Thursday, March 12, 2020

The Origins of the French Revolution in the Ancien Régime

Execution of Marie-Antoinette
From Robert Wilde at
The classic view of the ancien régime in France—the state of the nation before the French Revolution of 1789—is one of opulent, corpulent aristocrats enjoying wealth, privilege, and the finery of life, while totally divorced from the mass of the French people, who stooped in rags to pay for it. When this picture is painted, it is usually followed by an explanation of how a revolution—a massive smashing of the old by the massed ranks of the newly empowered common man—was necessary to destroy the institutionalized disparities. Even the name suggests a major gap: it was old, the replacement is new. Historians now tend to believe this is largely a myth, and that much once regarded as purely the result of the revolution was actually evolving before it. (Read more.)

From the same author at
By the late 1780s, the French monarchy was on the brink of collapse. Its involvement in the American Revolution had left the regime of King Louis XVI bankrupt and desperate to raise funds by taxing the wealthy and the clergy. Years of bad harvests and rising prices for basic commodities led to social unrest among the rural and urban poor. Meanwhile, the growing middle class (known as the bourgeoisie) was chafing under an absolute monarchical rule and demanding political inclusion.

In 1789 the king called for a meeting of the Estates-General—an advisory body of clergy, nobles, and bourgeoisie that had not convened in more than 170 years—to garner support for his financial reforms. When the representatives assembled in May of that year, they couldn't agree on how to apportion representation.

After two months of bitter debate, the king ordered delegates locked out of the meeting hall. In response, they convened on June 20 on the royal tennis courts, where the bourgeoisie, with the support of many clergy and nobles, declared themselves the new governing body of the nation, the National Assembly, and vowed to write a new constitution.

Although Louis XVI agreed in principle to these demands, he began plotting to undermine the Estates-General, stationing troops throughout the country. This alarmed the peasants and middle class alike, and on July 14, 1789, a mob attacked and occupied the Bastille prison in protest, touching off a wave of violent demonstrations nationwide.

On Aug. 26, 1789, the National Assembly approved the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. Like the Declaration of Independence in the United States, the French declaration guaranteed all citizens equal, enshrined property rights and free assembly, abolished the absolute power of the monarchy and established representative government. Not surprisingly, Louis XVI refused to accept the document, triggering another massive public outcry. (Read more.) 

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