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Friday, 17 October 2008

A vignette of French Revolution

As Thomas Jefferson was drafting ‘Declaration of American Independence’ in 1776, he couldn’t have avoid thanking France for the help extended to America. Thirteen American colonies gained independence on 4th of July 1776 when continental congress of America adopted the statement of ‘Declaration of American Independence’ and the French taxpayers had a huge monetary contribution in this. Philosophically, the Declaration stressed two Lockean themes: individual rights and the right of revolution. These ideas of the Declaration had an influence internationally, in particular the French Revolution.When Americans were fighting for their Independence, France funded them against their common enemy; the British, and funded to the extent of its own bankruptcy..

So when 20 year old prince Louis XVI, The Bourbon, who was married to an Austrian princess Marie Antoinette, ascended the thrown in 1774 he found an empty treasury with which he has to fund the wars, bear the extravagant court and a resplendent Versailles; after all the French regalia was a signature of pomp and royalty and the grandeur had to be maintained. So the apparent thing which most of the kings in such circumstance would do is to increase the revenue and the easiest way to do so is to increase the taxes.

But in eighteenth century France King did not have the veto right to impose the taxes. He had to take approval from the Estate General. Estate General was a body with representatives from all the three estates.

Before I move forward with the cause and course of revolution let me clear what the three estates are. For this we have to look at the societal system prevailing in France in early eighteenth century. Broadly there were three types of people categorized by three estates. The first estate comprised of clergy, the second nobility and the third which comprised almost everyone was the third estate. Peasants, traders, artisan etc made up the third estate. Most of the lands and wealth was owned by first two estates and no taxes were imposed on them. Only the third estate required to pay the taxes. There were two important taxes; one direct tax levied by government called Taille and other levied by Church called Tithe. Apart from these two taxes there were indirect taxes. We see here that entire burden of tax was on common man.

The population of France increased from 23 million in 1715 to 28 million in 1789, but there was not a proportionate increase in food grains production. There was scarcity of food grain. Prices of essential commodities were very high leading to subsistence crisis.

An important demographic change was taking place in the third estate. A new class was emerging: The middle class. Many people of third estate were making money from trading and manufacturing. The fiscal independence led to better education which in turn led to increased awareness. The educated middle class was becoming enlightened and were in no mood to consider themselves anyway inferior to the other two estates. Many philosophers of the likes of Voltaire, Locke and Rousseau etc were propagating the idea of liberty and equality. In his 'Two treaties of government' Locke sought to refute the doctrine of divine and absolute right of Monarch. Rousseau carried forward the idea proposing a form of government based on social contract between people and their representatives. In the 'Spirit of Laws', Montesquieu proposed a division of power within government between Legislative, the executive and the judiciary.

The oppression of the gentry by privileged, the chaos, the enlightened middle class was well recipe for a revolution in waiting.

So I was talking about empty exchequer, a new tax proposal, Estate Council, a young king and his wife Marie Antoinette. On 5 May 1789 Louis XVI convened a meeting of Estate General to get approval for his proposal of increase in the tax. The first and second estates had send 300 representatives each whereas third estate had 600 representatives. As per the tradition each estate had one vote. But this time third estate demanded that the each person should have one vote for which the king didn’t consent. Owing to king’s refusal to accept their demand the members of the third estate walked out of the assembly.

On June 20 of 1789 members of third estate assembled in the hall of an indoor tennis court in the ground of Versailles. They declared themselves National assembly and formed a new constitution which curtailed the power of Monarch. They were led by Mira beau and Abbe' Sieyes'.

Meanwhile the condition of common man in France was deteriorating. Because of the severe winter harvest was bad which led to scarcity of food. Inflation became very high. There was rioting happening everywhere. Taking the recce of situation King sent troops in Paris. This agitated the people more.

On 14th July 1789 the angry crowd stormed and destroyed the epitome of state tyranny, The Bastille (the State Prison), and freed the prisoners. Though there were only seven prisoners in Bastille at that time the storming became a symbol of rise of oppressed against the anarchy. The spark has been put in the heap of wool; the conflagration would follow subsequently.

In the country side rumors spread that the Lord of Manors have hired brigands to destroy the crops. Fearing this peasants attacked the Chateaux with axe, sickle, hoes, pitch fork or whatever they were getting their hands on. In this frenzy and fear the old societal structure was crumbling and a new era was taking shape, but not so soon, a lot of blood shed was still to happen.

Realizing the gravity of the situation, Louis XVI accorded recognition to the National Assembly and the new constitution that was drafted by members of Third Estate. On 4th Aug 1789 the assembly decreed the abolition of feudal system. Tithe was abolished and the land of church confiscated.
By 1791 the National assembly completed the draft of Constitution. France became a constitutional monarchy with very limited power to the Monarch. Right to vote was given to a people who paid taxes and were above 25 years of age and.

The lure of power is hard to resist and more so if one has enjoyed it in past. Peeved and stifled by the new constitution, Louis XVI entered into secret negotiation with King of Prussia and Austria. But before anything could materialize for the King, the National Assembly which came to know about monarch’s intention voted in April 1792 and declared a war against Prussia and Austria.

Thousand of citizens volunteered for the war. This was seen as the gentry’s war against monarchy and aristocracy. People from every nooks and corners of France marched, singing songs, toward Paris. Among patriotic song they sang was Marseilles first sung by people from Marseilles. This was composed by Roget deL'Isle and later became the national anthem of France.

When the war was gaining pace at front, people back home were actively discussing the situation. Political clubs became an important rallying point for people who wished to discuss government policies and plan their own action. They agreed that the revolution needs to be supported and taken forward to next level. One such club was that of Jacobins named after Saint Jacob. There leader was Maximillian Robespierre. The members of this club were mainly from the lower segment of society. It is to be noted that even though France became a constitutional monarchy, the right to vote was limited to wealthier segment of society. The women and poor were still devoid of this.

In summers of 1792 Jacobins planned an insurrection. On August 10 they stormed the palace of the Tuileries, massacred the king's guard and held the king hostage for long hours. Elections were held and all men above 21, irrespective of their wealth, got the right to vote. On 21 Sep 1792, the assembly declared France a republic and abolished monarchy.

Louis XVI was sentenced to death by court on charge of treason. On Jan 21 1793 he was executed publicly in palace de la Concorde. Marie Antoinette met the same fate shortly.

Shortly after this, in the newly born republic of France, followed the reign of terror. Between 1793 and 1794, Robespierre followed a policy of severe control and punishment. Whom he saw as enemy of Republic were executed. Because of this reign of terror even his supporters became his detractors. He was convicted by court in July 1794, arrested and on next day executed.

The fall of Jacobin government once again allowed the wealthier middle classes to seize power. A new constitution was introduced which denied the vote to non propertied section of society. It provided two elected legislative councils. These then selected a directory of five elected members. The idea of setting a directory was that power did not rest in the hand of single person. But the members of directory could not concur on many issues.

The instability of directory marked paved the way for the military dictatorship of Napoleon Bonaparte. In 1804 Napoleon Bonaparte crowned himself as the emperor of France.

The period from July 1789 to 1799 is considered as the French Revolution. French revolution left a huge impact on world. It gave the world an idea about liberty and equality. It empowered the women and poor. This was a precursor to Russian revolution and nationalist movements shaping up in many colonies of European power.

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