The French royalty in the years prior to the French Revolution were a study in corruption and excess. France had long subscribed to the idea of divine right, which maintained that kings were selected by God and thus perpetually entitled to the throne. This doctrine resulted in a system of absolute rule and provided the commoners with absolutely no input into the governance of their country.
In addition, there was no universal law in France at the time. Rather, laws varied by region and were enforced by the local parlements (provincial judicial boards), guilds, or religious groups. Moreover, each of those sovereign courts had to approve any royal decrees by the king if these decrees were to come into effect. As a result, the king was virtually powerless to do anything that would have a negative effect on any regional government. Ironically, this “checks and balances” system operated in a government rife with corruption and operating without the support of the majority.
The monarchs of the Bourbon dynasty, the French nobility, and the clergy became increasingly egregious in their abuses of power in the late 1700s. They bound the French peasantry into compromising feudal obligations and refused to contribute any tax revenue to the French government. This blatantly unfair taxation arrangement did little to endear the aristocracy to the common people.
A number of ill-advised financial maneuvers in the late 1700s worsened the financial situation of the already cash-strapped French government. France’s prolonged involvement in the Seven Years’ War of 1756–1763 drained the treasury, as did the country’s participation in the American Revolution of 1775–1783. Aggravating the situation was the fact that the government had a sizable army and navy to maintain, which was an expenditure of particular importance during those volatile times. Moreover, in the typical indulgent fashion that so irked the common folk, mammoth costs associated with the upkeep of King Louis XVI’s extravagant palace at Versailles and the frivolous spending of the queen, Marie-Antoinette, did little to relieve the growing debt. These decades of fiscal irresponsibility were one of the primary factors that led to the French Revolution. France had long been recognized as a prosperous country, and were it not for its involvement in costly wars and its aristocracy’s extravagant spending, it might have remained one.
Finally, in the early 1780s, France realized that it had to address the problem, and fast. First, Louis XVI appointed Charles de Calonne controller general of finances in 1783. Then, in 1786, the French government, worried about unrest should it to try to raise taxes on the peasants, yet reluctant to ask the nobles for money, approached various European banks in search of a loan. By that point, however, most of Europe knew the depth of France’s financial woes, so the country found itself with no credibility.
Louis XVI asked Calonne to evaluate the situation and propose a solution. Charged with auditing all of the royal accounts and records, Calonne found a financial system in shambles. Independent accountants had been put in charge of various tasks regarding the acquisition and distribution of government funds, which made the tracking of such transactions very difficult. Furthermore, the arrangement had left the door wide open to corruption, enabling many of the accountants to dip into government funds for their own use. As for raising new money, the only system in place was taxation. At the time, however, taxation only applied to peasants. The nobility were tax-exempt, and the parlements would never agree to across-the-board tax increases.
Calonne finally convinced Louis XVI to gather the nobility together for a conference, during which Calonne and the king could fully explain the tenuous situation facing France. This gathering, dubbed the Assembly of Notables, turned out to be a virtual who’s who of people who didn’t want to pay any taxes. After giving his presentation, Calonne urged the notables either to agree to the new taxes or to forfeit their exemption to the current ones. Unsurprisingly, the notables refused both plans and turned against Calonne, questioning the validity of his work. He was dismissed shortly thereafter, leaving France’s economic prospects even grimmer than before.
By the late 1780s, it was becoming increasingly clear that the system in place under the Old Regime in France simply could not last. It was too irresponsible and oppressed too many people. Furthermore, as the result of the Enlightenment, secularism was spreading in France, religious thought was becoming divided, and the religious justifications for rule—divine right and absolutism—were losing credibility. The aristocracy and royalty, however, ignored these progressive trends in French thought and society. Rather, the royals and nobles adhered even more firmly to tradition and archaic law. As it would turn out, their intractability would cost them everything that they were trying to preserve.
Although many accounts of the French Revolution focus on the French peasantry’s grievances—rising food prices, disadvantageous feudal contracts, and general mistreatment at the hands of the aristocracy—these factors actually played a limited role in inciting the Revolution. For all of the hardships that they endured, it wasn’t the peasants who jump-started the Revolution. Rather, it was the wealthy commoners—the bourgeoisie—who objected most vocally to the subpar treatment they were receiving. The bourgeoisie were generally hardworking, educated men who were well versed in the enlightened thought of the time. Although many of the wealthier members of the bourgeoisie had more money than some of the French nobles, they lacked elite titles and thus were subjected to the same treatment and taxation as even the poorest peasants. It was the bourgeoisie that would really act as a catalyst for the Revolution, and once they started to act, the peasants were soon to follow.