The role of the monarchy in pre-revolutionary France

The role of the monarchy in pre-revolutionary France isessential to understanding the sudden outbreak and violent nature of the FrenchRevolution.

On the surface, France had an absolute monarch, so it seems nofactor could be out of the monarchy’s control. The truth is much more complex,as the monarchy’s power was limited both by the powerful interests of thearistocracy, the rising bourgeoisie and the ancient laws and customs of the OldRegime: J.F. Bosher went so far as to say Kings were limited in power as thesystem was not theirs to change1. It is perhaps more accurate,however, to say Louis XV and Louis XVI were limited as the monarchy was nottheirs, but their predecessor Louis XIV’s, as the ‘Sun King’ wielded greatpower both during his reign and after, through his legacy.

The Revolution arosefrom a culmination of factors including the monarchy’s decision to fight in theAmerican Revolution, the rates of interest at which the it borrowed money andan unlucky run of bad harvests in 1788-9. In 1787, Finance Minister Calonneinformed King Louis XVI that the monarchy was close to bankruptcy, proposingsweeping reforms that needed the Estates-General, a body representing the threeEstates of French society, to ratify. By this point, there was nothing the kingcould do other than watch the creation of the National Assembly and a new formof government in which the monarchy would quickly become obsolete. The eventsof 1789, however, were not causes of the Revolution but the Revolution itself.From c.1688, the beginning of the Nine Years War, up to 1789, the actions andomissions of the monarchy had led France to Revolution, such that by the 1780s,there was little the monarchy could do to avoid lying in the bed it made — Louis XVI “passively awaited the end” when heappreciated that the Revolution was inevitable. The financial and political crisis of the late 1780screated an opening for the Revolution, as the monarchy’s huge wartime expendituredrove it into bankruptcy. By 1786, the monarchy’s debt repayments consumedabout half of income2.

Since 1688, France had been fightingin the so-called ‘Second Hundred Years War’3, a series of wars in which France’ssworn enemy was always Britain. This inclination to go to war can be traced backto Louis XIV, who said in 1672 – only 34 years old –  “I shall not attempt to justify myself.Ambition and the pursuit of glory are always pardonable in a prince”4 when explaining his decision todeclare war against the Dutch. ANALYSE THIS SOURCE.

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Louis XIV’s legacy, presentin depictions of the so-called ‘Sun King’ (see appendix 1), the palace of Versailles,and France’s global position, had a significant impact on France’s foreignpolicy objectives throughout the 18th century5. For example, the French involvementin the American War of Independence was an opportunity for vengeance againstBritain following the unfavourable 1763 Treaty of Paris settlement, typical ofthe monarchy’s dynastic approach to war. Wars were fought in the name of glory,with little consideration for the human and financial cost both of the warsthemselves and more importantly (for the purposes of the question) the cost ofthe extensive loans. As the decision to declare war lay only with the King, thefinancial factors of the Revolution hardly seem out of the monarchy’s control,but the result of the monarchy’s foreign policy.

 However, Tim Blanning argues that ‘aristocratic officersalienated by the progressive collapse of French power and prestige since theglory days of Louis XIV’6 were among the first revolutionaries,challenging the view that it was the ‘pursuit of glory’ that caused the Revolution. This revisionistaccount of the Revolution is supported by substantial evidence suggesting aristocraticfigures such as Lafayette and Mirabeau were instrumental in the Revolution. ANALYSEBLANNING. While the monarchy did have the choice to be less involved in globalconflict, there was an unavoidable trade-off between financial stability andFrance’s prestige7 — both essential if it were to avoida Revolution.

Thus, it can be argued that by the 1780s, two key factors thatcaused the revolution were out of the monarchy’s control. The monarchy’shistoric approach of glorifying warfare, however, had created this expectationamong aristocratic officers. Thus, by looking at the whole time period inquestion, the extensive involvement in conflict leading to Revolution, was inthe monarchy’s control. Despite Britain’s prominent role in the ‘Second HundredYears War’, only France almost drove itself into bankruptcy, largely because ofits inefficient method of financing the wars.

