Vce history The French Revolution Timeline of Key Events/People/Concepts Revolution

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System - Raising Revenue Since Louis XIV

•      When the Royal Treasury was short of funds the Old Regime found ingenious methods of raising the funds - Selling public offices (Venality); Arranging loans from financiers; Taxation on Government and Private Securities; Suspending paying down the national debt; Debasement of the national currency; Anticipatory expenditures on future tax receipts; As well as the creation of new taxes.

Impact on France

•       Ruined public confidence; while the government lavishly spent funds frivolously on Versailles.

•       Those wasteful expenditures continued unabated.

•       Useless gifts to the favourites of the King and Queen.

•       Signing blank drafts for Royal consumption.

•       Riotous extravagance

 The Prognosis for the Old Regime

•      The wastefulness ultimately doomed the Old Order.

•      It was the financial disorder of the monarchy that helped push France in the direction of Revolution.
The State of the French Finances

•       In 1789, France levied 560,000,000 livres in taxes; fourteen percent of that figure was used to collect these taxes.

•       The per capita taxes paid by the French public varied from region to region. In Strasbourg it was set at sixteen livres, while in Paris it was sixty-four.

•       All efforts to rationalize the system failed.

•       Including the work of the Physiocrats by introducing a simple land taxes formula.

Tithe (to Church) – a tax to the Church, who owed the land, on produce of between five and ten percent of harvest.

Taille (Direct) - a tax to help defray military expenditures and was paid by the peasantry. The nobility was exempt from this tax. Cities and towns had to pay in one lump sum on tolls placed on foodstuffs.

Capitation (Direct) – Tax on each ‘head’ ie: person – paid by all commoners- the privileged orders avoided this one too.

Vingtieme (Direct) – War Tax on income levied during American War (1778-1783) and for three years afterwards (until 1786) – was conceived as an income tax on all income, but widely evaded by the privileged groups.

Corvee (Direct) - A tax placed on the peasants, not payable in money, but in labour.

Gabelle/Salt (Indirect Tax)

•       The most flagrant abuses came with the collection of the hated Salt Tax.

•       Of all the tax collectors the most hated were those who collected this tax.

•       Each family was required by law to purchase a specified amount of salt per family; the amount was not a problem, but the management was.

•       The price was excessively high in northern and central France, while other areas were exempt.

•       As a consequence, the public turned to smuggling.

•       The Gabelous (the Tax Collectors) made house-to-house searches; thousands were arrested; the victims were sent to the galleys as punishment.
Punishments for Violating the Salt Tax

•       During the reign of Louis XVI the following appears to be accurate concerning punishments for violating the Salt Tax.

    • 4,000 cases made.

    • 3,400 imprisonments.

    • 500 were sent to the whipping post, banishment to the galleys.

Feudal dues – Taxes, goods and services payable by the peasant to his overlord (Seigneur) in accordance with old contracts and practices eg: banalities which compelled peasants to use the feudal lord’s wine press or flour mill; the champart or harvest dues, the octrois customs duties

Observation on Tax Collections in Old Regime France

•      Collection of taxes was generally wasteful.

•      Often offensive, especially for indirect taxation.

•      And more important, brutal.

The Ruinous Nature of Local Tax Collections

•       The rich peasants were held accountable for the local quota of taxes collected.

•       To lessen their assessment, the peasants hid their commodities.


  • Lots of differences in requirements – uneven, inefficient, unfair

  • Abusive to the poor – especially peasants who bore the brunt

  • Reflected the values of the time – church, war, land, salt

  • Lots of corruption in terms of collections and distribution

  • Administration invited corruption so lax

  • Confusing

  • Third Estate deferred to it – unquestioning (although the bourgeoisie were starting to question)






Ancien Regime - refers primarily to the aristocratic, social, and political system established in France under the Valois and Bourbon dynasties (14th century to 18th century). The term is French for "Former Regime," but rendered in English as "Old Rule," "Old Order," or simply "Old (or Ancient) Regime".

