The French Revolution was chiefly the result of social and economic conditions of the time. To appreciate its origin and progress it is necessary to review the developments that led to it over a long period.
During the Middle Ages, the twelfth to the fifteenth centuries, the Church had transformed the barbarians of the Dark Ages into civilised Europeans, Society became divided into four chief classes: the Clergy, representing religion and the authority of the Church; the Nobility, who were professional warriors and local rulers, maintained by the peasantry, with their feudal, rights, their castles, and amusements; the Peasantry, tillers of the soil, freemen or serfs, relatively poor and ignorant; and lastly, the Bourgeoisie, tow dwellers, burghers, who comprised the merchants, guildsmen, artisans, and professional men generally.
The Holy Roman. Empire maintained a loose unity in Europe, though national kingdoms, such as France, England and Spain, existed in strength; the power of Governments was accepted as representing the authority of God over the people.
Trade had been mostly by barter, but with the adoption of money for exchange, commerce had grown, how-ever, it was restricted by the prohibition of interest, price-fixing by the guilds, and the fixed tenancy of the peasants. By the fifteenth century, following the revival of principles of Roman law, these restrictions were removed, and land-capitalism and money-capitalism had come in, with the strengthening of absolute monarchies and autocracy. The landlords became employers of labour and moneylending was a lawful occupation.
The explorations of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries served to change the medieval system of trade immensely. Trade outside Europe, with Asia and India, had been controlled by Italy, for it came through the Arabian Peninsula and the Mediterranean Sea; the Portuguese, Spanish and English sought to have their share by seeking new trade routes.
In 1488, Bartholomew Diaz, a Portuguese, went round the Cape of Good Hope at the extreme of South Africa, to the Indian Ocean; in 1497, Vasco da Gama went on the same route to India, and others sailed as far as the Spice Islands and China.
Spain sent Columbus to look for a way to India in 1492, and he crossed the Atlantic to find America. Henry VII of England sent the Italian, John Cabot, on a voyage in 1497, which also ended in America, and two years later, the Italian, Amerigo Vespuccil landed in Brazil.
In 1519, the Spaniard, Magellan, travelled around South America, across the Pacific to the Philippine Islands, where he was killed; one of his ships made the voyage home by the north of Australia and the Cape of Good Hope.
England did not enter into the trade opened up by these new routes for the present, but France and Holland took an active interest in Africa, India, and America, to the detriment of Italian commerce. Europe’s influence expanded with her trade; and as trade grew, manufactures began to be transported, with the consequent increase of wealth in Europe. More trade meant more money and more moneylending, with greater use of gold from the new worlds .and of paper money to represent it. Joint stock companies arose, demanding profits, free use of property, bargaining for prices and control of management; thus, the middle class became powerful. Money was power, and the bankers, merchants and businessmen had become as strong as the nobles. These, as absentee landlords, sought for more money from the peasants, and by taking over the rights of common lands forced the peasants to become labourers on hire, increasing industry and weakening the guild system. But the competition for power by the bourgeoisie secured their wish for a share in the government beyond what they had ever held before.
Rulers began to resist the influence of the Church. There was only one faith, but its economic laws were a restraint upon the wealthy. Advance in knowledge, of science, astronomy, geography and medicine, coupled with the growth of wealth among the few and big land possessions of the Church, as well as some scandals among the clergy, led to the questioning of the doctrines of the Church and the suspicion of the old ideas and institutions.
In the sixteenth century, northern Europe was separated from the Church. Luther, Henry VIII and Calvin brought in the sects which spread scepticism of all teaching, and opened the why for the Deists and rationalism. Calvin was a Frenchman, with about three per cent of Frenchmen following his ideas; they were mostly of the middle class, opposed to absolute monarchy, as they sought popular influence in the government. Calvinist influence in this regard was felt by Mary of Scotland, Philip II in the Dutch Republican move, Louis XIII in France, and Charles I and James II in England in the Puritan revolt, where in each case the power of the people was being forced against the monarchs.
Religion had become identified with nations and thus with the government and autocracy; the rise of autocracy in kings rejecting the authority of the Church and of the Holy Roman Empire, the beginnings of national., literatures, and their competition in trade made the nations self—conscious and made the kings more autocratic.
And though there were some restrictions on monarchy, for instance, possible dethronement, parliamentary representation of the clergy, nobility and commons, and some recognised inviolable rights of the people, still, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, its power grew beyond all limits because of their personal ability, their strength in armed forces with gunpowder weapons, their control of what was formerly Church property and affairs, and the revival of the idea that the king is above the law. The traders and merchants supported the king as against the nobles, and in return, had new colonies founded for them as well as having the protection of. the navies of their country for their ships.
