Elliot Fernandez

The crisis of the French Absolute monarchy

Eighteenth-century France was ruled by an absolutist monarchy where the king ruled with the advice of his ministers. The monarchs of this century were Louis XIV, Louis XV and Louis XVI.
Elliot Fernandez
Elliot Fernandez
He has a degree in History from the Autonomous University of Barcelona (2009) and a Master's in World History from Pompeu Fabra University (2011).
Post on 2022-12-21

In the 17th and 18th century, France was ruled by an absolutist monarchy where the king ruled with the advice of his ministers. Society was still divided by estates, as in the medieval era, but its economic and social system was no longer fully feudal as before, but was in transition towards capitalism. But this system went into crisis during the second half of the 18th century. The crisis of the French Absolute monarchy was the forerunner of the French Revolution.

The Old Regime was still in force, because the mode of production in its 85% remained feudal (traditional) and was subject to a major problem, inclement weather. For this reason, successive subsistence crises continued to occur throughout the 18th century, linked to episodes of bad harvests. Time, therefore, set the pace of the economy, in a society where the relations between lords and serfs were of a feudal type and property was divided between those who possessed the eminent domain and those who had the useful domain. In the 18th century, the French monarchy was in the hands of three kings: Louis XIV, Louis XV and Louis XVI.

The Old Regime and the institutions of the Crown

State population pyramid
Pyramid representing the stratification into two distinct groups of society: privileged classes and non-privileged classes.

The concept of Ancien Régime was invented during the French Revolution to designate countries, such as France, where society was divided into estates or orders and the monarchy's form of government was absolutist. The Old Regime involves having an economic system where the feudal mode of production represents 85% of the economy and is subject to a major problem, time. As in medieval times, estate society was made up of well-differentiated social groups : the privileged (the nobility and the clergy) and the non-privileged (peasants, merchants, outcasts...). In the early modern age these divisions, although continuing, were more complex and often merchants or other representatives of the enriched bourgeoisie achieved noble titles and climbed positions within this social scheme.

In France 30% of property was in the hands of the lordly aristocracy (secular or ecclesiastical). The serfs (peasants) had to produce their crops and pay taxes according to the rules of the feudal rent system (payment of taxes to lords). And despite the monarchy's attempts to centralize the system, multiple jurisdictions continued to exist : royal, lordly and ecclesiastical. In France each provincial state collected its own taxes and had its own laws. There were no citizens, but subjects.

In the royal sphere the subjects had to pay:

In the seigniory area they paid:

And in the ecclesiastical sphere it was paid:

In 1789 this system entered into a serious collapse, due to a series of factors that together explain what happened next: the revolution. The country's economy, as a result of a series of bad harvests and unsustainable military expenses, was not giving for more. The French feudal system was halfway between the English system (capitalist) and that of all the countries of the East (feudalism in the extreme). 40% of the land belonged to the peasantry.

Composition of the Kingdom of France: the fiscal provinces and the estates

France had 58 provinces, grouped into 33 generalities (administrative organizations). In 1789 the country had between 28 and 29 million inhabitants. These provinces, which also received other names such as States or marquisates, had certain fiscal and political powers.

In the social sphere, estate society had three states:

The young population was 35% (under twenty).

Map of the provinces of France
Map of the old provinces before the revolution

Who was part of the First Estate in France (the clergy)?

In the Second Estate (nobility):

And in the Third State (the non-privileged):

The crisis of the monarchy of the Old Regime. The origins of the Revolution

Throughout the 18th century, a series of factors converged and called into question the viability of the Ancien Régime system and the very survival of the monarchy. The successive economic and social crises, the philosophical movement of the Enlightenment and the bankruptcy of the monarchy itself will lead France to the Revolution.

The philosophical movement of the Enlightenment

The Encyclopedia

The publication of the Encyclopédie (1751-65) by Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d'Alembert, which promoted knowledge through reason, was an important impetus to spread Enlightenment thought throughout Europe. The Enlightenment promoted scientific and empirical knowledge but without rejecting God.

In 1749 the publication of Montesquieu's work "L'espirit de les lois ", where the separation of the three powers (executive, legislative and judicial) but always within the monarchy was drawn for the first time, was also a strong driver of the ideas of change. Montesquieu proposed an enlightened, not absolutist, monarchy.

Another prominent enlightened was Jean-Jacques Rousseau who in 1762 published "Du Contrat Social, Principes du droit politique" (in English, literally Of the Social Contract, Principles of Political Right) where he spoke of the need for the enlightened to give their opinion on monarchical affairs. Because until then the thoughts of the nobles never left the sphere of the salons. Rousseau encouraged the nobles to give their opinion to the newspapers. It will be an enlightened influence during the revolution. The Enlightenment was not the cause of the revolution, but when it broke out a new dimension was given to the enlightened movement, which was reinterpreted.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Jean-Jacques Rousseau

The revolution reinvented illustration. Rousseau was one of the intellectuals who would have the most influence during the revolution due to his idea of ​​a social pact. But Rousseau never spoke of the right to insurrection. 

On the other hand, the English philosopher John Locke had indeed spoken of the double pact: election of governments, and if they did not comply with the pact, it was annulled. The first part of the revolution was based on Rousseau. Instead, the Convention defended Locke's ideas.