  • Divine Right Absolute Monarch

  • Power, privilege and exclusion

  • Sources of power through politics, religion, perceptions, legitimacy, competence and benevolence


Louis XIV – Ruled as the supreme ‘Sun King’

  • Enhanced France territorially and militarily

  • Strengthened power of the monarch over his nobility and clergy

  • Forthright ruler who avoided too many senior advisers

  • Began the process of selling titles to raise money (rather than calling Estates General to change tax laws)

  • Moved from palace at Tuileries and built the opulent Versailles (outside Paris)

‘Louis XIV’s vigour and strength of will re-established the French monarchy as the ultimate source of power – a true absolute monarchy – and in doing so created a strong and unified France which reigned supreme in continental Europe. The palace of Versailles, built in the 1660s, was a monument to the splendour and absolutism of the monarchy,’ (Fielding, p.29)

  • Built up debt due to extravagance and wars


Louis XV

  • Followed economic policies of his great grandfather Louis XIV

  • Constantly at war – financed by foreign loans – Involved in bitter rivalries with Britain in India and America

  • Greatly influenced by mistresses Madame de Pompadour and Madame du Barry

  • Foreign loans to finance wars contributed to the fiscal crisis of the 1780s


Seven Years War with Austria


Early Years of Louis XVI

  • Arranged marriage to Marie Antoinette of Austria as a political alliance

  • Was 20 when grandfather died and he became king

  • Personally not fitted for office

  • Indecisive

  • Not respected by courtiers

  • ‘The weakness and incision of the King are beyond description – Comte de Provence, eldest of the royal brothers (Fenwick – p.13)

  • Francois Furet ‘having inherited a power too contested to remain in an absolute monarch…too weak to lead his kingdom towards something else


Turgot (Finance Minster) promoted ‘laissez-faire’ approach to economics

Commerce to be as free as possible, away from the constraints of government


American War of Independence (American Revolution)

  • Extremely costly – billions of livres loaned to support the cause

  • Financial crisis, leading to a fiscal crisis and then a political crisis

  • Soldiers returning from war had experienced the “enlightened” ideas of America where sovereignty is o the hands of the people

Link to The Enlightenment – seemed to many Frenchmen to be based on ideas of personal liberty and freedom from despotism (Lead to written constitution, inalienable people’s rights, popular sovereignty, government authority limited through separation of powers and new spirit of ‘common good’.

  • Many of the intellectual leaders of the American colonies were drawn to the Enlightenment. Jefferson, Washington, Franklin, and Paine were powerfully influenced by Enlightenment thought.

  • The God who underwrites the concept of equality in the Declaration of Independence is the same deist God Rousseau worshipped.

  • The language of natural law, of inherent freedoms, of self-determination which seeped so deeply into the American grain was the language of the Enlightenment.

  • Separated geographically from most of the aristocrats against whom they were rebelling, their revolution was to be far less corrosive than that in France.

When Louis XVI inherited the throne one of his first acts was to send aid to the Americans when they were fighting their War of Independence, this was significant for many reasons. Louis XVI sent countless amounts of money, soldiers and equipment, to the Americans, due to Necker’s Compte Rendu, Louis XVI was unaware of the extreme debt France was in. So when he gave the financial support to the Americans he was ignorant that it would increase the burden of debt already in place. France simply did not have the funds to continue sending aid to the America, so Jacques Necker began to accept loans, which had high interest rates, with other countries. The war was almost entirely funded by international loans, which added almost 2 billion livres to the nation's debt1. With the nation being in debt it eventually led to the rising of taxes for the people of France, in particular the 3rd Estate as the 3rd Estate was not subject to tax exceptions. The involvement in the American War of Independence also had a social consequence on France as it opened the people of France up to the ideas of enlightenment, of questioning their place in society. With the French over in America, who were fighting with the Americas for their own rights against the British Monarchy, it gave the people of France the notion of demanding


Age of Enlightenment – Intellectual movement of ideas

  • In 1632, Galileo Galilei used logic, reinforced with observation, to argue for Copernicus’ idea that the earth rotates on its axis around the sun. The Church objected that the Bible clearly stated that the sun moved through the sky and denounced Galileo's teachings, forcing him to recant what he had written and preventing him from teaching further.

  • As trade and communication improved during the Renaissance, the ordinary town-dweller began to realize that things need not always go on as they had for centuries. People could write new charters, form new governments, pass new laws, and begin new businesses. A new class of merchants brought back wealth from Asia and the Americas, partially displacing the old aristocracy whose power had been rooted in the ownership of land. These merchants had their own ideas about the sort of world they wanted to inhabit, and they became major agents of change, in the arts, in government, and in the economy. They were naturally convinced that their earnings were the result of their individual merit and hard work, unlike the inherited wealth of aristocrats. The ability of individual effort to transform the world became a European dogma, lasting to this day.

  • New Core Values: The general trend was clear: individualism, freedom and change replaced community, authority, and tradition as core European values.

