The French Revolution was a great event in the history not only of France and Europe but also of mankind.
It gave to humanity new ideas of liberty, equality and fraternity which have found their way in every nook and comer of the world.
It was as much a war of bayonets as that of ideas’ and it seems desirable to refer to some of its important causes.
Some of the most important causes of French Revolution are as follows:
1. Social Cause:
There was too much of inequality in French society on the eve of the French Revolution. French society was divided into two parts the privileged and the unprivileged.
The privileged part consisted of the nobility and the clergy. Both of them formed a small minority of the total population of the country. In the total population of 24 millions, there were 150,000 nobles and 130,000 clergymen. Roughly, their combined strength was about one per cent. In spite of their smallness in size they excelled all others in the matter of rank, possessions and privileges.
A noble was addressed as “My Lord”, “Your Grace”, etc. The man in the street was required to salute him as his superior. Ordinarily, his coach was decorated with an ancestral coat of arms. The best seats were reserved for him both in the church and in the theatre. He was not expected to marry below his class. He had a monopoly of practically all the jobs in the army and the Church.
Every noble left to his son either a castle or a mansion and also a lot of territory from which he could collect taxes. Montesquieu, a nobleman himself, wrote thus: “A great noble is a man who sees the king, speaks to his minister and who possesses ancestors, debts and pensions.”
Lafayette has given a vivid picture of the young nobles of France in these words: “We are scornful critics of the old customs, of the feudal pride of our fathers and of their severe etiquette, and everything that was old seemed annoying and ridiculous to us….Voltaire attracted our intellect and Rousseau touched our hearts.
We took secret pleasure in seeing them attack the old framework, which appeared antiquated and ridiculous to us… We enjoyed, at the same time, the advantages of the participate and the amenities of a plebeian philosophy.”
The nobility of France was destined for destruction. Their internal strifes destroyed their solemnity. As they were disunited, they fell before the superior strength of the commoners. Enlightened public opinion condemned the wasteful parasitic existence of the nobility.
The peasants denied the legitimacy of the entire manorial system. The middle classes denounced the social discrimination, the fiscal immunities and the innumerable privileges of the nobility which kept capital out of circulation, shackled trade and crippled industry.
Like the nobles, the clergymen also occupied a privileged position. They competed with worldly men in the field of riches, lands and luxuries. The clergymen had castles, cathedrals, palaces, invaluable pictures, golden chalices, rich vestments and rentals from land in the form of tithes. The Cardinal of Rohan had income of 25 million livres.
The Archbishop of Strasbourg had an income of 300,000 dollars a year. He held a court in a splendid palace and entertained 200 guests at a time. Even the sauce-pans of his kitchens were made of silver. There were 180 horses in his stables for the pleasure of his guests.
The Roman Catholic Church in France was a state within the state. It was an intolerable despotism. It was discredited by the quarrels between the Jansenists and Jesuits. It was dishonoured by the worldliness and corruption. It was sapped by wealth, privileges and monopoly. It was undermined from within and without by scepticism and atheism. There was little in common between the wealthy clergy and the parish priests except common sin.
Most of the income of the Church went to the higher clergy, i.e., 134 bishops and archbishops, and a small number of abbots, canons and other dignitaries. The total number did not exceed five or six thousands. There was so much of extravagance among the clergymen that the moral sense of the nation was shocked and the people felt indignant. While rejecting the candidature of Brienne, Archbishop of Toulouse, Louis XVI is said to have observed: “Let us at least have an Archbishop of Paris who believes in God.”
The condition of the lower clergy was most wretched. They were treated as plebiens. They managed to keep their body and soul together with difficulty. They were discontented and indignant against their superiors who neglected and exploited them.
However, it is the lower clergy notably those of the towns, who were alive to the reforming movement of the day. They subscribed to the Encyclopaedia. They read Plutarch and Rousseau. It is when the priests joined the representatives of the people in June 1789 that the Church fell like the Renaissance Papacy forever.
Prof. Salvemini says, “The lower clergy grew exasperated at so insolent and scandalous a display of luxury and canons, abbots, friars, bishops and archbishops were all detested by the humble parish priests. This dissension between the higher and lower ranks of the clergy was one of the most potent causes leading to the early victory of the Revolution “(The French Revolution).
It is estimated that the clergy and nobility owned about one-fifth each of property in France. Thus about one per cent of people owned about 40 per cent of property in the country. While they enjoyed privileges, they were exempted from taxes. There was a French maxim that “the nobles fight, the clergy pray, the people pay”.
If such was the enviable lot of the privileged classes, the condition of the unprivileged classes was not at all satisfactory. The lot of the peasants was particularly unhappy. A peasant had to work on the land of his landlord from sunrise to sunset.
Sometimes, the landlord sold his dues to a moneylender and the latter harassed him a great deal. The peasant could not plant according to his best judgment. On account of the absence of rotation of crops, the yield from the land was very low.
The landlord kept large flocks of pigeons, deer and game and all of them were fed on the crops of the peasant. Fencing was not allowed and consequently all his crops might be eaten away, but the peasant could not drive away the game on account of the fear of the landlord.
He was bound to grind his com at the mill of the landlord and as the mill was situated at a great distance, he was put to a lot of inconvenience. He was punished if he tried to grind the com himself with stones. The lord tried the cases of the peasants and whatever fine he imposed and collected, went straight into his pocket. Heavy punishments were inflicted on the peasants by the lords.
The peasant owed a large number of dues to the lord, the Church and the King. Ordinarily he had to work three days a week on the land of the lord. During the harvest days he had to work five days a week. Double rent was to be paid on the death of the peasant.
If the farm was sold, one-fifth of the price went to the landlord. The peasant paid tithe to the Church which usually amounted annually to one-twelfth or one-fifteenth part of the gross produce of the peasant’s land. His dues to the king excelled all others.
The Taille or land tax was the most important of all the dues. Its amount was not fixed but was considered to be proportionate to the value of the land and dwelling of the peasant. As a matter of fact, the tax collectors managed to take as much as they could lay their hands on.
The system of farming taxes multiplied the worries of the peasants. The right of collection was given to the highest bidder and the collectors paid the fixed amount to the Government and tried to enrich themselves as much as they could at the cost of the peasants. The peasants were virtually fleeced.
The burden fell especially on the peasants because the nobility and the clergymen paid nothing. Another tax paid by the peasant was Vingtieme or income-tax. This amounted to about 5 per cent of all incomes. The nobles paid only a part and the clergymen were completely exempted.
Another tax was Gabelle or salt tax. This was the most regressive of all the taxes. The Government had a monopoly of salt and everybody above the age of seven had to buy a certain quantity of salt every year (approximately seven pounds) from the Government.
