Origins of the French Revolution

By William Doyle | Go to book overview

12
The Economic Crisis

Down to the spring of 1789, the forces pushing France towards revolution were almost entirely political. There was no underlying social crisis; it seems unlikely that such social discontents as surfaced in the cahiers would have done so without the stimulus provided by the constitutional wranglings that followed the collapse of the government. Nor did economic factors play an important part. Senior administrators had foreseen budgetary difficulties in 1786 and 1787 as long before as 1783, and although a number of the government's bankers were in difficulties in 1787, difficulties caused partly at least by economic uncertainties, these problems seem to have subsided by the time of the governmental collapse in August 1788. 1 By then, however, it was already possible to foresee major economic troubles in the following spring. By mid-August it was clear to peasants all over France, as they surveyed cornfields ravaged by persistent drought followed by massive storms, that the harvest of 1788 was going to be disastrous. This accident of nature was to have incalculable consequences for the history of France, and the world. It did not cause the French Revolution, but it did dictate the sort of revolution it turned out to be.

Every economy in eighteenth-century Europe was dominated by the agricultural sector, and France's was no exception. Agriculture, in its turn, was dominated by the need to produce cereals for the population's staple diet. In normal times French agriculture had little problem in coping with the demand. The very fact that the population had increased from 20 million at the beginning of the century to over 28 million in 1789, shows that there was spare capacity to meet growing needs. 2 Nor did the eighteenth century witness any of the general harvest failures that had led to catastrophic falls in population in the seventeenth century. The last of these occurred in 1709. After that, although serious regional and inter-regional shortages continued to occur, there were no great mortalities as a result of them. Maritime provinces were able to import supplementary supplies from

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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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