In England, the Tudors, Henry VII, Henry VIII, and Elizabeth urged their autocracy to the full. In France, which is our chief concern, the Bourbons brought it to its greatest development.
Henry IV of Navarre came to power after civil wars of devastation and chaos. He reduced the power of the petty nobles and local rulers and favoured the traders with security. His son, Louis XIII (1610 –1643) had his country administered by the very able Cardinal Richelieu, who strove for the removal of all limitation from the King’s power. Hence, the Parliament or States General was never allowed to meet. In fact, from 1614 to 1789 it had not one session. He. destroyed all fortified castles of the nobles, crushed Calvinism, the Huguenots in France, and set up new local governors or “intendants” chosen from the middle class, to supervise the law and the collection of taxes in the provinces.
Louis XIV, at five years of age, succeeded his father in 1643, with Cardinal Mazarin as his prime minister. This reign of the Grand Monarch was the climax of autocracy. He lived in splendour and luxury, fawned upon by Dukes and Counts, but attending carefully to finance and the affairs of government.
Commerce and prosperity increased for the bour-geoisie after he had crushed the Fronde or Rising of the Nobles. He denied freedom of religion to the Huguenots, who fled the country, thereby consolidating his power. At times he had more than four hundred thousand men in arms, and wars were constant with their accompaniment of plunder and miseries.
He sought to extend his boundaries to the Rhine and to get the mastery over the House of Hapsburg, which, however, continued to rule Austria, Spain, part of Italy, part of the Netherlands, Hungary, Bohemia, part of east France, and the American colonies. During the sixty seven years of his rule, France was at war for nearly thirty two years. Such European wars impeded France’s commerce and colonies and naval development, though they gave strength to the monarchy and the idea of the divine-right, whilst they entailed enormous expense of funds.
Louis XV succeeded in 1715, just after the close of the War of the Spanish Succession. Devoted to ease and luxury, he spent lavishly the taxes he imposed, produced no reforms for the benefit of his people, and buried the country in debt by his wars.
The War of the Austrian Succession, 1714 – 17)8, and the Seven Years’ War, 1756 — 1763, left Britain , mistress of the seas with a vast colonial empire; whilst France and Spain, the monarchical autocracies, had been unable to defend their trade and possessions, and France was practically bankrupt. This state of affairs had its effect in fostering the revolutionary spirit.
This same spirit was aided by the knowledge of the success of the English revolution against the absolute monarchy in 1688; the break away of Holland from Spain finalised in 1648; the American revolution of 1776 against English rule, and the writings of the French philosophers Montesglaell., Rousseau, and Quesnoy, who borrowed much from John Locke, the Englishman. The philosophers found a ready hearing among the bourgeois, who were reasonably educated, for their theories of liberty, equality, sovereignty of the people, freedom of trading and distrust of religion.
The French nation at the end of the eighteenth century was divided into three classes or “Estates.” The First Estate was that of the clergy; the Second, that of the nobility; the Third being the rest, that is, the peasants and the burghers or merchants, towns-men, professional men. The first two classes were “privileged” and were about one and a half per cent of the population; they were assured of their income and paid no taxes.
The Clergy – the country priests were poorly salaried, laboured for their people and were respected by them. The higher clergy – Bishops and Arch-bishops – were mostly sons of noble families, with many benefices and big incomes, spending their time about the Court in luxury and ease.
The Nobility – since Richelieu’s time they had little power, but lived near the Court, absentee land-lords, hated by their peasants. .
The Third Estate – the peasants, had to support the King and the “privileged” classes by about four fifths of their income for taxes and rents. The bourgeoisie as business men and professional men and artisans, had many government restrictions on their trading from the guilds, chartered stock companies, customs barriers within the country, and royal monopolies.
In a word – the interests of the Third Estate clashed with those of the First and Second.
Louis XV had dissipated the prestige and the finance of his country. – Louis XVI (177.– 1792) set upon some reforms for taxation and commerce, but, on protest from the nobles, he desisted. Then he yielded to the desire for revenge upon England, and declared war against her in 1778, during her difficulties with the revolution in America. As a result, his country became bankrupt, and the success of the American venture against the English king, gave a headline for the agitation in France.
The “privileged” classes were asked to share the common burdens of expenses and refused.. Louis decided to summon the three Estates, the Estates General, to Versailles in May, 1789. The Clergy had three hundred representatives, the Nobility had the same number, and the Third Estate had six hundred. Each Estate voted as a unit, and any two could together carry any measure; the First and Second generally stood together.