The price of salt was about ten times its real value. Nobody was allowed to drink water at salt springs or cook his food with seawater. The price of salt was not uniform and varied from place to place and thereby added to the hardships of the people. Another tax was the Corvee or road tax. Road-making was the duty of the peasants and they had to spend many weeks in a year on the construction and maintenance of roads in their neighbourhood.
It has been estimated that after paying all the dues, the French peasant was left with only about 20% of his total produce. In a few districts of France, the peasants were able to pay their taxes and still live comfortably, but in the rest of France, their conditions was most miserable and can be better felt than described. With the best of harvests they found themselves unable to make their both ends meet.
A dry summer or a long winter completely finished them. Starving peasants tried to satisfy their hunger with roots and herbs and thousands of them died of starvation. No one seemed to bother about them. It is rightly pointed out that “in France, nine-tenths of the population died to hunger, and the tenth of indigestion.”
There was great distress among the peasants. The feudal system of land tenure in France was oppressive and the peasants opposed all movements which deprived them of their common rights. They opposed the enclosure movement and the division of the village commons as the large proprietors gained at their expense. They also suffered on account of the rise in prices during the 18th century.
The average general prices of consumers’ goods were higher between 1785 and 1789 than they had been between 1726 and 1741. The rise in the cost of living adversely affected those who were nearest the subsistence level. The cereals eaten by the peasants rose more in price than wheat eaten by the well-to-do.
The view of Leo Gershoy is that three principal causes determined the steady decline in the fortunes of the French peasantry and those were a sharp and continuous growth in population, a marked upward movement of prices without a corresponding increase in the real wages and the influence of the Physiocrats in stimulating agrarian reforms.
The population of France grew steadily in the 18th century and this not only accentuated the hardships of the petty peasant proprietor to support a large family from his already meager lands, but also increased the number of landless peasantry who were driven into the ranks of beggars and vagrants.
The steady rise in food prices was not counter-balanced by the smaller increase in wages. The increase in prices brought wealth to the moneyed interests and economic distress to the rest of the population. The lot of the average peasant was so bad that more than 20 per cent of the rural peasantry was indigent in times of plenty. Poverty was most acute in the newly industrialised regions of the north and in the provinces of the east where the manorial system was most strongly entrenched.
At times of crisis when harvests were poor or epidemics raged, the number of indigents increased considerably. The reports of the intendants, the memorials of the Parish priests and the writings of other contemporaries all attest to the appalling misery of the peasantry on such occasions.
The result was that they joined the ranks of the beggars and vagrants who over-ran the roads, pillaging the hamlets and terrorizing the inhabitants, Private relief was important, ecclesiastical relief was inadequate and governmental alms and charity was hopelessly meagre. The condition in hospitals, prisons and workshops and workhouses was indescribably bad.
The bourgeoisie or the middle-class also belonged to the unprivileged part of French society. To this class belonged the professors, lawyers, physicians, bankers and merchants. This class was all powerful in the field of finance, trade and industry. From this class came ministers of state, judges, magistrate, tax-collectors, intendants, etc. They had both brains and money.”
They were the people who visited the various parts of the world and consequently were wide awake in every possible way. They were profoundly influenced by the French philosophers and consequently were not in a mood to put up with the inferior status which the Ancient Regime assigned to them. It is the members of this class who became the leaders of the people of France in their revolt against the Ancient Regime.
Prof. Salvemini says, “In the second half of the eighteenth century, therefore, French society might be said to resemble an ancient city, grow up in past times without design or order, built of diverse materials and according to the methods of different ages; with old and out-of-date buildings huddled together amongst new and solid structures. Almost all the inhabitants—working-class, middle-classes and even a large part of the privileged orders—were ill at ease and discontented, amidst the discordant claims of old and new.”
“The state officials had become the instruments of a corrupt and reactionary system against which the nation needs must revolt, if it were not to relapse into feudal darkness. The privileged classes plundered the Exchequer, disrupted the administration and paralysed the country’s economic life. They had reached the very brink of the abyss without perceiving it, and continued to wrangle with one another, when all were about to be engulfed.
“The commons, forced to choose between their own ruin and the destruction of every vestige of feudalism, had hoped that the King might return to the traditional anti-feudal policy that had been the glory of his dynasty in times past. In the end, tired of waiting in vain, they overthrew what was left of feudalism together with the monarchy that intervened in its support, freed themselves by their own efforts from their last remaining fetters, and set the new seal of the Republic upon modem society.”
J.C. Herold says, “The French Revolution was a general mass movement of the nation against the privileged classes. The French nobility, like that of all Europe, dates from the barbarian invasions which broke up the Roman Empire.
In France, the nobles represented the ancient Franks and Burgundians; the rest of the nation, the Gauls. The introduction of the feudal system established the principle that every landed property had a lord. All political rights were exercised by the priests and the nobles. The peasants were enslaved, partly by binding them to the soil.
“The progress of civilisation and knowledge liberated the people. This new state of affairs caused the prosperity of industry and trade. In the eighteenth century, the larger part of the land, of wealth, and of the fruits of civilization belonged to the people.
The noble however, still formed a privileged class: they controlled the upper and intermediate courts, they held feudal rights under a great variety of names and forms, they were exempt from contributing to any of the taxes imposed by society and they had exclusive access to the most honourable employments.
“All these abuses stirred the citizens to protest. The chief aim of the Revolution was to destroy all privileges; to abolish manorial courts, justice being an inalienable, attribute of the sovereign authority; to suppress all feudal rights as remnants of the people’s former slavery; to subject all citizens and all property without distinction to taxation by the State. Finally, the Revolution proclaimed the equality of rights. All citizens could fill the employments, subject only to their talents and the vicissitudes of chance”.
2. Rotten administrative systems:
Another cause of the French Revolution was the rottenness of the French administrative system. The King was the head of the state and he acted in an arbitrary manner According to Louis XIV. “The sovereign authority is vested in my person, the legislative powers exist in myself alone….My people are one only with me; national rights and national interests are necessarily combined with my own and only rest in my hands.”
Such a system could not be efficient and no wonder the people suffered. The King did not go on tours to visit the various parts of the country and consequently lost his personal touch with the people. He had no knowledge of the sufferings and aspirations of the people.
He centred all his attention at the capital where the nobles assembled from all over the country to participate in the frivolities of the royal court. In the time of Louis XV, his mistresses influenced the politics of the country. In the time of Louis XVI, his Queen, Marie Antoinette, interfered in State affairs. It was pointed out that “the Court is the tomb of the nation.
The court of Versailles was composed of 18,000 persons out of which 16,000 were attached to the personal service of the king and his family. The rest of the 2,000 persons were courtiers’ who were busy in a perpetual round of pleasures and were always busy in feathering their own nests by begging favours from the king. There was luxury on all sides. The occupants of the palace considered themselves to be the darlings of the gods.
