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The Origins of the French Revolution

The purpose of this concluding chapter is to provide a synthesis of some of the more important interpretations of the outbreak of the French Revolution.

The 1770s and 1780s brought with them a serious economic depression. This seemed the worse because it followed a long period of mounting prosperity and it caused a sense of resentment and bitterness as all classes faced a decline in their status. The fabric of society was now threatened with rupture by the exertion of two internal forces. These had existed for much of the century but were now greatly accentuated by the economic crisis. The first force was the hostility between the Second Estate (aristocracy) and the Third Estate (bourgeoisie, peasantry and urban proletariat) as they pulled further apart from each other. The second force was the simultaneous attempt of both Estates to pull away from the policies of the monarchy and the implications of absolutism. For a while the Estates formed an unnatural alliance against the central power of the monarchy, and so the second force was the stronger. The king, finding himself in serious difficulties, yielded to the combined demands of the different classes, and agreed to summon the Estates General. Now that the central authority seemed to have collapsed, the original antagonism between the Estates reasserted itself so violently that this first force tore through the fabric of the ancien régime. The influence of the nobility was now overwhelmed by successive waves from the Third Estate as the bourgeoisie, peasantry and urban proletariat each pressed for the achievement of their aspirations.

It is a common assumption that revolution is caused by misery; Marx certainly believed that worsening conditions create a situation favourable to revolution. In the mid–nineteenth century, however, Alexis de Tocqueville advanced the theory that the French Revolution broke out when conditions were improving. He observed: ‘It is not always by going from bad to worse that a country falls into a revolution.’ Moreover, ‘the state of things destroyed by a revolution is almost always somewhat better than that which immediately precedes it’.1 In 1962 J.C. Davies used a slightly different approach, but covered some of de Tocqueville's ground. He suggested that ‘revolutions are most likely to occur when a prolonged period of objective economic and social development is followed by a short period of sharp reversal’.2 This seems to be borne out by the general economic trends of the eighteenth century.

Between 1741 and 1776 France experienced a high overall economic growth rate. Large sections of the bourgeoisie benefited from the threefold increase of trade and the fivefold increase of overseas trade, together with the revived prosperity of ports like Dunkirk, Le Havre, La Rochelle, Bordeaux, Nantes and Marseilles. The increase in prices (estimated at 65 per cent between 1741 and 1765) drove up the value of farm produce and greatly improved the living conditions of the tenant farmers. Although famines did occur, for example in 1725, 1740, 1759 and 1766–8, there was nothing in the 1780s to compare with the catastrophic levels of starvation during the years 1693–4 and 1709–10. In the general upsurge of prosperity the French bourgeoisie and peasantry seemed distinctly better off than their counterparts in Central and Eastern Europe.

When it came, during the 1770s and 1780s, the slump had a profound effect. France experienced a recession similar to that suffered by other countries; this was probably no more than a temporary dip in a lengthy economic cycle, possibly precipitated by a shortage of bullion from the New World. French industry and commerce were, however, badly affected because of the inadequate nature of French credit facilities. Production therefore declined, unemployment increased and the recession soon communicated itself to the agricultural sector. To make matters worse, there was a severe drought in 1785, and in the following years the peasants were unable to afford the usual quantity of seed, the inevitable result being short yields. The 1788 harvest was ruined by an abnormally wet summer and the position was even worse in 1789. The degree of starvation was lower than it had been at various stages during the reign of Louis XIV; but the sudden decline in the fortunes of each class in the 1770s and 1780s had a far more dangerous psychological impact. The bourgeoisie and peasantry, in particular, saw the gap between their aspirations and their achievements growing ever wider, while the nobility struggled desperately to hold what they had. The result was deep resentment and growing bitterness, both of them more inflammable revolutionary material than suffering by itself. The social classes looked with increasing suspicion at each other and at the Régime itself, trying desperately to recapture their former share of the national wealth and to continue their previous quest for material advancement.

The eighteenth century saw a gradual deterioration in relations between the Second and Third Estates. Each had improved its position economically compared to its own past; but each came to regard the other as a serious threat to its security and well–being. The resentment greatly increased after 1776.

The nobility had managed to reassert its influence over the administration and local government by the alliance between the nobless d’épée and the noblesse de robe, while the highest positions of authority within the Church had, in the words of Talleyrand, become the preserve ‘presque exclusif de la classe noble’.3 On the other hand, the nobility feared the ambitions of the wealthy sections of the bourgeoisie and resisted fiercely any attempts by the latter to break the monopoly of the noblesse de robe over the administrative offices and the Parlements. The bourgeoisie regarded their ultimate aim as passage into the First Estate by the traditional method of ennoblement. Increasingly, however, this form of upward mobility was blocked and with it any chance of gaining political power. Two revolutionary leaders showed the effects that disillusionment with this state of affairs could produce. Carnot's radical views followed his unsuccessful attempts to gain ennoblement, while Danton believed that ‘The Old Régime drove us to it [revolution] by giving us a good education, without opening any opportunity for our talents.’4 The peasantry, although lacking the education and economic power of the bourgeoisie, had their own aspirations which were challenged by the rural nobility. Seigneurial rights and dues were extracted to the full, and the peasantry had to suffer the inconveniences and hardships produced by the banalité du moulin, banalité du four, banalité du pressoir, droit de chasse and droit de bauvin. And, according to one of the cahiers of the peasantry in 1789, ‘the contempt of the nobility for the commonality is beyond belief ‘.5 The nobility therefore came to be regarded as a parasitic element, enjoying seigneurial privileges without carrying out the functions which had once accompanied them.

