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The French Revolution

Economic Crisis | Fall of the Bastille | Marie Antoinette Reviled | State-Controlled Religion and a Constitutional Monarchy | Fear, Overreaction and War | The Terror Peaks | New Constitution and Defeat for the Paris Mob | Napoleon Wins Battles and becomes First Consul

The execution of Louis XVI

The beheading of King Louis XVI, an execution opposed by Thomas Paine, who favored Louis' exile to the United States

Economic Crisis

There had been the Glorious Revolution in England and the triumph of John Locke's ideology. John Locke's political ideas and the language of liberty prevailed also with the American Revolution. In France, intellectuals were aware of all this, and there had been Enlightenment champions favoring political change. But revolutions were not made by people guided just by ideas in books and words spoken in coffee houses. Revolutions were a phenomenon of social breadth that included masses of people who didn't read avante-guard books, and in France as elsewhere the drift toward revolution included to a great extent economic forces.

Between 1715 and 1771, French commerce had increased almost eight-fold. France was second only to Great Britain in trade. It was exporting sugar, coffee and indigo that had been developed in its Caribbean colonies. Transportation was improving. In the 1780s, for example, the 600 miles between Paris and Toulouse was only an eight-day journey, rather than the fifteen days it had taken in the 1760s.

Versailles palace

The royal palace at Versailles, in the country just outside Paris, where King Louis XVI was born, in 1754 – his home until 1789.

The Versailles Palace front door

The front door.

But the advance in commerce did not produce well-being for the common people. The population of France had grown to between 24 and 26 million, up from 19 million in 1700 without a concomitant growth in food production. Farmers around Paris consumed over 80 percent of what they grew, so if a harvest fell by around 10 percent, which was common, people went hungry. There were insufficient government planning and storage of grain for emergency shortages. Agriculture was three-quarters of the economy but it was backward compared to the agricultures of Britain and the Dutch Republic, and it was still burdened by feudalistic arrangements. People suffered too with a decline in the 1780s in France's textile industry. The importation of cheaper and better quality British textiles was creating unemployment among France's spinners and weavers.

The city of Paris had a population of roughly 650,000, many of them getting by without regular jobs. Alongside the unemployed textile workers were people who sold second-hand goods or worked at odd jobs such as carrying water. They too were hurt by the rise of hard times. Paris had many who stayed alive by petty thievery or prostitution – sometimes both. People were being buried every day without ceremony in pauper's graves. And many in Paris and in other French cities were hungry.

France's government was in financial crisis. For years, royal ministers believed that more revenues were needed if France were to maintain its position in international affairs and take care of domestic affairs. Originally kings of France paid the costs of rule from wealth produced on their own domains – helped in emergencies from an assembly of people who granted the royal treasury tax revenues. But emergencies were now perpetual. During the Seven Years' War and during France's help for the American Revolution the monarchy had fallen deeper in debt. The government was taxing common people regularly and paying half of its revenues to cover debts owed to aristocrats and other lenders. Louis XVI considered extending taxation to France's two privileged orders: the nobility and the Catholic Church. With this in mind and for other reforms (such as the elimination of internal tariff barriers) the king's government convened a consultative body of nobles and clergy called the Assembly of Notables. That was in February 1787. The nobles and clergy remained opposed to paying taxes, and in May that year the Assembly of Notables was dismissed. Plans were then laid to convene a larger consultative body, the Estates General. It consisted of members of the Church (the First Estate), the nobility (the Second Estate) and all others (the Third Estate). Plans for the first meeting of the Estates General since 1614 were made for early 1789.

In July 1788, a hailstorm destroyed crops. France had its worst harvest in forty years, and the winter of 1788-89 was severe. Getting no relief from their hunger, people rioted. The economy declined further. In Paris, construction workers were joining the ranks of the unemployed. People were being evicted from their rented homes. With bread more scarce, its price rose. People had been in the habit of eating mainly bread, and it now took most of the wages of those still working to obtain it.

The Church was handing out bread and milk, and the king's economic minister, Jacques Necker, was doing what he could. He forbade the export of grain and launched a program to import food. This was with little success. Food remained in short supply in Europe in general and frozen rivers and canals were hampering transport.


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