What triggered the French Revolution?

Julian Swann considers the cause of the great upheaval in French politics in 1789

The vanquishers of the Bastille before the Hôtel de Ville, 14 July 1789. Found in the Collection of Petit Palais, Musée des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Mention the French Revolution and the mind quickly conjures up images of the storming of the Bastille on 14 July 1789. On that momentous day, angry crowds of ordinary men and women joined mutinying soldiers in breaching the walls of the dreaded Parisian prison which had long been used as a military stronghold by the crown.

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These scenes were swiftly followed by the release of prisoners and the murder of its unfortunate governor, whose head was soon being paraded around the city on the point of a pike. The governor’s death symbolised the fall of the absolute monarchy and offered a premonition of the revolutionary violence to come.

Almost ever since, the 14th of July has been celebrated as a national holiday, a date marking the separation of the old regime from the new. But, if the fall of the Bastille marked an important staging post in the revolutionary process, it was also the culmination of a political revolution that had begun months before.

In May 1789, King Louis XVI summoned the ancient national parliament of France, known as the Estates General, for the first time in over 175 years amidst great pomp and ceremony to hear the grievances of his people and to present them with his own projects for reform. The assembly rapidly reached deadlock over the vexed issue of voting procedures, but with the eyes of the nation upon him, the king failed to provide the necessary leadership. As a result, relations between the deputies of the nobility and those of the third estate or commons, who represented more than 95 per cent of the population, went from polite suspicion to outright hostility.

On 17 June, the third estate acted decisively to fill the vacuum, voting to transform itself into an entirely new body, the National Assembly, which claimed to speak in the name of the French nation. This was a truly revolutionary gesture that had no precedent in French history and was reached entirely independently of the king. If ever there was a moment that deserves to be described as the start of the French Revolution, this was it – and even the normally clueless Louis XVI recognised its significance by belatedly bringing forward plans to hold a royal séance with the deputies of what he still insisted were the Estates General, in order to outline his own intentions.

At bayonet point

Rather than yield, on 20 June the deputies boldly adopted the Tennis Court Oath (sworn in a tennis court building near the Palace of Versailles), vowing not to disperse until they had given France a constitution. Louis XVI’s protest at the séance, held three days later, was brushed aside – with the great revolutionary orator, Mirabeau, declaring that the deputies would only be separated at bayonet point. In a desperate bid to shore up his badly shaken authority, the king gave secret orders to mass loyal troops around Versailles and Paris and, on 11 June he dismissed his popular minister, Jacques Necker, replacing him with a new hard-line ministry. His actions spread panic in Paris, where fevered political debate had been taking place against a dire background of soaring bread prices and rising unemployment.

As all manner of blood-curdling rumours circulated, the Parisians seized arms to defend themselves and went in search of the powder stores of the strategically crucial Bastille. Its fall left the king with a stark choice: either to risk fighting a civil war or to perform an abject climb down. He chose the latter. Necker was recalled, the troops sent back to barracks and a few days later Louis visited Paris to deliver what was tantamount to an apology to his people.

While they might quibble about points of detail, most historians would recognise this description of the start of the French Revolution. But why had it happened?

Few subjects have caused more ink to be spilt, and arguments and theories abound. Social explanations highlight the importance of conflict between aristocrats and bourgeois, peasants and landlords, or employers and workers; political interpretations point to the consequences of miscalculations by the king or his ministers; while those inspired by the cultural turn seek to identify the subtle linguistic shifts in intellectual and ideological debate that helped to sap the foundations of absolute monarchy. All of these approaches have their merits and debate rages on, but to take a fresh look at why the revolution started it is helpful to consider what had plunged the absolute monarchy into crisis in the first place.

The king was personally popular and yet he singularly failed to capitalise upon that immense asset. Only once did he venture out beyond the narrow confines of his palaces to inspect a tiny portion of his great kingdom. The occasion was his visit to the naval works under construction at Cherbourg, a voyage that was a phenomenal success as huge crowds spontaneously cheered “Long live the king”, prompting an enchanted monarch to call back “Long live my people”.

The avuncular Louis was never going to be a warrior monarch in the mould of Louis XIV or Napoleon, but had he used his natural bonhomie and the aura of monarchy he might have found it much easier to play the ‘patriot king’ and to persuade his subjects of the virtues of his reforms. Unfortunately the king failed to understand that to be loved, he had to be seen, and instead he remained cocooned in the familiar surroundings of his court.

It was a grave mistake because Louis XVI’s popularity was not shared by the monarchical administration, which was seen as secretive and rapacious. Taxes such as the 20th on income were regularly doubled and even tripled without any noticeable improvement in public finances, while the actions of the monarchy’s officials, most famously the intendants, inspired respect but not affection. The great law courts, known as the ‘parlements’, were seen by many as a necessary check on the abuse of power.

However in 1771, Louis XV had remodelled the parlements, exiling hundreds of his most vociferous opponents, and using the notorious lettres de cachet, which circumvented the normal legal process. Although Louis XVI recalled the parlements soon after his accession, the fear of despotism would not go away, not least because the existence of lettres de cachet meant that anyone who fell foul of a minister or intendant could find themselves summarily exiled or incarcerated in the Bastille.

In these circumstances, Louis XVI struggled to convince his subjects that a strong reformed monarchy would not present a threat to both their wallets and their personal liberty. His task was made all the more difficult in an intellectual environment shaped by the French Enlightenment and influenced by constitutional ideas imported from Great Britain and North America.

Previous monarchs confronted by fiscal crises had reneged on debts, levied new taxes, borrowed at ruinous rates of interest and employed a host of expedients – from selling public offices to imposing taxes on staple products such as salt or wine. Louis XVI could probably have soldiered on for a while in a similar vein, but to his credit he had understood, however imperfectly, the fact that something more radical was needed. The challenge he faced was nothing less than to restore the confidence of his subjects in a monarchical government that inspired fear and suspicion, while somewhat paradoxically having a reputation for arbitrariness and incompetence.

Looked at from this perspective it becomes clear why so many of the reforming measures put forward by ministers such as Turgot, Necker or Calonne sought popular legitimacy by introducing representative government at municipal, provincial or even national level. Their failure to impose reform meant that the convocation of the Estates General was the logical next step, but it was, as events would prove, a highly dangerous gamble. Once the king lost control of political events, the latent social, cultural and ideological conflicts within French society came to the fore, transforming a crisis into a revolution.

Julian Swann is professor of European history at Birkbeck College and is currently writing a history of political disgrace in early modern France.

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This article was first published in the December 2009 edition of BBC History Magazine