[Back to Modern Europe Syllabus]

Paul Halsall
Modern Western Civilization

Class 10: The French Revolution - Origins


I. Introduction

So far we have looked at people and ideas, at social history and intellectual history. Not at what a lot of you might have expected as history, but we are looking at how the modern world came about in all its complexity.

Now however, we are going to look at the series of events which make up the French Revolution. Today we are going to look at causes and origins, at how previous intellectual, social and political elements all contributed to it.

Importance of the French Revolution

Chronology - Sketch of Events

1788-89 French State undergoes a massive revolution in politics but also in society and the way people think. The calling of the Estates General in 1789 was the catalyst for the Revolution.

1789-1792 - Liberal Revolution

1792-1794 - Radicalization

1795-1799 - Ineffective Reaction

1799-1815 - Napoleon - did he destroy or establish the FR?


Causes of the French Revolution

II. Intellectual Causes

A. Liberalism

[See classes on Enlightenment!]

The Enlightenment: scientific and philosophical thought had been generalized in the 18th Century. There was now a much larger intellectual class with the political ideas that the Enlightenment had spread around Europe.

What was later called Liberalism was popular.

Liberals also wanted freedom from a state-controlled economy. Property was seen as sacred. These were middle class property owners by and large.

B. Assessment of Intellectual Causes

Intellectual causes are difficult to quantify in terms of their effects, but they are nonetheless important in effecting actions and ideologies of participants.

After Montesquieu, a republic as regarded as at least theoretically noble and possible.

Rousseau had an effect during the long but, as we shall see, most of the unrolling of the Revolution came in response to events; actual actions were often intensely pragmatic.

C. The American Revolution

The economic effects will be discussed later. Be aware here of the mythic effects of a free republic.

France had helped Americans vs. Britain and many Frenchmen, such as LaFayette, were to be important in both revolutions. Victory for the new USA was in 1783.

III. Social Causes

We have very good sources for the social problems before the Revolution: the Cahiers des doleances [Notebooks of Grievences] of 1788.

A. The Estates System

  1. First Estate: The Clergy
    1% of pop, with 10% of land.They had wealth, land, privileges and they levied a tax on the peasantry, the tithe, which generally went to some remote bishop or monastery rather than the local parish priest.
    The First Estate was perhaps 100,000 strong. But note that there were many poor clergymen in this Estate, and they were going to support the Revolution.
  2. Second Estate: The Nobility
    2-5% of pop, with 20% of the land. They also had great wealth and taxed the peasantry: There was a "feudal" resurgence in 18th century.
    400,000 people.
    The great division among the Nobility was between the Noblesse d'epee, dating from the Middle Ages, and the Noblesse de Robe: later nobles whose titles came from their possession of public offices.
  3. Third Estate: Everyone Else
    95-97% of the pop.
    There were some few rich members, the artisans and all the peasantry. These were also class divisions.
    In the modern world we only consider the Third Estate. Its Victory has been total.

B. Subdivisions of the Third Estate

  1. The Bourgeoisie
    8% of the pop, about 2.3 Million people, with 20% of Land. They often bought land and exploited the peasants on it. In Third Estate, the most important group politically was the Bourgeoisie. The Bourgeoisie had been growing throughout the century, to some extent encouraged by the monarchy. By 1788 it was very important and its members were well read, educated and rich (fivefold increase in trade 1713 -1789). But this important group had no say in running the country.
  2. The Peasants
    with 40% of the land, formed the vast majority of population. There was population growth in this period: perhaps 3,000,000 people added over the century. Peasants paid the most tax: aristocrats did not pay. Peasants alone paid the taille. They alone had to give labor service to the State. They also had to pay the tithe, in kind, to the clergy.
    As well as these taxes, peasants had to give services to their Landlords: this is sometimes called `feudal' service. They also pay dues to their feudal (seigniorial) lord when they sold land that was in all other ways their own. Poverty was intense, but varied by region.
    Peasants farmed the land, and regard it as their own, but it was not legally theirs. What they wanted was to own their own property. This was radical only at to start with. Later it was to be a conservative desire.
    Cf. Bourgeois leaders of the Revolution at first wanted to keep labour services etc. as they thought they were a form of property for the landlords.
  3. The Urban Poor of Paris
    Artisans - factory workers, journeymen. They very poor were probably less involved in politics. Artisans had different interests than the bourgeoisie. but they played important role at several points. They were the most politicized group of poor people, possibly due to high literacy.
    [Note on Literacy: Literacy was comparatively high amongst all classes in northern France. This had the effect that everybody could imbibe the new ideas that came out in pamphlets. ]

