by ProfDave, ©2022

“Storming of the Bastille,” painter unknown, public domain

(May 12, 2022) — Good Morning, ladies and gentlemen!  I know it probably isn’t morning for most of you, but let’s pretend.

At the end of the 18th century there were a series of upheavals that shook European civilization from the Mississippi to the Volga.  It marks the dividing line between early modern and late modern history.  It wasn’t just the French Revolution, but a series of wars and revolutions, different in their character in different nations. 

Where did it come from?  What was its character?  What were its consequences?  Today let’s talk about the ideas behind the democratic revolutions: the English revolution that went before, the American revolution, and finally, the French revolution.  You may want to take notes.

Where did it come from?  The early modern period is a testimony to the adage that “ideas have consequences.”  The social, political, and even economic institutions of Europe underwent incremental change from the 14th century onward, but in name and framework they were much the same.  Life just went on, despite all the war and controversy.  Society was still made up of three estates: those who prayed, those who fought and those who worked.  The religious unity of Christendom had been shattered, but individual principalities still enforced uniformity – the state church – within their sovereignty.  The nobility no longer fought as knights in armor, but they still constituted the officer corps and the leading positions in state and church.  The peasantry were no longer serfs (except in Russia), but they worked the same land, dominated by the same lords – now absentee, as often as not.

But the ideas were becoming different.  First the scientists and philosophers, then the philosophes and literati, then the social reformers, lawyers, and bureaucrats, then the literate public of all classes were applying new ways of thinking.  As they did, the “old regime” made less and less sense.  The mutual personal obligations of the Middle Ages, long since commuted into cash payments, were maintained only by litigation and tradition.  The “enlightenment” advocated reason, rather than history, as the only basis of relationships.  Kings and Princes sought to enhance their power by “rational” administration and tax reform.  Noblemen sought to rationalize their estates and maximize their privileges.  Businessmen sought to bring reason to the thicket of red tape regulating trade.  Peasants and employees began to question whether their traditional obligations and restrictions made any sense.  I am oversimplifying here.  All reason and common sense were not on one side.  But two things: first, a lot of what was called “reform” was simply the enlightened self-interest of the “reformers” – for example Frederick II of Prussia.  Secondly: the notion was that the divine plan for society was to be discovered by reason, not by history or authority.  The laws of human society were discernible by educated genius and not reserved to blue blood.  There was talk of popular sovereignty: that authority derived from God through the people, not just through the king. 

Let’s look at three nations, America, France, and – by way of background – Britain.  The Democratic Revolution began in America, but it was a British import.  Back in the 17th century there had been a revolution and civil war in England between King and Parliament.  It was a partly religious civil war, between Puritans and Anglo-Catholics, but there were constitutional results – a king had been executed.  Puritans practiced democracy in their church affairs.  They formed a habit of working through parliamentary representation to resolve their grievances.  And parliament executed the king.  Then parliament failed to govern without him.  When the dust finally settled, under William and Mary, the rule of the king in parliament had been established – and many of the strongest Puritans had emigrated to America.  It could be called a constitutional monarchy.  The constitution, however, was not written, but worked out gradually – by experience.  Nevertheless, it was a model for continental liberals.

British North America, in the 18th century, was separated from the mother country by distance and 150 years of benign neglect.  Settled by an assortment of mostly British religious refugees and fortune seekers, North America became a society quite distinct from Europe.  There was no real First Estate in America, although there were established churches in several colonies.  Clergymen were very prominent individually, but not as a class.  There were no bishops in the thirteen colonies until after the revolution.  Some had fled the political power of Bishops.  75% of Americans in 1776 had a Puritan spiritual heritage [Ahlstrom].   This magnified the local congregation – democratic governance – and suspicion of royal prerogatives.  There was no Second Estate in America, either.  Even the plantation owners in the south were an aristocracy of property, not of blood.  And the frontier was always open to talent and enterprise.  North Americans quickly established parliamentary self-rule, English style, but without its social and traditional restrictions.

The American revolution, thus, was not really a social revolution against an aristocracy or a church.  It was local and rational self-interest against an absentee political and economic administration – taxation and regulation without meaningful representation.   The British Board of Trade attempted to operate the colonies on a profitable mercantilist basis with the Molasses Act of 1733, restricting West Indian trade with foreign islands.  Americans responded with smuggling.  They traded with French possessions even while at war with France!  France had established a military and economic presence not only in Canada, but in the Mississippi valley, thus Americans were in need of Red Coats to defend them.  After 1763, however, the French menace was gone and George III’s administration determined more than ever to make the colonies pay their own way and submit to regulation from London.  Parliament and Colonial legislators were now on collision course.  There followed a series of mutual provocations.

