The French Revolution

The previous post explained some of the proposed causes of the French Revolution, both long and short term. This post will deal with the immediate lead up to the Revolution and the Revolution itself.

France was now bankrupt, due to its expensive wars and the monarch’s ludicrous spending habits. The already overburdened bourgeoisie could not pay more tax and nor could the peasantry, so Louis XVI attempted to impose taxes on the nobility that they had previously been exempt from. The nobility refused to pay the tax. In an attempt to resolve the deadlock that he was faced with, the King called the Estates General in May 1789, which was a body consisting of representatives of the clergy, nobility and the rest of the population. Elections were held to elect the representatives for the Third Estate, in which all tax paying men over twenty-five had the franchise. The Third Estate called for genuine representation of the people; they wanted equal votes to the Second and Third Estate combined and equal taxation across all the Estates.

However, the Estates General failed- there was an irreconcilable difference in the opinions of the Estates; the nobility did not believe that commoners should have power whereas commoners believed the true power was with them. There were also disagreements in how voting should be done, whether it should be by Estate, or by members. These differences became too difficult to get anything done, and instead, the Third Estate formed an alternative group, the National Assembly. This ran from June to July of 1789 and declared that it was not of the Estates but of the people, refusing to recognise the authority of the King and looked to the support of emerging capitalists.
One of the most important actions of the National Assembly was to create the Tennis Court Oath, in which its members swore: “not to separate, and to reassemble wherever circumstances require until the constitution of the kingdom is established”.  The clergy voted to join with the Assembly as well as some of the nobility. The situation quickly spiralled downwards and tension skyrocketed when Louis brought in troops, French and foreign mercenaries, which caused outrage. The National Assembly reconvened as the National Constituent Assembly and demanded the withdrawal of troops. By now Paris was at fever pitch.

Just before the Estates General Assembled, the French government had lifted censorship to allow debates over the voting in the Third Estate, and Paris’s public sphere had exploded into a fevered political discussion, and the age of enlightened thought had brought radical new ideas that were spread rapidly over Paris by pamphlets and newspapers. The calling of the King’s troops seemed to be the last straw that ignited the city in revolt. On 14th July the Bastille, a weapons store and symbol of royal power was stormed, and the King backed down amidst the violence. Order around France quickly broke down and attacks on chateaus of the nobility were common.

In August, the National Assembly abolished feudalism, revoked the privileges of the nobility, and swept away Church tithes. They also established the Rights of Man and His Citizen, which stipulated that amongst other things; all men are born free and equal in rights, the need for public tax and equal contribution, and that sovereignty lies in the nation. In 1791 the Constitution is established, but the following year the constitutional monarchy fail and are executed.

There is no doubt that the French Revolution is one of the pivotal points in history and this brief outline of events is unable to capture and explain every detail of the Revolution.The next post in will explain some of the longer term results of the Revolution and its significance in history, which is undeniably far-reaching yet much debated.

The French Revolution: the Beginning

The French Revolution is a much debated moment in history, in terms of its intent, its causes, and its effects. Being on the brink of early modern and modern history, there is discussion as to whether this can be identified as the ‘trigger’ of the modern period. There is widespread agreement that it was an iconic moment in the developing ‘Age of Revolution’, but we must be careful not to add anachronistic labels to the Revolution, and remember what the actual achievements of it were.

The French Revolution is easier to understand when it is put into its correct context. Pre-Revolutionary France was made up of around 80% rural dwellings reliant on or directly involved with agriculture. Society was organised into three tiers, known as “Estates of the Realm”. The First Estate was comprised of clergy, the Second of nobility and the Third Estate included ‘everyone else’ in society, including the newly emerging bourgeoisie class.

Power in France resided almost exclusively with the King, as an absolute ruler who executed his power through the ‘Letter de Cachet’, which were sealed arbitrary orders with no right of appeal. Absolute power included powers over taxation, which was put heavily and disproportionately upon the bourgeoisie and peasantry. The wealthy nobility were exempt from Crown taxes despite attempts by some French monarchs to change this. This led to the nobility becoming more and more unpopular with the growing bourgeois class and general dissatisfaction. France was also cripplingly in debt.  The financial situation was only exacerbated by Louis XV, who held an extravagant and extremely expensive court at Versailles and his successor Louis XVI was reluctant or simply unable to make any changes. Massive loans were taken out to support unnecessary wars, including the Seven Years War that France lost and their part in the American Revolution that gained them nothing. Compared to England’s loans, these were taken out at a much higher interest rate.

The growing bourgeois class also came with an increasingly uncensorable public sphere. In the eighteenth-century, there was a boom in newspapers, journals, and coffee houses and whilst these would have been heavily censored, it would have been impossible to censor what people were thinking privately, and people’s unspoken opinions on important matters. Urbanisation meant that Paris had one of the largest concentrations of intellectual, enlightened thought which created a thriving debate forum. The public opinion increasingly began to demand the right to decide policy, superseding the royal court and questioning the authority of the Church and the legitimacy of monarchical power.

There were also a few short term factors that helped aggravate the situation. The Agrarian Crisis in 1788-89 coincided with the deregulation of the grain market, leading to a massive increase in grain prices and massive inflation. But the underlying tensions and increase in public debate led to a dramatic standoff between government, monarch and people, and create a Revolution not uncommonly seen as the beginning of the modern world.