C. Assessment of Class Division as a Cause

Despite the class divisions and tensions outlined here, the Revolution actually began as an aristocratic revolt against the monarchy, but two main groups of poor people did affected the revolution decisively.

IV. Political Causes - The Run-Up to 1789

A. Successors to Louis XIV and The Weakening of Absolutism

Under Louis XIV flaws in theory of absolutism had been apparent: now they become obvious; the misuse of power, kings who couldn't rule.

B. Louis XV 1715-74

Succeeded at age 5. He was poorly educated and spent a life devoted to his mistresses.

The nobles began to regain some of the power they had lost to Louis XIV under the regency of the Duc D'Orleans, but in general the nobles proved incapable of governing.

In the Parlements nobles continued to struggle with the monarchy until the Revolution, a struggle that seriously weakened it.

Madame de Pompadour 1721-64 - for 20 years exercised her political intelligence for Louis XV.

Madame du Barry - just as ambitious, less clever

"apres moi, le deluge"

C. Louis XIV 1774-1792

Virtuous - but uninterested in government.

[Diary July 14, 1789: "Nothing", he meant he caught nothing hunting that day.]

D. Conflict with Parlements and Ruling Classes

Parlements had the power to register laws from King

13 Parlements in all throughout France, but the Parlement of Paris was the most important.

They began to claim, with no really good reason, a right of veto. Traditionally a King could always override Parlements with a lit de justice.

The Duc d'Orleans had actually given the Parlements a veto during his regency. But Parlements had been abolished by Rene Maupeau (1714-1792) in the 1770s under Louis XV.

Louis XVI revived them 1774, in an attempt to be popular, when his new minister Maurepas thought they were a good thing since he had been a minister decades before when Parlements were less powerful.

This move was to prove fatal, given the financial problems Louis XVI faced later, when Parlements became centers of resistance to the King.

E. Louis XVI's Government

Louis XVI's goverment was not an old fashioned ancien regime. There were some reforms, that lead people who dislike the French Revolution to think that things may have turned out very differently.

One Example: In 1776 there was an edict commuting the corvee (labour service) under Minister Jacques Turgot (1721-81).

F. Problems with State Finances

This was what eventually presented the greatest problem to the French Monarchy.

  1. Economic Weakness
    The Revocation of Edict of Nantes 1685 had struck a blow at French commerce. The Economy tottered for the next hundred years. Financially the origins of the Revolution go back to Louis XIV {but not because of the cost of Versailles].
  2. Taxation Problems
    The Richest were not taxed: ie. the Nobles and Clergy. Taxes were indirect on poorest part of population.
    -the Taille on peasant produce
    -the Gabelle - on salt
    -various trade tariffs
    The basic problem was that in a rich country there was not enough income for the government to do its job.
    These taxes increased. It has been calculated that there was a 28% increase in some parts of country in Louis XVI's reign alone. But of course this affected the poor the worst.
  3. Dependence on loans
    The banking system was not able to cope with the fiscal problems. It was the need for King to raise taxes that led to the calling of the Estates General.
  4. Cost of Mid Century Wars
    The Seven Years War 1756-63 cost a lot.
    The American Revolution: France had more or less paid for the American War.
  5. The Cost of Versailles and the Royal household etc.
    W
    as NOT a big factor by the end of century - it used about 5% of revenue.
  6. Bankruptcy of the State.
    By 1780s the government was nearly bankrupt. Half of government income was going on paying debts (annual deficit 126 Million Livres.)(debt was almost 4 Billion Livres). But this was not greater than in UK or Holland.
    The problem was the government could not service the debt.
  7. Several ministers did try to put it back on a sound basis. France was not after all a poor country.

