Reformation and Revolution


In 1789, one of the most pivotal events in Western Civilization took place in France. The French Revolution has generally been viewed as the just uprising of an oppressed lower class against a tyrannical monarchy, a corrupt nobility, and insensitive Church. Many even view it in comparison to the American Revolution as a fight for independence. However, these views are erroneous in many ways.

During the reign of Louis XIV and his grandson Louis XV, the monarchy had absolute power over the people of France. Louis XIV had been very extravagant, building opulent palaces and gardens at the expense of his subjects. This caused burdensome taxes for the poor peasants and farmers. During Louis XV's reign, corruption in the government was rampant. He continued to live in the same lavish manner as his father, spending tax money on personal items, including expensive gifts for his many mistresses. After enduring heavy taxes, the French people endured hunger, massive unemployment, and extreme poverty. Commoners could scarcely afford the price of bread. At this time, Louis XV's wife said "Let them eat cake" after being told of her subjects' hardships, not Marie Antoinette as it is commonly believed.The nobility lived in the same style of luxury that the monarchy enjoyed, yet did not pay their debts or taxes. These expenses also fell upon the lower classes. Also during this time, only members of aristocratic families were able to achieve high Church positions. The Church itself was extremely powerful. Not only did it influence government policies, but it also governed schooling, ran its own court system, and was the main source of information and news to the people. Yet, a strong feeling of resentment existed against the Church. The Bishops and Canons grew rich from their offices, yet priests, while inadequate in number, remained poor. The Roman Catholic church had always been the main religion in France, and the country was known as the "eldest daughter of the Church." Without a sufficient number of priests and a growing number of wealthy bishops, the common peoples' needs were not being tended to.Out of the approximate 26,000,000 people in France, 21,000,000 were farmers. Many were so poverty stricken that they were forced to borrow equipment or livestock from wealthier land owners who, in turn, received a share of the harvest. Arthur Young, an English landowner who traveled a great deal in France, was appalled and shocked by the level of poverty he encountered in a once rich and prosperous nation. Tobias Somollett, another English traveler and writer, described the people as "ravenous scarecrows."

New Rulers

This was the state of France when a young king, Louis XVI, and his wife, Marie Antoinette, ascended the throne in 1774. At 19, Louis was not considered a brilliant man, but was well intentioned and wished to reform the situation of his country. During the first few years of his reign, he had replaced his grandfather's corrupt ministers with more efficient and honest men. It was also widely believed that Marie Antoinette held great influence over her husband in government affairs. However, Louis kept his wife uninvolved with affairs of the state most of the time, not even allowing her to disturb him while he worked.Many rumors were spread about the Queen, some of which managed to tarnish her reputation. Marie Antoinette was the youngest daughter of Maria Theresa, Empress of Austria. Antoinette was sent to France to marry the dauphin at the young age of fourteen. She was known to be rather frivolous and enjoyed gambling. This made her an easy target for ridicule in the court, who was not entirely accepting of the young Austrian beauty.One scandal, known as the Diamond Necklace Affair, in 1785 did much to damage the Queen's image. Rumors were spread that the Queen wished to purchase an extremely expensive necklace. A courtier, Cardinal de Rohan, wished to ingratiate himself to her and attempted to purchase the necklace. Unfortunately, he became the victim of a great swindle and elaborate plot. The Queen had been entirely uninvolved with all these affairs, and Rohan vindicated himself before the parliament of Paris. The following year, a mock trial commenced, which further defamed the Queen's. Although Louis XV actually ordered the real necklace for his mistress and those responsible for the fraud were punished, the scandal brought ill repute onto the Court and the royal family itself.However, Louis and Antoinette were very popular with their subjects. They wished to ameliorate the problems their country faced. At his first cabinet meeting, Louis reminded his ministers of St. King Louis IX's maxim that everything unjust was impossible. He refused to increase taxes, and to help conserve money, he reduced expenditures at the palace. He stopped the government control of grain trade, which allowed the prices of bread to decrease for the ordinary people. He began to reform the courts, making them more just, and improved prison conditions. He also ended the custom of corvee, in which peasants were forced to work on public roads without pay. Marie Antoinette also contributed to the welfare of the country by paying for the education of destitute children and having the poor served from her own kitchens. She encouraged the arts such as the opera and ballet. She changed many of the dress fashions from being terribly elaborate to more simple and natural style. Both the king and queen were so popular that in 1784, the Parisians built a statue of the king. Next to it they built a statue of the queen made of snow and ice with a sign which read: "Take your place near our kindly King, Queen whose beauty surpasses your charms; this frail monument is of snow and ice, but our wishes for you are warmer."


