From Deficit to Deluge: The Origins of the French Revolution

By Thomas E. Kaiser; Dale K. Van Kley | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 1
Financial Origins of the
French Revolution

Gail Bossenga

Few would dispute that the immediate cause of the French Revolution was the impending financial bankruptcy of the royal government. In 1786 the controller-general, Charles-Alexandre de Calonne, announced that although the government’s total revenue was only approximately 474 million livres, expenditures were running around 575 million, leaving a deficit of 101 million.1 Nearly half of the crown’s expenses, furthermore, stemmed simply from the cost of servicing its enormous debt. Two years of feverish attempts by the king’s finance ministers, first Calonne and then Etienne-Charles de Loménie de Brienne, archbishop of Toulouse, to solve the pressing financial problem came to naught. On August 16, 1788, Brienne was forced to suspend payments on short-term loans falling due at the royal treasury and gave creditors interest-bearing notes instead, a measure commonly perceived as a partial bankruptcy. He also moved up the convocation of the Estates-General to the following May in order to put France’s financial house back in order. Absolute monarchy was to be no more.

In attempting to explain the financial origins of the Revolution, the question of why the monarchy went bankrupt has not posed a great mystery to historians. The French monarchy had suffered for centuries from

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