Skip to main content

About this book

The French Revolution, an event of world historical importance that gave birth to modern politics, has long been a subject of debate. Naturally, the question of its origins remains a key area of controversy. This collection of essays by a team of distinguished experts in the field offers original but approachable views and interpretations that will engage students and scholars alike. Each chapter contains new research and focuses upon a major strand of the present debate.
The Origins of the French Revolution explores:
- the process of decision-making
- the financial crisis
- the Paris parlement
- pamphlet literature
- the ideas of the Enlightenment
- peasant involvement
- the Estates General of 1789

Chapters on art and theatre, on the development of cultural history, and the corrosive role of religious conflict upon the fabric of the monarchy ensure that stimulating new perspectives now form a key part of future discussion. A full introduction considers the nature of the debate and offers a thought-provoking interpretation of the crisis of the absolute monarchy that led to the collapse of state and society in the summer of 1789.

Table of Contents

Introduction The Origins of the French Revolution in Focus

The period of the French Revolution is one of the most important in modern history. The Revolution swept away the old order in France and replaced it with a succession of new regimes, each ultimately unable to win consensus and provide stability. But they were all conscious of being a part of the same great project, to regenerate France, indeed humanity, to make a new world. The Revolution proclaimed equality before the law, the abolition of the vestiges of the feudal regime of peasant dues and services, and gave new social groups the opportunity to exercise power. These were the Notables — a growing combination of liberal nobles and the bourgeoisie of the liberal professions — and, for a brief and intense period of conflict, the artisans and masters of the popular classes. It consolidated the peasantry in their landowning traditions but attacked and alienated the Catholic Church, to which they were also attached. Reactions to the initial constitutional projects, and to the more leveling politics of virtue as the revolution radicalized, created the fundamental division between Right and Left that still characterizes modern politics. Although the twentieth century was profoundly conditioned by two equally great revolutions, the Russian and the Chinese, the nineteenth century lived in the shadow of the French Revolution as its aspirations commanded either allegiance or resistance. New nations adopted the tricolor flag, self-conscious revolutionaries sought to emulate its policies and leaders, while its opponents sought above all to avoid revolution — and of course its true significance began to be evaluated by historians.
Peter Robert Campbell

1. The Financial Origins of the French Revolution

In his illuminating discussion of the financial system of the regime, Joël Félix somewhat rehabilitates the ancien-régime financial authorities, who were vehemently criticized by contemporaries and historians. His analysis shows that there was not one reason — the fiscal issue for instance — but many reasons why the monarchy faced a financial crisis in 1787. It was not the first such crisis, for financial crises were barely avoidable in a regime engaged in frequent warfare with an inelastic taxation system. For this reason, credit was the most important aspect of finances in the eighteenth century. For whatever we may think about fiscal equality — and political equality — reforming the fiscal system with its many taxes was a long and painful task, and one that could not therefore respond to a short-term crisis. In many respects, French ministers were well aware of these problems. But although some of them simply preferred to perpetuate what was done before them, others believed they would be able to bring a solution to deficits and debts by making the most of a large and potentially wealthier country. So ministers usually overestimated their power, which was always challenged by fellow ministers. Moreover, they were powerless before a growing public opinion, the cultivated elements of which were requesting reforms that were not always politically acceptable or technically possible. In terms of general public opinion, however, most of it had little, indeed barely any, practical experience of administering finance and taxes. What opinions reveal to us was a basic hostility to increased taxation, a sense of inequality and the idea that reforms should bring relief from taxes. Yet, fiscal, financial and economic reforms always challenged the status quo and the crisis tested to its limits the ability of the king and his ministers to bring about a workable solution that would bring greater happiness to his subjects. And kings and ministers, though they would have liked to be able to reduce the burden on the poor, could not contemplate a France without privileges, that is to say, a world in which full equality existed. As a result, when the answer to the financial problems turned out to focus on fiscal equality, political equality remained a major issue. But fiscal equality alone would never be a sufficient reform, for old and bitter issues still remained, such as the control of government expenditures or the liberalization of the economy. Ultimately, the problem was political, in terms both of securing a consensus on potentially divisive decisions and of implementing them.
Joël Félix

