The French Revolution

Revolutionary Seed on Fertile Soil: The American and French Revolutions were both based on the concept of individual human rights. Liberals of the period demanded freedom to worship according to the dictates of their consciences, an end to censorship, and freedom from arbitrary laws and from judges who simply followed orders handed down by the government. The Declaration of the Rights of Man, issued at the beginning of the French Revolution, stated "Liberty consists in being able to do anything that does not harm another person." A citizen’s rights "had no limits except those which assure to the other members of society the enjoyment of these same rights." Such an idea was radical, to say the least, in a Europe which was traditionally monarchical and absolutist.

Liberty to the liberals of the eighteenth century meant that the people were sovereign, and alone had the authority to make laws limiting an individual’s freedom or action. In practice, it meant that the people would choose representatives who would represent them and be accountable to them. However, there were some distinctions that even the liberal thinkers recognized. First, equality did not imply economic equality. Thomas Jefferson, in drafting the Declaration of Independence, removed "property" as one of the "unalienable rights" guaranteed to humanity, and replaced it with "the pursuit of happiness." Neither he nor other liberal thinkers of the period expected equal economic success for all people. They only insisted that everyone have an equal chance at success. Also, equality was for men only. Women were important in the French Revolution, but they had no right to vote, to run for office, or participate in the government.

Liberal ideas leading to the American and French Revolutions came to full fruition in the Enlightenment. Almost all Enlightenment thinkers were committed to the concept of equality before the law and personal liberty. The most important of these, of course, were John Locke and the Baron de Montesquieu. Locke argued that England’s political tradition rested on the "rights of Englishmen." To him, the proper function of government was to protect the "natural rights" of life, liberty and private property; if a government overstepped its authority in that regard, it became tyrannical. Montesquieu believed that groups such as the judiciary (of which he was a member) offered the best defense against despotism.

The bourgeoisie were especially enthralled with the idea that a representative government could defend their liberty and interests. However, their idea of representative government did not equate to pure democracy, which to them was mob rule; rather it was restricted to those who owned property, and therefore had a stake in society.

Liberal ideas had not appealed to the peasants for two reasons: (1) their primary concern was food on the table, not abstract political ideas. Their interests were economic and basic, rather than political and esoteric. (2) The enclosure system and regulation of food prices was fertile soil for further conflict, which led to many misunderstandings and disappointments between the bourgeoisie and the peasants.

The Collapse of the Old Order: The American Revolution was an integral element in the French Revolution. Books, pamphlets, and articles romanticized it in Europe, and many thinkers believed that a new world was dawning in which Americans would lead the way. One French writer noted in 1789, "This vast continent which the seas surround will soon change Europe and the universe." The Americans had demonstrated that opposition to a tyrannical government could be successful and that rational people could come together and exercise sovereignty and write a new "social contract" in the form of a constitution. This seemed to reinforce the enlightenment principle that people and the world could be improved. France was particularly influenced by the American Revolution. Many Frenchmen went to America to fight, primarily because the war was against France’s traditional foe, England; but they returned to France with a new love of liberty and republican convictions.

Yet the French Revolution was not a carbon copy of the American Revolution. It was much more radical, complex, and violent. For most Europeans it was the great revolution of the eighteenth century and introduced the modern world.

The revolution began with monetary problems for Louis XVI. His ministers had attempted to raise taxes, but had been thwarted by the French Parlements, primarily the Parlement of Paris. When the government accrued huge debts during the American Revolution, it was forced to borrow money, which resulted in a gigantic national debt. By the 1789’s, fifty per cent of Frances annual budget was for interest payments only on outstanding debt. Twenty five per cent went to the military and six per cent to pay Louis’ expenses at Versailles. Less than 20% was available for normal government functions. Bankruptcy was not an option, as the debt was held by powerful aristocrats and bourgeois creditors, and the monarchy was too weak to simply repudiate its debts. It also could not pay them by simply printing paper money, as there was no central bank and no paper currency. The only form of money accepted in France was gold coin.

French society had been divided into three classes since the middle ages: The clergy, the nobility, and everyone else. The clergy, which constituted the First Estate, were about 100,000 in number, and owned about ten per cent of the land. It paid only a "voluntary gift" to the government rather than taxes, and itself levied a tax, the tithe, on landowners, which averaged just fewer than ten per cent. Much of the church’s income was spent on maintaining an extravagant lifestyle for the upper clergy, all of whom were nobles, to the great chagrin of the common parish priests.

