The causes and outcomes of the French Revolution

The article has been written upon request to provide an easy-to-read account of what caused the French Revolution and its consequences focusing on those areas of relevance to today’s Uganda. Because of this narrow scope, the coverage will be selective. The revolution was a manifestation of what had been going on for many years dating back to the death of Louis XIV in 1715. He left the country saddled with financial difficulties because of expensive wars and extravagant lifestyle at his royal court. Louis XV and Louis XVI made the situation worse, undermining and ultimately causing the Old Regime to be abolished during the French Revolution of 1789-99. The enlightenment thinkers’ ideas and American Revolution influenced and enhanced the course of events.

In Europe the 18th century was characterized in large part by radical intellectual thinkers known as philosophers who challenged the way people thought about government and society dominated by tyranny, injustice, superstition and intolerance. They wanted a world based on reason, tolerance and equality and in which people knew their rights and freedoms. They railed against moral decadence and inequality. They pointed out that man had been born free but was in chains everywhere. The philosophers examined the shortcomings of royal absolutism and called for limited monarchy, separation of powers between the executive, the legislature and the judiciary as well as representative government. They underscored that if the contract between the people and the government had been breached the people had the right to remove that government from power. These ideas contributed to the American Revolution which, in turn, had a direct influence on the French Revolution.

The American Revolution affected the French Revolution in several ways. First, French military officers who served in the American Revolution including aristocratic Marquis de Lafayette were inspired by the notions of liberty and republicanism. At home French intellectuals and publicists analyzed American federal and state constitutions, noting what needed to be done in the French Old Regime. Second, France’s costly engagement in the American Revolutionary war put a heavy strain on public finances, putting financial reform at the top of the country’s political agenda that necessitated convening the Estates General (parliament) that had not met in 175 years.

Like the American Revolution, the French Revolution had its immediate origin in public financial difficulties. The French government had borrowed heavily and accumulated national debt and budget deficits. Thus, by the 1780s, 50 percent of the national budget paid interest on loans; 25 percent was allocated to the military; 6 percent to the royal court; leaving a mere 19 percent for other public expenses. The king tried to raise taxes without success because the public and the high court of Paris – parlement – objected. He was advised to convene parliament (Estates General) which had mandate to raise taxes.

France’s population of 25 million was divided into three classes (estates or orders): the Roman Catholic clergy (First Estate) that numbered 100,000; the nobility (Second Estate) numbering 400,000 men and women; and commoners (Third Estate) with everyone else constituting 97 percent of the total population. The clergy did not pay government taxes but collected taxes (tithes) for its purposes. The nobility did not pay taxes as well. But it taxed peasants that also paid for using the landlord’s facilities to make bread and wine. They also paid fees for justice and a host of other manorial charges. However the First and Second Estates that constituted 3 percent of the total population owned forty percent of total land area. The commoners who paid the taxes and tithes were discriminated against in government and church administration offices. These grievances contributed to the French Revolution.

Economic and social hard times also played a major role. The 1788/89 period was marked by exceptional difficulties that originated in acute food shortages and associated skyrocketing prices throughout France. The food situation was made more difficult by some peasants refusing to sell their grain (it also happened during the Russian Revolution). Harvest failure and inflation induced an economic recession. With no income, there was no demand for goods and services. Industries collapsed, shedding workers, leading to more collapse of industries and services. This vicious cycle resulted in some 50 percent of unemployed workers in 1789 in need of relief to survive. The government had no money for this purpose. The situation in Paris became precarious as 150,000 out of the City’s population of 600,000 were unemployed. Parisians demanded that they should have steady work and adequate bread at fair prices. In towns, riots connected with food and often led by women occurred. They forced bread to be sold at ‘the just price’. And in Rouen, they cut the price in half. The Reveillon riots occurred in April 1789 when management of a wall paper company reduced wages to balance the books. But the laid off workers did not appreciate that action. They rioted and destroyed property. Royal troops were brought in and battled with the rioters for twelve hours, leaving 12 soldiers and more than 200 rioters dead.

There is consensus that these grievances turned into a revolution due to the convergence of four overlapping movements:

1. An aristocratic movement that had been building for years to thwart the king’s decisions especially in tax matters;

2. A middle-class (bourgeois) movement that challenged aristocratic control of high government offices;

3. A peasant movement that went beyond disturbances over grain and rebelled against the remnants of feudalism;

4. An urban working-class movement that went beyond demand for jobs, fair wages and bread prices to political demands.

These developments forced the king to convene the Estates General in May 1789 at Versailles. In preparation for the conference, each district was asked to submit a statement with a list of grievances as an integral part of conference documents. A little known Catholic priest Abbe Sieyes prepared a pamphlet titled “What is the Third Estate?” In it he raised three fundamental questions and corresponding answers:

1. What is the Third Estate? Everything [it had 97 percent of the total population];

2. What has it been thus far in the political order? Nothing;

3. What does it demand? To become something.

Most statements objected to absolute rule of kings and called for a constitutional monarchy. None supported the ‘divine right’ of kings (that kings are appointed by God and are accountable only to Him). Other statements called for parliament to have powers over taxation and legislation matters. The arbitrary royal power of arrest was attacked and the French people demanded a wide range of rights and freedoms particularly freedom of the press.

