Modern history



Autumn 1788 – Spring 1789

I 1788, NOT 1688

The monarchy collapsed when the price of its financial rescue was measured not in profits or offices but in political concessions. In August 1788 it suffered a hemorrhage of confidence on the part of its creditors and prospective subscribers. Their reluctance to offer new funds against the usual “anticipations” of revenues signified a transfer of faith from a bureaucratic to a representative form of government. The reforms of the Brienne administration had been the last, strenuous effort to produce sufficient changes to shore up sovereignty without altering its basic premises. Its evident failure to prevail over resistance except through sustained military force was fatal. Henceforth, an alternative conviction was in the ascendant: that patriotic freedom would produce money where reforming absolutism had not.

There was nothing necessary or even logical about this connection. Other states at other times, including other French states like the Bonapartist empire, would draw exactly the opposite conclusion and return to the bureaucratic modernism and personnel of the 1780s. And the financiers of the great powers of the nineteenth century, especially the Rothschilds, generally preferred authoritarianism to liberalism as the guarantor of their loans. But there was an important anniversary in 1788: the centenary of the Glorious Revolution, a lodestar of liberal French historical writing since Voltaire and Montesquieu. And in that orderly transfer of power from an absolutist to a constitutional monarchy French commentators saw not merely a consummation of political virtue but the origins of British financial success. As the repository of public trust (and thus public money), the British Parliament, so the argument ran, had been a more solid bulwark than the ministerial agents of the crown. Whether this view was accurate or not hardly matters. What counted was the belief that liberty and solvency were natural partners. (A glance at the financial career of liberated America might have given these optimists some cause for skepticism, but no one, especially Lafayette, was concerned with such matters in 1788.) The day that Necker was appointed in place of Brienne, government funds rose by thirty points. All along, Necker had insisted that public accountability was the key to fiscal viability. So the mere prospect of the Estates-General, inaugurated by the Minister who had recommended it, was enough to produce subscribers for the loans necessary to keep the government of France working and the soldiers of France paid.

The transfer of the financial mandate was not, in the first instance, an act of pure political conviction. Investors in government funds – whether in Paris, Geneva, London or Amsterdam – calculated that a new regime was more likely to honor its obligations than the old one. This was especially true once it had become clear that the monarchy was not going to be allowed to introduce the reforms necessary to give it renewed freedom of action. But those who made such a decision in the salons of the faubourg Saint-Germain were, as social animals, members of the same class as the Parlementaires. Traditionally, even in extreme situations such as the Maupeou crisis of the 1770s, they had defined their interests not in automatic solidarity with the judicial nobility but in service to the crown. From that service they could expect, as Farmers-General or contractors of other loans, a tidy profit, and the perquisites and status of ennobling office. What had happened through the reign of Louis XVI, first under Turgot and Necker and then under Brienne, was that the rationale for that continued loyalty had been seriously strained by reforms. In other words, the monarchy’s attempts to secure more direct access to revenue, and to tap the economic growth of France in this period more effectively, needed to have succeeded completely if they were to succeed at all. Partial success was the same as complete failure, for it meant running back to financiers whose interest in sustaining the monarchy was now moot.

From this point of view, a government instituted by the Estates-General would be a more dependable debtor. Broader consensus would remove the obstacles to new sources of revenue, and those in turn would be a firmer security for more loans. The benefits of liberalism would thus be self-replenishing. But this happy outcome assumed a French version of 1688 (annotated by Montesquieu) in which effective sovereignty would pass smoothly from the absolutist court to an assembly dominated by les Grands: the financial and judicial nobility. Concomitant with that momentous change would be some sort of French Bill of Rights, stripping absolutism of its arbitrary judicial powers – lettres de cachet and the like – and guaranteeing security of person and property. The freedom to publish and assemble peacefully would also be guaranteed. Ministers who purloined public monies for their own purposes (the Calonne fixation still ran strong) would be accountable to the representatives of the Nation. And that would be that. The crown would still have the indisputable right to appoint ministers, to propose and perhaps to veto legislation. But the legality of its government would henceforth be subject to public scrutiny.

This, then, was the vision of a constitutional reformation in which the grandees of France would have the senior role. It was what d’Eprémesnil and the other legal lions of the Parlement undoubtedly had in mind when they organized the systematic obstruction of the Brienne reforms. What they got instead was a revolution. And the engineers of the fall of the monarchy became not its successors but its first and most spectacular casualties.