The Second Estate consisted of the nobility, who numbered about 400,000 and owned about 25 per cent of the land. They paid little or no taxes, but retained the right to tax the peasants themselves who lived on their lands. They also retained exclusive rights to hunt and fish, monopolies on baking bread and wine presses, and could charge fees for dispensing justice. They also had other "useful privileges," such as the right to wear a sword and precedence on public occasions. All of these things served to emphasize the distinction between the gifted nobility and the common folk.

The Third Estate included everyone who did not fit into one of the other two groups. Most of its members were peasants and agricultural workers, but it also included city artisans and day laborers. A substantial number of the third estate were the Bourgeoisie, who were roughly eight per cent of the population but economically important, as they were typically wealthy. Traditional historians have argued that tensions between the bourgeoisie and the other estates led to the revolution, but there is modern research that casts doubt on this theory. Even so, there can be no doubt but that so called Ancien Regime, consisting of the three estates, was outdated. Both the economically influential bourgeoisie and wealthy nobles were frustrated by a monarchy which insisted on absolute power but was bogged down in bureaucracy.

The revolution began in 1787 when Louis XVI’s ministers, badly in need of finances due to falling tax receipts and a troubled economy, proposed a general tax on all landed property. An assembly of nobles and high ranking clergy were called to support the idea, but they refused to do so. In return for their support, they demanded that all government spending be controlled by the provincial assemblies. When the government refused to do so, they demanded that such sweeping changes in the tax law could only be made by the representative body of all three estates, the Estates General, which had not met since 1614.

Louis XVI was facing bankruptcy, and tried desperate means. He dismissed the assembly and established new taxes by decree; however the Parlement of Paris promptly declared them null and void, stating that there were certain "fundamental laws" which even the King must obey. Louis tried to send the judges into exile, but a furious protest erupted, and frightened investors refused to advance more money to him. In July, 1788, Louis relented and called the Estates General into session.

Clergy, nobles, and commoners met in their respective orders and drafted petitions for change and sent delegates to the Estates General. The local clergy were dissatisfied with the church hierarchy, and two thirds of the delegates were chosen from the peasant parish priests, commoners by birth. The nobles were divided between the wealthy and the poor. A complicated voting system meant that the members of the third estate were primarily the bourgeoisie. The poorer peasants were largely excluded from representation.

All three estates agreed on certain things: the need for a constitutional monarchy, abolition of internal trade barriers, and legal protection of individual liberties. However, tradition held that the three estates voted separately, with the support of two branches necessary to take action. This arrangement meant that the nobles and clergy could outvote the commoners every time. Complaints from the third estate members led to an agreement to increase the number of its delegates to double, but the clergy and nobles could still outvote them two to one, as voting was by branches, not by delegates.

The Estates General met in 1789, and immediately deadlocked. The delegates to the third estate refused to transact business until the King ordered the clergy and nobility to sit with them in a single body. A war of nerves waged for six weeks, until a few parish priests voted with the third estate, and on June 17, the third estate voted to call itself the National Assembly. Three days later, they were locked out of their meeting hall because of "repairs," so they moved to a nearby indoor tennis court, where they took the famous "Tennis Court Oath," that they would not disband until they had written a new constitution.

Louis proved himself to be a vacillating idiot. He resigned himself to declaring bankruptcy, and at the same time called in troops to dissolve the assembly. (Shades of Charles I!!) In the meantime, events took a turn of their own. Poor grain harvests had caused the price of bread to escalate. A common laborer with a wife and three children would have to spend half his wages just on bread alone. This caused an economic depression with food so expensive that the demand for manufactured goods collapsed. Thousands of artisans and workers were suddenly unemployed, such that by the end of 1789, one person in eight was destitute. In Paris, 150,000 of the city’s population of 600,000 were out of work.

The combination of poverty and excitement over the ongoing political crisis led the people of Paris to revolt. They believed that their problems had human origins, that they should have steady work and enough bread to at least survive. Rumors spread that a wealthy nobleman had stated that the poor should "eat grass, like my horses." Angry crowds formed and responded to passionate speeches. On July 14, several hundred marched to the Bastille, a medieval fortress with walls ten feet thick and eight towers over a thousand feet high to search for guns and powder. The Bastille was used as a prison, and was guarded by 80 retired soldiers and thirty Swiss mercenaries. The governor of the fortress refused to hand over the powder, panicked, and ordered his men to fire, killing eighty nine people. Cannon were brought up to batter down the main gate, and fighting continued until the prison surrendered to the people. The governor of the prison was hacked to death, along with the Mayor of Paris. Their heads were placed on a pike and paraded throughout the city. The next day, a committee of citizens appointed the Marquis de Lafayette of American Revolutionary War fame as commander of Paris’ armed forces. The city was lost to Louis.