Stone notes that Britain had twomajor advantages against France: being an island allowed it to reduce peacetimemilitary spending, and unlike France it had a democratically elected andpowerful Parliament able to levy new taxes with the consent of the people8. While France was an absolutemonarchy, there were many entrenched laws and privileges that were nearimpossible to change, notably tax exemptions. The taille was a direct tax onland, which was not only collected inconsistently between regions, but almosteverybody except peasants claimed some exemption. Furthermore, taxes weren’tcollected by the monarchy or its intendants, but by venal office holders andtax ‘farmers’ who bought or leased the right to collect taxes in exchange for afixed payment to the monarchy.

In this system, it was difficult to increase taxrevenue and a large proportion of tax never even reached the royal purse, hencethe monarchy consistently ran a budget deficit.9 This was out of the monarchy’scontrol and an important cause for the Revolution. Lynn Hunt points out thatthe deficit alone wasn’t the problem, but the fact it was paid for with loansfrom foreign bankers reaching interest rates as high as 7-10%10, due to the lack of confidence in themonarchy’s ability to repay. While in the 1780s the repayments of past loanswas requiring further loans to be taken out, forcing France into an’interest-deficit spiral’11, the monarchy had no choice but tocontinue borrowing, had major fiscal reforms taken place earlier in the 18thcentury, the financial crisis may well have been averted, as it was in Britain. Finance ministers, on appointment from the king, hadintermittently tried to reform France’s financial system throughout the 18thcentury, yet all their efforts ultimately proved futile.

Under Louis XIV,Silhouette attempted to pay for the Seven Years War through heavy taxation,which failed to win the support of the people, the Parlement of Paris12 and set a bad precedent for theeffectiveness of higher taxes as it failed to reduce the national debt below1.7 billion livres.13 In 1774, Turgot also triedimplementing tax reforms, but this failed again when Louis XVI confusinglyreinstated the Parlement of Paris and dismissed him. The monarchy, lacking along-term finance minister and a coherent plan, found itself stuck with anineffective taxation system. By the time Calonne had the king’s approval forhis sweeping reforms to the financial system, not only was the debt spirallingout of control, but his plan failed because the Assembly of Notables wasunconvinced of the necessity of such reforms as his predecessor, JacquesNecker, had published the Compte rendu, a document misleading the publicabout the state of the King’s finances and it was decided that Calonne’sreforms could not be brought about without the consent of the Estates-General.When Louis XVI had no choice but to call the Estates-General in 1788, the stagefor the Revolution was set, but it was a combination of monarchial andaristocratic pressure that had hindered such reforms from taking place quietlyearlier in the century. The Marxist interpretation of the French Revolution — abourgeois revolution causing the transition from feudalism to capitalism — exonerates,as it was the very fabric of society not actions of the monarchy that causedthe Revolution.

The 20th century historian Albert Soboul argued thearistocracy’s flat rejection of the bourgeoisie’s demand for more political andeconomic freedom led to Revolution. However, while the bourgeoisie engaged incapitalist enterprise, they tended to abandon this in favour of a noblelifestyle, through purchasing venal offices and privilege, challenging Soboul’scentral claim that the Revolution was a movement to capitalism. As a Marxisthistorian and a member of the Communist party, Soboul is not entirely reliable,as his findings are based as much on a Marxist worldview as the actual state ofFrench society.

Soboul accurately points out, however, that the bourgeoisie hadbeen assisting the monarchy in the administration of the state, indicating thedispute was not between the bourgeois and the monarchy14. ‘What is the Third Estate?’, afamous pamphlet published in 1789 by the abbé Sieyès, supports Soboul’s view asit urges members of the Third Estate, including the bourgeoisie, to seek agreater role in French society at the expense of the aristocracy. The pamphletrefers to the King as “a man so thoroughly deceived and so defenceless in themidst of an active, all-powerful court” in what Sieyès thinks is not a monarchy, but a”palace autocracy”15. Given that Versailles was built byLouis XIV as a show of his power and status16, it seems odd to claim the court hadtaken power from the king, and while Sieyès admits Louis XIV was an exception tothis, the claim of “palace autocracy” is not a reliable analysis of theabsolutist system in France, but a provocative claim intended to exploit hatredtowards the aristocracy. Furthermore, we may question the usefulness of thissource as historian Jonathan Israel challenges the view that Sieyès was a leading revolutionary: he waselected to the National Assembly with a slim majority and, as a clergyman didnot even form a part of the Third Estate. Soboul and Sieyès may not have identified the problemsin pre-revolutionary France with the monarchy, but the Marxist paradigm thatexcused the monarchy has been discredited by revisionist historians such asColin Lucas, who while acknowledging the monarchy was not omnipotent, do notunderestimate the role the monarchy played. Though the revolution is no longer considered a bourgeoisrevolution, the tension between the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy that themonarchy had contributed to for centuries is significant nonetheless, arguesrevisionist historian Colin Lucas. The monarchy’s sale of ‘venal offices’ wasmutually beneficial to the buyer who received income, prestige and privilegessuch as tax exemption and the monarchy which gained desperately needed cash.

