The Fall of the French Monarchy

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The revolution resulted, among other things, in the overthrow of the Bourbon monarchy in France and in the establishment of the First Republic. It was generated by a vast complex of causes, the most important of which were the inability of the ruling classes of nobility, clergy, and bourgeoisie to come to grips with the problems of state, the indecisive nature of the monarch, impoverishment of the workers, the intellectual ferment of the Age of Enlightenment, and the example of the American Revolution. Recent scholarship tends to downplay the social class struggle and emphasize political, cultural, ideological, and personality factors in the advent and unfolding of the conflict. The Revolution itself produced an equally vast complex of consequences. For more than a century before the accession of Louis XVI in 1774, the French government had undergone periodic economic crises, resulting from the long wars waged during the reign of Louis XIV, royal mismanagement of national affairs under Louis XV, the losses incurred in the French and Indian War (1756-63), and increased indebtedness arising from loans to the American colonies during the American Revolution (1775-83). The advocates of fiscal, social, and governmental reform became increasingly vocal during the reign of Louis XVI. In August 1774, Louis appointed a liberal comptroller general, the economist Anne Robert Jacques Turgot, Baron de L'Aulne, who instituted a policy of strict economy in government expenditures. Within two years, however, most of the reforms had been withdrawn and his dismissal forced by reactionary members of the nobility and clergy, supported by Queen Marie Antoinette. Turgot's successor, the financier and statesman Jacques Necker, similarly accomplished little before his downfall in 1781, also because of opposition from the reactionaries. Nevertheless, he won popular acclaim by publishing an accounting of the royal finances, which revealed the heavy cost of privileges and favoritism. During the next few years the financial crisis steadily worsened. Popular demand for convocation of the Estates-General (an assembly made up of representatives of the clergy, the nobility, and the commoners), which had been in adjournment since 1614, finally compelled Louis XVI in 1788 to authorize national elections. During the ensuing campaign, censorship was suspended, and a flood of pamphlets expressing ideas derived from the Enlightenment circulated throughout France. Necker, who was reinstated as comptroller general by Louis in 1788, supported the king in his decision that the third estate (commoners) would have as many representatives in the Estates-General as the first estate (the clergy) and the second estate (the nobility) combined, but both he and Louis failed to make a ruling on the method of voting. Despite general agreement among the three estates that national salvation required fundamental changes in the status quo, class antagonisms precluded unity of action in the Estates-General, which convened at Versailles on May 5, 1789. The delegations representing the privileged strata of French society immediately challenged the third-estate caucus by rejecting its procedural proposals on methods of voting. The proposals were designed to establish a system of simple majority rule, thereby ensuring domination of the Estates-General by the third estate, numerically the most powerful caucus. The deadlock on procedure persisted for six weeks, but finally, on June 17, the insurgent caucus, led by Emmanuel Joseph Sieyes and Honore Gabriel Riqueti, comte de Mirabeau, proclaimed itself the National Assembly. This display of defiance of the royal government, which had given its support to the clergy and nobility, was followed by the passage of a measure vesting the National Assembly with sole power to legislate taxation. In swift retaliation, Louis deprived the National Assembly of its meeting hall. The National Assembly responded, on June 20, by gathering...
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