Origins of the French Revolution

By William Doyle | Go to book overview

5
The System of Government

The king of France was an absolute monarch. This meant that there was no institution in the state with the right to prevent him from doing whatever he chose to do, in contrast to a state like Great Britain, where royal power was circumscribed by Parliament. It is true that there were certain 'fundamental laws' which the king was expected to observe, such as those governing the succession. But there was no consensus for the most part over which laws were and which were not fundamental; and in any case a determined king could override even those which did command general recognition -- as when Louis XIV placed his two bastard sons in the line of succession. As the mid-eighteenth-centurychancellor, Lamoignon, declared, the king of France was a sovereign to whom everything was not permitted, but everything was possible. 1

In this sense the king bore the final responsibility for everything that the state did -- or did not do. And if the old regime failed to reform itself, this was in large measure the fault of Louis XIV, Louis XV, and Louis XVI, for they alone had the power, the authority, and the right to authorize necessary reforms. Of these three, only Louis XIV was a monarch of superior abilities, who in his diligence, regular habits, fixity of purpose, and firmness under pressure set new standards of monarchical conduct. His policy was to improve and maintain his own authority in the state, but he never thought of using it to make sweeping reforms. Indeed, he was responsible for much subsequent governmental confusion in that he seldom abolished institutions which he deprived of power. He thought it enough merely to transfer their powers elsewhere, which worked so long as he was on the throne, but opened the way to endless conflicts of jurisdiction and paralysing rivalries under less assured rulers. Louis XV was an intelligent man, whose concern for his responsibilities has often been underestimated by historians. 2 But he was shy, idle, and easily bored compared with his predecessor, and he preferred to avoid problems, or seek stopgap solutions, rather than to lay comprehensive, long-term plans. Like Louis XIV he was more interested in protecting his authority than in

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Origins of the French Revolution
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Prefatory Note vii
  • Contents *
  • Introduction 1
  • Part I - Writings on Revolutionary Origins Since 1939 3
  • 1 - The Classic Interpretation 5
  • 2 - Revisionism 10
  • 3 - Post-Revisionism 35
  • Part II - The Breakdown of the Old Regime 43
  • 4 - The Financial Crisis 45
  • 5 - The System of Government 54
  • 6 - Opposition 65
  • 7 - Public Opinion 76
  • 8 - Reform and its Failure, 1787-1788 91
  • Part III - The Struggle for Power 109
  • 9 - The Nobility 111
  • 10 - The Bourgeoisie 121
  • 11 - The Election Campaign, September 1788 to May 1789 131
  • 12 - The Economic Crisis 148
  • 13 - The Estates-General, May and June 1789 157
  • 14 - The People of Paris 166
  • 15 - The Peasantry 178
  • 16 - Conclusion: The New Regime and its Principles 189
  • Notes 197
  • Further Reading 226
  • Index of Authors Cited 229
  • General Index 233
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