Here especially the pre-Revolutionary picture is complex and obscure.(1) Domestic industry—of men, women, and children in the home—served merchants who provided the material and bought the product. (2) Guilds-masters, journeymen, and apprentices—produced handicraft goods, chiefly for local needs. The guilds survived till the Revolution, but by 1789 they had been fatally weakened by the growth of (3) capitalistic free enterprise—companies free to collect capital from any source, to hire anybody, to invent and apply new methods of production and distribution, to compete with anybody, and to sell anywhere. ‘These establishments were usually small, but they were multiplying; so Marseilles alone, in 1789, had thirtyeight soap factories, forty-eight for hats, eight for glass, twelve sugar refineries, ten tanneries.23 In textiles, building, mining, and metallurgy, capitalism had expanded into large-scale enterprises, usually through joint-stock companies—sociétés anonymes.

France was slow to adopt the textile machines that were inaugurating the Industrial Revolution in England, but large textile factories were operating in Abbeville, Amiens, Reims, Paris, Louviers, and Orléans, and the silk industry flourished at Lyons. The building trades were raising those massive blocks of apartment houses that still give French cities their characteristic physiognomy. Shipbuilding employed thousands of workers in Nantes, Bordeaux, Marseilles. Mining was the most advanced of French industries. The state kept all rights to the subsoil, leased the mines to concessionaires, and enforced a code of safety for the miners.24 Companies sank shafts to depths of three hundred feet, installed expensive equipment for ventilation, drainage, and transport, and made millionaires. The Anzin firm (1790) had four thousand workmen, six hundred horses, and twelve steam engines, and mined 310,000 tons of coal per year. The mining of iron and other metals supplied material for an expanding metallurgical industry. In 1787 the Creusot stock company raised ten million livres of capital to apply the latest machinery in the production of ironware; steam engines operated bellows, hammers, and drills, and railways enabled one horse to pull what had required five horses before.

Some startling inventions were developed by Frenchmen in these years. In 1776 the Marquis de Jouffroy d’Abbans amused crowds along the River Doubs with a sidewheeler boat propelled by a steam engine, thirty-one years before Fulton’s Clermont steamed up and down the Hudson. Even more spectacular were the first steps in the conquest of the air. In 1766 Henry Cavendish had shown that hydrogen has a lower density than air; Joseph Black concluded that a bladder filled with hydrogen would rise. Joseph and Étienne Montgolfier worked on the principle that air loses density when heated; on June 5, 1783, at Annonay, near Lyons, they filled a balloon with heated air; it rose to a height of sixteen hundred feet, and descended ten minutes later when its air had cooled. A hydrogen-filled balloon, designed by Jacques-Alexandre Charles, made an ascent from Paris on August 27, 1783, before 300,000 cheering spectators; when it came down fifteen miles away a village crowd tore it to pieces on the theory that it was a hostile invader from the sky.25 On October 15 Jean-François Pilátre de Rozier made the first recorded human flight, using a Montgolfier balloon with heated air; this ascent lasted four minutes. On January 7, 1785, Francois Blanchard, a Frenchman, and John Jeffries, an American physician, flew in a balloon from England to France. People began to talk of flying to America.26

Nourished with industry and commerce, the towns of France prospered during the fatal reign. Lyons hummed with shops, factories, and enterprise. Arthur Young was amazed by the splendor of Bordeaux. Paris was now a business rather than a political center; it was the hub of an economic complex that controlled half the capital, and so half the economy, of France. In 1789 it had a population of some 600,000.27 It was not then an especially beautiful city; Voltaire described much of it as worthy of Goths and Vandals.28Priestley, visiting it in 1774, reported: “I cannot say that I was much struck with anything except the spaciousness and magnificence of the public buildings, and to balance this I was exceedingly offended by the narrowness, dirt, and stench of almost all the streets.”29 Young gave a similar account:

