The people of France had had enough. They had had it up to here. With revolutionary thoughts now spread far and wide amongst them, they undoubtedly had a lot on their hands—they were going to overthrow God. Well, not God literally—God presumably. Having been born into a world where God purportedly chose leaders and vested in them and their generations, thrones and seats of governments perpetually, the people of France, realising that they too were sons and daughters of God had had enough.
No longer were they going to be the impoverished ruled—slaves who laboured away in fields, in a feudal system that allowed for its leaders to bask in their majestic palaces, feasting away. The people of France were also children of God; some gifted with the acumen for ruling, hence by popular votes, they too deserved the chance at leadership; they too deserved a chance at good living, and securing same for their generations unborn.
The people of France knew they wanted the monarchy gone—but were not sure of the how, or how far gone they wanted them. Because monarchical rule, that was all the citizens had grown up knowing. All these certainties-cum-uncertainties came to a head under Louis XVI. Louis, as King, did not know what he was doing. He was, however, married to a woman who knew exactly what she wanted—i.e., lavish living; a woman who would have arguably made for a better leader than Louis ever was—because she, at least, won with decisiveness.
France was, during this period, the 18th century, stratified into a class system—the First Estate (clergy), the Second Estate (nobles), and the Third Estate (commoners). The King himself, falling outside this hierarchical categorisation, was at the very helm of this system—a system which perpetuated itself. One was born into and died out of their dedicated estates. The people deigned not to dream outside their pigeonhole—a hole God themselves had thrown them into. God makes no mistakes, no? Hence the womb from which one proceeded, was one’s destined categorisation for life.
It did not help matters that 18th-Century France had on its hand an almost inseparable bond between Church and State. So, the Catholic church, sitting comfortably in its position as First Estate, asserted itself endlessly with God themselves as bait—baiting and threatening the people into subservient obedience.
And therein lies the State’s reason for keeping the Church at the top; because the monarch, it hid behind the assurance of subserviency of the ruled provided it by the Church, just as the Church itself hid behind God in ensuring this subserviency. With certain biblical verses assuring the poor and lowly reward in heaven, the vast majority of the people of France, willingly accepted as heavenly-ordained fate, this 3-tier class system.
The State, it rewarded the Church for this pseudo-divine protection provided it, by, among others, allowing the Church to tax the populace (taxation of which came in the form of tithes); it granted the Church tax exemptions; made large grants of lands to it (lands of which the Church ruled over as feudal lords, entitling them to feudal dues from the impoverished populace).
The conning of the populace did not end here on earth—it was extended to heaven, with the Church selling to the people promissory notes for possessions of their earthly lands; promissory notes claimable by these people in heaven. Yes, you bequeath your land to the Church now, and you get a promissory note claimable by you when you get to heaven. You meet Angel Gabriel and you show him your…you know how it goes.
We pray to God that the fake prophets and preachers of our time do not come by this trick.
With government spending escalating and economic situation deteriorating, bringing France to the brink of bankruptcy, the Church and monarchy were millionaires, goblins piling up wealth as the people starved. As the people suffered among others the ravages of the wars with Britain, the aftermath of financing the American Revolution, the droughts of 1788, the floods of 1789, etc., the First and Second Estates lived lavishly.
The Church’s taxation (tithes) aside, the people had to pay series of taxes to the Crown—direct and indirect taxes; poll tax, sales tax, land tax, property tax, labour tax, and feudal dues. And throughout these series of taxations imposed on the poor, the First and Second Estates enjoyed gracious exemptions.
The people of France had had enough. But to topple such a formidable regime, the resounding question was how? How were a people who had had their entire lineages born into such a formidable system to break itself free? What sort of ideology was to come to their possession for them to even conceive of such a plan of emancipation? A system which had God themselves purportedly at the helm, how were a people to topple such a rule? It sure wasn’t going to be through voting—the system had made no provision for such a political turnover.
It sure wasn’t going to be peaceful, because neither the monarch, nor the First and Second Estates were willingly going to surrender this privilege of ruling—a privilege handed them and the progenies. For a true revolution to happen, blood, it seems, had to be inescapably shed. But we are getting ahead of ourselves here.
First mistake: keeping the masses impoverished
A sense of lowliness easily escapes the lowly when they are adequately fed. So, for generations the people of France had lived under this categorisation of classes with little resistance. But as the years went by, inescapably, signs and symptoms of statehoods began to show more prominently—population began growing stealthily, with France becoming the most populace nation in Europe (with 26 million citizens).
Economic hardships, unemployment, high cost of living, etc. were experienced by the country following its wars with other nations, natural disasters suffered, etc. This was not helped by the fact that the French tax regime was excruciatingly regressive. The rich, i.e., the First and Second Estates were—as some historians insist—not taxed at all; or as some modern historians argue, the rich was taxed but collection of these taxes were flimsily done.
Whether the rich paid taxes or were exempt, both schools of historians do agree on this one thing: taxation was one key cause of the French Revolution.
The year 1770 onwards, revolts were rampant in France. The people began demanding more strongly, social, political, and economic reforms. The printing culture was at its very height during this period, allowing for easier dissemination of ideologies by French scholars of worldwide acclaim (being themselves members of the Third Estate) like Montesquieu, Voltaire, René Descartes, and scholars of other nationalities like John Locke of England, Jean-Jacques Rousseau of Switzerland, etc.
In articles like ‘Death to God and State’ we saw the enormous effect the print revolution had on societies. Knowledge got wings through ink. And all too soon, Enlightenment thinkers like those mentioned above had dedicated audiences in the French people. It did not take long before clubs sprung up here and there—political groups containing young, energetic, brilliant minds, asserting more strongly, their God-ordained rights. Young, energetic people who began questioning the status quo; asking important questions like…
‘Qu’est-ce que le tiers état?’ Translated, it reads ‘What is the Third Estate?’
