The French Government
The French government was under a system of absolutism. King Louis XVI was answerable to no one on Earth. For absolutism to be a success, a strong king was needed but Louis's personality was weak and indecisive; often influenced by Marie Antoinette and could not keep control of his finances. Louis the power to arrest anyone with the Lettres de Cachet, and could make laws without consultation through the Lit de Justice. In the pronvinces, Louis's work was carried out by intendents.
However, there were limitations to his power. Louis had to consult with ministers and advisors before making a law meaning a lot of power was divided between a small number of men. Louis was also bound by traditions and customs such as the privileges of the First Estate.
The Three Estates: The First Estate
The First Estate was made up of the Clergy; there was the upper clergy, and the lower clergy. There were the following key issues with the First Estates
- Pluraty and Absenteeism: Many Bishops were bishop of more than one diocese but would not visit them. This made people think that the Clergy were more concerned with money than the church.
- Tithes: Land owners would have to pay a fee proportionate to their output of crops. This money was supposed to be spent on church building maintenance, to help the poor and parish priests. However, this money often ended up in the pockets of Abbots and Bishops.
- Exception from Taxation: Instead of paying direct taxes, the First Estate paid an annual sum to the state which was under 5% of their income. This was often paid by the poorer, parish priests which caused resentment.
- Power over the people: Religion was a huge influence in France. They controlled the hospitals, education and infomed the public on government matters. The church resisted new ideas which therefore made it difficult for make any changes since they had such an important role in the lives of the French people.
The Three Estates: The Second Estate
The Second Estate was made up of the..
- Nobles of the Sword; those who inherired their title, able to track their ancestory and were considered the 'real nobility'.
- Nobles of the Robe; those who bought their way into Nobility through the monarchy's scheme to make more money.
The Nobility also had privileges:
- High ranking positions such as ministers or generals
- Except from certain taxes
- Paid rent and feudal dues from peasants
- Except from military service
- Tried in special courts
- Owned 30% of the land
The Three Estates: The Third Estate
There were three main sections in the Third Estate. These were:
- The Bourgeoise; rich merchants, industrialists, business people. They wanted more involvement with politics considering their placement in the Third Estate.
- The Urban Workers/San Culottes; worked in factories and lived in cramped, unsanitary conditions. Growing frustration due to the rising cost of goods and the falling wages.
- The Peasants; Labourers, sharecroppers, landless labourerers, etc.
The Third Estate were clearly frustrated due to being burdened with:
- Feudal dues
- Being tried in Seigneurial Courts where the Lord was both the judge and the jury.
The Taxation System
The taxation system was poorly structured and ineffecient. The Third Estate paid the most depsite being the poorest while the Second and Third Estate paid the least. Tax collection was also known for it's corruption.
- Taille; a land tax paid by the Third Estates
- Vingtieme; a 5% tax on income paid by the Third Estates
- Captiation; Poll Tax, a tax on the people paid by the Second and Third Estates.
- Gabelle; Salt Tax paid by all Estates
- Aidus; Food and Drink Tax paid by all Estates
- Octois; Tax on entering a town paid by all Estates
Tax Collection: Tax Farming; The Farmer General would pay an agreed some to the state so not all money went to the crown. Tax Officials; known for their corruption and wastage. Due to the system of venality, they could not be dismissed.
The Failure of the Finance Ministers
- Turgot; abolished grain controls but effect was not acknowledged due to coinciding with bad harvests.
- Necker; Borrowed money rather than raising taxes as he had to focus on raising money for the American War of Independence
- Calonne; Borrowed heavily and resumed the practise of selling offices thus undoing much of Necker's work. By 1786, Calonne confronted Louis as he realised that the monarchy were on the verge of bankruptsy and reform was therefore necessary. Calonne was rejected by the Parlements and formed an Assembly of Notables, who, rejected the reforms as they had the most to lose. They advised that the Estates General be consulted.