Economic and social crisis

The enlightened movement warned the monarch Louis XVI about the negative effects of the economic policy that was being applied to the country, at a time when France was experiencing numerous subsistence crises. From 1774 Louis XVI, picking up the ideas of the Enlightenment, appointed a series of enlightened ministers to solve the financial problems: Anne Robert Jacques Turgot (in office between 1774-1776), Jacques Necker (1776-1781), Charles Alexandre de Callone (1783-1787) and Étiene-Charles de Brienne (April 1787- August 1788). They were all noble.

The king and his ministers intended to reform power without touching anything. What was done with these ministers was to put the nobility against Louis XVI, because, from 1774, the different measures approved by the ministers implied that everyone had to pay taxes, including the nobles: and this would lead to the Revolt of the Privileged (1787-88), also known as the aristocratic revolt.

The financial crisis acted as a catalyst. France was bankrupt because of the Seven Years' War that ended in 1763. France lost Canada and the Pacific Islands. He still had to pay the loans of the War of Spanish Succession and France entered the War of Independence of the North American Colonies against Great Britain (1776-1783). In addition to all this, we must add the rise in prices: from 1789 wheat was 150% more expensive.

Minister Turgot's reform proposal

Turgot (a physiocrat who participated in the writing of some articles of the Encyclopedia) believes that wealth must come from the land, the agriculture. That is why he proposes land repopulation, but his ideas arrive late because the industrial revolution is very close. Turgot recommends more effective land use, with a three-year rotation and intensive exploitation. In addition, he suggests approving the freedom of business and trade, in order to create a true national market. But all this was unfeasible. It recommends equitable and rational taxation. These proposals are rejected by the Parliaments (nobles) because it means losing their benefits.

Proposal by Minister Necker

Following Turgot's theory, Necker introduces an element: the taxation of nobles and ecclesiastics must be based on their property. It introduces an element of rationality. He proposes to make a cadastre (1776). The nobles rebel. They defend that in order to approve any change of this type, the Estates General must be convened, which had not met since 1614.

Proposal of Minister Calonne

He proposes that provincial assemblies be convened to make the cadastres, which will have to decide when and who pays the taxes. These provincial assemblies should not be held according to estates but according to wealth and classes. This is a very important step. The nobles, in response to Calonne ask for the convening of the Estates General.

Proposal of Minister Brienne

Minister Brienne tried to get Louis XV to carry out Calonne's proposal. In 1787, an Assembly of Parliamentarians was convened who were required to make a cadastre and pay according to their wealth. The Parliament of Paris refused and was closed (the king prevents it from meeting again). The other parliaments do the same.

The last chance before the crisis of the French monarchy: the Assembly of Notables and the convocation of the Estates General

On May 5, 1788, an Assembly of the clergy was held where they supported what had been decided in the Assembly of Parliamentarians. On August 25, 1788, Brienne was dismissed and Necker returned, who convened the States General, the only body that could decide whether the first and second states had to pay taxes.

In August 1788, the decision was taken to convene the Estates General, which opened in solemn session on May 5, 1789. They are called to talk about the economic issue. Within the Assembly of Parliamentarians there was a part of nobles who were in favour of paying taxes, but the majority did not want to.

The minority of nobles who were in favour of paying taxes are known as the "patriots ", who in 1788 formed the Patriot party. In November 1788, a political society was formed: "Society of 30" formed by Lafayette, Condorcert, Mirabeau. They congratulate the king on calling the Estates General, but say that if this is to be voted in the Estates General assembled by estates, it will always be lost 2 to 1. The first and second estates will always vote against taxes. What the patriot party was asking was to vote for people, not for orders. But Louis XVI opposed it. If it was voted by person it was possible to go ahead with the proposal so that everyone would pay taxes.

Minister Necker convened a second Assembly of Notables between October and November 1788. Louis XVI agreed to double the number of representatives of the third estate, but voting continued by orders. At the end of 1788 Abbé Sieyès supported the Patriots and published the pamphlet "Essay on the privileged". In January 1789 he published "What Is the Third Estate? ".

Sieyès raised the essence of the noble, which before the third estate is nothing. Politics had to be done with the third estate in mind, which is the majority. From here people are becoming aware that it is something. The discussion reached the street. Caricatures appear ridiculing the nobles. Part of the nobles began to see that a reform of the state was necessary, but the reform broke the foundations of the Old Regime.

The “Cahiers de Doléances”

The representatives of the provinces of the third state collect all their complaints in the "Cahiers de Dóleances". About 30,000 notebooks were made. Everyone could go to the king and complain.

Common characteristics:

Complaints by estates before the convening of Estates General:

Opening session of the States General in May 1789
Opening session of the States General in May 1789

On January 24, 1789, the regulations for the election of deputies to the Estates General were published:

The First Estate elected its members by direct suffrage. Meetings of the high clergy were held, and a representative was elected per province. The regular clergy chose 1 representative for every 10 members of each monastery. A total of 291 ecclesiastics were elected (200 were regulars and 97 prelates).

The Second Estate also elected its members by direct suffrage. In total, they sent 270 members: 70 high nobility and 200 provincial nobles.

The election of the members of the Third Estate was more complex: the election was not by direct suffrage but by second and third degree suffrage. Those over the age of twenty-five could be elected. The representatives of the countryside and the city had to be chosen.

In total the representatives of the third state were 570 members: