Notes on Pre-Revolution France

At the turn of the 17th Century, France had become a major culture centre in Europe. Between 1726 and 1780, France absorbed around half the precious metals imported into Europe. The population had increased from 18 to 25 million. With more currency in circulation, an expansion of credit facilities, an increased demand for goods and a relatively slow increase in production, prices inevitably rose. As compared with the average general prices of consumer goods between 1726 and 1741, prices between 1785 and 1794 were 65% higher; even in the longer period of 1771-89, they averaged a 45% increase.

Average wages rose only a third as fast as prices and the cost of living rose very steeply for those who were living closest to subsistence level. The peasant farmers suffered the most. Agricultural production methods had not advanced enough to meet the needs of the surplus population; they were very inefficient. Even nature added to the crisis. In 1788, there were hailstones, which led to a bad harvest. Due to the social distress, many desperate men moved to the towns.

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This introduced the element of violence, as it helped form the Paris mob and led to the peasant riots of the countryside in 1789. There was a general sense of discontent among the ordinary citizens of the nation. Financial strength in the country was restricted to the 1st and 2nd Estates until the arrival of the industrial revolution, which created a new middle class, who (though they were not landowners) were well educated and affluent to boot. They consisted of teachers, lawyers, physicians and businessmen who were able to criticize the current system.

The industrial revolution made it easier for people to travel to places like England, where men (like the philosophers) observed how people prospered under political systems that made feudalism seem outmoded. The philosophers wrote books on this matter, which were vociferous when expressing their ideologies, suggestions for reform and the things that infuriated them about the current order in France. Their books remain a charter of liberalism to this very day, and certainly played a vital role in influencing the minds of the rulers at that time.

They planned for reform, not revolution, yet their work had a profound effect on the awareness of the flaws in the current political system, as well as providing material for the revolutionaries when they formed the constitution. Among their disapprovals was the injustice of the taxation system. The 1st and 2nd Estate were exempt from taxation, even though they were the wealthiest Estates. Because of the extravagance of Louis the 14th (forbearer to Louis the 16th, who was king at the time), France benefited from a cultural surge, but also had to suffer the consequences of a monetary vacuum.

In order to raise finance, the King had to exploit the 3rd Estate. When he tried to impose taxes on the clergy, they replied “Do not make us choose between two masters, for you know what our answer will be). It was equally impossible for him to make use of the 2nd Estate (the nobility) because, although his power was supposed to be absolute, he was enmeshed in a structure where he had to rule through other nobles and required their approval..

Any move on his part to go against this would be met with reactionary forces, such as rebellious nobles and obstructionist behaviour by local parliaments. It seemed only natural to tax the 3rd Estate. This is because, according to the structure of control at the time (feudalism) all the land belonged to the King, who had divine right to rule. He assigned partial control of it to nobles and clergy, who allowed ordinary people, such as the peasantry, to use it.

So, in theory, the land did not belong to the people, whose status was more like tenancy, therefore it appeared only logical to tax them and not the privileged. Calloume, a briefly appointed financial advisor, said (in the Assemblee d’Notables, 1787) “France is a kingdom composed of separate states and countries with mixed administrations, the provinces of which know nothing of each other, where certain districts are completely free from burdens, the whole weight of which is borne by others, where the richest class is the most lightly taxed, where privilege has upset all equilibrium”

Power in pre-revolution France was concentrated. Aristocrats held higher offices in church. Bishops were noblemen and members of noble families monopolized the highest posts of government service and army. Out of a population of 250000, 50000 belonged to the 1st and 2nd Estate. Peasants worked on 2/5 of the land, but owned none of it. The feudal hierarchy was such that the 3rd Estate (those who did not own any land) had little opportunity to improve their lot in life.

They were virtually powerless. Abbe Sieyes defined this very well when he said “What is the third estate? It was everything, yet it counted for nothing. It is identical with the nation, yet excluded from the government of the nation”. To change this was impossible, since the 3rd Estate did not have the power to do so, the 1st and 2nd Estate would not do so for the simple reason that no-one with power and sanity of mind would want to relinquish control (unless they were very altruistic).

There was even less chance of the King to introduce change because his right to rule existed on the same foundations as the rights and immunities of the aristocracy. If he modified this, he would, inadvertently attack the very basis of his own authority. This is why, when the King (Louis the 16th) summoned the Estates-General in May 1789, they took the chance to make their weight politically effective.