WE HAVE examined the mind of France on the eve of the Revolution—its philosophy, religion, morals, manners, literature, and art. But these were frail flowers growing from an economic ground; we cannot understand them without a knowledge of their roots. Much less can we understand the political convulsion that ended the Old Regime without examining in turn, however briefly, each organ of the French economy, and inquiring how its condition made for the great debacle.
In dealing once more with agriculture, industry, commerce, and finance, we should remember that they are not dismal abstractions but living and sensitive human beings: nobles and peasants organizing the production of food; managers and workers manufacturing goods; inventors and scientists forging new methods and tools; towns throbbing with shops and factories, worried housewives and rebellious mobs; ports and ships alive with merchants, navigators, sailors, and adventurous spirits; bankers risking, gaining, losing money like Necker, life like Lavoisier; and, through all the agitated mass, the flow and pressure of revolutionary ideas and discontent. It is a complex and tremendous picture.
France was 24,670,000 men, women, and children; so Necker reckoned the population in 1784.1 The number had grown from 17,000,000 in 1715 through greater food production, better sanitation, and the absence of foreign invasion and civil war. The nation as a whole experienced a rise of prosperity during the eighteenth century, but most of the new affluence was confined to the middle class.2
All but two millions of the French were rural. Agricultural life was directed by royal intendants, provincial administrators, and parish priests, and by seigneurs—feudal lords—estimated, in 1789 at some 26,000. These and their sons served their country in war in their gallant, old-fashioned way (swords were now more an ornament than a weapon). Only a small minority of the nobles remained at the court; the majority lived on their estates, and claimed to earn their keep by providing agricultural management, police surveillance, courts, schools, hospitals, and charity. Most of these functions, however, had been taken over by agents of the central government, and the peasant proprietors were developing their own institutions for local administration. So the nobility had become a vestigial organ, taking much blood from the social organism, and giving little but military service in return. Even this service aroused a public grievance, for the nobility persuaded Louis XVI (1781) to exclude all but men with four generations of aristocracy behind them from every major office in the army, the navy, and the government.
It was further alleged against the nobles that they left vast areas of their estates uncultivated, while thousands of city dwellers were hungering for bread. True of many parts of France was Arthur Young’s description of the Loire and Cher River sections: “The fields are scenes of pitiable management, as the houses are of misery. Yet all this country [is] highly improvable, if they knew what to do with it.”3 * Not a few of the nobles were themselves poor, some through incompetence, some through misfortune, some through the exhaustion of their soil. Many of these appealed to the King for help, and several received grants from the national purse.
Serfdom, in the sense of a person bound by law to a piece of land, and permanently subject to its owner for dues and services, had largely disappeared from France by 1789; about a million serfs remained, chiefly on monastic properties. When Louis XVI freed the serfs on the royal domain (1779), the Parlement of Franche-Comté (in eastern France) delayed nine months before registering his edict. The Abbey of Luxeuil and the Priory of Fontaine, owning together eleven thousand serfs, and the Abbey of St.-Claude in the present department of the Jura, with twenty thousand serfs, refused to follow the King’s example, despite appeals in which several ecclesiastics joined with Voltaire.5 Gradually these serfs bought their freedom, or gained it by flight; and Louis XVI, in 1779, abolished the owner’s right to pursue fugitive serfs outside his own domain.
Though ninety-five per cent of the peasants were free in 1789, the great majority of these were still subject to one or more feudal dues, varying in degree from region to region. They included a yearly rental (doubled in the eighteenth century), a fee for the right to bequeath goods, and payment for use of the lord’s grist mills, bake ovens, wine presses, and fishponds—on all of which he maintained a monopoly. He reserved the right to hunt his game even into the peasant’s crops. He enclosed more and more of the common ground on which the peasant had formerly grazed his cattle and cut wood. The corvée, in most of France, had been commuted for a money payment, but in Auvergne, Champagne, Artois, and Lorraine the peasant was still required to give the local seigneur three or more days of unpaid labor every year for the maintenance of roads, bridges, and waterways.6 In sum and on the average the surviving feudal dues took ten per cent of the peasant’s produce or income. The ecclesiastical tithe took another eight to ten per cent. Add the taxes paid to the state, the market and sales taxes, and the fees paid to the parish priest for baptism, marriage, and burial, and the peasant was left about half the fruit of his toil.
