Excogitations On The Start Of The French Revolution.

by Daniel Russ on February 10, 2011

In 1794, France cast aside a reluctant King and a hated queen, and set fire to probably the largest and most significant historical event in Europe and the developing democracies. In fact the French Revolution was the first major upheaval for the strongest institutions in existence at the time: The Catholic Church, Feudalism and class structure. But what brought down the mighty and what brought bread to the poor also ended disastrously for France. What started with revolution in the streets ended in one of the worst tyrannical warlike leaders in military history, Napoleon Bonaparte.

In 1682 Louis the XIV finished the most magnificent palace in France, the Versailles, effectively moving the capitol to a resort gated community in the countryside. He had a son Louis Nepe, a child that even Louis

Maximilian Robespierre

XIV’s mistress called a “fat ill bred boy.” He was a pudgy shy boy who blessedly is born amidst absolute wealth in a country where most people had absolute poverty. At the age of 15 he was lined up to marry Marie Antoinnette, a petite beauty who was the archduchess of Austria and Queen of Navare. Like so many royal weddings, this was more of a peace treaty than a love affair. It was a union of the House of Bourbons, and the Hapsburgs. The marriage of the daughter of Maria Theresa and young Louis made France and Austria allies. So the marriage in many ways became the peace treaty for the Seven Year’s War which France fought under Louis XV, and which drained the royal coffers in France. While Marie Antoinette drew attentions to herself, few were impressed with the development of the boy king.

The context of the times really isn’t about the endless European wars. It is about the divide between the rich and the poor. France was run by a monarchy that would today be considered billionaires. Their life would be described as the lap of luxury, exquisite architecture, attended to by the courts’ nameless faceless myrmidons who spent the empire’s fortunes on the most excessive plenitude any European monarchy could provide. Prior to Marie Antoinette, dozens of nurses would be summoned to the queen’s bedchamber just to witness a birth. If a royal four year old asked for a playhouse, the finest architects and courtesans would be called to cosset the child and to create it. A royal relative with a head cold would be waited upon hand and foot by the finest surgeons and medicine available. The sense of entitlement was inculcated into the courtesans and royal family members and that would itself become a bone of contention in the coming years. On the streets, there was another story.

If you ever get a chance to watch a Monty Python movie, you might see this master comedic troop portrayed the utter wretched living conditions of the poor in the late middle ages. You cannot even spoof the conditions because they were real. Work was hard to fund and if you found work it would likely wear you to a nub. People were starving. Sewage ran in the streets. There was little to be thankful for if you were poor, French and lived in Paris in the 1780s.

The food that the French monarch sometimes subsidized for the masses had disappeared; because the French treasury was empty. In many ways the riots that were the birth pangs of the French Revolution are similar to the revolutions popping up around the Mid East. Tunisians and Egyptians who are barely subsisting read wiki-leaks documents that show the rulers of the country are being profligate with

Rousseau

revenues, hoarding the funds and double-dealing for their own families and cronies. In Egypt too, wikileaks documents just confirmed what the Egyptian people were suspicious of the begin with. Not only was Mubarak working closely with the Israelis to keep Gaza in a state of perpetual poverty, but the Obama Administration was backing the revolution secretly while agreeing and smiling with the Egyptian oligarchy.

In France a new renaissance flourished in political thinking. The very foundations of governance were being questioned. Monarchy, inheritances, wealth distribution, all of it was being examined and questioned by intellectuals. To say that many of them had already come to their conclusions is a good guess, and to say that the idea of monarchy itself was now viewed by most French intellectuals as an ancient and outmoded way of thinking is also true. it would take a while to promulgate these new ideas and have them take hold. It also brought into question the problems with class structure that was very much a part of the social infrastructure of France. There were basically three estates: The Royalty, The Clergy, and everyone else.  The Royalty and the Clergy comprised about 3% of the population, and the rest were the citizens of France. The ideas that were emerging were the inspiration to the moniker The Age of Reason. Science was becoming ascendant. Rousseau and Robespierre were proffering ideas that would forever shake the very foundations of Monarch government and the power of the Catholic Church over people as well.  So while Paris became the European center for new political thinking, it was also a sociological time bomb.

In the New World, the battles raging between England and France flared up in skirmishes and out right wars. The French and Indian Wars, which were the Seven Years War except in North America, essentially bankrupted Versailles.

Put this in the context of a queen who lived in a bubble of richesse and was alternately clueless or careless about the welfare of the French people. She walked around Versailles and Paris with fine vestments, lavish showy hats with fruits and art on them. Watch today when Gwyneth Paltrow laments people who make fun of her blog GOOP. She talks about the challenges of being a mother, unaware that poor people who do their own laundry and pay their own bills and have no au pairs really don’t want to hear her prattle on about ‘challenges’.

