French Monarchy and Parlements

  • French royalty prior to French Revolution were a study in corruption and excess
  • Doctrine of divine right maintained kings were selected by God and thus perpetually entitled

-> resulted in absolute rule and provided commoners with no input into governance of France

  • No universal law in France; rather, laws varied by region and were enforced by local parlements (provincial judicial boards), guilds, or religious groups
  • Royal decrees had to be approved by parlements to come into effect à king was virtually powerless to do anything that would have a negative effect on any regional government
  • This “checks and balances” system operated in a government rife with corruption and operating without support of the majority

Power Abuses and Unfair Taxation

  • Bourbon monarchy, French nobility, and clergy increasingly abused their power
  • Bound French peasantry into compromising feudal obligations and refused to contribute any taxes
  • Blatantly unfair taxation arrangement did little to endear aristocracy to common people

France’s Debt Problems

  • Ill-advised financial manoeuvres in late 1700’s worsened financial situation of the already cash-strapped French government
  • Prolonged involvement in Seven Years’ War of 1756–1763 drained the treasury, as did France’s participation in American Revolution of 1775–1783
  • Also, France had a sizable army and navy to maintain, which was an expenditure of particular importance during those volatile times
  • Enormous costs associated with upkeep of King Louis XVI’s extravagant palace at Versailles and the frivolous spending of the queen, Marie-Antoinette, did little to relieve the growing debt
  • Decades of fiscal irresponsibility were one of the primary factors that led to French Revolution

Charles de Calonne

  • Controller general of finances in 1783; in 1786, France approached various European banks for loans but France’s financial woes were well known, so it found itself with no economic credibility
  • French financial system was a shambles; only system in place for raising new revenues was taxation but taxation only applied to peasants

The Assembly of Notables

  • Louis XVI called nobility together for a conference, the Assembly of Notables
  • Calonne urged the notables to agree to new taxes or to forfeit exemptions to current ones

-> nobility refused both plans and Calonne was dismissed

Revolution on the Horizon

  • By late 1780’s, it was increasingly clear that the system of Old Regime in France could not last

-> too irresponsible and oppressed too many people

  • As a result of Enlightenment, secularism was spreading in France, religious thought was becoming divided, and religious justifications for rule—divine right and absolutism—were losing credibility
  • Aristocracy and royalty ignored these progressive trends in French thought and society;  adhered firmly to tradition and archaic law à their intractability would cost them everything

The Bourgeoisie

  • Many studies focus on peasantry’s grievances (rising food prices, disadvantageous feudal contracts, general mistreatment by nobility) but these factors actually played a limited role in inciting Revolution -> it was wealthy commoners, the bourgeoisie, who initiated the  Revolution
  • Bourgeoisie were well versed in enlightened thought; many wealthier bourgeoisie had more money than some nobles, but lacked elite titles and thus were subject to same treatment and taxation as poorest peasants -> bourgeoisie acted as catalyst for Revolution, and once they started to act, the peasants were soon to follow

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