King Louis XVI
It was the middle of the 1780s and the King of France was broke.
Extravagant levels of spending by the monarchy and nobility, both of whom and the church were exempt from taxation on their lands or incomes, had led to perpetual annual deficits. The deficits had been covered by borrowings which of course only made the situation worse. A goodly portion of tax receipts from the Third Estate were now going to interest payments.
Anne Robert Jacques Turgot, Baron de l’Aulne and Minister of Finance had had enough. The continuance of annual deficits could mean nothing else than ultimate bankruptcy. Turgot announced his program to the King in the words “No bankruptcy, no increase in taxation, no more borrowing.”
Turgot, an economic liberal proposed cutting expenditures and developing public wealth so that receipts would be larger by introducing a regime of liberty into agriculture, industry and commerce.
Turgot was able to save many millions but he offended all who enjoyed those privileges and they flew into arms. He introduced free trade in grain thus making enemies of grain speculators. He abolished trade guilds which restricted production, which was desirable but turned the masters of the guilds against him. He abolished the royal corvee, an odious tax which required peasants to work without pay on public roads, requiring land owners to pay a tax in order to pay the workers. All landowners opposed him, arguing that there should not be equality of all before the tax collector.
Queen Marie Antoinette
All lobbied the King including the Queen Marie Antoinette and so the weak willed Louis XVI gave in and relieved the obnoxious Minister. In doing so he fired the most able supporter the throne had.
The fall of Turgot taught all of the reformers a lesson – No changes that could affect the privileged classes! Yet without reform affecting those classes there was no way out of the annual deficits.
Jacques Necker, a Geneva banker succeeded Turgot. A man who had risen from poverty to great wealth, he too encountered opposition as he proposed economies. Then he took a step which infuriated the members of the Court – he published a financial report showing the income and expenditures of the state.
This had never been done before. secrecy having always prevailed in such matters. The Court was indignant that such high mystery should be revealed to common folk particularly that it showed just how much went in annual pensions to the courtiers as free gifts for which they rendered no service.
For such audacity Necker was overthrown.
This time the King took no chances. He appointed Charles de Calonne as Finance Minister. Calonne lived to please; the members of the Court had only to make their wishes known. In the space of 3 years Calonne borrowed some half a billion dollars in current funds from money lenders to cover the spending. Money flowed like water.
It seemed to good to be true – and it was. The evil days grew neigh for an accounting.
In August 1786 the Treasury was empty and there were no more lending fools. Calonne proposed a general tax on the nobles as well as the commoners; it was his turn to go.
His successor Lomenie de Brienne encountered the same fate. He proposed new taxes.
The city government of Paris, known as the parliament of Paris demanded a convocation the Estates General arguing that taxes can only be imposed by those who have to pay them. The King tried to overawe the parliament but soon found that this was no way to fill an empty Treasury.
He gave in and called a meeting of the Estates which had not happened for 175 years. The convocation was called to meet in Versailles on May 1, 1789. A new chapter of incalculable possibilities was opened in the history of France.
Necker was recalled tp head the Ministry and preparations for the coming meeting. The Estates General had been virtually dead but was now revived to help pull the state out of its deplorable condition. But it was a thoroughly feudal organization no longer conforming to the wishes or needs of the nation.
Previously it consisted of three chambers, nobility, clergy and third estate, consisting of an equal number of members and each meeting separately. Two of the three chambers consisted entirely of privileged classes. There was immediate objection to this as, with two against one the nation was exactly where it had been. The two could veto anything the Third Estate alone wanted. All reform could be prevented.
Necker proposed the Third Estate should have as many members as the other two combined (it represented 90% of the French population) but the issue of meeting as one body went unresolved. Meeting as one body, the Third Estate would be a majority counting on lowly priests and a minority of nobles to join them. The Third Estate wanted a vote by individuals, not by chambers.
The Convocation met on May 5, 1789 with about 1,200 members; over 600 members were of the Third Estate. Each group drew up a list of grievances. Some were almost unanimous. All described the ills from which the country suffered due to arbitrary government; all talked of the necessity of confining government within limits, of establishing a Constitution.
The nobility almost unanimously agreed to relinquish their exemptions for which they had fought so resolutely only 2 years before. The Third Estate wanted the suppression of feudal dues and was willing to leave the nobility with its honors and rights. All expressed love of the Kng.
A wave of hope swept the land. Then the King made a speech at the Convocation – and mentioned not a word of a Constitution for France. He was only interested in bringing order to the country’s finances. And he made no comment on whether or not the vote should be by order or by head. He came with no program whatsoever.
A crisis was the result; the public disappointed. A conflict between the orders began and lasted until the end of June. One chamber or three? Both sides stood firm. Nothing could be done until the crucial question was settled. Vote by head was viewed as the end of the class system and preponderance of the Third Estate – which it felt was only right considering that it represents nine-tenths of the French population.
Eventually the parish priests began to come over sympathizing with the commoners rather than their own order.
Finally on June 17, 1789 the Third Estate took the momentous step of declaring itself the National Assembly, a distinctly revolutionary proceeding.
The King under pressure from the Court and the Queen did a highly unwise thing. On June 20 the Third Estate, proceeding to its usual meeting place, found the entrance blocked by troops. Members of the order first thought the whole experiment was over. On impulse they rushed to an ajoining building which served as a tennis court
Surging around their leader, the noted astronomer Bailly, they took the Tennis Court Oath.
They swore they would never separate and would reassemble wherever circumstances required, until the nation had a Constitution. The King called the action illegal and ruled that the orders should meet separately. He ordered the Third Estate to withdraw.
“You heard the King’s orders!”
It would be the abandonment of all the Third Estate stood for; alternatively defying the express orders of the King could result in severe punishment.
The occasion brought forth its man: Honore Gabriel Riqueti. Count of Mirabeau.
He had been refused by the nobles to represent their order and was subsequently chosen by the commoners. He arose and advanced imperiously toward the guard commander and with a thunderous voice exclaimed:
“Go tell your master that we are here by the will of the people and that we shall not leave except at the point of a bayonet!”
Further anyone who laid hands on a member of the National Assembly would be “infamous traitors to the nation and guilty of a capital crime!”
Three days later the King ordered the nobles and clergy to sit with the commoners in the National Assembly.
to be continued.
If you intend to continue to follow subsequent posts on this subject suggest you read my first post if you haven’t done so: