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The question whether the movement which preceded the Revolution, and the Revolution itself, contained any element of Socialism has been recently discussed. But it is impossible to read the works of the pre-Revolutionary writers without being struck by the fact that they are imbued with ideas which are the very essence of modern Socialism. Manufacturing production on a large scale was in its infancy, so that land was at that time the main form of capital and the chief instrument for exploiting human labour, while the factory was hardly developed at all.
It was natural, therefore, that the thoughts of the philosophers, and later on the thoughts of the revolutionists, should turn towards communal possession of the land. While among the educated middle classes the ideas of emancipation had taken the form of a complete programme for political and economic organisation, these ideas were presented to the people only in the form of vague aspirations.
Often they were mere negations. Those who addressed the people did not try to embody the concrete form in which their desiderata could be realised. It is even probable that they avoided being precise. It would only chill their revolutionary ardour. All they want is the strength to attack and to march to the assault of the old institutions. Later on we shall see what can be done for them. Are there not many Socialists and Anarchists who act still in the same way? In their hurry to push on to the day of revolt they treat as soporific theorising every attempt to throw some light on what ought to be the aim of the Revolution.
It must be said, also, that the ignorance of the writers — city men and bookmen for the most part — counted for much in this. Thus, in the whole of that gathering of learned or experienced business men who composed the National Assembly — lawyers, journalists, tradesmen, and so forth — there were only two or three legal members who had studied the feudal laws, and we know there were among them but very few representatives of the peasants who were familiar by personal experience with the needs of village life.
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For these reasons the ideas of the masses were expressed chiefly by simple negations. Down with the tithes! Hang the aristocrats! Who were to be the heirs of the guillotined nobles? This want of clearness in the mind of the people as to what they should hope from the Revolution left its imprint on the whole movement. While the middle classes were marching with firm and decided steps towards the establishment of their political power in a State which they were trying to mould, according to their preconceived ideas, the people were hesitating. In the towns, especially, they did not seem to know how to turn to their own advantage the power they had conquered.
And later, when ideas concerning agrarian laws and the equalising of incomes began to take definite form, they ran foul of a mass of property prejudices, with which even those sincerely devoted to the cause of the people were imbued. A similar conflict was evoked by the conceptions of the political organisation of the State. We see it chiefly in theantagonism which arose between the governmental prejudices of the democrats of that time and the ideas that dawned in the hearts of the people as to political decentralisation, and the prominent place which the people wished their municipalities to take both in the division of the large towns and in the village assemblies.
This was the starting-point of the whole series of fierce contests which broke out in the Convention. Thence, too, arose the indefiniteness of the results obtained by the Revolution for the great mass of the people in all directions, except in the recovery of part of the land from the lords, lay and clerical, and the freeing of all land from the feudal taxes it formerly had to pay. First of all, the hatred felt by the poor for the whole of the idle, lazy, perverted aristocracy who ruled them, while black misery reigned in the villages and in the dark lanes of the great towns.
Next, hatred towards the clergy, who by sympathy belonged more to the aristocracy than to the people who fed them. Hatred for the feudal system and its exactions, which kept the labourer in a state of servitude to the landowners long after personal serfdom had ceased to exist.
Lastly, the despair of the peasant who in those years of scarcity saw land lying uncultivated in the hands of the lord, or serving merely as a pleasure-ground for the nobility while famine pressed hard on the villages. It was all this hatred, coming to a head after long years as the selfishness of the rich became more and more apparent in the course of the eighteenth century.
And it was this need of land — this land hunger, the cry of the starving in revolt against the lord who refused them access to it — that awoke the spirit of revolt ever since Without those risings, without that disorganisation of authority in the provinces which resulted in never-ceasing jacqueries , shout that promptitude of the people of Paris and other towns in taking up arms, and in marching against the strongholds of royalty whenever an appeal to the people was made by the revolutionaries, the middle classes would certainly not have accomplished anything.
Condition of people previous to — Wanton luxury of aristocrats — Poverty of majority of peasants — Rise and importance of well-to-do peasant class. It would be waste of time to describe here at any length the condition of the peasants in the country and of the poorer classes in the towns on the eve of All the historians who have written about the great French Revolution have devoted eloquent pages to this subject.
The people groaned under the burden of taxes levied by the State, rents and contributions paid to the lord, tithes collected by the clergy, as well as under the forced labour exacted by all three. Entire populations were reduced to beggary and wandered on the roads to the number of five, ten or twenty thousand men, women and children in every province; in , one million one hundred thousand persons were officially declared to be beggars.
In the villages famine had become chronic; its intervals were short, and it decimated entire provinces. Peasants were flocking in hundreds and thousands from their own neighbourhood, in the hope, soon undeceived, of finding better conditions elsewhere. At the same time, the number of the poor in the towns increased every year, and it was quite usual for food to run short. As the municipalities could not replenish the markets, bread riots, always followed by massacres, became a persistent feature in the everyday life of the kingdom.
On the other hand might be seen the superfine aristocrat of the eighteenth century squandering immense fortunes — hundreds of thousands and millions of francs a year — in unbridled and absurd luxury. To-day a Taine can go into raptures over the life they led because he knows it only from a distance, a hundred years away, and through books; but, in reality, they hid under their dancing-master manners roisterous dissipations and the crudest sensuality; they were without interest, without thought, without even the simplest human feeling.
Consequently, boredom was always tapping at the doors of the rich, boredom at the Court of Versailles, boredom in their chateaux; and they tried in vain to evade it by the most futile and the most childish means. Those extremes of luxury and misery with which life abounded in the eighteenth century have been admirably depicted by every historian of the Great Revolution.
But one feature remains to be added, the importance of which stands out especially when we study the condition of the peasants at this moment in Russia on the eve of the great Russian Revolution. The misery of the great mass of French peasants was undoubtedly frightful. It had increased by leaps end bounds, ever since the reign of Louis XIV.
What helped to make the exactions of the nobility unendurable was that a great number of them, when ruined, hilling their poverty under a show of luxury, resorted in desperation to the extortion of even the least of those rents and payments in kind, which only custom had established. They treated the peasants, through the intermediary of their stewards, with the rigour of mere brokers. Impoverishment turned the nobility, in their relations with their ex-serfs, into middle-class money-grubbers, incapable, however, of finding any other source of revenue than the exploitation of ancient privileges, relics of the feudal age.
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But though the historians are right in depicting the condition of the peasants in very dark colours, it would be a mistake to impeach the Veracity of those who, like Tocqueville, mention some amelioration in the conditions of the country during those very years preceding the Revolution. The fact is, that a double phenomenon became apparent in the villages at that time: the impoverishment of the great mass of the peasants and the bettering of the condition of a few among them. This may be seen to-day in Russia since the abolition of serfdom. The great mass of the peasants grew poorer.
Year after year their livelihood became more and more precarious: the least drought resulted in scarcity and famine. But a new class of peasant, a little better off and with ambitions, was forming at the same time, especially in districts where aristocratic estates were disintegrating rapidly. The village middle classes, the well-to-do peasants, came into being, and as the Revolution drew near these furnished the first speakers against feudal rights, and demanded their abolition. It was this class which, during the four or five years the Revolution lasted, most firmly insisted that these feudal rights should be abolished without compensation, and that the estates of the royalist nobles should be confiscated and sold in small parcels.
It was this class too, which was most bitter, in , against les cidevants , the dispossessed nobles, the ex-landlords. Traces of this awakening are evident, for since the accession of Louis XVI. It may be said, therefore, that if despair and misery impelled the people to riot, it was the hope of obtaining some relief that incited them to revolt.
Like every other revolution, that of was inspired by the hope of attaining certain important results. Reforms at beginning of reign of Louis XVI. As is usual in every new reign, that of Louis XVI. Two months after his accession Louis XVI. He even supported him at first against the violent opposition that Turgot, as an economist, a parsimonious middle-class man and an enemy of the effete aristocracy, was bound to meet with from the Court party.
Free trade in corn was proclaimed in September ,  and statute labour was abolished in , as well as the old and corporations and guilds in the towns, which were no longer of use except to keep up a kind of industrial aristocracy, and by these measures hopes of reform were awakened among the people. The poor rejoiced to see the breaking down of the toll-gates, which had been put up all over France, and prevented the free circulation of corn, salt and other objects of prime necessity.
For them it meant the first breach in the odious privileges of the landowners; while the peasants who were better off rejoiced to see the joint liability of the taxpayers abolished. With this end in view, Turgot had even prepared a scheme of provincial assemblies, to be followed later on by representative government for all France in which the propertied classes would have been called upon to constitute a parliament. Louis XVI. Necker, who understood very well the wishes of his master, and tried to bring his autocratic ideas into some accord with the requirements of finance, attempted to manoeuvre by proposing the introduction of provincial assemblies only and relegating the possibility of a national representation to the distant future.
But he, too, was met by a formal refusal on the part of the King. Far from being the careless, inoffensive, good-natured person, interested only in hunting, that they wished to represent him, Louis XVI. The weapon used by Louis XVI. Only fear made him yield, and, using always the same weapons, deceit and hypocrisy, he resisted not only up to , but even up to the last moment, to the very foot of tile scaffold.
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At any rate, in , at a time when it was already evident to all minds of more or less perspicacity, as it was to Turgot and Necker, that the absolute power of the King had had its day, and that the hour had come for replacing it by some kind of national representation, Louis XVI. He convened the provincial assemblies of the provinces of Berri and Haute-Guienne and But in face of the opposition shown by the privileged classes, the plan of extending these assemblies to the other provinces was abandoned, and Necker was dismissed in The revolution in America had, meanwhile, helped also to awaken minds, and to inspire them with a breath of liberty and republican democracy.
