French Society During the Eighteenth Century
During the eighteenth century the French Society was divided into three groups. These groups were called estates. The three types of groups were - First estate, Second estate and Third estate.
First estate - Clergy belonged to 1st estate of then French Society. Clergy were the group of persons who were invested with special functions in the church,e.g. fathers, and other members of church.
Second estate - Nobility belonged to 2nd estate of then French Society. Nobility was hereditary and hence a person could get nobility by birth. However, new members were also awarded nobility by monarchy after paying heavy taxes or outstanding service to the monarchy, i.e. nobility could be purchased also.
Third estate: - The 3rd estate of then French society was further divided into three categories. Big businessmen, merchants, court officials, lawyers, etc. belonged to the first category of 3rd estate. Peasants and artisans belonged to the second category. And small peasants, landless labours and servants belonged to third category, and were considered as the lowest class in the society. Members of the third state had to pay all types of taxes including tithes and taille.
Clergy and Nobility were privileged class. They had certain special privileges; in addition to feudal privilege. They were exempted from paying any types of taxes. They paid feudal taxes extracted after the members of the third estate.
Tithes: – A type of tax collected by churches which was collected from peasants in the eighteenth century French Society.
Taille: – A type of direct and indirect tax which was paid to the state by members of third estate in French Society in the eighteenth century. Taille was levied on items used for daily consumption, such as tobacco, salt, etc.
Livre: – Unit of currency of France. This was discontinued in 1794.
Louis XVI, who belonged to Bourbon family of kings, became the ruler of France in 1774. By that time; long years of war, maintenance of the court of the immense palace of Versailles made the treasury empty. In addition to this; helping during the war to the thirteen American colonies to gain their independence from Britain by Louis XVI raised the debt of treasury to more than 2 billion livers. Lenders to the state also started charging 10 percent of interest on credit to the state; this further worsened the situation of the society. Thus, in order to maintain those expenses, state was forced to increase taxes which increased the anger among the members of the third estate.
On the whole, members belonging to third estate were oppressed class and had to bear all the burden of all types of taxes.
The Struggle to Survive
Increase of population from 23 million in 1715 to 28 million in 1789, increased the demand of food grains. Poor production of food grains, frequent draught or hail, diseases, epidemics, further worsened the situation. This resulted in increase in the price of bread which was staple diet of majority. Wages of worker did not keep the pace with price rise. This increased the gap between poor and rich. These things led to subsistence crisis for the majority as poor were not able to meet the required price to purchase even bread.
A Growing Middle Class Envisages and End to Privileges to Certain Class
In the eighteenth century, many persons who belonged to third estate and earned their wealth through overseas trade and manufacturing goods, were termed as middle class. It was a new social group, which also comprised of court officials, lawyers and administrative officials.
Peasants, labours, had been participating in revolts against increase in taxes and food scarcity for long time, but because of lack of means and concrete programmes they did not bring any change to the society. Thus bringing the change about the social and economic order in the society was left to the middle class. People of the middle class were also oppressed at that time, as they had to pay taxes and meet the demands of clergy and nobility.
People of Middle class were educated and believed that no privilege should be given by birth, rather position of a person in society should be merit based. Philosophers, such as John Locke and Jean Jacques Rousseau were envisaging a society based on freedom, equal laws and opportunity for all. The freedom of thirteen colonies in USA from Britain based on such ideas; strengthened the thoughts of then philosophers who mainly belonged to middle class. The ideas of guarantee of individual rights became one of the important examples among the political thinkers and then philosophers of France.
Refuting the doctrine of divine and absolute right of the monarch was the main idea of Locke which was made public in his Two Treaties of Government. Rousseau proposed the idea to form a government based on a social contract between people and their representatives. Montesquieu gave the idea of division of power within the government among the legislative, the executive and the judiciary in his The Spirit of the Laws.
These ideas of then philosophers and political thinkers began to spread far and wide among people. People started discussions to bring the change in society as well as government based on those ideas. Such discussions began to take place in salons, coffee house, etc. Many books were published based on those new ideas. Some persons used to read those books and newspaper aloud among people at public places so that those who could not write or read could also become aware of them.
Spreading of ideas of freedom and news of further plans of Louis XVI to increase the rate of taxes and imposition of some other new taxes increased the anger among people. This resulted protest against the government, its system and privileged class in the form of revolt.
