Political Causes of the French Revolution

Political Causes of the French Revolution:

There was a hereditary absolute monarchy in France and the king held himself to be the representative of God on earth. The absolute monarchy reached the zenith of its prestige and power during the reign of Louis XIV (1643-1715). The King emphasized and defined his absolute rule in the phrase “I am the state”. He formulated laws at his will, extracted taxes, and squandered state revenue in accordance with his whims. Louis XVI (1774-93) used to say: “A thing is legal because I want it.” The King could get anyone arrested and punished without filing a suit against him in court. Not only the King but his favorites also enjoyed the right of suppressing anybody. To enjoy the absolute right, the favorites needed “Letters de Catchet”. Such letters were issued by the King in order to arrest and punish any person but the favorites got such “Letters de Catchet” from the King in which the space for the names of persons to be arrested was left blank. In such conditions, the liberty of a person was not secure. In brief, the King had become headstrong and despotic. There was no representative council or parliament to curb the unqualified powers of the King. There was a representative council called “Estates General” in France but it did not hold a session after 1614. Therefore, its election and organization sank into oblivion. In these circumstances, the only institution to restrict the waywardness of the King in France was the Parlement. They were thirteen in number. The Parlement of Paris was the most powerful among them. The Parlement was not a representative council but acted like a higher court. In addition to the administration of justice, the prime job of a Parlement was to register the orders of the King as laws. Parlement could refuse registration of an order passed by the King and could attract the attention of the public by demonstrating its opposition against the order of the King. But Parlement had to register an order if the King directed it a second time to do so. But Parlement had refused to register irrational laws during the early years of the revolution. For want of other institutions, Parlement attracted the attention of the public now and then towards the government policies and that the King was not invested with the power to mutilate the basic laws of the country. The persons steering the Parlement were those judges who seized upon nobility (aristocracy) by purchase of ranks. Those ranks turned hereditary afterward.

The success of absolute rule depends upon the potentiality and skill of the ruler. But Louis XV (1715-1774) the successor of Louis XIV was incompetent. Instead of improving administration, he indulged himself in the vagaries of a luxurious life. The French monarchy had to bear with the disparaging remarks and the prestige of France began to fade away during his reign. At the verge of his death, Louis XV admitted “An insurgence will erupt after my death”.

Under such desperate conditions, Louis XVI ascended the throne. He lacked in leadership. He neither had the potentiality of taking decision nor did he listen to the advice of others. He was not a blockhead but he frittered away his time in trivial activities. He was least interested in the problems of his country. Rather than steering the course of events in a particular direction, he himself flowed in the current of prevailing situations. Like all the Bourbon Kings, Louis XVI remained under the thumb of his wife Mary Antoinette. She was the sister of Austrian Emperor Joseph II and the daughter of the late Queen Maria Theresa. She possessed competence of taking proper decisions but she was a conceited, obdurate, unwise, and extravagant woman. She did not have experience of administration of the state affairs. She could neither give proper advice to Louis nor could she think of his good though she loved him deeply. She was always surrounded by avaricious flatters who did not hesitate to extract great benefits from the disorderly government of that time. Undue interference by the flatterers in state affairs increased the state’s problems. The noted historian H. A. Fisher has stated Queen Antoinette’s role in the revolution in these words, “To her critics, she seemed to be a siren which steered the ship of the state towards rocks.”

On the contrary, the noted historian Vincent Cronin puts it candidly that, hardly any other King and Queen have been so misrepresented by historians as the French King Louis XVI and his Queen Antoinette. The Learned writer has further stated that almost all historians have failed to define the personality and character of the King and the Queen impartially and properly. Historians maintain that Louis wrote the word “Nothing” in his diary when revolutionaries took possession of the Fort of Bastille and the prison in Paris. Historians have called Louis stupid for putting such a remark in his diary.

Cronin maintains that it was Louis’ hunting diary and he did not go for hunting that day. In the same way, it is famous that Mary Antoinette told the rising mob which demanded bread to eat cake. Cronin thinks that Antoinette did not say these words. Most probably they were uttered by the wife of Louis XIV. In the first session of his cabinet, Louis declared “I want to know the details of those things which are connected with the prosperity of my state”. Louis remained so much absorbed in the state affairs that his Queen could not talk to him during the day. Mary Antoinette helped people in their dire needs. People followed her example to such an extent that it became a fashion to help the poor. Louis had already instructed his wife not to intervene in political matters. Cronin unfolds further that “Louis was a revolutionary reformer and spared no pains in modernizing France. Mary was a very dedicated mother, a social worker, and a well-cultured lady.” In his book entitled “Louis and Antoinette”, the noted historian Cronin has cataloged certain reasons which paved the way for the French Revolution. They are treachery committed by his friends and courtiers, rumors, Louis’ religious intolerance, Louis XV’s bad rule, his rough behavior with the priests, unruly crowd stirred by the miscreants, wrong-doings by the political defectors, role of advocates, lack of ready wit and power of oratory, economic bankruptcy of France, selfish opposition by the persons of vested interests against Louis’ creative efforts for redeeming France from great losses, Louis’ own mistakes, social inequality, etc.