  • 1748 Montesquieu publishes The Spirit of the Laws

  • 1751 onwards Diderot and d’Alembert compile, edit and begin published The Encyclopedie (finished 1780)

  • 1762 The Social Contract by Rousseau published ‘Man is born free, and yet everywhere he is in chains’ To protect freedom and equality, men join together under a social contract and appoint governments to protect them. Sovereign or power resides in the people who have appointed the government to act for it

  • 1763 The Treatise on Toleration by Voltaire published. He opposed tyranny and dogma, but he had no notion of reinventing democracy. He had far too little faith in the ordinary person for that. He thought that educated and sophisticated people could, through the exercise of their reason, see that the world could and should be greatly improved.

  • Voltaire’s chief adversary was Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau opposed the theatre which was Voltaire's lifeblood, shunned the aristocracy which Voltaire courted, and argued for something dangerously like democratic revolution. Whereas Voltaire argued that equality was impossible, Rousseau argued that inequality was unnatural. Whereas Voltaire charmed with his wit, Rousseau always claimed to be right. Whereas Voltaire insisted on the supremacy of the intellect, Rousseau emphasized the emotions. And whereas Voltaire repeated the same handful of core Enlightenment ideas, Rousseau sparked off original thoughts in all directions: ideas about education, the family, government, the arts, and whatever else attracted his attention. For all their personal differences, Rousseau and Voltaire shared more values than they liked to acknowledge. They viewed absolute monarchy as dangerous and evil and rejected orthodox Christianity. Rousseau was almost as much a skeptic as Voltaire: the minimalist faith both shared was called "deism" and it was eventually to transform European religion and have powerful influences on other aspects of society as well.

  • Voltaire was joined by a band of rebellious thinkers known as the philosophes: Charles de Montesquieu, Pierre Bayle, Jean d'Alembert, and many lesser lights. Because Denis Diderot commissioned many of them to write for his influential Encyclopedia, they are also known as "the Encyclopedists."

  • The Spirit of the Laws advocates the case for the separation of powers (Church and State)

  • The Encyclopedie ran to 27 volumes and was a compilation of ‘all the useful knowledge known to man’ The project was shut down a number of times and took 29 years to complete

  • Rousseau supported equality of man in nature and popular sovereignty through the expression of General Will

  • These thinkers believed that human reason could be used to combat ignorance, superstition, and tyranny and to build a better world. Their principal targets were religion (the Catholic Church in France) and the domination of society by a hereditary aristocracy.

  • Heritage: The Enlightenment is often viewed as a historical anomaly – a brief moment when a number of thinkers infatuated with reason vainly supposed that the perfect society could be built on common sense and tolerance, a fantasy which collapsed amid the Terror of the French Revolution and the triumphal sweep of Romanticism.

  • More recently, religious thinkers repeatedly proclaim the Enlightenment dead. Marxists denounce it for promoting the ideals and power of the bourgeoisie at the expense of the working classes. Postcolonial critics reject its idealization of specifically European notions as universal truths. Yet in many ways, the Enlightenment has never been more alive. It formed the consensus of international ideals by which modern states are judged: Human rights; Religious tolerance and Self-government

  • Enlightenment enabled people to think critically about society through the lens of reason

  • Confidence and optimism to believe that is was possible to create a better and different world

  • Writers of Enlightenment advocated reform, not revolution – but offered ideas for authority and guidance

  • ‘As the financial crisis of 1786 brought the monarchy to the point of reform, it also eroded confidence in both the monarchy and the social system, At a time when crisis weakened and exposed the workings of the government, Enlightenment ideas provided a vocabulary of dissent, and means of envisaging a better world out of the weaknesses of the old.’ (Fenwick p.59)


Social Movements

  • Rise liberal aristocracy that challenged the traditional structure

  • Growth in criticism of old regime

  • Rise of bourgeoisie – challenging social hierarchy

  • Erosion of confidence in the legitimacy of political and social structures

  • Criticism of the old regime, social order and privilege – new ideas of merit (personal skill) over birth (promotion) for nobles – Old regime loses confidence in itself

  • New sense of self worth and social utility (usefulness - in terms of productive labour) – especially by bourgeoisie increasing confidence and ambition

  • Growing doubt of liberal thinking nobles (Condorcet, Lafayette, Liancourt, Talleyrand and Mirabeau) who question political theory of absolutism – reform minded priests – prominent in the pre-revolutionary and first revolutionary period

  • Rise of aristocratic salons (intellectual gatherings of high society in private mansions) questioning the political structures and salons and clubs (open debates)

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