Fiscal crisis becomes a political crisis



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1781-1789

Fiscal crisis becomes a political crisis.

King approaches Assembly of Notables, then the Parlements, then the Estates-General to seek approval for taxes.

Some events triggered the crisis. Sparks that ignited a volatile situation.


  • You need to indentify causes of the R, then events that triggered crisis.

  • What causes were most important?

  • Identify long-term causes, which created a potentially revolutionary situation, and short term causes (financial crisis)

  • Timeline of main events

  • Understand terms including absolutism, rule by divinity, legitimacy, dynasty, intendant, culture of deference, Enlightenment.


Feb 1781:
Necker’s Compte Rendu. This gave false picture of France’s accounts.

Necker had to finance cost of involvement in US War of Independence by loans. France faces bankruptcy. Servicing of debts consuming 37% of revenue.




August 1786
Comptroller-General Charles Alexandre de Calonne introduces tax reform proposals. They include

  • Ending vingtiemes tax

  • New tax on all landowners (which would include nobles/church).

  • Corvee to be replaced with a direct tax

  • Nobility to be excused from capitation and remain exempt from taille.

  • Abolish internal trade barriers; attempt to create a national market

Calonne needed to borrow more money to see France through untill this planned extra tax revenue flowed in. But, to get the money, he needed to demonstrate to bankers that the proposals would be passed. He asks Louis XVI to invoke a hand-picked Assembly of Notables (it last met 1626). Calonne assumed that by handpicking the members he and the King would get the public (notables) support he needed to convince bankers to lend France more money.

However, nobles already feeling threatened by



  1. gradual loss of power under the monarchy

  2. challenge of wealthier bourgeoisie

  3. openly dissafected peasantry.


December 1786
List of Notables announced. Less than 30 of 144 nominees from Third Estate.


February 1787

Meeting of the Notables.



  • Calonne had many enemies present at the the meeting.

  • Many suspicious of his motives: what did he want the extra money for? Wasn’t France’s financial situation supposed to be good?

Notables approved of many of the proposals. Agreed to the changes to corvee, but, remarkably, said it should be applied to all as a public works tax.

BUT, church and magistrates said they could not agree to new tax on land without consulting their peers and seeing state of France’s finances.

In effect, the notables claiming to be representatives of the nation.

Assembly eventually dissolved with no agreement reached. Brienne, Calonne’s successor, takes a modified reform plan to the Parlement of Paris for registration. Parlament had right of remonstrance, not veto. If it did delay laws unnecessarily, king could use his lit de justice. In practice, parlements were little more than a rubber stamp.




1787-88:


Parlament of Paris as champion of the people


July 1787:
Parlement rejects tax plan, saying only an Estates-General has right to determine need for tax reform.


August 1787:

Louis issues a lit de justice to force registration of reforms. Parlament says lit de justice is invalid. Louis exiles Parlement to Troyes. Lower courts protest, public protests.

Financial crisis meant that monarchy vulnerable. Allowed aristocracy, as represented in the Assembly of Notables and the Paris Parlement, to exert a show of power they had lost under Louis XIV’s rule.


September 1787:

Truce. Tax plan to be modified.

Lit de justice enforces registration.

Many felt disappointed and betrayed by the compromise tax plan. Belief that the parlement had, again, capitulated to monarchy.

Brienne forced to seek approval from Paris Parlement to borrow more money.


November 1787:
Louis’ minister for Justice, Lamoignan, antagonises magistrates by reiteratingl King’s absolute authority.

Louis orders the loans to be immediately registered. Parlement refuses. Two leading magistrates exiled to country under lettres de cachet. Provincial magistrates refuged to register it; many arested.




May 1788:
Using King’s lit de justice, Brienne introduces reforms, including plan to replace the parlements with a new Plenary Court to register royal decrees. All parlements were suspended. Revolution begins.

Popular revolts support the parlements. Magistrates hailed as defenders of people’s rights. Increasing demands for an Estates-General.




June 1788: Grenoble

Townspeople stand on roofs to shower tiles on soldiers below who had come to arrest their magistrates. Two people killed.

Day of Tiles symbolises


  1. breakdown of royal authority

  2. helplessness of military

  3. warning to elite that violent revolt could be turned against them.

  4. Delivered lead for further political action to younger, more radical group.

Riots in Paris, Rennes, Dijon, fuelled in part by high food prices.

Hostile pamphlets published, atttacking ministers

Clergy pay only a small don gratuit as sign of its disapproval of King’s actions.


July 1788: Grenoble
Under pressure, King welcomes submissions on the composition of an EG.

Also, severe hailstorm destroys many grain crops around Paris and elsewhere.




September 1788:
Parlament says Estates-General to be set up in the way it was in 1614. This radically splits public opinion and parlements lose support of the B and common people. Third estate now suspects that nobility and church simply want to grab power for themselves, not to fight for justice for the whole nation.

Third Estate demands doubling of its representatives at the EG, from 300 to 600. Demand voting by head, not by chamber or estate.




December 1788:
King agrees to doubling third Estate’s numbers, but makes no decision on issue of voting. Swiss journalist Mallet du Pan says: “Now it is war between the Third Estate and the other two orders”.


January 1789

Cahiers de doleances (books of grievances) drawn up across France.

Relaxation of censorship laws results in pamphlet war. 4000 published between May-April 1789. Highly influential essay written by Abbe Sieyes, who challenges royal absolutism and the established social order. His statement a call to revolution. Talks of Third estate forming a national assembly.