The king, the queen, the royal children and the brothers, sisters and aunts of the king had their separate establishments. It is stated that the queen alone had more than 500 servants. There were more than 1,900 horses and 200 carriages in the royal stables which cost more than 4 million dollars a year. The table of the king cost more than a million and a half dollars. On the eve of the French Revolution, all this enormous waste amounted to more than 208 million dollars a year.
The administrative system of the country was hopelessly unsatisfactory. Various units of the administration possessed ill-defined and overlapping jurisdictions. At different times, France had been divided into districts under bailiffs and seneschals whose offices were purely ornamental.
It had also been divided into provinces under governors. It had been divided into intendancies (under intendants), judicial districts, educational districts and ecclesiastical districts. The conflict of jurisdictions added to the difficulties and troubles of the people.
The legal system of the country was full of confusion. There was no uniform law for the whole of the country. Different laws were in force in different parts of the country. While at one place German law prevailed, at another place the Roman law was in force. It is estimated that there were about 400 different systems of law in the country. The laws were written in Latin and consequently were not within the comprehension of the people.
The laws were cruel and unjust and very severe punishments were prescribed for ordinary offences. Torture was a common feature. The punishments of breaking one’s bone on a wheel or cutting off the hands or ears were also imposed. There was no regular criminal procedure. Anybody could be imprisoned on the whim of an inuuential person.
All that was required to be done was the issuing of a letter de cachet and the person concerned could be kept in prison for an indefinite period without any trial. There was no provision for a writ of Habeas Corpus. Men like Voltaire and Mirabeau were imprisoned like many others. There was confusion not only in the field of laws but also in the field of law-courts.
There were royal courts, military courts, church courts and courts of finance. Their overlapping jurisdictions added to confusion and injustice. A peculiar institution in France was the Noblesse de la robe or nobility of the robe. These persons were judges in perpetuity or for life.
Their offices were bought and sold. As these persons bought their offices, they tried to impose as heavy fines as they could to fill their pockets. Their number was in the neighbourhood of 50,000. Such a class must have been a curse to society. That was the negation of all judicial principles.
De Tocqueville wrote thus:
“People often complain that Frenchmen despise the law; alas, where could they have learned to respect it? We may say that among the men of the ancient regime, the place which the law ought to occupy in the human mind was vacant.
Every suitor demands a departure from the established rule with as much insistence as if he were demanding its observance; in fact, the rule is hardly ever upheld against him, save when it is desired to evade his request.”
On the eve of the French Revolution, the French army consisted of 35, 000 officers (of whom 1,171 were generals) and 135,000 men. The officers were maintained at a cost of 46 millions a year, although only 3,500 were on active list. The maintenance of the rank and file amounted to 44 millions in all.
Weights and measures had different names and different values in different provinces. Sometimes this difference was witnessed as a person moved from one village to another. The French Parliaments were high courts of justice of great antiquity.
They reviewed judgments given in the inferior courts of the bailiwicks, sane-chausses and prevotes into which the country was divided for judicial purposes. Towards the end of the 18th century, there were 13 such Parliaments in France. Each Parliament consisted of a close corporation of rich magistrates whose offices had become hereditary in course of time.
Parliaments claimed and exercised certain political powers. They had acquired the right of registering royal edicts and ordinances. They could defer the registration and thereby bring pressure on the king. A strong king could deal with them effectively but unfortunately there were no strong kings in France after Louis XIV.
In 1771, Parliaments were abolished by Louis XV but those were revived in 1774 by Louis XVI. The Parliaments thus revived were in a position to harass royal ministers and circumvent financial reform while posing as champions of popular rights and liberties.
In some parts of France, there were provincial estates or local representative assemblies which met periodically. They shared responsibility for local administration with the agent of the Central Government or Intendant. They had certain fiscal privileges which they successfully defended against reforming finance ministers. They had the option of making fixed annual grants or abonnements in the case of new taxes which enabled them to evade full liability. The assessment and collection of State taxation was also left to the fiscal agents of the estates.
Special local taxes were voted in the estates to meet local expenditure. These estates were controlled by the lay or clerical aristocracy and tended to be reactionary and conservative. They were reluctant to any reform designed to weaken or destroy their privileges.
The method of collection of taxes was hopelessly faulty. Taxes were not collected by the state through its own agency; the right of collecting taxes was given to the highest bidder. The result was that while the contractors paid a specific amount of money to the state, they tried to get as much as they could from the people. While the people were exploited, the Government did not benefit in any way.
The system of framing of taxes was the most objectionable. It resulted in a lot of oppression and tyranny. As taxes were not paid by the clergymen and nobles, the burden fell on the unprivileged class and this fact was resented bitterly. The whole of the administrative system of France required a thorough overhauling.
De Tocqueville says, “The Government seldom undertakes and soon abandons the most necessary reforms which demand a persevering energy but it constantly changes particular regulations. In the sphere which it inhabits nothing remains an instant in repose. Now rule succeed one another with rapidity so strange that the agents of the State do not know how they are to obey. Municipal officers complain to the Controller-General himself The variation of the financial regulations alone, they say, is such as not to allow an officer, were he irremovable, to do anything else but study the new regulations as they appear.”
3. Successors of Louis XIV:
Another cause of the revolution was the incapacity of the successors of Louis XIV. The Grand Monarch left a legacy of financial bankruptcy for his successors. While on death-bed, he is stated to have advised Louis XV, his great grandson, in these words: “My child…. endeavor to live at peace with your neighbours, do not imitate my fondness for war, nor the exorbitant expenditure which I have incurred Endeavour to relieve the people at the earliest possible moment and thus accomplish what unfortunately, I am unable to do myself.” It is well-known that this advice fell on deaf ears and instead of giving any relief to the people, he added to their miseries by his wars and frivolities. He used to say: “After me, the deluge.”
About Louis XV’s rule, Comte de Mercy, the Austrian Ambassador at Paris, wrote thus to Empress Maria Theresa:
“At Court, there is nothing but confusion, scandals and injustice. No attempt has been made to carry out good principles of Government; everything has been left to chance; the shameful state of the nation’s affairs has caused unspeakable disgust and discouragement, while the intrigues of those who oemain on the scene only increase the disorder. Sacreo duties have been left undone, and infamous behaviour tolerated.”
Dr G. P. Gooch says, “The legacy of Louis XV to his countrymen was an ill-governed, discontented, frustrated France. Viewed from a distance, the ancien regime appeared as solid as the Bastille, but its walls were crumbling for lack of repairs and the foundations showed signs of giving way.