This practice is aptly described by Doyle as an “addiction”17 because the monarchy overlooked thedeep problems this caused in society because of its short-term financial gain.The problems were twofold: the aristocracy was angered by the usurpation of itsstatus by bourgeois members who bought, rather than inherited, their position,leading Saint-Simon to warn of “the reign of the vile bourgeoisie”18 and secondly it made reforming thesystem impossible as the monarchy could not afford to repurchase the venaloffices. Lucas argued that Louis XIV’s used all such means to raise finance and elevatedcommoners to the officer corps to supply manpower in his extensive warfare. Theclass conflicts that led both the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie to Revolutionwere brought about by the monarchy’s irresponsible policies.

This was notsolely the result of Louis XIV, as a string of finance ministers who attemptedto remove venal offices were dismissed by the Louis XV and Louis XVI19, as they underestimated theimportance of social tensions. Lucas’ judgement that “The situation in thelater eighteenth century was simply the development of conditions alreadyapparent in the second half of the seventeenth.”20 is correct in that it appreciates thesale of ‘venal offices’ was not a new policy, but existed long before signs ofthe Revolution emerged, though the continuation of these conditions was not anoversight, but the monarchy’s specific attempts to stifle change. While determining the motivations of the revolutionaryleadership is important, just as important is the involvement of the peasantmasses, without whom the Revolution would likely not have succeeded. The verypoor conditions of the peasantry in the late 1780s were caused by a combinationof factors including poor harvests in 1788-9 that caused the price of bread torise, and a trade deal signed with Britain in 1786 that caused high levels ofunemployment21. Neither poor harvests norunemployment were new, but had been occurring throughout the 18th century, ashad peasant revolts, notably the ‘Flour Wars’ in 1775.

1789, however, was thefirst time peasant unrest had collided with a political crisis, creating theperfect storm for Revolution. The monarchy was blamed for the arduous taxburden, the trade deal and an alleged plot to hold back bread supplies tostarve the people into submission22. In reality, in 1788, Necker importedgrain and established charities for the poor23, though these efforts clearly cametoo late. Arthur Young, an English expert in agriculture, travelled to France in1787-9 and wrote this of the peasantry: “One would naturally have supposed,from the gross abuses and cruelty of this method of taxation, that the objectin view were to keep the people poor, as to make the King rich”24. Young, an Englishman, picked up onthe relative unfairness of the French taxation system, but misses the fact thatwhile the intention may well have been to keep the people poor, it served thefeudal landowners as much — or more than — the King. As ever, though, the Kingwas guilty of not doing enough to quell these concerns and the fact that Youngobjectively observed this unfairness, without having any stake in the FrenchRevolution, shows that there was indeed a justified feeling of resentmenttowards the monarchy among the peasant classes. This was within the monarchy’scontrol, and greater efforts to satisfy the least politically powerful, butmost populous group of people in France, and more care for the way in which itwas perceived by this group, could have prevented the monarchy’s fate.

 Developments in the postal service, revolution of the pressand increasingly important public opinion came together in the 18th century tocreate what Blanning calls the “public sphere”25, whereby the role of public opinion,particularly with regard to the monarchy, started to become more pronounced.The Royal Postal Service had become developed enough by the 18th century tofacilitate the mass spreading of revolutionary pamphlets that were crucial tothe outbreak of Revolution. The monarchy, for the most part, censored the pressto prevent exactly the situation in 1789 where the monarchy’s reputation wasdestroyed. The storming of the Bastille, however, brought an end to themonarchy’s censorship of the press26. By this point, however, theRevolution had already begun, so the collapse of censorship cannot beconsidered a factor of the French Revolution at all.

