The Economic Origins of the French Revolution: Poverty or Prosperity?

The Economic Origins of the French Revolution: Poverty or Prosperity?

The Economic Origins of the French Revolution: Poverty or Prosperity?

The Economic Origins of the French Revolution: Poverty or Prosperity?

Excerpt

In the summer of 1789, at about the same time that the citizens of Paris were assuring the victory of the Third Estate and the successful establishment of the National Assembly by resorting to violence on July 14, the peasants of France were initiating a rebellion of their own directed against their seigneurs and the vestiges of the feudal regime. Limited in some instances to a mere passive refusal to pay their traditional seigneurial obligations, in others it flared into physical violence directed against the seigneur or his property with the ultimate aim in most cases being the destruction of the terriers or legal documents on which their seigneurial obligations were recorded. There is evidence that in many areas the peasant masses were incited to this action by a wave of mass hysteria known as the "Great Fear" which arose in reaction to the rumored existence of an "aristocratic conspiracy" directed against the people, who, it was alleged, were to be physically coerced into submission by bands of hired brigands. When, by the end of July, the National Assembly at Versailles became aware of the extent of rural disaffection, it found itself compelled either to use armed force to restore order or to accept the peasants' actions as a fait accompli. Since the only forces available were royal troops which might easily be turned against the Assembly itself, the only course open to the deputies was to legalize the existing situation. This was done on the famous night of August 4, 1789, when the Assembly by a series of resolutions virtually destroyed the feudal regime in France. Besides being perhaps the single most revolutionary act of the Assembly during its entire career, it was also one of its most permanent. No subsequent government of the Revolutionary or Restoration eras, even at the height of reaction, felt strong enough to reverse this action.

Because the peasants played such an important role in the events of 1789, the question of their motives becomes one of primary importance in any discussion of the origins of the Revolution. Along with the "Great Fear" which has already been mentioned, the immediate cause of their action was unquestionably the general revolutionary ferment and the resulting anarchy which swept over France during the spring and summer of 1789. But what were the more basic underlying causes which determined the character and objectives of their action? We know that political and ideological factors played an important role in bringing on the French Revolution, but what was the part played by economic considerations? Did the people have economic as well as political grievances, and, if so, what were they? Did these grievances stem from a condition of grinding poverty or from one of gradually rising prosperity which only made the lower classes more dissatisfied with their lot? Just what was the economic condition of the people of France during the 18th century, and especially what was the condition of the peasant class to which the vast majority of the French people belonged? These are the questions on which the following selected readings focus and to which they give a variety of answers for the reader to consider.

The first selection is from the Introduction to Michelet's history of the Revolution published in 1847. It sets forth what might now be described as the traditional view on this question, which is that the Revolution stemmed in very large measure from the misery of the oppressed classes, both rural . . .

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