Critical Essays The French Revolution


When Louis XVI became King of France in 1775, he inherited a country with economic distress, social unrest, a debauched court, and problems with the nobility and parlement (the courts of justice). The inheritance was fatal. At the time, the aristocracy was living on borrowed money and the labors of the lower classes. The middle class was becoming wealthy from its trade, manufacturing, banking, and contracting. The lower middle class consisted of tradesmen and laborers, with a few government officials.

The king, only twenty, was inexperienced and easily influenced, and he soon tired of his country's problems. He was a shy man who was often indecisive and narrow-minded; he usually depended on his ministers for advice but frequently would reverse their decisions and decide matters for himself, simply because he wanted to show his authority. He sincerely believed that he ruled by the will of God, by the Divine Right of Kings.

The court was in debt and in dire need of money because of years of royal extravagance, financial deficits, and two wars. In order to cope with these problems, Louis reinstated the parlements, which were made up of aristocrats; he hoped that they could solve his problems. Although the lower classes were suffering, the magistrates in the parlements believed that reforms to help the lower classes were unnecessary. They thought that the lower classes needed no social reforms and that such people were born to bear the burdens of taxation. In contrast, members of the nobility, because of their birth into the upper class, or Second Estate, were exempt from any taxation. Not surprisingly, therefore, the parlements passed numerous laws favoring the aristocracy.

The parlements next asked Louis to return French rule to the Estates-General (a body that had not met since 1614), and eventually Louis gave in. Three legal status groups, or Estates, comprised the Estates-General — called simply, the First, Second, and Third Estates. In the First Estate were the clergy, usually the younger sons of the nobility. The Second Estate comprised the nobility, while the Third Estate included members of the working classes, plus some well-to-do merchants and professional men such as lawyers, doctors, and members of the minor clergy. Under the rule of the Estates-General, only the nobility could hold public office, high ranks in the military, important posts in the government, or sit in parlements.

The commoners of France, overjoyed when Louis established the Estates-General, soon became disappointed. Initially, they thought that they would have their "own"Estate and, thus, a voice in government policy-making They quickly realized, however, that they possessed no real power. Organizing the new Estates-General on the same principle of the 1614 concept meant one vote for each member of the Estates. Thus, the clergy and the aristocracy could easily out-vote the Third Estate, two to one, which they did repeatedly.

Political problems increased, and food riots broke out due to food shortages. Rainstorms and hail ruined the crops of 1788, leaving people hungry. Paris, in particular, was a crowded, densely populated city of poor people. The masses had no jobs and no money. They began burning and looting the countryside, and even common soldiers began talking against their aristocratic officers. Political pamphlets aggravated the situation by demanding that the Third Estate have a stronger voice in the government.

By the middle of June 1788, poor parish priests who belonged to the First Estate began to desert their political base and join the Third Estate. As a result, the Third Estate recognized that it was the only Estate elected by "the people."They declared themselves "the National Assembly,"and immediately banned taxes.

This declaration placed Louis in an uncomfortable and difficult position. Recognizing the legitimacy of the National Assembly would mean surrendering his power, but not recognizing it might drive the Third Estate to even greater rebellion. Unfortunately, he chose to listen to Jacques Necker, his Minister of Finance, and to his queen, Marie Antoinette, and decided to oppose the National Assembly. He closed the chambers where the Assembly was to convene, but the Assembly immediately moved to an indoor tennis court. Despite the confusion, the Assembly took an oath not to disband until they had a constitution, and they openly defied the king. They would have a constitution.

Three days later, Louis vetoed the legitimacy of the National Assembly and ordered the Estates-General to return to their traditional system or he would dismiss them. When he left, the Second and most of the First Estate followed him out. The Third Estate remained, and one of them, Mirabeau, shouted that the Third Estate would leave the assembly hall "only at the point of a bayonet!"Louis could not bring himself to use force against the Estate because so many clergymen and liberal noblemen had joined them. In a dramatic move, they defied the King and won. The Revolution had begun.

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