On July 4, , the English colonies in North America had proclaimed their independence,and the new United States were recognised by France in , which led to a war with England that lasted until There is, in fact, no doubt that the revolt of the English colonies and the constitution of the United States exercised a far-reaching influence in France, and helped powerfully in arousing the revolutionary spirit.
We know, too, that the Declaration of Rights, drawn up by the young American States influenced the French Revolutionists profoundly, and was taken by them as a model for their declaration. But it is nevertheless certain that this war was also the beginning of those terrible wars which England soon waged against France, and the coalitions which she organised against the Republic.
As soon as England recovered from her defeats and felt that France was weakened by internal struggles, she used every means, open and secret, to bring about the wars which we shall see waged relentlessly from till All these causes of the Great Revolution must be clearly indicated, for like every event of primordial importance, it was the result of many causes, converging at a given moment, and creating the men who in their turn contributed to strengthen the effect of those causes.
But it must be understood that in spite of the events which prepared the Revolution, and in spite of all the intelligence and ambitions of the middle classes, those ever-prudent people would have gone on a long time waiting for a change if the people had not hastened matters. The popular revolts, growing and increasing in number and assuming proportions quite unforeseen, were the new elements which gave the middle class the power of attack they themselves did not possess.
The people had patiently endured misery and oppression under Louis XV. A continuous series of riots broke out between and These were the riots of hunger that had been repressed until then only by force. The harvest of had been bad, and bread was scarce. Accordingly rioting broke out in April At Dijon the people took possession of the houses of the monopolists, destroyed their furniture and smashed up their flour-mills.
Louis XVI, wanted to go out on the balcony of the palace to speak to them, to tell them that he would reduce the price of bread; but Turgot, like a true economist, opposed this. The reduction in the price of bread was not made. And from that time also began the placards insulting the King and his ministers which were pasted up at Versailles, containing threats to execute the King the day after his coronation, and even to exterminate the whole of the royal family if bread remained at the same price.
Forged governmental edicts, too, began to be circulated through the country. One of them asserted that the State Council had reduced the price of wheat to twelve livres francs the measure. These riots were of course suppressed, but they had farreaching consequences.
Strife was let loose among the variousparties. Some of these accused the minister, while others spoke of a plot of the princes against the King, or made fun of the royal authority. Concessions to the people, never dreamed of before, were openly discussed; public works were set on foot; taxes on milling were abolished, and this measure led the people of Rouen to declare that all manorial dues had been abolished, so that they rose in July to protest against ever paying them again.
The malcontents evidently lost no time and profited by the occasion to extend the popular risings. We have not the necessary documents for giving a full account of the popular insurrections during the reign of Louis XVI. But, according to the printed documents, it would appear also that there was a decrease in the rioting in the years to , the American war having perhaps something to do with this.
However, in and , the riots recommenced, and from that time went on increasing until the Revolution. Three of the leaders were hanged, others were sent to penal servitude, but the disorders broke out afresh, as soon as the closing of the parlements Courts of Justice furnished them with a newpretext. From that moment, up to the Revolution, Lyons became a hotbed of revolt, and in it was the rioters of who were chosen as electors. Sometimes these risings had a religious character; sometimes they were to resist military enlistment — every levy of soldiers led to a riot, says Turgot; or it might be the salt tax against which the people rebelled, or the exactions of the tithes.
But revolts went on without intermission, and it was the east, south-east and north-east — future hotbeds of the Revolution — that these revolts broke out in the greatest number. But the parlements had shown opposition to the Court, that was enough; and when emissaries of the middle classes sought popular support for rioting, they were given it willingly, because it was a way of demonstrating against the Court and the rich.
In the June of the Paris parlement had made itself very popular by refusing a grant of money to the Court. The law of the country was that the edicts of the King should be registered by the parlement , and the Paris parlement unhesitatingly registered certain edicts concerning the corn trade, the convocation of provincial assemblies and statute labour. The parlement protested, and so won the sympathy of the middle classes and the people.
There were crowds round the Courts at every sitting; clerks, curious idlers and common men collected there to applaud the members. To Stop this, the King banished the parlement to Troyes, and then riotous demonstrations began in Paris. The Exchequer Court of Paris Cour des Aides , supported by the popular outburst, as well as by the provincial parlements and the Court of Justice, protested against this act of royal power, and, as the agitation was growing, the King was compelled to recall the exiled parlement.
This was done on September 9, and evoked fresh demonstrations in Paris, during which the minister Calonne was burnt in effigy. These disturbances were chiefly confined to the lower middle classes. But in other localities they assumed a more popular character. In insurrections broke out in Brittany. When the military Commander of Rennes and the Governor of the province went to the Breton parlement to announce the edict by which that body was abolished, the whole town turned out immediately.
The crowd insulted and hustled the two functionaries. The people in their hearts hated the Governor, Bertrand de Moleville, and the middle classes profited by this to spread a rumour that the edict was all owing to the Governor. When he came out of the palace, therefore, they pelted him with stones, and after several attempts some one threw a cord with a slip-knot over him.