The rift between the Second and Third Estates widened during the 1770s and 1780s. Under the impact of the recession the peasantry found the seigneurial dues particularly onerous, while the nobility increasingly tightened up their exactions in order to solve their own difficulties. The burden of the depression was therefore passed downwards, to the section of society least able to bear it. The bourgeois complaint about the nobility was more indirect, but, nevertheless, significant for the future. They accused the nobility of resisting any rationalization of the economic and financial structure and of perpetuating anachronistic institutions at a time when reform was most urgently needed.

Yet tensions between the social classes did not result in immediate conflict. For a while they were partially restrained by a temporary and basically artificial coalition against a common target, the absolute power of the monarch.

The motives of each class in establishing this common front against the central government differed widely, but each had a fixed idea that the Régime in its present form could no longer serve its interests or guarantee it from exploitation. The government had, therefore, to be modified. Precisely how remained a matter of vague speculation until the monarchy actually collapsed under the combined pressure.

The nobility feared absolutism more profoundly in the 1770s and 1780s than ever before. The banning of the Parlements in 1771 seemed to be an attack on the most cherished power of the nobility, gained after a long struggle since 1715, namely, the questioning of royal legislation. When the Parlements were restored in 1774 the nobility returned to the offensive, only to be confronted by the appalling spectre of a reforming monarch, who, to make matters worse, was served by ministers who openly expressed reservations about the existing fiscal system and the exemptions from taxation. Louis XVI seemed a greater menace than Louis XIV because he appeared to be willing to embark upon an extensive remodelling programme which would reduce the social status of the nobility in a way never even considered in the seventeenth century. The nobility therefore used every device available; they fought the reform programme in the Parlements, in the court and in the Assembly of Notables. As the financial crisis worsened after 1787 they demanded the convocation of the Estates General. This was merely an appeal to an early precedent, one which the nobility knew the monarch could not ignore. The Estates General would naturally confirm the powers of the nobility, since the First and Second Estates would outnumber the Third Estate on the traditional voting method.

The bourgeoisie saw matters differently but went along with the tactics of the nobility. To them the Estates General offered the prospect of fundamental constitutional reform, which would enable the bourgeoisie to exert more control over the political institutions and to redesign the economic structure. The latter had become increasingly burdensome. After the brief experiments of the Regency with laissez–faire, France had seen the return of the mercantilist policies of Colbert from 1726 onwards, and the continuation of the oppressive guild system and internal customs barriers. Then, during the reign of Louis XVI, government policy seemed to lose all sense of overall direction. At the very depth of the economic depression the government seemed prepared to unleash the market forces of Great Britain; by the free trade treaty of 1786 it exposed the declining French industries to laissez–faire at the very time that protection was most needed. If the chaotic economic and fiscal system were to be reorganized, the bourgeoisie would have to play an active role. This could no longer be done by relying on a special relationship with the monarchy; the nobility had already blocked the access to political positions. The solution, therefore, had to be found in representative institutions—in a parliamentary monarchy. Much as the bourgeoisie resented the nobility, they therefore supported the demands for the convocation of the Estates General.

The peasantry also regarded the meeting of the Estates General as a panacea. It would be the instrument whereby the unequal distribution of taxation would be remedied. The taille, capitation, vingtième, gabelle and aides would be reassessed or possibly replaced by a graduated land, or income, tax. The institution of monarchy still commanded respect, but it was felt increasingly that its powers should be limited. The peasantry suspected that the government had been making profits from fluctuations in the price of grain; this and other grievances could now be articulated openly, with greater hope of redress.

In expressing its opposition to the policies of the Régime each class made use of the ideas of the leading French philosophes. It is often assumed that Montesquieu, Voltaire and Rousseau exerted a direct influence on the growth of revolutionary feeling and thereby precipitated the events of 1789. In reality, the growth of dissent was not actually stimulated by the philosophes; dissent, however, was frequently expressed with the help of quotations taken liberally from their writings. The Paris Parlement, for example, made frequent use of Montesquieu's theories of the balance of power. Sometimes the phrases used to support claims bore a close resemblance to the American constitution which, in turn, borrowed from the philosophes. The Parlement of Rennes, for example, declared in 1788: ‘That man is born free, that originally men are equal, these are truths that have no need of proof ‘,6 an obvious mixture of Jefferson and Rousseau. The cahiers of each social group in 1789 contained examples of an unusually lucid statement of general grievances. It appears, therefore, that Montesquieu and Rousseau had more influence on the expression of opposition than on its actual formation.

