We can scarcely discuss why anything happens until we have a basic idea of what it is. Almost any attempt to define the French Revolution too closely, however, will be tendentious, and exclude many of its complexities. Yet what it most certainly was not, was a single event. It was a series of developments, bewildering to most contemporaries, which stretched over a number of years. It was a sustained period of uncertainty, disorder, and conflict, reverberating far beyond the borders of France. It began between 1787 and 1789.
The crisis was triggered by King Louis XVI’s attempts to avoid bankruptcy. Over the eighteenth century, France had fought three great wars on a worldwide scale. Accustomed by the pride, ambition, and achievements of Louis XIV (1643–1715) to regarding herself as the greatest European power, France found her pretensions challenged over the three generations following the great king’s death by the rise of new powers – Russia, Prussia, and above all Great Britain. Rivalry with the British was fought out on the oceans of the world. At stake was dominance of the sources and supply of the tropical and oriental luxuries for which Europe was developing an insatiable appetite. Footholds in India, staging posts to China, fur-rich Canadian forests, tropical islands where sugar and coffee could be produced, access to supplies of slaves to work them: these were the prizes for which the British and French fought almost uninterruptedly throughout the 1740s and 1750s. But France also had land frontiers and traditional continental interests to defend, and in the mid-century wars Louis XV (1715–74) found his forces overextended on both land and sea. In the Seven Years War (1756–63) the results were disastrous. Despite alliances with Russia and even the traditional enemy Austria, his armies were humiliated by the upstart Prussians. At sea, the British destroyed both the Atlantic and Mediterranean fleets, drove French power out of India and North America, and all but strangled the trade of the French Caribbean. At the peace of Paris (1763), France made no European gains and lost Canada and most of her establishments in India. Not only was the defeat comprehensive and shameful, the war also left the kingdom burdened with a colossal debt which there was little prospect of diminishing, much less paying off. Servicing it absorbed 60 per cent of tax revenues. And yet almost at once a fresh naval build-up began, and when in the 1770s the colonists of British North America declared their independence, France saw the opportunity for revenge on the tyrant of the seas. The prospect of destroying the British Empire, and the commercial rewards that would result, seemed well worth a renewed effort, and in 1778 Louis XVI went to war to protect the fledgling United States. This time it was a spectacular success. While continental Europe remained at peace, France led a coalition against the isolated British which broke their control of the Atlantic long enough to ship a French army to America. When British forces surrendered at Yorktown in 1781, the victory was more French than American.
But France made no territorial gains when peace was signed in 1783, and the independent Americans gave no sign of abandoning their traditional British trading links. And meanwhile the war had been paid for largely by new loans rather than significant increases in taxation. In financial terms it ended not a moment too soon; but massive borrowing now continued into peacetime. By 1786 a foreseeable decline in tax revenues and the scheduled repayment of short-term war loans brought a financial crisis.
It was not that France lacked the resources to survive as a great power. Over the next generation the French would dominate the European continent more completely than they had ever done. It was rather that many of these resources were locked up by the system of government, the organization of society, and the culture of what revolutionaries would soon be calling the ancien régime, the old or former order. It took the Revolution to release them.
The ancien régime: government
In political terms pre-revolutionary France was an absolute monarchy. The king shared his power with nobody, and was answerable for its exercise to nobody but God. Affairs of state, including the finances, were his private domain; and in all things he was sovereign in the sense that his decisions were final. On the other hand, no king was, or sought to be, a completely free agent. Even Louis XIV was careful to take advice on all important decisions, and men born to be king (for queens regnant were prohibited by French law) were carefully taught that counsel was of the essence of their sovereign authority. Louis XVI believed this implicitly; but unlike his grandfather Louis XV (his own father had died before inheriting the throne) he did not invariably do what a majority of his ministers recommended. He particularly thought he understood finance – a fateful delusion as it proved.