Fighting was about to begin — the young men in the crowd breaking through the ranks of the soldiers — when an officer threw down his sword and fraternised with the people. It is interesting to note the active part taken in these disorders by the students at Rennes, who from that time fraternised with the rioters. As soon as the military commander, Clermont-Tonnerre, had promulgated the edict which dissolved the parlement the people of Grenoble rose.
The tocsin was rung, and the alarm spreading quickly to the neighbouring villages, the peasants hastened in crowds the town. There was a sanguinary affray and many were killed. Clermont-Tonnerre, with an axe held over his head, had to revoke the royal edict. It was the people, and chiefly the women, who acted on this occasion. As to the members of the parlement , the people had a good deal of trouble to find them. They hid themselves, and wrote to Paris that the people had risen against their will, and when the people laid hands on them they were kept prisoners — their presence giving an air of legality to the insurrection.
The women mounted guard over these arrested members, unwilling to trust them even to the men, lest they should be allowed to escape. The middle classes of Grenoble were in a state of terror. During the night they organised a militia of citizens that took possession of the town gates as well as of some military posts, which they yielded to the troops soon after.
Cannon were trained on the rebels, while the parlement took advantage the darkness to disappear. From June 9 to 14 reaction triumphed, but on the 14 th news came that there had been a rising at Besancon and that the Swiss soldiers had refused to fire on the people. But fresh reinforcements of troops having been sent from Paris the disturbance subsided by degrees. The agitation, however, kept up chiefly by the women, lasted some time longer. Even where no serious riots occurred advantage was taken of the prevailing excitement to keep up the discontent and to make demonstrations.
At Paris, after the dismissal of the Archbishop of Sens, there were numerous demonstrations. It is dated August 24, , and in it she tells him of her fears, and announces the retirement of the Archbishop of Sens and the steps she had taken to recall Necker; the effect produced on the Court by those riotous crowds can therefore be understood. It is very essential that Necker should accept. Three weeks later, September 14, , when the retirement of Lamoignon became known, the riotings were renewed.
The mob rushed to set fire to the houses of the two ministers, Lamoignon and Brienne, as well as to that of Dubois. Dubois fled from Paris. They demanded money from the passers-by to expend on fireworks, and forced gentlemen to alight from their carriages to salute the statue of Henri Quatre.
Figures representing Calonne, Breteuil and the Duchess de Polignac were burned. It was also proposed to burn the Queen in effigy. These riotous assemblies gradually spread to other quarters, and troops were sent to disperse them. Those who were arrested, however, were tried by the parlement judges, who let them off with light penalties. In this way the revolutionary spirit awoke and developed in the van of the Great Revolution. If there had been only their few attempts at resistance France might have waited many years for the overthrow of royal despotism.
Fortunately a thousand circumstances impelled the masses to revolt. They rose in numbers against the governors of provinces, tax-collectors, salt-tax agents and even against the troops, and by so doing completely disorganised the governmental machine. From the peasant risings became so general that it was impossible to provide for the expenses of the State, and Louis XVI. The misery in the country districts went on increasing year by year, and it became more and more difficult to levy the taxes and at the same time compel the peasants to pay rent to the landlords and perform the innumerable statute labours exacted by the provincial government.
The taxes alone devoured half and often two-thirds of what the peasants could earn in the course of the year. Beggary and rioting were becoming normal conditions of country life. Moreover, it was not only the peasants who protested and revolted. The middle classes, too, were loudly expressing their discontent.
They profited certainly by the impoverishment of the peasants to enrol them in their factories, and they took advantage of the administrative demoralisation and the financial disorders of the moment to seize on all kinds of monopolies, and to enrich themselves by loans to the State. But this did not satisfy the middle classes. For a while they managed to adapt themselves to royal despotism and Court government. A moment came, however, when they began to fear for their monopolies, for the money they had invested in loans to the State, for the landed property they had acquired, for the factories they had established, and afterwards to encourage the people in their riots in order that they might break down the government of the Court and establish their own political power.
This evolution can be plainly traced during the first thirteen or fourteen years of Louis XVI. An important change in the entire political system of France was visibly taking place. But Louis XVI. We have seen how Louis XVI. The mere thought of limiting the royal power was repugnant to him. Necker, who followed closely on Turgot, was more a financier than a statesman. Necker, moreover, never dared to use to Louis XVI. He spoke to him very timidly about representative government, and he limited his reforms to what could neither solve the difficulties nor satisfy any one, while they made every one feel the necessity of a fundamental change.
The provincial assemblies, eighteen of which Necker added to those already instituted by Turgot, leading in turn to the establishment of district and parish councils, were evidently brought to discuss the most difficult questions and to lay bare the hideous corruption of the unlimited power of royalty. In this way the provincial assemblies, lessened the force of the storm, were helping towards the insurrection of Likewise the famous Compte rendu , the report upon the state of the provinces, that Necker published in,, a few months before quitting office, was a heavy blow to royal autocracy.
