The French Revolution
The French Revolution, which began in 1789, is often seen as the dividing line between the early modern era and our own modern world.
· The system of Louis XIV broke down, and took with it to oblivion the ideological justification for monarchy and the hierarchical society of privilege that was the Old Regime.
· The short-lived First Republic of France had in the meantime created a new ideal of citizenship, a concept of national identity that has remained influential ever since.
· The Revolution was both a test run for democratic idealism and for the techniques of modern dictatorship.
This lecture will look at the collapse of the royal government, and the beginning of the revolution.
I believe the collapse of royal government was a simple phenomenon. Most despotic governments fall (and most governments have been, historically, despotic) when the king cannot pay the bills and his erstwhile subordinates cannot be convinced to bail him out. A division in the ruling class allows those usually excluded from power a chance to assert themselves. This, I think, is what happened in France in the 1780s.
If we accept this theory, it follows that several other things did not cause the revolution.
First, the revolution was not caused by an inevitable bourgeois rising against feudalism, against a parasitic landowning nobility that was hopelessly out of date. There was, before the revolution, no simple division between bourgeois and nobility in economic terms.
Neither do we find any clear dividing line if we turn from wealth to economic function . The word "bourgeois" summons up a vision of an entrepreneurial, productive class, proto-industrialists and daring merchant-adventurers. Very few 18th century bourgeois fit this description. The most respectable bourgeois, and generally the more prosperous ones were members of the professions, especially lawyers, and minor office-holders These men were not the wave of the economic future. People like this had existed for centuries. some of the most progressive economic projects of the time, the big capitalist and industrial experiments, were financed and planned by old, rich noble families.
There was no strong bourgeois consciousness before the revolution The desire of the ambitious bourgeois was not to overthrow or displace the nobility, but to join it. If the bourgeois had a complaint against the nobles, it was that it was becoming too difficult to get into the club. Both the population of France and the numbers of the bourgeois had increased dramatically in the eighteenth century [Doyle (p. 129) estimate of number of bourgeois: 1700 -- 700-800,000; 1789 -- 2,300,000.] The number of offices, especially those that gave a reasonable expectation of social advancement, had not increased.
A second thing that did not cause the French Revolution was sheer misery. Short-term misery did indeed have an important effect on the course of the revolution, as we shall see later....