The revolution that occurred in France cannot be attributed to any single cause as it was rooted in the inherent nature of the social and political system. However, there existed a period when historians were confident in their description of the French Revolution. The basic concept by which they operated was the ‘aristocratic reaction’. This concept implied many things at once. It referred politically to the undermining of Louis XIV absolutism. The king was though to have restricted the independence and privileges of the aristocracy. However, the regional sovereign and appeal courts reacted on behalf of the nobility after his death in 1715. They managed to change their right of registering laws and edicts into a veto. This led to the weakening of the Crown. This also had a far reaching consequence on the social realm as well. The aristocracy monopolized the highest government offices, the church, military and the judiciary in the course of eighteenth century. This consequently affected the bourgeoisie. They increasingly became alienated not only from the state but also from respectable society as they were barred from advancing to the echelons of the predominant social and political institutions. The loyalties of the bourgeoisie strained with the frustration coming as a result of failing to achieve its highest ambitions. They were thus inclined towards criticizing the existing system and thus was well placed in taking advantage of the political crisis of seventeen eighty eight and seventeen eighty nine. In other words, they were ready to overthrow the old order. The crisis of social mobility was just one of the many problems of the Old Regime.
Because of the internal elegance and the depth of its explanation, the above argument is particularly attractive. It made much sense of Louis XIV reign, eighteenth century and the Revolution. The contest between revolution and counterrevolution can be reduced to the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy which came to fore during the final years of Louis XIV reign. The aristocracy were not successful thus shifting the analysis to the struggle between the working class and bourgeoisie. This argument is basically untenable as it initially assumes the progression of aristocracy’s monopoly of high posts rather than demonstrate it. It also assumes that the seventeenth century society was more open than the succeeding society.
Economically, there was no big difference between the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie. Much of France’s private wealth was in the form of urban real estate, land and bonds and both groups heavily invested in these. Even though there were variations depending on the places, the nobility and the bourgeoisie were important landowners. From economic point of view, the nobility and the bourgeoisie belonged to the same class. With this regard, their split in seventeen eighty nine cannot be attributed to economic origins.
The impact of the revisionist critique of the classical interpretation has been to reemphasize the significance of the cultural and political origins of the Revolution. The conception that the French Revolution came as a result of the struggle between the nobility and the bourgeoisie has to be discarded if it is true that the nobility has always been the dominant class and that they shared same economic class with the bourgeoisie. With this regard, politics and culture still remains. Both the groups would have consented to unite so as to overthrow the absolutist system in favor of a liberal constitution.
Investigations into the cultural aspects of the Revolution reveal that a small section of the literate class was increasingly becoming critical of the status quo (Sutherland, 2003). For instance, lawyer’s briefs were uncensored and could be printed in large numbers. Within the popular theaters, the aristocrats would have been portrayed as taking advantage of their connections to exploit the ordinary people. As such, there various factors played in the maturity of discontent among the French populace concerning the role and responsibility of the ruling class and their relevance to the wellbeing of the majority of the citizens. The revolution can thus be traced to the very establishment of France as a distinct state and how various faces of despotism came to be embedded within its structure. On this note, it is important to consider the state of France during the revolution, especially the monarchy.
The state of the ruling class
The French Revolution provided the ground for the establishment of anarchy in France. Things that hitherto formed a title to respect came to be an object of proscription. Wealth, character, station, law and the revolutionary government failed to have a permanent influence on the people of France. The state’s guidance was at the discretion of men who in most part remained obscure, in the absence of eminence in crime. What had been the ruling assembly was transformed into an arena where gladiators trod in their enemies’ blood, each fall being characterized by applause and savage delight (Doyle, 1999). All this state came as a result of the singular spectacle of deeds generally categorized as cruel in the center of a nation so polished. Anyone would have argued that reforms would have been of noble consequences than the violent convulsion but the reality is that no mind within the ruling class would have articulated such reforms as that focused on the simple men hungry for equality and rights. If it is true, as Burke once stated, that rebellions are often provoked, then it is necessary to inquire into the conduct of the royal family of France and the privileges of the nobility which may have motivated a deep spirit of revenge by the people against them. Again, the distinctness of the remaining classes which resulted in their failure to retain the power they had possessed is also worth being examined. In making such inquiries, I have refrained from making it my business to justify the actions of those who overthrew the monarchy. It beats rationality to accept that the common voice is an infallible rule for guiding the measures of state although the people are directed by the leaders to choose between wise or pernicious remedies. Again, it cannot be denied that leaders are often blind to the presence of grievances. With this regard, I will observe the conduct of the king, the nobility and the clergy and the manner in which the government acted on the condition of the nation. This will provide an insight into the sources of public opinion and weigh the benefits of the moral and political philosophers who envisioned and foretold change, and who offered the road map to arriving at this change. There was no particular point that a nation was so much ready for a revolution by previous analysis; there was also no point that a nation in revolution wallowed so much without a compass or chart in the turbulent seas, darkness and danger.