The streets are nine-tenths dirty, and all without foot pavements. Walking, which in London is so pleasant and so clean that ladies do it every day, is here a toil and a fatigue to a man, and an impossibility to a well-dressed woman. The coaches are numerous, and what is much worse, there are an infinity of one-horse cabriolets, which are driven by young men of fashion and their imitators, … with such rapidity as to … render the streets exceedingly dangerous.... I have been myself many times blackened with mud.30

In the cities and towns a proletariat was taking form: men, women, and children working for wages with tools and materials not their own. There are no statistics of them, but they have been estimated, for the Paris of 1789, at 75,000 families, or 300,000 individuals;31 and there were proportionate masses in Abbeville, Lyons, and Marseilles. Hours of work were long and wages were low, for a ruling of the Paris Parlement (November 12, 1778) forbade the workers to organize. Between 1741 and 1789 wages rose twentytwo per cent, prices sixty-five per cent;32 the condition of the workers seems to have deteriorated in the reign of Louis XVI.33 When demand slackened, or (as in 1786) foreign competition became severe, workingmen in great number were discharged, and became a burden on charity. A rise in the price of bread—which constituted half the food of the Parisian populace34put thousands of families close to starvation. At Lyons in 1787 thirty thousand persons were on public relief; at Reims in 1788, after an inundation, two thirds of the population were destitute; at Paris, in 1791, a hundred thousand families were listed as indigent.35 “In Paris,” wrote Mercier about 1785, “the [common] people are weak, pallid, diminutive, stunted, and apparently a class apart from other classes in the state.”36

Defying prohibitions, laborers formed unions and went on strike. In 1774 the silk workers of Lyons quit work, alleging that the cost of living was rising much faster than wages, and that the unregulated laws of supply and demand were driving workers to a level of mere subsistence. The employers, with well-stocked larders, waited for hunger to bring the strikers to terms. Frustrated, many workers left Lyons for other towns, even for Switzerland or Italy; they were halted at the frontier and were brought back by force to their homes. The workers rose in revolt, seized municipal offices, and established a brief dictatorship of the proletariat over the commune. The government called in the army; the revolt was suppressed; two leaders were hanged; the strikers returned to their shops beaten, but hostile now to the government as well as to their employers.37

In 1786 they struck again, protesting that even with eighteen hours’ work per day they could not support their families, and complaining that they were treated “more inhumanly than domestic animals, for even these are given enough to keep them in health and vigor.”38 The city authorities agreed to a rise in pay, but forbade any meeting of more than four persons. A battalion of artillery took charge of enforcing this prohibition; soldiers fired upon the strikers, killing several. The strikers returned to work. The increase in pay was later revoked.39

Riots against the cost of living occurred sporadically throughout the second half of the eighteenth century. In Normandy there were six between 1752 and 1768; in 1768 the rioters captured control of Rouen, sacked the public granaries, pillaged the stores. Similar riots occurred at Reims in 1770, Poitiers in 1772, Dijon, Versailles, Paris, Pontoise in 1775, Aix-en-Provence in 1785, and again at Paris in 1788 and 1789.40

What role did the poverty of the proletariat, or of the urban populace in general, play in bringing on the Revolution? On the surface it was a proximate cause; the bread shortages and consequent riots in Paris in 1788-89 raised the fever of the people to a point where they were willing to risk their lives in defying the army and attacking the Bastille. But hunger and wrath can give motive force; they do not give leadership; it is likely that the riots would have been calmed by a lowering of the price of bread if leadership from higher strata had not directed the rioters to take the Bastille and march on Versailles. The masses had as yet no idea of overturning the government, of deposing the King, of establishing a republic. The proletariat talked hopefully of natural equality, but it did not dream of taking possession of the state. It demanded, whereas the bourgeoisie opposed, state regulation of the economy, at least to fixing the price of bread; but this was a return to the old system, not an advance toward an economy dominated by the working class. It is true that when the time for action came it was the populace of Paris which, moved by hunger and roused by orators and agents, took the Bastille and thereby deterred the King from using the army against the Assembly. But when that Assembly remade France it was under the guidance, and for the purposes, of the bourgeoisie.

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