The Uses of History, 2 – The French Revolution, 1789-99, 1

History is a guide to navigation in perilous times. History is who we are and why we are who we are.

David McCullough

(Image credit: Britannica.com)

I might modify our opening citation by David McCullough to say, “History ought to be a guide in perilous times”. Why we do what we do brings us to the old debate about nature versus nurture, heredity versus environment. But it is a false dichotomy, for we are who we are as a result of both.

Yet there is a third element – our actual choices. Choices may actually run quite counter to both heredity and nurture. For some people, their most fervent desire is to escape the chains of heredity and nurture. That is one of the strong motivations for emigration.

The escape can never be total. Chromosome-splicing aside, I cannot escape the genes I was given at conception, and those genes set certain limits on what I can become both physically and in the realm of personality. By hard work I may overcome or at least diminish innate weaknesses, as well as adverse circumstances. Indeed, the “American Dream” is founded on that very notion and it still exercises a powerful attraction to millions of immigrants. Nevertheless, I can train my body and work to keep it healthy, but who can naturally add one inch to his height? Who can change the innate disposition of their personality? Character can be developed, but personality must be worked with, not against.

These basic facts of existence apply to whole peoples and nations as much as to individuals. France is a salient historical model of this. The French Revolution of 1789-99 was a socio-political earthquake in Europe, and eventually changed the world through its “trickle-down effects”. The old debate among historians about whether the Revolution was inevitable or avoidable is rather beside the point. It happened. While its long-term and immediate causes can still be debated, its consequences reverberate more than ever even in the 21st Century.

Just as both nature and nurture play into our own lives and choices, so they did in France in 1789. In France during the decade leading up to 1789, the snowball of the people’s misery had been growing steadily for the 90% of the populace living in or close to the edge of poverty. In fact the load of debt and deprivation had been accumulating for more than a hundred years as the Royal government fossilized in its extravagance and the ruling classes ignored the pleas of the growing middle class and peasantry to divest themselves of the medieval trappings that stifled the nation’s prospects of becoming all it could be. Self-interest and the belief in a divine order [or at least an ordained hereditary order] made the “ultras” of the aristocracy and the religious establishment deaf to all attempts to open society and rationalize the nation’s immense economic potential.

Hindsight allows us to look with disdain at the old aristocracy of France’s ancien régime. The divide between the ultra rich and everyone else had grown into a chasm, and the privileges accorded to the aristocrats included virtually no taxation. Many of the great nobles held an almost feudal control over the lives of the tenants and peasants who lived on and around their enormous estates. Numbering 130 000 (0.5% of the population), they held title to between 25-30% of all the land. he Roman Catholic Church also enjoyed total exemption from taxation even as it held title to as much as 10% of all the lands in France. The great clerics were all of the nobility and lived as richly in the Church as any Count or Duke.

The laborers and peasants bore most of the tax burden, and the business class groaned under the limitations and politically motivated preferences and monopolies of the financial and economic infrastructure within France’s borders. All commoners were subject to pay tithes to the Church and fees and duties to the nobles for the use of their lands. Peasants often still paid a significant proportion of the produce of their farms even in bad years.

Hope sprang up during the early reign of the well-meaning King Louis XVI, but his Queen [Marie-Antoinette] and the powerful aristocratic coterie around her thwarted all his attempts to bring in modest fiscal and administrative reforms by engineering the dismissal of the ministers such as Necker who were appointed to implement them. Louis did not have the iron character of his great-grandfather, Louis XIV, to carry out his program and reign in the nobility’s avarice and arrogance. When Louis did finally overrule the willfully blind anti-reformers and call the long-dormant Estates-General to meet in May 1789, there was so much pent-up bitterness and frustration that there was no way he or any minister would be able to control what would ensue.

By that point, France had a living model of successful revolution to look to from across the Atlantic Ocean in the newly founded United States of America (see previous post). Furthermore, France had substantially helped this new nation come into being. With the American rebels struggling to find the resources and wherewithal to push the British out of the thirteen southern-most American colonies (they had several more to the north in what is now Canada), France’s declaration of war on Britain in 1778 (along with Spain and, later, the Netherlands) proved a great drain on British resources, especially the Royal Navy. Elite French army units came across the Atlantic and provided crucial assistance in several important engagements. They played a key role in the American victory on the final campaign of 1781.

The French government’s motivation for this intervention was not simple altruism. It was revenge for France’s devastating defeat in the Seven Years War of 1756-63. It was pay-back, meant to weaken the British by tearing away the jewel of their empire. The gamble succeeded. In 1783 the British recognized American independence, but in the meantime had wreaked further havoc upon the empires of America’s European allies. In North America, Canada remained British, despite an American attempt to conquer it during the Revolutionary war.

The French who had gone to help the Americans could not but be influenced by what they had seen. Some of the new American idealism for liberty and democracy and equality (among the white population at least) inevitably rubbed off, both among the ordinary soldiers and sailors and the officers, many of whom were middle class and even of noble extraction, such as the Marquis de Lafayette. A little leaven leavens the whole lump. The first American ambassador to France was Benjamin Franklin, one of the key founding fathers of the USA.

Six years later, as the Estates-General gathered at Versailles in May 1789, none of this could be lost on the representatives of the Three Estates to consider how to change France’s obviously broken social, political, and economic machinery. For the First Estate, the Church, there was some sympathy for the Third Estate, the Commons, but the main leaders of Church had much more in common with the Second Estate, the Aristocracy. The First and Second Estates, who made up 2% of the population, stood to lose greatly in the wake of any change to the established order, in which they enjoyed enormous privileges and little responsibility to contribute to the nation’s general welfare.

The Third Estate saw the American example as their inspiration and model. As a symbol of this, Thomas Paine, the celebrated author of Common Sense, which, in 1776 had become the de facto manifesto of the American revolution, crossed the Atlantic to come to Paris and become the darling of the political and salon set. His message to the French citizenry was to seize the moment and make change happen, tearing away the apparatus of social and economic oppression like the American colonists had done.

TO BE CONTINUED

Published by VJM

Vincent is a retired High School teacher and an ordained Christian minister in Ontario, Canada. He is an enthusiastic student of History, life, and human nature. He has loved writing since he was a kid. He has been happily married for over 45 years and has 4 grown children and nine grandchildren. He and his wife ran a nationally successful Canadian Educational Supply business for home educators and private schools for fifteen years. Vincent has published Study Guides for Canadian Social Studies, a biography of a Canadian Father of Confederation, and short semi-fictional accounts of episodes in Canadian History. He is currently working on a number of writing projects in both non-fiction and fiction. Vincent is a gifted teacher and communicator.

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