The Assembly of Notables

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.

Revolution on the Horizon

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.

The Bourgeoisie

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.

Popular pages: The French Revolution (1789–1799)