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Finances played a central role in causing the French revolution in 1789, as suggested by Peter Burley, “The nations financial collapse led directly to political and social upheaval” Financial factors such as the lack of reform in the inefficient and flawed taxation system, unfair taxation, frivolous expenditure by Kings on costly wars and an over dependence on loans all accumulated and led to the calling of the Estates General in 1789, which in turn lead to the transition of power from an Absolute monarch to the newly formed National Assembly. However, it could also be argued that the origins of the Revolution were socially motivated, influenced by the Enlightenment ideology as well as a sense of resentment from the Third Estate directed towards the Monarchy; it is important to take into account both Marxist and Revisionist interpretations to gain the clearest overview of the French Revolution.
One of the most prominent Revisionist historians, William Doyle championed the theory that financial issues were the driving force behind the revolution, he believed that ‘peasants bore proportionately more of the burden of taxation than any other group’ , implying that France from the periods 1654- 1787 relied upon the taxes provided by the underprivileged third estate, the economic demographic with the least amount to spend, inefficiently relying upon the impoverished Third Estate to fulfil Frances financial needs. This viewpoint is echoed by fellow Revisionist historian, J.Shennan who’s findings revealed, ‘overall 50% of the peasants income went towards indirect taxation such as the tithe, compared to the 10 % taxed on privileged orders. This meant that peasants had little spare cash for improvements or any incentive to experiment with new methods to raise wealth as many lived close to subsistence level’ . This inefficient method of collecting revenue essentially meant that any fiscal wealth was taken in by the wealthy First and Second estates whilst ever mounting pressure was placed upon the poorer Third Estate to cover the financial divide. The financial pressure that the Third Estate was under can be seen in increased inflation of the tithe between 1749-1780. This inefficient method of taxation did lead to social rebellions, such as the “tax revolt” of 1789 ‘in which there were physical attacks against tax collectors as well as a general refusal to pay taxes, both direct and indirect’ . However, this revolt cannot be truly considered revolutionary, at least not in the Marxist interpretation of the word, for whilst the tax revolt of 1789 does show discontent amongst the third estate, it was aimed directly at the taxation system itself rather than the monarchy , in addition the revolt itself was short lived and sporadic, there was no real revolution and the revolt was soon ended not long after it began. This small scale revolt is not a unique event either, during the reign of Louis XIV, a group of starving peasants had attempted to gain access to Versailles during a severe famine in 1709, and yet again the disturbance was quickly quelled and no revolutionary action was taken. It could be said that “when peasants rebelled, their main grievances were usually the increasing weight of taxation ”, yet they themselves were not the driving force behind the revolution as Marxist historians contend. Rather it appeared that the inefficient taxation system before the Revolution gave the aristocracy a newfound opportunity to disagree with and oppose any new tax reforms which may have posed a potential threat to their privileges.
The aristocracy themselves compounded the financial difficulties France was having during the 100 year period, as said by William Doyle ‘the wealthiest and most articulated sections of society, were at the best place to protest against the increasing burden . Examples of the First estates unwillingness to accept these new financial reforms can be seen during the reign of Louis XV when finance minister Jean Baptiste de Machault proposed the Vingtieme a “5% levy on all types of income, regardless of privilege ” however the nobility shirked the reform proposal, stating that it’s “legitimacy could not be upheld on the grounds that France was in Pace time ” as a result of the objections of the nobility the potential 114 million livres the Vingtieme could have netted France, was reduced greatly, “only a paltry 3.65 million livres was gained ”, the nobility would go on to remain exempt from the Vingtieme when it was reintroduced in 1752 and 1756.Even when France was most in need of the First Estates financial help they were often unwilling to compromise their own wealth to alleviate the financial problems there country faced, such as during the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714) which saw a financially wracked Louis XIV usher in two emergency war time taxes the ‘Dixieme’ (1710) and the ‘Capitation’ (1702). Even though these two taxes were successful in doubling Frances direct taxation yield, William Doyle notes that if the First Estate had been more willing to part with their finance then an even greater yield could have been achieved, ‘various attempts to raise money all failed because of a series of disincentive and inefficiencies inherent in the regime’ . It could be argued that the First Estates continued withdrawal from the Frances financial crisis is what forced Calonne to call the Estates General in 1789 and in turn give the representatives of the Third Estate a welcome opportunity to voice their discontent and eventually take action themselves and usher in the Revolution themselves after seeing firsthand the state of their countries finances at the hands of the inefficient King and greedy Aristocracy as described by Revisionist historian J.M Robertson, ‘ the very mention of the Estates General was enough to set France ablaze. It was as if a fraudulent firm, unable to meet its representatives, had been forced at last to lay its affairs before a meeting of its creditors.’ The nobilities continued dismissal of any new financial reform which posed any potential threat to their privileges not only added to the finical crisis France found itself suffering from in 1789 but the problems stemming from the lack of proper reform policies owing to their influence predate the Revolution, suggesting the nobilities role in causing both a long and short term reason for the eventual financial collapse and subsequent French Revolution.