There are sufficient descriptions as per the nature of the French monarchy as it was founded by the relentless vigor of Richelieu who was considered the ablest politician and Louis XIV, a very skillful monarch (Stone, 2002). Richelieu quelled the turbulent passions by terror and promptitude while Louis XIV governed the quick imaginations of his subjects by pomp and foreign war. The French, being in a state of ignorance, misery and vassalage, suffered silently and obeyed. However, their general condition was slightly improved during the reign of Louis XV with the government reaping the benefits of what came as a result of civilization.
The situation in France remained tranquil for a long time with increases in commerce and the aesthetic appeal of Paris being enhanced. The Boulevards began to exude crowds of gay and idle individuals and a prodigious assortment of amusement. Tapestry, silk and fine cloth manufacturers made remarkable progress toward perfection, enriching the country. To some degree, the government assisted the activities and industry of individuals (Russell 1832: 5). Records show that an edict appeared in seventeen fifty four which allowed for the free exportation of corn among the provinces. Focus was particularly on that branch of government concerned with the construction of roads. However, the roads were meant for the nobility rather than for the people. Any observer at the time would have concluded that France prospered but an examination into the condition of the court, the government and the people provided a radically different picture. Since everything existing within the nation of France was inferior to the monarch, the first object of my attention is the character of the monarch, his family and his court.
Weariness and disgust are produced from the nature of absolute power. According to Lord Bacon, it is a miserable state of mind to possess few things to desire and many things to fear (Cited in). A difficulty that needs to be resolved, an obstacle to encounter, an equilibrium between hope and fear; all form the basis for human happiness and the foundation of disquietude beside being the subject of their complaint. In Russell’s words (1832), “a miser who should be told that instead of painfully hoarding day after day, he should be at once the master of as many millions of pounds as he could wish for, would lose at once his pursuit and delight”. So was the monarchy in France. From his earliest years, Louis XV was placed in the most brilliant crown of his time. His predecessor leveled to the ground every hindrance to the complete enjoyment of his arbitrary will and pleasure. He had at his disposal an entire finance of a wealthy kingdom. At the echelons of his domestic servants were the most refined nobility in Europe whose orders were obeyed by everyone, and every woman considered herself honored by being associated with. Whoever pleased him could be awarded highest honors with the revenues of the kingdom being his gift. If anyone offended him, the consequence was imprisonment of banishment effected by a simple letter reinforced by his signature (Kaplow et al., 1965). This was during the age when every art of satisfying the senses was refined to perfection. In the possession of all these powers and in the middle of all these enjoyments, the monarch lived in a state of perpetual weariness and disgust. He had been flattered by his governor during his childhood with his heart’s affections remaining uncultivated. According to Russell, he never learned to regard his fellow humans in any other view than as objects existing for the sole purpose of satisfying his pleasure and subject to his absolute dominion.
Louis XIV was often described as insensitive to the happiness of other people. The thoughts of his own greatness affected him to tears. He was indifferent to the civil government of his empire, only caring in gratifying his indolence and timidity by evading decision. He unambiguously perceived the interested perceptions of his courtiers and the foolishness of his ministers, becoming the cynical critic of his very own government. He permitted every kind of evil even though he expressed his thorough loathe of the measures he sanctioned and the men he favored. The result of his cold, selfish and timid attitude led to both his unhappiness and that of the kingdom. The king of France considered with so much indifference almost everything that excites the passion of humans. He was very bold in doing wrong which gave him some form of satisfaction and the sense of existence.
Such was the morals and manners of the court in the days of Louis XIV. In the days of his great grandson, not much changed with regard to the general features but in reality, the differences were considerable. The nobility of the period of Louis XIV were to some extent sincere in their conduct and actually held admission into the carriage of the monarch to be of the highest honor. They also held the view that the lowly born were entitled to abuse. However, in the eighteenth century, while not much progress was realized with regard to amending the moral and political conduct, there existed a remarkable change in opinion. No one cared for the opinion of the monarch with a few individuals actually believing that their position was anything else than an advantage founded by custom, by which it was their right to benefit (Lefebvre et al. 2001). They thus did not care much about honors and instead cared for the money. They were completely conscious of their own degradation as much as they scrambled for public spoils. They also knew that public opinion was against them. Despite all these factors, they still persisted on their pursuance of their goals, however much contemptuous they seemed in their own eyes. They were thus morally inferior to even the worst courtiers of the preceding age. The France’s nobility did anything for money so that they may support their infamous lives. There was a general moral decay among the upper social classes which also extended to the clergy. The country clergy however wallowed in poverty even though they were charitable and virtuous. The rich monks and many bishops set an example of riot which roused the indignation of individuals who wished for reforms while at the same time encouraging the friends of revolution.
