from reliable.


In this rapid review of the very diverse elements that made up the Third Estate, I have not yet mentioned the best known, among whom we find almost all those who went on to play an important personal role in the Revolution: the group that today would be called liberal professionals and intellectuals. Lawyers were very prominent among them – they included Barnave, Danton, Desmoulins, Robespierre, Barère, Hérault de Séchelles, Vergniaud and Barbaroux – but also magistrates, notaries and medics such as Dr Guillotin, professor of anatomy at the university of Paris, who would be brought before the courts for having published the Pétition des six corps, in which he demanded an equal number of members of the Third Estate in the Estates-General to that of the two privileged orders combined. In the sphere of education, the expulsion of the Jesuits in 1764 had left a vacuum that would be filled by laymen or by those with only minor orders, such as Fouché or Billaud-Varenne, who both taught at the great school of the Oratorians at Juilly.

The most vocal and strident, those who often attracted the attention of the censorship and police, were journalists (‘nouvellistes’), publicists and writers. They included Tallien, a legal clerk with journalistic ambitions, who founded a democratic newspaper in Marseille before ‘going up’ to Paris to become one of the leading figures of the Montagne; Brissot, the thirteenth child of a masterrenderer in Chartres, sent to the Bastille in his youth for debts, perhaps a police spy, a pamphleteer for any cause, who became editor ofLe Patriote français and leader of the Girondins (known accordingly as brissotins).26 The future leading players even included successful writers: Jean-Baptiste Louvet, who opposed Robespierre in the Convention, was the author of Les Amours du chevalier de Faublas, a bestseller of the time. Choderlos de Laclos, having abandoned the military and written Les Liaisons dangereuses, became a commissioner at the war ministry and clandestine head of the Orleanist party at the Jacobins club. Mercier, a future deputy to the Convention, also enjoyed success with a futuristic novel, L’An 2440, although it led him to seek exile in Neuchâtel in order to avoid prison.

This intelligentsia were clearly very au fait with the modern ideas that they helped to disseminate. But what were these ideas? There was certainly a common foundation, as they had all read the works of the Enlightenment generation, just before their time.27 But beyond this? What was there in common between Physiocrats such as Malesherbes or Samuel Dupont de Nemours, friends of Turgot and champions of economic liberalism, and Mably, the theorist of citizenship and natural law? The diversity of philosophical ideas and political propositions was such that to read about the ‘cultural’ or ‘intellectual’ origins of the Revolution can make your head spin.28 You emerge amazed at such erudition, but with scarcely any clearer notions than before. Besides, with the acceleration of revolutionary time, ideas evolved at such a pace that a detailed depiction of the landscape of origins may well be a pointless exercise. And we should not forget what the young Marx wrote in The Holy Family: ‘Ideas can never lead beyond an old world order but only beyond the ideas of the old world order. Ideas cannot carry out anything at all. In order to carry out ideas men are needed who can exert practical force.’29

Three phenomena need to be mentioned in this connection. The first concerns the ‘discovery’ of Herculaneum and Pompeii. The excavations were begun in 1738, and Charles de Brosses, who would later be president of the Burgundy Parlement, had already visited the site when he wrote his Lettres d’Italie for his friends in 1739–40. Yet it was not until shortly before the Revolution that the results of the excavations became generally known in France, through the publication of engravings.30 The study of antiquity had certainly always been an essential part of the humanities, and both the Sorbonne and Port-Royal considered Cicero and Titus Livius indispensable for any learning worthy of the name. But this learning scarcely spread beyond the world of schools, universities andbelles-lettres. Neither Colbert, nor Cardinal Fleury, prime minister under Louis XV, nor controller-general Turgot, would ever have thought of citing the ancients in their texts: antiquity was not a political subject. The discovery of Roman frescoes suddenly brought a change of tone. These Romans, who had previously been no more than characters in books, now appeared endowed with faces, clothing, houses, children and pets. There were even women among them, and beautiful ones at that. Ancient Rome erupted into the modern city. Its heroes, its writers, its ruins, would constitute throughout the revolutionary period the great storehouse from which political actors drew their references, refined their insults and polished their threats – far more so than Greece, whose share was most commonly reduced to the invocation of Aristides the Just or the legendary character Lycurgus, reputed author of Sparta’s constitution.

At more or less the same time, the severity of neoclassicism came to be combined with a very different sensibility (not a word used at that time): hearts swelled, tears flowed, nature was an endless source of emotion and touching effusions. La Nouvelle Héloïsedid far more for Rousseau’s fame than The Social Contract. Cincinnatus and Cato on the one hand, Paul et Virginie on the other: these were the heroes of the day. Diderot, a great admirer of Greuze’s sugary young girls, was able nonetheless to acknowledge the beginnings of David’s work with his ‘Belisarius’ at the Salon of 1781: ‘This young man has soul; his figures are noble and natural; he draws, he knows how to cast drapery and make fine folds.’ The national costume that this ‘young man’ would design in 1793 was a compromise between the black coat of the Parisian bourgeois and the dress of the inhabitants of Pompeii.

The second remark concerns the influence of the American Revolution. This owed much to the character of Benjamin Franklin, the first United States ambassador to France in 1776, then from 1779 to 1785. By his prestige as both scientist and founding father of the American union, by the simplicity of his life in a rural house in Passy, he became one of the most popular figures in 1780s Paris, welcomed in both aristocratic and philosophical salons – especially that of Mme Helvétius, whom he hoped to marry. And from 1785 to 1789, his successor at the United States embassy would be the prestigious Thomas Jefferson, chief author of the federal constitution.

Franklin had the constitutions of the American states translated and widely distributed in Paris. The publication of the Declaration of Independence was not authorized but circulated none the less, translated by the duc de la Rochefoucauld at Franklin’s request. The tone is given by the preamble:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just power from the consent of the governed. That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

The text dates from 1776, thirteen years before the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, which reproduced this text almost word for word – thirteen years in which several more or less tolerated editions were distributed throughout France.

In 1784, the Académie des Jeux floraux of Toulouse set for the subject of a prize essay ‘The grandeur and importance of the revolution that has just been carried out in northern America’. In 1786, Condorcet published under a pseudonym a text in response to another essay subject, proposed by Abbé Raynal of the Lyon Académie: ‘Has the discovery of America been useful or harmful to the human race? If benefits have resulted from it, how may these be preserved and increased? If it has produced ills, how may these be remedied?’ Condorcet’s short work, dedicated to Lafayette, was entitled ‘On the influence of the American revolution on Europe’: ‘The spectacle of the equality that reigns in the United States, and which assures its peace and prosperity, can also be useful to Europe. We no longer believe here, in truth, that nature has divided the human race into three or four orders, like the class of Solipeds, and that one of these orders is also condemned to work much and eat little.’ And again: ‘Liberty of the press is established in America, and we see with good reason the right to speak and to hear truths that one believes useful as one of the most sacred rights of humanity.’31 The example of Condorcet – among many others – whose role would be so important between 1789 and 1793, shows the tremendous influence of America on the principles of the revolution in France.

The final remark concerns intellectual and political life in the provinces before the Revolution. The network of popular societies across the country, thanks to which the revolutionary journées in Paris were relayed (and sometimes anticipated), was not built up from nothing. Over the last twenty years of the Ancien Régime, academies, scientific societies, reading rooms, public lectures and public libraries proliferated throughout France. Provincial universities attracted students who sometimes came from far afield: the law faculty in Reims had Danton, Brissot, Roland and Saint-Just among its alumni. Prizes awarded by provincial academies had echoes far beyond their own city: Rousseau became famous when he obtained the prize of the Dijon academy for his Discours sur l’origine et les fondements de l’inégalité parmi les hommes.

We need not imagine a direct filiation between a particular reading society and the branch of the Jacobins created in the same town some years later. Nor embrace Augustin Cochin’s thesis that ‘societies of thought’ lay at the origin of a revolution of elites.32 But these meeting places were fertile soil, where ideas were exchanged, readings shared, connections formed – among the lettered classes of the towns, to be sure, but theirs would be no minor role during the Revolution. The political fever of the provinces would thus form a decisive counterpoint to the Paris revolution.

The privileged orders

How many nobles and churchmen were there in France on the eve of the Revolution? In What Is the Third Estate?, Sieyès calculates them rather tendentiously to arrive at a total of 81,400 ‘ecclesiastical heads’ and 110,000 nobles. Modern estimates yield higher figures: for Soboul, 120,000 and 350,000 respectively,33 making up close to 1.6 per cent of the French population.

The nobility did not form a class, nor even a genuine order: it was a set of disparate castes, often mutually hostile. There was the noblesse d’épée of ancient lineage, and the noblesse de robe whose members, as Sieyès puts it, ‘acquired noble status by way of a door that, for mysterious reasons, they have decided to close behind them’.34 But above all, there was a deep divide between the Court and the provinces.

The court aristocracy numbered some 4,000 families, ‘presented’ at court after a meticulous examination of their titles of nobility. They lived at Versailles and in their hôtels in the faubourg Saint-Germain, went hunting with the king and shared in ‘the 33,000,000 livres annually expended on the households of the king and the princes, the 28,000,000 of pensions entered in serried rows in the Red Book, the 46,000,000 of pay of the 12,000 officers in the army, who alone absorbed more than half the military budget, and, lastly, all of the millions spent on the numerous sinecures, such as the offices of provincial governors.’35

But despite this largesse the great lords were heavily in debt: the court ceremonial, clothing, carriages, livery, receptions, everything required for ‘show’, cost very dear:

Biron, duc de Lauzun, a notorious Don Juan, had squandered 100,000 écus at the age of twenty-one, besides contracting debts of 2,000,000. The comte de Clermont, a prince of the blood, abbot of Saint-Germain-des-Près, who had an income of 360,000 livres, managed to ruin himself twice over. The prince de Rohan-Guémenée went bankrupt for some thirty million, the greater part of which was paid by a grant from Louis XVI. The king’s brothers, the comtes of Provence and Artois, owed over ten million by the time they reached the age of twenty-five.36

There was a total contrast between the great pomp of the court and the life of most provincial hobereaux (squires).37 Granted, they were more or less exempt from taxation, as was the whole nobility. If they owned lands, they received rent from farmers or sharecroppers; but otherwise their main resource came from the levying of seigniorial dues, which had been fixed long ago and throughout the eighteenth century declined in real terms with the depreciation of the currency. One route for their sons was the army, but this could be barred by an edict of 1781 that reserved entrance to the officer schools to those who could boast an undiluted noble heritage. All that was left for these provincial nobles was to extract from the peasants their due and then some. A kind of feudal reaction took place in the countryside, where ancient charges that had fallen into disuse were revived and existing ones demanded with the utmost severity.

The Catholic Church remained a power in the land, although its moral and intellectual influence was declining. ‘The Jews, the Protestants, the deists, the Jansenists, no less guilty in the eyes of the Molinists,38 the riennistes [‘nothingists’], thus live as they please; nowhere does anyone question them over religion. That is an old argument definitively closed’, wrote Mercier.39 The clergy were as divided as the nobility, despite the existence of an assembly that met every five years to safeguard the interests of their order. It was this assembly that set the amount of the ‘free gift’, the Church’s only contribution to the country’s finances. Its amount was derisory: a few million livres, which the clergy got back, moreover, in the king’s payment for the costs of state borrowing – the ‘Hôtel de Ville’ bonds guaranteed by the Paris municipality, the interest on which went to the clergy. On the other hand, the Church received one of the three most important taxes of the Ancien Régime (along with the royal taille and seigniorial dues), thedîme or tithe. This was paid in kind, on all land including that of the nobility. In October 1789, the Constituent Assembly’s finance committee assessed the total amount of the tithe as 123 million livres. Lavoisier’s estimate was that the dîme on wheat alone brought in 70 million.40 It is true that the clergy kept the population registers, conducted the greater part of teaching – even if the expulsion of the Jesuits had reduced this role – and were responsible for the functioning of many hospitals.

The Church was the leading landowner in the kingdom. In Paris, monastic foundations and their holdings occupied a quarter of the city surface, and the Church profited from the rise in rents throughout the second half of the century. Its rural properties were also considerable, especially in the north of the country, bringing in 130 million a year, according to Necker.

These millions were by no means equally divided among the ‘ecclesiastical heads’. It was the bishops, abbots, canons and high clergy who received the lion’s share. These were recruited almost exclusively from the aristocracy: in 1789, the 139 French bishops were all nobles. Many lived at court, with a lifestyle as brilliant as that of the great lords. They could hold leading positions in politics: in 1787, at a critical moment, it was the archbishop of Toulouse, Loménie de Brienne, who became controller-general of the kingdom in place of Calonne. For Tocqueville,

the Church was itself the leading political power and the most loathed even though it was not the most oppressive. For it had come to join the political sphere without being called to do so either by vocation or nature. It often sanctified failings in politics which it condemned in other spheres, surrounded them with a sacred inviolability and seemed to want to immortalize them as it did itself. In the first place by attacking the Church, the writers were sure to strike a chord with the passions of the masses.41

The 50,000 or so parish priests and vicars were kept well away from the prestigious prelates of the court. They were almost all commoners, and often lived in material conditions closer to those of their flock: their regular monthly emolument, levied from the parishdîme, was 700 livres, whereas a bishop received between three and four hundred thousand livres per year. The village priest, besides his religious duties, had a social and political role that was by no means unambiguous. He was charged with making known and explaining royal edicts from the pulpit to a largely illiterate congregation, but he might also defend the ideas of freedom and justice to which his own wretched condition clearly made him sensitive. Many of these priests were elected to the lists of the Third Estate.

They were not alone in dissociating themselves from the order to which they belonged. Among the privileged, we find famous individuals who took the side of the Third Estate at the start of the Revolution. The comte de Mirabeau, the marquis de Condorcet, the marquis de Lafayette, the abbé Grégoire, or Michel Lepeletier marquis de Saint-Fargeau, all these have streets, squares and schools named after them in France today. However long or short the road they travelled with the people, they are honoured for this courageous transgression.


1Alexis de Tocqueville, The Ancien Régime and the French Revolution, London: Penguin, 2008, p. 34.

2François Furet, Interpreting the French Revolution, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981, p. 25.

3Ibid., p. 24.

4Tocqueville, The Ancien Régime, pp. 46, 47.

5Ibid., p. 58.

6Hippolyte A. Taine, The Ancient Regime: The Origins of Contemporary France, vol. 1, Teddington: Echo Library, 2006, p. 67.

7Furet, Interpreting the French Revolution, p. 22.

8Albert Mathiez, The French Revolution, New York: Russell and Russell, 1962, p. 10.

9Emmanuel J. Sièyes, ‘What is the Third Estate?’ in Political Writings, Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2003. This famous phrase is stated in the ‘plan of this work’ with which Sieyès began his pamphlet: ‘The plan of this work is quite simple. There are three questions that we have to ask of ourselves: 1. What is the Third Estate? –Everything. 2. What, until now, has it been in the existing political order? – Nothing. 3. What does it want to be? – Something’ (p. 94).

10[‘Tiers État’ is an archaic form for what would be called ‘troisième état’ in contemporary French. – Translator]

11Georges Lefebvre, ‘La Révolution française et les paysans’ [1932], Études sur la Révolution française, Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1954, pp. 338–67; Florence Gauthier, ‘Une révolution paysanne. Les caractères originaux de l’histoire rurale de la Révolution française, 1789–1794’, in R. Monnier (ed.), Révoltes et révolutions en Europe et aux Amériques, Paris: Ellipses, 2004, pp. 252–82.

12Arthur Young’s Travels in France during the Years 1787, 1788, 1789, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012, p. 18.