Nor was the king unfettered in his choice of advisers. Although he could sack them without explanation, his practical choice was limited to career administrators, magistrates, and courtiers. They, in turn, could only be brought to his notice by the intrigues of other ministers and familiars of both sexes drawn from the ranks or clienteles of the few hundred families rich enough to live in the gilded splendour of the Court. Imprisoned in scarcely changing routines of etiquette established in the previous century by Louis XIV, his two successors passed their lives peripatetically, following the hunting around forest palaces outside Paris – Fontainebleau, Compiègne, and of course Versailles, that spectacular seat of power imitated by rulers throughout Europe. When they visited the capital, it was briefly. Louis XIV had established this royal lifestyle deliberately to distance himself from a turbulent and volatile city whose people had defied royal authority during his minority in the uprising of the Fronde (1648–53). For their part, the Parisians remained suspicious and contemptuous of the Court. In 1789 many still remembered how, when celebrations in the capital to mark the future Louis XVI’s marriage to the Austrian princess Marie-Antoinette in 1770 had led to a stampede in which 132 people were trampled to death, the festivities at Versailles had gone on regardless. Symbolizing the ill-starred alliance with the old enemy, the frivolous Marie-Antoinette never achieved popularity, even when, in 1781, she belatedly bore Louis XVI an heir. Her extravagance was so proverbial that even when rumours of it were disproved (as with her supposed secret purchase of a sumptuous diamond necklace in 1786) they were still believed. Unlike his raddled old grandfather, Louis XVI was a chaste family man who never took a mistress. But this threw the public spotlight onto his unpopular wife even more glaringly.
The king’s absolute authority over the country at large was embodied in a handful of omnicompetent executive agents, the intendants. One of these was assigned to each of 36 generalities into which Louis XVI’s kingdom was divided. The king thought them the showcase of his government, and there was no doubt about their high level of professionalism. But they were increasingly unpopular for their authoritarian ways, and their shortcomings and mistakes were mercilessly denounced by bodies whose authority they had largely supplanted since the seventeenth century. Taxation in some large provinces, for instance, still required the consent of estates – representative, though seldom elected, assemblies with no ultimate powers to resist, but whose semblance of independence enabled them to borrow relatively cheaply on the king’s behalf. Above all, the fiscal and administrative work of the intendants was constantly impeded by the courts of law, most of which had administrative as well as judicial functions. At the summit of the judicial hierarchy sat the 13 parlements, supreme or ‘sovereign’ courts of appeal where registration was required for all important royal legislation before it became operative. Before registering, the parlements had the power to send the king remonstrances pointing out flaws or drawbacks in the new laws. Increasingly over the eighteenth century, remonstrances were printed and published, exposing the principles of monarchical government to public debate in a country where overt political discussion was deemed none of the subject’s business. In the end, the king could override such protests, but the procedure, which involved the monarch or his representative coming to a court in person and supervising the transcription of contested measures into the judicial registers, was laborious and spectacular. It underlined the magistrates’ recalcitrance as much as the king’s authority.
As in every aspect of the ancien régime, the judicial and institutional map of France had no uniformity. Some of the parlements presided over small enclaves, others over extensive provinces. The jurisdiction of the parlement of Paris covered a third of the kingdom. But all of the 1250 members of these courts owned the offices they occupied, as a result of the practice of venality. Since the sixteenth century kings had systematically sold public offices, along with hereditary tenure or free disposal, as a way of borrowing for little outlay. By the eighteenth century there were perhaps 70,000 venal offices stretching far beyond the judiciary, but the prestigious core of the system was the 3200-strong nobility of the robe, whose judicial offices conferred ennoblement. Most prestigious among them were the magistrates of the parlements, and because dismissing them would have entailed reimbursing the value of their offices, they enjoyed virtually unchallengeable tenure. The king could bully them by shows of force, but without the money to buy them out, he could not dispossess them.
Accordingly, throughout the eighteenth century they were able to keep up a growing volume of criticism and obstruction against the crown’s religious and financial policies. Only in 1771 did Louis XV’s ministers feel able to promise any compensation for suppressed offices, and then the parlements were ruthlessly remodelled and muzzled. An opportunity was created for unobstructed reform, but Maupeou, the chancellor responsible, had no serious reforming intentions, and no advantage was taken. Meanwhile his attack on the parlements, which had increasingly come to be seen as the voice of the king’s unrepresented subjects, proved hugely unpopular. Anxious to begin his reign in an atmosphere of confidence and popularity, the young Louis XVI was persuaded to dismiss Maupeou and restore them.