However, pamphletssmearing the monarchy had existed for a long time, particularly ones targetingMarie Antoinette, or “the Austrian Bitch”27, such as in the case of the DiamondNecklace Affair (see appendix 2), where a false rumour about an expensivenecklace bought by the queen was widely believed28. This is evidence of a publicdistaste for the Queen, but also of the monarchy’s financial habits, a keyfactor of the Revolution. While censorship could only go so far, Blanningargues that “Louis XV did not have to marry his grandson to the ArchduchessMarie Antoinette, thus ensuring that the unpopularity of the Austrian alliancewould continue to blight the next reign”29, attributing the tarnishing of themonarchy’s reputation to the monarchy. Blanning is alluding to the unpopular1756 Diplomatic Revolution, where France allied with Austria, which lendsfurther credibility to the view that the monarchy’s total disregard for publicopinion, particularly with regard to Austria, led to the growth of the “publicsphere”, which spurred on the Revolution.

Bylooking at the French Revolution in the wider context of the Enlightenmentacross 18th century Europe, it may be argued it was an inevitable part of achain of Atlantic revolutions, a process out of the monarchy’s control. TheNational Assembly of France created ‘The Declaration of the Rights of Man andof Citizens’30 in 1789, though it reflected much ofthe Enlightenment thought in the preceding century. As the officialconstitution agreed by a majority of the revolutionary National Assembly, it isan incredibly reliable and useful source.

The phrase “unalienable rights” isalso found in the American Declaration of Independence and affirms theEnlightenment concept of natural law. Its proposed “separation of powers”emulates the structure of government created by the American Revolution,seemingly suggesting both revolutions were part of the same trend. Moreaccurately, both Revolutions were the response to undemocratic systems ofgovernment, hence that both seek to create a separation of powers is notsurprising. Various elements of the document arise as both practical responsesto problems in the Old Regime, such as The declaration that “taxation out tobe divided equally among the members of the community, according to theirabilities”, whereas others arise from the philosophy of Enlightenment thinking,such as “the law is an expression of the will of the community”, whichexpresses Rousseau’s concept of the ‘social contract’. While it was written inlarge part by Jefferson and Lafayette (key figures in the the American andFrench Revolutions), it was the work of the whole National Assembly, who hadsworn to give France a new constitution. An estimated 10 out of 1200 members ofthe National Assembly were Enlightenment philosophers31, so while the Enlightenment hadfacilitated the thinking and debate behind the document, the document was notmerely a product of the Enlightenment.

Thus, while the Revolution was part of achain of Atlantic Revolutions, it was not caused by the Enlightenment, but by acomplex combination of factors, many of which were within the monarchy’scontrol. Theonset of the French Revolution, the financial crisis, appeared to be out of themonarchy’s control because of the high interest rates and ineffective financialsystem. However, the failure of the monarchy to do anything about these deepstructural problems makes it responsible for the binding position it was putinto when forced to call the Estates-General. Social divisions were not thecreation of the monarchy, but its policies ranged from ignoring issues such asresentment of the bourgeoisie to igniting anger within the peasant classes,creating a society hostile to itself as well as towards the monarchy. TheEnlightenment seems to absolve the monarchy of accusations of causing theFrench Revolution, but it is in fact clear that the Revolution was not simplythe result of the Enlightenment, it was the Enlightenment, caused byFrance-centric grievances and influenced by past Enlightenment thought. Thestriking images of the powerful and wealthy monarchy (see appendixes 1 and 2)in the Old Regime provide a a sharp contrast with the trial and execution of ofLouis XVI and Marie Antoinette. This essay seeks to determine whether thischange of fate for monarchy was of its own making or not. ‘The old regime’sruling elite … did much to dig its own grave.

