Alas, much more lies sick than poor Louis: not the French King only, but the French Kingship; this too, after long rough tear and wear, is breaking down. The world is all so changed; so much that seemed vigorous has sunk decrepit, so much that was not is beginning to be!--Borne over the Atlantic, to the closing ear of Louis, King by the Grace of God, what sounds are these; muffled ominous, new in our centuries? Boston Harbour is black with unexpected Tea: behold a Pennsylvanian Congress gather; and ere long, on Bunker Hill, DEMOCRACY announcing, in rifle-volleys death-winged, under her Star Banner, to the tune of Yankee-doodle-doo, that she is born, and, whirlwind-like, will envelope the whole world!
Thomas Carlyle, The French Revolution (1837)
1st. What is the third estate? Everything.
2nd. What has it been heretofore in the political order? Nothing.
3rd. What does it demand? To become something therein.
Abbé Sieyès, What is the Third Estate?
France, by the perfidy of her leaders, has
utterly disgraced the tone of lenient council in the cabinets of
princes, and disarmed it of its most potent topics. She has
sanctified the dark suspicious maxims of tyrannous distrust; and
taught kings to tremble at (what will hereafter be called) the
delusive plausibilities of morel politicians.
Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in
The outbreak of the French Revolution in the summer of 1789 stirred the imagination of
nearly all Europeans. The French revolutionaries - that is, those men and women who made
conscious choices - sensed in their hearts and minds that they were witnessing the birth
of a new age. And if the revolutionaries of Paris, Bordeaux, Lyons or Toulouse knew they
were innovating, knew they were helping to usher in the dawn of a New Jerusalem, so too
did observers in London, Berlin, Philadelphia, Moscow, Manchester, Geneva, Amsterdam or
Boston. The English Romantic poet, William
Wordsworth (1770-1850) was living in Paris during the heady days of 1789. He was, at
the time, only nineteen years of age. In his autobiographical poem, The Prelude,
he revealed his experience of the first days of the Revolution:
O pleasant exercise of hope and joy!
For mighty were the auxiliars which then stood
Upon our side, we who were strong in love;
Bliss was it that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very Heaven: O times,
In which the meagre, stale, forbidding ways
Of custom, law, and statute took at once
The attraction of a Country in Romance;
When Reason seem'd the most to assert her rights
When most intent on making of herself
A prime enchantress -- to assist the work,
Which then was going forward in her name.
Not favor'd spots alone, but the whole Earth!
Upon the ruins of the
ANCIEN REGIME - that is, the old order - a new era
appeared which seemed to realize the lofty ideals of the Enlightenment (see Lecture 9). The ideals were genuine and they were optimistic
through and through. Man had entered a stage in human history characterized by his
emancipation from superstition, prejudice, cruelty and enthusiasm. Liberty had triumphed
over tyranny. New institutions were created on the foundations of Reason and justice and not authority
or blind faith. The barriers to freedom, liberty, equality and brotherhood were torn down.
Man had been released from other-worldly torment and was now making history!
For the revolutionary generation, it seemed as if the natural, inalienable rights of
man had become an instant reality. The forces of oppression, tyranny and misery needed to
be overcome. So, 1789 stands as the pivotal year - a watershed - in which these forces
came to their abrupt and necessary end.
So believed the revolutionaries. . . .
The future would be one of moral and intellectual improvement. Human happiness would be
found in the here and now not in the City of God. Such optimism, perhaps, could only have
been possible in an age which its spokesmen proudly proclaimed to be an Age of
Enlightenment. The enthusiasm with which this dawn of a New Jerusalem was announced was
often clouded with religious zeal. And so, on November 4th, 1789, the Protestant minister,
Richard Price (1723-1791), stood at the pulpit at the Meeting-House in the Old Jewry in
London. He was about to address a crowd of about fifty members of the "Society for
the Commemoration of the Revolution in Great Britain." His address was, A
Discourse on the Love of Our Country, and it was intended as the keynote address of
the Society's celebration of the one hundredth anniversary of the Glorious Revolution of 1688.
Here is an excerpt from Price's address:
What an eventful period this is! I am thankful that I have lived to see it; and I
could almost say, Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, for mine eyes have
seen thy salvation. I have lived to see a diffusion of knowledge, which has undermined
superstition and error -- I have lived to see the rights of men better understood than
ever; and nations panting for liberty, which seem to have lost the idea of it. I have
lived to see 30 MILLIONS of people, indignant and resolute, spurning at slavery, and
demanding liberty with an irresistible voice; their king led in triumph, and an arbitrary
monarch surrendering himself to his subjects. -- After sharing in the benefits of one
revolution, I have been spared to be witness to two other revolutions, both glorious. And
now methinks I see the love for liberty catching and spreading, a general amendment
beginning in human affairs; the dominion of kings changed for the dominion of laws, and
the dominion of priests giving way to the dominion of reason and conscience.
