A Short History of the French Revolution
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A Short History of the French Revolution

Jeremy D. Popkin

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eBook - ePub

A Short History of the French Revolution

Jeremy D. Popkin

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About This Book

A Short History of the French Revolution is an up-to-date survey of the French Revolution and Napoleonic era that introduces readers to the origins and events of this turbulent period in French history, and historians' interpretations of these events.

The book covers all aspects of the Revolution, including the political, social, and cultural origins of the Revolution, and its causes, events, and aftermath, to provide readers with a full, and yet concise, overview of the Revolution that helps them easily understand the key elements of the subject. Fully updated and revised, this new edition allows students to engage with the most current work on the subject with increased attention given to women's role in the Revolution, full coverage of the struggles over race and slavery, a new emphasis on the populist element in revolutionary politics, and an expanded discussion of the historiography of the era.

Supported by learning objectives, critical thinking questions, and suggestions for further reading, this is the perfect introduction to the French Revolution for students of French and European History in the late eighteenth century.

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The Origins of the French Revolution


After studying this chapter, you will be able to:
  • Explain the difficulties facing the French absolute monarchy in the years preceding the French Revolution.
  • Define the major groups making up French society and explain the reasons for their dissatisfaction with their situation.
  • Discuss the major ideas of the Enlightenment and the changes in mentalities that took place in the last decades of the Old Regime.
Late on the night of July 14, 1789, Louis XVI, king of France, met with the duke of La Rochefoucauld-Liancourt, one of his courtiers, to discuss the dramatic news he had just received. In the capital city of Paris, fifteen miles from his palace of Versailles, a crowd had stormed the royal fortress of the Bastille. “Is it a revolt?” the bewildered king supposedly asked, thinking that the event was no more than a directionless outbreak of violence that could quickly be brought under control. “No, Sire, it is a revolution,” the duke is said to have replied.
For more than two centuries, historians all over the world have agreed with the duke’s assessment. The events of July 14, 1789 marked the overthrow of a centuries-old system of government and society, and the beginning of a new era for France and the entire Western world. The storming of the Bastille caught Louis XVI by surprise. Having spent his entire life in the closed world of his aristocratic court, he was largely unaware of the many tensions in France’s institutions, its social order, and its culture. With the advantage of hindsight, however, historians can identify the fault lines that made a revolution possible, if not inevitable.

The Problems of the Monarchy

After the French Revolution started, supporters frequently offered a very simple explanation of its cause. They had risen up, they said, against a system of tyranny or despotism, in which all power was monopolized by a single man, the king, and by his arbitrarily chosen ministers.
As an example of this excessive power, they could cite the words of Louis XV, who told some recalcitrant magistrates in 1766 that according to French law, “the sovereign power resides in my person only.”1 This was not mere rhetoric: critics of absolutism could also cite real examples of the king’s arbitrary and unrestrained power, such as his ability to issue lettres de cachet, arrest warrants that allowed the imprisonment of any subject without a trial.
1Cited in the University of Chicago College History Staff, eds., History of Western Civilization (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977), 57.
In reality, this characterization of the Old Regime monarchy as despotic is greatly exaggerated. Prerevolutionary France was indeed an absolute monarchy—that is, one in which all sovereign powers, including the right to make laws and to enforce them, the right to appoint judges and officials, and the right to make war and to sign treaties, were exercised exclusively by the king. But the French legal theorists who had developed the principles of royal absolutism from the late sixteenth century onward had always insisted that the king’s absolute powers were neither arbitrary nor tyrannical. The future Louis XVI was taught that he was obligated to follow the dictates of reason and to rule according to laws and customs that had accumulated over the ages. He could not, for example, alter the rules of hereditary succession, which dictated that the throne passed to his closest living male relative. Indeed, in explaining the political difficulties that led to the Revolution of 1789, modern historians are more likely to stress the weaknesses of the monarchy rather than its excessive concentration of power (see Document A).
The weakness that was most responsible for precipitating the Revolution was the government’s inability to balance its income and its expenses. Laws and custom required the French monarchy to fulfill many costly responsibilities; they also limited the king’s ability to raise money to pay for these obligations. The king’s duty to maintain domestic order required keeping up police forces and guards scattered throughout territories that made up the largest kingdom in western Europe, as well as judges, courts, and prisons. External defense was even costlier. Like all other European monarchs, the king of France governed a state in constant rivalry with its neighbors. Kings were taught from birth that they must defend the lands they inherited but also that they should seek opportunities to extend them, thereby acquiring the glory that was an essential element of kingship.