Because of France's economic situation, Louis appointed Alexandre de Calonne as the new Director-General of Finances. He, unlike his predecessors, was well liked at the court. But after reviewing the finances, he realized the seriousness of the tax problem. He therefore proposed that all landowners be taxed, regardless of their social rank, based on how much land they possessed. This meant that the wealthy and noble families who had hitherto lived without this economic demand, would have to begin paying a high amount of tax. Calonne also proposed that the number of votes a landowner should receive in the provincial assemblies would be based on how much land they owned. If such a law were to be passed, more power would be given to the lower classes. If they owned farm land, they would hold more votes. And there was a larger number of farmers than of aristocracy. This would give the lower class a greater power over the aristocracy. In February of 1787, Calonne told the Assembly of Notables, "Only in the abolition of abuses lies the means to answer our need. The abuses which we must wipe out for the public good are of the widest extent, enjoy the greatest protection, have the deepest roots and the most spreading branches."Yet all of these ideas made Calonne highly unpopular with the nobility. Many people throughout the court voiced their disapproval of his policies. Louis, unsure and indecisive, constantly asked for advice. One government official wrote, "He asked advice of everybody and seemed to be saying to every person he approached, 'What can I do? What should be done?'" At last, Calonne was dismissed from his office. But, still being threatened by his opponents, he fled to England and became the first of the Revolutions émigrés.

The Estates General

It was soon decided by the government that for any tax reform to be approved, it must first pass through the Estates General. This was an assembly consisting of three groups: the nobility, the clergy, and common people, known as the First, Second, and Third Estates, respectively. The Estates General had not been called since 1614. However, violence was starting to erupt in the provinces due to the discontent of people's financial and social situation. Finally, on July 5, Brienne, the new Director-General of Finance, declared that the Estates General was to be called for the next year. This, at first, caused great excitement. But the assembly had been set up with an equal number of votes from each of the three estates, regardless of how many representatives were in each. This meant that, though the Third Estate had more members, the other two Estates could always outweigh any decision.At this time, much liberal agitation began. Vast amounts of political pamphlets were published and distributed in Paris, especially in the coffee houses by rising revolutionary idealists. The idea which these pamphlets contained, if carried out, would over throw the monarchy. And, oddly enough, no pamphlets in rebuttal were ever published.After a tense period in which representatives for the three estates were elected, the Estates General finally assembled. However, the three groups did not assemble together, but separately. This was rather unproductive, and caused the Third Estate much strife and frustration, for by meeting together, the grievances of the people could be discussed openly. The Third Estate finally offered an invitation to the Second Estate of clergymen, asking them to join together. Many of the clergy, especially the priests, were enthusiastic about the idea, for they had true intentions to help the common man. But the other members wished to discuss the matter first. The Third Estate waited for a reply, but never received one. At last, the Third Estate decided to ask both the nobles and clergy to join them. Those who refused would forfeit their rights as representatives. In short, the Third Estate was aiming to become the sole representative body of the nation without the king's consent. And, after this second invitation, a handful of priest joined them.The meetings of the Third Estate were very turbulent and emotional. As many as 90 people stood trying to speak at once with sounds of disapproval or applause to accompany. They had no organized way of proceeding, but they decided to change the name of their estate. This caused many heated debates. Yet, after much dissention, on June 17 the name National Assembly was chose and approved 491 votes to 89.