The conference was opened by the king. He made a statement asking for an increase in taxes. After that he ordered that the three estates meet, deliberate and vote separately as before. The Third Estate that had been disadvantaged by this arrangement objected, demanding that the three orders meet in the same hall and vote as individuals. The Third Estate that had 600 deputies, the same number as the combined First and Second Estates hoped to use its numerical strength to influence decisions. Initially, nine priests accepted the idea. But the king refused. In response the Third Estate deputies together with the 9 priests formed the French National Assembly. The National Assembly deputies were locked out of their meeting hall under the pretext it was being repaired. The deputies then gathered in an indoor Tennis Court and took an oath (the Tennis Court Oath) not to disband until a new constitution had been completed. In the end 149 priests and some nobles joined the National Assembly and formed a large majority and began deliberations. Later they were joined by the rest of deputies.

Two developments initiated the riots in Paris that sparked the revolution. The king dismissed the moderate minister of finance. Parisians feared that the dismissal of a moderate minister would put them at the mercy of aristocratic landowners and grain speculators. The second event was information that the king had assembled troops at Versailles (French troops refused to obey the order and he called on German and Swiss reinforcements which constituted 25 percent of the French army) to disperse the Assembly deputies and put down riots in Paris. On July 11, Parisian mob burned the customs gates blaming officers for tariffs that raised the price of bread. Then they collected arms for the defense of the city. On July 12, German soldiers fired on a crowd, sparking more riots. On July 14, 1789 Parisians stormed the Bastille, a symbol of royal power, to obtain gun powder. The storming of the Bastille marked the beginning of the revolution (July 14 is a national holiday in France). On July 15, a committee of citizens appointed Marquis de Lafayette commander of the city’s armed forces (National Guard). On hearing the bad news from Paris, the king abandoned the idea of attacking the National Assembly, disbanded the troops and recalled the dismissed moderate finance minister. The popular uprising by poor, unemployed and hungry Parisians saved the National Assembly and initiated the revolution.

Riots spread to other towns. In the countryside, rumors that aristocrats frustrated by events in the National Assembly, were planning to unleash armies of vagrants on peasants caused panic dubbed the “Great Fear”. Peasants armed themselves in self-defense. They attacked aristocrats, destroyed property and burned records of feudal duties that they owed.

Although crop harvest in 1789 was good, drought slowed water-powered grinding mills causing food shortages. Consequently, August and September witnessed bread riots again led by women. At the same time the king rejected Assembly reforms. On October 5, a combination of these developments forced angry Parisian women numbering 7000 to march 12 miles to Versailles to address the National Assembly and the king about their suffering. They invaded royal apartments and killed some royal bodyguards. The intervention of Lafayette and the National Guard restored order. The king accepted the reforms and agreed to move to Paris with his family. The National Assembly also relocated to Paris.

The outcomes of the revolution were many. They included the abolition of the feudal system including tithes owed to the Church; abolition of the nobility as a legal entity; nationalization of church property including land (peasants purchased much of it); broadening women rights and creation of a constitutional monarch as head of state and making a representative parliament be responsible for law making matters including taxation.

The Bill of Rights known as the Declaration of the Rights of Man was a major achievement. Here are some of the pertinent sections:

1. Men are born and remain free and equal in rights;

2. The aim of every political organization is the preservation of the natural rights of man. These rights are liberty, property, security and resistance to oppression;

3. The source of all sovereignty is essentially in the nation; nobody, no individual can exercise authority that does not proceed from it in plain terms;

4. Liberty consists in the power to do anything that does not injure others;

5. Law is the expression of the general will. It must be the same for all, whether it protects or punishes;

6. Every man being presumed innocent until he has been pronounced guilty;

7. No one should be disturbed on account of his opinion, even religious;

8. The free communication of ideas and opinions is one of the most precious rights of man; every citizen then can freely speak, write and print;

9. Society has the right to call for an account of its administration from every public agent;

10. Property [such as land] being a sacred and inviolable right, no one can be deprived of it, unless a legally established public necessity evidently demands it, under the conditions of a just and prior indemnity.

There are political, economic and social resemblances between the causes of the French Revolution and what is happening in Uganda. Ugandans are drawing lessons from the Arab Spring Revolutions as French drew from the American Revolution. The ideas of thinkers are influencing Uganda just as enlightenment thinkers influenced France. The French Revolution in towns and countryside was carried out by working class men and women and peasants. We need to study this instrument carefully and see how Uganda can benefit from it. This was a revolution accomplished through civil disobedience. We can do it without resorting to war. People played different roles according to what they could do best. An obscure Abbe Sieyes wrote a brilliant pamphlet about “what is the Third Estate?” He became a prominent leader in the Revolution. Because of his excellent work he was promoted to Archbishop of Paris and served in many capacities in government including under Napoleon. The draft of the Declaration of the Rights of Man was prepared by Lafayette. The agitation of revolutionary orators like Camille Desmoulins created conditions that mobilized Parisians.

The point being stressed is that as we begin the struggle against NRM let Ugandans do what they are best at. The French Revolution succeeded in removing the Old Regime because the people had the will, determination and boldness to succeed. The deputies who took the Tennis Court Oath vowed not to disband until a constitution had been completed. And they stuck to their guns with the support of Parisian working men and women. Ugandans cannot demand less.

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