13Even in the most fertile regions, farming conditions were very restrictive. David Andress gives the example of a contract signed (with a cross) at Villefranche-de-Lauragais, in the plain south-east of Toulouse, in 1779. The farmer had to supply the landlord with thirty-six hens at Christmas, the feast of St John and All Saints’ Day, and 600 eggs over the course of the year; he undertook to buy and raise pigs, geese, ducks and turkeys, and to give half of all these to the landlord when they were fat enough to be sold; he had to obtain seed and other inputs needed for cultivation; he was charged with supplying the landowner with hay and straw for the animals, and to pay from his own pocket the excess required if his own production was not sufficient. The lease was signed for one year and was not automatically renewable. David Andress, The French Revolution and the People, London and New York: Hambledon Continuum, 2004, pp. 6–7. [Bocage is a mix of woodland and pasture characteristic of many regions in northern France. –Translator]

14Jean Jaurès, Histoire socialiste de la Révolution française [1900–03], Paris: Éditions sociales, 1969, vol. 1, pp. 76–7.

15Arthur Young’s Travels in France, p. 125.

16Louis-Sébastien Mercier, Tableau de Paris [1781–8], Paris: Robert Laffont, 1990, p. 75.

17This hôtel still exists, on the corner of the rue Caumartin and the boulevard de la Madeleine.

18Memoirs of the marquis de Crécy, cited in Michel Gallet, Claude-Nicolas Ledoux, Paris: Picard, 1980, p. 196.

19Jean-Louis Soulavie, Mémoires historiques et politiques du règne de Louis XVI, Paris, 1801, vol. 3, p. 123. Quoted in Steven L. Kaplan, La fin des corporations, Paris: Fayard, 2001. The joy of the compagnons freed from the tutelage of the masters found expression in song: ‘Tomorrow it’s up to us, as free as we please/To go and sell our goods and wine/Each from his trade at ease/ To earn, without dues of oath or mastery/Hey ho!, no oath or mastery’ (ibid.).

20Kaplan, La fin des corporations, p. 317.

21Mercier, Tableau de Paris, pp. 368–9.

22Ibid., p. 95.

23Ibid., p. 276.

24Arlette Farge, Vivre dans la rue au XVIIIe siècle, Paris: Gallimard, 1979, p. 23.

25Ibid., p. 156.

26On Brissot’s younger days, see Robert Darnton, The Literary Underground of the Old Regime, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982, pp. 41–70.

27Montesquieu had died in 1755, Helvétius in 1771, Rousseau and Voltaire in 1778, D’Alembert in 1783 and Diderot in 1784.

28Daniel Mornet, Les Origines intellectuelles de la Révolution française, Paris: Armand Colin, 1933; Roger Chartier, The Cultural Origins of the French Revolution, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1991.

29Karl Marx, The Holy Family, in Marx-Engels Collected Works, vol. 3, London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1975, p. 119.

30The seven volumes of Antiquités d’Herculanum, ou les plus belles peintures antiques et les marbres, bronzes, meubles, trouvés dans les excavations d’Herculanum were published in Paris in 1780. For a bibliography of this period, see Georges Vallet’s preface to La Peinture de Pompéi, Paris: Hazan, 1993.

31Jean-Antoine-Nicolas de Caritat Condorcet, Selected Writings, London: Macmillan, 1976, pp. 79–81.

32Furet, Interpreting the French Revolution, p. 164ff.

33Albert Soboul, The French Revolution, 1787–1799: From the Storming of the Bastille to the Coming of Napoleon, London: Unwin Hyman, 1989.

34Sièyes, Political Writings, p. 105. [The noblesse de robe were recent creations, essentially awarded for services in the state administration. – Translator]

35Mathiez, The French Revolution, p. 5.

36Ibid., p. 6.

37‘The people, who often have a word that goes straight to the idea, have given this petty gentleman the name of the smallest bird of prey, naming him the hobereau [hobby falcon]’ (Tocqueville).

38[‘Molinists’, after the Jesuit Luis Molina (1536–1600), a theological doctrine whose followers stressed human freedom and were accused of moral laxity; ‘riennistes’, those who pejoratively believed in nothing. – Translator]

39Mercier, Tableau de Paris, p. 123.

40Jaurès, Histoire socialiste, vol. 1, p. 89.

41Tocqueville, The Ancien Régime, p. 152.

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