The Origins of the French Revolution
What are the various movements in the opening phase of the revolution?
Georges Lefebvre saw in the years 1787-9 not one revolutionary movement but four. First came the revolution of the aristocracy, which sought to defend its privileges and even extend them. Through the Parlements and the Assembly of Notables, it resisted attempts by the Crown to reduce its taxation privileges. It was the aristocracy who demanded the calling of the Estates-General and it was this what led to the second revolution, that of the bourgeoisie. The bourgeoisie had supported the aristocracy and its opposition to ...view middle of the document...
Meanwhile, a fourth revolution, that of the peasants, was taking place. This had begun in the spring of 1789 and sought the abolition of seigneurial dues and labour services. Like the popular revolt, the peasant revolution resulted from the economic crisis and the bad harvest of 1788.
2) The Financial Crisis.
What was the nature and extent of the financial crisis?
The most important of the immediate causes of the French Revolution was the financial deficit that was being amassed by the state. On 20 August 1786, Calonne, the Controller-General, told Louis XVI that the government was on the verge of bankruptcy. Revenue for 1786 would be 475 million livres, while expenditure would be 587 million livres, making a deficit of 112 million, almost a quarter of the total income. A much more detailed and alarming picture of the situation is provided in the Treasury Account of 1788, which has been called the first and the last budget of the monarchy. The Account reveals that in 1788 Government expenditure totalled more than 629 livres, against an income of 503 million livres. The deficit had increased in two years to 126 million – 20 per cent of total expenditure. Out of total expenditure, the government allocated 12 million (under 2 per cent of the total) to public education and poor relief, 165 million (26 per cent of the total) to the military, but the debt obligation consumed a massive 318 million livres (over 50 per cent of the budget).
It was anticipated that for 1789, receipts would amount to only 325 million livres and that interest payment on the deficit would amount to 62 per cent of the receipts.
Why was there a deficit and a financial crisis in France? Two factors are significant in helping to explain this. Firstly, between 1740 and 1783, France was at war for 20 years, first in the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-48), then the Seven Years War (1756-63) and finally the American War of Independence (1778-83). It has been estimated that the cost of helping the American colonists defeat the British government was approximately 1066 million livres. This was mainly financed by loans, and in itself did not necessarily lead to revolution. Britain was also heavily in debt and her tax burden per head was three times heavier than in France. The difference was that in Britain Parliament guaranteed loans, whereas in France there was no such representative body to give confidence to lenders.
Secondly, the Crown was not receiving much of the money collected in taxes, and until it recovered control of its finances, no basic reforms could be carried out. The privileged classes, whose incomes from property had increased, were an untapped source of revenue which the crown needed to access. There would be powerful resistance to any change in the taxation structure from those with a vested interest in retaining the status quo.
3) The Aristocratic Revolt.
Why did the French aristocracy revolt? How serious was the opposition?