THE French Revolution brought with it a new-conception of the state, new principles of politics and of society, a new outlook upon life, a new faith which seized the imagination of multitudes, inspiring them with intense enthusiasm, arousing boundless hopes, and precipitating a long and passionate struggle with all those who feared or hated innovation, who were satisfied with things as they were, who found their own conditions of life comfortable and did not wish to be disturbed. Soon France and Europe were divided into two camps, the reformers and the conservatives, those believing in radical changes along many lines and those who believed in preserving what was old and tried, either because they profited by it or because they felt that men were happier and more prosperous in living under conditions and with institutions to which they were accustomed than under those that might be ideally more perfect but would at any rate be strange and novel and uncertain.
In order to understand the French Revolution it is necessary to examine the conditions and institutions of France out of which it grew; in other words, the Old Regime. Only thus can we get our sense of perspective, our standard of values and of criticism. The Revolution accomplished a sweeping transformation in the life of France. Putting it in a single phrase it accomplished the transition from the feudal system of the preceding centuries to the democratic system of the modern world. The entire structure of the French state and of French society was re- modeled and planted on new and far-reaching principles.
The essence of the feudal system was class divisions and acknowledged privileges for all classes above the lowest. The essence of the new system is the removal of class distinctions, the abolition of privileges, the introduction of the principle of the equality of men, wherever possible.
What strikes one most in contemplating the Old Regime is the prevalence and the oppressiveness of the privileges that various classes enjoyed. Society was simply honeycombed with them. They affected life constantly and at every point. It is not an easy society to describe in a few words, for the variations were almost endless. But, broadly speaking, and leaving details aside, French society was graded from top to bottom, and each grade differed, in legal rights, in opportunities for enjoyment and development, in power.
The system culminated in the monarch, the lofty and glittering head of the state, the embodiment of the might and the majesty of the nation. The king claimed to rule by the will of God, that is, by divine right, not at all by the consent of the people. He was responsible to no one but God. Consequently in the actual conduct of his office he was subject to no control. He was an absolute monarch. He could do as he chose. It was for the nation to obey. The will of the king and that alone was, in theory, the only thing that counted. It determined what the law should be that should govern twenty-five million Frenchmen in their daily lives. “ This thing is legal because I wish it,” said Louis XVI, thus stating in a single phrase the nature of the monarchy, the theory, and the practice also, if the monarch happened to be a strong man. The king made the laws, he levied the taxes, he spent them as he saw fit, he declared wars, made peace, contracted alliances according to his own inclination. There was in theory no restriction upon his power, and all his subjects lay in the hollow of his hand. He could seize their property; he could imprison them by a mere order, a lettre de cachet, without trial, and for such a period as he desired; he could control, if not their thoughts, at least the expression of them, for his censorship of the press, whether employed in the publication of books or newspapers, could muzzle them absolutely.
So commanding a figure required a broad and ample stage for the part he was to play, a rich and spacious background. Never was a being more sumptuously housed. While Paris was the capital of France, the king resided twelve miles away amid the splendors of Versailles. There he lived and moved and had his being in a palace that was the envy of every other king in Christendom, a monumental pile, with its hundreds of rooms, its chapel, theater, dining halls, salons, and endless suites of apartments for its distinguished occupants, the royal family, its hundreds of servants and its guests. This mammoth residence had been built a century before at an expense of about a hundred million dollars in terms of our money today, an imposing setting for a most brilliant and numerous court, lending itself, with its miles of corridors, of walks through endless formal gardens studded with statues, fountains, and artificial lakes, to all the pomp and pageantry of power. For the court which so dazzled Europe was composed of 18,000 people, perhaps 16,000 of whom were attached to the personal service of the king and his family, 2,000 being courtiers, the favored guests of the house, nobles who were engaged in a perpetual round of pleasures and who were also busily feathering
their own nests by soliciting, of course in polished and subtle ways, the favors that streamed from a lavish throne. Luxury was everywhere the prevailing note. Well may the occupants of the palace have considered themselves, in spirit and in truth, the darlings of the gods, for earth had not anything to show more costly. The king, the queen, the royal children, the king’s brothers and sisters and aunts all had their separate establishments under the spacious roof. The queen alone had 500 servants. The royal stables contained nearly 1,900 horses and more than 200 carriages, and the annual cost of this service alone was the equivalent of $4,000,000. The king’s own table cost more than a million and a half. As gaiety was unconfined, so necessarily was the expenditure that kept it going, for every one in this household secured what, in the parlance of our vulgar democracy, is called a handsome “ rake-off.” Thus ladies-in-waiting secured about $30,000 each by the privilege they enjoyed of selling the candles that had once been lighted but not used up. Queen Marie Antoinette had four pairs of shoes a week, which constituted a profitable business for somebody. In 1789 the total cost of all this riot of extravagance amounted to not far from $20,000,000. No wonder that men spoke of the court as the veritable nation’s grave.
Not only were the King’s household expenses pitched to this exalted scale, but, in addition, he gave money or appointments or pensions freely, as to the manner born, to those who gained his approbation and his favor. It has been estimated that in the fifteen years between 1774, when Louis XVI came to the throne, and 1789, when the whirlwind began, the King thus presented to favorites the equivalent of more than a hundred million dollars of our money. For those who basked in such sunshine it was unquestionably a golden age.
