The Broken Regime

Hello, and welcome to Revolutions.

Okay, so first I have to lead off by saying that I’ve gotten some great feedback on how to start monetizing this thing better and there will be more to come on that. I’m already working on designs for the Gentleman Johnny’s Party Train T-shirt. But I also have to say that just by mentioning that I was going to start some little fundraisers turned into a little fundraiser on its own. So you guys who just donated in the last week, wow. Thank you very very much. 

But moving on with the benefit of hindsight, we know that 18th century France was barreling headlong towards revolution, but that revolution was by no means inevitable. It took a lot of bad decisions and bad luck to get to 1789, even more to get to 1794. But one thing that I do think was inevitable is that there was going to be reform. There just had to be. The Ancien Régime was a mess. Something was going to have to be done. And I can’t see how, in the end, something wouldn’t have been done, revolution or no revolution. 

Now, this is not a particularly original argument on my part since it is one of the underlying ideas of Alexis de Tocqueville’s The Ancien Régime and the Revolution, published back in 1856. He says even if it, that is, the Revolution had not taken place, the old social structure would nonetheless have been shattered everywhere sooner or later. The only difference would have been that instead of collapsing with such brutal suddenness it would have crumbled bit by bit. So change was coming. I mean, it just had to. 

The first thing to note is that the Kingdom of France was not in any way a unified state. It was rather a patchwork of territories acquired piecemeal over the years. And the inhabitants of those territories, though they shared a common classification into the Three Estates, often had very little else in common. 

The kingdom ruled by Louis XIV was a cosmopolitan kingdom whose various provinces had, over the centuries, been brought together under the French monarchy by marriage and inheritance and conquest. But they still retained their own unique identities in terms of lifestyle and worldview and even language. The people of Provence were not at all like the people of Normandy, who were not at all like the people of Alsace, who were like German.

Now, the traditional division of the French kingdom was into its 39 provinces, 39 at least being the most commonly cited number of provinces. The boundaries of these provinces, which range wildly in size, were rooted in the old feudal domains, many of which had once upon a time been independent and had slowly but surely come under the control of the French king. But when each was brought under “control”, they usually brought with them a unique set of political privileges and responsibilities, often specifically spelled out in a contract with the monarchy. 

Feudalism was by nature a transactional political system where everyone agreed to bind themselves to a set of mutual obligations. So, depending on which province you were talking about, there were things the King could and could not do, rights he could and could not trample, tribute he could and could not expect. 

But of course, we know from last week that steps had been taken to strengthen the central government at the expense of the provincial lord. And indeed, there had. During the reign of Louis XIII, Cardinal Richelieu created a new administrative apparatus that took little notice of the traditional provincial borders. He divided the King’s territory into généralités that were far more uniform in size than the traditional provinces. 

These généralités, of which there were 36 on the eve of the Revolution, were administered by intendants. These intendants were originally conceived as being financial agents of the Crown. But after Louis XIV had done his thing, the intendants also acquired quite a bit of political power at the expense of the provincial governors, though the intendants were, of course, hemmed in by local customs and rights. Then, just to make things even more confusing, it turns out that there were three different types of généralité. 

In the core of the kingdom, they were called pays d’election, where the intendant once upon a time had been elected by the Estates General. But since the Estates General hadn’t been called since 1614, that meant that the intendant in these généralité were appointed directly by the Crown and without any kind of local authority to push back, usually had a pretty free hand in policymaking. This was in contrast to the généralité on the edges of the kingdom that were known as pays d’état, who had managed to hold on to some autonomy by securing the continued existence of their own local estate provincial who were allowed to negotiate tax policy with the intendant. 

Finally, more recently acquired territory usually ceded in some land swapping treaty were called pays d’imposition, where the existing political, legal and tax structure were basically kept intact and all that really changed was that the money was directed now towards Versailles rather than wherever else it had been going. 