As always happens on such occasions, he helped to shake down the system which was already tottering to its fall, but he was powerless to prevent the fall from becoming a revolution: probably he did not even perceive that it was impending. At any moment the bankruptcy of the State might have been declared, a bankruptcy which the middle classes, now interested in the State finances as creditors, did not want at any price.
With all this, the mass of the people were already so impoverished that they could no longer pay the taxes — they did not pay, and revolted; while the clergy and the nobility refused to make any sacrifice in the interests of the State. Under such conditions the risings in the villages necessarily brought the country nearer to the Revolution. And it was in the midst of these difficulties that the minister Calonne convoked an Assembly of the Notables at Versailles for February 22, To convoke this Assembly of Notables was to do exactly what ought not to have been done at that moment: it was exactly the half-measure which on one side made the National Assembly inevitable, and on the other hand inspired distrust of the Court and hatred of the two privileged orders, the nobility and the clergy.
Through that Assembly it was learned that the national debt had mounted up to sixteen hundred and forty-six millions — an appalling sum at that time — and that the annual deficit was increasing by one hundred and forty millions annually. And this in a country ruined as France was! It came to be known — every one talked of it and after every one had talked about it, the Notables, drawn from the upper classes and practically a ministerial assembly, separated on May 25 without having done or decided anything.
But the new minister, by his intrigues and his attempted severity, only succeeded in stirring up the parlements , in provoking widely spread riots when he wished to disband them, and in exciting public opinion still more against the Court. When he was dismissed on August 25, , there was general rejoicing all over France. But as he had proved clearly the impossibility of despotic government there was nothing for the Court but to submit. Even in this the Court and Necker, who was recalled to the ministry in , managed so as to displease every one.
It was the general opinion in France that in the States-General, in which the three classes would be separately represented, the Third Estate ought to have twice as many members as the two others, and that the voting should be by individuals. This was exactly what happened; but in spite of that, public opinion had been so predisposed in favour of the Third Estate by the provincial Assemblies that Necker and the Court were obliged to give in. The Third Estate was granted a double representation — that is to say, out of a thousand deputies the Third would have as many as the clergy and nobility combined.
In short, the Court and Necker did everything they possibly could to turn public opinion against them, without gaining any advantage for themselves. The States-General met at Versailles on May 5, Nothing could be more erroneous than to imagine or describe France as a nation of heroes on the eve of , and Quinet was perfectly right in destroying this legend, which some historians had tried to propagate. But what is particularly apparent in making a survey of the conditions of the time is the absence of serious protests, of assertions of the individual, the servility of the middle classes.
There is no opportunity even to know oneself. Dumbness, silence, prevailed in the provinces and in the towns. The central power had to summon men to vote, and invite them to say aloud what they had been saying in whispers, before the Third Estate issued their famous cahiers. And even then!
If in some of the cahiers we find daring words of revolt, what submissiveness and timidity appear in most of them, what moderation in their demands! For, after the right to carry arms, and some legal guarantees against arbitrary arrests, it was chiefly a little more liberty in municipal affairs that was asked for in the cahiers of the Third Estate. Fortunately, the people began to revolt everywhere, after the disturbances provoked by the parlements during the summer and autumn of , and the tide of revolt, gathering force, swept onward to the rising of the villages in July and August of It has already been said that the condition of the peasants and workers in the towns was such that a single bad harvest sufficed to bring about an alarming increase in the price of bread in the towns and sheer famine in the villages.
The peasants were no longer serfs, serfdom having long been abolished in France, at least on private estates. After Louis XVI. As to the majority of the French peasants, they had long ceased to be serfs. But they went on paying in money, and in working for their personal liberty with statute labour as well as with work of other kinds. These dues were extremely heavy and variable, but they were not arbitrary, and they were considered as representing payments for the right of holding land, whether collectively by the community or privately as farm-land.
And each parcel of land or farm had its dues, as varied as they were numerous, carefully recorded in the feudal registers, the terriers. Besides, the right of manorial justice had been retained, and over large districts the lord was still judge, or else he nominated the judges; and in virtue of this ancient prerogative he retained all kinds of personal rights over his ex-serfs. The peasant paid also for the right of marriage, of baptism, of burial; he paid likewise on everything he bought or sold, and the very right of selling his crops or his wine was restricted.
He could not sell before the lord had sold his own. As to statute labour, it took an infinite variety of forms work in the fields of the lord, work in his parks and his gardens, work to satisfy all sorts of whims. In some villages there was even an obligation to beat the pond during the night in order that the frogs should not prevent his lordship from sleeping. Personally the man was free, but all this network of dues and exactions, which had been woven bit by bit through the craft of the lords and their stewards in the centuries of serfdom — all this network still clung round the peasant.
