European History Pt. 35 — Rumblings of the French Revolution

Last time, we looked at the American revolution. It was so important in so many ways, not just for world history but for our constitutional history. The American  revolution lives with us today in many many ways. For that reason, I would like to study it in much greater detail. Even so, the book manages to make some interesting points about the American Revolution when looked at from an extremely broad context. The American Revolution confirmed many political ideals  as practical, involving federalism, the sovereignty of the people and limited government. Some strands of these ideas came from the enlightenment, no doubt about it, but interestingly, some ideas, like federalism and limited government, came from FEUDAL ideas about the privileges of towns or restrictions on the power of the king. Unfortunately, these types of organization had ceased to be progressive long ago, and rather MONARCHY was seen as the way to make progress. Centralization would break the ossified power of the local towns and landowners.

But with the American revolution, it was shown how new social organizations could again make the opposite the case, and to show how monarchy was now retrograde, and a type of tyranny. This was truly an incredible moment.

Now though, I would like to start exploring the other revolution of the 1700s, a revolution that may have had more IMMEDIATE impact on the constitution and growth of europe, though the American revolution was more lasting (I think) in terms of its political lessons and spirit. This other revolution is the FRENCH REVOLUTION. There are a million aspects to this critical moment in history so I’m going to creep through some of the setup.

The Estates

France, because of the failure of enlightened despotism there in the 1700s, was still somewhat feudal. There were three estates, clergy, nobility, and everyone else. The Clergy AS A POPULATION was on the decline, but it owned a ton of land and the day to day organization of French life  was still heavily indebted to Catholic organization.

The nobility, by population was resurgent, but they were on a collision course with the bourgeois, the richest part of the third estate. The bourgeois were growing more and more powerful, and they began to feel like noble titles, privileges, and arrogance were part of a system of humiliation rather than a respectful way of honoring a higher social station.

Agrarian System of the Old Regime

The Old Regime is the name for pre-revolutionary France. In this economic system, owners of manors had the right to hunt on their land and the land of the peasants, and anyone who owned land within the jurisdiction of the manor paid rents due to the manor-owner’s “eminent property.”

The revolution would do away with these and other tithes, taxes, rents, fees, and dues that encumbered the property system.

Intellectual System 

Some people draw a direct line from the writing of the great French Philosophes (Rousseau, Voltaire, etc.) and a birth of political consciousness to the French revolution, but that link is more tenuous than one thinks. Few people but the nobility read these great works and the French writers were not revolutionaries.


4 Responses to “European History Pt. 35 — Rumblings of the French Revolution”

  1. August 24, 2013 at 6:01 pm

    Good introduction to the subject. One thing you might want to explore further is the idea that whilst linking the Enlightenment philosophes to the Revolution is interesting and tempting, historians have often overlooked the impact of rising literacy and the politicisation of the press in the decades before 1789. This definitely had an impact in the growing negative image of the monarchy among the French. Looking forward to more 🙂

    • 2 questionbeggar
      August 24, 2013 at 6:16 pm

      Yes, good point. The text I’m working with notes that Voltaire, in the 1760s, was able to write “Opnion governs the world,” and he was right to the extent that at this time, enmity toward the monarchy was widely and consistently publicized. Marat would later capitalize on the reading public’s capability to be stirred by the written word.

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