‘What is the Third Estate?’ was a pamphlet written by the political theorist Abbé Sieyès in January 1789. This article, written by this key figure in this movement that became known as the French Revolution, became one of the guiding manifestoes of the Revolution. Famously, it read—raising rhetorical clarion calls and succinctly yet poignantly answering itself:
“What is the Third Estate? Everything
What has it been till now? Nothing
What does it want to be? Something”
And this, in the nutshell, was the ambition that drove the people of France—a people who had for centuries been reduced to a large mass of nothingness, to revolt against the status quo.
The First Estate comprising the clergy (upper-level Catholic leaders), the Second consisting of the nobility (i.e., members of the royal family, with the exception of the King who as indicated, fell outside this class system), the Third Estate comprising all the rest of the people—people of varied professions: farmers, journalists, writers, lawyers, doctors, traders, manufacturers, scientists, brokers, bankers, people of peasantry professions, beggars, thieves, prostitutes, etc., collectively referred to by the Ancien Régime as the ‘little people’ were, during this period of Enlightenment, hit with the realisation that they weren’t in fact God-instructed ‘little people’. And that this categorisation was merely man-made, a resultant of an oppressive system.
These ‘little people’ reached the realisation, and had figures to show, that it was in fact they who created the wealth of the nation of France. Putting their God-given talents and honed gifts into good use, it was they, not the monarchs nor clergy who created the wealth of their nation.
They wanted their unhampered share in this harvest; they wanted control over how their hard-earned labour were put to national use; they wanted a part in the enacting of the laws that ruled over them; they wanted seats in courts that ruled on matters regarding them; they wanted a seat at the table of government of which they formed a part. They wanted no part in a system that had at the bottom, hard workers labouring away for fat-bellied lazy men whose only claim laid not in the exertions of their own hands, but in a fraudulently conceived notion of divinely-ordained superiority.
Soon the revolution found its unified voice, and it was brilliantly couched in the slogan, ‘liberté, égalité, fraternité’—’liberty, equality, and fraternity.’ So onwards, with this three-tiered slogan of freedom, the Third Estate marched.
Lack of Leadership
Some historians believe that Louis XVI was indifferent to the plight of his people; others believe he was cognisant of these plights, sympathetic even, yet was suffering a chronic case of bad leadership—a damning defect that led to the mishandling of this case of dissatisfied populace. Yet both schools agree that the monarchy, particularly, Louis XVI’s lack of leadership was the cause of the revolution. Louis XVI, a man who if he had not been born to royal lineage, would have ended up, being as gifted as he was in these fields, being a locksmith or a hunter. Yet there he was in the 18th century, reigning over the most populace European nation of the era.
‘Let them eat cake’, Marie Antoinette, the Austrian-foreigner Queen of France, is purported to have said when the issue of the plights of the people was brought before her. Many historians now dismiss this quote attributed her as untrue. Yet historians agree on this fact: that Antoinette’s flamboyance did not help matters—neither did the flamboyance of the clergy and the rest of the nobility.
Marie Antoinette, a woman’s whose bizarre spendy nature was perhaps borne out of boredom, being a woman married to a King who suffered ailment to his manhood (quite literally and figuratively) as she was… a woman who possessed a flair and willingness to command and a gift of decisiveness, a trait which the King himself famously lacked… Perhaps had she been born not of royal blood to a monarchical system; had she, a commoner, been elected to leadership, cognisant of the accountability she owed directly to the people… maybe (just maybe) she wouldn’t have wasted away this gift to the mundane.
Enough of the ‘what could have been’, let’s attack reality head on…
The Third Estate, forming 98% of the French population, began their assertions of equality with the law. This lowly group called on the King to undertake a merger of the three Estates-Generals into a singular, equally-represented law-making body. Pre-revolutionary France had, of course, its legislative body divided into three segments in accordance with its three-tier national system—the clergy, nobility, and the commons; a parliament which had not met for about 150 years. Each of these parliamentary houses of this period sat separately, whereby decisions made by the Third Estate was nothing but ‘nkuro’—resolutions reached by a group of men playing pretend with the law. Nothing decided in the parliament of the Third Estate was given due consideration.
Yet this suggestion of a unified parliament, like any motion raised by the Third Estate, was dismissed by the first two. The Third Estate, fed up, formed their own parliament—the National Assembly. And during one of its meetings in June 1789, the Assembly took an oath to enact for itself and for the nation, a new Constitution—with or without the involvement of the first two Estates; with or without royal assent. This newly instituted Assembly was so influential in numbers and drive that they drew some members of the First and Second Estates. Political groups like the Jacobins were to find their origins in this Assembly. Revolutionary leaders like Maximilien Robespierre, Jean-Paul Marat, Georges Danton, etc. were born.
The King, feeling threatened by this Assembly, threatened the Assembly with the military—the French Guard. Soon, what started off as a congregation of commoners seeking a reformation, morphed into a militia group fighting for a revolution. Just like that, the French Revolution had gained tangible form. In defence of themselves against the King’s French Guard, and to drive their revolutionary agenda, the revolutionaries formed for themselves, a military—the National Guard.
Bloodshed, heads on spikes, heads lost to guillotines, gore, further economic and sociological hardships, became the legacy of the Revolution. A legacy of the guilty and innocent alike inescapably slain. Once again, we seem to be getting ahead of ourselves here.
Let’s continue this next week, where will give answer to the question: why give a whole week to France?
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