France Section 1770 – 1789 – Crisis In The Old Reg
imeThe causes of tensions and conflicts generated in the old regime that contributed to the outbreak of revolution
The composition of society was a major contributing factor to the tensions and conflicts generated under the old regime. Society was divided into Three Estates, the first Estate comprised of the clergy (1%), the nobility, and rest of the population was classified as the Third Estate. Not only was the Third Estate heterogeneous, comprising of the bourgeoise (lawyers, doctors, intellectuals, businessman, the traders, merchants, factory owners), peasants, and beggars, but all three Estates. Their were many distinguishing factors that set the three Estates apart. The first two Estates were associated with the monarchy and avoided or paid little taxes, whilst at the same time earning the most money. The Third Estate paid the highest taxes and earnt the least. Lefebvre saw the bourgeoisie as becoming stronger economically but still maintaining the same legal status as that of the poorest peasant. The bourgeois resented their nobles, who were simply ‘born’ into their position of wealth. They nobles believed that their noble birth’ set them apart from the rest of society.’ However, the nobility were also dissatisfied under the ancien regime, where they had little, yet still more then the bourgeois, influence in politics. Although the upper clergy enjoyed many privileges, including being exempt from paying taxes, owned about 10 per cent of the land, and received their wealth from the land they owned and the collection of the tithes. Yet, the lower clergy did not enjoy these same privileges, while the ‘Bishop plays the great nobleman and spends scandalous sums on hounds, horses, furniture, servants, food and carriages, the parish priest does not have the wherewithal to buy himself a new cassockthe bishops treat their priests , not as honest footman, but as stable-boys.’ It is clear that social unrest was felt by the whole population.
Prior to 1780s the people of France blindly accepted the foudations of the Ancien Regime. The period known as the Enlightenment or ‘Age of Reason’ saw philosophes such as Voltaire and Rousseau attack the Church, and the absolute power of the King and the inequitable social composition of society. For the first time people were questioning the society in which they lived. It became the fashionable conversation of the times, and this propoganda took place in salons, cafes and even educational institutions such as the museum of Paris. Members ‘included not only the bourgeosie but priests, nobles and even the brothers of Louis XVI.’ External factors such as the American War of Indepedence only contributed to the ideas of the philosophes. Marquis de Lafayette, who became knows as ‘the hero of two worlds’ infiltrated ideas to the French people, such as ‘all men are created equal’ a notion not familiar to those under the Ancien Regime.
Reasons governments were unwilling or unable to adjust to changing circumstances
As Louis’ power was absolute, there were several checks on his power. The most important of these were the privileges of the corporate bodies known as the parlements. There were 13 of them in total, of which the Parlement of Paris was by far the most important, its jurisdiction covering about a third of France. The 2300 magistrates who sat in the courts were all noblesse de robe. Because the magistrates bought their position they could not be dismissed, unless the King bought them out. No law could be applied until it had been registered by each of the parlements. Although the Parlement had the power to critisise and make amendments to an edict, the King could ignore these through a lit de justice. As the parlements opposed many of the edicts aimed to change the system of taxation, nearly all historians up the 1960s accuse them of defending their own selfish interests and privileges, when they claimed to be representing the nation. They were seen as the main obstacle to a reforming monarchy. Arthur Young commented on the corruption of the Parlements, where judges could be swayed by ‘either the beauty of a handsome wife or by other methods’ Many historians blamed the Parlements for preventing the Crown from reforming but it was in fact the character of the King. The King alone had the power to carry through reforms, so if the old regime did not reform it was the King’s fault.
Louis XVI, was himself a cause of tension and conflict to the people. He ruled over France with ‘divine right answerable only to g-d.’ The character of Louis are best summed up by Louis’s brother the Compte de Provence: ‘The weakness and indecision of the Kingare beyond description.’ Louis possessed the virtues pleasing in a private individual,’ which consequently ‘denied him the qualities of one destined to rule.’ When Louis XIV died he established a new beuracracy which denied the Second Estate a political say. However, he did not simultaneously abolish the institutions they once had power over, thus left an opportunity for conflict to arrive – especially under the weak leadership of Louis XVI. The weakness of Louis made it impossible for him to deal with the other problems facing France.
The impact of war, civil war or economic or religious crisis on the creation of a revolutionary situation
Between 1740 and 1783 France financed four wars, the most recent being the American War of Independence. France’s involvement in these wars depleted the royal coffer. The bad harvest of 1788 worried the proletariat peasants about the increasingly high price of bead, under normal circumstances they could expect to pay up to 50% of their wages on bread. By 1789 workers could expect to be paying up to 88% of their wages on bread. The bad harvest was exacerbated by the administration of France, which according to Calonne, Controller General of Finance, was so internally divided that Provinces were ‘foreign to one another.’ Not only did the inequitable system of tax collection exist, whereby the First Two Estates paid little if any of the taxes and the full burden of the taxes fell on the Third Estate, but there were also varying systems of weights and measures. Northern and Central France bore a heavier tax burden than in the South.
Attempts at reform:
Jacques Necker, a protestant banker from Geneva, was made Director-General of Finance. It has been maintained that he financed the Americal war and borrowed huge sums of money. This only increased the Crown’s debt, so much so that 50 per cent of its income went to pay the interest on the debt. Necker was to cause future Controllers serious trouble. As Necker was seen to run a costly war without raising taxes, they could no longer increase taxation in peacetime. According to J.F. Bosher, he regards Necker as ‘the most determined of the reformers.’ Necker’s attempts to reform were put down by the King. Necker wanted to replace the independent, venal financiers by dependent, salried officials, whom the Controller General could appoint and dismiss. He was successful in getting rid of 50 of the most powerful Receivers-General. Calonne, to replace him undid much of his work, and borrowed even more heavily. Calonne proposed a single tax payable by everyone including the clergy, to replace the capitation and vingtieme. Calonne knew that the Parlements were likely to reject this. The King called upon the Assembly of Notables, whose members were chosen by the King, included members of the Church – who were likely to oppose as they had the most to lose. Although Notables not opposed to all changes, and agreed taxation should be based on equal basis, claimed approval of the nation was necessary, and thus led to the calling of the Estates-General which has last met in 1614.