The Background of Revolution



FRANCE was the most populous and prosperous nation in Europe. Russia in 1780 had 24 million inhabitants, Italy 17 million, Spain 10 million, Great Britain 9 million, Prussia 8.6 million, Austria 7.9 million, Ireland 4 million, Belgium 2.2 million, Portugal 2.1 million, Sweden 2 million, Holland 1.9 million, Switzerland 1.4 million, Denmark 800,000, Norway 700,000, France 25 million.1 Paris was the largest city in Europe, with some 650,000 inhabitants, the best-educated and most excitable in Europe.

The people of France were divided into three orders, or classes (états—states or estates): the clergy, some 130,0002 souls; the nobility, some 400, 000; and the Tiers État, which included everybody else; the Revolution was the attempt of this economically rising but politically disadvantaged Third Estate to achieve political power and social acceptance commensurate with its growing wealth. Each of the classes was divided into subgroups or layers, so that nearly everyone could enjoy the sight of persons below him.

The richest class was the ecclesiastical hierarchy—cardinals, archbishops, bishops, and abbots; among the poorest were the pastors and curates of the countryside; here the economic factor crossed the lines of doctrine, and in the Revolution the lower clergy joined with the commonalty against their own superiors. Monastic life had lost its lure; the Benedictines, numbering 6,434 in the France of 1770, had been reduced to 4,300 in 1790; nine orders of “religious” had been disbanded by 1780, and in 1773 the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) had been dissolved. Religion in general had declined in the French cities; in many towns the churches were half empty; and among the peasantry pagan customs and old superstitions competed actively with the doctrines and ceremonies of the Church.3 The nuns, however, were still actively devoted to teaching and nursing, and were honored by rich and poor alike. Even in that skeptical and practical age there were thousands of women, children, and men who eased the buffets of life with piety, fed their imaginations with tales of the saints, interrupted the succession of toilsome days with holyday ritual and rest, and found in religious hopes an anodyne to defeat and a refuge from bewilderment and despair.

The state supported the Church because statesmen generally agreed that the clergy gave them indispensable aid in preserving social order. In their view the natural inequality of human endowment made inevitable an unequal distribution of wealth; it seemed important, for the safety of the possessing classes, that a corps of clerics should be maintained to provide the poor with counsels of peaceful humility and expectation of a compensating Paradise. It meant much to France that the family, buttressed with religion, remained as the basis of national stability through all vicissitudes of the state. Moreover, obedience was encouraged by belief in the divine right of kings—the divine origin of their appointment and power; the clergy inculcated this belief, and the kings felt that this myth was a precious aid to their personal security and orderly rule. So they left to the Catholic clergy almost all forms of public education; and when the growth of Protestantism in France threatened to weaken the authority and usefulness of the national Church, the Huguenots were ruthlessly expelled.

Grateful for these services, the state allowed the Church to collect tithes and other income from each parish, and to manage the making of wills—which encouraged moribund sinners to buy promissory notes, collectible in heaven, in exchange for earthly property bequeathed to the Church. The government exempted the clergy from taxation, and contented itself with receiving, now and then, a substantial don gratuit, or free grant, from the Church. So variously privileged, the Church in France accumulated large domains, reckoned by some as a fifth of the soil;4 and these it ruled as feudal properties, collecting feudal dues. It turned the contributions of the faithful into gold and silver ornaments which, like the jewels of the crown, were consecrated and inviolable hedges against the inflation that seemed ingrained in history.

Many parish priests, mulcted of parish income by the tithe, labored in pious poverty, while many bishops lived in stately elegance, and lordly archbishops, far from their sees, fluttered about the court of the king. As the French government neared bankruptcy, while the French Church (according to Talleyrand’s estimate) enjoyed an annual income of 150 million livres,*the tax-burdened Third Estate wondered why the Church should not be compelled to share its wealth with the state. When the literature of unbelief spread, thousands of middle-class citizens and hundreds of aristocrats shed the Christian faith, and were ready to view with philosophic calm the raids of the Revolution upon the sacred, guarded hoard.