The Absolute Monarchy, the privileged Noblesse, the intolerant Church, the close corporation Parliaments, had all become unpopular, and the army once the glory of France, was tarnished by the rout of Rossbach. Though there was little thought of republicanism, the mystique of monarchy had almost evaporated.”
Louis XVI (1774—93) became king at the age of 20. His helplessness to manage the state of affairs can be judged from the following statements made by him. “It seems as if the universe is falling on me.” Again, “God, what a burden is mine and they have taught me nothing.” He was awkward and too shy to preside over the meetings of the council.
He was lazy and stupid. His hobby was lock-making and shooting deer from the palace window. He might have been a good citizen but he was a failure as a king when the country was confronted with serious difficulties.
According to a contemporary, “No one trusts him, for he has no will of his own.” He did not seem to be interested in the art of governing and this is clear from his following remark to Malesherbes on the latter’s resignation. “How fortunate you are. I wish I could resign too.”
Marie Antoinette (1755—93):
Marie Antoinette was the daughter of Maria Theresa, Empress of Austria-Hungary. The object of her marriage to Louis XVI was to unite Austria and France into a bond of friendship. She was beautiful, gracious and vivacious. She had a strong will, a power of rapid decision and a spirit of initiative. However, she was lacking in wisdom and breadth of judgment.
She did not understand the temperament of the French people and the spirit of the times. Born in a royal family, she could not understand the point of view of the unprivileged. She was extravagant, proud, willful, impatient of restraint and fond of pleasure.
She committed a large number of mistakes and was hated by the people of France. She was the living symbol of French humiliation in the Seven Years’ War. She was the centre of a group of greedy persons, who were opposed to all reforms.
This is what Emperor Joseph II, her real brother, wrote about Marie Antoinette: “Let me, my dearest sister, address you with frankness justified by my affection for you and my interest in your welfare. From what I hear, you are becoming involved in a great many matters that are no concern of yours, and of which you know nothing, led on by intrigue and flattery that excite in you not only self-conceit and a desire to shine but jealousy and ill-feeling.
This conduct may well impair your happiness and sooner or later must provoke serious trouble between you and the King, which will detract from his affection and esteem for you, and cause you to fall into disfavour with the public…Why should you, my dear sister, employ yourself in removing ministers from their posts, in banishing one and giving office to another, in seeing that some friend of yours wins his law-suit or in creating a new and expensive court appointment, in brief, in discussing affairs in a manner that is little suited to your position? Have you ever asked yourself what right you have to meddle in the affairs of the French Government or monarchy? What studies have you made, what knowledge have you acquired, that you believe your opinion of value, particularly in matters calling for such wide experience. You, a charming young woman who think only of frivolity, of your toilette, of your amusements; who do not read books or listen to serious talk for more than ten minutes in a month; who never stop to reflect, or to give a thought to the consequences of what you say or do. You simply act on the spur of the moment, prompted by the favourites in whom you believe Listen to the advice of a friend, give up all these intrigues, have nothing whatever to do with public affairs and think only of deserving the King’s affection and confidence for the rest, do some reading, improve your mind. After all, that is the role of every woman in her own home.”
4. French Philosophers:
Another cause of the French Revolution was the effect of the preachings of the French philosophers. Montesquieu, Voltaire and Rousseau were the three intellectual giants of the age, Montesquieu (1689-175.5) was a polished and eminent lawyer, well versed in history, serious, acute, a profound student of human institutions and master of a terse and pointed style. On the whole, his writings were not the flights of fancy but the result of systematized and careful thought; weighty, luminous, moderate in tone and scientifically sane.
He initiated a philosophic movement and unmasked the batteries of criticism and satire which were to strike at the foundations of the Ancien Regime in France. He stood for a constitutional form of government and believed in the supremacy of law. His view was that liberty was impossible without the separation of powers.
The legislative, judicial and executive powers must be put in different organs and then alone could there be liberty of the people. The combination of any two powers or all the three in one organ was bound to result in tyranny. Montesquieu analysed the laws which regulate government and custom and thereby destroyed the mysterious prestige which was attached to the institutions of France.
Montesquieu had neither the views nor the attitude of a revolutionary. He was both a Catholic and a monarchist. However, in a moderate way, he criticised the abuses of the Church and the despotism of the state. He compared despotism to cutting down a tree to get at the fruit. He criticised by satire the French manners and customs. He suggested by comparison with England the need for liberty and equality. He exposed by implication the institutions of France.
The Spirit of Laws, his great work, which was the product of 20 years of labour, was published in 1748. It is stated that 22 editions of this book were printed in 18 months. It was a study of political philosophy, an analysis of various forms of governments and their merits and demerits. Setting aside the claim of divinity for the institutions, he examined them with the detachment of a botanist.
According to Prof. Salvemini, “The Spirit of Laws awakened in cultivated persons a taste for juridical and political studies, brought the social sciences into the field of literature, and helped more than any other work to create that atmosphere of sociological and philosophic dilettantism which enabled eighteenth century revolutionary theories to prosper.”
Another giant was Voltaire (1694-1778):
In verse, in prose, in history in drama, and in romance, Voltaire attacked traditions, beliefs and abuses. He exposed their shortcomings mercilessly. He laughed at their absurdities. “Voltaire’s rare and verstile wit, his light touch, his unabashed scepticism, his brilliant commonsense appealed irresistibly to the minds of his countrymen. He made the philosophic movement popular. He was identified with many errors and with the gravest faults of taste. But with it all he taught men to despise many follies and to impeach many wrongs.”
The Church in France was the main target of his attack. He called it the infamous thing. He was a deist and he attacked Christian bigotry and fanaticism and stood for religious toleration. “Since we are all steeped in error and folly, we must forgive each other for our follies.” “Worship God and be a good man.” On account of their literary merit, Voltaire’s writings were widely read and he commanded tremendous influence on his age.
For 25 years, he flooded France with “plays, poems, philosophical tales, satires, burlesques, histories, essays, diatribes, deistic sermons and anti-biblical pamphlets, and won for himself, the reputation of the intellectual ruler of his age.” He was not an atheist. His view was that “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to create Him.” What he attacked was the particular dogmas, the accretions of theology, the complex mysteries and contradictory ceremonials of Christianity that through the ages had engendered fanaticism, persecution and bloodshed, suppressed reason and persecuted free thought.
He was not a democrat. The attack on the altar was ultimately to undermine the throne which rested on it, but Voltaire never explicitly aimed at the monarchy and was fully aware of the dangers of popular government. Due de Choiseul addressed to the new philosophers in 1764 in these words “Why do you not stop where Voltaire did? Him we can comprehend. Amidst all his satires, he respected authority.”