In the short run it worked. Although some provincial parlements remained fractious, and obstructed their local intendant more than ever, the crucially important parlement of Paris proved fairly pliable for the best part of a dozen years. It was, however, at the cost of the king attempting nothing too radical. Innovation was seen, and accepted even by most ministers, as dangerous. ‘Any system’, declared the parlement in remonstrances of 1776 against the replacement of forced labour on the roads with a tax,
tending under the guise of humanity and benevolence to establish an equality of duties between men, and to destroy those distinctions necessary in a well-ordered monarchy, would soon lead to disorder … The result would be the overthrow of civil society, the harmony of which is maintained only by that hierarchy of powers, authorities, preeminences and distinctions which keeps each man in his place and keeps all Estates from confusion. This social order is not only essential to the practice of every sound government: it has its origin in divine law. The infinite and immutable wisdom in the plan of the universe established an unequal distribution of strength and character, necessarily resulting in inequality in the conditions of men within the civil order … These institutions were not formed by chance, and time cannot change them. To abolish them, the whole French constitution would have to be overturned.
The ancien régime: society
Yet it was hard to see how a French king could keep up his international pretensions without some modification in his subjects’ time-honoured privileges and inequalities. Nowhere was the kingdom’s lack of uniformity more glaring than in the structure of privilege and exemption which gave each and every institution, group, or area a status not quite like any other. The kingdom had been built up over many centuries by a gradual and often haphazard process of conquest and dynastic accumulation, and successive kings had won the obedience of their new subjects more by confirming their distinct institutions than by imposing a preferred pattern of their own. Ever since the sixteenth century these confusions had been compounded by the practice of selling privileges and exemptions (usually but not always as part of the sale of offices) as a roundabout way of borrowing. In earlier times it was easier to do than trying to force the rich to pay taxes. The most powerful groups in society, in any case, had elaborated persuasive rationales for exemption. The clergy, a vast corporation drawing revenues from a tenth of the kingdom’s land, and creaming off, in the form of tithes, a notional tenth of the yield of the rest, paid no direct taxes on the grounds that it performed its service to society by praying and interceding with God. The nobility, the social elite which owned over a quarter of the land, levied feudal dues over much of the rest, and steadily sucked most of the newly rich into its ranks via ennobling offices, resisted the payment of direct taxes as well. Nobles, the argument went, served the kingdom with their blood, by fighting to defend it. Many did (though as officers only), but many more never drew the swords they wore to demonstrate their status. In any case these ancient arguments failed to keep the nobility exempt from new direct taxes introduced in and after 1695. Nevertheless, in most provinces, nobles continued to escape the oldest basic direct tax, the taille, not to mention forced labour on the roads. It was easy enough for rich commoners to buy themselves exemption as well, even if an ennobling office was beyond their means; simply moving to another town or province might be enough to secure real fiscal advantages. The burden of taxation, in other words, fell disproportionately on those least able to pay. To one extent or another, the rich were able to avoid it. It was the boast of the king’s richest subject, his cousin the Duke d’Orléans, that he paid what he liked.
In real terms the total tax burden borne by the French had fallen over the eighteenth century. Yet whatever they paid they all considered themselves over-taxed. That was one reason why the resistance of the parlements, even though their magistrates were all nobles and represented nobody but themselves, was so popular. Even they recognized, however, that some emergencies necessitated higher taxes, and they acquiesced in a new levy of a twentieth on income from real estate in 1749. They even agreed to its doubling in 1756 and tripling in 1760. But the third twentieth lapsed when the Seven Years War ended, and meanwhile all sorts of provincial and institutional abatements had been negotiated, notably with the clergy and provinces retaining estates. Once assessments were established, the parlements always resisted their revision, even though this was an age of steady inflation. Their scepticism about the need for fiscal reform was only confirmed in the late 1770s when the American war was launched and sustained for four years without any substantial new taxation. This was the work of the Genevan banker Jacques Necker, who claimed to have achieved the incredible feat by ‘economies’ at the expense of courtiers and venal government financiers, two groups traditionally suspected of milking the public purse. But the purpose of such ostentatious savings was not to pay directly for the war, but to boost French credit in the international money market so as to sustain borrowing. Necker trumpeted his success in 1781 by publishing the first ever public statement of the royal accounts, the Compte rendu au roi. It showed the king’s ‘ordinary’ accounts in modest surplus. It was what the public wanted to hear, and few cared that the massive ‘extraordinary’ expenditure, covered by loans raised on the credit of the ordinary surplus, went unmentioned. The longer term consequence was to undermine all attempts by Necker’s successors to improve the kingdom’s tax yield, especially once the war was over. If all had been well in 1781, people later asked, what had gone wrong since, and who was responsible?