The nobility was vaguely conscious that it had outlived many of the functions that had been its reasons for being. Its proudest element, the nobility of the sword (noblesse d’épée), had served as the military guard, economic director, and judiciary head of the agricultural communities; but much of these services had been superseded by the centralization of power and administration under Richelieu and Louis XIV; many of the seigneurs now lived at the court and neglected their domains; and their rich raiment, fine manners, and general amiability5 seemed, in 1789, insufficient reason for owning a fourth of the soil and exacting feudal dues.

The more ancient families among them called themselves la noblesse de race, tracing their origin to the Germanic Franks who had conquered and renamed Gaul in the fifth century; in 1789 Camille Desmoulins would turn this boast against them as alien invaders when he called for revolution as a long-delayed racial revenge. Actually some ninety-five percent of the French nobility were increasingly bourgeois and Celtic, having mated their lands and titles to the new wealth and agile brains of the middle class.

A rising portion of the aristocracy—the noblesse de robe, or nobility of the gown—consisted of some four thousand families whose heads had been appointed to judicial or administrative posts that automatically endowed their holders with nobility. As most such posts had been sold by the king or his ministers to raise revenue for the state, many of the purchasers felt warranted in regaining their outlay by a genial susceptibility to bribes;6“venality in office” was “unusually widespread in France,”7 and was one of a hundred complaints against the dying regime. Some of these titles to office and rank were hereditary, and as their holders multiplied, especially in the parlements, or law courts, of the various districts, their pride and power grew to the point where in 1787 the Parlement of Paris claimed the right to veto the decrees of the king. In terms of time the Revolution began near the top.

In Qu’est-ce que le Tiers état?—a pamphlet published in January, 1789—the Abbé Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès asked and answered three questions: What is the Third Estate? Everything. What has it been till now? Nothing. What does it want to be? Something,8or, in Chamfort’s emendation, tout—everything. It was nearly everything. It included the bourgeoisie, or middle class, with its 100,000 families9 and its many layers—bankers, brokers, manufacturers, merchants, managers, lawyers, physicians, scientists, teachers, artists, authors, journalists, the press (the fourth “estate,” or power); and the menu peuple, “little people” (sometimes called “the people”), consisting of the proletariat and tradesmen of the towns, the transport workers on land or sea, and the peasantry.

The upper middle classes held and managed a rising and spreading force: the power of mobile money and other capital in aggressive, expansive competition with the power of static land or a declining creed. They speculated on the stock exchanges of Paris, London, and Amsterdam, and, in Necker’s estimate, controlled half the money of Europe.10 They financed the French government with loans, and threatened to overthrow it if their loans and charges were not met. They owned or managed the rapidly developing mining and metallurgical industry of northern France, the textile industry of Lyons, Troyes, Abbeville, Lille, and Rouen, the iron and salt works of Lorraine, the soap factories of Marseilles, the tanneries of Paris. They managed the capitalist industry that was replacing the craft shops and guilds of the past; they welcomed the doctrine of the Physiocrats11 that free enterprise would be more stimulating and productive than the traditional regulation of industry and trade by the state. They financed and organized the transformation of raw materials into finished goods, and transported these from producer to consumer, making a profit at both ends. They benefited from thirty thousand miles of the best roads in Europe, but they denounced the obstructive tolls that were charged on the roads and canals of France, and the different weights and measures jealously maintained by individual provinces. They controlled the commerce that was enriching Bordeaux, Marseilles, and Nantes; they formed great stock companies like the Compagnie des Indes and the Compagnie des Eaux; they widened the market from the town to the world; and through such trade they developed for France an overseas empire second only to England’s. They felt that they, not the nobility, were the creators of France’s growing wealth, and they determined to share equally with nobles and clergy in governmental favors and appointments, in status before the law and at the royal courts, in access to all the privileges and graces of French society. When Manon Roland, refined and accomplished but bourgeoise, was invited to visit a titled lady, and was asked to eat with the servants there instead of sitting at table with the noble guests, she raised a cry of protest that went to the hearts of the middle class.12 Such resentments and aspirations were in their thoughts when they joined in the revolutionary motto, “Liberty, equality, and fraternity”; they did not mean it downward as well as upward, but it served its purpose until it could be revised. Meanwhile the bourgeoisie became the most powerful of the forces that were making for revolution.