Voltaire was one of the master minds of European history whose name has become the name of an era. We speak of the age of Voltaire in the same way as we speak of the Age of Luther or Erasmus. He was called by the name of King Voltaire. World renowned, he melted into world history. He was a warrior all his life. He was a pillar of cloud by day and of fire by night. He was never tiresome.
He was always interesting and generally instructive. He could not tolerate tyranny in any shape or form. He was always ready to take up the cause of the oppressed. He stood for a benevolent despotism and had no love for democracy. He is said to have remarked that he would prefer to be ruled by one lion than by a hundred rats.
The French philosopher whose influence was the most prominent was Rousseau (1712—78). He did not like the study and analysis of the past. He did not care for the spread of knowledge and art. It appeared to him that study, knowledge and cultivation degraded man. All societies were artificial. All accepted forms of political organizations were tyranny and abuses. Man was born free but he was everywhere in chains.
The surroundings of society destroyed the natural simplicity of man, tainted his virtues and were responsible for his sufferings and sins. Rousseau appealed to the people in these words “Sweep away, therefore, all the false fabric of society, the world of ugly want and insolent riches miscalled civilization, the oppression miscalled order, the error miscalled knowledge.
Level its inequalities, repudiate its learning’s, break its functions, shatter its chains. Let men return to the simplicity of ancient days, to the idyllic state, when uncorrupted instinct only ruled them, and then once again, innocent and ignorant, as nature made them, and guided only by the ‘Immortal and Celestial voices, of reasons, seek the high paths of felicity of life.”
Again, “Are not all advantages in our society reserved for the rich and powerful? Are not all lucrative employments held by them alone? Are not the public authorities entirely at their service? If an influential man defrauds his creditors or commits other villainies, can he not count on impunity before the law? If he is guilty of violence or murder, is not everything hushed up and after six months no longer referred to? But if this same man is robbed, the whole police is at once set in motion, and woe betide the innocent upon whom suspicion falls! Should this rich man have to pass through a dangerous place, he is provided with a large escort.
If the axle of his carriage breaks, all fly to assist him. If there is a noise at his door, a word from him and all is silence. If the crowd incommodes him, a sign and all are scattered. If he finds a carter in his way, his servants rain blows upon him. All these conveniences cost him nothing, since the rich are entitled to enjoy them without expending their own wealth on such trifles. But how different is the spectacle of the poor man.
The more compassion society owes him the less he receives. All doors are closed to him, even when he has a right to have them opened. Should he, once in a way, obtain justice, he has to labour more for it than others for a favour. If a corvee is called for, or a military levy made, he is the first to be taken.
He bears not only his own burdens but those his neighbours have managed to shift on to his back. At the least accident that befalls him, all leave him to his fate. If his cart overturns, he is unlikely to escape insults from the duke’s servants who hurry by.
All gratuitous aid is refused him in his need, precisely because he has no way of paying for it. And woe betide him if he has the misfortune to possess an honest soul, a beautiful daughter or a powerful neighbour. He is lost.
Let us, then, sum up in a few words the social compact between the two classes: ‘You have need of me, because I am rich and you are poor; let us make an agreement, therefore, between ourselves; I will allow you the honour of serving me, provided that you give me what little you still possess, in return for my trouble in giving you orders.
Rousseau gave his own conception of the state of nature in which people were virtuous, equal and free. He also explained how by means of “social contract” the State was created and the state of nature was ended. He propounded the idea of the sovereignty of the people.
Every individual was a part of that sovereign. The laws of the country were merely the expression of the general will of the sovereign. As sovereignty rested with the people no government or king could snatch away that from them.”
The people had the right to revolt against the government. Rousseau condemned all the existing institutions and thereby destroyed their foundations. His writings created a profound impression upon the people. He also created enthusiasm for liberty. The Social Contract supplied the text and lit the fire of revolution. It became the gospel of the Jacobin Party and Robespierre became its high priest.
The political influence of Rousseau was incalculable not only in France, but all over Europe. He preached “revolt in the name of nature, against the vicious and artificial social system of his time.” His theory of social contract may be historically untenable, but it was another way of saying that those who govern must recognise their responsibilities.
The people of France were suffering because the interests of the Crown were divorced from those of the state, because the nobles no longer fought and the clergy no longer prayed and all of them broke the social contract. Rousseau’s logic may be faulty, but he appealed to the people who were split and tormented by the pressure of society.
Rousseau explained his philosophy with such force and imagination and buttressed it with such arguments that the aggrieved and frustrated could catch fire from its fervour, find encouragement in its protest, hope in its promise and weapons in its armoury.
His philosophy sounded the common chord. Rousseau became “the immortal seducer of unquiet souls, the oracle of whoever feels himself misunderstood and disinherited.” He became the hot-gospeller of temporal salvation and the prophet of secular society.
Lord Morley assessed the influence of Rousseau in these words: “In the first place, he spoke words that can never be unspoken and kindled a hope that can never be extinguished; he first inflamed man with righteous conviction with the evils of the existing order of things, reduced civilisation to a nullity for the great majority of mankind….second by the fervid eloquence and the burning convictions which he kindled in the hearts of great number of men, he inspired energy enough in France to awaken her from the torpor as of death which was stealing so rapidly over her.”
The view of Prof. Salvemini is that Rousseau was not a real revolutionary. If he had lived till the Revolution, he would have died either on the scaflold or of heart trouble at the way in which his teaching was being applied. However in that oppressive, decaying society where all were discontented and innumerable arguments could be found to justify revolt, it was natural Rousseau’s advice in favour of caution should pass unnoticed and his longing for better world, his vehement protests against the privileges of wealth and birth and his poignant and paradoxical pages full of indignation and injustice and love for equality, should be greatly admired.
As men lost faith in their traditional institutions and the citizens prepared for an inevitable struggle against the King and the privileged classes, Rousseau’s dogma of popular sovereignty became the battle-cry of the Revolution.
In addition to the three giants, there were writers of small stature and it is desirable to make a reference to their writings as they also influenced the thoughts of the people. Diderot was the editor of the Encyclopaedia to which many writers made their contributions.
He was original, ingenious, reckless in expression and most intense and imaginative in thought. He possessed a magnetic power of conversation and indomitable perseverance. He had an ardent desire for the improvement of mankind.
Helvetius propounded the doctrine that self-interest dictates both the conduct and the views of men, and the attainment of pleasure is their final aim. Holbach indicated the vices of kings and the slavery of men. He stood for a revolution. To him, atheism and materialism were the only two philosophies of life. To quote him, “Religious and political errors have changed the universe into a valley of tears.”
The Economists or Physiocrats had great contemporary influence. They were much influenced by the writings of Adam Smith. Their chief representatives in France were Mirabeau, the father of the well-known statesman of the French Revolution, Say and Quesnay. Quesnay (1694—1744) was the real thinker of the movement. His “Tableau Economique” was hailed by some of them as an infallible remedy for the troubles of France. The physiocrats cared little for the abstract speculations of the nine.