Be encouraged, all ye friends of freedom, and writers in its defense! The times are
auspicious. Your labours have not been in vain. Behold kingdoms, admonished by you,
starting from sleep, breaking their fetters, and claiming justice from their oppressors!
Behold, the light you have struck out, after setting America free, reflected to France,
and there kindled into a blaze that lays despotism in ashes, and warms and illuminates
Tremble all ye oppressors of the world! Take warning all ye supporters of slavish
governments. . . . Call no more reformation, innovation. You cannot hold the world in
darkness. Struggle no longer against increasing light and liberality. Restore to mankind
their rights; and consent to the correction of abuses, before they and you are destroyed
together. [Source: Marilyn Butler, ed., Burke, Paine, Godwin and
the Revolution Controversy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
1984), pp. 31-32.]
The language is certainly inflammatory. The message is passionate and quite clear.
"Tremble all ye oppressors of the world!"
The causes of the French Revolution are complicated, so complicated that a debate still
rages among historians regarding origins, causes and results. In general, the real causes
of the Revolution must be located in the rigid social structure of French society during
the ancien regime. As it had been for centuries, French society was divided into
three Estates or Orders. The First Estate consisted of the clergy and the Second Estate
the nobility. Together, these two Estates accounted for approximately 500,000 individuals.
At the bottom of this hierarchy was the vast Third Estate which basically meant everybody
else, or about 25 million people. This social structure was based on custom and tradition,
but more important, it was also based on inequalities which were sanctioned by the force
of law. So, we must look at these three Estates more carefully.
The First Estate
The Clergy From the outset, the clergy was established as a privileged Estate. The French
Catholic Church maintained a wide scope of powers - it literally constituted a state
within a state and it had sustained this position for more than 800 years. The clergy was
divided into the lower and upper clergy. Members of the lower clergy were usually humble,
poorly-paid and overworked village priests. As a group, they resented the wealth and
arrogance of the upper clergy. The bishops and abbots filled the ranks of the upper
clergy, men who regarded their office as a way of securing a larger income and the landed
property that went with it. Most of the upper clergy sold their offices to subordinates,
kept the revenue, and lived in Paris or at the seat of royal government at Versailles. Well, what did the clergy do? Or,
I suppose, a better way of framing the question is this: what were they supposed to be
doing? Their responsibilities included: the registration of births, marriages and deaths;
they collected the tithe (usually 10%); they censored books; served as moral police;
operated schools and hospitals; and distributed relief to the poor. They also owned 10-15%
of all the land in France. This land, of course, was all held tax-free.
The Second Estate
The Nobility Like the clergy, the nobility represented another privileged Estate. The
nobility held the highest positions in the Church, the army and the government. As an
order, they were virtually exempt from paying taxes of any kind. They collected rent from
the peasant population who lived on their lands. They also collected an extraordinary
amount of customary dues from the peasantry. There were labor dues (the corvee), as well
as dues on salt, cloth, bread, wine and the use mills, granaries, presses and ovens.
Collectively, the nobility owned about 30% of the land. By the 18th century, they were
also becoming involved in banking, finance, shipping, insurance and manufacturing. They
were also the leading patrons of the arts. It is interesting that the nobility would offer
their homes and their salons to the likes of Voltaire, Gibbon, Diderot and Rousseau (see Lecture 9). After all, these were the men who would end up
criticizing the Second Estate. Of course, it must also be that the philosophes
could not have existed without their aristocratic patrons.
There were, like the clergy, two levels of the nobility (c.350,000 individuals in
total). The Nobility of the Sword carried the most prestige. The served their King at his
court in Versailles. Many members of this order were of ancient lineage - their family
history could be traced back hundreds of years. But there were also members of this estate
who were relative newcomers. The Nobility of the Robe also had prestige but much less than
did the Nobility of the Sword. Numerous members of the Nobility of the Robe had been
created by the monarchy in the past. French kings needed money so it seemed logical to
offer position and status to those men who were willing to pay enough money for it. But
more important, perhaps, was that by giving these men royal positions, the king could keep
an eye on their behavior. In many ways, this is one reason why Louis XIV built Versailles
in the first place. Originally a vast hunting lodge, Louis built up Versailles in order to
house his generals, ministers and other court suck-ups.