Of course gossip about the rulers and stars of  culture go back all the way through recorded history. One can only imagine the sarcastic blandishments marked on walls or written in anonymous pamphlets. Young Louis was known to have developed an interest in locksmithing. Critics commented that after two years of marriage and no children, “the locksmith couldn’t find the keyhole”.

In 1788, a massive drought followed by a bitterly cold winter brought food stocks to a new low and costs then skyrocketed. Riots started in small towns all over France and particularly in shipping district. Ships that pulled into port would be raided and living staples taken. Shops were raided, local governors were overwhelmed and run out of town, and this would eventually make its way to the Bastille in Paris.

The revolution itself would not create liberty in the short term. In fact it created a vicious military dictator who could only reduce French debts by making war for over decade against his neighbors. But we all know that war begets industry and the campaigns of Napolean helped to pull the French economy out of the toilet, and it also helped French national pride. The French Revolution produced a document on continental Europe that had a precedent in the New World. The Declaration of Independence expressed similar ideas that we saw in the Declaration Of The Rights Of Man. The violence and vigilante fury would fill the streets of Paris with blood. The guillotine would become a symbol for the transitions to new government. No French Monarch would ever rule again with the same impunity as the House of Bourbons, the Hapsburgs or Napoleon. France itself would become a rich nation with tremendous international holdings.

Final note about the start of the French Revolution, there is a lot of talk among Tea Partiers that we should all take to the streets. We have to keep this in mind as some talk about revolution in America. If a large American contingent does take to the streets one day, freedom may not follow. What may follow might be the very opposite of freedom.

The Guillotine During The French Revolution

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Louis September 4, 2017 at 6:15 am

A few thoughts about this piece.
Please do not say medieval (500-1500), when you mean “Early Modern (1500-1800)”. No, the people in the (late) Medieval timeperiod were NOT poor. France was seen as one of the richest coutnries in Europe, with some of the richest famers, and remarkably few vagrants.
In fact, this was the time in which the first middle class was made. And the upper part of them then ascended to the aristocracy, and the lower part either sank back, or became the new upper middle class. Actually quit a lot of aristocrats were too poor to live in Versailles by 1790, and quite a lot of the rich burghers\merchants\citoyen were trying to become aristocrats themselves. However, the Aristrocrats had closed ranks about 50 years before that, so you could no longer become one. Those rich citoyen were thus denied a title, but did have the schooling for most of the positions that were still taken by aristocrats. One of the myths about revolutions, any revolutions, is that it is made by the starving masses, against a small minority. Usually those starving masses have no time for revolutions, as they try to get by just another day (Erst kommt das Fressen, und dann kommt die Moral). Usually it is the educated lower middle class people, who, for one reason or another, suddenly see their road out of poverty blocked, or rights that they had taken for granted being taken away. They have something to loose, they have the education, and they do not have the stakes in the status quo that the upper middle class, and higher classes, have. They also lack the moral scrupules that those higher classes can afford to have, so they fight dirty. And after some time you see the emergence of a “Strong Man”, who can put an end to all the chaos that followed the revolution. In a way even the American Revolution, with George Washington as strong man, can be seen that way.
The French Revolution was actually caused by the American one. Because the French helped the Americans with a large fleet, and an army, the French government put ifself even deeper in debt than they already had. And when the harvest failed in France for two years in a row, they did not have enough income to pay the interest on the interest on the outstanding debt. That was when someone suggested to Louis XVI to call the States General, and ask for a contribution of all the States (Aristocracy, Clergy, Free citizens). And after they found a way to elect people in it, most of those were fairly rich (rich enough to travel to Paris on their own money at least), fairly well educated (most had some secondary education, and quit a few were physicians and lawyers) and were familiar with the works of Voltaire and Rousseau. And not all of those were part of the Citizens, quite a few were also Aristocrats, and Clergy, who wanted change. All men of good will, but then pushed by divergent forces to do things they would not have dreamed of doing before they set out to Paris.
Also you confuse your Louis’. The Locksmith one was the father of the one that started the revolution. There were 5 generations between Louis XIV (the Sun King) and Louis XVI who lost his head under Madame Guillotine.
There is a sentence in which you say that no monarch would rule again with the same impunity, as the Bourbons and Napoleon. That is however, not true. In fact, the Bourbons had far less to say then Napoleon. Quite a lot of Medieval, and later, rights, permisions and grants, were still active during the Bourbon days. Louis XIV, the Sun King, had far less power than Napoleon, as all the other Aristocrats, the “Grand Seigneurs” of France, were sometimes still lord and master of their own lands. That was part of the rason he build Versailles, to make sure they were always in his neighbourhood, and not plotting mischief in their own holdings, against the crown. And it was bloody expensive to be there, and keep up appearances, so quit a lot of money they could use for armies was now spend on clothig and other things. Some of those families (and even the crown) were essentially broke by the 1790’s, and could not even provide food for their tennants during the famine.

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