French Revolution Old Regime Essay, Research Paper
The preliminary stage of any revolutionary cycle is characterized by a rigid, unresponsive political structure referred to as the old regime. The government apparatus of such a regime is generally faced with financial difficulties and limitations, while a socio-economic class within society has reasons to be optimistic about the future. The political structure of the old regime does not provide opportunity for growth and may hinder the operations of this particular segment of society. Even if economic benefits accrue for this group, social and political power is not granted by members of the established elite ruling class. The Old regime loses the allegiance of the intellectuals and pressure groups arise hostile to the status quo. The intellectuals of the pre-revolutionary society are unified against the Old regime and envision a better society in the future. At a time when the ruling class must prove its legitimacy and effectiveness, it is often divided, on shaky economic ground. In sum, it fails to act as it should to preserve its power. Its inability to rule effectively generally becomes evident during a series of particular events or crises. The lack of mobility to positions of power in the society heightens class tensions as the lower orders develop a keen dislike for their superiors. Tension grows and bursts as the lower classes soon rise up against the upper nobility and clergy and the revolution commences. This is chain of events is what took place in the French Revolution in 1789.
The causes of the French Revolution reach back into the aristocratic structure of society in the Old Regime. Eighteenth century French Society was divided into three orders, also called Estates, known as the Estates General. The clergy constituted the First Estate, the nobility the Second Estate, and everyone else (about 95 % of the French Population) made up the Third Estate. The clergy and nobility, totaling about 400,000 out of a population of 26 million enjoyed special privileges. And when meetings of the Estates General were called each estate was unjustly given one vote, despite the fact that the Third Estate was the vast majority of the population. The semifeudal social structure of the Old Regime, based on inequalities sanctioned by law, produced the tensions that precipitated the Revolution.
The powers and privileges of the French Catholic church, the clergy, the First Estate, made it a state within a state. The Catholic Church enjoyed a monopoly on public worship and did not have to pay taxes. Like the clergy, the nobility, the Second Estate, was a privileged order. Nobles held the highest positions in the church, army, and government. The Third Estate was composed of bourgeoisie, peasants, and urban laborers. Although the bourgeoisie provided the leadership for the Revolution, its success depended on the support given by the rest of the Third Estate. The peasants of the third Estate had many hardships upon them under the Old Regime. Most French peasants lived in poverty, which worsened the closing years of the Old Regime. The increased birthrate resulted in an overabundance of rural wage earners. An unjust and corrupt system of taxation weighed heavily on the peasantry. In addition to royal taxes, peasants paid the tithe to the church and manorial dues to lords too. Inefficient farming methods also contributed to the poverty of the French peasants. Then, a poor harvest in 1788-89 aggravated peasant misery and produced an atmosphere of crisis. The granaries were empty, the price of bread was too high, and therefore starvation threatened. Life for urban laborers was just as poor. From 1785 to 1789, the cost of living increased by 62 percent, while wages rose only 22 percent. For virtually the entire decade of the Revolution, urban workers struggled to keep body and soul together in the face of food shortages and rising prices. Material want drove the urban poor to acts of violence that affected the course of the Revolution.
On top of this disparity for the majority of the French population, France had an inefficient Administration and financial disorder. The administration of France was complex, confusing, and ineffective. Financial disorders also contributed to the weakness of the Old Regime. In the last years of the Old Regime the government could not raise sufficient funds to cover expenses. By 1787, it still had not paid the enormous debt incurred during the wars of Louis XIV, let alone the costs of succeeding wars during the eighteenth century, particularly France s aid to the colonists in the American Revolution. The king s gifts and pensions to court nobles and the extravagant court life further drained the treasury. Finances were in shambles not because France was impoverished but because it had an inefficient and unjust tax system. Few wealthy Frenchmen, including the bourgeois, paid their fair share of taxes. Because the tax revenue came chiefly from the peasants, as this was unjustly determined so by the Estates General, it was bound to be inadequate. Excise duties and indirect taxes on consumer goods yielded much-needed revenue in the last decades of the Old Regime. But this money was pocketed and used inefficiently by those in power as France came to the brink of bankruptcy.
The king s ministers proposed that the nobility and church surrender some of their tax privileges. But the resistance of the nobility forced the government, in July 1788, to call for a meeting of the Estates General to deal with the financial crisis. The body was to convene in May 1789. Certain that they would dominate the Estates General, the nobles intended to weaken the power of the throne and to regain the power that they had lost under Louis XIV. Once in control of the government, they would introduce financial reforms. But the revolt of the nobility against the Crown had unexpected consequences. It opened the way for the revolutions by the Third Estate that destroyed the Old Regime and with it the aristocracy and its privileges. The Old Regime had come falling down and the match of the Revolution had been lit.