2. Decision-making

Misled for generations by the argument that the absolute monarchy had become a “modern administrative state,” historians have only recently begun in earnest to research and reflect upon the nature of the courtly system of governance of the baroque state. It is now the continuities of the system of patronage, in the influence of the court factions, in the strategies of political management of the various institutions of the (not centralized but) decentralized system of power, that seem most relevant to the problem of the collapse of the state. Piecing together the structures and procedures of the royal council, John Hardman gives us an analysis of how two vital decisions were taken. The entry into the American war, ultimately so significant in financial terms for the regime, was discussed logically and with due analysis of the circumstances. Even if the judgement could be considered unwise, it was free from factional influence, and in some ways reveals Louis XVI at his best. The second decision, to support Calonne and present a wide program of reforms for approval by an Assembly of Notables, is a different matter. Departing from the traditional conciliar processes, Louis avoided consulting all but three of his ministers on this matter, implicitly leaving them free to oppose what they had not approved. Given that the ministry was split into warring factions and that Calonne’s reforms were in need of all the support they could get, this was a bad mistake. The factional strife and mistakes in political management suggest that the dissolution of the regime began at the centre.
John Hardman

3. The Paris Parlement in the 1780s

It was long thought that there was a clear rise of parlementary and aristocratic opposition to the absolute monarchy from 1715 to 1771, crushed by Maupeou only to resume in 1785, and motivated by an ideology of aristocratic reaction. This chapter argues against these older historical explanations for being misleadingly simple. Close examination of the sociology, procedures, and arguments, and their context, suggests there were important constant elements. The structure of the various crises was similar and so indeed were the magistrates’s motivations. The defense of their jurisdiction is the real constant in Crown–parlement relations, but this desire could be manipulated by court factions or interest groups like the Jansenists; this and poor political management from the centre largely explains the numerous crises. The key new element was the parti janséniste which played the leading role up to 1771, and this included elaborating a “new” history of the parlement that appealed to a so-called “ancient constitution” in which the judges were the depositories of the laws. Thus ideology is recognized as important, but its use is interpreted more as rhetoric than ideological motivation. The parlement’s role is here seen more in terms of institutional strategies and court politics than in terms of more general ideological or social contests. Therefore, and perhaps controversially, doubts are cast upon the current notion of “parlementary constitutionalism” as being the principal motivation of the judges. Since jurisdiction, the defense of corporate honour, was at the root of the confrontations, parlementary constitutionalism would therefore be left as an influential rhetoric adopted by the judges in various crises to legitimize more conservative aims. Nevertheless, as Margerison shows in this volume, for the wider public and pamphleteers, this parlementaire rhetoric took on a life of its own and was the basis of division between opposing sides in the pamphlet debate over the future constitution of France.
Peter Robert Campbell

4. From Social to Cultural History

Bill Scott here charts the attack on a restricted kind of social history, the Marxist interpretation of the French Revolution. Just as a new revisionist political history of the revolution was coming into being on the one hand, wider intellectual movements in the 1960s led to a rise of “cultural history” that was much broader than the political approach. Undoubtedly stimulating, opening up new perspectives, this new history is nevertheless akin to interpretations put forward as early as the revolution itself, and in the nineteenth century. Too-rigid lines of demarcation can create new blindnesses. Cultural history does not supersede previous approaches, but ideally should complement them. In some areas it has yet to fulfill its promise, notably by taking up the challenge of reintegrating the missing commercial bourgeoisie into revolutionary history.
William Scott

