In June 1789 the French revolution had begun. For the next five years there would be bloodshed throughout France, the country was going through a radical change, the change in sovereignty and the failure of the constitutional monarchy being two examples of this. But to what extent was all this caused by economic distress? Before being able to answer the question, one would have to establish the definition of ‘economic distress’ it could be defined as the misery people (especially the peasantry) faced due to low income and tax inflation or the misery that the entire country was in due to the enormous debts, which had accumulated due to the wars, which were fought. The economic situation was only one of the elements that caused the people to question the monarchy in pre-revolutionary France.
France was in great debt and almost bankrupt but this did not stop them from fighting wars. The debt – an economic problem – turned into a social one, when the peasants were taxed heavily in order to pay for the debt, this caused them to question greatly their position in society and the effectiveness of their monarchy. Drought and other natural disasters ruined crop production, causing food prices to rise dramatically. With taxes rising and prices too, peasants were living in famine and in poor living conditions.
The enlightenment was able to inspire revolutionary thoughts within the people. People began to abandon their beliefs in divine right and focused more on the thoughts of equality and society being run for the benefit of all. The economic situation only made people realize other problems concerning politics and society. A revolution (The complete overthrow of an established government or social order by those previously subject to it) would mean complete reform of political, ideological and economical beliefs, so for such a drastic change to be necessary there would need to be problems in all of these areas to begin with. In Pre-revolutionary France there were three estates – the first estate (clergy), the second estate (nobles) and the third estate (bourgeoisie, peasantry and urban workers). Most of the clergy came from noble backgrounds, as it was usual for the youngest sons of wealthy families to join the church in order to share its wealth.
The church’s wealth came from tithes (a proportion or the each year’s crop paid to the church by landowners) and the vast amount of land that it owned. They clergy were exempt from taxes; instead they negotiated a don gratuit with the king. The don gratuit was an annual payment to the crown and was always much less than what would have to be paid in normal taxation. The church had a great deal of power too as the state religion was Catholicism, it was their duty to spread to ideas of divine right.
The second estate was by far, the wealthiest and most powerful. They were exempt from paying direct taxes (until the 1749 vingtieme when they still paid less than they would have done if they were from the third estate) and doing military service such as the corvee (forced labour on roads) and made their money through the land they owned (between 15% and 25% of all land in France). They also receives seigneural (feudal) dues which were fees that the peasants were obligated to pay in order to use the lord’s mill, oven, wine press, breeding stock, death taxes, inheritance taxes and sale-of-property taxes. The third estate was made up of three parts; the bourgeoisie, who were the wealthiest and most educated part of the estate, many of them being financiers, landowners, doctors, writers and civil servants.
It was also possible for wealthy bourgeoisie to buy venal offices to become nobles (however, most ennobling offices requires at least two generations of owners before nobility could be bought. The other part of the estate was the peasantry. It was the least wealthy and most numerous (85% of the French population lived in the countryside and most were peasants). Many of the peasants were laboureurs (people who grew enough food to feed themselves, these were the people who found it especially hard when the crop was damaged due to bad weather conditions in 1769-71, 1778-79, 1781-82, 1785-86 and above all 1788-89. Other peasants who were also greatly affected by this were the sharecroppers who had no capital and gave half their produce to their landlords. All peasants had to pay feudal dues such as the corvee, tithes to the church and also had to pay taxes such as the taille, vingtieme, capitation, and gabelle.
Peasants also had to pay rents, which increased greatly between 1705 and 1789 to add to their expenses. The third part of the estate was the urban workers who were unskilled and poor. They were subjected to appalling living and working conditions and the famine hit them the hardest as they could not afford the bread which formed three quarters of the workers diet. Pre-revolutionary France was run under an autocratic regime. The monarchy was absolute, its powers consisted of: The National System of Justice, their role with the catholic church, the right to order taxation and leader of the military forces, a successful leader would need to be able to handle this power with confidence and good judgment. Louis XVI was too weak, far too indecisive and all in he was not the sort of person who should have held such responsibilities.
