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The Age of Revolutions

The French Revolution:
An interpretation

Keith Tankard
The Time Traveller
Updated: 14 December 2009
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Towards the end of the 18th century two major revolutions were to rock the modern world. The first was in America where the colonists rose up in revolt against British rule. The second was in France as members of the bourgeoisie rose up in revolt against King Louis XVI.

The French Revolution is a highly controversial affair because, for the first time, Marxist historians become rather eloquent. They claim that this revolt was a "Revolution of the Bourgeoisie", the first of such which would then pave the way for a greater revolution, the "Revolution of the Proletariate". We must consider the truth of this claim.


Before we deal with the French Revolution, it is first necessary to consider the century of so which preceded it, commonly called "The Age of the Enlightenment". The"Little Ice Age" (which started in the 14th century) disappeared towards the middle of the 17th century, taking with it the accompanying madness. Europe at last came to its senses, stopped killing witches and began to put religion into real perspective.

The "politiques" had ushered in a system of Absolute Monarchy, kings and queens who held absolute power within their states by divine authority. Their philosophy also dictated that these absolute monarchs should also be "enlightened", i.e. should rule according to the norms of the "Enlightenment".

The emphasis was on reason and government for the good of the people. The ruler should not be a tyrant but should be one who understood his people, and governed sensibly.

Examples of such "Enlightened Despots" include Frederick the Great of Prussia, Joseph II of Austria and Catherine II of Russia, although the latter was really "enlightened" in name only.

Such wisdom, however, naturally ushered in new political philosophies which began to see that the monarchies should in fact become constitutional. It was all very well for an "Enlightened Despot" to rule well but what would happen if he or she was simply a despot? Surely there should be some control? And this control could only come about if the monarch issued a constitution and ruled accordingly.

The new philosophy evolved particularly in France, where its spokesmen were called philosophes. There were many: Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, the Encyclopedists, to name but a few. They differed considerably in emphasis.

Some merely wanted control to devolve on the wealthier bourgeoisie, some wanted total democracy, some wanted the scrapping of the monarchy altogether and the establishment of republics. Such thought would evolve for over a century and would ultimately become the basis for the French Revolution.


School text-books usually argue that the French Revolution occurred because of the major class differences in France. There existed three classes, the text-books postulate, namely the 1st Estate (Clergy), 2nd Estate (Nobility) and the 3rd Estate (Bourgeoisie and the other plebs).

Unequal taxation meant that the peasants and labourers had to pay some 80% of the taxes by means of such things as the taille, gabelle, tithe, corvee, etc.

Other abuses led to serious tension in France which was fostered by the works of the philosophes of the Age of Enlightenment. Then, with bad harvests in 1788 and 1789, and inspired by the success of the American Revolution, the 3rd Estate eventually took matters into its own hands and revolted.

It's a very simple plan and makes for easy learning but it really contains too many flaws to allow it to work. Why, for instance, did the Revolution happen in France and not in other European countries where conditions were far worse? There were no serfs in France whereas in Russia some 90% of the population were serfs.

Secondly, up until 1789 there was no serious revolutionary agitation. Indeed, King Louis XVI was held in high esteem by most of the population and almost nobody then would have regarded him as a traitor to the nation and fit to be executed. Nor were there many who remotely contemplated the concept of a republic without the Bourbon monarch at its head.

No, the reason for the French Revolution therefore needs to be sought elsewhere, namely in the economic decline of the Bourbon Government.


France was one of the most developed and prosperous states of Europe. The Bourbon kings, from the time of Henry IV, had ensured that feudal authority was stamped out in so far as it endangered the state. Louis XIV had turned the feudal nobility from being opponents of government to fops who lived debauched lives at the Court of Versailles.

Traditionally the Bourbons had been allies of the bourgeoisie and had fostered trade and industry. Serfdom was non-existent and, although many of the peasants were poor, they were nevertheless better off than in most countries in Europe.

Education, mostly in the hands of the Church, was fairly widespread and a broad base of the bourgeoisie were indeed literate, and enjoyed the works of the French philosophes of the Enlightenment.

On the other hand, bad fiscal policy had ensured that the French government was on the verge of bankruptcy. France, indeed, was in the peculiar position of being a wealthy nation whose government was bankrupt. The reason was that Louis XIV and XV had squandered the treasury on a series of profitless wars which meant that Louis XVI inherited a legacy of debt.

Although France's debt was not as great as other European countries, such as England and Holland, unequal taxation made it impossible to syphon the country's wealth into the state treasury. The people who had the wealth, namely the Upper Clergy and the Nobility, were largely exempt from most taxation.

Even the wealthy bourgeoisie could buy exemptions from much of it. When one considers that 80% of the taxation was indeed paid by the peasants and labourers, it can be supposed that very little taxation was actually being paid.