5. The Intellectual Origins of the French Revolution

The intellectual changes taking place in eighteenth-century France have long been cited as a cause of the Revolution. In this chapter Linton stresses the complexity of the relationship of the Enlightenment to the outbreak of revolution. She shows how traditional interpretations have been affected by new perspectives in political culture and the social history of ideas. She considers some of the leading eighteenth-century participants in radical political polemics, and looks at key concepts in the development of those polemics. Recognizing that discourse theory has been a fruitful approach, she nevertheless points to problematic features of the approach of Baker and of Furet. With regard to Baker, she critiques three features: firstly, the schematic claim to boil down the ideological origins into three particular discourses, those of will, reason, and justice; secondly, the ideas-driven approach that gives insufficient place to the impact of context and events; thirdly, the neglect of the motivations, intentions, and rhetorical strategies on the part of authors of discourses. To illustrate these points she shows how the discourse of virtue also played a significant role in the ideological origins of the Revolution, a role that must be interpreted in terms of the rhetorical and strategic development of this concept within specific historical contexts. Nor was this idea new in 1789, molding its users in a determinist fashion, as Furet suggested. By 1789 a language had been fashioned (consisting of such key words as virtue, patrie, nation, despotism, privilege) armed with which participants could enter into the new realm of politics and struggle to control the political debates for the future of France. But the shape of that future was still very much under contestation, and would be further transformed in the context of revolutionary and counterrevolutionary politics.
Marisa Linton

6. The Religious Origins of the French Revolution, 1560–1791

Starting with Henry of Navarre’s reconciliation with Leaguer Paris by his conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1593 and ending with Louis XVI’s alienation from revolutionary Paris by his fidelity to Roman Catholicism in 1791, this chapter sets out to explore this paradox in the long run and in religious terms. The principal argument is that, after successfully reinventing itself as a sacred and absolute authority safely above the religious fray of the sixteenth-century wars of religion, the Bourbon monarchy set about undoing itself by embroiling itself in another religious conflict — the Jansenist controversy — this one within Catholicism and largely of its own making. One result was the “desacralization” of a monarchy that, while usually attributed to the French Enlightenment, in this argument assumes a place alongside a militantly anticlerical enlightenment as both products of the Jansenist controversy. Another result was a reenactment of the sixteenth-century wars of religion in memory, words and warrants, not only reproducing some of their divisions within Catholicism but also reviving their theories of limited or “constitutional” monarchy long obscured during the apogee of absolutism, and which fed into the prerevolutionary debate. And while Henry IV might once have hoped that a distinctly French or Gallican Catholic Church would eventually reunite French protestants and Catholics, his successors’ policy of aligning the monarchy with the papacy allowed persecuted Jansenists to redefine the church in ever more “constitutional” terms, and, in alliance with the judicial milieu and “public opinion,” rhetorically to pit the patrie against monarchical, papal, and episcopal “despotism.” The stage was thus set whereby the National Assembly imposed a “civil constitution” on the Church that, added to the one imposed on the king, led to the parting of the paths between Louis XVI and Paris.
Dale Van Kley

7. The Contested Image: Stage, Canvas, and the Origins of the French Revolution

Both the ancien régime and the Revolution are now being explored more intensively by scholars as cultural entities, since both regimes employed specific visual and theatrical rhetoric to sustain their legitimacy and their politics. Well aware of such approaches by historians, Mark Ledbury’s very interdisciplinary essay draws on his own investigation of the complexities of genre in the period, and his researches on Greuze and David. It explores some precise examples, in theatre and painting, of the processes of “idealization” (the use of the stage and canvas to project fantasies of society as reportage of preexisting fact), and of “desacralization” (the eroding of the sacredness of institutions vital to the ancien régime). It also explores how various genres of painting and drama in the1760s, 1770s, and 1780s might be understood as reflecting of the confusions, contests, and tensions of the late ancien régime. Nevertheless, the interpretation of artistic productions cannot be limited simply to broader cultural influences, and the essay also argues for the importance of identifying the aesthetic processes at work in paintings and dramas of the era. Their forms coopt popular culture as well as rework elite culture, and we are encouraged to see the political significance of these aesthetic processes. In this approach we see why the conceptualizing of the “public sphere” is so vital to the “cultural explanation” of the Revolution.
Mark Ledbury

