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French Revolution: Economic Origins

King Louis XV died in 1774 and his ill-fated grandson, at age 20, was coronated as King Louis XVI. This was promoted as the will of God, and Louis XVI was said to rule by Divine Right. His coronation was celebrated across France with expectations of heavenly blessings and more grandeur. This was fifteen years before the year the French Revolution is said to have begun.

Louis had been born into the Bourbon family, which won power in France less than 200 years before. Now, around 200 years later, it was Louis XVI's duty to maintain Bourbon family rule and its territory. Louis XVI did not have the drive or self-confidence of someone who had won power by his own smarts, but he wanted to serve the people of France, and the House of Bourbon had ministers who would try to help him through the difficulties ahead.

Louis XVI's wife, the queen, was not expected to be of much help. They had married in 1770, when she was fourteen and he fifteen — an arranged marriage. She was born in Vienna, one of many daughters of the formidable Austrian ruler Maria-Theresa, and she still had the immaturity and frivolity of mind that one might expect of someone her age.

Trouble came for King Louis in the 1780s. There had been the Seven Years' War a couple of decades before, in 1755-64, a war in which France lost territory and its monarchy acquired a large debt. Then, in 1776, Britain's colonists began a war against their king, George III, and the French monarchy's ministers saw advantage for France in siding with the rebels colonists. With France's help, the rebel colonists won their war, but financial support for the American rebels drove Louis XVI's government to the brink of bankruptcy.

To save his government financially, an increase in revenue was needed. Louis's government was taxing common people regularly and paying half of its revenues to cover debts owed to aristocrats and other lenders. The monarchy considered extending taxation to the nobility and to the Catholic Church, but this the nobles and clergy opposed. To solve its revenue problem the monarchy laid plans to convene a consultative body that had last met back in 1614 — the Estates General — a body with representatives from three sections of society: the Church (the First Estate); the nobility (Second Estate); and those representing commoners (the Third Estate).

France, meanwhile, was suffering economically. French trade and commerce had increased since the early 1700s, but its agriculture (three-quarters of its economy) was backward compared to Britain's or the Dutch Republic. There had been insufficient government planning and an insufficient storage of grain for emergency shortages.Farmers around Paris consumed over 80 percent of what they grew, so if a harvest fell by around 10 percent, which was common, people went hungry.

France's spinners and weavers were suffering unemployment — the result of importation of cheaper and better quality British textiles. In Paris, people were selling second-hand goods or working at odd jobs such as carrying water. Many were staying alive by petty thievery or prostitution — sometimes both. People were being buried every day without ceremony in pauper's graves. The Church was helping by handing out bread and milk. And the king's economic minister, Jacques Necker, launched a program to import food, and he forbade the export of grain, but this hardly helped.

In July 1788, a hailstorm destroyed crops. France that year had its worst harvest in forty years, and the coming winter was severe. In Paris, construction workers were joining the ranks of the unemployed. People were being evicted from their homes. With bread more scarce, its price rose. People had been in the habit of eating mainly bread, and many were going hungry. In April 1789, workers in Paris rioted. Something like 25 people were killed and a lot of property destroyed.

The year 1789 is commonly described as the first year of the French Revolution — on May 5, 1789, according to Wikipedia. That was the day the Estates General convention opened. Britannica has the revolution beginning two years earlier, in 1787, the year of the tax crisis. The historian Simon Schama in his Chronicle of the French Revolution describes the revolution beginning with "the politicization of the money crisis that dictated the calling of the Estates-General."

CONTINUE READING: The French Revolution: The French Revolution: the First 112 Days

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