How did this happen? The long-hallowed explanation is that, at the last minute, aristocratic expectations of succession were confounded by the sudden appearance of a new political class – the bourgeoisie. Thwarted in their efforts at upward social mobility and the possession of office, this Third Estate seized political leadership to destroy not just the monarchy but the entirety of the old “feudal” regime and installed themselves instead as the lords of the nineteenth century.

The wholly imaginary nature of this explanation hardly needs repeating here. The creation of a political alternative to aristocratic conservatism occurred not outside but inside the elite, and was by no means the invention even of relatively recently ennobled figures like Mounier. The man who first identified the true political Nation with the Third Estate was the arch-aristocratic Comte d’Antraigues. Such politicians ensured that the Estates-General could not be simply brandished in the face of the monarchy withoutthe nature of its representation being addressed. It is as if the sponsors of King William III had included a powerful and articulate faction committed to the cause of parliamentary reform.

The effect of this early debate about representation on the cohesiveness of the putative “successor elite” was decisive, which meant that instead of a new political class rallying round their natural leaders (as had indeed been the case in England in 1688 or, for the most part, in America in 1776), deep cleavages opened up. Those on the radical side of that division were not only ready but eager to use popular force and the polarizing language of patriotism and treason to empower their ideology.

What was that ideology? In the first place its radicalism can be measured by what it was not. It repudiated historicity and the sanction of the past. This itself was a shocking departure from the hallowed language of opposition to absolutism since the reign of Louis XV. It emphasized that a constitution was to be built anew, not simply rescued from atrophy. The criteria for this new construction were to be rational and patriotic. These were dangerously loose terms, and before very long differences among revolutionaries would make those priorities not so much complementary as opposed. “Rationalists” – exponents of modernity, of a popular monarchy, of a liberal economic and legal order – like Barnave, Talleyrand, the Marquis de Condorcet and the astronomer Sylvain Bailly were all products of the late Enlightenment. Believers in liberty, progress, science, capitalized property and just administration, they were heirs to the reforming ethos of Louis XVI’s reign – and authentic predictors of the “new notability” to emerge after the Revolution had run its course. Their language was reasonable and their tempers cool. What they had in mind was a Nation vested, through its representatives, with the power to strip away the obstructions to modernity. Such a state (in all likelihood, a monarchy) would not wage war on the France of the 1780s but consummate its promise.

Rationality, however, did not have a monopoly of utterance in 1788 and 1789. The kind of eloquence needed to mobilize popular anger to the point at which it could be used as a lever of power was not cool but hot. And the stokers of revolutionary heat were not prepared to allow it to cool off for the benefit of moderate constitutional change. They were guided neither by rationality nor by modernity but by passion and virtue. For them the Enlightenment, like much of modern France, was at best a mixed blessing. “We have acquired enlightenment,” wrote the lawyer Target,

but it is patriotism, disinterestedness and virtue that are needed to seek and defend the interests of a great people. Each man must forget himself and see himself only as part of the whole of which he is a member, detach himself from his individual existence, renounce all esprit de corps, belong only to the great society and be a child of the fatherland [un enfant de la patrie].

A society that could be measured, informed, administered, capitalized and individualized was less important than one that would be simplified, moralized and made more innocent. The keystone of its government should not be rationality but justice, and for the arch of culture they proposed to substitute the dwelling of nature. This patrie would be a community of citizens, tender to its children and pitiless to its foes. A society of friends, it would, like Rousseau, its moral originator, be beset by enemies – some of the worst of them dressed up in the appearance of amity. One of the noblest tasks for a citizen would be to unmask those dangerous insincerities. From the beginning, then, revolutionary rhetoric was tuned to a taut pitch of elation and anger. Its tone was visceral rather than cerebral; idealistic rather than realistic; most powerful when it was dividing Frenchmen into Patriots and traitors, most stirring when it was most punitive.