It was they who filled the theaters and applauded Beaumarchais’ satires of the aristocracy. It was they, even more than the nobility, who joined the Freemason lodges to work for freedom of life and thought; they who read Voltaire and relished his erosive wit, and agreed with Gibbon that all religions are equally false for the philosopher and equally useful for the statesman. They secretly admired the materialism of d’Holbach and Helvétius; it might not be quite just to the mysteries of life and mind, but it was a handy weapon against a Church that controlled most of the minds, and half the wealth, of France. They agreed with Diderot that nearly everything in the existing regime was absurd—though they smiled at his longing for Tahiti. They did not take to Rousseau, who smelled of socialism and reeked with certainty; but they, more than any other section of French society, felt and spread the influence of literature and philosophy.

Generally the philosophes were moderate in their politics. They accepted monarchy, and did not resent royal gifts; they looked to “enlightened despots” like Frederick II of Prussia, Joseph II of Austria, even Catherine II of Russia, rather than to the illiterate and emotional masses, as engineers of reform. They put their trust in reason, though they knew its limits and malleability. They broke down the censorship of thought by Church and state, and opened and broadened a million minds; they prepared for the triumphs of science in the nineteenth century, even—with Lavoisier, Laplace, and Lamarck—amid the turmoil of revolution and war.

Rousseau disassociated himself from the philosophes. He respected reason, but gave high place to sentiment and an inspiring, comforting faith; his “Savoyard Vicar’s Profession of Faith” provided a religious stance to Robespierre, and his insistence upon a uniform national creed allowed the Committee of Public Safety to make political heresy—at least in wartime—a capital crime. The Jacobins of the Revolution accepted the doctrine of The Social Contract: that man is by nature good, and becomes bad by being subjected to corrupt institutions and unjust laws; that men are born free and become slaves in an artificial civilization. When in power the Revolutionary leaders adopted Rousseau’s idea that the citizen, by receiving the protection of the state, implicitly pledges obedience to it. Wrote Mallet du Pan: “I heard Marat in 1788 read and comment on The Social Contract in the public streets, to the applause of an enthusiastic auditory.”13 Rousseau’s sovereignty of the people became, in the Revolution, the sovereignty of the state, then of the Committee of Public Safety, then of one man.

The “people,” in the terminology of the Revolution, meant the peasants and the town workers. Even in the towns the factory employees were a minority of the population; the picture there was not a succession of factories but rather a humming medley of butchers, bakers, brewers, grocers, cooks, peddlers, barbers, shopkeepers, innkeepers, vintners, carpenters, masons, house painters, glass workers, plasterers, tilers, shoemakers, dressmakers, dyers, cleaners, tailors, blacksmiths, servants, cabinetmakers, saddlers, wheelwrights, goldsmiths, cutlers, weavers, tanners, printers, booksellers, prostitutes, and thieves. These workers wore ankle-length pantaloons rather than the knee breeches (culottes) and stockings of the upper classes; so they were named “sansculottes,” and as such they played a dramatic part in the Revolution. The influx of gold and silver from the New World, and the repeated issuance of paper money, raised prices everywhere in Europe; in France, between 1741 and 1789, they rose 65 percent, while wages rose 22 percent.14 In Lyons 30,000 persons were on relief in 1787; in Paris 100,000 families were listed as indigent in 1791. Labor unions for economic action were forbidden; so were strikes, but they were frequent. As the Revolution neared, the workers were in an increasingly despondent and rebellious mood. Give them guns and a leader, and they would take the Bastille, invade the Tuileries, and depose the King.