They believed in certain fundamental doctrine. According to them, all wealth came from the application of labour to land and workmen were the most truly productive, perhaps the only productive class. The action of the Government should be reduced to the minimum.
Complete free trade and a universal system of education were the immediate necessities of the state. All taxation should be reduced to a single land tax. The view of Mirabeau was that those principles were sufficient to “set everything right and renew the age of Solomon.” Turgot was a disciple of the Economists.
His character and writing had already made him well-known and he had acquired valuable experience as an intendant of the province of Limousin. He was appointed the Controller-General of Finance and he was in office for about 20 months and what he did had little permanent effect. But people looked back to his tenure of office as the time when there was a chance to reform to avert the catastrophe of the French Revolution.
He wanted to introduce honesty and efficiency into public services. He wanted to check the power of the church. He stood for a juster method of taxation. He wanted to establish freedom of trade within and beyond France. He did not recognise the necessity of taking the people into partnership by summoning any national assembly. However, he worked at his schemes with a passionate zeal for justice and humanity. As was to be expected, his proposals were disliked by the privileged classes and he was replaced by Necker.
The great contribution of the Encyclopaedists was that they hated unjust things, condemned slavery, inequality of taxation, corruption of justice and wastefulness of war. They had dreams of social progress and sympathy with the rising empire of industry.
Mallet observes. “The seed sown by these remarkable writers fell upon fruitful soil. The orders which immediately preceded the outbreak of the Revolution in France were orders of vague but widespread agitation. An enthusiasm for the natural greatness of man and a boundless contempt for the age of society in which he lived pervaded the thought of the time.
In almost every European country, observers noticed the same presentiment of impending change—a change which, on behalf of humanity, most people were prepared to welcome. Thinkers and talkers alike were full of illusions, full of curiosity, full of unselfishness, full of hope.”
According to Kropolkin, “The eighteenth-century philosophers had long been sapping the foundations of the law-and-order societies of that period, wherein political power, as well as an immense share of the wealth, belonged to the aristocracy and the clergy, whilst the mass of the people were nothing but beasts of burden to the ruling classes.
By proclaiming the sovereignty of reason, by preaching trust in human nature-corrupted they declared, by the institutions that had reduced man to servitude, but nevertheless, certain to regain all its qualities when it had re-conquered liberty—they had opened up new vistas to mankind. By proclaiming equality among men, without distinction of birth, by demanding from every citizen, whether king or peasant, obedience to the law, supposed to express the will of the nation when it has been made by the representatives of the people; finally, by demanding freedom of contract between free men, and the abolition of feudal taxes and services—by putting forward all these claims, linked together with the system and method characteristic of French thought, the philosophers had undoubtedly prepared, at least in men’s minds, the downfall of the old regime.”
The view of David Thomson is that the connection between the ideas of the French philosophers and “the outbreak of revolution in 1789 is somewhat remote and indirect. They did not preach revolution, and were usually ready enough to lend support to any absolute monarch who was prepared to patronize them and adopt their teachings. Nor were most of their readers inspired to want, or to work for revolution; they were mostly themselves aristocrats, lawyers, business people and local dignitaries, whose lot in the existing order was far from unhappy.
The doctrines of the philosophers came to be used later on, during the course of the revolution in France often to justify measures that the philosophers themselves would have opposed. Their teachings became more important later; if they had any influence at all on the outbreak and the initial stages of the great revolution, it was only to the extent that they had fostered a critical and irreverent attitude towards all existing institutions.
They made men more ready, when the need arose, to question the whole foundation of the old order. What mattered in 1789—and what made men revolutionary almost in spite of themselves—was the whole ‘revolutionary situation’; and in producing that situation the work of the philosophers played no very important role.”
5. Financial Condition:
Another cause of the French Revolution was the condition of the finances of the French Government. It has rightly been pointed out that “The Revolution was precipitated by the economic factor and the train which had been laid by philosophy was fixed by finance.” “The fiscal causes lay at the root of the Revolution.” The wars of the Louis XIV had upset the finances of France. The financial condition of the country was deplorable when the Grand Monarch died.
Although he advised Louis XV to improve the finances and desist from wars, the latter did not care for the advice. He not only wasted a lot of money on palaces and mistresses, but also had the audacity to take part in many wars. He took part in the War of Polish Succession.
He participated in the War of Austrian Succession. The Seven Years’ War also cost a good deal. France was on the verge of bankruptcy when Louis XVI ascended the throne, but in spite of that France joined the War of American Independence.
It is true that France had the satisfaction of having her revenge against England for her humiliation in the Seven Years’ War, but French participation in the War of American Independence completely upset the finances of the country. It cannot be denied that it was the French participation in the War of American Independence which precipitated the financial crisis which led to the French Revolution.
The financial system of France was deplorable. The nobility and the clergymen who owned about 40% of the total wealth of the country did not make any contribution towards the State exchequer. No wonder, the burden of taxation fell on the unprivileged classes.
That in itself created bitterness. The national debt had increased tremendously and is estimated to have reached the figure of 4, 467,478,000 livres. Out of the nominal revenues of 472,415,549 in 1788, the State got 211,708,977 livres and it had to pay 236,999,999 livres as annual interest.
It has been estimated that at the end of the Ancien Regime over three-fourths of the annual State expenditure was being incurred on defence and the service of public debt which was in itself mainly the result of previous wars. It was practically impossible to reduce these heavy items of national expenditure without undermining public credit and national security. Financial retrenchment could be made only in the field of civil expenditure which represented 23% of the total expenditure in 1788. Even economy in royal expense costing about 6% could not help matters. Some radical remedy alone could improve matters.
In 1774, Louis XVI appointed Turgot as the Controller of Finance. The latter had been an intendant of a poor province of France. He had made that province prosperous by applying the principles of the most advanced economists. He realised that if the annual deficit of the Central Government was allowed to continue, it was bound to result ultimately in bankruptcy.
He outlined his programme in these words “No bankruptcy, no increase of taxation, no more borrowing.” He hoped to tackle the problem of finance by effecting economies and by developing public wealth. The latter could be done by introducing the regime of liberty into agriculture, industry and commerce. As a matter of fact, Turgot succeeded in saving many millions by stopping useless expenditure.
However, by doing so, he annoyed all those who were gaining from that useless expenditure. They all joined hands with Marie Antoinette to put pressure on the king to dismiss Turgot. Although the king declared that “M. Turgot and I are the only persons who love the people,” he dismissed the Controller of Finance in 1776 and thereby brought trouble for himself
Necker, a banker of Geneva, was appointed in 1776 as the successor of Turgot. Necker had risen from poverty to power. He had to face a lot of opposition while effecting economies. He was the first person to publish a financial report which showed the annual income and expenditure of the State.