The prospect of satisfaction – in the eighteenth-century sense of redress – was what pulled ordinary Frenchmen into politics for the first time. And it was their participation that turned a political crisis into a full-blooded revolution. Protecting the poor and punishing traitors were, after all, the tasks that the monarchy was traditionally supposed to perform. But as the handmaid of modernity, its government seemed to have abdicated that protective role. For example, instead of ensuring grain supplies at a just price, it had – most recently in 1787 – committed itself to the modern principle of free trade. The result for many seemed catastrophically high prices and opportunities for speculative hoarding that went unpunished. In the name of some sort of incomprehensible principle it had done other unconscionable things that gave comfort to the very enemies it was supposed to pursue. Protestants had been emancipated who could now lord it over decent, poor Catholics in the south and southeast. British textiles had been let into France, robbing Norman and Flemish spinners and weavers of work. All this must have been the product of some sort of conspiracy against the People.

With considerable rhetorical skill, these grievances were fed into a great furnace of anger by the radical politicians of 1789. And from the other end issued a language of accusation, which was also a means of classifying enemies and friends, traitors and Patriots, aristocrats and the Nation. Surprisingly, it mattered little that those same politicians endorsed many of the reforms which so affronted the common people – freedom for internal trade and religious emancipation, for example. These contradictions were (for the time being) masked by the conviction that an assembly of the Nation would be the tribunal in which those grievances would be satisfied and those responsible for them judged. Consequently, all those who declared themselves against such an assembly were, by definition, unpatriotic, and all those who advocated it, identified as the People’s friends. The fact that the King himself had asked his people to submit their grievances at the same time they elected representatives to the Estates-General only reinforced these primitive convictions. For it appeared to be an invitation to assist him in distinguishing the false Patriots from the true.

The opportunity for constitutional reform was lost when the preservation of social distinctions – the orders of the old regime – became stigmatized as unpatriotic. (Virtually the opposite was true in Britain.) Worse still, those distinctions became identified with the causes of popular suffering. Once aristocrat became synonymous with antinational, it meant that anyone who wished to preserve distinctions of rank in the political bodies of the new order identified himself as incapable of citizenship. Such people were, in effect, outside the Nation, foreigners even before they had emigrated.

The possibility of reorganizing allegiances in this way turned on four matters, all of which, at this crucial juncture, pushed France away from evolution and towards revolution.

First, there had to be an aggressively dissenting group within the aristocratic and ecclesiastical elite determined to abandon their own status for the preferred role of citizen-leaders. Who could better distinguish amongst themselves the altruistic from the selfish, the patriotic from the treasonable? And by the same token that same group had to be prepared to provoke, mobilize and direct popular violence in the prosecution and punishment of uncitizens.

Secondly, those who defended a polity based on separate orders were without equivalent power to preserve their position. To dislodge royal absolutism, crowds had been brought onto the streets. But once there it was evident that they would not meekly return to passive obedience, especially when orators and pamphlets were urging them on to further action. Throughout the second half of 1788 and the spring of 1789 the Parlements attempted to act once more as the upholders of public order and to rely on royal troops for their police – an embarrassing predicament given their recent past.

Thirdly, the government made its position still more uncomfortable by leaving open the vital issue of the composition of the Estates-General. Brienne, of course, had fully intended this in July when he issued a general request for “advice” on the form the assembly should take. Meaning to exploit divisions he correctly detected amongst the magistracy, he made it possible for those advocating a truly “national” representation to claim that they, rather than the conservatives, reflected the true wish of the King.

Finally, the King’s expressed wish that his people register their grievances at the same time they elected their representatives connected social distress with political change. That had not happened in Britain in 1688 nor for that matter in America in 1776, and it would prove the crucial difference. In this sense, at least, while social structure did not cause the French Revolution, social issues did.

Reflecting on the nature of patriotic rhetoric since Rousseau, one can see that this was bound to happen. For its sentimental panaceas were perfectly attuned to the resolution of social unhappinesses of all kinds: of the peasant trapped by usurious creditors; of soldiers ill-paid by martinet officers who had bought their commissions; of weavers put out of work by market forces they did not understand; of flower-seller guild-sisters unable to compete with itinerant hawkers; of impoverished curates who were confronted by the immense opulence of an aristocratic prelacy. Once all these people, and more, were told that a true national assembly would, by virtue of its higher moral quality – its common patriotism – provide satisfaction, they were given a direct stake in sweeping institutional change. This was exactly what happened in late 1788 and early 1789. The bringing together of political patriotism with social unrest – anger with hunger – was (to borrow the revolutionaries’ favorite electrical metaphor) like the meeting of two live wires. At their touch a brilliant incandescence of light and heat occurred. Just what and who would be consumed in the illumination was hard to make out.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!