Necker had been brought in more as a credit consultant than as a minister. As a foreign-born Protestant, in fact, he was legally ineligible for public office in a kingdom where Protestantism had not been recognized since 1685. But he soon learned that he could not impose financial discipline on ministers without the regular direct access to the king which their office gave them. When he attempted to use his popularity to force the king to admit him to his innermost counsels, however, Necker was rebuffed, and resigned. The gesture was unprecedented: one did not resign on the king of France. Nor had previous ex-ministers behaved as Necker now did, continuing to publish on financial affairs and orchestrating public criticism of the policies of his successors. What this outsider to the habits of absolute monarchy had grasped was that, in political as much as in financial affairs, public opinion, or what governments took it to be, was of ever-increasing importance; and that without public confidence even, and perhaps especially, the most absolute ruler could achieve very little.
The constraints were obvious in innumerable ways. If, for instance, the whole financial history of the monarchy between 1720 and 1788 was a struggle to avoid bankruptcy, that was because renouncing debts, which earlier kings had done almost routinely, was no longer accepted as a legitimate option. Thousands had been ruined by a great financial crash in 1720, when another Protestant outsider, the Scotsman John Law, had attempted to liquidate the financial legacy of Louis XIV’s wars by absorbing the accumulated debt into the capital of a commercial ‘Royal Bank’. The collapse of this experiment also produced an enduring mistrust of banks and paper money despite all they had done in Holland or Great Britain to sustain an unprecedented war effort against France. For subsequent generations, any expedient which stirred such painful memories was generally regarded as unthinkable.
Kings who renounced their debts, or paid them in precarious paper rather than clinking coinage, were seen as conjuring irresponsibly with their subjects’ property, behaving arbitrarily; whereas in French legal tradition royal authority was expected to observe the law, proceed by advice, and respect the rights and privileges of those whom God had entrusted to its care and protection. In the eighteenth century these expectations were reinforced by the widespread conviction that since nature herself (as Isaac Newton had shown) worked by invariable laws and not divine caprice, human affairs should also be conducted so far as was possible according to fixed and regular principles, rooted in rationality, in which the scope for arbitrariness was reduced to a minimum. Anything else, when a single individual governed, was despotism; which the most influential political writer of the century, Montesquieu had taught his compatriots to regard as the worst of all governments, where no law protected the subject from the ruler’s whims. So that when a series of draconian debt consolidations in 1770, which many saw as a partial bankruptcy, was followed by Maupeou’s attack on the parlements, despotism appeared to have struck. Traditional intermediary buffers between ruler and subject had been swept aside. And despite Louis XVI’s restoration of the old parlements upon his succession, instinctive confidence in the traditional constitutional structure could never be fully revived.
Yet although the public saw no need for either higher taxes or bankruptcy, only a government strong and confident enough to attempt either was likely to be able to carry other reforms that had widespread support. The judiciary, for example, was perceived to beoverstaffed, underemployed, and its procedures slow, expensive, and unreliable. A series of miscarriages of criminal justice exposed the cruelties and caprices of a system where magistrates were recruited by heredity or purchase rather than rational tests of competence. The labyrinthine complexities of the law, where attempts at codification had petered out in the 1670s, were sustained by innumerable local and provincial customs and privileges, many of them repeatedly confirmed in return for cash payments over the centuries. To reform any of this without compensating the losers would be widely seen as a breach of public faith, bankruptcy in disguise; but there was no prospect of ever finding the money to achieve it otherwise.
