Century, any setback (natural or manmade) had the potential for enormous consequences



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On the eve of the Revolution there were numerous factors (political, economic, social, and intellectual) which contributed to instabilities in the French state and society at large. Those viewing these instabilities from today’s perspective must remember that the French men and women living in the late eighteenth century did not know that the Revolution was going to occur. This essay will discuss these factors (including some of the most important), how they are interrelated, and why historians cannot simply agree on the relative importance of these factors.
During the course of the eighteenth century, the population of France swelled to almost 30 million people. The increase in population (of 8-10 million) during the century, put enormous strains on a society which relied on very small farms and obsolete farming methods. When Englishmen, Arthur Young, visited France in the late 1780s he could help but notice the backwardness of the many, many tiny French farms when compared with the large enclosed farms of England. To make matters worse for French peasants the tradition of privileges, many dating back to medieval times, dictated that peasant farmers give up a proportion of their crops to their landlords. Furthermore, harsh penalties existed for violating the privileges of the aristocratic landlords. For example, catching a peasant hunting on the landlord’s land meant severe punishment or even death. This all occurred in a situation where 90% of the farmers lived at or below the subsistence level, barely scraping up enough for themselves. Despite gradual improvements in conditions over the course of the 18th century, any setback (natural or manmade) had the potential for enormous consequences.
In addition to population pressure, the very structure of French society contributed to instability on the eve of the Revolution. Medieval France had been traditionally divided into three “orders” or “estates”: those who pray (clergy), those who fight (nobles), and those who work (farmers, everyone else). Each order had its role to play, obligations to the others, and certain privileges. Long-standing traditions of medieval privilege meant that French nobility and clergy were largely exempt from taxation. By the late 18th century, the first and second orders made up less than 5% of the overall population. Nonetheless, they paid few taxes. They owned a disproportionate amount of the land as well. Potential instabilities arose as these legal orders no longer described the complexities of late 18th century France. First, the lion’s share of tax burden fell upon those least able to pay it, especially in hard times, the peasants. Second, wide disparities existed in wealth, status, and power within each of the three estates . . .
Hence, it is clear that the social structure of 18th century France contained both political and economic tensions intermingled with one another. The institution of absolute monarchy contributed to these instabilities, especially with such a weak monarch as Louis XVI. Absolute monarchy, in theory at least, meant that sovereignty or the authority to govern lay solely in the person of the monarch. The monarch, so the theory went, gained this authority by divine right, in other words, directly from God. But even absolute monarchs had limits and constraints placed upon them. First, they could not do anything they wanted (they were not the same as 20th century totalitarian dictators). Absolute monarchs were constrained by both religious and practical concerns. More importantly, absolute monarchs, especially weak ones like Louis XVI, had to negotiate with powerful nobility and make compromises with them. For example, France had a system of courts called the parlements largely controlled by the nobles. The parlements grew in power during the eighteenth century, especially the most influential the Parlement of Paris.
As royal debts grew and financial crisis intensified due largely to costly wars (Seven Years War and the American War of Independence), Louis XVI and his ministers attempted reforms to keep the government stable. Finally, in 1787, the king’s finance minister called for an Assembly of Notables to approve of his financial plans. The plan, however, included a uniform tax on all land so the Assembly of Notables would not approve. By the following year, matters worsened and the government declared bankruptcy. Louis XVI decided to convene the Estates-General, a national representative body, to approve of the drastically needed financial reforms. The Estates-General, which had not been convened since 1614, gathered together delegates to represent the three estates or orders in French society. When it was convened in May 1789, the problems arose immediately. Delegates from the Third Estate (which represented 97% of the population) wanted the delegates from the First Estate (clergy) and Second Estate (nobility) to sit with them. They also had been calling for the Estates-General to vote by head rather than by order. In the past, the shared interests of clergy and nobles meant they could consistently block the Third Estate. Voting by head would be another way of eliminating a long-standing privilege . . .


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