[Back to Modern Europe Syllabus]
Modern Western Civilization
Class 10: The French Revolution - Origins
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
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
[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
A. The Estates System
B. Subdivisions of the Third Estate
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
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
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
G: Efforts to Fix Fiscal Problems
V. Events Leading to Calling of Estates General
This began as an aristocratic attempt to get more power from the
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]
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?"
-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
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
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
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.