More thoughtful observers believed there were ways to square some circles. If economic productivity could be improved, fiscal benefits would be almost automatic. The Physiocrats or Economists (the first people to use this name) argued that all true wealth derived from agriculture, and that the land would produce more if natural laws were unimpeded by artificial human constraints. That implied tax reform – the abolition of burdensome charges like feudal dues in cash or kind, or tithes. It also meant commercial liberalization – the removal of controls on prices and free exchange, particularly in the grain trade. In comparison with agriculture, industry and commerce were held by these thinkers to be less important, and not generators of true wealth: but here too natural activity was impeded by over-regulation, the constraints imposed by trade guilds, and commercial monopolies. Administrators at every level found such reforming ideas increasingly attractive after mid-century; but as soon as they began to experiment with them they met with endless difficulties. Governments could not contemplate even the temporary loss of revenue, not to mention likely opposition from courts, estates, and various corporate bodies, which introducing a single tax would entail. Similarly with feudal dues: these were property rights, which could not be abolished equitably without compensation. A book advocating their suppression was publicly burned by order of the Paris parlement in 1776. As to the tithe, it was the main source of income of the parish clergy. Where would a substitute come from? The merest hint of commercial and industrial deregulation, meanwhile, was vigorously opposed by well-organized lobbies of merchants, chambers of commerce, and guild masters. Only in 1786 was trade with overseas colonies made completely free and open, and an attempt to abolish the monopolies of Parisian trade guilds ten years earlier was abandoned after only a few months of chaos. The only people, in fact, who could be subjected to the full force of Physiocratic policies were those too weak to resist: the king’s poorest subjects. They bore the brunt of experiments from the 1760s onwards to deregulate the grain trade. The idea was to let prices rise to a ‘natural’ level. High prices, so the theory went, would encourage growers to increase production, and the end result would be ‘abundance’. In the short term, however, higher grain prices meant dearer bread, especially when harvests were poor. The first experiments with deregulation, between 1763 and 1775, coincided with a series of such shortfalls; and as magistrates and local authorities had warned from the start, public order broke down as prices shot up and markets were bare. When ministers made agreements with contractors to guarantee emergency supplies, they were accused of a ‘famine pact’ to starve the people. In the weeks before Louis XVI’s coronation in May 1775, popular goodwill was squandered by renewed deregulation and severe repression of the ‘flour war’ grain riots which followed. And although Necker, sniffing popularity as always, kept the trade firmly under control, his successors resumed tinkering. When, in 1788, the harvest failed completely, free export in previous years had denuded the kingdom of stocks. And the confidence of ordinary people that the king would protect them from starvation had been completely eroded by a generation of economic experiments at their expense.
Nor did they any longer expect much comfort from God’s servants in the Church. While there was plenty of respect for underpaid parish priests and the selfless nuns who staffed hospitals and poorhouses, there was widespread disgust at the grotesque maldistribution of the Church’s wealth, and the determination with which its richer beneficiaries defended their privileges. In mid-century the hierarchy had squandered much popular respect by zealous persecution of dissident priests who questioned authority in the Church in the name of Jansenism, an austere set of beliefs condemned as heretical by the papal bull Unigenitus of 1713. Jansenists were protected by sympathizers in the parlement of Paris, and in the 1740s and 1750s a series of lawsuits against priests refusing the last rites to dying Jansenists stirred up widespread fury against the hierarchy. When in 1757 Louis XV was (harmlessly) stabbed, his half-crazed assailant seemed to have acted out of vague sympathy for Jansenist tribulations. And Jansenism appeared to triumph in the 1760s when its oldest and most inveterate enemies, the Jesuits, found themselves involved in a case before the parlement. The magistrates used it as a pretext to expel them from the court’s jurisdiction. Other parlements followed the lead, and a divided government acquiesced. The expulsion from the kingdom of a society which had educated most of the social elite for three centuries caused enormous educational upheaval. With the closure of their 106 colleges, something like a national curriculum was dissolved, and a generation of educational debate and experiment began. Almost at the same moment the establishment of a commission to review and consolidate failing monasteries suggested that even wider reform in the Church might be possible.