More than that, the State was there with its taxes, its fines, its twentieths, its statute labours ever increasing, too, and the State, as well as the steward of my lord, was always ready to exercise ingenuity in devising some new pretext for introducing some new form of taxation.
But the principal feudal dues attaching to the land were exacted in full, and they became all the heavier as the State and provincial taxes, to which they were added, continually increased. There is, therefore, not a word of exaggeration in the gloomy pictures of life in the villages drawn by every historian of the Revolution. But neither is there any exaggeration in saying that in each village there were some peasants who had created for themselves a certain amount of prosperity, and that these were the men who especially wished to shake off all feudal obligations, and to win individual liberty.
Both of them existed. The former gave political strength to the Third Estate; while the bands of insurgents that, since the winter of — had begun to force the nobles to relinquish the feudal dues inscribed in the terriers , were recruited from among the starving poor in the villages, who had only mud cabins to live in, and a few chestnuts or the gleanings of the fields for food.
The same remark applies also to the towns, to which the feudal rights extended, as well as to the villages. The poorer classes in the towns were just as much crushed beneath feudal taxes as the peasants.
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The right of seigneurial justice remained to its full extent in many a growing city, and the hovels of the artisans and mechanics paid the same dues, in cases of sales or inheritance, as the huts of the peasants. Several towns had even to pay a perpetual tribute as redemption from their former feudal subjection. Besides this, the majority of the towns paid the don gratuit — the voluntary gift — to the King, just to maintain a shadow of municipal independence, and the burden of these taxes pressed hardest on the poor.
It was, however, these poorer classes who, by revolting in the towns and villages, gave the representatives of the Third Estate in the States-General courage to oppose the King and to declare the Assembly a constituent body. Drought had caused a failure of the crops in , and the winter was very severe. Before that there had certainly been winters as severe, and crops quite as bad, and even riots among the people.
Every year there was scarcity in some part of France, and often it affected a fourth or a third part of the kingdom. But this time hopes had been awakened by preceding events — the provincial assemblies, the Convocation of Notables, the disturbances connected with the parlements in the towns, which spread, as we have seen, at least in Brittany, to the villages also. And these insurrections in soon became alarming both in extent and character. In certain provinces the situation was terrible on account of the scarcity, and everywhere a spirit of revolt, until then but little known, was taking possession of the people.
Nearly all these riots were of the same character. Often they broke open the granaries belonging to religious communities and merchant monopolists, or even those belonging to private persons, and provided the bakers with flour. Moreover, from this time, too, dated the formation of bands composed of peasants, wood-cutters, sometimes even of contrabandists, who went from village to village seizing the corn. By degrees they began also to burn the land registers and to force the landlords to abdicate their feudal rights — these were the same bands which gave the middle classes the pretext for arming their militias in Three days after the people demanded that the duty on milling should be reduced by one-half, and this also was granted.
This insurrection was the counterpart of hundred others. To obtain bread was the prime cause of the movement, but soon there were also demands in the direction where economic conditions and political organisation meet, the direction in which popular agitation always goes forward with the greatest confidence and obtains some immediate results.
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- The Moon On Our Backs.
- The Boy Who Slept with Bears;
The prices of provisions were reduced and a maximum established for all provisions, and when the gentlemen of the upper middle classes protested, the mob replied by stoning them, or else a trench was dug before their eyes which might serve for their grave. Sometimes even a coffin was brought out the better to impress the refractory who apparently hastened to comply. All this took place in April , without the shedding of a drop of blood. Before that, since April, the peasants began to plunder the document by which he renounced his seigneurial rights of every kind.
In short, in Provence, from the month of April, we can already see the beginning of the great rising of the peasants which forced the nobility and clergy to make their first concessions on August 4, It is easy to discern the influence that these riots and this excitement exercised upon the elections for the National Assembly. Elsewhere, especially at Rennes, the nobles took advantage even of the sitting of the States-General of Brittany at the end of December , and in January , to try to stir up the starving people against the middle classes.
But what could these last convulsive efforts of the nobles do against the pouplar tide, which rose steadily? The people saw more than half the land lying idle in the hands of the nobility and clergy, and they understood better than if statisticians had demonstrated it to them, that so long as the peasants did not take possession of the land to cultivate it famine would be always present among them. The very need to live made the peasant rise against the monopolisers of the soil. During the winter of I, says Chassin, no day passed in the Jura without convoys of wheat being plundered.
Similar riots broke out everywhere, north, south, east and west, says Chassin. The elections brought with them a renewal of life and of hope in the villages. Everything was changing wherever there was a weaver or a mason who could read and write, were it only the printed letters. It is true that these grievances were confined for the greater part to things of secondary importance; but throughout we see cropping up, as in the insurrection of the German peasantry in , the demand that the lords should prove their right to the feudal exactions.
But the tardiness of the States-General and the National Assembly exasperated them, and as soon as that terrible winter of I came to an end, as soon as the sun shone again, and brought with it hope of a coming harvest, the riots broke out afresh, especially after the spring work in the fields was over. The intellectual middle classes evidently took advantage of the elections to propagate revolutionary ideas.