Such was the dazzling apex of a state edifice that was rickety in the extreme. For the government of France was ill-constructed and the times were decidedly out of joint. That government was not a miracle of design, but of the lack of it. Complicated, ill-adjusted, the various branches dimly defined or overlapping, it was thoroughly unscientific and inefficient. The king was assisted by five councils which framed the laws, issued the orders, conducted the business of the state, domestic and foreign, at the capital. Then for purposes of local government France was split up into divisions, but, unfortunately, not into a single, simple set. There were forty “governments,” so called, thirty-two of which corresponded closely to the old provinces of France, the outcome of her feudal history. But those forty “ governments “ belied their name. They did little governing, but they furnished many lucrative offices for the higher nobility who were appointed “ governors “ and who resided generally in Versailles, contributing their part to the magnificent ceremonial of that showy parade ground.
The real, prosaic work was done in the thirty-six “generalities,” as another set ‘of divisions was called. Over each of these was an intendant who was generally of the middle or bourgeois class, accustomed to work. These intendants were appointed by the king to carry on the royal government, each in his own district. They generally did not originate much, but they carried out the orders that came from the capital and made their reports to it. Their power was practically unrestricted. Upon them depended in large measure the happiness or the misery of the provinces. Judging from the fact that most of them were very unpopular, it must be admitted that this, the real working part of the national government, did not contribute to the welfare of the people. The intendants were rather the docile tools of the misgovernment which issued from the five councils which were the five fingers of the king. As the head is, so are the members, and the officials under the intendants for the smaller local areas enjoyed the disesteem evoked by the oppressive or unjust policies of their superiors.
Speaking broadly, local self-government did not exist in France, but the local, like the national, government was directed and determined in Versailles. Were a bridge to be repaired over some little stream hundreds of miles from Paris, were a new roof required for a village church, the matter was regulated from Paris, after exasperating delay. It was the reign of the red tape in every sense of the word. The people stood like dumb, driven cattle before this monstrous system. The only danger lay in the chance that they might not always remain dumb. Here obviously was no school for popular political education — a fact which explains many of the mistakes and failures of the people when, in the Revolution, they themselves undertook to rule, the monarchy having failed egregiously to discharge its functions either efficiently or beneficently.
Let no one suppose that because France was a highly centralized monarchy, culminating in the person of the king, that therefore the French government was a real unity. Nothing could be further from the truth. To study in detail the various aspects of the royal government, its divisions and subdivisions, its standards, its agents, its methods of procedure, is to enter a lane where the mind quickly becomes hopelessly bewildered, so great was the diversity in the machinery employed, so varied were the terms in use. Uniformity was nowhere to be seen. There was unity in the person of the king, necessarily, and there only. Everywhere else disunity, diversity, variety, without rhyme or reason. It would take a volume or many volumes to make this clear — even then the reader would be driven to despair in attempting to form a true mental picture of the situation. The institutions of France were a hodge-podge — chaos erected into a system, with no loss of the chaotic, and with no system.
Nowadays the same laws, the same taxes, the same weights and measures prevail throughout the length and breadth of the land. But in 1789 no such simplicity or equality prevailed. Weights and measures had different names and different values as one moved from province to province, sometimes as one moved from village to village. In some provinces taxes were, not determined, but at least distributed, by certain people of the province. In other cases this distribution was effected directly by the agents of the king, that is, by the central government. In some parts of France the civil laws, that is, the laws that regulated the relations of individuals with each other, not with the state, were of Roman origin or character. There the written law prevailed. In other sections, however, mainly in the north, one changed laws, Voltaire said, as one changed post- horses. In such sections the laws were not written but were customary, that is, feudal in origin and in spirit. There were indeed 285 different codes of customary laws in force, that is 285 different ways of regulating legally the personal relations of men with men, within the confines of France.
Again the same diversity in another sphere. Thirteen of the provinces of central France enjoyed free trade, that is, merchandise could move freely from one end of that area to the other without restriction. But the other nineteen provinces were separated from each other, just as nations are, by tariff boundaries, and when goods passed from one such province to another, they passed through custom-houses and duties were paid on them, as on goods that come from Europe to the United States.
All these diversities in laws, all these tariff boundaries, are easily explained. They were historical survivals, troublesome and irritating reminders of the Middle Ages. As the kings of France had during the ages annexed this province and then that, they had, more or less, allowed the local customs and institutions to remain undisturbed. Hence this amazing patch-work which baffles description.
One consequence of all this was the persistence in France of that feeling which in American history is known as the states-rights feeling. While all admitted that they were Frenchmen, provincial feeling was strong and frequently assertive. Men thought of themselves as Bretons, as Normans, were attached to the things that differentiated them, were inflexible or stubborn opponents of all attempts at amalgamation. Before France could be considered strongly united, fusion on a grand scale had to be accomplished. This was to be one of the memorable and durable achievements of the Revolution.
The financial condition of this extravagant and inefficient state was deplorable and dangerous. Almost half of the national income was devoted to the payment of interest on the national debt. Expenditures were always larger than receipts, with the result that there was an annual deficit which had to be met by contracting a new loan, thus enlarging the debt and the interest charges. It appeared to be the principle of state finance that expenditures should not be deter- mined by income but income should be determined by expenditure. The debt therefore constantly increased, and to meet the chronic deficit the government had recourse to well-known methods which only aggravated the evil — the sale of offices, new loans. During twelve years of the reign of Louis XVI, from 1776 to 1788, the debt increased nearly $600,000,000. People became unwilling to loan to the state, and it was practically impossible to increase the taxes. The national finances were in a highly critical condition. Bankruptcy impended, and bankruptcy can only be avoided in two ways, either by increasing receipts or by reducing expenditures, or both. Attempts were made in the one direction and in the other, but were ineffectual.