It must also be remembered that the finance ministers during the 100 year context had made little attempt to implement any efficient reform policies, the financial minister in the years directly preceding the revolution, Jacques Necker (1732-1804) did very little to implement new financial reform policies, even though he was in a perfect position to see the impending crisis stemming from the nations inefficient taxation system, and it’s involvement in the war of American independence (1775-1783). In 1781 Necker published a document called the Compte rendu. This document stated that France’s accounts were ‘exceeding expenditure over 10 million livres’ , and this article not only painted a “rosy picture” of how France was being managed financially but it further bolstered Necker’s public image and subsequently raised almost 520 million livres from the Nobilities pocket. However, Necker purposefully left out the extraordinary accounts relating to Frances current involvement in the American War of Independence. Had these expenditures been documented Lenders would have been far less likely to have donated to the continuation of the war and Frances already mounting financial stress could have been alleviated without the added 1’066 million livres of war debt compounding a taxation system already failing to bring in enough revenue to support its country. A similar example of financial issues being ill handled on the part of Frances financial ministers can be seen with John Law (1671-1729) who proposed in 1715 that the only way to save France from its 3 million livre war debts due to Louis XIV’s participation in the War of Spanish succession (1701-1714) was to create a national bank, like those employed in England and Holland at the time in order to better handle large scale borrowing. However, the Bank Royale was a failure because the Mississippi Companie used by Law to finance the bank did not have sufficient money to pay back it’s investors, so when the investors attempted redeem their notes the Missipi Comapnie could not reimburse the investors which eventually lead to its bankruptcy in 1720, which meant that the intended reform policy in fact increased Frances financial problems, as stated by Doyle, “thousands had been ruined by the great financial crash of 1720” .It could therefore be suggested that over the 100 year period France had been burdened with an almost balancing act regarding its finances, with costly war endeavours by the king forcing the finance ministers to react with rash decisions rather implement thorough reform policies, this view is echoed by J. Sheenan who stated , “‘Necker had to work within a political system which didn’t inspire confidence in those with money to invest’ The following finance minster, Colonne (1781-1787)was very insistent on the urgency of the situation, eventually he was allowed to voice his ideas at the Assembly of Notables in 1787, however Colonnes new policies were rejected by the nobility who were still largely under the pretence of Necker’s ‘rosy picture’ of the health of Louis XVI’s finances in the American war of Independence’ making any new reform policies proposed in the subsequent three years seem unnecessary. Burley states that had new, succesful financial reform policies been introduced that “1 billion livres could have been collected for annual revenue without undue strain on the social or economic fabric” . However, due to the lack of any efficient reform policies at the time the overall amount of revenue that was collected was “600 million livres for the total amount of taxation yield ”. It could therefore be inferred that the potential to save France from the revolution lay within the problems facing the financial taxation system, and had Frances finance ministers implemented successful reform policies then France could have been saved from bankruptcy not only in 1789, but also in the years preceding it, such as 1720, however Frances finance ministers did not resolve the problems regarding taxation, such as the fiscal war debts accumulated from 1643-1783, as well as the miniscule amount of revenue that was collected from taxing the Third Estate as well as a general unwillingness to financial reform on the part of the nobility lead to social unrest culminated in the French Revolution of 1789.
