Before the Fall: Calls for Reform Prior to the French Revolution

By Melissa S. McHugh
2012, Vol. 4 No. 03 | pg. 1/1

Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot wrote, “Because it takes a long time before we are convinced of their inutility, foundations have sometimes become positively harmful before they have even been suspected of being useless.”1 One could apply this reasoning to the French monarchy in the late 18th century, particularly in the reigns of Louis XV and his grandson, Louis XVI, neither of whom possessed the sheer intimidating will of Louis XIV. They still retained the traditional powers of the French monarch, but not the literal authority required to rule. They nettled with their Parlements and their nobles until the situation exploded in 1789, resulting in the bloody French Revolution. The calls for reform began long before the French Revolution, but were deliberately stalled by the upper classes that refused to countenance any change in the ancienne regime and its institutions.

In hindsight, the monarchy began to fail a century previous, making the crisis inevitable. The necessity for reform was, at the very least, understood by Louis XVI, as evinced in his rapid replacement of Controller Generals, but ignored by the Parlement. France’s primary problem was that the entire country required on a scale that may have been impossible even with a competent government. The monarchy could not have been blind to the need for these improvements, but until Louis XVI, there appeared to be no effort to carry it out. Unfortunately for the French people, though he recognized it, Louis XVI was neither competent nor decisive and could not achieve any progress toward reform.

Turgot was the earliest vocal call for reform, and while his efforts ultimately failed (due to the unfortunate timing of a poor harvest), he did not stand out amongst other members of the government. When Turgot wrote his anonymous submission in 1757 to Diderot’s Encyclopedie, he criticized the existing order, especially the nobles at the top who were useless and did not contribute to society. He emphasized the value of efficiency above all else and even criticized the king’s palace at Versailles. “In some cases, it would be an exaggeration to estimate their utility at one percent of what they cost.”2 If France had an efficient government, it would be possible to utilize what Turgot characterized as laissez-les-faire, which in its basest form was to allow the economy to develop on its own. He believed every member of society, as well as every institution, should have a use and do its part to further France as a nation.

The theme of laissez-les-faire almost seems as at odds with Turgot’s Memorandum on Local Government, written in 1776, a report to Louis XVI that described France’s problems and suggesting solutions to rectify them. Turgot found it essential that France’s government reformed on every level, from the local to the national. He also called for a written constitution, finding that the lack of this document was the main causation of France’s disorganization. “As a result,” claimed Turgot, “there is a perpetual war of claims and counterclaims which reason and mutual understanding have never regulated, in which Your Majesty is obliged to decide everything personally or through your agents.” 3 Because there was no cohesive government, situations were protracted and services were inefficient, particularly tax collection. Turgot wanted to create a society more educated in their civil responsibilities, one that would value and understand their part in the big picture and carry it out. Laissez-les-faire was not actually at odds with Turgot’s call for serious reforms, but rather could not be effectively implemented in a country that as not being administered efficiently.

Louis XVI faced immense opposition from the Parlement of Paris, which had been a thorn in the monarchy’s side since Louis XVI. They were continually asserting what they considered to be their ancient right to protest the king’s laws. In 1776, they objected to edicts that “under[mine] the essential principles of the traditional social order.”4 Specifically, they opposed the outlawing of the corvée and the creation of a tax on landowners and the nobility and dissolving the guilds. They argued that either edict would result in chaos—as the first step in bringing down the entire system. Allowing a tax on the nobility would destroy what separated them from the other Estates and it was the nobility’s ancient right that precluded them from such tax. Their service to the Crown was not to be through the “vile corvée, but must [be for] service in war and…other noble acts.”5 By infringing on this most basic right, the Parlement felt as though it would be a gateway to take away more rights. The guilds provided much needed structure amongst merchants and artisans and was necessary to carry out the business of trade and commerce. As the Parlement proved in these edicts and in other quarrels with the king, there was not so much concern as to what would be best for the country but what would most benefit themselves. Even the most basic efforts to reform Louis XVI were stymied by his nobility. If he could not push through one or two measures, how could the massive reforms suggested by Turgot hope to succeed? It came down to the distinct differences between Louis XIV and Louis XVI. The former was able to cow the nobles and Parlements into submission, but the results of his action created a tension and defiance that would doom his successor. There was no sense of working together in even the most miniscule ways to do what was best for France.