But it is generally accepted that there was no restriction on the ostentation and luxuries of the French Kings. King, Queen, and their loyal favorites led luxurious life in the grand palaces of Versailles twelve miles away from Paris, the capital of France. The Palaces of Versailles aroused the jealousy of other kings of Europe. As many as 18000 persons including a retinue of 16000 attendants lived in Versailles. The other 2000 persons included the royal family, royal guests, and favorite nobles. The Queen had a retinue of 500 servants for herself. As a matter of fact, there was no end to luxuries, pomp, and show in Versailles. The King and the Queen drained immense wealth by distributing money lavishly to their loyal supporters. It is estimated that the expenses incurred every year in Versailles before the revolution came to be 200 million dollars. The public earnings were drained like water in Versailles. Because of excessive extravagance, the royal court was called “the cemetery of France”.

The French administration before the Revolution was incompetent, disorganized, corrupt, and expensive. The absence of uniformity was the greatest flaw of the French administration. The king was the head of state. To help him in his administration, there were five councils whose functions were to formulate laws, pass orders on behalf of the king, and supervise internal and external affairs. The entire country was divided into two kinds of provinces for regional administration. One type of province was called “government”.

The number of governments was forty. They were mostly old provinces of France that did not have a share in the administration. Their Governors hailed from the noble, aristocratic families and received huge amounts in salary from the state. Their duty was only to lead a luxurious life in the favor of the royal court. The real administrative work was done in the other types of provinces. These 34 provinces were called “generalite”. The “generalities” were governed by an “entendent” deputed by the King. The “Intendant” hailed from the bourgeois or aristocratic class and was accountable to the King only. He supervised and controlled internal peace, security, and tax collection. The intendant presided over the sessions of law courts except the Parlement. In practice, the intendant enjoyed unrestricted and immense powers. Rather than paying attention to public demands and difficulties, they (intendants) carried out the orders of the King and made hectic efforts to increase their own income. They enjoyed as unqualified powers in their provinces as the King did at the centre.

Local self-government did not exist in France at that time. Local administration was also handled from the Palace of Versailles. No individual or institution was empowered to work in the public sector. Local employees had to seek instructions from the capital even on petty matters. Therefore, public servants were bereft of administrative skills as they were kept aloof from administration. It is why the public made several administrative lapses when they seized the opportunity of holding the reins of government in their hands.

In every organ of administration including law and justice, corruption as well as disorder was rampant. There was no authoritative code of laws in the country. About 385 varieties of codes of justice were in force in the whole of France. “A fact held valid and correct in a province became illegal in the province situated at a distance of five miles. In respect of the prevalent diversity of laws in France, the famous intellectual thinker Voltaire had remarked “At the time of traveling from one place to another in France, a person would get the government laws as frequently changed as the horses of his carriage are changed”. Nobody was aware of the specific laws of a particular province. There were different types of law courts in the country but the jurisdiction of courts was not clearly defined. Hence it was difficult to decide which court would settle a particular case. The judicial setup went from bad to worse because of the practice of selling the judicial posts. Under the class system based on wealth, the proletariat (the lowest class of the community) could not seek proper justice. By means of the letters bearing a special stamp of the King, a person could be thrown into prison without any charge. Noted thinkers like Diderot and Voltaire had to undergo imprisonment in the fort of Bastille. Punishment was rigorous and biased. The aristocrats were not punished for certain crimes. In certain cases, a landlord could execute the functions of a judge as well as a plaintiff or a defendant simultaneously. Other drawback of the judiciary was that the language of the court was Latin which the French knowing public did not understand.

Important Links:

French Revolution (1789)
Economic Causes of the French Revolution
Beginning of the French Revolution
Functions of the Constituent Assembly
Unsuccessful Attempt of the Royal Family to Flee the Country
Phases of the French Revolution
Role of Philosophers in the French Revolution
Nature of the French Revolution
Correlation Between the Objectives and Achievements of the French Revolution
Do you agree that the French Revolution achieved far less than what it intended to achieve?
Importance of the French Revolution
French Revolution of 1848
The Foreign Policy of Louis Philippe
French Revolution– Wikipedia