2.4 The French Revolution


"Storming of the Bastille and Arrest of the Governor, M. de Launay, July 14, 1789." c. 1789 – 1791.
“Storming of the Bastille and Arrest of the Governor, M. de Launay, July 14, 1789.” c. 1789 – 1791. Wikimedia. May 19, 2013.

The idealization and realization of ephemeral concepts such as liberty and freedom in the American Revolution had ramifications a decade later in France. The French Revolution was a time of chaos, but not disorder. Things moved so rapidly that many who lived through it struggled to keep up. As you complete your reading and watch the video clips keep the following questions in mind: What was French society and government like just before the French Revolution? What characteristics were most responsible for the upheaval that began in 1789? What were the major events of the French Revolution from 1789 through 1804?

The French Revolution was a radical political transformation of what had been one of the most traditional and most powerful of the great European states in the space of a few short years. France went from a Catholic absolute monarchy to a radical, secular republic with universal manhood suffrage, a new calendar, a new system of weights and measures, and the professed goal of conquering the rest of Europe in the name of freedom, all in about five years. Even though the Revolution “failed” to achieve the aims of its most radical proponents in the short term, it set the stage for everything else that happened in Europe for the rest of the nineteenth century, with major consequences for world history.

The Causes of the Revolution

The immediate case of the French Revolution was the dire financial straits of the French state after a century of war against Britain and an outdated system of taxation. As noted previously, starting at the end of the seventeenth century there was an (on-again, off-again) century of warfare between France and Britain, almost all of it fought overseas (in India, the Caribbean, and North America). With the noteworthy exception of the American Revolution, Britain won every single war. The major impact of the colonial wars between France and Britain in the eighteenth century on France was to push the state to the brink of bankruptcy – even as Britain funded its wars through the sale of bonds from the official national bank, the French state struggled to raise revenue. The loans it desperately sought had to be found from private banks, traders, and wealthy individuals, and the interest rates it was obliged to pay were punishingly high.

Not only did France lose much of its empire in Canada, the Caribbean, and India to the British, the state also accumulated a huge burden of debt which consumed 60% of tax revenues each year in interest payments. In turn, the problem for the monarchy was that there was no way to raise more money: taxes were tied to land and agriculture, rather than to taxes on commerce, and nobles and the church were exempt from taxation. As they had been since the Middle Ages, taxes were drawn almost entirely from peasant agriculture, supplemented by a few special taxes on commodities like salt. Since the nobility and church were all but tax-exempt, and the monarchy did not have a systematic way to tax commerce, there was a lot of wealth in France that the crown simply could not access through taxation.

In turn, the power of the nobility ensured that any dream of far-reaching reform was out of the question. There were about 200,000 nobles in France (which had a population of 26 million at the time). All of the senior members of the administration, the army, the navy, and the Catholic Church were nobles. The nobility owned a significant percentage of the land of France outright – about one-third – and had lordly rights over most of the rest of it. The pageantry around the person of the king and queen first established by Louis XIV continued at the Palace of Versailles, but nothing changed the fact that noble wealth remained largely off-limits to the state and nobles exercised a great deal of real political power.

The one war in which France managed to defeat Britain was the American Revolutionary War of the 1770s and early 1780s. France subsidized the American Revolution and offered weapons, advisers, and naval support. The result was to push the state to the verge of outright bankruptcy, with no direct economic benefit to France from American victory. Traditionally, the French kings dismissed financial concerns as being beneath their royal dignity, but the situation had reached such a point of desperation that even the king had to take notice.

Starting In the early 1780s, the French King Louis XVI appointed a series of finance ministers to wade through the mountains of reports and ledgers to determine how much the state owed, to whom, and how paying it back would be possible. Attempts to overhaul the tax system as a whole were shouted down by the major city governments and powerful noble interests alike. By 1787, it was clear that the financial situation was simply untenable and the monarchy had to secure more revenue, somehow. The king was at a loss of what to do. He reluctantly came to realize that only taxing the nobility and, perhaps, the Church could possibly raise the necessary revenue. Thus, Louis XVI was up against the entrenched interests of the most powerful classes of his kingdom.



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PPSC HIS 1320: Western Civilization: 1650-Present by Wayne Artis, Sarah Clay, and Kim Fujikawa is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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