The receipts, of course, came from the taxes, and the taxes were already very burdensome, at least for those who paid them. They were of two kinds, the direct and the indirect. The direct taxes were those on real estate, on personal property, and on income. From some of these the nobles and the clergy were entirely exempt, and they therefore fell all the more heavily upon the class that remained, the third estate. From others the nobles, though not legally exempted, were in practice largely freed, because the authorities did not assess noble property nearly as high as they did the property of commoners. Tax-assessors stood in awe of the great. Thus the royal princes, who were subject to the income tax and who ought to have paid nearly two and a half million francs, as a matter of fact paid less than two hundred thousand. Again, a marquis who ought to have paid a property tax of 2,500 francs paid 400 and a bourgeois in the same province who ought to have paid 70 in reality paid 760. Such crass favoritism, which always worked in favor of the nobles, never in favor of members of the third estate, naturally served only deeply to embitter the latter class. Those who were the wealthiest and therefore the best able to support the state were the very ones who paid the least, thus conforming to the principle that to those that have shall be given and from those that have not shall be taken away even that which they have. It has been estimated that the state took from the middle classes, and from the workingmen and peasants, half their annual earnings in the form of these direct taxes.
There was another branch of the system of taxation which was oppressive and offensive for other reasons. There were certain indirect taxes which were collected, not by state officials but by private individuals or companies, the farmers of taxes, as they were called, who paid a lump sum to the state and then themselves collected the taxes, seeking of course to extract as much as possible from the people. Not only has this system of tax-collecting always proved most hateful, both in ancient and modern times, as the tax-farmers have always, in order to make as much as possible, applied the screws with pitiless severity, thus generating a maximum of odium and hatred; but in this particular case several of the indirect taxes would have been unjust and oppressive, even if collected with leniency, a thing never heard of. There was, for instance, the salt tax, or gabelle, which came home, in stark odiousness, to every one. The trade in salt was not open to any one who might wish to engage in it, but was a monopoly of a company that bought the privilege from the state, and that company was most astoundingly favored by the law. For every person above seven years of age was required to buy at least seven pounds of salt annually whether he wished it or not. Even the utterly poor, who had not money enough to buy bread, were severely punished if they refused or neglected to buy the stated amount of salt. Moreover the tax-collectors had the right to search all houses from top to bottom to see that there was no evasion. Illicit trade in this necessary commodity was incessantly tracked down and severely punished. On the very eve of the Revolution it was officially estimated that 20,000 persons were annually imprisoned and over 500 annually condemned to death, or to service in the galleys, which was hardly preferable, for engaging in the illegal trade in salt. Moreover by an extra refinement in the art of oppression the seven pounds that all must buy could be used only for cooking or on the table. If one desired to salt down fish or meats for preservation, one must not use this particular salt for that purpose, but must buy an additional amount.
There was another equally intolerable tax, the excise on wine. The making of wine was a great national industry which had existed for centuries, but if ever there was a system calculated to depress it, it was the one in vogue in France. Wine was taxed all along the line from the producer to the consumer. Taxed at the moment of manufacture, taxed at the moment of sale by the producer, it was also taxed repeatedly in transportation, — thirty-five or forty times, for instance, between the south of France and Paris, so that the combined taxes amounted in the end to nearly as much as the cost of the original production. A trade exposed to such constant and heavy impositions could not greatly flourish.
Again the taxes both on salt and on wine were not uniform, but varied from region to region, so that the sense of unjust treatment was kept alive every day in the ordinary course of business, and so that smuggling was in many cases extremely profitable. This in turn led to savage punishments, which only augmented the universal discontent and entered like iron into the souls of men. In the system of taxation, as in the political structure, we find everywhere inequality of treatment, privileges, arbitrary and tyrannical regulations, coupled with uncertainty from year to year, for the regulations were not infrequently changed. No wonder that men, even nobles, criticised this fiscal system as shockingly unjust and scandalously oppressive.
The social organization of France, also, was far from satisfactory. On even the most cursory view many notorious abuses, many intolerable grievances, many irritating or harmful malad-justments stood forth, condemned by reason or the interest of large sections of the population. Forms outworn, and institutions from which the life had departed, but whence issued a benumbing influence, hampered development in many directions. French society was frankly based upon the principle of inequality. There were three classes or orders, the clergy, the nobility, and the third estate. Not only were the two former classes privileged, that is, placed upon a better footing than the last, but it is curious to observe how the pervasive principle of unequal rights broke up even the formal unity of each of these classes. There was inequality of classes and there was also inequality between sections of the same class. The two privileged orders were favored in many ways, such as complete or partial exemption from taxes, or the right themselves to tax — the clergy through its right to tithes, the nobility through its right to exact feudal dues. Even some of the members of the third estate enjoyed privileges
denied the rest. There were classes within classes. Of the 25,000,000 of Frenchmen the clergy numbered about 130,000, the nobility 140,000, while possibly about as many bourgeois as these two combined enjoyed privileges that separated them from the mass of their class. Thus the privileged as a whole numbered less than 600,000, while the unprivileged numbered well over 24,000,000. One man in forty therefore belonged to the favored minority whose lot was differentiated from that of their fellowmen by artificial advantages and distinctions.