Some of the lesser nobility were partial to the philosophes of the
Enlightenment and during the early days of the Revolution would be considered
"liberal nobles." They wished to see an end to royal absolutism but not
necessarily the end of the monarchy. These liberal nobles tended to look to France's
traditional enemy, England, as a model for what France ought to become, a limited or
The Third Estate
This estate ostensibly consisted of every one who was not a member of either the First or
Second Estates. Totaling approximately 25 million souls, the Third Estate was composed of
the bourgeoisie, the peasantry and the urban artisans. As a class, the bourgeoisie -
merchants, manufacturers, bankers, doctors, lawyers, intellectuals - had wealth. In some
cases, enormous wealth. But, wealth in the ancien regime did not mean status or
privilege and it should be clear by now that "success" in 18th century France
meant status and privilege. Wealth was nothing without status. The bourgeoisie were
influenced by the nobility and tried to imitate them whenever possible. So, they tried to
improve their status by becoming land owners themselves. By 1789, the bourgeoisie
controlled 20% of all the land. They were upwardly mobile, but they felt frustrated and
blocked by the aristocracy, an aristocracy whose only interest was that everyone maintain
their place in society.
By 1789, the bourgeoisie had numerous grievances they wished addressed. They wanted all
Church, army and government positions open to men of talent and merit. They sought a
Parliament that would make all the laws for the nation. They desired a constitution that
would limit the king's powers. They also desired fair trials, religious toleration and
vast administrative reforms. These are all liberal ideas that would certainly emerge after
the summer of 1789.
The peasantry consisted of at least twenty-one million individuals during the 18th
century. Their standard of living was perhaps better than the European peasantry in
general. However, the French peasant continued to live in utmost poverty. Collectively,
the peasantry owned 30-40% of the available land but mostly in small, semi-feudal plots.
Most peasants did not own their land but rented it from those peasants who were wealthier
or from the nobility. They tried to supplement their income by hiring themselves out as
day laborers, textile workers or manual laborers. Peasants were victimized by heavy taxation - taxes were necessary to pay
for the costs of war, something that had already consumed the French government for an
entire century. So, the peasants paid taxes to the king, taxes to the church, taxes and
dues to the lord of the manor, as well as numerous indirect taxes on wine, salt, and
bread. Furthermore, the peasants also owed their lord a labor obligation. And throughout
the 18th century, the price of rent was always increasing, as did the duties levied on
goods sold in markets and fairs. By 1789, the plight of the French peasant was obvious.
Taxes were increased as was rent. Peasants continued to use antiquated methods of
agriculture. The price of bread soared and overall, prices continued to rise at a quicker
rate than wages. To make matters worse, there was the poor harvest of 1788/89. The urban
workers or artisans, as a group, consisted of all journeymen, factory workers and wage
earners. The urban poor also lived in poverty, a poverty that was intensified by 1789. By
that time, wages had increased by 22% while the cost of living increased 62%.
These, then, are the social causes that acted as a breeding ground for the grievances
and passions the Revolution would unleash. But there are a few other causes, equally
important, that are also worth our attention.
Eighteenth century France was, in theory, an absolute monarchy. Royal absolutism was
produced as a result of the
Years' War. By the early 18th century, French kings had nearly succeeded in wresting
all power from the nobility. Thanks in part to the effort of Louis XIV, absolute monarchy
was, in both theory and practice, a reality. France had no Parliament. France did have an
Estates General which was a semi-representative institution in that it was composed of
representatives from each of the Three Estates. The last time the Estates General had been
convened was in 1614! Was the Estates General a truly representative body? Hardly. The way
the French administered the country was through a bloated bureaucracy of officials. By
1750, the bureaucracy had overgrown itself - it was large, corrupt and inefficient. Too
many officials had bought and sold their offices over the years. Furthermore, despite the
efforts of Charlemagne (742-814) in
the 9th century, France had no single, unified system of law. Each region determined its
own laws based on the rule of the local Parlement.
There were thirteen distinct regions in France before 1789 and each was under the
jurisdiction of a Parlement. Each Parlement contained between fifty and 130
members. They were the local judges and legal elites. They tried cases for theft, murder,
forgery, sedition and libel. They also served as public censors and sometimes were
responsible for fixing the price of bread. They were hated by almost everyone, including
the king. Of course, the king also had his royal lackeys, the intendents. The intendents
were even more hated than the Parlement. Created to help curb the power of the
nobility, the intendents became known for their habit of arbitrary taxation and arrest of
the peasantry. Such a situation made for the inefficient operation of Europe's largest and
By 1789, France was bankrupt. The country could no longer pay its debts, debts that were
all the result of war. One example says a great deal about this situation. By 1789, France
was still paying off debts incurred by the wars of Louis XIV, that is, wars of the late
17th and early 18th century. Furthermore, a number of social groups and institutions did
not pay taxes of any kind. Many universities were exempt from taxation as were the
thirteen Parlements, cites like Paris, the Church and the clergy, the aristocracy
and numerous members of the bourgeoisie. And of course, it was simply brilliant planning
to continue to tax the peasants - peasants who, having nothing to contribute were, over
the course of the century, forced to contribute even more.
