Revolution In France

The Ancien Regime (French for Old Order) was the way society was run, in a period in French history occurring before the French Revolution (1789 – 1799). France was ruled by an absolute monarchy (a system where the king was classed as divine – an infallible role) King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. The French society was separated into classes or Estates. The first Estate was the Clergy who were extremely rich. There were about 100,000 of these people. They had control over censorship of the press and of educational institutions Their wealth came from the Roman Catholic Church, which was made up of the upper and lower Estates.

The upper, Bishops and Abbots who had the authority and the lower, Priests and Monks who had a modest income and had no say in church affairs. The Second Estate was the Aristocracy or Nobility, which was made up of about 400,000 people. They owned 20% of all the land in France and paid no taxes. They were very wealthy and enjoyed a carefree life. Their only grievance was the power that the First Estate held. The Second Estate were the men who held positions in the government. They were also exempt from taxes. The special concern of the Second Estate was to see that the King did not introduce tax reform.

They wanted more political power to make sure events like this did not happen. While they denounced the monarchy’s absolutism they wanted to set up their own form of it. The third and largest Estate was made up of the Bourgeoisie (educated and privileged middle class) and the Serfs (peasants). The King and the Aristocracy enjoyed parties, banquets and tax exemptions, while the Bourgeoisie and serfs had to pay heavy taxes. Many of the serfs died from starvation and the living suffered under enormous financial hardships.

The Third Estate had no success in voting because of the differing opinions about the tax system between them and the Second Estate. The Third Estate despised the privileges of the Second Estate and hated the tax system, which involved only themselves, the majority, paying the heavy taxes. There was a huge need amongst the Third Estate, who represented the people’ of France for tax reform. The Second Estate worsened this situation because they were determined not to give up their tax concessions. This was a big problem for Louis and his advisors.

King Louis and his wife Marie Antoinette were running the country into massive debt due to extravagance and ignorance. They needed the revenue that the Third Estate provided and yet the King was eager to have the Second Estate as his allies and did not want to displease them. Louis’s chief financial advisor, Turgot knew that France desperately needed tax reform. The country couldn’t continue to run in deficit, due to the debt that Louis had forced them into, because of Louis’s fear of upsetting the Second Estate. Turgot was forcibly dismissed from court, due to Marie Antoinette’s detest for him.

Neckers became the new financial advisor, and because of what happened to Turgot, Neckers was also fearful of advising any tax reform that would be too radical. Instead, Neckers brought in a loans repayment scheme, which brought France further and further into debt. Louis, being a weak king, recognized the power that the Second Estate had upon him so he did not want to upset them. All, because of the sheer size and beauty of Versailles, could see the overspending of the court. Eventually, the government became bankrupt. Under Louis XIV and Louis XV, France had gone to war several times.

They had not gained any territory and had been humiliated. The worst war was the Seven Years War leaving France economically drained. Louis and Necker’s involvement with the American War against England further worsened the economy and yet they still refused to tax the Second Estate. America was fighting for freedom against the harsh tax system that Britain had enforced upon them. The Bourgeoisie, whom many were soldiers in this war, could see that they were in a similar situation to the Americans, but this tyranny was from within their own country.

The Americans, were fighting for the right of no taxation without representation, the right to bear arms against tyranny, the basic right of freedom that was only for the rich and noble, and that a Republic was superior to a Monarchy. The Bourgeoisies, who were businessmen, philosophers, lawyers and other educated men, began to expand on these new ideas. Any business expansion that occurred in France was met with increased taxes. These taxes were the unhappy responsibility of the Third Estate alone. The Bourgeoisie favoured a uniform tax system.

People like Voltaire and Rousseau and others combined with new theories presented a new idea of a liberal society that thrived with free commerce. This period was called the Age of Enlightenment’. The Bourgeoisie’s ideas were totally in conflict with the Ancien Regime, and the Monarch’s absolute power. The Bourgeoisie believed that the people should have the opportunities of life and commerce through freedom, liberty and intelligence not because of wealth or riches, or just because they were born into nobility. The peasants and serfs of the Third Estate had only contact with the Bourgeoisie who were most often their masters.