- Brienne; Presented reforms to the Parlements (single land tax, education, cheaper/more efficient military, abolish venal system etc). They rejected these as the Estates General needed to be consulted. This led to Louis's actions of exiling the Parlements triggering The Revolt of the Nobles.
Calonne's and The Assembly of Notables
Louis and Calonne agreed an Assembly of Notables made up of Princes, High ranking Bishops, Nobility etc. This was because:
- A desperate need for reforms due to the financial crisis of 1786 and failure of the finance ministers
- They thought the Estates General were 'too unpredictable' and would be more complicated to agree to the reforms as they had not met since 1614
- They thought the Assembly of Notables were more likely to agree to the changes considering they had taken in some of the enlightenment ideas so would see the necessity for reform.
The Assembly of Notables rejected the proposed reforms as they had the most to lose from them. They advised that the Estates General should be called.
Louis dismissed Calonne due to his unpopularity and was replaced by Brienne.
The Revolt of the Nobles
The following factors caused the Revolt of the Nobles:
- Louis's actions; did not listen to the Nobles or the Parlements to call the Estates General, mistaken in thinking that the Assembly of Notables would agree, exiling the Parlements triggered the event.
- The ideas of the enlightenment/philosophes; This supported the idea the the King's actions were tyrannical compared with the Parlements who were speaking for the people.
- The risk of the Nobles losing their privileges through reforms added 'fuel to the fire'.
During the Revolt of the Nobles, there were uprisings in the province capitals where the Parlements met and met in unauthorised assemblies to plan action in support of the Parlements. The Clergy joined the revolt as they were angered by the reforms which would lose them their privileges.
Follow revolt, Louis recalled Necker, believing he was the last hope to solve the financial crisis. He said he would only help as long as the Estates General met. The pressure of the Revolt of the Nobles and Necker was a key factor in forcing Louis to call the Estates General.
The Financial Crisis of 1786
The Financial Crisis was caused by the following factors:
- The Taxation System; It was taxing the poorest the most, left an untapped revenue of the Second Estate, and was collected inefficiently and wastefully.
- War; The Seven Years War lost France land to Britain damaging trade and also lost money from cost of war. Out of revenge, France became involved with the American War of Independence which was a further strain on France's finances.
- Expenditure of the Royals; 633.1 million livres spent, 471.1 million livres income.
France couldn't solve the Financial crisis because of the Failure of the Finance Ministers.
The Economic Crisis
France's economy was based on mainly agriculture. There were a series of bad harvests, the worst of which was in 1788 where in Spring; there was heavy rain, and in summer; freak hailstorms resulting in a disasterous harvest. This meant that prices of bread increased rapidly to a stage where people could no longer afford much else. Consequently, other businesses such as wine, struggled as people had less money to spend on it. The bad harvests also led to unemploment and food shortages.
The textile industry also suffered as the Eden Treaty was introduced which allowed imports of goods from Britain.
The bad harvests contributed to food shortages. This led to people attacking grain stores as they were so hungry. People accused Tithes-owners and landowners of hoarding grain, and also blamed the Nobility. This was a short term cause of the revolution as it increased tensions and increased the desire for involvment in Politics.
The Philosophes and the Enlightenment.
The Enlightenment was an interllectual movement of writers and thinker. It challenged the traditional ideas of absolute monarchy, religion and nature. They believed in ideas of liberty; in press, in speech and trade. The main Philosophes were Montesque, Rousseu and Voitaire.
The Enlightenment was a factor in contributing to the revolution because:
- Their ideas of liberty undermined the basis of the ancien regime in France. It questioned the role of the church and it's encouragement to accept man's place on Earth, and the King; as a servant to God/divine right which was what prevented people from questioning him. It encouraged people to challenge and question tradition.
- The American War of Independence meant that French soldiers became exposed to the ideas of liberty and 'no taxation without representation'. They realised that they were fighting for liberty they did not have.