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.