It was quite clear to Louis XVI that reform was necessary and his 20 years as King were spent in attempting such financial reform to bring about an equitable form of taxation. His efforts, and those of his Finance Ministers, especially Necker and Colonne, were thwarted, however, by the nobility, especially those in control of the Parlement or High Court of Paris, whose task was to oversee the French constitution and who claimed that the King could only bring about fiscal reform through the legitimate constitutional process, namely convocation of the Estates General.


School texts often argue that the 3rd Estate consisted of everyone who did not belong to the other two estates, therefore including peasants. This is clearly incorrect. The 3rd Estate actually consisted solely of the Bourgeoisie, although by 1789 this group was being augmented by some of the Petite Bourgeoisie, such as lawyers.

Although the Estates General had existed purely as an advisory body, with no power to rule (unlike the British parliamentary system of two houses with constitutional powers over the king), the fact that it had not met for over 150 years did tend to blind the nobility of 1789 to the realities of the situation.

The Estates General was the official route of government in France and it provided representation of the Estates in three Houses, namely the 1st Estate (Upper Clergy), 2nd Estate (Aristocracy) and 3rd Estate (Bourgeoisie), each with 300 delegates.

Traditionally the houses met separately and voted as houses, which meant that the Clergy and Nobility could outvote the 3rd Estate by two houses to one (a "winner-takes-all" system of voting in each house).

The nobility, in fact, were attempting to bring about a revolution of their own. By forcing the King into calling a meeting of the Estates General, it was hoped that they, like the British, could force a constitution on the King and so roll back the two century autocratic advance of the Bourbons at their expense.

The King in turn was fully aware of their scheme and so stubbornly resisted it until it was clear that France's economic woes were so severe that they had to be addressed.

It was apparent that some form of a revolution was about to take place and in 1789, when Louis eventually bowed to the wishes of the noblemen by convoking the Estates General, it seemed certain that the revolution would happen painlessly and speedily.

Louis would have to forego some power but in return he would be able to gain the much needed revenue to re-engender life in the government. In turn, if he could negotiate the Estates General shrewdly enough and ally himself with the Bourgeoisie, as the Bourbons had traditionally done, he could rid himself of the threat of Noble Hegemony over the Crown once and for all.

A wise and resolute King, such as Henry IV, could have survived the revolution with ease. Indeed, it was the popular belief that Louis XVI was such a wise and resolute King. He was immensely popular and rumours in certain quarters had it that he was actually the reincarnation of Henry IV. What then went wrong?


Basically Louis needed to be strong and decisive. The country was looking for firm leadership and not democracy. The major philosophy of the day was Liberty, i.e. laissez faire or free trade, to allow the country to prosper by means of invoking a realistic economic system.

The main advocates of this system were obviously the bourgeoisie who looked to Louis for support. The other two philosophies of Equality (advocated by the democrats) and Fraternity (the rally-cry of the socialists) were supported by the more radical left.

Louis, however, proved to be indecisive. When the Estates General met, the 3rd Estate demanded that they vote by numbers and not by houses. That would mean that they would pick up substantial minority support from members of the other two estates and a new constitution would be drawn up but the king balked at the idea and closed down the meeting of the 3rd Estate.

The action invited defiance and it came with the famous Tennis Court Oath by which the 3rd Estate proclaimed itself the National Assembly and vowed not to disband until it had given France a new constitution.

Louis had two options: to suppress the movement by force or accept the decision as inevitable. He briefly attempted the first, then got cold feet and was thereupon compelled to comply with the second and lose face.


In actual fact, the revolution was now over. France soon gained a new constitution and became a constitutional monarchy. Louis was still King, although his wings were somewhat clipped. He, however, attempted to escape, was caught and became a prisoner.

His family connections in Austria tried to rescue him (remember that his wife, Marie Antoinette, was the daughter of the Austrian Emperor) and France became embroiled in the so-called Revolutionary Wars.

As the "Revolutionary War" continued to go ill for France, so scape-goats had to be found. The first was the King and Queen who were tried for treason and were executed (by a majority of a single vote). Thereupon the government fell increasingly into the hands of the radicals. The "Reign of Terror" had begun.

The slide into chaos was eventually only halted by Napoleon Bonaparte who did what Louis should have done in the first place, i.e. show resolution in maintaining his authority. He quickly put down the opposition, gave France a decisive victory over Austria and then turned his attention to reforming France. Indeed, his reforms were both sweeping and lasting.

Unfortunately, Napoleon was primarily a soldier and saw the opportunity to win renown for France on the battle-field and through the complete subjection of the major powers of Europe.

His attempts were initially successful but caused France to suffer heavily both economically and physically, and most of the gains from the revolution were undone. By 1815 the monarchy had been restored, the revolutionary constitution torn up, and France was virtually bankrupt and without an army.

It may be argued, therefore, that the French Revolution was in many ways a tragedy for France. It attempted to speed up what would have evolved naturally. In doing so, however, the Revolution put back the constitutional evolution by many decades.

Furthermore, the repercussion across Europe would usher in a period of militancy which in turn would lead to the two world wars, as well as give teeth to the rather quaint philosophy called communism.

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