When the three Estates met, because the Third, led by Mirabeau, though a Count, represented the bulk ‘ of the people, it demanded a change in organisation and in the voting system. It wanted a single body, a National Assembly, where each member should have one vote, and the majority would carry any measure. This demand was backed by some of the Second and many of the lower clergy of the First Estate. Louis, afraid to displease the nobles, refused the demand, and, in June, 1789, locked out the Third Estate from the meetings.
These representatives then met in a public builde ing nearby, which was used as a tennis court, and took an oath that, as members of the National Assembly, they would draw up a Constitution for France. This was de-fiance of the King and of autocracy.
A week later, Louis weakened and had the three Estates sit together as a National Assembly, with voting by heads. But the royal troops were ordered to cone verge upon Versailles at the same time. The Assembly asked for their withdrawal, which the King refused. The populace of Paris then sided with the Assembly against the King and wild rioting was everywhere in the city.
The Bastille, a royal fortress and symbol of its authority, was captured and rased to the ground by the mob. Paris was now outside of royal control; the Commune was organised by the prominent citizens for local government, and the National Guard. was ex enrolled for the citizens’ army, with Lafayette as its commander.
Louis withdrew the royal troops from Versailles, but they soon again appeared. In October, news was abroad in Paris that the soldiers were feasting and drinking liberally. Paris was in a state of starvation because of the failure of crops the summer before, and it seemed the King’s army would not help the food position. A large host of women, enraged with hunger, with sticks and clubs in their hands, walked the twelve miles to Versailles to demonstrate and yell for bread.
The next morning, the King agreed to accompany the mob back to Paris. He never returned to his palace. The National Assembly followed the King, and Paris was – now the seat of the Revolution, with the Assembly in-dependant of the King and dependant on the populace of Paris. This was the end of autocracy. Revolt spread to the towns, which set up their own officers and National Guard. In the country districts, the houses of nobles and of some of the clergy were attacked and burned. The intendants or local governors left their posts and the royal courts ceased to function.
The National Assembly, in June 1789, began its reforms. Though its convention as the States General had been intended by the King to secure him financial aid, many grievances and reforms were on the agenda. Privilege was now abolished, introducing equal taxation, cessation of tithes to the Church and feudal dues, and the great estates were divided among the peasants, now to be proprietors. “The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen” was proclaimed with stress on liberty and equality.
Because the Church was reckoned the ally of auto-cracy, and because its possessions would stay bankruptcy, its lands were confiscated and monasteries and religious establishments suppressed. The measure styled “The Civil Constitution of the Clergy” reduced the number of Bishops and priests, demanding their appointment by the people, under State control and payment, and subtraction from the Church jurisdiction. The clergy were obliged to take an oath of allegiance to this Constitution in 1790. Pope Pius VI forbade the oath under pain of excommunication. Those who refused it lost their salaries, were threatened with prison and later deportation.
The old provinces were reorganised into departments and districts and communes; all local officers were elected by the people, but the King was still supreme ruler, though limited by a Constitution and a legislative assembly. There was still peace and calm in 1790.
Many nobles and clergy emigrated to neighbouring countries and tried to stir up civil war in France and to induce foreign intervention. In June, 1791, the King and Queen Marie Antoinette fled from Paris, but were captured and brought back, to be guillotined later on. Austria and Prussia threatened invasion and France declared war on them in April, 1792; she was ill–equipped but the army and people were enthusiastic, in spite of reverses, In Paris, August 1792, the mob had the King im-prisoned; the government officials ceased to function, and Danton, head of the Paris Commune, became dictator.
When Verdun was attacked by the enemy, a wholesale massacre of royalist supporters and clergy raged. in Paris for the first three days of September. Among the victims of this time were Blessed. Louis Joseph Francois, C.M, and Blessed Henry Gruyer, C,M, Danton assembled a National Convention in Sept-ember, which decreed the abolition of royalty and the inauguration of the French Republic on the 22nd, King Louis XVI was put on trial and condemned by the Conven-tion. Early in 1793, this Convention gave supreme executive authority to a “Committee of Public Safety;” its policy was terrorism in order to secure unity and. destroy any opposition. Its agencies, under the direction of Robespierre, were the Committee of General Security and Revolutionary Tribunal. It is estimated_ that, during this Terror of 1793 – 94, two thousand five hundred were guillotined in Paris, and ten thousand elsewhere.
Meantime, the war against the foreign enemies was progressing successfully, and the country was cleared of foreign troops. A new Constitution of the Re-public was brought into effect in 1795, giving executive power to the Directory of five members, with two legislative chambers to supplant the National Convention. This was the end of the Revolution in France.