There was a loud “thunk” as the blade hit the wood block, silence and then a cheer rose up from the crowd as yet another nobleman’s head rolled. The French Revolution was one of the bloodiest revolutions in history, it was responsible for taking the lives of thousands of Frenchmen. But what was the cause of this carnage? As former Vice President Hubert Humphrey said, “History teaches us that the great revolutions aren’t started by people who are utterly down and out, without hope and vision. They take place when people begin to live a little better – and when they see how much remains to be achieved.”
The French Revolution and the Estates General. The roots of the French Revolution of 1789 can be traced back to the reign of Louis XIV, an absolute monarch. He established the basis of the French Revolution by reducing the power of nobles, taking them away from their land, the roots of their power. Then came Louis XV who allowed political and social positions to be bought by wealthy commoners, enraging nobles even further. These events culminated in Louis XVI, his Estates General and the French Revolution.
During the time of the French revolution there where three estates or social classes in France, described by Thomas Jefferson, the American Ambassador as “Clergy, Nobles, and Commons.” The Clergy were representatives of the church and served as judges, Nobles were militaristic, and finally the Commoners were divided into the Bourgeoisie, who were wealthy land owners, and the poor peasants. Stands taken between the three estates and Louis XVI caused the French Revolution. Despite their efforts to bring France into a new form of government, one which would serve the needs of the common people, France still fell into a state of corruption.
At the young age of 12 Louis XVI had already begun to create his own ideas of government. “Thus, by our primordial origin , all men without exception are my equals. Liberty is one of the rights of man and government is established to conserve it. The objects of all laws is to preserve for mankind, the rights which belong to him. There are four natural rights which the King is obliged to conserve for each of his subjects. These come from God and are older than all laws, political or civil. They are life, honor, liberty, and property.” Because of these views on government, Louis XVI brought the Estates General, a ruling body which would represent the common people, into existence, to give all of the estates a say in government. Jefferson described what he believed Louis XVI’s reasons were, “the honest man in his kingdom, and the most regular and economical… I believe he will consider the opinion of the States General as the best evidence of what will profit and please the nation and (he) will conform to it.” This new form of governing was a far cry from the traditional monarchy, which had ruled France for so long.
Louis XVI greeted the Estates General warmly on May 5, 1789 with an opening speech. “Sirs, this day which my heart awaited since a long time has finally arrived and I see myself surrounded by the representatives of the nation which I am honored to command.” However his speech was not to be all good news, “The debt of the state, already immense on my coming to the throne, has accumulated during my reign… The increase in the tax has been the unavoidable result and has been rendered more painful by their unequal distribution.” Until that time, Nobles and Clergy were exempt from tax, leaving only the lower third estate to pay the debt. So Louis proposed a solution to the Estates General, “A general anxiousness in and an exaggerated desire for change, have taken over the public mind.. if we didn’t hasten to stabilize it. It is with my confidence, gentlemen, which I have gathered you together… (for) the first two orders to renounce their financial privileges.” Louis XVI’s solution to the high taxation on the third estate was to force the first and second estate to begin paying taxes, like the peasantry. This strengthened his ideals of equality in a society.
The Nobility and Clergy had their land taken away by Louis XIV, their positions taken by peasants left them enraged and now they were being told to pay taxes like a commoner. But the insult would not stop there. The king wished for each estate to have equal representation, again standing up against tradition, “…my preference was for doubling representation for the Third Estate and voting by head…” At present each estate received one vote so, “200,000 or 300,000 individuals out of 26,000,000 citizens constitute two-thirds of the common will.”
Others felt similarly to Louis XVI on the issue of voting. For instance, the Keeper of the Seals, Barentien, who was equivalent to the prime minister, stated, “(It) would seem to have the advantage of making the popular will better known.” Unfortunately, the upper estates would never agree to meeting under these circumstances, they had already lost a great deal.
Thomas Jefferson predicted, “The clergy will move heaven and earth to defeat the effects of this (just) representation. They will endeavor now that the votes shall be by Orders, and not by person.” Fortunately not all of the nobles shared the clergies opinion, “The younger part of the nobility are in favor of (equality of power,) and those more advanced are daily coming to them.” “forty-eight of the nobles have joined the third estate… so that the Common chamber consists of upwards of 800 members.”
The Third Estate , on the other hand felt it was their right as seen in Abbe Seises’ pamphlet “What is the Third Estate?” He declared, “1st. What is the Third Estate? Everything. 2nd. What has it been heretofore in the political order? Nothing. 3rd. What does it demand? to become something therein.” To accomplish this the Deputies or representatives of the Third Estate needed to become a true political power. Hence the formation of the National Assembly.
The Third Estate declared itself the National Assembly on June 17,1789. “The Assembly deliberating after the verification of powers, recognizes that this assembly (Third Estate) is already composed of deputies sent directly by at least 96% of the nation.” Baron Malouet stated, “No assembly ever contained so many remarkable men.” The members of the National Assembly took on an oath known as the Tennis court oath which, “Decrees that all members of this Assembly shall immediately take a solemn oath not to separate, and to reassemble wherever circumstances require, until the constitution of the kingdom is established and consolidated upon firm foundations; and that, the said oath taken, all members and each one of them individually shall ratify this steadfast resolution by signature.” At that point the National Assembly secured their intentions to create a new constitution. Jefferson’s comment showed the power that this new assembly controlled, “If the king will do business with the third estate which constitutes the nation, it may be well done without priests or nobles.”
Unfortunately the National Assembly lost track of the peasants needs in their single minded attempt at a new form of government. The lower class was suffering from the burden of high taxes as seen y this account, taken by Arthur Young, an English traveler. “I was joined by a poor woman, who complained of the hard times, and that it was a sad country; demanding her reasons, she said her husband had but a morsel of land, one cow, and a poor little house, yet they had a franhar (or 42lb) of wheat and 3 chickens, to pay as a quit-rent to one Seigneur, and 4 franhars of oats, 1 chicken to pay another, besides very heavy tailles and other taxes. It was said, at present, that something was to be done, but she did not know who nor how, but God would send us better…”
By this time it had become apparent that the three estates were incompatible and unable to make decisions for the good of the people, “I say that the deputies of the (estates) have nothing in common with the national representation, that no alliance is possible among the three orders in the Estates General, and that, unable to vote in common, they cannot do so either by order or by head.” The commoners began to see the deputies as fools, “It is an established fact that the deputies are not representatives of the nation at all; accordingly, they are incompetent to vote for it.”
And so the government’s popularity plummeted among the people, whose lives were being threatened by the unjust taxation. Jefferson observed that, “The disposition of the people at this moment is so unfavorable to the court that I should not be surprised if the States General, by appearing to give too much credit to the king’s professions, should lose the consideration which they have hitherto been held by the nation.”
“(On 13 July) the people of Paris forced the prison of St Lazare, where they got some arms. On the 14th they took the Invalides, the Bastille, and beheaded the governor and lieutenant governor of the latter and the Prevost des Marchands.”
Hence the carnage and destruction of the French Revolution began.