The peasants of France, in 1789, were presumably better off than a century before, when La Bruyère, exaggerating to point a theme, had mistaken them for beasts.15 They were better off than the other peasants of Continental Europe, possibly excepting those of northern Italy. About a third of the tilled land was held by peasant proprietors; a third was farmed out by noble, ecclesiastical, or bourgeois owners to tenants or sharecroppers; the rest was worked by hired hands under supervision by the owner or his steward. More and more of the owners—themselves harassed by rising costs and keener competition—were enclosing, for tillage or pasturage, “common lands” on which the peasants had formerly been free to graze their cattle or gather wood.

All but a few “allodial” (obligation-free) peasant holders were subject to feudal dues. They were bound by contract charter to give the seigneur—the lord of the manor—several days of unpaid labor every year (the corvée) to aid him in farming his land and repairing his roads; and they paid him a toll whenever they used those roads. They owed him a moderate quitrent annually in produce or cash. If they sold their holding he was entitled to 10 or 15 percent of the purchase price.16 They paid him if they fished in his waters or pastured their animals on his field. They owed him a fee every time they used his mill, his bake-house, his wine- or oil-press. As these fees were fixed by the charters, and lost value through inflation, the owner felt warranted in extracting them with increasing rigor as prices rose.17

To support the Church that blessed his crops, formed his children to obedience and belief, and dignified his life with sacraments, the peasant contributed to it annually a tithe—usually less than a tenth—of his produce. Heavier than tithe or feudal dues were the taxes laid upon him by the state: a poll or head tax (capitation), the vingtième or twentieth of his yearly income, a sales tax (aide) on his every purchase of gold or silver ware, metal products, alcohol, paper, starch …, and the gabelle, which required him to buy in each year a prescribed amount of salt from the government at a price fixed by the government. As the nobility and the clergy found legal or illegal ways of avoiding many of these taxes—and as, in wartime levies, well-to-do youths could buy substitutes to die in their place—the main burden of support for state and Church, in war and peace, fell upon the peasantry.

These taxes, tithes, and feudal dues could be borne when harvests were good, but they brought misery when, through war damages or the weather’s whims, the harvest turned bad, and a year’s exhausting toil seemed spent in vain. Then many peasant owners sold their land or their labor, or both, to luckier gamblers with the soil.

The year 1788 was marked by merciless “acts of God.” A severe drought stunted crops; a hailstorm, raging from Normandy to Champagne, devastated 180 miles of usually fertile terrain; the winter (1788–89) was the severest in eighty years; fruit trees perished by the thousands. The spring of 1789 loosed disastrous floods; the summer brought famine to almost every province. State, church, and private charity strove to get food to the starving; only a few individuals died of hunger, but millions came close to the end of their resources. Caen, Rouen, Orléans, Nancy, Lyons, saw rival groups fighting like animals for corn; Marseilles saw 8,000 famished people at its gates threatening to invade and pillage the city; in Paris the working-class district of St.-Antoine had 30,000 paupers to be cared for.18 Meanwhile a trade-easing treaty with Great Britain (1786) had deluged France with industrial products down-pricing native goods and throwing thousands of French laborers out of work—25,000 in Lyons, 46,000 in Amiens, 80,000 in Paris.19 In March, 1789, peasants refused to pay taxes, adding to fears of national bankruptcy.

Arthur Young, traveling in the French provinces in July, 1789, met a peasant woman who complained of the taxes and feudal dues that kept her always at the edge of destitution. But, she added, she had learned that “something was to be done by some great folks for such poor ones, … for the taxes and the dues are crushing us.”20 They had heard that Louis XVI was a good man, eager to reform abuses and protect the poor. They looked hopefully to Versailles, and prayed for the long life of the King.

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