Tuesday, July 14, 2009
Background Factors: Examination of the French Revolution (in English)
“The only thing that one really knows about human nature is that it changes. Change is the one quality we can predicate of it. The systems that fail are those that rely on the permanency of human nature, and not on its growth and development. The error of Louis XIV was that he thought human nature would always be the same. The result of his error was the French Revolution. It was an admirable result.”
— Oscar Wilde (1854-1900), Irish Poet, Novelist, Dramatist and Critic
The French Revolution, started in 1789, produced a dramatic change in the European landscape. It was a capstone to a trend that had previously affected Britain and was a foreshadowing of a trend that would sweep through the competing European Empires over the next century. This revolution in France was to become the model used by Lenin for the Russian Revolution in 1917. France was about to release chaos onto the European stage.
“We need the real, nation-wide terror which reinvigorates the country and through which the Great French Revolution achieved glory”
— Vladimir Lenin (1870-1924) Russian Founder of the Russian Communist Party & leader of the Russian Revolution of 1917
Let’s take a closer look at what triggered these changes to the French nation in 1789 through 1795…
The Historical Context
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way — in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”
— Charles Dickens
The upheaval in England that had occurred during the Commonwealth period (1653-1659) under Oliver Cromwell had deposed King Charles I and thrown England into Civil War. During this period, England was a republic; when the new King, Charles II, was returned to the throne in 1660, England became a Constitutional Monarchy in which the King was given a sphere of influence while the Parliament was responsible for many of the common functions of government. These changes caused fear throughout the European Absolute Monarchies, such as that which existed in France during the late eighteenth century. In the latter forms of government, the King exerted absolute control over not only the people, but also the clergy and nobility. Such was the realities in France at the time of the Revolution.
In addition to the Civil War in England, England was also involved with a set of thirteen colonies on the Eastern coast of the American continent. These colonies, in the mid-1770s, arose against the power of the British Empire. This insurrection, the American Revolution or 1776, saw the colonists resisting the oversight of both the British Parliament and the British Monarchy in the person of King George III. This resistance was precipitated as a response of excessive taxation and embodied in the Declaration of Independence. The new American nation fought the Revolutionary War against the British for their independence. This insurrection manifested itself a mere dozen years before the unrest appeared in France. The spirit of this revolution of this revolution was embodied in the philosophy of the ‘Enlightenment’ in England and France; it was also carried to Paris by the representatives of this new nation by Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Thomas Paine.
These revolutionaries mixed freely within the solons of the elite of Paris. The ideas of these American rebels, along with those of the French ‘Enlightenment’ philosophers like Voltaire, Rousseau and Montesquieu, stirred new, egalitarian ideas among French society. King Louis XVI should have been aware of these ideas, but appeared to be sheltered by his court from the realities of life outside of the Palace. Like the English, the ‘Seven Years War’ had depleted the French treasury, but the King and his court continued to live out their lavish lifestyle while the people suffered. This set the stage for conflict.
Conditions of the French People at the time of the Revolution
Society in France during the eighteenth century consisted of an absolute Monarch, King Louis XVI, and three groups within the rest of the nation. These were the clergy, the ‘First Estate,’ the nobility, the ‘Second Estate,’ and the rest of the population, the ‘Third Estate.’ The lands of the Catholic Church, the clergy, and the nobility were held in a special status and remained untaxed. Therefore, when the King demanded that taxes be raised to help replenish the treasury, he was, in effect, calling for a tax on the common people, the ‘Third Estate.’ However, these are the people already taxed by not only the government, but by the church (in the form of the ‘dime’ or tithe). Furthermore, they were held in subservient positions and had only limited wealth; the property of the church and the châteaux of the nobility were exempt from these taxes. The situation was oppressive and the people were at their limit. Although they did not have the voice that their American predecessors had, they were being ‘taxation without representation!’
The situation was made worse by a famine that had affected the land for many years. It was not known whether this famine was due to the ‘Little Ice Age’ or by the ‘El Niño’ produced by the eruption of the Icelandic volcano, Mt. Laki, in 1783. In any case, crops were failing, the people were starving, and the people were dying of malnutrition. While this was occurring, the other estates and the court were eating well and apparently unaware of the plight of the ‘Third Estate.’ This put the people on a collision path with the ruling classes and the crown. Added to this was the increasing awareness amongst the ‘Second Estate’ of the philosophy of the ‘Enlightenment,’ especially from the French Philosophers: Voltaire, Rousseau, and Montesquieu. Their ideas of the rights of the people, the virtues of a republican form of government, and the separation of powers within the government created an undercurrent among the solon crowd. The charges were laid, the sides were set, and it would only take a match to set off this powder keg.
“The famous line about the French king was that he didn't even know what was going on. He said: 'Is it a revolt?' And the other guy said: 'No, it's a revolution.' The king was thinking it was nothing.”
— Luc Besson, (French film director and filmmaker)
The real question was: How will the French government handle this crisis. That was soon answered…
The Estates-General and National Assembly
Finally, the King was forced to do something. He needed money to maintain his lifestyle and support his many military endeavors. His Minister of the Treasury, Jacques Necker, proposed raising taxes, and removing the tax exemptions from the clergy (the ‘First Estate’) and the nobility (the ‘Second Estate’). This would help address the current problem at the expense of the privileged classes. The King called for a meeting of a set of representatives to meet as a quasi-parliament, the Estates-General, in 1788. [It is interesting that this was only one year after the Americans meet in the Constitutional Convention.] The formation of the Estates-General made an initial change in the monarchy — it was no longer an absolute Monarchy!
A meeting of representatives was scheduled for May, 1789, in Paris. The representatives were elected and then the ‘fun’ began: How to structure the operations of the parliament? Two options were available. The first, favored by the ‘First’ and ‘Second’ Estates, was to vote by Estate, with each having a single vote; this would have guaranteed that the ‘Third Estate’ could not hope to win any votes. The second, favored by the ‘Third Estate,’ was to have each representative be given a single vote, and to vote ‘by head.’ This would provide a chance for the people to get some of their proposals through the parliament. The groups debated these issues until the frustrated ‘Third Estate’ decided, in June, 1789, to form a National Assembly and invited members of the other two estates to join them. This was, in fact, a move to reject the Monarchy and ‘go it alone.’
When this National Assembly tried to meet in the conference hall, they were threatened with a lock-out. They changed their venue to a public tennis court and forced all delegates to swear the ‘Tennis Court Oath.’ From this point, the situation grew progressively more out of hand. When the King and his family retreated to his Palace of Versailles with his personal elite guard unit, this was perceived as a ‘hostile’ action. When the Minister of the Treasury, Jacques Necker, was dismissed, it was perceived as a further effort of the King to back away from listening to the will of the people. The fuse was set and the whole situation was ready to explode.
And where would this explosion be set off? At the fourteenth century fortress in the middle of Paris: the Bastille. This fortification was used as a prison, a keep for weapons (especially gunpowder), and as a billet for soldiers. After the above events cascaded out of control, the people gathered in the streets of Paris and surround the Bastille. The standoff continued for most of the day, but the soldiers finally lowered the drawbridge and surrendered to the people. These soldiers were dragged through the streets of Paris, the seven prisoners were set free, and the gunpowder was confiscated by the people. The revolution was ‘ON.’ The power of the King was broken.
On that special day long ago, the 14th of July, broke the power of tyranny and set the course of the French nation towards a republican form of government. The journey was not smooth and it had its ups and downs. These we will examine in the coming posts…
Next Time: The French Revolution was not a singular event, but a series of events. To create a new government, the people suffered through the ‘Reign of Terror’ and the use of the guillotine to execute the King, his nobility, and even some of the revolutionaries themselves. We shall explore these topics and more in the coming posts. Join us in this adventure…