G: Efforts to Fix Fiscal Problems

  1. Jacques Necker 1732-1802 was one such minister. The problem was that he had hidden the real problems, and made it difficult for later ministers to explain why higher taxes were needed.
  2. 1783: Charles Alexander de Calonne 1732-1802, Finance minster, raised loans to pay debts. By 1786 he did not think Parlements would register another loan.

V. Events Leading to Calling of Estates General

This began as an aristocratic attempt to get more power from the king.

A. Calonnne's Plan

Louis XVI and Calonne had an economic reform plan to tax landed property. It was based on provincial assemblies and allowed no evasion by nobles.

[One might note that monarchs were the modernizers until the French Revolution only afterwards did they become archaic, and supported by their hitherto enemies, the nobles and the clergy]

B. Opposition

This was opposed by the noblesse de Robe in the Parlements - they just did not want to be taxed.

C. Assembly of Notables 1787

An "Assembly of Notables" was called to outflank the parlements. It was not the same as Estates General. But the notables in criticized Calonne's plans and demanded a greater role for the aristocracy in government.

The Assembly of Notables also said the government had no right to demand new taxes, and that an Estates General (last called 1614) must be called again.

The King was forced to dismiss Calonne.

Plus, he had problems as the parlements had felt threatened by the calling of the Assembly of Notables, which was originally a way to get round the objections and blocks that the Parlements had been raising. They also demanded an Estates General.

The new minister Etienne Charles Lomenie de Brienne (1727-1794) Archbishop of Toulouse - spent a year trying to get the Parlements to accept change without an Estates General.

D. 1788 Coup d'etat of Parlements

The Parlement of Paris rejects Kings attempts to force change, so King abolishes Parlements.

The King said registration of laws now to be in a plenary court for the whole of France.

There was anarchy/revolts throughout France. This forced the calling of an Estates General.

So the EG was called as a response to nobles' rejection of a modernisation plan.

VI. The Calling of the Estates General

The representative body of the Three Estates.

This was the catalyst for a lot of political excitement.

VII. Political Developments in Fall 1788

There was a rapid discussion of ideas, more radical than anything in the Enlightenment. The weeks after 25th Sept 1788 saw most radical change of all.

The most famous pamphlet was by the Abbe Sieyes 1748-1835

"What is the Third Estate?"

-Everything

-What has it been until Now? - Nothing

-What does it ask? - to become something

The ideas feed on themselves. This is part of the structure of revolutions: a long period of preparation, then developments at an intense speed leading to conclusions none of those at the beginning could have envisaged.

At just the moment it thought it was victorious, the nobles faced a real and new revolution which would sweep it away.

VIII. Cahiers des Doleances

Compiled between the calling of the Estates General and its assembly.

Objections to current system from Parish of St.Vaast, March 1789

  1. Lettres de Cachet (i.e. wanted due process)
  2. Nation should agree to its own taxes
  3. EG every 4 years (i.e. objected to no consultation)
  4. Taxes equally on all classes, inc. Nobles and clergy
  5. Third estates to have justices in the Parlements

NB NO call for a republic in any Cahier But some reports of peasants already believing that they were free of manorial dues.

IX. Historian's Debate

A. Traditionally Bourgeoisie seen as having vital role + promoting its economic interests.

B. Revisionists claim Bourgeoisie's interests did not differ from those of the upper class. [explain revisionist/traditionalist approach in historiography]

C. There were liberals and conservatives among the nobles + But in 1789 still no republicans in France. but all were looking for a way to control power of monarchy.

X. Assembly Meets May 5th 1789

Third Estate probably ready to strengthen hand of King vs. nobles and clergy

But:-

There is a background of rising bread prices from 1788-89 - people in Paris being radicalised by this at just the right moment (leads into next lecture…)

XI. Evaluation of Causes

Discuss these.

Bring out that history is not "ideal" - it is grounded in actuality - we are not certain of our evaluations - but we can make arguments for them.