Ancien Regime France: If Not Revolution, What Were They Thinking?

Paper by David Flash for History 353: French Revolution and Napoleon at The University of Texas at Austin, Grade: A 96/100, Mean: 83.4/100

“What is the Third Estate? Everything. What has it been until now in the political order? Nothing. What does it want? To become something…” Abbe Sieyes penned these words in January 1789, on the eve of what was to become known as the French Revolution. Contrary to the view popularized by Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, characterizing the French Revolution as a predictable effect of tyranny and oppression, the “something” the French proletariat, also known as the Third Estate, desired to “become,” at the outset, was anything but “revolutionary.”

Dickens’ narrator posits there exists not “a blade, a leaf, a root, a sprig, a peppercorn, which will grow to maturity under conditions more certain than those that have produced this horror.” Most historians diverge from causal theories made popular by dramatists like Dickens, preferring views aligned with preeminent French Revolution historian William Doyle: Prior to spring 1789 “hardly anybody…dreamed of revolution, or would have even understood the idea.” Doyle’s argument begs a question: If citizens weren’t thinking “revolution” on the eve of the French Revolution, what were they thinking? Looking into what the French were reading and writing on the precipice of the Spring 1989 Estates General called by King Louis XVI helps us gain perspective on the multi-faceted answer to this complicated question. As it turns out, the truth about the thinking of pre-revolutionary French citizenry, as told by the citizens and writers of the era, is far more interesting, and more complex, than fiction.

Three Estates Agree: Absolutism On The Rocks, Rights, and Constitutional Monarchy

In convening the Estates General, King Louis XVI is essentially asking: “Tell me what’s wrong with this country” (Desan, 5). In answer, the French citizenry, defined as qualified males over 25 years of age from all three estates, produced some 60,000 lists of grievances known as “cahiers du dolances.” A look at the literature popular in this period illuminates the role which the Enlightenment ideals of Natural Rights, particularly those of Diderot and Rousseau, played in justifying the grievances and remonstrances enumerated in these cahiers. Examining the cahiers in context of these Enlightenment ideals grants a glimpse into the zeitgeist of France in the spring of 1789.

“Beloved monarch, so worthy of our affection,” is how the Cahiers of The Third Estate of Carcassone addresses Louis XVI. This florid and respectful tone typifies the majority of the 1789 lists of grievances. While respectful and deferential to the Crown, all three estates appear to concur that the current Absolutist Monarchy, premised on monarchical power derived from God that could not be challenged by any other body, is not working. They view his calling the Estates General for the first time in 175 years as tantamount to his “opening the door” to sharing power with the people. (Desan, 5) A generally hopeful tone in light of this “open door” to a new kind of nation, permeates the cahiers composed by all three estates.

The specific hopes and grievances of the Clergy, Nobles, and Third Estate varied situationally, but the cahiers were generally unanimous in indicating that “absolutism was on the rocks, but the monarchy was not” (Desan, 5). Many cahiers spanning the three estates also refer to a constitution and their hopes for contents of the constitution, advocating often idealized concepts of Constitutional Monarchy based on the government that had relatively recently arisen in the wake of England’s Glorious Revolution of 1688.

The cahiers, in general, articulate hopes for greater prosperity and freedom under a new form of Constitutional Monarchy with a body of representatives that meet regularly, affording citizens true representation in the government that has the authority to tax them and the responsibility to preserve their rights and property.. The concept of Natural Law is also a major underlying principle justifying the grievances and remonstrations present in casiers from all three estates. Though the Estates diverged in their definitions of Natural Law, all three envisioned a monarchy more aligned with “contemporary concepts of natural law: rights, freedoms, privileges, and property” (Coffin).

Natural Law is God’s Law and God Anointed the King

The clergy and monarchy in France are interdependent in the Ancien Regime, so the cahiers from this group tend to be protective of the monarch’s power. It is no wonder, the king has for centuries been protective of the Catholic Church’s claim to the tithe and exclusivity as the official religion. The church has, in-turn, attested to the divine selection of the Bourbon Kings for generations prior to the cahiers of 1789.