Okay, so that’s all pretty confusing. But then within this big patchwork quilt there were hundreds, if not thousands, of towns and municipalities that enjoyed their own little sacred list of privileges and exemptions, which is all too deep for us to get into here today because I also have to mention that the Church operated its own completely different administrative map. 

They divided the kingdom up into 136 dioceses clumped into 18 archbishoprics, and you shouldn’t even have to ask but no, the lines of the dioceses do not in any way line up with the provinces or the généralité. But that’s it, right? We’ve finally come to an end of our survey of just how insanely partitioned the Ancien Régime was. You wish, because now we have to talk about the legal system which ran on its own map and frankly, seemed designed to make sure that no two subjects of the king lived under exactly the same set of laws. 

Broadly speaking, France was operating under two different legal frameworks. Down in the south, they lived under a code system that could be traced back to the Romans. While up in the north, the common law system prevailed. Okay, that’s not ideal, but what makes it really crazy is that the individual jurisdictions of the thousands of petty little courts were defined haphazardly and might be linked to geographic area, type of complaint, social status of the defendant, category of the property at stake. 

A member of the Paris Parlement commented in the 1760s, he said, “do we not see everyday people obliged to go to law over two or three years and at great cost to find out which judges they will have the misfortune to appear before?” And then, even when you did find out which court you were going to have the misfortune to appear before, almost all the judicial offices, that is, the judges and the clerks and the prosecutors were venal offices purchased with the expectation of future profits. So if you want this to go your way, you had better pay up. 

At the top of this legal system, if it can even be called that, were the 13 parlements, the courts of final appeal, whose own jurisdictions paid little heed to the boundaries of the provinces and the généralité. I’m not going to dwell on the parlement now, because we’re going to talk about them a lot over the next few episodes, but just know that they too, have their own set of unique and long standing rights and privileges within the Ancien Régime that they guarded jealously. 

To sum all of this up, the idea that the Bourbons were running some kind of absolute monarchy is just a fantasy, whatever the Palace of Versailles wants you to think. In reality, the King was hedged in on all sides by political and legal fences that had to be respected. On the other side of this maze of political and legal fences was the average subject who found themselves hedged in too, each seemingly accountable to a set of specific rules and obligations that weren’t shared by anybody else. 

Nowhere was this lack of uniformity more apparent and more offensive than in the kingdom’s tax structure. The tax structure of the Ancien Régime was a disaster. And if nothing else happened as a result of the fiscal crisis that led to the calling of the Estates General in 1789, that is, had they managed to avoid revolution, I think the system of taxation would have seen a major overhaul, because, you guys, we just cannot go on like this. 

The main tax, if there was one, was the taille. The taille was a tax on land. But critically, for reasons dating back to the days of high feudalism, the nobility and the Church were exempt. Indeed, exemption from the taille was one of the most basic social distinctions going and one of the reasons all those ambitious members of the bourgeoisie were trying to buy up offices that exempted them from the taille, it being as much about social status as actual household economics

As you’ll recall from last week’s episode though, the nobility and the Church combined owned nearly half the land in France. So where does that leave the central government when half the land in France isn’t taxable? Now, as we’ll see in a moment, that did not mean that the nobility and the Church did not pay money into the royal treasury. They did. But it is still a pretty big problem when the monarchy is facing a fiscal crisis and the people holding all the nation’s wealth are those least likely to have to kick any of it into the pot. 

But as I just said, the nobility did kick some money into the pot. It’s just not true if somebody says that the nobility paid no taxes. For example, even though they were mostly exempted from the taille, in some provinces the tax was attached to the land rather than the owner. So if a noble purchased some common or land that was subject to the tax, the noble was obliged to pay it. Aside from that, the nobility was also on the hook for the capitation tax, a head tax assessed in part on household income that applied in theory to everyone, though like everything else in Ancien Régime France, you could purchase exemptions. 