The clergy of the Roman Catholic Church formed the first order in the state. It was rich and powerful. It owned probably a fifth of the land of France. This land yielded a large revenue, and, in addition, the clergy exacted tithes on all the agricultural products of the realm. This was in reality a form of national
taxation, with this difference from the other forms, that the proceeds went, not to the nation, but to the church. The church had still an- other source of income, the dues which it exacted as feudal landlord from those to whom it stood in that relation. The total income of this corporation was approximately $100,000,000 of our money. Out of this it was the duty of the church to maintain religious edifices and services, to support many hospitals and schools, to relieve personal distress by charity, for there was no such thing in France as organized poor relief by the state or municipality. Thus the church was a state within the state, performing several functions which in most modern societies are performed by the secular authority. This rich corporation was relieved from taxation. Although from time to tijrne it paid certain lump sums to the national treasury, these were far smaller than they would have been had the church been taxed on its property and on its income in the same proportion as were the commoners.
An income so large, had it been wisely and justly expended, might have aroused no criticism, for many of the services performed by this organization were essential to the well-being of France. But here as elsewhere in the institutions of the country we find gross favoritism and wanton extravagance, which shocked the moral sense of the nation and aroused its indignation, because they belied so completely pretensions to a peculiar sanctity on which the church based its claims to its privileged position. For the organization did not treat its own staff with any sense of fair play. Much the larger part of the income went to the higher clergy, that is, to the 134 bishops and archbishops, and to a small number of abbots, canons, and other dignitaries — in all probably not more than 5,000 or 6,000 ecclesiastics. These highly lucrative positions were monopolized by the younger sons of the nobility, who were eager to accept the salaries but not disposed to perform the duties. Many of them resided at court and lived the gay and worldly life, with scarcely anything, save some slight peculiarity of dress, to indicate their ecclesiastical character. The morals of many were scandalous and their intellectual ability was frequently mediocre. They did not consider themselves men set apart for a high and noble calling, they did not take their duties seriously — of course there were honorable exceptions, yet they were exceptions — but their aims were distinctly finite and they conducted themselves as typical men of the world, attentive to the problem of self-advancement, devoted to all the pleasures, dissipations, and intrigues of Versailles. Some held several offices at once, discharging the obligations of none, and enjoying princely revenues. The Archbishop of Strassburg had an income of $300,000 a year and held high court in a splendid palace, entertaining 200 guests at a time. Even the saucepans of his kitchens were of silver. A hundred and eighty horses were in his stables, awaiting the pleasure of the guests.
A few of the bishops received small incomes, but the average among them was over $50,000 a year. They were in the main absentees, residing, not in their dioceses, but in Versailles, where further plums were to be picked up by the lucky, and where at any rate life was gay. Some of the bishoprics had even become the hereditary possessions of certain families, passing from uncle to nephew, as in the secular sphere many offices passed from father to son.
On the other hand, the lower clergy, the thousands of parish priests, who did the real work of spiritual consolation and instruction, who la bored faithfully in the vineyard, were wretchedly requited. They were sons of the third estate, while their proud and prosperous superiors were sons of the nobility, and they were treated as plebeians. With wretched incomes of a few hundred francs, they had difficulty in keeping body and soul together. No wonder they were discontented and indignant, exclaiming that their lot “ made the very stones and beams of their miserable dwellings cry aloud.” No wonder they were bitter against their superiors, who neglected and exploited them with equal indifference. The privileged order of the clergy is thus seen to be divided into two classes, widely dissimilar in position, in origin, and in outlook upon life. The parish priests came from the people,
experienced the hardships and sufferings of the people, saw the injustice of the existing system, and sympathized with plans for its reform. The clergy was divided into two classes. The triumph of the popular cause in the Revolution was powerfully aided by the lower clergy, who threw in their lot with the third estate at critical moments and against their clerical superiors, who rallied to the support of the absolute monarchy which had been so indulgent and so lavish to them. A house divided against itself, however, cannot permanently stand.
Somewhat similar was the situation of the second order, the nobility. As in the case of the clergy, there was here also great variety of condition among the members of this order, although all were privileged. There were several sub-divisions, clearly enough marked. There were two main classes, the nobility of the sword and the nobility of the robe, that is, the old military nobility of feudal origin and the new judicial nobility, which secured its rank from the judicial offices its members held. The nobility of the sword consisted of the nobles of the court and of the nobles of the provinces. The former were few in number, perhaps a thousand, but they shone with peculiar brilliancy, for they were the ones who lived in Versailles, danced attendance upon the king, vied with each other in an eager competition for appointments in the army and navy and diplomatic service, for pensions and largesses from the royal bounty. These they needed, as they lived in a luxurious splendor that taxed their incomes and overtaxed them. Residing at court, they allowed their estates to be administered by bailiffs or stewards, who exacted all that they could get from the peasantry who cultivated them. Everybody was jealous of the nobles of this class, for they were the favored few, who practically monopolized all the pleasant places in the sun.