The basis of the revolution was established when Louis XIV came to the throne. He was an absolute monarch who caused the nobles dislike of monarchy by reducing their power and taking them away from their land. In 1661 Louis spent $100 million to build the Versailles palace, his lavish spending left the country with a huge debt. He also spent a great deal of money fighting a series of wars in an attempt to dominate Europe. Louis XV was no more successful, he attempted to reform the unjust taxation by forcing the formerly exempt nobility and clergy to pay tax – this was amended after his death. In 1771 the parlements were regrouped and stripped of their powers to obstruct royal decrees, this introduced the idea of the king being a despotic leader (a leader who acts illegally).
Louis XV also spent vast amounts of money on 3 unsuccessful wars; the war of the Polish succession, the war of the Austrian Succession and the seven years war where France lost all of its overseas colonies to Britain, adding to the debt and causing the people to believe that the king was responsible for France’s loss of power. Louis XVI was weak foolish and extremely indecisive. His weakness was evident when instead of implementing tax reforms he avoided the nobility and just kept on borrowing money, creating a cycle of constant loans, by 1786 the debt totaled 3 billion livres and the deficit had come to 125 million livres. Another thing, which the French public hated about the monarchy, was that the queen was Marie Antoinette; to them she was the symbol of an unnatural alliance with Austria, which had led to France’s defeat in the seven years war. She greatly influenced the decisions of the king, for example the comptroller-general, Turgot, was sacked because she disliked him. Louis’ indecisiveness is shown in the way he dealt with extremely important matters, for example; it took six months to discuss the recall of the parlement in 1774, in 1778 the entry into the American war of independence took two years of deciding and the convocation of the assembly of notables in 1787 (where there was urgency) took five months.
It was clear that Louis was not fit to be a king. The biggest long-term problem next to the king and the extreme social inequality was tax. The main direct tax – the taille – that was a tax on land only applied to peasants, exemptions were granted to towns and nobles. Another tax was the capitation (poll tax) and the vingtieme (five per cent levy on all incomes). Along with the direct taxes, there were also indirect taxes such as the gabelle (salt tax), aides on food and drink and the octrois on goods entering the town.
These posed more of a problem for the peasantry and the urban workers, as it did not take into account their low income. The tax therefore became a controversial issue as it caused the peasants to question their role in society and wants to change it. It was intended for the money from taxes to cover the expenditure, but due to bad tax collection methods they rarely received as much money as they were supposed to. Indirect taxes were collected by the farmers-general who would pay a lump sum to the government in advance and keep any extra, direct taxes were collected by accountants (venal office holders who bought their positions and could not be dismissed), they often used the money for their own purposes. The lack of a central treasury meant that the comptroller-general could not track the fianc?s of the country; it was therefore difficult to judge how much money there was to spend. Due to the lack of money being received through taxes, the government had to borrow money, so payment of interest became a large part of government expenditure in the eighteenth century.
The lack of fiscal equality and the circumstances under which taxation was issued (unsuccessful wars) caused great resentment among the third estate, it caused them to want change and to have a say in the way the country was run. These long-term problems caused a number of short-term problems, beginning with the summoning of the Estates-General. After Turgot was dismissed in 1776, the king appointed Necker who forced him to make all classes to pay tax. However, the 13 parlements (which had to vote for an act in order for it to be passed) opposed many of the royal edicts, which proposed change to the system of taxation and proclaimed that any change in the system of taxation ought to be voted on by the nation, so immediately an estates-general was set up. It was hoped that this would remedy the problem over taxation but this only caused more dislike for the monarchy and for the classes to firstly become hostile toward each other, and then united in the fight against the monarchy. When the first and second estates called for a vote on the matter of taxation, the third estate declared that they should have double representation and voting by head instead of order (each person’s vote counted instead of each estate).
This was so that issues concerning inequality might not go unheard. On June 20th 1789, the members of the third estate went to the Hotel des menus for a meeting that had been called to sort out the conflict between the estates however, the door was locked in order to prepare for a royal session. They then went to a nearby tennis court where they made an oath: “Let us swear to God and our country that we will not disperse until we have established a sound and just constitution, as instructed by those who nominated us”. They then decided to call themselves the ‘National Assembly’ and following this, 151 clergy and 47 nobles joined the third estate, and the estates were now united – against the king. Another of the short-term problems was to do with agriculture. In the late 1700’s 20 million of the 26 million people in France lived from land.