Calls for reform were not completely ignored by the government but the polarization between the two institutions that might have allowed reforms to proceed made it impossible to function. Efforts by the monarchy were feeble at best, but they were not nonexistent, at least not during the reign of Louis XVI. The unfortunate reality for this king was that his grandfather had passed down neither a solvent nor a stable kingdom and Louis XVI lacked the power and will to carry out what was needed. He was the wrong man at a crucial moment in French history and was simply not up to the massive task required of him. He received much of the blame for seeming inaction of his government and calls for reform became increasingly radical.

Before the Estates-General convened in 1789, elections were held to determine the representatives. A cleric, Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès, was elected “Deputy of the Third Estate despite his clerical status.”6 He wrote a pamphlet in 1789 that argued that Third Estate was actually the most important estate in the nation. They were responsible for all “the activities which support society.”7 And yet, this Estate was overburdened and overtaxed and in the Estates-General, consistently overruled by the first Estates of clergy and nobility. The Third Estate as an institution and those people which it represents had accounted for absolute silence in the political order until this point, according to Sieyès. There was an almost startlingly similarity between Sieyès and Turgot’s Foundations, in that they both value those institutions and people that serve the good of France. Turgot did not express it in the same terms, but his call for utility and useful society echoed Sieyès’ claim that “nothing will go well without the Third Estate; everything would go considerably better without the two others.”8

It is telling that this pamphlet, written as discontent and revolution simmered beneath the surface, was more specific and open about what was wrong with France. It was the nobility, specifically the Court, the lack of political power held by those Sieyès considered the true power in everyday French life. Turgot alluded to the uselessness of the nobility and of the overindulgent wastefulness of Versailles but he stopped short. The climate in which these similar works were produced speaks volumes about the radicalism that emerged within thirty years. There is little that escaped Sieyès criticism, but he was saved the worst vitriol for the tax-free nobility. “What an odd country, where the citizens who profit most form the commonwealth contribute least to it!”9

Turgot suggested the country depend more on organization and inefficiency, and later when he was in a position to do more about it, studied the needs of France in more detail. Turgot’s period in office, beginning in 1774, coincided with a poor harvest and famine. His initial efforts failed and he was dismissed. Controller Generals over the next decade only stalled the inevitable, allowing the Crown to descend further into debt. Certainly Louis XVI comprehended that France was in need of some new directions and reform, but it is debatable he was he was fully cognizant as to the seriousness of the situation. Attempts for any reforms that would make a difference (specifically a tax on the nobility) were immediately eliminated. The French monarchy was open to reform, but the nobility (those who served in the Parlement and out of it) refused to compromise. The lack of response came from them, not so much the king. It was just unfortunate that Louis XVI was not his grandfather. He was far the absolute monarch that his forefathers had been and it was this reality that spelled his failure to reform France. It was the disastrous combination of selfish and ignorant nobility willing to do whatever necessary to protect their rights, a willing but incompetent king and a populace no longer willing to take a backseat to those who had oppressed them for centuries. Any chance for the Estates-General in 1789 to implement true reform was ultimately a pipe dream.

1.) Turgot. On Foundations, edit. Keith Michael Baker in The Old Regime and the French Revolution (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1987), 94.

2.) Ibid.

3.) Turgot. Memorandum on Local Government, edit. Keith Michael Baker in The Old Regime and the French Revolution (Chicago, Univ. of Chicago Press, 1987), 99.

4.) Protests of the Parlement of Paris (March 1776), edit. Keith Michael Baker in The Old Regime and the French Revolution (Chicago, Univ. of Chicago Press, 1987), 119

5.) Ibid, 121.

6.) Sieyès, Emmanuel-Joseph. What Is the Third Estate? edit. Keith Michael Baker in The Old Regime and the French Revolution (Chicago, Univ. of Chicago Press, 1987), 154.

7.) Ibid, 155.

8.) Ibid, 154.

9.) Ibid, 171.

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