8. The Pamphlet Debate over the Organization of the Estates General

The public sphere is vital to Kenneth Margerison’s chapter on the pamphlet debate. His careful analysis of the pamphlet literature published in the months preceding the convocation of the Estates General informs his interpretation of events at Versailles in the summer of 1789. He argues that the largely aristocratic Society of Thirty’s well-known publication campaign calling for a doubled Third Estate and vote by head in the Estates General was designed to bring the Third Estate into an alliance with the privileged orders to combat ministerial despotism. The abbé Sieyès, who distrusted the aristocratic leadership of the society, rejected such an alliance in his famous pamphlet, What Is the Third Estate? Disputing the conventional assessment of this pamphlet’s importance, Margerison argues that it had little impact on public opinion, which had come by early 1789 to accept the necessity of a union of the three orders in the Estates General. Furthermore, the success of Sieyès’s motion that created the National Assembly in June 1789 did not result, as historians usually contend, in a victory establishing the political dominance of the Third Estate. Instead, the formation of the National Assembly, after a brief but fraught period of tension, led directly to the common deliberations sought by the unionist nobility who emerged as important leaders in the body. By emphasizing the efforts of the leaders of the Society of Thirty and their allies to create a basis for cooperation among the three orders, Margerison’s analysis challenges not only Georges Lefebvre’s classic description of events in the summer of 1789 as a struggle between the Third Estate and the nobility but also the more recent interpretations of François Furet and Keith Baker, who have emphasized the influence of Sieyès on the development of the Revolutionary concept of sovereignty.
Kenneth Margerison

9. Peasants and their Grievances

John Markoff’s work makes several contributions to debates about the origins of the Revolution. To begin with the evidence: first, in exploring a systematic national sample of villagers’ own statements of the grievances, he is able to clarify just what it is that France’s rural people were demanding as France slid into revolution; secondly, in exploring the subsequent patterns of rural insurrection, he is able to show how the forms and targets of peasant actions changed in the unfolding situation. This permits looking in new ways at processes unfolding on different timescales. By being able to trace rural action on a monthby-month and even (in some of his work) day-by-day basis, he provides new documentation on just what was happening in the short run. He argues that an important part of what made the French Revolution what it was occurred as rural people shifted towards attacking the rural lords, which had an enormous impact on the entire course of Revolutionary politics. In addition, by showing the ways in which peasant actions in 1789 were growing out of their increasing challenges to local elites in a variety of arenas, he strongly suggests that such a middle-run notion as “pre-Revolution” needs to be expanded. Historians have generally designated as the “pre-Revolution” the growing crisis among France’s regional and national elites out of which the fateful and fatal decision to convene the Estates General emerged. But Markoff’s work suggests that the concept of “pre-Revolution” probably should also include the growing challenges to seigneurial authority in the legal arena and certainly should include the increasing tempo of semi-insurrectionary challenge that some have noted in the wake of the great food riots of the 1770s. There appears to be a growing tension in rural France in the late ancien régime that needs a great deal more attention from historians.
John Markoff

10. From the Estates General to the National Assembly, May 5–August 4, 1789

This chapter focuses not upon the complex politics of the various groups in the Estates General, which is an enormous task still in need of research, but upon the processes. The Estates General has traditionally been viewed as an inherently revolutionary body, with the members of the Third Estate having arrived inspired by the abbé Sieyès and ready to undertake bold reforms. In fact, the deputies of the Third Estate arrived in Versailles hoping for guidance from the Crown at the opening of the Estates General, and when such direction did not occur they followed a moderate course of action. Indeed, during the first weeks of the Estates General, the majority of deputies of the Third Estate resisted the counsel of Sieyès and the Bretons, and his influence began to emerge only after weeks of stalemate. Even after the transformation of the Estates General into the National Assembly, during the initial period of which deputies continued to sit by order, the men of the National Assembly pursued only a moderate program of reform. The first product of its deliberations, a report by its Committee of the Constitution on July 27, was exceedingly modest in scope, disappointing many contemporaries. Just over a week later, however, the meeting of the night of August 4 completely transformed the scope of the agenda of the National Assembly, as the meeting resulted in the sudden and unanticipated dismantling of French ancien-régime society. In its aftermath, the National Assembly had to reconstruct the French polity in its entirety, but this total restructuring had been thrust upon the Assembly by the meeting of the night of August 4. Ultimately, then, the extraordinary changes instituted by the National Assembly were less a product of pamphlet debates prior to the meeting of the Estates General than they were the outcome of the course of events after the Estates General opened.
Michael Fitzsimmons
Additional information