Formerly, the whole thing was kept as a secret. There was a lot of indignation in the court circles as the report showed how much money was annually spent on pensions and free gifts to the countries. Necker was dismissed in 1781.
He was succeeded by Calonne. He was an agreeable person. His only purpose was to please all. The members of the court had merely to say what they wanted and the same was granted by Calonne. Calonne had a wonderful philosophy of borrowing. To quote him, “A man who wishes to borrow must appear to be rich, and to appear rich he must dazzle by spending freely.” The result of his philosophy was that money flowed like water.
In three years, he was able to borrow about 300 million dollars. But the net result of all his acts of commission and omission was that by August 1786, the royal treasury was completely empty and there were no more fools willing to lend to the State. When Calonne proposed a general tax which was to be paid both by the privileged and the unprivileged classes, he was removed from office. The king tried another treasurer but also failed to help him in straightening the finances.
With a view to tackling the financial problem Louis XVI summoned in 1787 an Assembly of the Notables in the hope that they would consent to the taxation of the privileged classes. However, the nobles were not prepared to oblige the king and consequently they were sent home.
The king tried new loans but the Parliament of Paris refused to register further loans or taxes. The latter drafted a Declaration, of Rights and contended that subsidies could constitutionally be granted only by the Estates-General. The Government took action against the parliament of Paris and abolished the same. There was a lot of hue and cry and the soldiers refused to arrest the judges. Crowds demanded the convocation of the Estates-General.
It was under these circumstances that the king was forced to give way and he ordered elections to the Estates-General after a lapse of 175 years (1614-1789). That led to the French Revolution of 1789. According to Prof. Goodwin, “The immediate causes of French Revolution of 1789 must be sought, not in the economic grievances of the peasants, nor in the political discontent of the middle class, but in the reactionary aspirations of the French aristocracy.
Though the revolution established the political power and consolidated the economic position of the middle class, it was set in motion by the aristocracy in the years 1787 and 1788 in the attempts to defend its own fiscal and political privileges, which were threatened by the reforming policy of the Bourbon monarchy. The decision of Louis XVI, in July 1788, to summon the Estates-General, or national representative assembly, which had not met since 1614 marked the Crown’s capitulation to the concerted pressure of the lay, ecclesiastical, and judicial aristocracy.
These privileged classes expected that the adoption of the ‘traditional method of voting in the Estates-General—by order and not by head—would enable them, not only to prevent radical reform, but also to consolidate their victory over the Crown by a similar subjugation of the third estate. This gross miscalculation rendered inevitable a revolution which might well have been avoided by the nobility’s acceptance of the consequences of political and fiscal equality.”
6. Real makers of the French Revolution:
While it is admitted that the French Revolution originated with the Third Estate, there is difference of opinion as to whether the peasantry or the middle classes took the initiative in bringing about the Revolution. It is pointed out by some writers that the oppressed peasantry of France, goaded by the extremity of their sufferings, was driven to Revolution. However, this view is not accepted by Prof Heamshaw.
According to him, condition of the peasants of France was better than those of Germany, Spain, Russia and Poland. Their main grievance was not their exclusion from political power but the weight of the taxes they had to pay. They had neither the brains nor the capacity to precipitate the revolution. It is the enlightened middle-classes which led the way and the peasants merely followed them. The middle-classes had brains. They had money and influence. They were the persons who were deeply influenced by the philosophies of the French philosophers. No wonder, the middle classes were the real makers of the French Revolution.
7. Why Revolution broke out in France?
It is pointed out that monarchical absolutism and oppression of the peasantry existed in most of the countries of Western Europe. There was nothing exceptional in the grievances of the people of France. In spite of that, the revolution started in France and not in any other country of Western Europe. There are many reasons for this. In other countries there were feudal privileges and duties. The feudal lords not only enjoyed certain exemptions from taxes but also performed certain duties.
They served in the army of the kings and were responsible for maintaining law and order within their locality. However, in the case of France, the feudal system had become worn out. While the nobles still retained their exemptions and privileges, they were deprived of all their powers and duties by the king. The result was that while in other countries the feudal system was a reality it had lost all its vitality in France. No wonder, the privileges of the nobles in France were irritating to the people of France. The whole system had become an anachronism and consequently it was condemned. The discontentment against the nobility burst out in the form of the Revolution of 1789.
Another reason was that there existed in France an enlightened middle class which was not to be found in other parts of Europe. The members of this class were well-to-do persons, but they still belonged to the unprivileged class. They had wealth and brains and consequently were not in a mood to put up with the inequality which the Ancien Regime imposed on them.
They were profoundly influenced by the philosophy of Rousseau, Voltaire and Montesquieu. After having assimilated thoroughly the philosophy of the above intellectual giants, the middle-classes were not prepared to put up with their deplorable position. They could not find any justification for their humiliating condition. The Social Contract of Rausseau became the Bible of the Revolution.
The writings of the French philosophers put before the Frenchmen an idealism for which they were prepared to make any sacrifices. No such atmosphere existed in other countries of Europe. No wonder, although the unprivileged classes in other countries of Europe also suffered, they had neither any idealism nor any leaders among them who were prepared to challenge the existing order and hence no revolution broke out there.
There was another reason why the Revolution started in France and not in any other country of Europe. It is rightly pointed out that the Revolution was precipitated by the economic factor, and the train which had been laid by philosophy was fired by finance.
The annual income of the State was less than the interest it had to pay on the national debt. It was impossible to carry on government under the circumstances. The Estates-General had to be summoned to get the money and that led to the French Revolution. There were no such circumstances in other parts of Europe and although the people had their grievances, they kept on suffering but had not the courage to revolt.
According to Prof. Salvemini, “France was, in fact—however paradoxical the statement may seem at firm—better off than the rest. It was precisely because of the more favourable conditions prevailing in the social life of France that the revolutionary crisis broke out there rather than elsewhere in Europe. The French middle-classes—richer, more educated, in closer contact with the higher ranks of society, than were those of other European nations, and divided from the nobility by less marked differences in their way of life—were more acutely conscious of the injustice that excluded them from political influence and honours; and being possessed of moral and material strength that others lacked as yet, they were first to win that place in public life to which they felt entitled. Furthermore, in other countries, as for instance in Russia, Germany, Denmark, or Hungary, the peasants, utterly ground down by feudal serfdom, were too wretched to grasp such ideas as those of civil equality and liberty.
In France, on the contrary, every peasant proprietor felt himself a free man on the piece of ground he had won by the sweat of his brow; and it was to defend himself from what remained of feudal tyranny, and his property from ruthless taxation, that he had recourse to revolution.