It is often remarked that the only liberty that was preserved among the French people is the liberty of laughing at their rulers. Beyond this, they did not possess any rights as the nobility was so much absorbed into their own affairs than looking into the interests of the other people. All these aspects bred an atmosphere of revolution as the system where the ruling class did not feel any sense of responsibility for the citizens would not have persisted. The citizens were also burdened by misery and they would not have held for a long time. A revolution was thus inevitable, causes of which are rooted in the entire structure of the French government.
One apparent fact is that the government of France was inherently irregular and unstable, with old institutions stained with the rust of time but in the absence of respect paid to antiquity. It had oppressive privileges and was never in harmony with the moods of the time. It also possessed a general trend of improvement among the citizens without being accompanied by any reform of the abuses in its administration. Its mode of institutionalization itself bred massive corruption as the parliament which was the first authority next to the monarchy, had its source in the Crown and not the people. As such, the people of France were not represented in any way which consequently led to the monarchy losing reality with the state of its people.
The French people revolted against the despotic principles of the government and not against Louis XVI. The principles did not have their origin with Louis XVI but can be traced back to the original establishment many centuries back which came to be deeply rooted to be uprooted, with the individuals within the court being too filthy to be cleansed by any other mechanism except by a complete and universal revolution. When it became necessary to act, the entire heart and soul did not attempt but went into the measure completely. The crisis was thus achieved and there was no choice by to act with determined vigor or not to act at all (Paine: 10). The conception about the king was that he was a friend of the nation and this situation was favorable to the enterprise. The monarch and the monarchy were unique and separate entities and it was against the established despotism of the monarchy and not against the individual or the principles of the monarch that motivated the revolt. Louis XVI natural moderation did not make any contribution in changing the hereditary despotism of the monarchy. All the tyrannies of the predecessors performed under the very hereditary despotism were still subject to be revived in the hands of a successor. France would not have been satisfied with the respite of a reign, considering its degree of enlightenment. According to Paine (1856), a casual discontinuation of the practice of despotism is not a discontinuation of its principles. The former is dependent upon the virtue of the individual who possesses the power while the latter is dependent upon the virtue and fortitude of the nation. For instance, in England, the revolt was against the personal tyranny of Charles I and William II while in France, it was against the hereditary tyranny of the established government. However, there are numerous points of views upon which the French Revolution may be considered. When tyranny has founded itself for ages in a country such as France, it is not in the person of the ruler that it resides. It has the appearance of being so superficially and in nominal authority. This is not however the case in reality. Its standards are rooted everywhere with every office and department having its own form of tyranny based on custom and usage. The original hereditary tyranny that is present in the person of the king fragments and subdivides itself into numerous shapes and forms until its entirety is acted by deputation. This was the case in France. Against this form of tyranny, progressing on through an endless labyrinth of office till its source is hardly comprehensible, there is no any other way it that it can be dressed. It becomes strong by assuming the appearance of duty and becomes tyrannical under the pretense of obeying.
When one considers the condition of France from the nature of her government, he is bound to come across other causes for revolt other than those that link immediately with the character of Louis XVI. There were a thousand tyrannies that needed to be reformed in France, emanating from the hereditary despotism of the monarchy. This became so fixed as to be in a greater extent independent of it. There existed a rivalry of tyranny between the monarchy, the parliament and the church. The French revolution can thus be seen as emanating from the rational contemplation of the rights of man which was planted in the very system of the French government.
Doyle, W. (1999) Origins of the French Revolution. Oxford University Press
Lefebvre, G., Evanson, M., & Beik, P. (2001). The French Revolution: from its origins to 1793. Routledge
Kaplow, J., Ranum, O. & Wagoner, R. (1965) New Perspectives on the French Revolution: Readings in Historical Sociology. Wiley Publishers
Paine, T. (1856) Rights of Man: Being an Answer to Mr. Burke’s Attack on the French Revolution. J. P. Mendum
Russell, J. (1832). The causes of the French revolution. Longman Publishers
Stone, B. (2002) Reinterpreting the French Revolution: a global-historical perspective. Cambridge University Press
Sutherland, D. (2003) The French revolution and empire: the quest for a civic order. Wiley- Blackwell