France: Origins & Early Revolution

From the philosophes, the events of 1789 to the reforms of the National Assembly

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  • Created on: 30-04-13 09:37

Why philosophes wanted to reform the Ancien Regime

Applied rational analysis to world around them -> did not accept aspects of AR based on tradition and superstition

  • Church exerted undue power over people. Disillusioned with 'spiritual role'. Suppressing progress b/o unproved superstitions - rigid censorship, corrupt legal system, control of education (limit spread of new ideas eg. galileo's theory of earth revolving round sun). 
  • Questioning of Church's authority -> qs over monarch's divine right to rule (actions could not be challenged as God's rep on earth). But lack of scientific evidence for DR -> doubts over absolutism -> should be checks on King's power.
  • Belief in liberty of man - could determine own destiny - impossible for poor 3rd estate. AR didn't support rights & freedoms of individuals - no representation (control over their lives). 'Natural equality of man' (Rousseau) - didn't correspond to estates which dictated lives. Wanted 'rule of law' made with people & for the people.

Not revolutionary - didn't want to destroy regime or monarchy. Criticised aspects they thought were unjust/unfounded b/c wanted a system with individual freedom.

Undermined Church & divine right by questioning assumptions they were based on. 

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Financial Crisis - Why

By 1781 Treasury was 160 million livres short, 295 million short for 1782. 

Wars throughout 18th century - Austria Succession, Seven Years. Funded by loans - built up huge repayment debts with mounting interest - large part of govt expenditure. American Independence (78-83) cost 1066 million livres & plunged France into acute financial crisis.

Financial administration unable to support costs of war:

Tax organisation - privileged classes untaxed, regional exemptions & discrepancies

Inefficient tax collection - Farmers General kept profit above agreed sum, corrupt venal officials couldn't be dismissed -> Crown receiving a fraction. 1788 don gratuit.

Collection harder after bad harvests in 70s-80s -> inflation. Growing population -> prices increasing out of proportion to income. Decreased consumer purchasing -> decline in manufacturing -> unemployment

Ministers (T, C, B) failed to address imbalance of payments - only borrowed more. T reforms denied by Parlement. Compte Rendu facilitated raising more loans. Assembly of notables. T dismissed 1776, Necker resigned 1781. Crisis could have been averted if they had acted earlier - improved tax system & controlled cost of war.

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Assembly of Notables - Feb 87

  • Why called?
    • Calonne informed King of impending bankruptcy in Aug 86. Couldn't raise more loans - parlements refused to register edicts. Old system not working - King forced to look for other ways to raise money.
    • Attempt to gain approval for single land tax - AoN deemed necessary as major changes required consultation & proposals affected first 2 estates - taxation of all landowners, network of local assemblies, abolition of corvee and internal customs barriers. 
    • Appeared easier route to acceptance than EG (3rd estate, elaborate elections, cahiers). Could be handpicked by Calonne. Many enlightened nobles & clerics - not totally unrealistic to expect acceptance.
  • Why failed?
    • Clergy reluctant to give up privileges
    • Nobility insisted EG must approve such momentous changes
    • Calonne's unpopularity - appealed behind back of assembly
    • Distrusted Brienne

6 Nov - rejected doubling 3rd estate deputies at EG.

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Parlement/King conflict

  • 15 Aug 87: Parlement exiled to Troyes after refusing Brienne's reforms - taken away from crowds.
  • 19 Nov 87: King orders registration of more loans by lit de justice. Duc d'Orleans protests it is illegal - exiled by lettre de cache next day.
  • 4 Jan 88: Parlement denounce lettres de cache as illegal. King strikes declaration.
    • Provincial parlements join in by refusing to register new laws.
  • 3 May: Fundamental Laws of the Kingdom. King orders arrest of leaders - parlement refuses to surrender them until troops surround the building.
  • May Edicts: Parlements reduced to simple appeal courts & no longer have power of registration. New Compte Rendu.

Revolt of the Nobles:

Protest grows through France - provincial parlements refuse to disband. Riots in provincial capitals: Day of Tiles 7 Jun, Grenoble: workers support magistrates against troops: 4 dead

Nobles hold assemblies backing the parlements and EG. Clergy offer don gratuit of a quarter. Lower courts refuse to register new laws.