Not only did the monarchy worsen Frances financial situation with their expensive foreign policies, dating back to King Louis XIV, who’s participation in the Nine Years War (1688-97) and The War of Spanish Succession (1702-1714) left France with a debt of 50 million livres, but the war debts were only increased by Louis XVI’s subsequent participation in the Seven Years War (1754-1763) and Louis XV’S involvement in the American War of Independence (1775-1783). As a result of these ever mounting war debts on the part of the Kings ill thought out involvements in warfare, “successive kings always spent too much in war ” meant that “massive borrowing had to be undertaken into peace time ”, loans of up to 1250 million livres were taken out in order to fund the war of American Independence, under the guise of the “rosy picture” painted by the Compre Rendu, however the debts were near impossible to pay back due to the financial state of the country, the nobility by the time of 1789 had realised that there lending to the King was not a fiscally sound movement, since there investments could never be repaid due to the Financial crisis, and this loss of trust scuppered the last real chance France had to avert Financial ruin. Had the Kings stayed out of war from the periods 1654-189 then the problems faced by the inefficient taxation system could have been better remedied, however, there unwise involvement only helped to hasten the financial chasm France was approaching and the subsequent calling of the Estates General in 1789 which culminated in the French Revolution. The monarchy also did relatively little to reform the taxation system. According to Doyle, ‘if the old regime failed to reform itself, this was in large measure the fault of Louis XIV, Louis XV and Louis XVI’ . A clear example of this was the revocation of the Droit De Remonstrance in 1720. The Droit De Remonstrance was an act that allowed Parliament the right to challenge any Royal Edict that the King may try to pass. Louis XIV, who’s greatest fear was a repeat of the Frondes was keen to limit any challenge parliament posed to him, and so in 1673 he removed the Droit De Remonstrance altogether. Ironically, when Duc D’Orleans (1747-93) succeeded he reinstated parliament’s right to protest any new legislation the King attempted to pass meant that they impeded any reform attempts that could have been made, this can be seen when parliament rejected then Controller general Joseph Marie Terray’s 1771 plans to tax land owners. Terray recognised that a general increase in tax would be unfair “since the inequality in the present assessments would grow even more” , instead Terray planned to “know the true product of the property subject to the tax” . The potential for strong reforms to the taxation problems could be found in Terray’s land taxation policies, but the word of the nobility lead to them being abolished in 1771. This once again shows how the nobility’s attitudes negatively affected Frances financial issues, halting “the government’s most drastic move since the days of John Law ”. However, it was the actions of the Nobility, who were so unwilling to have their privileges challenged that they continually refuted any of the few attempts made by Frances finance ministers to help Frances financial crisis which ultimately lead to the Revolution of 1789.
There is an alternative view of the French that the origin of the French Revolution lies not in financial problems but a social revolt against an oppressive and exploitive monarchy. One of the champions of the Marxist historians is George Leferbve who argues that the Enlightenment was the ‘catalyst for the common man learning of his exploitation and rising against it’ . Certainly, many noted historical figures of the Revolution such as Robespierre, Danton and Marat were inspired by the Enlightenment and its policies. However, there are problems with the Marxist interpretation.