The apathy which had struck Arthur Young in the eastern towns no doubt existed; but in some of the other provinces the middle classes extracted all the profit they desired from the electoral agitation. We can even see how the events which took place in June at Versailles in the National Assembly were prepared several months before in the provinces. It must not be thought, however, that the middle-class people who took a prominent part in the elections were in the least degree revolutionary. As regards revolutionary measures, it was usually the people who spoke of them, since secret societies were found among the peasants, and unknown persons began to go about appealing to the people to pay taxes no longer, but to make the nobles pay them.
Or else emissaries went about declaring that the nobles had already agreed to pay the taxes, but that this was only a cunning trick on their part. Tremble, ye nobles! After the month of March the feudal taxes were no longer paid by any one. The importance of this profound agitation in the country districts can be easily understood. Although the educated middle classes did undoubtedly profit by the conflicts with the Court and the parlements to arouse political ferment, and although they worked hard to disseminate discontent, it is nevertheless certain that the peasant insurrection, winning over the towns also, made the real basis of the Revolution, and gave the deputies of the Third Estate the determination, presently to be expressed by them at Versailles, to reform the entire system of the government in France, and to initiate a complete revolution in the distribution of wealth.
Without the peasant insurrection, which began in winter and went on, ever growing, until , the overthrow of royal despotism would never have been effected so completely, nor would it have been accompanied by so enormous a change, political, economic and social. France might, indeed, have had a sham parliament, even as Prussia had in ; but this innovation would not have assumed the character of a revolution: it would have remained superficial, as it did in the German States after Under such conditions it is easy to imagine that Paris could not remain quiet.
Famine had set its grip upon the rural districts in the neighbourhood of the great city, as elsewhere. Provisions were as scarce in Paris as in the other large towns, and those who came in search of work could do nothing more than simply increase the multitude of the poor, especially in prospect of the great events which every one felt were on the way. In other places within the region, in the forests around Paris, the peasants, as early as March, were exterminating all the rabbits and hares; even the woods belonging to the Abbey of Saint-Denis were cut down and carried away in the full view and knowledge of every one.
Paris was devouring revolutionary pamphlets, of which ten, twelve, or twenty were published every day, and passed rapidly from the hands of those who could afford to buy them into those of the poorest. All Paris was becoming excited against the Court and the nobles, and soon the middle-class revolutionaries went to the poorest suburbs and into the taverns on the outskirts to recruit the hands and the pikes that they needed to strike at royalty.
On April 27, the Electoral Assemblies met in Paris, and it seems that during the preparation of the cahiers in the Faubourg Saint-Antoine there was a disagreement between the middle classes and the working-men.
The workers stated their grievances and the middle-class men replied with insults. They have been repeated many times since. On this point there can only be conjectures, vain conjectures after all. But evening came, and the crowds dispersed, spreading terror among the rich by their cries, which resounded in the streets all through the night. The troops arrived, and the people forthwith defied them by throwing stones, slates and furniture from the windows and the roof. On this the troops opened fire and for several hours the people defended themselves with great fury.
Here, then, was the first conflict between the people of Paris and the rich, a conifict which produced a deep impression. It was the first sight of the people driven to desperation, a sight which exercised a powerful influence on the elections by keeping away the reactionaries. Needless to say that the gentlemen of the middle classes tried to prove that this outbreak was arranged beforehand by the enemies of France. Why should the good people of Paris have risen against a manufacturer?
No one was willing to admit that the people revolted simply because they suffered, and had endured enough of the arrogance of the rich, who added insults to their sufferings! A revolutionary spirit began to manifest itself among the people of Paris from that time onwards. Close by the Palais Royal, the revolutionary focus of the middle classes, were the faubourgs, the centres of the popular risings.
Henceforth Paris became the focus of the Revolution, and the States-General, which were about to assemble at Versailles, came to rely upon Paris for the support they needed in pressing their demands and in their struggles against the Court. On May 4, , the twelve hundred deputies of the States-General assembled at Versailles, repaired to the church of Saint Louis to hear Mass in connection with the opening ceremony, and the next day the King opened the session in the presence of a crowd of spectators.
And already from this opening meeting the tragic inevitability of the Revolution began to unfold itself. The King felt nothing but distrust towards the representatives of the nation whom he had convoked. France, too long held back from reform, had at last come to feel the necessity of a complete revision of all her institutions — and the King only mentioned a few trifling reforms in finance, for which a little economy in expenditure would have sufficed. The national representation, in fact, even then showed its chief defect.
The people were not represented at all, the peasants were absent. It was the middle classes who took it upon themselves to speak for the people in general; and with regard to the peasantry, in the whole of this assembly, made up of lawyers, notaries, attorneys, there were perhaps five or six who knew anything about the real position, much less the legal position of the immense mass of the peasants. All of them, being townsmen, were well able to defend the townsman; but as to the peasant, they did not even know what he required, or what would be injurious to him.