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Revolt of the Nobles

  • Why?
    • Resistance to land tax reform from those who had most to lose and were unused to paying taxes. Compte Rendu (apparent financial success) - no need for change. Demanded an EG for such drastic change, not AoN.
    • Philosophe ideas - King was acting tyrannically by trying to force through change. Saw parlements as acting in the name of the people -> "ministerial despotism" in May Edicts -> revolt in support of Parlement.
    • Unpopularity & apparent weakness of Calonne, Brienne & King meant that even those who agreed with fair taxation were suspicious of how it would be carried out. More hostile to ministers than tax itself.
    • Crown unable to deal with revolt due to bankruptcy.


  • Necker recalled: only man capable of winning public confidence. Do nothing until EG.
  • Shown limitations of royal power. King unable to impose his will on the State.
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Estates General

  • Why?
    • state of bankruptcy in Aug 88 and wider economic crisis (bad harvests, hailstorms destroy harvest - peasants won't pay) -> govt needed to change the tax system
    • failure of Calonne and Brienne to get the Assembly of Notables to agree on financial reforms
    • revolt of the nobles: demands for EG by AoN, parlements. Riots in provincial capitals, clergy rebellion (don gratuit).
    • weak financial position of Crown made it unable to deal with growing opposition or resist demands to call the EG.
  • Lead up:
    • Cahiers: all against absolute power, wanted constitution & elected assembly to pass laws & taxes
      • clergy - end to plurality & financial privilege of Church, keep dominant position (control of education). Catholicism established religion, protestants not tolerated.
      • nobles - 90% give up privileges, 40% voting by head on general issues. Desire for change & meritocracy. More liberal than 3rd estate on many issues!
      • 3rd estate - suspected privileged orders had opposed the govt because they wanted power for themselves, not justice for nation (parlements) -> demanded voting by head.
    • Involvement of everybody led to expectation for reform. 
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Estates General (2)

King had doubled 3rd estate deputies in Dec 88 - assumed votes would be by head.

  • Met as 3 separate orders:
    • clergy - overwhelmingly parish priests
    • nobility - old provincial noble families (conservative) but 90/282 were liberals
    • 3rd estate - bourgeousie (not a single peasant or urban worker), complicated indirect elections

Govt put forward no program for reform - didn't mention constitution. Failed to seize initiative (King's eldest son died).

3rd estate insisted on verifying deputy credentials in common session (would set precedent for meeting). Rejected by nobles & clergy (small majority). Weeks of inaction.

  • 10 Jun: 3rd estate began verifying credentials anyway. Trickle of priests join.
  • 17 Jun: National Assembly proclaimed (490-90). Claimed that as it represented most of the nation it had the right to decide taxation. 
  • 19 Jun: Clergy voted to join NA.

Direct challenge on his power forced King to act - called a royal session on 23 Jun at which he would propose reforms

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Tennis Court Oath


Mounting frustration over voting procedures which the King had failed to address. Although Louis had agreed to double representation he had made no decision on voting by head which led to a complete impasse with the 3rd estate refusing to conduct any business until all estates met together. Frustration radicalised them to the point of declaring themselves the NA on 17th June which was an important step before the Oath 3 days later.

Increasing politicisation of 3rd estate fuelled not only by frustration above but by enlightened thinking and Sieyes' pamphlet - emphasised importance (taxes) and political impotence of 3rd estate. Writing of cahiers and mounting bread prices also contributed to radicalisation of 3rd estate deputies - culminated in Oath.

Discovery of meeting hall locked and guarded by royal troops. With increased numbers of troops on streets of Paris and Versailles, they viewed this as an attempt to break them up with force. The state of heightened emotion drove them to commit to the revolution. 


3rd estate deputies took oath not to disperse until France had a constitution. Only 1 voted against.

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Seance Royale

Advised by Necker to accept voting in common on all important matters.

Under pressure from Queen and brothers, King came down on side of privileged orders:

  • declared actions of 3rd estate on 17 June null and void 
  • separate meetings of estates in EG.