The peasants saw the idea of tax reform and equality as the way to the abolition of the seigneurial system, which was their main grievance. This system allowed for greater income disparity in France and a real separation of classes. This often left peasants almost isolated compared to the rest of society. The Bourgeoisie used the relationship to influence and stir up the common people in there grievances with the Ancien Regime. A powerful voice with a brute force behind it began to take form. On June 17th 1788 the Third Estate decided to form the National Assembly to break free on the voting issue.

They decided to disregard the King’s opinion. Louis was alarmed and closed down their meeting hall. The National Assembly responded by going to a Versailles tennis court and swearing, in what is known in history as the “Tennis Court Oath”, that it would not dissolve until it had drafted a constitution for France. At this time, the other Estates had heard of this oath and many of the lower class members of the other Estates decided to join the National Assembly. After this, Absolute Monarchy ended and Constitutional Monarchy began. On July 13th 1789, the Paris Commune was formed (Municipal Council) and the National Guard.

The National Guard was comprised of about 200 men. They were under the command of the Marquis de Lafayette. The units of the guard were responsible to the Municipal Councils. This gave the Bourgeoisie a revolutionary force to use as a militia and police organisation that was designed to settle the rioting of the popular masses. Lafayette tried to protect the constitution from both the King and the mob. On July 14th 1789, a Paris crowd stormed the Bastille. It had long been a symbol of political oppression, for this was where people were sent if they opposed the Ancien Regime.

The storming of the Bastille demonstrated that the capital was in the Revolutionaries hands and the King’s forces were withdrawn. The Paris Commune was established and the National Assembly continued to meet with the realisation that they needed to meet the needs of the masses. The Law of the Lamppost’ was used during this time. Aristocrats, profiteers, government officials and army officers were all hung from lampposts. After this, peasants then continued to storm around 40,000 bastilles. This signified the first use of violence to achieve Revolutionary aims by the peasants.

It also signified the start of Le Grande Peur’ – a period in which the popular masses rose up and attacked the aristocrats and the privileged. This resulted in many aristocrats fleeing and moving to nearby countries leaving their land and possessions in the hands of the peasants. On the night of August 4th 1789, the National Assembly met and the abolition of feudalism was brought about. The members gave up their privileges and looked towards equality. All exemptions from taxation, all feudal dues and tithes, tolls and pensions were abolished.

The Declaration of the Rights of Men’ was issued on August 26th 1789. The purpose of this document was to create equality within France and to abolish the class system that was prevalent in France. This meant that a man could achieve high status despite his parentage. According to the document, all citizens had the right to choose what taxes should be levied and how public revenue should be spent. It also said that you could have a right to freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom from unlawful imprisonment or arrest and religious liberty.

On October 5th 1789, 7000 starving people marched on the court at Versailles to ask the King for some bread. They camped outside the palace. That night some women broke into the palace and attempted to kill Marie Antoinette. She escaped and ran to the King’s room but was untouched because the King was still considered sacred. Lafayette then prevented any bloodshed by promising that the King would return with the mob to Paris. This is where Louis XVI became a virtual prisoner in the Palace of Tuileries. The Ancien Regime had collapsed.

The Bourgeoisie benefited most from the collapse of the Ancien Regime because they seized an opportunity handed to them on a platter. They were the enlightened, educated ones and the action takers. While the King and the First and Second Estates were distracted trying to hold on to the past and their power and money, they underestimated the power of the common people, the peasants. The Third Estate knew that the serfs were starving under the heavy taxes and were discontent under the class system. They also knew that they could tap into the force that the serfs held by being the majority in France.

With the power of majority over minority, they took over France. They promised bread to the starving and had ideas of creating a country where you could achieve high status, which disregarded your parentage. An improved France, free of Absolute Monarchists, Anarchists and Nobility. The other Estates could not rise over them was because they were the minority and did not have the support of the masses that the Bourgeoisie could command. The peasants benefited somewhat with the abolishment of taxes, yet even if they were still starving and lashed out, the Bourgeoisie now had a force to contain them.

The Bourgeoisie formed the National Assembly, a National Guard, a new constitution, the Declaration of Rights to Men, power over the masses, power over the King, the elimination of tax exemptions, elimination of classes, elimination of tolls and pensions, elimination of feudal dues and tithes. The Bourgeoisie had power, had abolished the taxes that they were loathe to pay and had placed themselves in high positions of power to rule France, with the King a virtual prisoner in his own country.

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