Throughout the countryside, peasants rose in revolt, sacking the homes of landlords, burning documents which described their obligations to the lords. No one was spared. In some villages, enclosures were reversed and peasants seized forests, while taxes went unpaid. A fear of vagabonds and outlaws—The Great Fear—swept through the countryside and fueled rebellion. The peasants had had enough, and were on the march. Fearful nobles, meeting as the second estate in Versailles were afraid to call the King to restore order. Instead, the nobles agreed to reverse tradition, and abolish their traditional rights which had been held at the peasant’s expense. The peasants never paid feudal taxes again, and now worked to consolidate their triumph.

Limited Monarchy: On August 27, 1789, the National Assembly issued the two page Declaration of the Rights of Man, which stated that "Men are born and remain free and equal in rights." Mankind’s natural rights were "liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression," and "every man is presumed innocent until he is proven guilty." Also, "It is an expression of the general will; all citizens have the right ton concur personally or through their representatives in its formation….Free expression of thoughts and opinions is one of the most precious rights of mankind: every citizen may therefore speak, right, and publish freely."

A debate developed over how much power the King should have. Their intention was to create a constitutional monarchy as in England; however fate took matters into its own hands again. Women in Paris had traditionally bought food and managed the resources of the Parisian family. Many of them worked making garments and luxury items in the putting out system creating goods designed for the aristocrats and international markets. However, after the fall of the Bastille, many of France’s wealthy nobility left the country, and the demand for luxury goods plummeted. The economic crisis deepened, and the church could no longer pay out its traditional dole to the poor. The increased pressure on households led to another explosion of the populace.

On October 5, seen thousand desperate angry women marched twelve miles from Paris to Versailles. A deputy looking out from a window of the assembly saws "multitudes arriving from Paris, including fishwives and bullies from the market, armed with scythes, sticks, and pikes, and these people wanted nothing but bread. It was this event which led to the rumor that Louis’ Queen, Marie Antoinette, already despised by the populace for her frivolous lifestyle and supposed immoral behavior replied to her minister’s comment that the people had no bread, "let them eat cake." The accuracy of this incident is highly doubtful. The mob who invaded Versailles were so angry they were prepared to believe anything. When they reached Versailles, they broke into the royal apartments, slaughtered some of the royal bodyguards, and searched furiously for the Queen. They shouted, "We are going to cut off her head, tear out her heart, fry her liver, and that won’t be the end of it." Only the intervention of Lafayette and the National Guard saved the royal family.

The people had demanded that Louis and his family abandon Versailles and live in Paris. The next day, Louis, Marie and their son left for Paris in a procession in which the heads of two aristocrats stuck on pikes led the way. They were mocked the entire way by fierce peasant men holding sabers and pikes. Insults were hurled at the king’s carriage, as the women who started the revolt ate and drank.

The National Assembly also moved to Paris, and over two years, passed legislation which abolished the French nobility as a legal order, and created a constitutional monarchy which Louis reluctantly accepted in July, 1790. The constitution provided that the king would remain head of the state, but all lawmaking power was in the hands of the National Assembly, elected by the economic upper half of French males. Women had new rights to seek divorce, inherit property, and obtain support from fathers of illegitimate children, but they could not vote or hold political office.

Among the other reason that women were excluded (other than the time honored notion that a woman’s place was in the home) was the belief that loose women had used their sexual charms to manipulate weak rulers. Marie Antoinette was obviously the favorite subject of these rumors. Excluding women from politics, they believed, would make the political system less corrupt, as it would be free from sexual enticement.

Among the other accomplishments of the National Assembly, the metric system was adopted in 1793. Monopolies, guilds, and workers combinations were prohibited, and internal trade barriers were abolished. It also granted religious freedom to Jews and Protestants, nationalized the property of the Catholic Church, and abolished the monasteries. The government used former church property to guarantee a new currency, the assagnats, and sold the property to raise money. Much of the former church land was purchased by peasants, who thereby "bought into" the revolution.

The Assembly also attempted to nationalize the church in France, make all priests employees of the government, and required them to take an oath of loyalty. This move was bitterly opposed by the Pope and most churchmen refused to take the oath. The result was widespread dispute between the people over the status of the church and the clergy. This was one, but not the only, failure of the National Assembly.