Lessons for a King

The future Louis XVI was born in 1754, under the reign of his grandfather Louis XV (1709–1774). In 1765, Louis XVI’s father died, making him the “dauphin” or immediate heir to the throne. Realizing that the young boy might at any time have to assume the responsibilities of kingship, his tutor had him write out a long summary of the principles underlying France’s absolute monarchy.
The future king wrote that it was his duty to protect his realm and his subjects, and that in order to do this, “kings have received from God himself the greatest and the most absolute power that He has ever given any man over other men.” He was to use his power for the good of his subjects, but in order to do so, his government needed “to have an absolute and irresistible force, always capable to enforce obedience.” In France, especially, “it is an essential characteristic of the French monarchy that every kind of power resides in the king’s hands alone, and that no body or individual can claim independence from his authority.”
The precepts young Louis was taught sometimes used language that would also be employed by the revolutionaries. He was told that his subjects had God-given rights to “life, honor, liberty, and the property of the goods that each individual possesses,” and that the laws he would decree should reflect “a general will, touching all of his subjects at the same time,” wording that echoed a famous phrase from the Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s 1762 book, the Social Contract.
Whereas the revolutionaries would interpret the idea of rights and the notion of the general will as limits on the power of the king, however, Louis was warned that “from the weakness of kings are born the factions, the civil wars, the eruptions that shake and ruin the state.” Among the dangers he was particularly warned against was the influence of women: “Women interfere in everything in France; they involve themselves in every kind of business, they are behind all intrigues.”
Source: Louis XVI, Réflexions sur mes entretiens avec M. le duc de Vauguyon (Paris: J. P. Aillaud, 1851). Translation by Jeremy D. Popkin.
Image 1.1
Image 1.1Coronation of Louis XVI
Traditional symbols dominate this illustration of Louis XVI’s coronation in 1775. The king takes his crown from a saint holding a cross, indicating the divine origins of his powers, while angels behind him carry banners and emblems associated with the French monarchy since the Middle Ages. This engraving gives no hint of the challenges to the Church and established institutions that were to lead to the French Revolution a few years later.
Source: Louis XVI/British Library, London, UK/© British Library Board. All Rights Reserved/Bridgeman Images.
The kingdom that the future Louis XVI was going to inherit had grown through a long series of conquests and acquisitions that transformed it from a medieval principality centered around the capital city of Paris into the largest and most populous state in Europe, with around twenty-eight million inhabitants in 1789; about a million more people, mostly enslaved blacks, lived in France’s overseas colonies. The kings of the Bourbon dynasty, the ancestors of Louis XVI, ruler at the time of the Revolution, had all engaged in warfare to enlarge their realm. They had built up a kingdom that extended from the lowlands of Flanders in the north to the Pyrenees and the Mediterranean Sea in the south, from the Atlantic Ocean in the west to the Rhine River and the Alps in the east, and that included colonies in Canada, the Caribbean, and the Indian subcontinent. To do so, they had built up a costly military machine. Under Louis XIV, king from 1643 to 1715, the French army had grown to 400,000 men, the largest Europe had ever seen, and made other rulers fear that France aimed to dominate the entire continent. Louis XV and Louis XVI were less aggressive, but they nonetheless felt a responsibility to keep France strong and to protect its interests and its reputation abroad.
Some of the problems that led to the French Revolution stemmed from costly efforts to maintain France’s position relative to the other European states and especially from its rivalry with the British. Britain, a naval power with a fast-growing economy, was able to concentrate on building up its colonial empire, while France also had to contend with rivals on the continent, particularly Austria and Prussia. The country’s poor performance in the eighteenth century’s most extensive conflict, the Seven Years War (1756–1763), raised fears that the French monarchy was failing to cope with these challenges. While Prussian king Frederic the Great, a brilliant commander, inflicted humiliating defeats on French armies in Europe, the British used their control of the seas to capture French colonial possessions in India and North America. Two years before Louis XV’s death in 1774, France stood by helplessly as Prussia, Austria, and Russia annexed territories belonging to Poland, one of its traditional allies.
Early in Louis XVI’s reign, France rebounded from these foreign policy defeats by aiding Britain’s North American colonies in their war for independence. French troops and the French fleet significantly aided the Americans, and France hosted the peace conference at which England conceded the colonies’ independence in 1783. However, this success cost France a great deal of money and brought none of the tangible rewards in the form of new territories that usually marked a victory. Fear of adding even more debt kept France from aiding its Dutch allies when Prussia intervened in the Netherlands in 1787. French public opinion blamed the monarchy for allowing a smaller power to humiliate it.
In addition to maintaining his power and glory, the French king was expected to see to the welfare of his subjects. The king maintained the country’s main roads. His courts provided justice for his subjects. In times of crop failure, royal officials in the provinces were expected to organize relief. Through its system of royal academies, the government subsidized writers, artists, scientists, doctors, and even veterinarians; starting in the 1760s, the king funded training for midwives, in an effort to reduce rates of maternal and infant mortality. The most visible royal expense, the upkeep of the court at the palace of Versailles, accounted for only a small percentage of the monarchy’s spending, but it was a symbol of extravagance that made it difficult to win support for reforms meant to enable the monarchy to meet its other obligations.
To carry out all these responsibilities, the royal government had developed an extensive administrative network. Louis XIV, the most strong-willed and efficient of the Bourbon kings, established a system of intendants, appointed royal officials stationed in each of the country’s provinces and responsible for carrying out royal orders. Subordinate officials extended the intendants’ reach to smaller towns and villages. France’s system of administration was considerably more centralized than that of most other European states; in theory, royal power could be exerted everywhere in the kingdom.
In practice, however, this centralized administration faced many obstacles. Each province, each region, each town had its own special laws and institutions, which the intendant could not simply ignore. From the humblest peasant to the haughtiest noble, the king’s subjects were imbued with the notion that they had rights and privileges that they were entitled to defend. This legalistic outlook was reinforced by the conduct of the royal appeals courts, the thirteen parlements, whose judges, all members of the nobility, claimed the right to review all royal laws and edicts to ensure that they were in conformity with the traditional laws of the realm.
Although the parlements were royal courts, the king’s influence over the judges was limited because, along with many other officials, they literally owned their positions. These posts were desirable because offices conferred social prestige and, in many cases, granted their holders noble status. They could be passed down to heirs regardless of their qualifications, or sold for a profit. The sale of government posts brought in revenue for the government, but it reduced the efficiency of the administration. Venal office-holders were often more interested in promoting their own interests and those of their families than in following orders from Versailles.
The parlements claimed that it was their duty to resist measures that violated the traditional laws of the kingdom and the rights of the king’s subjects, such as efforts to raise taxes. The judges claimed to defend the interests of the “nation” against arbitrary authority. In practice, the parlements’ objections often amounted to a defense of privileged groups’ special interests, including those of the judges. But the parlements’ denunciations of arbitrary rule and their insistence that the “nation” had a right to participate in political decision-making spread ideas about representative government among the population. Paradoxically, the privileged noble judges of these royal courts were forerunners of a revolution that was to sweep away all special privileges.

