Prelude 1770s

About France Category: History

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    The French Revolution was a period in the history of France covering the years 1789 to 1799, in which republicans overthrew the monarchy and the Roman Catholic Church perforce underwent radical restructuring. This article deals in some detail with the events immediately prior to the revolution itself.

    Financial Crisis 1770s-1787

    Proto-revolutionary activity started when the French king Louis XVI (reigned 1774-1792) faced a crisis in the royal finances. The French crown, which fiscally exactly equated to the French state, owed considerable debt. During the régimes of Louis XV (reigned 1715-1774) and Louis XVI several different ministers, most notably Turgot, unsuccessfully proposed to revise the French tax system to tax the nobles. Such measures encountered consistent resistance from the parlements (law courts), which the nobility dominated.Because the need to raise taxes placed the king at odds with the established nobility, he typically appointed as his finance ministers (to use François Mignet’s term), “rising men” usually of non-noble origin.

    Turgot, Chrétien de Malesherbes, and Jacques Necker successively attempted to revise the system of taxation and to make other reforms, such as Necker’s attempts to reduce the lavishness of the king’s court. Each failed in turn.

    In contrast, Charles Alexandre de Calonne, appointed finance minister in 1783, restored lavish spending more reminiscent of the age of Louis XIV. By the time Calonne brought together an assembly of notables on February 22, 1787 to address the financial situation, France had reached a state of virtual bankruptcy: no one would lend the king funds sufficient to meet the expenses of government and court.

    According to Mignet, the loans amounted to “one thousand six hundred and forty-six millions… and… there was an annual deficit… of a hundred and forty millions livres. Calonne was succeeded by his chief critic Etienne Charles de Loménie de Brienne, archbishop of Sens, but the fundamental situation was unchanged: the government had no credit.

    To try to address this, the assembly “sanctioned the establishment of provincial assemblies, a regulation of the corn trade, the abolition of corvées, and a new stamp tax; it broke up on the 25th of May, 1787.”

    The subsequent struggle with the parlements in an unsuccessful attempt to enact these measures displayed the first overt signs of the disintegration of the ancien régime. In the ensuing struggle:

    • Protestants regained their rights.
    • Louis XVI promised an annual publication of the state of finances.
    • Louis XVI promised to convoke the Estates-General within five years.
    • The parlements objected to this as “ministerial tyranny”.

    In response, several nobles including Louis Philippe II, Duke of Orleans sufferred banishment, resulting in a further series of conflicting decrees by the king and the parlements. The conflict spilled out of the courts (and beyond the nobility) with disturbances in Dauphiné, Brittany, Provence, Flanders, Languedoc, and Béarn.

    Despite ancien régime France being, in theory, an absolute monarchy, it became clear that the royal government could not successfully effect the changes it desired without the consent of the nobility. The financial crisis had become a political crisis as well.

    Louis XVI summons the Estates-General 1788 – May 1789

    On July 13, 1787 parliament and the nobility had demanded that the king call the Estates-General; the Estates of Dauphiné had seconded this in the assembly of Vizille; on December 18, 1787, the king promised to call the Estates-General within five years; after Brienne’s resignation on August 25, 1788, and with Necker back in charge of the nation’s finances, the king, on August 8, 1788, agreed to convene the Estates-General in May 1789, for the first time since 1614.

    The prospect of an Estates-General highlighted the conflict of interest between the Second Estate (the nobility) and the Third Estate (in theory, all of the commoners; in practice the middle class or bourgeoisie). Society had changed since 1614. The First Estate (the clergy) and the Second Estate together represented only 2 percent of France’s national population.

    The Third Estate, theoretically representing the other 98% of the French population, in practice represented an increasing proportion of the country’s wealth. But the other two Estates, which historically had often voted with each other, could still outvote it. Many of this rising class nonetheless saw the calling of the Estates-General as a chance to gain power.

    According to the model of 1614, the Estates-General would consist of equal numbers of representatives of each Estate. The Third Estate demanded double representation (which they already had in the provincial assemblies). This became a topic for pamphleteers, the most notable pamphlet “What is the Third Estate?” coming from the pen of Abbé Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès.

    Necker, hoping to avoid conflict, convened a second assembly of notables on November 6, 1788, but, to his chagrin, they rejected the notion of double representation. By calling the assembly, Necker had merely underlined the nobles’ opposition to the inevitable policy.

    A royal decree of November 27, 1788 announced that the Estates-General would amount to at least a thousand deputies; it also granted the double representation. Furthermore, mere priests (curés) could serve as deputies for the First Estate, and the Third Estate could elect Protestant deputies.

    According to Mignet, after reasonably honest elections, “The deputation of the nobility was comprised of two hundred and forty-two gentlemen, and twenty-eight members of the parliament; that of the clergy, of forty-eight archbishops or bishops, thirty-five abbés or deans, and two hundred and eight curés; and that of the communes, of two ecclesiastics, twelve noblemen, eighteen magistrates of towns, two hundred county members, two hundred and twelve barristers, sixteen physicians, and two hundred and sixteen merchants and agriculturists”.

    Other sources give slightly different numbers, see French States-General.

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