The French Revolution, occurring just on the heels of the American Revolution, is one of the seminal moments of modern civilization. You will often hear it referenced by pundits and columnists with either derision or admiration, depending on where the speaker sits on the political spectrum. Even the use of the terms right and left to describe one’s political identity were born in the French Revolution. The turmoil of this moment, taking place as it did in a powerful nation with enormous cultural influence, would send hundreds of thousands of people to their deaths all across Europe, as well as in France. Its neighbors, fearing a threat to their own power would use all their strength to put it down. A civil war would erupt in France itself. The destabilization within France would give slaves in it’s colony, Saint Domingue - now Haiti - the opportunity to throw off their chains in the only successful slave revolt in human history. Liberalism, democracy, feminism, the abolition of slavery and feudalism, the yearning for a world that treats its poorest citizens with as much dignity as the powerful, all these ideals lived in the hearts of the Revolutionaries who sent their poorest citizens, children and priests to the guillotine. The contradiction is fascinating.
For a long time, the only knowledge I had of it came from 90 minute documentaries covering its most pivotal moments in only a few minutes. But those struck me as leaving out the most interesting elements of social upheaval - the exact how and why of it, all the nuance and detail. By the time they get to the moment of the Revolution eating its own, you’re still left wondering. How does such a powerful country unravel so disastrously and quickly? Why did its idealistic leader, who opposed war and the death penalty send his own childhood friend, a Revolutionary himself, to death along with so many others? What seeds need to be present in a society for it to blossom into so much chaos? I look around my own country today, with homeless encampments in every city, the desperation for reform in healthcare, criminal justice, corruption and political deadlock, and I wonder, are we only a few decades away from falling apart ourselves? To answer that, you’d first need to ask, what are the lives of French people like in the decades leading up to the Revolution? What crisis or series of crises propelled them? By understanding the challenges faced by each segment of the population, and their responses to those challenges, it becomes easier to see how each moment of turmoil fed into the next, culminating in the fall of a king, the Great Terror, and finally the dictatorship of Napoleon who would ride the Revolution’s waves to power and then betray it.
Since the late middle ages, France existed as a hereditary monarchy with a feudal system structured into three orders, or estates: The Clergy, Nobility and the Third estate, with the royalty sitting above them all. The Church of 18th century France owned about 6-7% of the land, allowing it to collect a tithe on the agricultural production of the soil, while still except from any taxes on those earnings. The upper chambers of the Church, such as bishops and abbots also enjoyed lordships in several villages, entitling them to manorial dues from the peasants who worked the land. The power of the monarchy itself was granted by the Church and it depended on donations from it to support the needs of the state. It was responsible for education, official record keeping of birth, death and marriage, and the welfare of the poor. The Clergy even had its own courts.
It is important to keep in mind however, that the clergy still had within it members of the third estate. Those parish priests, monks and nuns would find themselves at odds with conservative members of the clergy whose status in the nobility gave them an interest in supporting the shambling mess that was the ancien regime. So for that reason, it is really more useful to think of France as divided into two classes: the nobility and the commoners.
The nobility represented about 1% of the population on the eve of the French Revolution and owned about 25% of the land. Nobles collected dues from the peasantry in the form of money and labour, and because of their status and influence, the nobility was able to avoid many of the taxes upon which the state depended, shifting the heaviest burden onto the poor.
Because nobility was not entirely closed, there were two distinct classes. The nobility of the sword and the nobility of the robe. The former was hereditary and gained originally through oaths of fealty and military service, while the latter was gained through the purchase venal office. Which was basically any government office, financial, judicial, military or administrative that was purchased rather than inherited or appointed. The practice of purchasing venal office was greatly expanded by the time of Louis XVI’s rule as it was a great way to raise money for the state without increasing taxes, which was often met with a lot of resistance.
There was some tension between the two classes of nobility as older families scorned the new arrivals but by the 18th century the tension between the two had decreased. Older families, pushed into debt and bankruptcy by their idleness, arranged marriages with younger wealthier families for the substantial dowries. Several took an interest in maritime commerce, mining and other industries so profitable to the lower classes.
More liberal nobles were deeply influenced by the ideas of enlightenment thinkers so widely read in that time. Some became Revolutionaries themselves. But marriage, money and lofty ideals could not entirely erase the contempt felt by more conservative nobles who not only lost their status for want of money, but watched this upstart class question the monarchy that had given them so much.
The motivations and grievances of the bourgeoisie are therefore vital to understanding the opening acts of the Revolution. Without a wealthy class who felt its ambitions unfairly constrained by existing structures, the Revolution may never have occurred. While the mobilization of the masses is useful in propaganda, poor people usually lack the financial and political capital to demand widespread change on their own. This was true at least in the initial stages of the Revolution.
As capitalism and imperialism enriched merchants, industrialists, lawyers, doctors, skilled craftsmen and professionals, their low status as members of the Third Estate became increasingly difficult to tolerate. Those with the means to buy their way into the nobility through land and venal office were quick to defend the system into which they had just won favor, but few had the means to follow them.
When Voltaire, Kant, Rousseau, Adam Smith and countless other philosophers, economists and scientists published their books, the people would gather in salons to discuss them. It is no coincidence that so many Revolutions occurred during the Age of Enlightenment. The American, French, Haitian, and South American Revolutions all happened between the 18th and 19th century as people began to question the powers that held them back.
It is not entirely fair then, to say they acted only in self interest. The bourgeoisie was a diverse class, intermixed with the population. They sincerely believed they were creating a better world for humanity. The entire Third Estate believed it.
The masses of France did not act only because the propaganda of the bourgeoisie inspired them, however. They had plenty to be upset about. The vast majority of those at the lowest tier of French society were rural peasants. Some owned small plots of land but most were feudal tenants, sharecroppers or day laborers. This group was responsible for various burdensome taxes owed to the state, feudal dues and church tithes, which the nobility and clergy were exempt from, or able to avoid. Taxes were also paid in the form or service, obligating them to lend carts and equipment for use by the military, and their labor to repair roads.
On top of that, land owned by nobility was increasingly being sold or farmed out to ambitious bourgeoisie who began to enforce taxes and duties that previous noble landlords had forgotten.
Inevitably, the lower class peasantry were deeply resentful of their new landlords. Outside of rural areas, were urban workers. They were merchants, skilled and unskilled workers, artisans, servants, beggars, thieves and prostitutes. All competed for jobs that were scarce and low paying, then came home to cramped tenements without heating or plumbing managed by unscrupulous landlords. It wasn’t rare to find as many as 15 people sharing an apartment.
Those wishing to advance their station by mastering a trade had to navigate the nonsensically restrictive guild system which was still in use before the Revolution. One had to work for several years as an apprentice, without pay, before becoming a journeyman. While one at least had the freedom to choose one’s master and earn wages as a journeymen, few had the ability to advance beyond it. To become a Master often required not only skill but wealth and social status, so one could go their whole life as a journeymen. The guilds themselves had a monopoly on their given trade, stifling innovation and as free trade ideas proliferated in the enlightenment their existence was a constant source of frustration. **sans-culottes!**
Expensive wars, rapid population growth, price inflation, harvest failures and a woefully inefficient agricultural system put intolerable pressure on everyone in France, but especially those in the Third Estate.
All these classes of French society were agitating for change as France faced a financial crisis following its participation in the American Revolution and its losses in the Seven Years War. But it should be remembered that none of these groups were a monolith. There were nobles who joined the Revolution. There were bourgeoisie and peasants who pushed against it. Each class had within it unique individuals who acted on their own set of interests and their own deeply held political and religious beliefs.