Such a distinction would have offered little comfort to Louis XVI. During his reign monarchy not only reached its lowest ebb for two centuries; it eventually proved incapable of presiding over the normal process of government. The main problem was that the monarchy could no longer maintain a careful balance between the divergent social forces, for the simple reason that it had no consistent basis of support. Louis XIV had promoted the image of absolutism by elevating the monarchy into a lofty position of isolation. But he had taken care to maintain the support of the bourgeoisie to balance the alienated noblesse d’épée. After 1851 Napoleon III was to depend on the backing of the peasantry to counterbalance the opposition of the workers. The French monarchy could survive only if it was able to rely upon a politically significant section of the population or to pursue the more difficult policy of ‘divide and rule’.

The vulnerability of Louis XVI was all the greater because of the financial crisis which lasted throughout his reign, and which proved that he could not maintain his authority without the goodwill, or at least, indifference, of his subjects. Intolerable strains had been imposed on the financial structure by the Seven Years’ War and the War of American Independence, and he was forced to consider changes in the methods and assessment of taxation. This situation was not without precedent; Louis XIV had had to agree to the introduction of the dixième and capitation during the War of the League of Augsburg and the War of the Spanish Succession. But Louis XIV had to deal only with a relatively docile nobility and with an impoverished and not yet articulate peasantry. Louis XVI encountered much more widespread opposition, and in particular a concerted demand, from 1787, for the convocation of the Estates General. In finally giving way, in 1788, he acknowledged the collapse of absolutism and the existence of a political vacuum at the centre.

Freed from the necessity of having to co–operate against the Régime, the Second and Third Estates now expressed their fears of each other more openly, and crisis became revolution.

The nobility showed their determination to maintain the traditional voting procedures once the Estates General had convened. This brought out into the open their differences with the Third Estate, which proceeded to reconstitute itself as the National Assembly. This was the first sign of institutional revolution, as it was an open defiance of the authority and procedure of a traditional body. From this stage onwards, as G.Lefebvre argues, the momentum was increased by the participation of each element of the Third Estate. The bourgeoisie appeared to have accepted the new political situation of July 1789 as permanent. The peasantry, however, hastened the destruction of feudal and seigneurial rights in August by a series of riots in the provinces. The artisans and proletariat of Paris pushed the Revolution into the more violent phase of 1791–3, providing solid support for the sweeping changes made by the National Convention under the direction of the Jacobins.

It is often stated that the Revolution broke out in 1787 as a result of the pressure exerted by the Paris Parlement. It is possible, however, to put this a different way. For a revolution to begin a certain momentum is needed. In the nineteenth century France possessed a large repository of revolutionary experience which exerted the vital push on several occasions (1830, 1848, 1871). During the 1780s there was no such knowledge or leadership; but the nobility, from their position of strength, delivered the first blow to the monarchy as part of their reactionary stance. The momentum of this act of political defiance was enough to encourage the different sections of the Third Estate to bring about the destruction of the ancien Régime and, with it, the Second Estate. This seems to confirm the view put forward by Montaigne as far back as 1580 that Those who give the first shock to a state are the first overwhelmed in its ruin.’

Recent research, particularly by R.R.Palmer and J.Godechot, has placed France in a more general context of revolutionary change which also affected Geneva (1768 and 1792), Ireland (1778 and 1798), and Netherlands (1784–7), Poland (1788–92), the Austrian Netherlands (1787–90) and Hungary (1790), as well as the North American colonies (from 1775). There certainly appear to have been major common problems affecting Europe as a whole. One was a rapid growth in population (100 m. to 200 m. between 1700 and 1800). Another was a sharp depression in the 1770s and 1780s, following a long period of economic growth. The overall result was increased competition for existing land resources, a huge rise in unemployment and serious financial problems, which confronted virtually every government in Europe, and forced a re–examination of the traditional forms of revenue extraction. Given the inability of most governments to deal with a major recession, it is hardly surprising that unrest should have been so widespread.

The majority of the revolutions, however, ended in failure. Palmer emphasizes the importance of a strong bourgeoisie (lacking in Poland and Hungary) and of close co-operation between the different social classes. In Poland and Hungary the huge peasantry remained largely indifferent, while in the Netherlands they backed the forces of counter–revolution. Ultimately the country which possessed the largest bourgeoisie and the most extensive dissatisfaction within each class was the most likely to experience fundamental change. This is why, despite the widespread incidence of unrest in the late eighteenth century, it was France which experienced the most violent upheaval and the most advanced political, social and economic reforms.

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