First, the Proclamation of 1763 closed the Appalachian frontier to settlement – an effort to prevent Indian troubles.  Then the Sugar Act (1764) applied an import duty on non-British goods, enforced by new Vice-Admiralty Courts, then the Stamp Act (1765), the Quartering Act, and the Currency Act.  All these made life difficult for American merchants.  The colonies responded by coming together in the Stamp Act Congress and effectively boycotting British goods.  The new regulations became unenforceable.  Parliament repealed them, but with a Declaratory Act asserting its right to legislate for the Colonies.  There followed the Townsend Acts of 1767, including a duty on tea.  Resistance led to reinforcement of the British garrison in Boston and the “Boston Massacre” of 1770.  “Sons of Liberty” began to organize and collect munitions.  There followed the Tea Act of 1773, the Boston Tea Party and Coercive Acts closing the port of Boston.  The Quebec Act extended the religious rights and borders of Catholic Quebec and there was talk of the King imposing Anglican Bishops in Puritan New England.   The First Continental Congress, 1774, issued a Declaration of Rights, and called for united resistance, withholding taxes, raising militias, boycotting British goods, and more.  War began at Lexington and Concord 1775.  Finally, the Second Continental Congress issued the Declaration of Independence.  

The War of the American Succession became a world war of sorts after the Battle of Saratoga in 1777.  France, Holland, and Spain had their own grievances against Britain and intervened.  French troops and ships contributed to American victory.  Yorktown settled affairs in America, but the war went on in Europe until 1783. 

The Revolution in America combined Puritan traditions of individual responsibility to God and local self-government with the enlightenment ideals of equal representation and popular sovereignty.  It became an example to France and to others.  The alliance with America sheltered republican propaganda at home.  Intellectuals and noblemen, like the Marquis de Lafayette, saw enlightened ideals put in practice.  Elected representatives of the people issued decrees, drafted constitutions, and exercised popular sovereignty.  Lafayette went home to organize a Society of Cincinnati [code name for Washington].  Lastly, the war bankrupted the royal government of France.

A new kind of upheaval and clash of national states followed, Europe-wide 1789-1815, with aftershocks in the 1820’s, 1830’s, 1848 and revolutions different still 1865-1871.  What brought about the crisis in France of 1789?  The “Old Regime” had three unresolved issues: the position of the Third Estate, the inadequacy of government finance and taxation, and the failure of “enlightened despotism.”  What was wrong with enlightened despotism?  In theory (since Plato’s day): an all-wise and all-powerful philosopher king should be able to fix everything by the use of reason.  Right?  But everything depended on the wisdom, ethics, and diligence of the king.  Taxes rested on those least able to pay and collection was absurdly inefficient.  Vested interests of the most powerful men in France stood in the way of reform.  Louis XV and XVI were not up to the task: they were neither wise, powerful, nor diligent enough to act.  The King and his ministers lacked courage to force reform on an unwilling nobility and church.

The first years of the French Revolution have more scholarly monographs per day than any other time in history– though World War II is gaining on it.  Everything I am about to say is controversial, but I will try to give an overview of economic, social, intellectual, and political factors.

Economics:  France was relatively prosperous in the late 18th century, but there was dissatisfaction at all levels.  Marginal noblemen were anxious for their privileges, longing for the “good old days.”  Time-out: privileges were rights and patents to collect tolls, operate monopolies, hold (and profit from) mostly honorary offices, wear special clothes, you name it.  Commercial classes were hampered by privilege and government neglect.  For example, there were 30 tolls on the river between Lyons and Marseilles on the coast.  The peasants were land-poor, dependent on occasional labor, crafts, and begging – with no safety net.   The government had an inadequate tax base – exempting the wealthiest citizens.  It relied on speculative schemes, short term loans, and selling privileges.  Tax collection was inefficient and too high in bad years.  The crisis was one of relative deprivation: a long advance, depression 1778-87, improvement in ’87, poor harvests again in ’88-89.  Then the peasants had no grain to sell, urban food prices soared, demand for manufactured goods dropped, resulting in unemployment, just as taxes went up to pay for the American war.  Everybody blamed the government.  Wouldn’t you?

Society:  The French nobility were amid a feudal reaction, pressing the King to restore their dignity and exclusive privileges.  This cut into middle class access to social advancement.  The bourgeoisie (middle class) experienced economic frustration, rising expectations, and a sense of importance beyond their place in current society.  Peasants were alienated from their lords by middlemen in a cycle of exploitation and evasion.  A whole new industry of litigation produced a host of marginal lawyers.  All classes were becoming alienated from the social order.  The aristocracy was willing to destroy central power, the middle classes were willing to destroy the system of privilege, and the peasantry had little stake in the old order.

