The outstanding feature of French economic life in the eighteenth century was the rise of the business class. It had begun to prosper under Louis XIV and Colbert; it benefited most from the excellent roads and canals that facilitated trade; it grew rich on commerce with the colonies; it rose to prominence in administrative posts (till 1781); it controlled the finances of the state.

But it was harassed to the point of revolt by the tolls exacted for seigneurs or the government on roads and canals, and by the time-consuming examination of the cargo at each toll station. There were from thirty-five to forty such tolls to be paid by a boat carrying cargo from south France to Paris.41 Businessmen demanded free trade within frontiers, but they were not sure that they wanted it between nations. In 1786, moved by physiocratic theories, the government reduced tariffs on textiles and hardware from England, in return for reduction of English tariffs on French wines, glassware, and other products. One result was a blow to the French textile industry, which could not meet the competition of English mills equipped with later machinery. Unemployment in Lyons, Rouen, and Amiens reached an explosive point.

Nevertheless, the lowering of tariffs promoted foreign trade, and filled the coffers of the merchant class. That trade almost doubled between 1763 and 1787, rising to over a billion francs in 1780.42 The port cities of France swelled with merchants, shippers, sailors, warehouses, refineries, distilleries; in those towns the business class was supreme long before the Revolution sanctioned its national supremacy.

Part of mercantile prosperity, as in England, came from the capture or purchase of African slaves, their transport to America, and their sale there for work on the plantations. In 1788 French slave dealers shipped 29,506 Negroes to St.-Domingue (Haiti) alone.43French investors owned most of the soil and industries there and in Guadeloupe and Martinique. In St.-Domingue thirty thousand whites used 480,000 slaves.44 A Société des Amis des Noirs was formed in Paris in 1788, under the presidency of Condorcet, and including Lafayette and Mirabeau fils, for the abolition of slavery, but the shippers and planters overwhelmed the movement with protests. In 1789 the Chamber of Commerce of Bordeaux declared: “France needs its colonies for the maintenance of its commerce, and consequently it needs slaves in order to make agriculture pay in this quarter of the world, at least until some other expedient may have been found.”45

Industrial, colonial, and other enterprises required capital, and generated a spreading breed of bankers. Joint-stock companies offered shares, the government floated loans, speculation developed in the sale and purchase of securities. Speculators hired journalists to disseminate rumors designed to raise or lower the price of stocks.46 Members of the ministries joined in the speculation, and so became subject to pressure or influence by the bankers. Every war made the state more dependent upon the financiers, and made the financiers more vitally concerned with the policy and solvency of the state. Some bankers enjoyed a personal credit superior to that of the government; hence they could borrow at a low rate, lend to the government at a higher rate, and increase their wealth merely by bookkeeping—provided their judgment was good and the state paid its debts.

The farmers general (financiers who bought, by an advance to the state, the right to collect indirect taxes) were especially rich and especially hated, for the indirect taxes, like sales taxes in general, were most burdensome to those who had to spend much of their income on the necessaries of daily life. Some of these fermiers généraux, like Helvétius and Lavoisier, were men of relative integrity and public spirit, contributing abundantly to charity, literature, and art.47 The government recognized the evils of the tax-farming system, and reduced the number of farmers general from sixty to forty in 1780, but public animosity continued. The tax farm was abolished by the Revolution, and Lavoisier’s was one of the heads that fell in the process.

As taxation played a leading role among the causes of the Revolution, we must once more call to mind the various taxes paid by Frenchmen. (1) The taille was a tax on land and personal property. Nobles were exempted from it because of their military service; the clergy were excused because they maintained social order and prayed for the state; magistrates, head administrators, and university officials were exempt; almost all the taille fell upon the landowners of the Third Estate—therefore chiefly upon the peasants. (2) The capitation, or poll, tax was laid upon every head of a household; here only the clergy were exempt. (3) The vingtieme, or twentieth, was a tax on all property, real or personal; but the nobles escaped a large part of this and the poll tax by using private influence, or engaging lawyers to find loopholes in the law; and the clergy avoided the vingtiéme by making a voluntary payment periodically to the state. (4) Every town paid a tax {octroi) to the government, and passed it on to its citizens. (5) Indirect taxes were levied through (a) transport tolls; (b) import and export dues; (c) excise taxes {aides) on wines, liquors, soap, leather, iron, playing cards, etc.; and (d) governmental monopolies on the sale of tobacco and salt. Every individual was required to buy annually a stated minimum of salt from the government at a price fixed by it, always higher than the market price. This salt tax (gabelle) was one of the chief miseries of the peasant. (6) The peasant paid a tax to escape the corvée. Altogether the average member of the Third Estate paid from forty-two to fifty-three per cent of his income in taxes.48