Accepted restrictions on his own power: 

  • no taxes without consent of nation
  • abolition of lettres de cache, freedom of the press
  • internal customs barriers, gabelle & corvee abolished

If they had been put forward in May, 3rd estate would have been satisfied. But:

  • 157 clergy (24 Jun) and 47 nobles (25 Jun) joined 3rd estate. 
  • Popular demonstrations in Paris. 
  • 23 Jun - King orders clergy & nobles to join 3rd estate and vote by head.

King contemplating military force - 25000 troops in Paris by 4 July (justified by maintaining order). NA saved by revolt of Parisians.

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Parisian Revolt

Rising prices, falling wages: 88% wages spent on bread. Revellion riots in April - premises set on fire after rumours he was cutting wages. Falling living standards & unemployment - revolutionaries harnessed discontent to bring crowds onto streets to save NA.

Political events created expectations and discontent. Politicisation of crowds - Palais Royal became HQ of popular movt & thousands (inc. gardes-francaises) listened to rev. speakers every night (eg. Desmoulins).

Dismissal of Necker (height of popularity) & presence of troops - fear that King would use force to disband NA. Large scale demonstrations against King. To arm themselves.

Crowds flocked to Palais Royale - encouraged to take up arms. Frantic search for weapons. 40 customs posts destroyed, gunshops looted, barricades set up to impede royal troops. Gardes-fracaises deserted & joined attack on Bastille. Attacked bastille (symbol of AR) for ammo - 99 killed inc. de Launay.

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Parisian Revolt (2)


  • Electors of Paris set up:
    • Citizen's militia to protect property against attacks from the people & to defend Paris from royal troops - became National Guard (expressly forbidden by King) on 15 July. San Culottes excluded from ranks.
    • Paris Commune to govern city - King lost control of Paris.

17 July: King wore rev. cockade, accepted Commune & NG, & reinstated Necker. No other choice as unsupported by army. Hostile reception from crowd.

  • Assembly prepared to draw up constitution, no longer under threat of being dissolved because Louis couldn't rely on the army.
  • Real power passed to elected reps of the people - Louis had to work with NA.
  • Hostility to royalty spread - intendants & nobles forced to flee.
  • News of the Bastille spread through france & incited rural revolt.
  • Most people stopped paying taxes -> problem for Assembly desperate for money.

"The authority of the King has been utterly destoyed" - Governor Morris, later US ambassador to France.

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Rural Revolt

  • From Jan 89: grain convoys & hoarders attacked
  • Bastille -> authority of King collapsed. Orders only obeyed if approved by NA. Risings in Normandy & Franche Comte. Riots against taxes, taille & feudal dues.
  • Grain stores attacked
  • Chateaux looted & set on fire to destroy title deeds
  • Terriers destroyed - listed peasant obligations
  • National Guard set up in most towns - control popular violence & stop counter-rev
  • Great Fear: rumours that bands of brigands in the pay of the aristocracy were going to destoy the harvest & wreck vengance. Peasants tooks up arms and turned on landlords


  • Bad harvest 88, industrial depression & unemployment. Early attacks show economic motive. Violence would have died out at next harvest.
  • Political events: EG & cahiers aroused great excitement - King would not have asked for grievances unless he intended to do something about them.
  • Bastille
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August Decrees

  • Why?
    • Ideologically, the belief in equality meant all Frenchmen had to be equal before the law, which led to the abolition of feudal privileges & trials in separate courts.
    • Practically, the need to raise money from all sources meant that the richest citizens needed to pay taxes, rather than receiving (feudal) exemptions.
    • Great Fear pressurised Assembly into measures that would be popular with the peasants (propaganda value greater than reality). Bourgeois deputies concerned for their property. Could not ask King for troops - might turn against Assembly. 
  • What?
    • Abolition of venality, tithes, tax privileges & area exemptions.
    • Professional meritocracy & everyone taxed equally
    • Peasants had to compensate landowners for loss of feudal dues. Many didn't pay - abolished in 1793.
  • Significance:
    • Started dismantling AR. End of privilege of birth. Same rights for all.
    • Career open to talent benefited bourgeois - peasants lacked education
    • Cleared the way for national, uniform administration.
    • Peasants supported rev - could lose all they had gained. Some would oppose rev in future (Vendee).
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October Days