Firstly, it is often stated that the Enlightenment was a period of intellectual change started by English author John Locke whose works on the deposing of James V by his own subjects were subsequently echoed by French philosophes as a rally to arms. However, research by Revisionist historian Barbara Day Hickson suggests that the majority of Frances population was illiterate, “only half of the men and a quarter of French women could spell their own names , which meant that the coffee shop meetings, slanderous pamphlets and the work of Murat’s “Grub Street” would have had little effect on the majority of French citizens. Alternatively, it could be suggested that because of the uneducated Third Estates inability to understand the new publications they were susceptible to being mislead by the educated few who had a grievance with the Monarchy, as summed by Townson, ‘the literate classes were influencing the ordinary people’ . This can be seen as evidence against the Marxist view that it was the Third Estate who were the leaders of the Revolution, rather they were simply the mass of the country being influenced by the more intellectual minority, as Doyle states “peasants were completely passive observers of what was happening and those involved in the political struggle of pre-revolutionary years gave little thought to them ’
When looking at the revolution over a 100 year context there are certain events which serve to further cast doubt upon the relevance of the Marxist interpretation of the causes of the Revolution. For example, from the 17th July to the 3rd of August 1789 there were a large number of peasant revolts in the countryside of France, this period became known as the Great Fear. The fear of famine sparked a large number of peasants to arm themselves and attack Manor Houses, Tax Collectors and Country Estates. The reason behind this was because of the Feudal System which ordered the impoverished peasants to pay large sums of tax annually, now due to the famine leaving many of the Third Estate starving there were revolts against the wealthy who demanded the taxes from the peasantry. Not only does The Great Fear demonstrate that financial difficulties were a major cause of revolution as opposed to some sudden social realisation of a war between the classes, but the revolting peasants themselves threatened to destroy all of the work that The National Assembly put into place, so on August 4th the August Decrees were passed which freed the peasantry from any Feudal obligations. This can be seen as an example of The National Assembly employing a counter revolutionary tactic, stopping the people that they professed to be revolutionising in favour of from tearing down the regime that were attempting to rise against. As stated by William Doyle, ‘peasants were completely passive observers of what was happening and those involved in the political struggle of pre-revolutionary years gave little thought to them’ which shows that peasants, as representatives of the Third Estate, instead of being outspoken revolutionaries fighting against the bondage of the upper class as the Marxist theory would contend, the peasants at the time had little influence in the actual diminishing of the Absolutist monarchy in France. Instead, the peasantry only began to have a marked impact some time after the revolution was already underway,
Another often cited Marxist belief is that a newly emerging Bourgeoisie were the spear head of the French Revolution, rising from being the upper class of the lowest rung of French society to overthrow the oppressive upper Estates and improve Society in favour of the needs of the many, spurred on by the words of the Enlightened Philosophes. New evidence, however, suggests that many of the often cited philosophes responsible for the Revolution, such as Montesquieu were in fact members of the Third Estate themselves, as were members of Bourgeoisie Elite, work by Cobban shows that ‘43% of the Bourgeois elite were not only lawyers, but petty office holders and government servants’ . This new evidence could be used to infer that in actuality the often toted image of the ‘revolutionary Philosophes and Bourgeoisie’ is false, rather, it was an attempt to simply replace their pre existing peers and seize there assets and continue the Constitutional monarchy. As stated by Doyle’ “the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie had far more in common than they did to divide them. If there was a “rising bourgeoisie” they were rising into the ranks of the aristocracy itself either through marriage or the purchase of royal office” implying that the Marxist ideology of the newly emerging revolutionaries abandoning the capitalist ways of their predecessors in favour of a new communist regime may be false, rather, the political upheaval at the time gave such elites the opportunity to rise rank and seize control of the capitalist regime for themselves.
It is also important to note that whist the peasantry revolts which took place during the Great Fear were severe, they were not a unique event. There had been riots prior to the Revolution, such as the ‘flour war’ in 1755 and the tax revolt of 1789, the same year the Revolution and Great Fear began, yet none of these earlier uprisings resulted in a social revolution as Marxist historians would insist happened in the case of the French Revolution. Instead, it could be suggested that the reason for this is because these previous riots did not coincide with the Calling of the Estates General. Whilst it is important to understand that certainly there had been discontent with the Monarchy for a long while preceding the French Revolution, as evidenced by the slanderous Pamphlets of Grub Street, the sporadic peasantry revolts there is by no means enough evidence to suggest that the Revolution itself was a solely social endeavour, as stated by Daniel Moerner, “the Enlightenment posed no serious threat to the older order until that order had already begun to collapse for other reasons” .
Regarding the Revisionist interpretation of the French Revolution, it is clear that finances were the key factor in instigating the French Revolution, as stated by Peter Burley, ‘the nation’s financial collapse led directly to political and social upheaval’ . This quote is echoed by historical chronology, the long term issues posed by the inefficient structure of the taxation system created a major problem which was only further exacerbated by a general lack of reform policies which were only further compounded by costly war expenses. The reliance on the poverty stricken third estate to compensate for the lack of proper taxation yield increased the financial burden on the impoverished Third Estate to near unbearable levels. The nobility were also a hindrance, since there opposition of any new tax reform policies meant that France missed vital opportunities to save itself from its financial strife. As a result, these issues lead to the calling of the Estates General in 1589, which then subsequently opened the floodgates for revolution based upon the financial crisis.