The contrast was striking between them and the hundred thousand provincial nobles who for various reasons did not live at court, were not known to the king, received no favors, and who yet were conscious that in purity of blood, in honorableness of descent and tradition, they were the equals or superiors of those who crowded about the monarch’s person. Many of them had small incomes, some pitifully small. They could cut no figure in the world of society, they had few chances to increase their prosperity, which, in fact, tended steadily to decrease. Their sons were trained for the army, the only noble profession, but could never hope to rise very high because all the major appointments went to the assiduous suitors of the clique at court. They resided among the peasants and in some cases were hardly distinguishable from them, except that they insisted upon maintaining the tradition of their class, their badge of superiority, a life of leisure. To work was to lose caste. This obliged many of them to insist rigorously upon the payment of the various feudal dues owed them by the peasantry, some of which were burdensome, most of which were irritating. In some parts of France, however, as in the Vendee and in Brittany, they were sympathetic and helpful in their relations with the peasants and were in turn treated with respect by them.
The nobility as a whole enjoyed one privilege that was a serious and unnecessary injury to the peasants, making harder the conditions of their lives, always hard enough, namely the exclusive right of hunting, considered the chief noble sport. This meant in actual practice that the peasants might not disturb the game, although the game was destroying their crops. This was an unmitigated abuse, universally execrated by them.
The odium that came to be attached in men’s minds to the nobility was chiefly felt only for the selfish and greedy minority. The provincial no- bility, like the lower clergy, were themselves discontented with the existing order, for abundant reasons. They might not wish a sweeping transformation of society, but they were disposed to favor political reforms that would at least give all within the order an approximately equal chance. They were devoted to the king, but they experienced in their own persons the evils of an arbitrary and capricious government which was highly partial in its favors.
There was yet another section of the nobility whose status and whose outlook were different still. Many offices in France could be bought. They and their perquisites became the property of those who purchased them and could transmit them to their children, and one of the perquisites that such offices carried was a patent of nobility. This was the created nobility, the nobility of the robe, so called because its most conspicuous members were the judges, or members of the higher tribunals or parlements. These judges appeared, in one aspect, as liberals, in that as lawyers they opposed certain unpopular innovations attempted by the king. But in reality as soon as their own privileges were threatened they became the stiffest of defenders of many of the most odious abuses of the Old Regime. In the opening days of the Revolution the Third Estate found no more bitter opponents than these ennobled judges.
Such were the two privileged orders. The rest of the population, comprising the vast majority of the people, was called the third estate. Differing from the others in that it was unprivileged, it resembled them in that it illustrated the principle of inequality, as did they. There were the widest extremes in social and economic conditions. Every one who was not a noble nor a clergyman was a member of the third estate, the richest banker, the most illustrious man of letters, the poorest peasant, the beggar in the streets. Not at all homogeneous, the three chief divisions of this immense mass were the bourgeoisie, the artisans, and the peasants.
The bourgeoisie, or upper middle class, comprised all those who were not manual laborers. Thus lawyers, physicians, teachers, literary men were bourgeois: also merchants, bankers, manufacturers. Despite great national reverses, the bourgeoisie had grown richer during the past century as commerce had greatly increased. This economic growth had benefited the bourgeoisie almost exclusively, and many large fortunes had been built up and the general level of material welfare had been distinctly raised. These were the practical business men who loaned money to the state and who were frequently appointed to offices where business ability was required. Intelligent, energetic, educated, and well-to-do, this class resented most keenly the existing system. For they were made to feel in numerous galling ways their social inferiority, and, conscious that they were quite as well educated, quite as well mannered as the nobles, they returned the disdain of the latter with envy and hatred. Having loaned immense sums to the state, they were increasingly apprehensive, as they saw it verging rapidly toward bankruptcy, because their interests were greatly imperiled. They therefore favored a political reorganization which should enable them to participate in the government, to control its expenditures, to assure its solvency, that thus they might be certain of their interest and principal, that thus abuses which impeded or injured business might be redressed, and that the precariousness of their position might be remedied.
They wished also a social revolution. Well educated, saturated with the literature of the period, which they read with avidity, their minds fermented with the ideas of Voltaire, Rousseau, Montesquieu, and the economists. Personally, man for man, they were as cultivated as the nobles. They wished social equality, they wished the laws to recognize what they felt the facts proved, that the bourgeois was the equal of the noble. They chafed under pretensions which they felt unjustified by any real superiority. Their mood was brilliantly expressed by a pamphlet written by one of their members, the Abbe Sieyes, which circulated enormously on the eve of the Revolution. “ What is the Third Estate?” asked Sieyes. “Everything. What has it been in politics until now? Nothing. What does it desire? To become something.”
Belonging to this estate but beneath the bour- geoisie were the artisans — perhaps two million and a half, living in the towns and cities. They were a comparatively small class because the industrial life of France was not yet highly developed. They were generally organized in guilds which had their rules and privileges that gave rise to bickerings galore and that were generally condemned as preventing the free and full expansion of industry and as artificially restricting the right to work.
The other large division of the third estate was the peasantry. This was by far the largest section. Indeed it was the nation. France was an agricultural country, more than nine-tenths of the population were peasants, more than 20,000,000. About a million of them were serfs, the rest were free men, yet their lot was an unhappy one. The burdens of society fell with crushing weight upon them. They paid fifty- five per cent of what they were able to earn to the state, according to the sober estimate of Turgot. They paid tithes to the clergy and numerous and vexatious feudal dues to the nobles. The peasant paid tolls to the seigneur for the use of the roads and bridges. When he sold his land he paid a fee to the former seigneur. He was compelled to use the seigneur’s winepress in making his wine, the seigneur’s mill, the seigneur’s oven, always paying for the service. The loss of money was one aspect of the business, the loss of time another. In some cases, for instance, the mill was four or five hours distant, and a dozen or more rivers and rivulets had to be crossed. In summer, even if the water was too low to turn the wheel, nevertheless the peasant was obliged to bring his grain to be ground, must wait perhaps three days or must pay a fee for permission to have the grain ground elsewhere. Adding what he paid to the king, the church, and the seigneur, and the salt and excise duties, the total was often not far from four-fifths of his earnings. With the remaining one-fifth he had to support himself and family.
