The Queen’s Chamber at Versailles
What was it like to be a common man, a member of the Third Estate in the time just before the French Revolution, which was to change the course of European history? How bad did daily life have to be to start a revolution which changed a government as well as society from the bottom up?
It is not an easy society to describe in a few words; many books have been written on the subject by far smarter folks than I. Leaving details aside French society was graded from top to bottom and each grade differed in legal rights, in opportunities for advancement, development, and power.
The system culminated in the monarch, the lofty, glittering head of state, the embodiment of the majesty of the nation.
The King claimed to rule by the will of God, by divine right, not at all by consent. He was responsible to no one but God. Consequently, in office he was subject to no control. He was an absolute monarch. He could do as he chose. It was for the nation to obey. The Will of the King was the only thing that counted. His will was the law governing the millions of French at the time.
“This thing is legal because I wish it” said Louis XVI thus stating in a single phrase the nature of the monarchy. The King made the laws, levied the taxes, spent them as he wished,, made wars, made peace and contracted alliances as he saw fit.
He could seize the property of anyone, imprison them on a mere order, a Lettre de Cachet, without trial for such a period as he desired. He censored the press and could muzzle criticism absolutely.
And he needed a broad and ample stage. Never has a being been more sumptuously housed as the King of France. While Paris was the capital, he lived 12 miles away at the splendors of Versailles. His palace was the envy of every King in Christendom, with hundreds of rooms, its chapel, theater, dining halls and salons along with endless suites of apartments for his distinguished guests. There were thousands of servants, miles of corridors and walks through endless formal gardens, studded with statues and lakes.
Versailles had all the pomp and pageantry of power. The Court was composed of some 18,000 people, perhaps 16,000 of whom were attached to personal service of the King and his family with some 2,000 being courtiers, the favored guests – nobles engaged in a daily round of pleasures who were also feathering their nests seeking favors from the lavish throne.
The French monarchy of the time was always in debt. There was no budget. The King simply spent on the lavish life or his army or gave it away to nobles in gifts or pensions and the finance minister had to fund it. Taxes would be raised or funds borrowed from money lenders. He didn’t collect it himself. He “privatized” it by selling the tax levy to “tax farmers” who paid a fixed sum to the crown for the right to collect and keep the taxes – and earn a nice profit. Tax-farmers were some of the most hated figures in France.
The nobility was the highest power after the King but there was no solidarity of class among the nobles. There was the Nobility of the Sword – old French families who had fought alongside long dead French Kings and been awarded hereditary titles and lands. These numbered around 2,000 individuals who by the time of the revolution were all living at Versailles while their estates were run by bailiffs. They were largely exempt from taxation on the value of their lands or income. Income came from peasants and serfs working their estates (about 20 million peasants were serfs before the revolution) and from surviving medieval annual levies from those living on their land.
The second class of nobles was the Nobility of the Robe – those “appointed” as judges by the crown throughout France. Mostly they bought their offices from the crown which was always in need of money. This group was not deemed important enough in the scheme of things to reside at Versailles. They lived in the various provinces dispensing the King’s justice. They shined brightly in their new nobility, wanted to keep their new positions of wealth, tax exemption and power and became one of the fiercest resisters of the revolution.
Next came the clergy and the church. Exempt from tax on vast land holdings and income, they were entitled to tithes from all who lived within their domains. Here again, there were two groups – the higher positions within the church were always filled by nobility. A Bishop always came from a noble family. Many Bishoprics were owned by noble families and passed from father to son or nephew. .The priesthood, on the other hand came primarily from the Third Estate. These common folk priests came from the poor and bourgeois class. Their income was so inadequate that most lived at a subsistence level. These poor priests would be some of the strongest supporters of the revolution.
And then there was everyone else – the Third Estate – the tens of millions who scraped by from day to day, suffering onerous taxation to support the luxury of the crown, the nobility and the church.
Here again there was no unity of class. Within the Third Estate was the bourgeoisie, the shop keepers, business men, property owners, many of who had amassed impressive fortunes. They resented the onerous taxes levied on their property and income, the possibility that they could be arrested at anytime without charges or trial and their lack of representation in the government. Most were made to feel in numerous galling ways their social inequality. By education and success they felt in many ways the equal of any noble. They considered themselves above the “mob.”
Also within the Third Estate were the artisans – those of a particular trade who had formed Guilds, limiting the ability of non-members to practice their trade. These Guilds were often hereditary in nature, the trade passing from father to son. The Guilds enjoyed their privilege and also considered themselves a cut above the “mob.” They too resented taxes levied without representation in the government and the complete lack of rights under the monarchy.
Thus of the 25 million Frenchmen, the clergy numbered about 130,000, the nobility around 140,000 while possibly about as many bourgeois as these two combined enjoyed privileges that separated them from the mass of their class. One in forty belonged to a favored minority whose lot was differentiated from that of their fellow men by artificial advantages and distinctions.
The Third Estate, like the other two illustrated the principle of inequality. There were the widest extremes in social and economic conditions. Everyone who was not a noble nor a clergyman, from the richest banker, the man of letters, the poorest peasant, the beggar in the street was a member.
More than nine-tenths of the population were peasants of which millions were serfs. The rest were free but their lot was an unhappy one. The burdens of society fell with crushing weight upon them. Turgot, the Finance Minister for Louis XVI soberly estimated that they paid 55% of what little they earned to the state. They paid tithes to the church, various feudal dues to the nobles, tolls for the use of roads, were forced to use his Lord’s winepress, mill, oven – and pay for it. He as forced to buy salt from the King’s monopoly and forbidden to use it to salt meat = it was only for use at the table only.
All in all, it is estimated that the peasant paid four-fifths of his income in taxes and fees -while the privileged classes paid nothing. It is estimated that in Paris alone with a population of 660,000 there were 120,000 beggars.
France was not unique in 1789 – every country in Europe was in a similar situation. Rulers were concerned only with expanding their domains and living the good life – they cared nothing for the well being of the general population.
And then came the writers of the enlightenment.
It began with Montesquieu, a member of the Nobility of the Robe, a lawyer of eminence. His great work, a product of 20 years of labor was his “Spirit of Laws” published in 1748 with immediate and immense success. An analysis of the various forms of government known to men, it was a cold and balanced judgement of their merits and defects. He contemptuously tore apart the claim of divine origin of Kings. Out of it came the idea that the British system was superior since it guaranteed personal liberty to all citizens; a monarchy limited in power and controlled by a parliament representing the people and carefully separating the power of the legislative, executive and judicial branches of government.
Next Voltaire, standing for the emancipation of intellect. The world has rarely seen a freer or more intrepid spirit enlisted in the fight for the freedom of mankind. Several times he had been thrown into prison by the odious arbitrary Lettres de Cachet because he had incurred the enmity of the nobles. A large part of his life was spent n exile for he was not safe in France. He singled out in his writings the hypocrisies and cruelties of the age and raked them over the coals, denouncing arbitrary imprisonment and torture. He attacked individual abuses in the state and undermined respect for authority in the face of injustice. He considered the church the gloomy vault of moldering superstitions, the enemy of freedom of thought.
And then there was Jean Rousseau, creator of an entirely new political system. He sought not reform; he swept far beyond it. The past had no power over him. His principle work was “Social Contract,” one of the most influential books ever written.
“Man was born free and everywhere is in chains” is the opening line.
The people are sovereign. Society rests only upon the persons who compose it, not any individual or any class. All men are free and equal. The purpose of government should be to protect the rights of each. He was utterly subversive of all the states of Europe.
And out of all of this, on July 14, 1789 came the storming of the Bastille and the Declaration of the Rights of Man.