If we take together merchants, manufacturers, financiers, inventors, engineers, scientists, minor bureaucrats, clerks, tradesmen, chemists, artists, booksellers, teachers, writers, physicians, and untitled lawyers and magistrates as constituting the bourgeoisie, we can understand how by 1789 it had become the richest and most energetic part of the nation. It probably owned as much rural land as the nobility,49 and it could acquire nobility merely by buying a noble fief or a post as one of the many “secretaries” to the king. While the nobility lost numbers and wealth through idleness, extravagance, and biological decay, and the clergy lost ground through the rise of science, philosophy, and an urban epicurean life and code, the middle classes grew in money and power by the development of industry, technology, commerce, and finance. They filled with their products or imports the boutiques, or stores, whose splendor astonished foreign visitors to Paris, Lyons, Reims, or Bordeaux.50 While wars were bankrupting the government they enriched the bourgeoisie, which provided transport and matériel. The growing prosperity was almost confined to the towns; it eluded the peasantry and the proletariat, and appeared most visibly in merchants and financiers. In 1789 forty French merchants had a combined wealth of sixty million livres;51 and one banker, Paris-Montmartel, amassed a hundred million.52

The essential cause of the Revolution was the disparity between economic reality and political forms—between the importance of the bourgeoisie in the production and possession of wealth and its exclusion from governmental power. The upper middle class was conscious of its abilities and sensitive to its slights. It was galled by the social exclusiveness and insolence of the nobility—as when the brilliant Mme. Roland, invited to stay for dinner in an aristocratic home, found herself served in the servants’ quarters.53It saw the nobility milking the coffers of the state for extravagant expenditures and feasts while denying political or military office or promotion to those very men whose inventive enterprise had expanded the tax-yielding economy of France, and whose savings were now supporting the treasury. It saw the clergy absorbing a third of the nation’s income in maintaining a theology that almost all educated Frenchmen considered medieval and infantile.

The middle classes did not wish to overthrow the monarchy, but they aspired to control it. They were far from desiring democracy, but they wanted a constitutional government in which the intelligence of all classes could be brought to bear upon legislation, administration, and policy. They demanded freedom from state or guild regulation of industry or commerce, but they were not averse to state subsidies, or to support from the peasants and the city populace in achieving middle-class aims. The essence of the French Revolution was the overthrow of the nobility and the clergy by a bourgeoisie using the discontent of peasants to destroy feudalism, and the discontent of urban masses to neutralize the armies of the king. When, after two years of revolution, the Constituent Assembly had become supreme, it abolished feudalism, confiscated the property of the Church, and legalized the organization of merchants, but forbade all organizations or gatherings of workingmen (June 14, 1791).54

Specifically and immediately the financiers were alarmed by the possibility that the government to which they had lent so much money might declare bankruptcy—as it had done, in whole or in part, fifty-six times since Henry IV.55 The holders of government bonds lost faith in Louis XVI; contractors who worked on state enterprises were uncertain of their payment, or of its value when it came. Businessmen in general felt that the only escape from national bankruptcy was (and so it proved to be) the full taxation of all classes, especially of the wealth accumulated by the Church. When Louis XVI hesitated to extend the taille to the privileged classes, lest he lose their support for his shaking throne, the bondholders, almost unconsciously, and despite their generally conservative principles, became a revolutionary force. The Revolution was due not to the patient poverty of the peasants but to the endangered wealth of the middle class.

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