The Failure of Reform

Throughout the second half of the eighteenth century, royal ministers recognized that the French government needed more revenue if it was going to maintain its international standing and meet its domestic obligations. But the problem of raising taxes illustrated better than anything else the institutional problems facing the monarchy. In theory, the king should not have had much trouble raising more money. Unlike the king of Great Britain, France’s ruler did not need to negotiate with a parliament before he collected and spent money. The size of the kingdom and the need for a large army to defend it from foes who, unlike those of Britain, could easily threaten its borders had limited the role of the assembly of the Estates-General—France’s equivalent to the British Parliament—and finally enabled kings to stop convening it altogether after 1614. They had established their right to collect traditional taxes without going through any legislative process. But this authority came at a price: unlike the king of England, the French ruler lacked any regular mechanism for negotiating an increase in revenue as the kingdom’s needs grew. He could collect only those taxes that had become customary over the years, and many subjects were able to evade payments because of equally customary exemptions.
A cumbersome and inefficient system of tax collection was another handicap for the prerevolutionary monarchy. Different provinces and different groups of subjects all paid different taxes. Rather than employing tax collectors who worked directly for the king, the government leased out the collection of most taxes to wealthy entrepreneurs, called tax farmers, who paid the treasury a set fee in exchange for the right to collect taxes in a given region. This system provided the monarchy with a dependable flow of income, but it also gave the tax farmers the incentive to squeeze as much as they could from the population, while forwarding as little as possible to Versailles. The tax farmers were also responsible for enforcing the government’s unpopular monopoly on the sale of tobacco; their armed guards engaged in frequent confrontations with smugglers who often had the population’s support because they sold the product at lower prices. The multiplicity of taxes and tax-collection enterprises made rational management of the royal income nearly impossible.
The last decades of the monarchy witnessed repeated efforts to streamline and increase taxes and to make the French economy more productive, so that the government could extract more money from its subjects. In the 1760s, the government, urged on by a group of economic reformers known as the Physiocrats who preached the virtues of free trade, abolished traditional restrictions on grain sales, hoping to encourage production and thereby to expand the tax base. These plans broke down when bad harvests produced shortages that led to popular protests. In 1770, Louis XV appointed a strong-minded set of ministers who made a systematic effort to overcome the obstacles that were frustrating reform. The justice minister Maupeou ousted the obstructionist judges of the parlements, replacing them with more pliable appointees, while the finance minister Terray wrote off much of the royal debt.
Maupeou’s attack on the parlements was widely denounced as a “coup” that violated the kingdom’s fundamental laws, and when Louis XV died unexpectedly in 1774, his inexperienced successor, Louis XVI, was persuaded to dismiss the controversial ministers and abandon their policies. The new ministers he appointed made their own efforts at reform, however. In 1775 and 1776, Turgot, the controller-general, tried to revamp the organization of France’s economy even more extensively than his predecessors in the 1760s. Turgot’s abolition of restrictions on the grain trade sparked the “flour war,” a wave of riots against high grain prices. His effort to do away with the urban guilds, whose regulations restricted competition in the production and sale of manufactured goods, inspired resistance from guild members, objections from women who opposed the merger of guilds reserved for them with organizations dominated by men, and protests from the parlements. Turgot’s more cautious successor, Necker, tried to save money by eliminating unnecessary offices and collecting taxes more efficiently. In 1781, he caused a sensation by publishing a summary of the government’s income and expenses, giving the public an unprecedented look at the monarchy’s financial condition. At the same time, however, Necker had to borrow extensively to finance the American war, pushing the monarchy further into debt.
Government reform efforts were not limited to fiscal matters. In the last decades before the Revolution...

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