Enlightenment:  18th century thought had weakened traditional religion and promoted a critical and unbelieving spirit.  Privileged intellectual elites, sitting in their gilded salons, had popularized a moral attack on privilege.  Lawyers had publicized grievances.  Lafayette and Ben Franklin provided heroes and examples.  The old regime had been discredited among the reading public.

Politics:  Royal bankruptcy was becoming acute.  The king and his government were weak and had been consistently defied in matters of fiscal reform.  The alliance between the King and the business classes had been broken by Louis XVI, who had become an unwilling ally of the feudal reaction.  A breakdown of state authority had taken place with open resistance by the nobility, the Parlements (courts), and the most prestigious elements in society.  Even the army was unreliable.

The revolution came in three stages: the revolt of the nobility, the revolt of the bourgeoisie, and the revolt of the people.  Any effective solution of the fiscal crisis required some form of taxation of the first two estates.  The nobles took their stand for their ancient “liberties” against the King and his ministers.  The King called an Assembly of Notables.  The Parlement of Paris responded with a Declaration of Fundamental Laws in May 1788 against fiscal reform.  The result was the demand that forced the calling of the Estates General – for the first time since 1614!  The bomb started ticking.

It took a year to prepare for the Estates General.  All over France was a flood of pamphlets, instructions, and complaints.  Abbé Sieyès, a liberal clergyman, wrote “What is the Third Estate.”  He answered that it was the nation as a whole.  When the Estates met, May 2, 1789, the court started out by insulting the third estate and the provincials.  For almost two months they argued about seating and voting.  On June 17th, the third Estate declared itself “The National Assembly.”  Many articulate liberal noblemen and lower clergymen joined them.  When the king tried to dissolve their meeting, Viscount Mirabeau replied, “Go tell those who sent you that we are here by will of the people and will leave our places only if compelled by armed force.”  They took an oath not to disband until they had given France a constitution.  [Ernest John Knapton, France an Interpretive History, 175].  Louis XVI backed down.  That was June 20.

The country was astir with rumors.  From June 20 to early August the nation was gripped in what is called “the Great Fear.”  Rumor spread that someone – the merchants or the King – was hording grain.  Urban mobs looted shops, looking for food and arms.  On July 13 the Parisians stormed the Bastille (an old prison), seized the gates of the city, and armed their own militia.  Peasants looted and burned manor houses, churches, and monasteries.  Many noblemen and their families were murdered or fled.  Rumor, terror and panic spread throughout France.  In the National Assembly on the evening of August 4, one nobleman after another rose to renounce his hereditary rights.  By the 20th, the feudal system had been abolished.

The Assembly issued the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen.”  Notice the underlying ideas of natural law, general will, and popular sovereignty.  The aristocracy was abolished.  Later (December 1789), under the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, all church property was confiscated and mortgaged to pay the national debt.  All faiths were to be equally regulated. 

What did “liberty, equality, and fraternity” mean to the French revolution?  Liberty meant freedom from arbitrary authority, primarily political and economic.  Freedom of the press, of conscience and of assembly were expressed, but limited in practice.  Equality meant no more nobility.  There was to be equal treatment under law and equal economic opportunity.  Government service was to be open to talent.  Fraternity meant a new kind of nationalism.  The law was to be the “general will” of the nation, not the King.

At this point, Edmund Burke, a British parliamentarian, wrote his Reflections on the Revolution.  He warned that there would be dire consequences to what the French had done.  They had torn up their contract with the past and with the future.  Constitutions were not made, they were discovered.  The wisdom of one generation was no substitute for the inheritance of history.  Tyranny, bloodshed, and chaos would be the result.

In the next quarter century Burke’s words proved prophetic.  Violent anti-clericalism took many lives in France even before the guillotine claimed its thousands.  War spread from New Orleans to Moscow.  After 1815, Europe was restored – or was it?  Nineteenth century Europe was an entirely different place, where ideology replaced religion and nations replaced dynasties.  We will look at this next week.


David W. Heughins (“ProfDave”) is Adjunct Professor of History at Nazarene Bible College.  He holds a BA from Eastern Nazarene College and a PhD in history from the University of Minnesota.  He is the author of Holiness in 12 Steps (2020).  He is a Vietnam veteran and is retired, living with his daughter and three grandchildren in Connecticut.

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