The other big tax that the nobility was subject to was the vigntième, or the one-twentieth, basically a 5% wealth tax. The vigntième was dreamed up back in the 1750s by reformers trying to solve the persistent problem of royal deficits, an equally persistent problem of most of the nation’s wealth being untaxable. Like the capitation, the vigntième was supposed to apply to everyone but like everything else, when it ran the gauntlet of local privileges and noble protests and purchased exemptions, its revenue too fell far short of what the royal ministers had hoped for. Plus, the vigntième was designed to be a temporary expedient and always carried an expiration date. So if the royal ministry wanted to start a new one, its terms had to be renegotiated all over again. 

The church, meanwhile, was also technically exempt from taxes. But they too kicked money over to the monarchy in two ways. First, every ten years they would get together and vote a free gift to the Crown, an arrangement long understood and expected by both sides. Second, the French church often took out loans on behalf of the monarchy. They were almost always able to get way better rates than the Crown could. And then the Church and its benevolence would shoulder the cost of the interest while passing the money itself over to its partners in the royal ministry. 

So on the eve of the revolution, the church’s revenue was somewhere around 250 million livre per year, of which the royal ministry was seeing about 16 million, which is a pretty sweet deal considering the church also had a claim to a 10% forced tithe on everyone, ostensibly to support the local parishes, though very little of which was then being turned around to support the local parishes. So it’s not that the nobility and the clergy didn’t pay anything, it’s just that they weren’t paying anything even close to their fair share

Meanwhile, as you move down the economic ladder, you become subject to more and more taxes that you were less and less able to dodge. Beyond the stuff we just talked about, there are two more types of taxes that fell disproportionately hard on the lower classes. Well, not lower classes, more like the middle class bourgeoisie and wealthier peasants who were getting slammed for just about all of this stuff. 

First, there was a host of excise taxes on all kinds of stuff – soap and liquor and playing cards, you name it. If you wanted it there was probably an extra sales tax built into the price. And that was on top of the fact that most of these commodities had already been subjected to internal customs duties. Because, of course, there were tax collectors at every one of our overlapping political boundary lines, charging a tariff on goods that wanted to cross.

Ancien Régime France was the exact opposite of an open market, and getting a commodity from producer to consumer was an expensive proposition. Sometimes you had to pass through a dozen or more customs checkpoints. This inflated prices and made smuggling practically an honorable profession, certainly more honorable than being the middleman who sat around skimming off his cut. 

Now, the last and most hated of the indirect taxes was the gabelle, or salt tax. This one was particularly despised and it forced people to buy salt at an arbitrarily set price, nobles and clergy exempted of course. The gabelle was despised though not just because it made a basic commodity more expensive than it ought to be, but also because it was assessed at wildly different rates depending on where you lived. Every municipality and province and généralité seemed to be paying a different rate, sometimes two to three times more than the next town over. It was completely crazy and a daily irritation to put upon commoners throughout the kingdom. 

The other type of tax the less privileged had to deal with was paid in labor. The most common and most hated was the corevée, which was an obligation to perform work for the government or hand over your equipment to the government to use if they say you wanted to build or maintain a road

Now, this is all well and good, I guess, everyone pitching in and whatnot, except that these roads had a tendency to connect cities to noble estates. Those nobles, of course, being obligated to pony up nothing for the much improved lines of communication and travel they now enjoy

The peasants may have been a simple people, but they weren’t stupid. And they knew that they were shouldering costs they could not afford on behalf of those who clearly could. And while they were sitting around recognizing this, they also found themselves subjected to various feudal obligations owed to those same nobles, various little tributes and rents are like the thing where you had to use the nobles mill and pay whatever price was set, or the thing where you couldn’t kill rabbits that are eating your produce because the noble held exclusive hunting rights. It was enough to make you want to grab a pitchfork. 