In no other country, moreover, had the lay and ecclesiastical nobles as in France, deserted the provinces and flocked round the central authority in a scramble for favours; and there was nowhere so deep an abyss between the different social classes as that which the French monarchy, with its centralized State control, had created by removing local administration from the nobility’s hands. Elsewhere, the nobles, brutal and semi-barbarous, lived on their fiefs, carried out their political functions, administered justice and provided for the common weal.
If the peasants were oppressed, they also felt themselves protected by the rough rule of their lord; and the noble’s duties were some justification for his privileges. Finally, in France alone had the capital city acquired such importance as to become the centre of the nation’s entire political and administrative life; so that, when the revolutionary forces had gained mastery over Paris, the whole country too succumbed to them.
In other nations, administrative centralization was as yet rudimentary or entirely lacking, and provincial life remained more or less autonomous; unrest that arose in one area did not necessarily disturb the rest, and disorder in the principal centre had little effect on the provinces, where those who carried on the administration were not forced to wait for all orders, assistance reproofs and payment to come from the capital. In France, widespread trouble in the provinces had an almost paralysing effect on the capital; while disorder in Paris was a mortal blow to the whole political organism and had repercussions throughout the country.”
Again, “The most dangerous city was Paris, with its more than half a million inhabitants. With the growth of a centralized administration, the capital had attracted to itself a crowd of fortune-seekers both rich and poor. To satisfy the diverse needs of all these people new houses and factories were built, which absorbed a stream of workers and peasants from the provinces.
The Government disturbed yet gratified at such an increase in population—embarrassed at having so large a city to administer, but thankful for additional sources of revenue—wavered between distributing favours and privileges, and imposing absurd restriction, in an effort to stem the flood. But the colossus went on growing with or without the King’s permission; rearing up within itself an army of rebels that was to become a most efficacious weapon for destroying old France.
On the eve of the Revolution, employers in Paris were complaining that ‘the workers were dictating to the Government and making leagues of resistance; what with insolent speeches and insulting letters, they seemed to think that anything was permissible.”
8. French Revolution compared with English Revolutions:
The French Revolution may be compared with the Puritan Revolution of 1642-49 and the Glorious Revolution of 1688 in England. It is to be observed that the aims of the English revolutions were mainly political. Their object was to put a check on the arbitrary powers of the king and give all the powers to the British Parliament which was considered to be representative of the people. On the other hand, the main motive force of the French Revolution was social and not political.
It is true that the people of France had their political disabilities but they do not seem to have cared much for them. The people of France were accustomed to authoritarian traditions for centuries and accordingly they did not seem to have bothered much about the evils of centralised despotism. The people suffered most on account of social inequality. No wonder, the French Revolution was aimed mainly against inequality and that also was its chief achievement.
The English Revolution of 1688 was defensive and conservative in character. There was nothing new in the Bill of Rights which the people got after the Glorious Revolution. There was no violent breach with the past. The king was merely forced to act according to the laws of the country and not to act according to his whim. On the other hand, the French Revolution was revolutionary and destructive. It destroyed the Ancien Regime root and branch.
According to Kropotkin, The insurrection of the peasants for the abolition of the feudal rights and the recovery of the communal lands which had been taken away from the village communes since the seventeenth century by the lords, lay and ecclesiastical, is the very essence, the foundation of the great Revolution. Upon it the struggle of the middle class for their political rights was developed. Without it the Revolution would never have been so thorough as it was in France.
The great rising of the rural district which began after the January of 1789, even in 1788, and lasted five years, was what enabled the Revolution to accomplish, the immense work of demolition which we owe to it. It was this that impelled the Revolution to set up the first landmarks of a system of equality, to develop in France the republican spirit, which since then nothing has been able to suppress, to proclaim the great principles of agrarian communism, that we shall see emerging in 1793. This rising, in fact, is what gives the true character to the French Revolution, and distinguishes it radically from the Revolution of 1648-1657 in England.
“There, too, in the course of those nine years, the middle classes broke down the absolute power of royalty and the political privileges of the Court party. But beyond that, the distinctive feature of the English revolution was the struggle for the right of each individual to profess whatever religion is pleased, to interpret the Bible according to his personnel conception of it, to choose his own pastors—in a word, the right of the individual to the intellectual and religious development best suited to him. Further, it claimed the right of each parish, and, as a consequence, of the townships, to autonomy.
But the peasant risings in England did not aim so generally, as in France, at the abolishing of feudal dues and tithes, or the recovery of the communal lands. And if Cromwell’s hosts demolished a certain number of castles which represented true strongholds of feudalism, those hosts unfortunately did not attack either the feudal pretensions of the lords over the land, or even the right of feudal justice, which the lords exercised over their tenants. What the English revolution did was to conquer some precious rights for the individual, but it did not destroy the feudal power of the lord, it merely modified it whilst preserving his rights over the land, rights which persist to this day.
“The English revolution undoubtedly established the political power of the middle classes, but this power was only obtained by sharing it with the landed aristocracy. And if the revolution gave the English middle classes a prosperous era for their trade and commerce, this prosperity was obtained on the condition that the middle classes should not profit by it to attack the landed privileges of the nobility. On the contrary, the middle classes helped to increase these privileges, at least in value.
They helped the nobility to take legal possession of the communal lands by means of the Enclosure Acts, which reduced the agricultural population to misery, placed them at the mercy of the landowners, and forced a great number of them to migrate to the towns, whereas proletarians, they were delivered over to the mercy of the middle-class manufacturers.
The English middle classes also helped the nobility to make of their immense landed estates sources, not only of revenue often fabulous, but also of political and local juridical power, by re-establishing under the new forms the right of manorial justice. They helped also to increase their revenues ten-fold by allowing them through the land laws, which hamper the sale of estates, to mono-polise the land, the need of which was making itself felt more and more among a population whose trade and commerce were steadily increasing.
“We now know that the French middle classes, especially the upper middle classes engaged in manufacture and commerce, wished to imitate the English middle classes in their revolution. They, too, would have willingly entered into a compact with both royalty and nobility in order to attain power. But they did not succeed in this, because the basis of the French Revolution was fortunately much broader than of the revolution in England.
In France, the movement was not merely an insurrection to win religious liberty, or even commercial and industrial liberty for the individual, or yet to constitute municipal authority in the hands of a few middle-class men. It was above all a peasant insurrection, a movement of the people to regain possession of the land and to free it from the feudal obligations which burdened it, and while there was all through it a powerful individualist element—the desire to possess land individually—there was also the communist element, the right of the whole nation to the land; a right which we shall see proclaimed loudly by the poorer classes in 1793.”