The Outbreak of the Revolution
In order to pass the proposal to raise taxes Louis XVI called an assembly of the Estates General. On 5 May 1789, 300 representatives from each of the first and second estate and 600 from the third estate, a total 1200 representatives, gathered in a splendid hall for the assembly. Representatives of first and second estates were seated in two rows while representatives of third estate had to stand at the back. Representatives of third estate were educated and more prosperous and they believed to represent the whole people of France. Peasants and labours were not allowed in that assembly; however about 40000 letters regarding their grievances were carried by representatives of third estate.
According to principle of the monarch each estate had one vote. Louis XVI wanted to apply the same practice this time also. But representatives of third estate did not agree on this, they wanted voting assembly as a whole and wanted each of the representatives to have only one vote. Louis XVI rejected this new proposal. As a result, all the representatives of the third estate walked out of the assembly in protest.
On 20th of the June they gathered in an indoor tennis court in Versailles, where they declared them as National Assembly and took an oath not to disburse till the new drafting of a constitution of France under the leadership of Merabeau and Abbe Sieyes. Merabeau belonged to noble family and Abbe Sieyes was a priest to the church. Inspite of that they believed in the need of a privilege free society. There, they delivered powerful speeches regarding the need of new constitution and equal opportunity to all.
That very year harvest was badly affected because of severe winter. This increased the price of bread. Hoarding of supply by bakers made the situation more critical. One day after long hours in queues, anger broken into women and they stormed the bakery. At the same time troops moved to Paris to suppress the turmoil. In retaliation, crowd destroyed the Bastille.
A rumor spread that an order had been given to troops to destroy the crops. Because of fear, peasants attacked the chateaux and looted the hoarded grains. Records of manorial dues were sat on fire. Many people were killed in this agitation. Many noblemen and clergy fled to neighbouring countries to save their life.
King Louis XVI finally surrendered against agitation and accepted the recognition of National Assembly and agreed that his power would be checked by constitution. On the 4th of the August 1789 the feudal system of obligations, taxes, privileges to the nobility and clergy were abolished and lands owned by churches were confiscated. This gave an asset of worth about 2 billion livres to the government.
France Became a Constitutional Monarchy
The draft of the constitution was completed in 1791. Powers were spread among legislative, executive and judiciary instead of king. This made France a constitutional monarchy.
There were two types of citizens according to constitution :– active citizen and passive citizen.
Persons who paid the tax at least equal to wages of 3 days of a labour were categorized as active citizens and who did not, were categorized as passive citizens. Only active citizens above the age of 25 had right to vote. Women were not given the right to vote.
Active citizens had to elect electors. Electors had to elect National Assembly and Judiciary from among them. National Assembly had control over king and group of ministers. But king still had the power of royal veto and the ability to select ministers.
Qualification for member of elector and National Assembly : – A person who belonged to bracket of highest taxpayers and above the age of 25 could be chosen as elector and member of National Assembly.
Constitution began with a Declaration of Rights to Man and Citizen.
Right to life, freedom of speech, freedom of opinion, equality before law, were declared as ‘natural and inalienable’ rights. Every citizen had these rights by birth and no one could be deprived of them. State had duty to protect ‘natural and inalienable’ rights.
Symbols of Rights to Man and Citizen:
There were many person did not know the reading or writing in eighteenth century in France. Thus many symbols were used frequently to explain about the rights to man and citizen, so that illiterate person could understand them easily.
France Abolishes Monarchy and Becomes a Republic
Developments in France sat the emperors of neighbouring countries in worry as they got feared of inevitable similar revolution there also. Louis XVI negotiated with the emperors of neighbouring countries in order to put down the events that had been taking place in France. He did that in order to regain power. But, in April 1792 National Assembly voted to declare war against Prussia and Austria. They considered the war as people against monarchy in all over Europe.
In war thousands of volunteers took part. They sang a patriotic song before going to the war from Marseilles, and the song got the name as ‘Marseillaise’ after that. Marseillaise is now the National Anthem of France.
France had to face heavy loss because of war which brought many types of crisis among the people of France. Many people were thinking that constitution of 1791 gave the power to only richer class and many political clubs started to discuss about government policies and they started planning of their own form of government.
Jacobins was the most successful club among them. It was named after the convent of St Jacob in Paris. Maximilian Robespierre emerged as the leader of Jacobins.
Jacobins comprised of women, small peasants, labours, artisans, such as shoemaker, pastry cooks, watch makers, etc. They started wearing long striped trousers so that they could look different from those who wore knee breaches (persons belonging to fashionable society). They also wore a red cap also which was the symbol of liberty. They began to be called ‘sans-culottes’ which means ‘those without knee breaches’. However, women were not allowed to do so.
In summer of 1792, Jacobins attacked the Palace of Tuileries and captured the king for several hours. In this attack most of the guards of king were killed.