As the money payments received by the lords were reduced in value by depreciation of the currency, the seigneurs sought to protect their income by increasing the dues, by reviving dues long fallen into disuse, and by enclosing more of the common lands. The collection of dues was usually farmed out to professional agents, who were often heartless in their work. When the peasant questioned the right to certain requisitions he was told that they were listed on the rolls or registers of the manors. If he challenged the authenticity of these rolls the matter was submitted to the manorial court or the provincial parlement, whose judges were controlled by the seigneurs.7 When Boncerf, secretly encouraged by Turgot, published (1776) a brochure, The Disadvantages of the Feudal Rights, recommending the reduction of such rights, he was censured by the Parlement of Paris. Voltaire, aged eighty-two, rose again to battle. “To propose the abolition of feudal rights,” he wrote, “is tantamount to attacking the holdings of the gentlemen of the Parlement themselves, most of whom possess fiefs.... It is a case of the Church, the nobility, and the members of the Parlement … united against the common enemy—i.e., the people.”8
Something could be said for the feudal dues. From the noble’s point of view they were a mortgage freely assumed by the peasant as part of the price at which he bought a parcel of land from its legal owner—who in many cases had bought it in good faith from its previous possessor. Some poor nobles depended upon the dues for their sustenance. The peasant suffered far more from taxes, tithes, and the demands and ravages of war than from feudal dues. Hear the greatest and noblest of French socialists, Jean Jaurés: “If there had been, in the society of eighteenth-century France, no other abuse than the despicable remains of that [feudal] system, there would have been no need of a revolt to heal the sore; a gradual reduction of feudal rights, a liberation of the peasantry, would have accomplished the change peaceably.”9
The most remarkable feature of the French nobility was its acknowledgment of guilt. Not only did many nobles join the philosophes in rejecting the old theology; some, as we have seen, laughed at the outdated prerogatives of their caste.10 A year before the Revolution thirty nobles offered to renounce their pecuniary feudal privileges.11 All the world knows the idealism of the young Lafayette, who not only fought for America, but, on returning to France, vigorously engaged in the struggle for peaceful reform. He denounced slavery, and devoted part of his fortune to freeing the slaves in French Guiana.12 The profession of liberal principles, and the advocacy of reform, became fashionable in a section of the aristocracy, especially among titled ladies like Mesdames de La Marck, de Boufflers, de Brienne, and de Luxembourg. Hundreds of nobles and prelates took an active part in campaigns for equalizing taxes, checking governmental extravagance, organizing charities, ending the corvée.13 Some nobles, like the Duchesse de Bourbon, gave most of their wealth to the poor.14
All this, however, was only a graceful ornament on the visible fact that the French nobility had ceased to earn its keep. Many nobles tried to fulfill their traditional responsibilities, but the contrast between the luxurious idleness of rich seigneurs and the hardships of a populace repeatedly on the verge of famine aroused hostility and scorn. Long ago a great noble himself had passed sentence of death upon his caste. Hear René-Louis de Voyer, Marquis d’Argenson, secretary of state (1744-47), writing about 1752:
The race of great lords must be destroyed completely. By great lords I understand those who have dignities, property, tithes, offices, and functions, and who, without deserts and without necessarily being adults, are none the less great, and for this reason often worthless.... I notice that a breed of good hunting dogs is preserved, but once it deteriorates it is done away with.15
It was these lords, rich, proud, and often functionless, who initiated the Revolution. They looked fondly back to the days before Richelieu, when their order was the ruling power in France. When the parlements asserted their right to annul royal edicts, the nobilities of race and sword joined with the nobility of the robe—the hereditary magistrates—in an attempt to subordinate the king. They cheered the parlement orators who raised the cry for liberté; they encouraged the people and the pamphleteers to denounce the absolute power of Louis XVI. We cannot blame them; but by weakening the authority of the monarch they made it possible for the National Assembly of 1789, controlled by the bourgeoisie, to seize the sovereignty in France. The nobles threw the first spadeful of earth that dug their grave.