Down But Not Out: Discuss This Assessment of the French Monarchy July 1789 – August 1792

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Last updated: April 12, 2019

In order to discuss the assessment that the French monarchy was ‘down but not out’ between July 1789 and August 1792, it is necessary explore different historical interpretations of the events that lead initially to decreased monarchical authority and culminated in the complete overthrow and eventual execution of the sovereign Louis XVI and his wife Marie Antoinette.The origins and dynamics of the French Revolution have induced fervent debate throughout the historical fraternity, especially over the last century. Generally speaking socio-economic interpretations of the Revolution are rooted in Marxist ideology, while the more recent revisionist stance tends to focus on politico-cultural interpretations. 1 There are also historical interpretations such as the contingent approach, and others that focus on the intellectual motivations, language and discourse of the Revolution.Consideration will be given some of the different perspectives and their analyses of the complex interactions between financial crisis, political and economic change, social and demographic factors, as well as the influential flow of enlightened ideologies that combined to erode monarchical power in France at the end of the eighteenth century. In doing so the aim is to elucidate why the monarchy was ‘down’ and assess whether or not it was ‘out’ by questioning just how inevitable the complete overthrow of the French monarchy actually was.

Throughout the eighteenth century France suffered ongoing economic crisis, participation in foreign wars such as The American War of Independence combined with inefficiencies in the system of taxation to produce an urgent need for radical reform. The downfall of the ancien regime2 and collapse of the monarchy 1789 were ignited by this acute financial crisis, but the discontent within the governing hierarchy of pre-revolutionary France had been smouldering since mid century.In order to illuminate the crisis and understand why the monarchy became a casualty, it is necessary to outline the mechanism of government and society pertinent to France prior to 1789, and understand the implications of this against the ferment of new intellectual ideas and philosophes heralded by ‘The Enlightenment’. Monarchical absolutism was at the heart of the ancien regime, technically the king possessed the divine right to rule and was answerable only to God, although Munro Price believes the idea of absolute authority to be a facade suggesting that ‘the French monarchy was based upon a complex series of tacit compromises between the crown and the social and political elites. ‘3 French society was divided into three estates, the first comprising of the clergy, the second the nobility and the third, bourgeoisie and peasants, the lay commoners.

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The first and second estates were largely exempt from taxation and courted privileges, with the main burden of taxation falling on the shoulders of the third estate. ‘Socially, politically and economically, it was the third estate that paid the price of the unspoken bargain between the monarchy and privileged orders. 4 The traditional Marxist interpretation claims unequivocally the idea of a bourgeoisie uprising as the underlying cause for the events of 1789 and beyond. The writings of Georges Lefebvre state that, ‘The bourgeoisie were able to overthrow the aristocracy because the political authority of the monarchy had collapsed. It had collapsed because the monarchy was unable to pay its way. And it was unable to pay its way because the aristocracy, the ‘privileged orders’ of nobility and clergy, clung to their exemptions and privileges, and used their political power to prevent the King from making the necessary reforms. This approach accuses the aristocracy of preventing the monarch from making reform.

By supplying the ‘constitutional counterbalance’6 against the possibility of royal despotism the thirteen parlements, consisting of magistrates, mainly nobles, ‘administered the king’s justice. ‘7 The inherent venality of these offices made them ‘formidable potential opponents of the crown’8 because their removal could only be effected at great legal and constitutional cost. The Marxist historical interpretation suggests that the parlements became a thorn in the side of the monarchy, unwilling to accept reforms because of their reluctanance to lose their own exemptions and privileges, despite being championed as ‘guardians of the people’s liberties. ’10Gwynne Lewis comments that the more astute ministers of the crown, like Maupeou, challenged the parlements opposition to reform between 1771 and 1774, a coup that he suggests only succeeded to ultimately drain power from the monarchy when Louis XVI recalled the parlements upon his accession to the throne.

1 The Marxist historian Albert Soboul applauds Lefebvre, reinforcing the notion that the parlements resistance to reform was instrumental in the collapse of the ancien regime, suggesting that the failure of attempts to reform the administrative structure were due to ‘resistance of the aristocracy, a resistance which had been channelled through the institutions which the nobles firmly controlled, the parlements, the provincial estates, the clerical assemblies. 12 In 1787 the reconvened Assembly of Notables rejected proposals to tax all landowners and create new provisional assemblies.LouisXVI was perceived as acknowledging the failure of the political system by reconvening such an institution. 13 The idea of a reforming monarchy remained unchallenged until 1970 when Jean Egret and William Doyle began to refute these interpretations, arguing that Maupeou was in fact not a serious reformer and that he demonstrated the weakness rather than the strength of the parlements, he adds that the royal government were not prevented from making reform by the parlements, but lacked the will and perception to carry them out. 4 During this period of political and increasingly social unrest, Louis XVI’s authority was seriously compromised. 15 Despite internal skirmishes the elites of the Notables, parlements and provincial estates were resolutely united against ‘any strengthening of royal government’.