The vision for the Constitutional Monarchy is one “where a single man rules and is ruled by law alone.”  The Church does advocate for lowered tax burdens, representative government, and even freedom of religion in some cases. However, preservation of the divinity and authority of the French monarchy is essential to the Clergy’s preservation of power. Their concept of Natural Law is not derived from Rousseau or Diderot whom they identify as heretics. Natural Law, according to the views of the Roman Catholic Church, still derives from God the Father and Pope Pius VI.

French Nobility Sees Opportunity to Regain Lost Power

“We have need of a concourse of our faithful subjects, to assist us surmount all the difficulties we find relative to the state of our finances… These great motives have resolved us to convoke the assemblée des États…” These words from King Louis XVI, penned in January 1789, were viewed as an invitation offering the French citizenry an opportunity to voice their opinions on how the nation was to be run. It was viewed by the nobility as a golden opportunity to improve their situation, power, and status in the kingdom. Comtess de Sugur, a French Noble, retrospectively characterized the spring of 1789 as “stepp[ing] out gaily on a carpet of flowers, little imagining the abyss underneath.” The “flowers” the nobles envisioned growing from the impending Constitutional Monarchy of their dreams. They hoped to regain some of the political power that they had gradually lost to absolutist monarchs over the preceding two centuries.

The Nobility of Blois propose the principles of the constitution be “simple…reduced to two: Security for person, security for property.” Their views of Natural Rights, like much of the French Nobility, are likely derived more from Diderot than Rosseau. The nobles assert the existence of “true, inalienable, natural rights” (Diderot) but their version of Natural Law does not appreciate Rousseau’s concept of natural man, the noble savage. They view the Nobility who own the land, rather than the Peasant farmers who work the land, as the true source of the nation’s wealth: “of all classes of citizens none is in a better position to know the needs of agriculture than nobility.”

Third Estate Requests Removal of “Useless Fetters” and Equal Justice

The Third Estate would beg to differ, viewing the path to a better France in the removal of “useless fetters” on the commoners. “Every service a citizen can render the State he ought to render…but the Sovereign, for its part, cannot impose upon its subjects any fetters that are useless to the community,” argued Jean Jacques Rousseau in The Social Contract. Seigneurial dues, tithe, and collection of royal taxes were viewed as such fetters. As were the privilege system and the unfair, expansive, confounding civil and criminal justice systems in the varied provinces. Strong desire for the removal of many, if not all of the preceding “useless fetters” to citizens’ prosperity and even their very sustenance were almost universally expressed by cahiers submitted to the King by the Third Estate. Peasants were under-represented in the cahiers submitted by the Third Estate, composed by bodies which selected Estates General delegates of the following composition: 13% merchants, 25% lawyers, and 45% office holders (Coffin).

However, the interests of peasants, many of whom, contrary to common perception, are prosperous and respected in their communities, are not disregarded by the Third Estate. Peasants are venerated in the works of Rousseau. The Third Estate’s most respected philosopher paints peasant life as idyllic and most aligned with Natural Law. Peasants, according to Rousseau, “among the happiest people in the world…regulating affairs of State under an oak.” While the cahiers of the Third Estate diverge on specific requests, which range from removal of customs barriers from frontiers to abolition of antiquated traditions like primogeniture (Versailles), they were united in their cries for relief from oppressive taxes that threatened their survival. This threat was thrown into sharp relief by recent and impending crop failures and food shortages that occurred just prior to the drafting of the cahiers.

Cahiers Support “Big Bang” Theory

The “build up” to the French Revolution appears to be a complex, successive series of highly improbable events. This lends credence to the “Big Bang” theory of a revolution that occurred, not as a “seed planted” by a systemic abuse of the third estate desirous of a revolution, much less a Republic. Instead, according to the theory, the French Revolution was the sudden result of an unpredictable “perfect storm” of events and ideas colliding.


Photo by Annette Schuman on Unsplash

1 Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s