Revolution and After: Tragedies and Farce


The Crisis of the French Monarchy


   The latter half of the eighteenth century saw fundamental challenges to the absolutist monarchy that had been built in France in the seventeenth century. Louis XIV and his advisors had attempted to centralize the monarch's authority by both limiting the power of regional aristocrats and parlements and by establishing a civil bureaucracy loyal to the king. The foundation of that bureaucracy was the intendant system, in which individual regions came under the control of a single intendant who oversaw, for the most part, the administration of that region. The intendants were largely selected from persons not of the aristorcracy and, ideally, were put in charge of regions where they didn't live in the first place. This would make sure that they would be more dedicated to the monarch than to their own or the local aristocracy's interests.

   The intendant system had created unrest, particularly among the aristocracy. All through the eighteenth century, the aristocracy and the regional parlements continued to agitate for what they called libertés , by which they meant those areas of regional government that should be in the hands of the region rather than the monarch. However, by the time of Louis XVI, who ruled from 1774 until his execution in 1792, the intendant system had become hopelessly corrupt. Almost all the intendants were now nobility, and their first allegiance was to themselves rather than the monarch.

   The Parlements were also asserting more independence. All throughout the eighteenth century, the regional Parlements agitated for their "constitutional" rights (although France didn't have a constitution). Before Louis XIV's reforms, the regional Parlements had the right to veto any monarchical legislation. This was meant to be a check on the power of the monarch—and it was extremely effective. Louis XIV abrogated that right and made vetoing a crime; if any regional Parlement vetoed his legislation, he'd clap the lot of them in jail. However, during the eighteenth century, these Parlements began resisting first Louis XV and then Louis XVI. The real break in royal power over the Parlements , however, came when Louis XVI tried to recover some of the expenses of the Seven Years War (1756-1763) by raising taxes. The regional Parlements successfully vetoed this measure and later when the Paris Parlement refused to enact a land tax by claiming it didn't have the authority to do so.

   All of these crises, however, were not as serious as a crisis that was growing in the very fiber of French society: class antagonism. France in the eighteenth century was a deeply stratified society; it was divided into three estates: the nobility, the church, and the third estate (everyone who is not nobility or in the church). The division between the first two estates and the third was rigidly enforced; on the whole, the administration of France was in the hands of the first two estates.

   All throughout the eighteenth century, the tension between the first two and the third estate was growing; in many ways, the French Revolution is more about this class tension than it is about monarchical power. While historians like to blame Louis XVI as an ineffectual king and his wife, Marie Antoinette, as offensive and disengaged, there was little that Louis could have done about the rising class tensions. These tensions were fueled, in part, by the rise of the mercantile and productive classes. Wealth was beginning to move from the nobility to the third estate; along with their growing economic importance, the wealthy entrepreneurs and merchants of the third estate wanted more control over regional Parlements , the state government, taxes, and even the church.

   One of the flash points for this tension was the French Catholic church itself; the members of the church made up the First Estate. Almost all the high offices were occupied by the nobility: cardinals, bishops, archbishops, and so on. These church officials enjoyed tremendous power in government and got huge salaries which they collected from the taxes on church property. Because their incomes were derived from church property, they didn't have to pay any taxes (neither did the nobility, who made up the Second Estate). Parish priests, who were largely drawn from the Third Estate, got dog wages. Imagine this now: every time a member of the Third Estate pays taxes, he knows that some of that money will flow into the pockets of overstuffed church officials. He also knows that the nobility aren't paying taxes.

   The Third Estate had some power, however, in the Estates General, which was a national legislative body called by the monarch. The Estates General, however, was constituted in such a way as to obviate the interests of the Third Estate. Unlike a regular Parliamentary body, in which each person has a single vote, the Estates General assembly voted by Estate. Each estate got a single vote. So even though the members of the Third Estate held a majority, the First and Second Estates always got their way.

   So, despite their growing wealth and economic influence, the wealthy merchants and entrepreneurs of the Third Estate were effectively closed out of government. They could not hold any sort of high political office, could not influence the Estates General, and couldn't even vote.

   The other half of the Third Estate, the peasants, were even angrier. While the wealthy members of the Third Estate were eventually responsible for starting the Revolution, it was the peasantry that really fired it. The peasants were, simply speaking, grossly abused by their noble landlords. Every peasant, no matter how poor, had to pay fees to the landlord for the use of facilities and fees and tithes to the church—most of the money they paid to the church went to the astronomical salaries the upper church officials were collecting. Almost all the country's tax burden fell on the Third Estate; the peasants had to pay taxes on just about everything, including salt (a tax that would in part help fan the flames of revolution), while the first two estates got away with paying little or no taxes. That wasn't all. The peasants also had to pay a labor tax, called the corvée , which required them to work so many days each year maintaining the public roads.

   These divisions were not limited to divisions between the Estates. The Second Estate especially was not a unified class. It was made up of two kinds of nobility: the "Nobles of the Robe" and the "Nobles of the Sword." The "Nobles of the Sword" were aristocrats who dated their titles back to the Middle Ages and beyond, while the "Nobles of the Robe" had acquired their titles by assuming administrative or judicial posts—posts they were often appointed to because they paid for them. The Nobles of the Sword had little commerce or respect for the Nobles of the Robe; this division was a crucial element in the downfall of the monarchy and the Revolution. Many of the Revolutionaries came from the Nobles of the Robe; their interests often more closely aligned with the interests of the Third Estate.

   Such was the mix as the French monarchy lurched into its last decade. At the center of the crisis stood Louis, struggling for centralized authority but disengaged from the process of government in a way that Louis XIV wasn't. Beneath him was an inffectual administration, and their desperate measures to solve an ever-deepening financial crisis would be the last element in a super-saturated solution, a final crisis that would precipitate the Revolution.

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1997, Richard Hooker
Updated 2-2-97