Educated critics had certainly been calling for it ever since the 1720s, when the scientific and humanistic development of the previous century began to crystallize into the utilitarian movement of criticism that came to be known as the Enlightenment. For the self-styled ‘philosophers’ who set out to popularize enlightened values, the established Church was the root of most of the evils in society. While the benevolent message of the Gospel was never disputed, clerics down the ages were deemed to have overlaid it with a mass of superstition and irrationality which they perpetuated through their influence in the state and control of the educational system. Happy to promote cruelty and intolerance, they had amassed disproportionate riches to support the idleness of unproductive monks and spendthrift chapters and prelates. Even the social services provided by the Church, such as poor relief and hospital care, were irrationally funded and inefficiently organized. These charges were pressed home with innuendo and ridicule, for which the mid-century quarrels within the Church provided plenty of material. The Church’s response was to call for ever more vigorous and vigilant censorship, while attempting to reduce its own vulnerability by internal reforms such as the action on redundant monasteries. But neither approach restored confidence in an institution whose basic inertia, inflexibility, and self-satisfaction had alienated sympathy, in different ways, at every level of society.
In one sense, the Church was a victim of its own success. Nothing had done more over the century than the efforts of dedicated clerical teachers to increase levels of literacy from around a fifth of the population to nearer a third. More readers produced a rising demand for printed materials of all kinds. Book production soared; so did that of more ephemeral material like chapbooks, legal briefs sold for public consumption, and newspapers. By Louis XVI’s time, Paris had a daily paper and most provincial towns had weeklies. It is true that they were mainly advertising sheets, and when they printed news it was largely without comment. But serious interest in public affairs could be gratified by a flourishing French-language press published abroad; and the cost of regular reading could be spread by joining one of the rapidly proliferating literary or reading societies whose libraries subscribed to all the major periodicals. Another indication of expanding demand for the printed word was the growth in the number of government censors to whom all substantial writings for the public had to be submitted; and the increasing amount of time and energy devoted by customs officials to blocking imports of subversive pornographic, blasphemous, or, as it was increasingly called, ‘philosophical’ literature. After a period in mid-century when ministers despaired of stemming the flood, and turned a blind eye to most of it, under Louis XVI the government redoubled its efforts to control what reached the reading public. But the market was too strong, and as much effort was soon being devoted to influencing what was reported and discussed as to preventing its appearance. Louis XIV had told his subjects what to do, and what to think. Under Louis XVI, it was recognized that they had to be persuaded.
The virtues of active cooperation between kings and their subjects had long been displayed across the Channel. Ever since the 1720s writers like Montesquieu and Voltaire had extolled the enabling freedoms of British liberty, toleration, and parliamentary government. British success in mid-century wars had shown that the system, still suspect to many for its dangerous volatility, was also formidably efficient. Some of the gloss was taken from the image of Great Britain when her colonies rebelled, and Anglomania was partially eclipsed by enthusiasm for all things American. But liberty and political representation were at the heart of the Anglo-American quarrel; and when Louis XVI allied with republican rebels who had proclaimed no taxation without representation, his subjects could scarcely help reflecting on why this principle was not deemed appropriate in France. In the handful of provinces with estates, of course, it was; but that made the situation elsewhere seem even more anomalous. As fiscal pressures increased, certain magistrates in the 1760s began to call for lost estates to be restored. When Maupeou attacked the parlements in 1771, some went further and called for a meeting of the nearest French equivalent to the British parliament, the medieval Estates-General, last convened in 1614. Others, with the comfortable ambiguities of absolute monarchy now exposed as empty, began to think of more rationally designed representative institutions that would visibly involve taxpayers in administration. Nor were ministers necessarily opposed to a principle which might sideline the parlements and their influence. Necker even began a programme of introducing ‘provincial administrations’, nominated assemblies of local landowners who would share the functions of intendants. Only two were established before his resignation, but they did not disappear with him. Slowly, hesitantly, with many misgivings but aware that institutional paralysis was the only alternative, the monarchy was becoming less absolute under Louis XVI. The king and his ministers increasingly recognized that France must be governed with the effective consent and cooperation of the crown’s most prominent and educated subjects.