’32 argues Stone; theruling elite consisted of the monarchy and the aristocracy, and while thisessay seeks only to judge the actions of the monarchy, the question of to whatextent the Revolution was caused by factors out of the aristocracy’s controlmust also be answered. The monarchy, however, certainly did dig its own grave,and had started doing so at least a century before the Revolution, in its saleof venal offices, large-scale borrowing and a range of selfish andshort-sighted policies that were emblematic of the Old Regime. In the latterhalf of the 18th century, the Revolution seems inevitable and out of themonarchy’s control, though this was the result of factors that had been withinthe monarchy’s control a century earlier.1 J.F.

Bosher quoted in T. Blanning,The Pursuit of Glory 1648-1815, Penguin Group, 2008, p.600.2 T.

Blanning, p.602.3 The term ‘Second Hundred Years War’ wascoined to refer to the Nine Years War (1888-97), the War of Spanish Succession(1701-14), the War of Austrian Succession (1741-48), the Seven Years War(1756-63), the American War of Independence (1776-83) and later theRevolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, named after the original ‘Hundred YearsWar’, between France and England in 1337–1453.4 T. Blanning, p.540.

5 B. Stone, Reinterpreting theFrench Revolution, Cambridge University Press, 2002, pp.18-20.6 T. Blanning, p.339.7 B. Stone, p.

14.8 B. Stone, p.23.9 T. J. Sargent & F. R.

Velde, ‘MacroeconomicFeatures of the French Revolution’, Journal of Political Economy, Vol. 103, No.3, 1995, pp. 474-518. Available from JSTOR(accessed 12 April 2013)10 L. Hunt, ‘The FrenchRevolution in a Global Perspective’ online video, 2014,

uk/french-revolution-global-perspective (accessed 23 June2017)11 T. Blanning, p.602.12 The Parlement of Paris was the largestof the sovereign courts, that had to publish laws before they could be enforcedin their jurisdiction. They could, however, be overruled the monarchy.13 J. B.

Smith, ‘France’s FinancialCrisis: Analysing the Role of the Finance Minister’, The Liberty Journal ofHistory, Vol. 1, Issue 1, 2015. Available from (accessed 23 June2017)14 A. Soboul, ‘The FrenchRevolution in the History of the Contemporary World’, in G. Kates (ed.), TheFrench Revolution: Recent Debates and Controversies, Routledge, 1998, pp.

23-43.15 E. Sieyès, ‘What is the ThirdEstate?’, 1789, (accessed 23 June2017)16 Versailles was built by Louis XIV,notably outside of Paris, as the centre of a powerful and detached absolutemonarch. Sieyès mistakes the detachedness of themonarchy for powerlessness, but when necessary the king was able to exercisehis authority over the court.

See W. Doyle, The French Revolution: AVery Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, 2001, p.22.17 W. Doyle quoted in T. Blanning,p.599.

18 C. Lucas, ‘Nobles, Bourgeois,and the Origins of the French Revolution’, in G. Kates (ed.), The FrenchRevolution: Recent Debates and Controversies, Routledge, 1998, pp.44-7019 J. B. Smith, p.11.

20 C. Lucas, pp.54.21 Poor harvests werecommon, but the usual practice was for families to supplement their income withmanufacturing labour. However, with the high prices of bread, there was littledomestic demand for manufactured goods, and with the trade deal, there was lessinternational demand as well, hence the massive unemployment. See T.Blanning, p.33822 T.

Blanning, p.33923 J. B. Smith, p.9.24 A. Young, ‘Travels During theYears 1787, 1788, and 1789.

Undertaken more particularly with a View ofascertaining the Cultivation, Wealth, Resources, and National Prosperity, ofthe Kingdom of France’, p.40525 T. Blanning, p.

xxv.26 J. Israel, ‘Revolutionary Ideas: An IntellectualHistory of the French Revolution’, Princeton UniversityPress, 2014 p.43.27 C. Caccipuoti, ‘The FrenchRevolution Countdown (Part I)’ podcast, http://www. (accessed 23 June2017)28 W. Doyle, p.22.29 T. Blanning, p.

32030 The Declaration of Man and of theCitizens,The National Assembly of France, 1789, trans. Thomas Paine, in W. Doyle, TheFrench Revolution: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, 2001,pp.12-15.31 J. Israel, p.

15.32 B. Stone, p.260.


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