16 Financial reform now required administrative reform and Louis XVI was backed into a corner facing a choice between military action or constitutional compromise.By 1788 poor harvests and increasing bread prices were widening the discontent not just politically but socially, escalating a crisis that was rapidly becoming more revolutionary. The result was the convocation of an Estates-General17 to meet for the first time since 1614, at Versailles in May 1789. The issue of voting by order, meaning any two could outvote the third, raised concerns about reflective representation of the majority over the old privileged orders and began to prove socially antagonistic. 18It has been suggested that the pre-revolutionary squabbles between the parlements and the monarch provided the pre-curser to revolutionary rhetoric instituting words such as ‘citizen’, ‘constitution’, and ‘rights of the nation’ to the language of the parlementaires. 19 The political ideas of the philosophes also began to infiltrate within the ranks of the liberal nobility, as well as the affluent bourgeoisie, fervently promoting the freedom of men from antiquated institutions whose effectiveness was fast becoming obsolete and incongruous with the transient society.

0 The political maelstrom that was engulfing monarchical authority was also being compounded by heightened public opinion fuelled by a huge increase in the circulation of pamphlets and newspapers. Recent historians suggest that public opinion emerged as early as the 1750s and 1760s. John Bosher, for instance states, even at this time, ‘the public was unwittingly preparing to govern France by election and debate, by assembly and committee, by pamphlet and journal, by legislation and organisation. 21Consequently, representation of the third estate was doubled, although voting by head was not conceded. The installation of democratic rules to govern the elections for the Estates-General are regarded by revisionist historian Francois Furet as being central to the emergence of the ‘national’ assembly in the summer of 1789. 22 The inertia inherent at the eventual meeting of the Estates-General was somewhat of an anti-climax and goaded the third estate to declare a National Assembly that ‘seized sovereign power in the name of the French Nation’. 3 The subsequent storming of the Bastille in July 1789 supplying the final coup de grace to absolute monarchy in France,’24 lead to the irrefutable conclusion that the political authority of French monarchy was indeed ‘down’ in the summer of 1789.

Despite the collapse of the ancien regime the French monarchy was not automatically ‘out’ and Gwynne Lewis suggests that between 1789 and 1792 the main problem facing the Constituent and Legislative Assembly involved in the administration and implementation of the new order, was how to end the revolutionary process, rather than pursuing a course of radical republicanism.The main objective, after all, was not the destruction of the monarchy in favour of popular democracy, but the transformation of the outmoded institutions associated with absolute monarchy into a ‘republican’ form of government propped up by the property-owning shareholders with the king as Managing Director’25 However he also points out, that the period between the initial downfall of absolute monarchy and the final overthrow of LouisXVI in August 1792 became so protracted due to resistance of a monarchy unwilling not only to accept the idea of a republic, but also the compromise of a constitutional monarchy. 6 The ability of the French monarchy to modernise and accept its role would influence its ultimate fate. The extent to which Louis XVI was willing to accept demotion and become a constitutional monarch has been the subject of much debate.

The complexities surrounding issues of counter-revolution and the king’s uncertain situation in Paris from the October Days of 1789 have made it difficult for historians to draw conclusions on this issue.Traditional French historiography has concluded that Louis XVI was never willing to accept the Constitution in August 1791. 27 The royal family’s doomed escape attempt toVarennes in June 1791 did nothing to contradict this view, and succeeded only in increasing fears of a counter-revolution by foreign intervention. However evidence gleaned from memoirs of people who knew the king suggest that Louis XVI accepted the principle of becoming constitutional monarch, albeit not on the Constituent assembly’s terms.

8 Munro Price also brings the personality of the king into the historical equation stressing his indecisive nature. His younger brother the compte de Provence, likened his decision making ability to ‘a set of oiled billiard-balls that you vainly try to hold together. ’29 Price also promotes the suggestion that the monarch was suffering from a depressive illness that influenced his actions from 1787 onwards, raising the possibility that a more assertive and mentally stable monarch could have negotiated the limbo between 1789 and 1792.

Colin Jones claims that the fall of the Bourbon polity was by no means inevitable instead: ‘It owed a great deal to the purposive action of particular groups: in particular, peasants and urban consumers mobilized by high prices, social distress and an unprecedented electoral process, and individuals within the newly expanded elite who managed to turn the regime’s instability to their own collective advantage in ways formerly unimaginable. ’30However, despite recognising that contingent factors were involved in the fall of the French monarchy, it is difficult to ignore the odds that were stacking against the monarchy’s survival long before the revolutionary forces were finally unleashed in 1789. The dynamics that drove the revolutionary forces proved to great for LouisXVI who lacked the ability to channel these energies to his own advantage, one can only surmise that the French monarchy was consigned to it’s ultimate fate in 1789.

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