The effect of the Enlightenment on the French Revolution has created a debate which will
not soon be resolved. But, in general, it can be said that there is no causal relationship
between the philosophes of the Enlightenment and the outbreak of the French
Revolution. Few philosophes, if any, advocated revolution and the reason is
fairly clear. No philosophe advocated the violent overthrow of the existing order
of things because violence was contrary to human reason. But because the philosophes
of the Enlightenment attacked the established order together with authority of any kind,
their ideas helped to produce what can only be called a revolutionary mentality. One
modern historian has correctly observed that:
18th century philosophy taught the Frenchman to find his condition wretched, unjust
and illogical and made him disinclined to the patient resignation to his troubles that had
long characterized his ancestors . . . . The propaganda of the philosophes perhaps more
than any other factor accounted for the fulfillment of the preliminary condition of the
French Revolution, namely discontent with the existing state of things.
(Henri Peyre, "The Influence of Eighteenth
Century Ideas on the French Revolution," Journal of the History of
Ideas vol. 10, No. 1 (January 1949).
I suppose what I mean is this: the philosophes advocated the use of Reason in
all human affairs. They knew that Reason, together with its sister, criticism, could
effect change: a change in morals, a change in human knowledge, a change in human
happiness. Voltaire, of course, was a case in
point. He had few problems with monarchy. All he wanted was an enlightened monarch. Was
Voltaire a liberal? Or a republican? Hardly. And for all his talk about representative
governments, social contracts and civil society, Rousseau had more to do with the
origins of totalitarian society than he did with democracy. Still, two people can read
Rousseau and leave with two different perspectives. And Rousseau's thought certainly led
to divergent opinions as to what really mattered. The point is this: the 18th century had
no Karl Marx (1818-1883). The 18th century
had no prophet of revolution. Why? Because the prophets of revolution, like Marx, were
made by the French Revolution. The French Revolution was not made by prophets.
The American Revolution
Lastly, there is little doubt that the American
Revolution of the 1770s and the formation of a republic in the 1780s served as a
profound example to all European observers. Hundreds of books, pamphlets and public
lectures analyzed, romanticized and criticized the American rebellion against Great
Britain. For instance, in 1783 the Venetian ambassador to Paris wrote that "it is
reasonable to expect that, with the favourable effects of time, and of European arts and
sciences, [America] will become the most formidable power in the world." American
independence fired the imagination of aristocrats who were unsure of their status while at
the same time giving the promise of ever greater equality to the common man. The
Enlightenment preached the steady and inevitable progress of man's moral and intellectual
nature. The American example served as a great lesson - tyranny could be challenged. Man
did have inalienable rights. New governments could be constructed. The American example
then, shed a brilliant light. As one French observer remarked in 1789, "This vast
continent which the seas surround will soon change Europe and the universe."
Those Europeans who dreamed about the dawn of a New Jerusalem were fascinated by the
American political experiment. The thirteen colonies began with a defensive revolution
against tyrannical oppression and they were victorious. The Americans showed how rational
men could assemble together to exercise control over their own lives by choosing their own
form of government, a government sanctified by the force of a written constitution. With
this in mind, liberty, equality, private property and representative government began to
make more sense to European observers. If anything, the American Revolution gave proof to
that great Enlightenment idea - the idea that a better world was possible if it was
created by men using Reason. As R. R. Palmer put it in 1959 (The Age of Democratic Revolution:
The effects of the American Revolution, as a revolution, were
imponderable but very great. It inspired the sense of a new era. It
added a new content to the conception of progress. It gave a whole new
dimension to ideas of liberty and equality made familiar by the
Enlightenment. It got people into the habit of thinking more concretely
about political questions, and made them more readily critical of their
own governments and society. It dethroned England, and set up America,
as a model for those seeking a better world. It brought written
constitutions, declarations of rights, and constituent conventions into
the realm of the possible. The apparition on the other side of the
Atlantic of certain ideas already familiar in Europe made such ideas
seem more truly universal, and confirmed the habit of thinking in terms
of humanity at large. Whether fantastically idealized or seen in a
factual way, whether as mirage or as reality, America made Europe seem
unsatisfactory to many people of the middle and lower classes, and to
those of the upper classes who wished them well. It made a good many
Europeans feel sorry for themselves, and induced a kind of spiritual
flight from the Old Regime. (p. 282)
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