Challenge issues by Sieyes echoed in the cahiers from all estates, asking for political representation, end of privilege, regular meetings of EG, personal liberties. These ideas strongly influenced by ideas of Enlightenment.

These radical ideas not just coming from third estate, but nobility too. Of 282 cahiers from the nobility, 90 reflected liberal ideas. 89% prepared to forego financial privileges, 39% supported voting by head at the EG. In general, the noble cahiers showed a desire for change, attacked the govt for its despotism, inefficiency. In many cases they were more liberal than those of the Third Estate.

In 1789 the cahiers raised expectations of reform, which contributed to the formation of a revolutionary situation.

Society of Thirty, group of nobles who wanted a new constitution for France based on Enlightenment ideas (their existence discounts Marxist historiography that downtrodden drove the Revolution). Group incuded Count Mirabeau, Abbe Sieyes. They supported double representation for the third estate at the EG.

In early 1789 France caught up in a fervour and belief that in calling the EG, Louis was committed to political, economic and social change. Great hopes placed in the deputies who went to Versailles in spring of 1789.


March-April 1789
Peasants begin revolt against honorific privileges. Refuse to pay tax. Bad harvests of 1788, threat of starvation and increased burden of feudal dues set off peasant unrest. They grazed stock on common land, hunted on nobles’ land and refused to pay their tithes and feudal dues. Politicisation of majority of Third Estate began as result of economic crisis. Louis’ handling of the political situation made matters worse.


May 1789

Estates-General meets at Versaille on May 5: a complete debacle. Stalemate as Third Estates refuses to verify its deputies in isolation. Says all deputies should be verified by entire group. To run verificiations separately merely reinforced social divisions. They should be verified as reps of France, not as reps of the social class to which they belonged.

Backdrop: high food prices inflamed resentment of the rich. Group attacks a manufacturers house and loot it. Monarchy under suspicion.


June 1789
Declaration of National Assembly: Members of clergy join ranks of the commons (third estate).

Third Estate delegates argue that, as reps of 96% of the nation, they are the true national assembly. They invite other delegates to join them or forfeit their rights as reps of the nation. Strong challenge to Louis’ power.

All this largely the fault of indecision by Louis, mourning death of eldest boy. He should have agreed to common verification of delegates and made a decision on voting by head. By not doing this, commons moved to challenge his authority.

On 20 June, when new National Assembly arrives for meeting, doors are locked and royal sign pronouncing the organisation illegal.




Tennis Court oath
Assembly moves to another venue, an indoor tennis court. All swear an oath to never disband until France gets a constitution.

Louis responds by saying that the estates should meet separately and announces some tax concessions. Then he orders deputies to disperse. Third Estate deputies refuse to move.

27 June: under growing pressure, Louis capitulates, orders estates to meet together and to vote by head. Lafayette joins th National Assembly.

Soldiers ordered to Versaille and around Paris. Louis insists troops deployed to protect assembly.

Louis dismisses Necker an public protests/looting in Paris follows.


12 July 1789

Crowds release prisoners from monastery of St Lazarre, loot building, steal grain. Soldiers join them. King’s troops retreat. Riots, mayhem.




14 July: Fall of Bastille
Prison represented royal absolutism, houses victims of lettre de cachet. Mob wanted the weapons inside it. 98 civilians killed, 78 wounded, 6 soldiers killed.


15 July 1789
King tells assembly he will remove troops from Paris. Nobility becoming nervous. About 20,000 leave France in next few months. Deputies of National Assembly also nervous about rioters attacking property. Most were property owners.


20 July 1789

Great Fear begins




23 July 1789

Paris intendant Bertiert de Sauvigny and king’s minister Foulon are murdered. National Assembly members horrified.

Anarchy and revolt all around France.

In weeks after fall of Bastille, many peasants begin fearing that nobility plotting to destroy the Revolution. This linked to their own fears of retaliation for the actions, and their fear that nobles would organise parties of soldiers to punish them. They feared that nobles would organise brigands of soldiers to kill anyone who supported the R. People begn to form into groups and to arm themselves.

Armed peasants tried to seize the manorial rolls, on which were recorded their feudal dues. They attacked buildings, hunted the nobles’ game, they destroyed wine presses and ovens, symbols of exploitation. The Great Fear armed country people and put pressure on the nobility to reform.


4 August 1789.

progressive members of nobility believe that to help the situation, they must concede their privileged status. Noblemen and noblemen rise to forfeit rights they have held for centuries. News hits countryside; peasants believe this change will occur quickly. But it will be another two years before Legislative Assembly abolishes last vestiges of the feudal regime.




26 August 1789

Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen.

Finance ministers’ attempts at reform of tax system and economy were an acknowledgement that changes were needed. Failure of the process showed the depth of division within French society.

Who drove the revolution?

Marxists say it was the bourgeouise (social causes)

Some say it was driven by ideas of the Enlightenment (ideological/cultural)

Driven by financial and economic problems in France. Huge population growth, but no access to land and wealth for majority. (economic)



Questions: Week 3

Full sentence answers please.

Why could social tensions and ideological conflicts not be contained or constrained within the original order?

To what extent did the Parlement of Paris notables expect to begin a revolution?

What difference would it have made if Louis had decided to allow voting by head before the meeting of the E-G?

Was the violence of the crowd a reaction to events or an intrinsic element of any revolution?

What options did Louis have after the municipal and peasant revolts leading up to August 1789?



Who made the revolution of 1789?


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