The French Revolution: Pre-Revolutionary France
by Rick Brainard
The French government of Louis XVI was overthrown in 1789. The Revolutionaries took as their motto, the famous phrase "Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite" Liberty, Equality, Fraternity. Equality. They did away with privilege. This was the most important part of the French revolutionary slogan.
They were willing to sacrifice their political liberties for equality. This happened when Napoleon I, took over as ruler of France. However, when Napoleon took over, Fraternity, or brotherhood with all men was sacrificed, but they did win equality before law.
Before 1789, inequality and corruption was the order of the day. Both in Government and society. The Nobles and clergy were the privileged orders. They were exempt from some taxes, such as the taille tax. This tax was a land tax. Most of the taxes were paid by the Third Estate, a class that included peasants, artisans, merchants, and professional men.
Even among these groups, taxes were not equal. Some provinces were exempt from certain assessments, such as the gabelle, or salt tax. In addition, collectors of some of these taxes were contracted out to tax farmers, these people collected whatever they could, but were inefficient and ineffective about collecting what was due the government.
There were social and economic inequalities as well as political ones. The peasant still had to pay the out of date feudal dues to the nobles and the king, who collected them with a renewed vigor in the later part of the 18th century. Rabbits that killed the crops of peasant's gardens and the pigeons that ate their grain could not be killed or controlled because this game was protected for the noble's hunting expeditions.
During these hunting expeditions, the peasant's crops were trampled, and their fences were broken down, with no redress for these damages. It was a case of 'C'est la vie'. To top all that off, the peasants also had to pay dues to the church. This was known as the tithe. These and other obligations were senseless and unreasonable in the Age of Reason.
True the conditions were no worse in the latter half of the 18th century than in the first half, however, the people began to think for themselves, political opinion was forming and the writers of the time expressed the corruption and out of date practices in their works.
It was these writers, known as the philisophs, who helped stir up thought and discontent. From Voltaire to Rousseau, all had something to say about this. Each had their own theories on what makes a better system of government and society.
Final Steps before the Revolution
At last the day of reckoning came. The national treasury had been exhausted by the wars of Louis XIV and by his extravagance and that of his successors. The 250 million dollars that it cost France to aid the Americans in their fight for independence was the last straw. Jacques Turgot and Jacques Necker, ministers of finance, had tried to ward off bankruptcy by cutting court expenses.
The reckless court, led by the sprightly, frivolous, extravagant queen, Marie Antoinette, would not listen to the word "economy". Turgot and Necker were dismissed and other ministers took their place. Finally, foreign bankers refused to lend more money. Public opinion was deeply stirred by the Parlement of Paris, a judicial body that defied the king and refused to enforce new taxes.
In 1788, Louis XVI, as a last resort, called a meeting of the Estates-General. The three estates were the nobles, the clergy, and the common people. . Their representatives met at Versailles, a suburb of Paris, early in May 1789. Reforms and a constitution were demanded at this meeting.