Origins of the French Revolution

By William Doyle | Go to book overview

6
Opposition

Opposition to the government before the Revolution was never focused on a national institution such as the English Parliament. No such institution existed. It is true that medieval and early-modern kings had sometimes convoked the Estates-General, an elective national representative body; but its powers were vague, its composition fluctuating, and its convocation irregular. The last time the Estates-General had met was in 1614, and then its proceedings were more notable for the quarrels between various members than for opposition to the crown. 1 Yet despite its undistinguished history, the tradition of the Estates-General did not die, and in times of crisis those dissatisfied with royal government instinctively turned to the idea of reviving the Estates-General as a means of setting the state to rights. Aristocratic frondeurs agitated for it in 1650 and 1651, when it almost met. Those who blamed Louis XIV's rule for the disasters which befell France in the 1690s and 1700s believed that a revived EstatesGeneral would be the best protection against further royal depredations; 2 and this view was also expressed during the post-mortem on his reign which characterized the early years of the Regency. 3 Then in 1771, when Chancellor Maupeou launched a frontal attack on the powers of the parlements, certain of these bodies (previously no friends of the EstatesGeneral, which they saw as a rival) made demands for the ancient national assembly to be called in order to save the state from despotism. 4 Though louder and more public than previous demands, the calls of 1771 were still ignored by the crown. But from then onwards the idea of the Estates never ceased to be discussed and ventilated as a serious political possibility -- so much so that Calonne felt obliged to spend time arguing against it before outlining his reform proposals to Louis XVI in 1786. 5

Provincial estates were no effective substitute for the Estates-General as a forum for opposition. Those which had not been eliminated in the seventeenth century remained in existence precisely because they were more of a help than a hindrance to government. 6 On the rare occasions when provincial estates did prove recalcitrant, as in Brittany during the

-65-

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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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