So the crisis of 1787 was not just financial. Calonne, the finance minister appointed in 1783 to manage a return to peacetime conditions, began with lavish expenditures in the hope of sustaining confidence. The borrowing which this required achieved just the reverse. As attempts to float new loans ran into increasing resistance in the Paris parlement, Calonne turned his thoughts to more radical solutions. On 20 August 1786 he presented the king with a comprehensive plan of reform, later described by the courtier bishop Talleyrand as ‘more or less the result of all that good minds have been thinking for several years’. The king, after considering it carefully, accepted it with genuine enthusiasm.
The plan was threefold. First came fiscal reform, in the guise of a new, uniform land tax, with no exemptions, to be levied in kind. This, and other less important innovations, were to be overseen throughout the kingdom by provincial assemblies elected by all prominent landowners. Representative government was to be universalized – though not centralized in a national assembly. Secondly, the fiscal yield of the reforms was to be boosted by a programme of economic stimulation on Physiocratic lines: abolition of internal customs barriers, of forced labour on the roads, and of controls over the grain trade. In 1786, a commercial agreement with Great Britain had already opened French markets to British manufacturers in exchange for agricultural products. None of these measures, however, could be expected to yield immediate benefits. More borrowing would be required until the effects were felt. A major new boost in confidence was therefore required to encourage lenders. Calonne hoped to achieve this by having his plans endorsed by a handpicked Assembly of Notables, people (as he put it) ‘of weight, worthy of the public’s confidence and such that their approbation would powerfully influence general opinion’. He considered convoking the Estates-General, but thought them likely to be uncontrollable. Instead he nominated 144 princes, prelates, noblemen, and magistrates, before whom he laid his proposals in February 1787.
It was a political disaster. Few of the Notables accepted Calonne’s version of the crisis confronting the state. Even those who did tended to hold him responsible, and therefore not the right person to resolve it. An attempt by Calonne to appeal over his critics’ heads to the wider public, by depicting them as mere selfish defenders of their own privileges, backfired; and the king was forced to dismiss him. An amended version of his plan was then brought forward by Brienne, an archbishop who had used the Notables as a ladder to power. It got nowhere when Louis XVI refused the Notables’ proposal for a permanent commission of auditors to vet the royal accounts. By now, in fact, growing numbers in the assembly were declaring themselves incompetent to sanction reform of any sort. That, they declared, required nothing less than the Estates-General.
Experience with the Notables only made this seem more dangerous and unpredictable than ever, and on 25 May the assembly was dissolved. An attempt was now made to push the reforms through the parlements, but they too claimed incompetence. As crowds came onto the streets to cheer for the Estates-General, the Parisian magistrates were sent into exile. The wider significance of the crisis was underlined meanwhile in the Dutch Republic, which was overrun by a Prussian invasion in mid-September. Louis XVI had threatened to intervene if Dutch territory was violated; but, with old taxation running out and new unauthorized, Brienne advised him that he could not afford to. It was the end of the Bourbon monarchy as a military power; an admission that, even close to its own frontiers, it could no longer pay for its international pretensions.
Within a year its domestic political authority had also evaporated. Attempts to engineer a consensual reform plan with the Paris parlement collapsed amid suspicious recriminations, and for six months the sovereign courts refused to transact business. In May 1788, a Maupeou-like attempt was made to remodel them and reduce their powers. To win public support a wide range of legal and institutional reforms were simultaneously announced, but they were ignored in the public uproar that now swept the country. Even a promise to convoke the Estates-General once the reforms had taken effect was greeted with contempt. And when, at the beginning of August, the crown’s usual sources of short-term credit refused to lend more, the fate of Brienne’s ministry was sealed. On 16 August, payments from the treasury were suspended. It was the bankruptcy which successive ministries had spent 30 years trying to avoid. Brienne resigned, recommending the recall of Necker. The first thing the Genevan miracle-worker did on his triumphant return to office was to proclaim that the Estates-General would meet in 1789.
The convocation of a national representative assembly meant the end of absolute monarchy. It had finally succumbed to institutional and cultural paralysis. Its plans for reform fell with it. Nobody knew what the Estates-General would do, or even how it would be made up or chosen. There was a complete vacuum of power. The French Revolution was the process by which this vacuum was filled.