After that election was held, the newly elected assembly was called the Convention. In the election all men above the age of 21 got the right to vote; regardless of wealth. On 21st of the September 1792 monarchy was abolished and France was declared a republic.
Later king Louis XVI and the queen Marie Antoinette were sentenced to death. They were executed publicly at the Place de la Concorde.
The Reign of Terror (From 1793 to 1794)
The period from 1793 to 1794 is known as the Reign of Terror. Maximilian Robespierre sentenced to death all those persons who he considered as enemies of the republic, whether they were ex-noble, clergy, and members of any political parties; including Jacobins. The execution were completed after trial by revolutionary tribunal. At that time Robespierre followed a policy of severe control and punishment.
Guillotine, a device, named after inventor Dr. Guillotin, was used to behead a person at that time. It consists of two poles and a blade. Guilty persons were beheaded using guillotine.
Government led by Robespierre issued many laws among which ceiling maximum wages and price and rationing were main. Foods, such as meat and bread were rationed. Peasants were forced to sell their grains on fixed price in cities. Citizens were forced to eat equality bread, white flour which was costlier was forbidden. Use of Citoyen and Citoyenne for men and women citizen started instead of the traditional Sir (Monsieur) and Madam (Madame). Churches were shut down and their buildings were converted into offices and barracks. Practice of equality was sought everywhere.
Because of forcible implementation of laws, even supporters of Robespierre started the demand for change. Finally, Robespierre arrested and guillotined in July 1794. Reign of Terror ended with the end of Robespierre.
A Directory Rules France
After the fall of Jacobins a new constitution was introduced and power was again seized by wealthier middle class. According to new constitution
1.Non propertied section of the society had no right to vote.
2.Two elected legislative councils would run the government.
3.Two elected legislative councils would appoint an executive committee of five members, called Directory which would finally run the government.
4.Directory could be dismissed by the majority vote of councils.
These new provisions were brought to prevent the concentration of power in one-man executive; as happened in the reign of Jacobins.
The clash between Directory and member of councils led to political instability, which opened the door of military dictator, Napoleon Bonaparte. Napoleon Bonaparte became the emperor of France in 1804.
DID WOMEN HAVE A REVOLUTION?
In spite of revolution, women did not get right to vote and their position in the society remained unchanged. To get their notable position in society, about 16 women clubs were started in different cities in France. The Society of Revolutionary and Republican Women was the most famous among them. Their main demands were to enjoy the same political rights as men. The constitution of 1791 made them disappointed as they were pushed to the category of passive citizen in that.
Most of the women were deprived of education. Daughters of nobles or wealthier persons of third estate could study in convent. After that they were married by their families even against their will. Women who belonged to third estate had to work hard. They sold flowers, fruits, vegetables and employed as servant in house hold. After work they had to cook and look after for their families. During the Reign of Terror women’s clubs were closed and many women were put in jail.
In due course of time, revolutionary government came and introduced laws to improve the lives of women. For example - Many state schools were created, schooling was made compulsory for all girls, marriage against the will of girl was prohibited, divorce was made legal and could be applied for by both women and men, they could train for jobs, could run businesses, could become artists. But to get the voting rights women had to struggle for about next two hundred years in many countries including France. Finally, women got right to vote in the year of 1946 in France.
The Abolition of Slavery:-
In the system of slavery, people were forced to work, treated as properties and hence sold, bought and forced to work against their will. The trade of slave started in seventeenth century. French merchants bought slave mainly from Africa. The branded and shackled slave were then packed tightly into ships and after two to three month of voyages they were sold in the Caribbean to plantation owners. The extensive demand of sugar, coffee and indigo in European market was fulfilled by the exploitation of slaves as labours. Many port cities like Bordeaux and Nates got economic prosperity by the trade of slaves and many of the merchants were increasing their wealth by trade of slavery.
However, the slavery began to be criticized in France. But even National Assembly could not pass any law to end of slavery in the fear of repercussion from businessmen who were mainly in slave trade.
By coming in power, Jacobins abolished the system of slavery in the French colonies, which was one of the greatest social reforms in their reign. But Napoleon again introduced the slavery system. And finally slavery was abolished in French colonies in 1848.
The French Revolution is a watershed development in the modern history. French Revolution not only had a long lasting impact on the French society but also on the whole world. The modern ideas of popular democracy had its roots in France. Similarly, the idea of nation states; as we know them; began with French Revolution. The national movements in various colonies; including India, Indo-China and South Africa were greatly influenced by the developments in French Revolution.