  • Why?
    • political context: Aug Decrees, DoRights, king's refusal to support them 
    • long term economic problems (despite good 89 harvest) - food shortages, unemployment, high prices
    • mistreatment of tricolour at versailles
  • What?
    • Banquet with Flanders regiment at Versailles. Anti-rev demonstrations inc. trampling on tricolour. Demands that King be brought back to Paris.
    • Food shortage in Paris - crowd of women storm Hotel de Ville demanding bread. 6000 march to Versailles to complain to King & Assembly. 20,000 N Guards follow.
    • King agrees to provide Paris with grain, August Decrees & D of Rights. King and National Assembly move to Paris.
  • Significance:
    • King regarded himself as prisoner of Paris mob - not bound by anything he was forced to accept
    • Assembly humiliated by decisive action of Parisians. Difficult to compromise with King when surrounded by mob that could impose its will through another journee.
    • Assembly issue decree changing 'King of France' to 'K of the French' - subordinate to law. Shift in power to Paris and politicised crowds.
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Civil Constitution

Why did it provoke opposition?

Challenged role of the Pope in France -> opposition from clergy & people who now faced moral dilemma between Church & State.

Changes to organisation & privileges -> resentment of loss of privilege & roles from clergy. (Most lower clergy supported end of privilege  - support of NA in 89)

Democracy extended to Church -> Catholics disliked that their priests could be elected by Jews & Protestants. Pope's authority diminished -> feared State was interfering too muchwith belief - intensified by Oath of Loyalty Nov 90

Oath -> clergy felt they were being made to choose between Church & State. Pope condemned it -> many retracted. Broke consensus that had existed previously - encouraging people to join in opposition to other contentious reforms -> mass support for counter-rev. for first time.

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Reforms of NA

  • Aims: 
    • based on DofRights
    • end inequalities & irregularities of AR -> uniform, representative, humanitarian State
    • create constitutional monarchy
  • Administrative reforms:
    • 83 departments with subdivisions of districts & communes. 48 sections of Paris.
    • Power decentralised -> difficult for King to regain previous authority.
    • Uniform weights & measurements -> improved trade & retail
    • Local democracy: elected councils in place of intendants -> opened public office to social groups who previously didn't have opportunity, shortage of literate, competant men to carry out extensive duties -> bourgeois control, poor tax collection
    • Electoral system based on tax -> favoured wealthy. Passive citizens (25%) couldn't vote on anything -> long way from 'egalite', 61% could vote (4% in Britain)
  • Tax & economy:
    • 3 new universal taxes -> fairer, AR tax rolls -> regional irregularities remained
    • Free trade in grain, price controls removed -> inflation, encouraged trade
    • Le Chapelier & guilds-> opened up trades, benefited employers at workers' expense
    • Nationalisation of Church land & assignats -> increase in peasant small-holders
    • Indirect taxes abolished -> reduces govt revenue, burden on producers
    • Committee for poor & needy -> not enough money so ineffective
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Reforms of NA (2)

  • Legal system:
    • Single court system, all judges elected.
    • Penal Code: torture & mutilation banned, guillotine -> most enlightened in Europe
  • Constitution:
    • Legislative assembly elected every 2 years, responsible for passing laws -> King's power heavily limited
    • King had suspensive veto -> caused problems with emigre laws
    • Flight to Varennes -> showed he was untrustworthy -> undermined constitution


  • Administrative reforms successful.
  • Lack of money prevented reforms being as effective or thorough eg. failure to reevalute land before new taxes.
  • Assembly overwhelmingly bourgeois -> many reforms reflected own interests
  • Social change harder to accomplish - rise of political clubs (Jacobins) criticising Assembly, opposition to Civil Constitution.
  • Monarch's role uncertain.
  • Did commendable job for a country entrenched in tradition.
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This set of 17 revision cards is an excellent resource for testing knowledge on the 1787-1790 era.

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