The inevitable consequence was that he lived on the verge of disaster. Bad weather at a critical moment supervening, he faced dire want, even starvation. It happened that the harvest was bad in 1788 and that the following winter was cruelly severe. According to a foreign ambassador water froze almost in front of the fireplace. It need occasion no surprise that owing to such conditions hundreds of thousands of men became beggars or brigands, driven to frenzy by hunger. It has been estimated that in Paris alone, with a population of 650,000, there were nearly 120,000 paupers. No wonder there were abundant recruits for riots and deeds of violence. The 20,000,000 peasants, who knew nothing of statecraft, who were ignorant of the destructive and subversive theories of Voltaire and Rousseau, were daily and hourly impressed with the imperative necessity of reforms by the hard circumstances of their lives. They knew that the feudal dues would have to be abolished, that the excessive exactions of the state would have to be reduced before their lives could become tolerable. Their reasons for desiring change were different from those of the other classes, but it is evident that they were more than sufficient.
The combined demand for reform increased as time went on and swelled in volume and in intensity. The voice of the people spoke with no uncertain sound.
Such was the situation. On the eve of the Revolution Frenchmen enjoyed no equality of status or opportunity, but privileges of the most varied kinds divided them from each other.
They also enjoyed no liberty. Religious liberty was lacking. Since the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 Protestantism had been outlawed. It was a crime punishable with hard labor to practise that religion. Under Louis XVI the persecution of Protestants was in fact suspended, but it might be resumed at any moment. Protestant preaching was forbidden and consequently could occur only in secret or in lonely places. Jews were considered foreigners and as such were tolerated, but their position was humiliating. Catholics were required by law to observe the requirements and usages of their religion, communion, fast days, Lent. The church was absolutely opposed to toleration and because of this incurred the animosity of Voltaire.
There was no liberty of thought or, at least, of the expression of it. Every book, every newspaper article must be submitted to the censor for approval before publication, and no printer might print without permission. Even when published in conformity with these conditions books might be seized and burned by the police, editions destroyed when possible, and publishers, authors, readers might be prosecuted and fined or imprisoned. Let no one think that the mere fact that Rousseau, Voltaire, and the other authors of the day were able to get their thoughts before the public proves that liberty really existed in practice, even if not in theory. Voltaire was imprisoned several times for what he wrote and was virtually exiled during long years of his life. The censorship was applied capriciously, but it was applied sufficiently often and prosecutions were sufficiently numerous, to justify the statement that liberty was lacking in this sphere of life.
There was no individual liberty. The authorities might arrest any one whom they wished and keep him in prison as long as they chose without assigning reasons and without giving the victim any chance to prove his innocence. There was no such thing as a Habeas Corpus law. There was a large number of state prisons, the most famous being the Bastille, and many of their occupants were there by reason of the lettres de cachet, or orders for arbitrary arrest, one of the most odious and hated features of the Old Regime. Ministers and their subordinate officials used these letters freely. Nobles easily obtained them, sometimes the place for the name being left blank for them to fill in. Sometimes,even, they were sold. Thus there was abundant opportunity to use them to pay off merely personal grudges. Malesherbes once said to Louis XVI, “ No citizen of your realm is sure of not seeing his liberty sacrificed to private spite, the spirit of revenge: for no one is so great as to be safe from the hatred of a minister, so little as to be unworthy of that of a clerk.” Lettres de cachet were also used as a measure of family discipline, to buttress the authority of the head of the family, which was quite as absolute as it is in the Orient. A father could have his wife imprisoned or his children, even though they were adults. Mirabeau had this experience even when he was already widely known as a writer on public affairs.
Nor was there political liberty. The French did not have the right to hold public meetings or to form associations or societies. And of course, as we have seen, they did not elect any assemblies to control the royal government. Liberties which had been in vogue in England for centuries, which were the priceless heritage of the English race on both sides of the Atlantic, were unknown in France.
In view of all these facts it is not strange that Liberty and Equality became the battle cry of the Revolution, embodying the deepest aspirations of the nation.
The French Revolution has been frequently ascribed to the influence of the “ philosophers “ or writers of the eighteenth century. This is putting the cart before the horse, not the usual or efficient way of insuring progress. The manifold ills from which the nation suffered only too palpably were the primary cause of the demand for a cure.