The Tennis Court Oath

The next day, the doors of the meeting hall were locked. The King, under insistence from his wife and family, stood against this revolutionary action. He was ready to declare their proceedings null and void. The locked doors did not deter the new National Assembly. Dr. Joseph Ignace Guillotin, a Paris deputies, suggested that they go to a near by indoor tennis court to meet. There, Jean-Joseph Mounier, a young lawyer, declared that they all take an oath stating: "We swear not to separate, and to reassemble wherever circumstances require, until the constitution of the kingdom is established and consolidated upon fir foundations; and that, the said oath taken, all members and each one of them individually shall ratify this steadfast resolution by signature". This was known as the Tennis Court Oath, which all the representatives signed with only one exception.Soon after this, the majority of the clergy joined the National Assembly. The Count d'Artois believed he could stop the new assembly from meeting by booking the tennis courts for a game. But by this time, a handful of nobles started to join. So, on June 23, the King met with the National Assembly and what was left of the First and Second Estates for a seance royale. The King informed them that he was willing to begin fiscal reforms, take steps to establish free press, and not allow tax laws to pass without the approval of the representatives. But he still refused to allow all three estates to meet together. Refusing to leave, the National Assembly declared themselves inviolable. By June 27, most of clergy and forty-seven nobles had joined the Assembly. At last, the King was forced to approve the Estates meeting together. If he refused, a mob would descend upon the palace. Ironically, Mirabeau, one of the Assemblies strong leaders, after this triumph was achieved had said: "History has too often recounted the actions of nothing more than wild animals, among which at long intervals we can pick out some heroes. Now we are given hope that we are beginning the history of man."Violence again broke out in the provinces. The finance minister, Necker, had been dismissed. This caused devaluation of currency, the closing of the stock exchange, and a general fear. Bread prices had already doubled in the last two months, and people feared they would do so again. The atmosphere in Paris was becoming very tense. The violence increased daily as mobs began looting shops. A group of electors for the Estates General, all of whom were quite wealthy, banded together. They decided to form a militia which would later become the National Guard.

Storming of the Bastille

At last, the mobs were incensed to arm themselves. On Tuesday, July 14, 1789, a large mob in Paris was armed with 28,000 muskets and over 10 canon. However, they soon realized that they did not have enough ammunition or gun powder. The mob stormed toward the Bastille. The Bastille was a fortress built in the fourteenth century. It was being used as a prison. Many great myths and frightening legends had surrounded the Bastille, such as "the man in the iron mask." Truthfully, In fact, the prison never held more than about ten prisoners, all of which were justly imprisoned. At this time, the Bastille had only 7 prisoners. Four were forgers, one was a deranged Irishman who believed himself to be God and Julius Caesar. There was another insane prisoner, and the Comte de Solages whose own family and had arranged for his imprisonment on account of incest. The prospects of the ammunition to be found in the Bastille, and the idea of freeing the unjustly kept prisoners helped drive the mob on. To them, the Bastille seemed to represent their oppressors and all that they were opposed to. The liberal ideals of destroying tradition and authority were beginning to take hold on the people. Crossing the moat, the mob began to attack the drawbridge. And after several attempts, the bridge came down, crushing one member of the mob and injuring another. They rushed in. The prisoners were released, and the mob held possession of the ammunition which had been found. They murdered the governor of the Bastille and decapitated him. Carrying his severed head on a pike, the mob paraded about the streets of Paris.

This marked the beginning of the French Revolution. Within a few years, the Reign of Terror would commence, claiming thousands of lives at the guillotine. And eventually the King and Queen were also subjected to humiliation at the hands of the people and executed on the guillotine. France had been burdened by an unjust and even tyrannical monarchy. But under the reforms of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, France might have healed from its financial and social problems with time. Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were far from tyrannical, but truly concerned for the well being of their subjects. Louis did not approve of the lavish and costly living which the nobility had become accustomed to. When he attempted to correct the corrupt life styles of the aristocracy and clergy, they turned on the monarchy. In doing so, the aristocracy brought about it's own destruction. Had Louis XVI's policies been followed and had time been giving for these changes to occur, France would have become prosperous and just once again. But the culmination of these problems was brought about in one of the most bloody revolutions in Western Civilization.

© Blakeney Manor, 2012