Saturday, August 4, 2012

Revolution Comes to France

The French Revolution, like the English Civil War, began as a conflict between the monarchy and aristocrats over taxation. The nation was in debt, owing to the Seven Years War (1756-1763) with Britain and intervention in the American War of Independence. Efforts by King Louis XVI to reform taxation law to service the debt led to revolution and world war.

The aristocratic opposition came initially through the dozen and half regional assemblies. (The national assembly, the Estates-General, had not met since 1614). These assemblies , or provincial parlements, acted as local judicial magistrates whose duties included confirming laws promulgated by the monarchy and enforcing them in their courts. Periodically, these provincial parlements resisted the monarchy. In fact, because of this resistance Louis the XV abolished them. At his ascension in 1774, Louis the XVI reinstituted them.

Louis XVI supported several reform efforts to modernize the economy and the revenue system. These included removing exemptions that nobles and clergy enjoyed from certain kinds of taxation, ending internal tariffs, and abolishing craft guilds and trade associations that restricted the production and controlled the prices of certain goods. The most important provincial parlement, the Parlement of Paris, resisted most reforms as an affront to the nobility. As the parlement asserted in one remonstrance, justice requires “guarding rights attached to the person and born of prerogatives of birth and estate.” By 1788 , the king followed the example of his predecessor and reduced the legislative functions of parlements to strictly judicial ones and created a Plenary Court based in Paris to serve the whole nation.

The King's edicts were universally condemned by people from all social backgrounds. Opponents published hundreds of pamphlets rejecting the King's actions. The nobility took initiative through the Parlement of Paris. They met and claimed that the Estates-General, representing the whole nation, could approve such radical reforms. The kings acceded to its demands and called for elections and the first meeting of the Estate-General in over 150 years.

The Estates-General assembled in Versailles on 4 May, 1789. Political maneuvering continued for the next few weeks. The nobility in the First and Second Estates wanted the traditional meeting in three separate chambers in which each voted as a block. This would allow the aristocrats of the first two estates of outvote the third. The Third Estate, composed mostly of lawyers, businessmen, and few land owners, wanted to meet in one body. That way, they could outvote the other two estates. In June, representatives of the Third Estate withdrew and took the revolutionary step of declaring themselves the National Assembly and sole representatives of the French people.

The king sided with the aristocrats and backed the first two estates. He assembled troops at Versailles intending to disperse the National Assembly. In nearby Paris, however, mobs consisting of everyone from laborers to bankers seized control of the city. They formed a national guard under the command of Marquis de Lafayette. Meanwhile, in the countryside a peasant insurrection raged. They quit paying tithes, taxes, manoral payments. They attacked some manors and burned the legal papers that detailed peasant obligations.

To prevent the spread of violence, the King decided to acquiesce and accept the National Assembly.

The assembly then began to make revolutionary reordering of French government and society.

So what was so revolutionary?

So what radical changes did the National Assembly make?

First, on 4 August 1789 the Assembly abolish the vestiges of feudalism, including the relationship between lord and tennant, the distinction between nobles and commoners in taxation, in the penalties provided for under French law, and in qulifications for public office, church tithes, and rights of privileges of the provinces.

Second, on 26 August 1789 the Assembly passed the Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen. Among other things, the Declaration asserted the belief that men are born free and equal, that they have certain natural rights, including liberty, property, and security, and that laws express the general will of the people.
The document exhibits the influence of the American Declaration of Independence. This might be because Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, was living in Paris at this time as United State envoy. During the revolution, Jefferson engaged in regular correspondence with some members of the French National Assembly.

Then the National Assembly began working on a written constitution to remake France.

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