Nevertheless it was a fact of great importance that all the conditions described above, and many others, were criticised through the century by a group of brilliant writers, whose exposition and denunciation gave vocal expression on a vast scale to the discontent, the indignation, and the longing of the age. Literature was a lusty and passionate champion of reform, and through it a flood of new ideas swept over France. Many of these ideas were of foreign origin, German, American, above all English; many were of native growth. Literature was political, and never was there such a raking criticism, from every angle, of prevalent ideas. It was skeptical and expressed the greatest contempt for the traditional — that is, for the very basis on which France uneasily rested. It was analytical, and ideas and institutions and methods were subjected to the most minute and exhaustive amination. No cranny of sequestered abuse folly was left unexplored by these eager and, inquisitive and irreverent minds, on whom the past hung lightly. Literature was optimistic, and never did a nation witness so luxuriant or tropical a growth of Utopias and dreams. Rarely has any body of writing been so charged and surcharged with freshness and boldness and reckless confidence. Appealing to reason, appealing to the emotions, it ran up and down the gamut of human nature, playing with ease and fervor upon the minds and hearts of men, in every tone, with every accent. It was a literature of criticism, of denunciation, of ingenious or futile suggestions for a fairer future. Sparkling, vehement, satirical, scientific in form, it breathed revolt, detestation, but it breathed also an abounding faith in the infinite perfectibility of man and his institutions. It was destructive, as has often been said. It was constructive, too, a characteristic which has not so often been noted. These books, which issued in great profusion from the facile pens and teeming brains of Montesquieu, Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, Quesnay, and many others, stirred the intellectual world to its depths. They accelerated the circulation of multifarious ideas on politics, religion, society, business. They constituted reat historic acts. They crystallized in brilliant and sometimes blinding formulas and theorems whole philosophies of the state and of society. In such compact and manageable form they made the tour of France and began the tour of Europe.
The volume of this inflammable literature was large, its impetus tremendous. It exhaled the love of liberty, the craving for justice. Liberal ideas penetrated more and more deeply into the public mind. A vast fermentation, an incessant and fearless discussion of existing evils and their remedies prepared the way for coming events which were to prove of momentous character.
For three generations the fire of criticism and satire rained upon the foundations of the French monarchy. The campaign was opened by Montesquieu, a member of the nobility of the robe, a lawyer of eminence, a judge of the Parlement of Bordeaux. His great work, the product of twenty years of labor, was his Spirit of Laws, published in 1748. It had an immediate and immense success. Twenty-two editions issued from the press in eighteen months. It was a study in political philosophy, an analysis of the various forms of government known to men, a cold and balanced judgment of their various peculiarities, merits, and defects. Tearing aside the veil of mystery which men had thrown about their institutions, disregarding contemptuously the claim of a divine origin, of a sacrosanct and in- violable quality inherent in their very nature, Montesquieu examined the various types with the same detachment and objectivity which a botanist shows in the study of his specimens.
Two or three leading ideas emerged from the process. One was that the English government was on the whole the best, since it guaranteed personal liberty to all citizens. It was a monarchy which was limited in power, and controlled by an assembly which represented the people of England — in other words what, in the language of modern political science, is called a constitutional monarchy. Montesquieu also emphasized the necessity in any well-regulated state of separating carefully the three powers of government, the legislative, the executive, and the judicial. In the French monarchy all were blended and fused in the single person of the king, and were subject to no earthly control — and, as a matter of fact, to no divine control that was perceptible. These conceptions of a constitutional as preferable to an absolute monarchy, and of the necessity of providing for aseparation of the three powers, have dominated all the constitutions France has had since 1789 and have exerted an influence far beyond the boundaries of that country. Propounded by a studious judge, in language that was both grave and elegant, Mon- tesquieu’s masterpiece was a storehouse of wisdom, destined to be provocative of much thought, discussion, and action, both in France and elsewhere.
Very different, but even more memorable, was the work of Voltaire, one of the master minds of European history, whose name has become the name of an era. We speak of the age of Voltaire as we speak of the age of Luther and of Erasmus. Voltaire stands for the emancipation of the intellect. His significance to his times is shown in the title men gave him — King Voltaire. The world has not often seen a freer or more intrepid spirit. Supremely gifted for a life of letters, Voltaire proved himself an accomplished poet, historian, dramatist, even scientist, for he was not a specialist, but versatility was his forte. Well known at the age of twenty-three, he died at the age of eighty-four in a veritable delirium of applause, for his exit from the world was an amazing apotheosis. World-renowned he melted into world history.
He had not trod the primrose path of dalliance but had been a warrior all his life for multifarious and generally honorable causes. With many weaknesses of character, of which excessive vanity was one, he was a pillar of cloud by day and of fire by night for all who enlisted in the fight for the liberation of mankind. He had personally experienced the oppression of the Old Regime and he hated it with a deep and abiding hatred. He had several times been thrown into prison by the odious arbitrary lettres de cachet because he had incurred the enmity of the great. A large part of his life had been spent in exile because he was not safe in France. By his prodigious intellectual activity he had amassed a large fortune and had become one of the powers of Europe. Show him a case of arbitrary injustice, a case of religious persecution hounding an innocent man to an awful death — and there were such cases — and you would see him taking the field, aflame with wrath against the authors of the monstrous deed. It was literally true in the age of Voltaire that the pen was far mightier than the sword. His style has been superlatively praised and cannot be praised too highly. Clear, pointed, supple, trenchant, it was a Damascus blade. He was never tiresome, he was always interesting, and he was generally instructive. The buoyancy of his spirit was shown in everything he wrote. A master of biting satire and of pulverizing invective, he singled out particularly for his attention the hypocrisies and cruelties and bigotries of his age and he raked them with a rapid and devastating fire. This brought him into conflict with the state and the church. He denounced the abuses and iniquities of the laws and the judicial system, of arbitrary imprisonment, of torture. Voltaire was not a careful and sober student, like Montesquieu. In an age which had no journalism he was the most brilliant and mordant of journalists, writing as he listed, on the events or problems of his day. The variety and piquancy of his writings were astonishing.
Voltaire was not primarily a political thinker. He attacked individual abuses in the state and he undermined the respect for authority, but he evidently was satisfied with monarchy as an institution. His ideal of government was a benevolent despotism. He was not a democrat. He would rather be ruled by one lion than by a hundred rats, was the way in which he expressed his preference.
The church was his bete noire, as he considered it the gloomy fastness of moldering superstitions, the enemy of freedom of thought, the persecutor of innocent men who differed from it, as the seat of intolerance, as the supporter of all kinds of narrow and bigoted prejudices. Voltaire was not an atheist. He believed in God, but he did not believe in the Christian or in the Hebrew God, and he hated the Roman Catholic Church and all its works and dealt it many redoubtable blows. In eighteenth-century France the church, as we have seen, presented plenty of vulnerable sides for his fiery shafts. Voltaire’s work was not constructive but destructive. His religious faith was vague at best and not very vital. He scorned all formal creeds.
Very different in tone and tendency was the work of another author, Jean Jacques Rousseau. In Voltaire we have the dry, white light of reason thrown upon the dark places of the world. In Rousseau we have reason, or rather logic, suffused and powerfully refracted with emotion. If the former was primarily engaged in the attempt to destroy, the latter was constructive, imaginative, prophetic. Rousseau was the creator of an entire political system, he was the confident theorist of a new organization of society. Montesquieu and Voltaire desired political reforms in the interest of individual liberty, desired the end of tyranny. But Rousseau swept far beyond them, wishing a total reorganization of society, because no amount of patching and renovating could make the present system tolerable, because nothing less would render liberty possible. He wrote a magic prose, rich, sonorous, full of melancholy, full of color, of musical cadences, of solemn and pensive eloquence. The past had no power over him; he lacked completely the historical sense. The past, indeed, he despised. It was to him the enemy par excellence, the cause of all the multiplied ills from which humanity was suffering and must free itself. Angry with the world as it was — his own life had been hard — he, the son of a Genevan watchmaker, had wandered here and there practising different trades, valet, music-teacher, tutor — he had known misery and had no personal reason for thinking well of the world and its boasted civilization. In his first work he propounded his fundamental thesis that man, naturally good and just and happy, had been corrupted and degraded by the very thing he called civilization. Therefore sweep civilization aside, and on the ground freed from its artificial and baneful conventions and institutions erect the idyllic state.
Rousseau’s principal work was his Social Contract, one of the most famous and in its results one of the most influential books ever written. Opening with the startling statement that “ man was born free and is everywhere in chains,” he proceeded to outline, by pure abstract reasoning, and with a lofty disregard of all that history had to teach and all that psychology revealed of the nature of the human mind, a purely ideal state, which was in complete contrast to the one in which he lived. Society rests only upon an agreement of the persons who compose it. The people are sovereign, not any individual, nor any class. All men are free and equal. The purpose of any government should be to preserve the rights of each. Rousseau did not at all agree with Montesquieu, whose praise of the English form of government as insuring personal liberty he considered fallacious. “ The English think themselves free,” he said, “ but they are mistaken, for they are free only at the moment in which they elect the members of Parliament.” As soon as these are chosen, the people are slaves, they are nothing, since the members of Parliament are rulers, not the people. Only when the next election comes round will they be free again, and then only for another moment. Rousseau repudiated the representative system of government and demanded that the people make the laws themselves directly. Government must be government by majorities. The majority may make mistakes, nevertheless it is always right, — a dark saying. Rousseau’s state made no pro- vision for safeguarding any rights of the minority which the majority might wish to infringe.
The harmful feature of his system was that it rendered possible a tyranny by a majority over a minority quite as complete and odious and unrestrained as any tyranny of a king could be. But two of his ideas stood out in high relief — the sovereignty of the people and the political equality of all citizens, two democratic principles which were utterly subversive of the states of Europe as then constituted. These principles powerfully influenced the course of the Revolution and have been preached with fervor and denounced with passion by rival camps ever since. They have made notable progress in the world since Rousseau gave them thrilling utterance, but they have still much ground to traverse before they gain the field, before the reign of democracy everywhere prevails.
There were many other writers who, by attacking this abuse and that, contributed powerfully to the discrediting, the sapping of the Old Regime. A conspicuous group of them busied themselves with economic studies and theories, enunciating principles which, if applied, would revolutionize the industrial and commercial life of the nation by sweeping away the numerous and formidable restrictions which hampered it and which permeated it with favoritism and privilege, and by introducing the maximum of liberty in commerce, in industry, in agriculture, just as the writers whom we have described enunciated principles which would revolutionize France politically and socially.
All this seed fell upon fruitful soil. Remarkable was to be the harvest, as we shall shortly see.
The Revolution was not caused by the philosophers, but by the conditions and evils of the national life and by the mistakes of the government. Nevertheless these writers were a factor in the Revolution, for they educated a group of leaders, instilled into them certain decisive doctrines, furnished them with phrases, formulas, and arguments, gave a certain tone and cast to their minds, imparted to them certain powerful illusions, encouraged an excessive hopefulness which was characteristic of the movement. They did not cause the Revolution, but they exposed the causes brilliantly, focussed attention upon them, compelled discussion, and aroused passion.