Many peasants were too poor to afford their own livestock to many of them were metayers or sharecroppers. This meant that the landlord provided the equipment and livestock in exchange for the labour and half of the produce of the peasants. Peasants with minimum income found it extremely difficult as they had to give up almost everything they had; half of produce to the lord, paid feudal dues (fees they had to pay to the lord to use his mill, oven, wine press, breeding stock, death taxes, inheritance taxes, and sale-of-property taxes) and also the taxes demanded by landlord, church and state. As the country edged more and more towards bankruptcy the peasants were faced with tax inflation, this caused great tension between second and third estates. A lot of the people from the third estates were the lords who were responsible for the growing burden of seigneural dues. Had the nobles paid taxes, the burden on the peasants would have been considerably less, as it would have been more spread out amongst the population.
In the years of 1769-71, 1778-79, 1781-82, 1785-86 and 1788-89 there were repeated harvest failures due to drought and other natural disasters, causing there to be a shortage of food leaving the country in recession. This caused there to be less demand for manufactured goods, causing peasants and urban workers to become unemployed. This was disastrous for them because the food prices were going up and because they were now unemployed they had no income to pay for their food, this caused over 70% of the population to be in famine, while the other 30% were either just being able to get along or benefiting from the rise in prices. Normally, a worker would spend up to 50% of his earnings on bread, but between August 1788 and February 1789 prices had gone up by 50%. So by the time it got to spring 1789, a worker would find himself paying 88% of his wages on bread.
This famine, which spread across the country, caused a number of riots from peasants. On April 28th the house and factory of a wallpaper manufacturer – Reveillon – was burned down because it was rumoured that he would reduce the wages of his workers, Also, some peasants in Versailles entered the kings palace and threatened to kill Marie Antoinette demanding that they give them bread it was clear to see that they were in desperation, and this just showed the lengths they were willing to go to. The peasantry, who, for centuries had remained completely content in their social position were now making sure that their voice was heard in the only way they could – through violence. The tension between the estates and the monarchy and against each other was becoming disastrous and changes had to be made.
Peasants started to listen to the ideas of the bourgeoisie, who had adopted revolutionary ideas from America (because a lot of them went to fight there). The peasants related to the hardships of the bourgeoisie but it seemed that although they were fighting to defend the rights of the third estate by establishing a constitution, they had lost track of what was really wrong – the famine. The peasants and the bourgeoisie started to become divided in their priorities. Before, they were united against the monarchy, but the problems with agriculture and inflation meant that the peasantry was much worse off, causing them to want different things, especially within the economy. The peasantry wanted a controlled economy with no free trade, while the bourgeoisie wanted free trade and a completely capitalist state.
The ideas of the enlightenment evoked revolutionary ideas in both second and third estates although many of the ideas of the philosophes themselves were not entirely revolutionary. The ideas of such people as Montesquieu, Voltaire, Diderot and Rousseau were able to reach everyone, as there was a rise in literacy and publishing. The need for equality and freedom was reflected in the work of Rousseau and Voltaire and the concepts of general will was founded on the basis of Rousseau’s “Forcing Man to be Free”. The “Declaration des Droits de L’homme et du citroyen” (Declaration of the rights of man) caused people to question the ‘letters de cachet’ (the rights that the king had to imprison someone at his own will) however, it did not in any way mention a change in the way the peasants were able to have a say in the social or political aspects. Philosophical thinkers such as Overall, we cannot put the cause of the revolution completely down to the economic distress that the country was facing as this was only really aimed at the peasants.
For a revolution to occur, there would need to be a swift, radical change in social, economical and ideological beliefs, so there must have been a huge problem in all three of these areas to begin with, not just one. Past problems with the wars (e. g. the seven years war) caused the country to be in debt as well as causing resentment amongst the people and for them to question how successful the monarchy was.
It was left to the peasants to carry the load of the debts, which kept on increasing while the first and second estate did not have to pay any taxes, this made them aware of the unfairness of the social hierarchy. They became even more aware of this when they faced starvation and the wealthy landowners benefited in the high prices of grain causing them to want a change in the economical situation of the country (more controlled and less free trade). The nobility could hold as much blame for the revolution as the king as they were the people who made up the parlement and refused to accept any reform to taxes, which was what caused the most conflict. Although the monarchy and church blamed the philosophers of the enlightenment for spreading revolutionary ideas, their ideas were not actually revolutionary. The church was worried because their beliefs brought about an alternative to Christianity and the social hierarchy, which they had lived with for so longEuropean History