They are to consider the taxes which they will be asked to vote, they are to discuss the reform of civil and criminal law, they are to vote on a law concerning the Press, to check the liberties which it had recently arrogated to itself, and that will be all. Gentlemen, you will reject with indignation these dangerous innovations. All the struggles of the four succeeding years lay in these words, and Necker, who followed the King and the Keeper of the Seals, in his speech lasting three hours, added nothing to advance either the great question of representative government, which absorbed the middle classes, or that of the land and the feudal exactions, which interested the peasants.
The King, faithful to the views he had already expressed to Turgot, did not understand the seriousness of the moment, and left to the Queen and princes the task of intriguing to prevent the concessions which were demanded of him. But neither did Necker comprehend that it was a question of surmounting not merely a financial crisis, but a political and social crisis of the utmost seriousness, and that under these circumstances a policy of manoeuvring between the Court and the Third Estate was bound to be fatal.
For if it was not already too late to prevent a Revolution, it was at least necessary to make some attempt at an honest, straightforward policy of concessions in the matter of government; the time had come to bring forward, in their most important aspects, the great land problems on which the misery or well-being of a whole nation depended. The nobility dreamed of regaining their ascendency over the Crown; the clergy thought only of maintaining their privileges; and the Third Estate, although it knew quite well what steps to take for the conquest of power in favour of the middle classes, did not perceive that there was yet another problem, infinitely more important to solve — that of giving back the land to the peasant, in order that, possessing a land freed from heavy feudal citations, he might double and treble the production of the soil, and so put an end to the incessant periods of scarcity which were undermining the strength of the French nation.
Could there be any way out of these conditions but by conflict and struggle? The revolt of the people: the rising of the peasants, the Jacquerie, the insurrection of the workers in the towns, and of the poor in general — in a word, the Revolution, with all its struggles, its hatreds, its terrible conflicts and its revenges, were they not all inevitable?
The negotiations led to nothing. But as the days went by the people of Paris assumed a more and more menacing attitude. In Paris, the Palais Royal, turned into an open-air club to which every one was admitted, voiced the general exasperation. It rained pamphlets for which the people scrambled.
Nineteen-twentieths of these productions are in favour of liberty The ferment at Paris is beyond conception. One heard already, like the rumbling of a coming storm, threatening of the coming Terror, while at Versailles the people collected at the doors of the Assembly to insult the aristocrats. Thus encouraged, the Assembly voted that the established taxes, being illegal, should be levied only provisionally, and only for as long as the Assembly sat. The people should not be any longer bound to pay them when once the Assembly should be dissolved.
But this meant revolt against the Royal authority. On a given day the King was to go in great state to the Assembly. There he would annul all the resolutions of the Assembly, he would decree the separation of the Orders, and would himself fix the few reforms, which should be passed by the Three Orders sitting separately. He, too, wanted a display of authority, a Royal Session, and in this session the King was to grant the capitative vote without distinction between the Three Orders in the matter of taxes; but for everything concerning the privileges of the nobility and clergy separate sittings of the Orders were to be maintained.
Now, it is evident that this measure was still less possible to realise than that of the princes. How could taxation have been reformed without impinging on the privileges of the two superior Orders? Seeing their Assembly Hall closed on account of the preparations that were being made for the Royal Session, they went in procession to a kind of private hall, the hall of the Tennis Court in the Rue Saint-Francois. A crowd Imarched with the procession through the streets of Versailles, headed by Bailly. Some volunteer soldiers offered their services to mount guard for them.
The enthusiasm of the crowds which surrounded them on all sides upheld the deputies. Arrived at the hall of the Tennis Court, excited and touched by a fine emotion, they all but one took a solemn oath not to separate before they had given France a Constitution.
No doubt these were but words; there was even something theatrical in this oath; but that matters little. There are moments when words are required to make hearts vibrate. And the oath taken in the hall of the Tennis Court made the hearts of revolutionary youth vibrate throughout the length and breadth of France. Woe to the Assemblies that are incapable of such an attitude and such words.
Besides, this act of courage on the part of the Assembly bore immediate fruit. Two days later the Third Estate, being obliged to sit in the church of Saint Louis, found the clergy coming to take part in their deliberations. The great blow of the Royal Session was struck the following day, June 23, but its effect was already weakened by the oath in the Tennis Court and the sitting in the church of Saint Louis.
The King appeared before the deputies. He annulled all the resolutions of the Assembly, or rather of the Third Estate; he decreed the maintenance of the Orders, determined the limits of the reforms to be accomplished, threatened the States-General with dissolution if they did not obey, and ordered all the deputies to separate for the time being.
Then it was that Mirabeau uttered his beautiful and famous speech, in which he said that the King was only their mandatory, that they held their authority of the people, and having taken the oath they could not separate without having framed a Constitution.
Related Chroniques des Ombres épisode 32 (French Edition)
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