Adding to the utterly diabolical tax structure was the fact that Ancien Régime France ran on a tax farming system similar to that of ancient Rome. If you remember, this is where some corporation pays the government a cut rate lump sum for the right to go collect all the legal taxes; profit being made in the difference between what you bid and what you collected which meant that our poor peasants were constantly harassed by less than scrupulous tax farmers who didn’t care that this was the third time they’ve come around to collect the same tax. If you don’t have a receipt, then I’m just going to take it again and there’s nothing you can do about it. And for the moment, that was true. There was nothing they could do about it, though they were sharpening their pitchforks. 

The final punchline to this completely backward and regressive system of taxation was that once you added up all the taxes that were being levied and then accounted for all the exemptions everyone claimed, what the royal ministers were left with was a revenue stream that was totally inadequate and left persistent deficits in the royal budget that just kept piling up

Which meant that there was only one thing for them to do, and that was take out loans. To get the bankers, both domestic and foreign, to subscribe to a given loan, the monarchy usually had to offer pretty generous terms. And as we’ll get into next week, when we start talking about the specific crisis Louis XVI and his ministers were facing after the conclusion of the American War of Independence, as much as anything, it was the absolutely crippling great load of interest the monarchy was on the hook for that was dragging it down. 

So as you can see, the Ancien Régime is something of a mess. It was all so very confusing and self defeating and desperately in need of reform. Which brings us finally to the intellectual movement so often associated with the coming revolution, the Enlightenment. 

Now, the Enlightenment is a tricky thing to pin down, but in general, it means a promotion of a theory of knowledge rooted in rationality and evidence and critical thinking, rather than tradition and superstition. The scientific revolution is obviously closely tied to the Enlightenment, but for our purposes here I want to focus on the social and political aspects, as they would seem to have so much to do with this business we’re about to get into where the monarchy and the Church wind up being destroyed and replaced with the Republic that for a short time literally worships at the altar of reason. 

But though this connection seems pretty straightforward, it’s really not. Especially because always lurking in the tall grass was the enormously influential anti enlightenment philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau. 

So the roots of the Enlightenment as a European wide movement can be traced as far back as Francis Bacon and René Descartes in the early 17th century. But wherever you want it to start, what you see developing by the late 17th century is a class of intellectuals who started questioning everything and started believing that all that everything could be improved by rational investigation. They started talking amongst themselves in an international network later dubbed the Republic of Letters, who traded correspondence and books and pamphlets to keep up on the latest theories and discoveries.

In France, the Enlightenment starts gaining some steam as the reign of Louis XIV nears its end. Intellectual elites started gathering together in Paris cafes and salons to chat about what they thought was right and wrong in the world. When Louis XIV was succeeded by Louis XV, the movement picked up speed because Louis XV was not nearly as diligent about clamping down on possibly seditious activity and the informal intellectual society started growing, and their philosophical, literary, and scientific works started gaining a wider audience. 

These writers and journalists and scientists became known as the philosophes, who you might describe as practical philosophers, less interested in abstract metaphysics and more interested in practical reform. They inhale and then spread the ideas of Locke and Newton coming down from England. They believed in individual rights and the scientific method, and above all, the infinite capacity of humanity to improve its state by applying great faculty of reason. 

Adding to the spread of Enlightenment ideas was the increase in literacy and an increase in the purchasing power of the bourgeoisie that allowed them to spend some disposable income on the latest books and pamphlets. This was also enabled by the generally lack of censorship during the reign of Louis XV

There are all kinds of rules about what could and could not be published, and a lot of what was being handed around in mid 18th century France probably should not have been. But the authorities had adopted a graduated structure to distinguish between what they considered beneath their notice, what they didn’t like, what would tacitly permit, what they would shut down if they found it, and what they would actively seek out and destroy. 

So, as I mentioned last week, the critics of the Ancien Régime were enabled by the very royal malaise they often criticized. And a whole body of social commentary built up over the years as just about every social, political, and economic institution in France was judged and found wanting.

The greatest example of this spread of knowledge, and often dangerous knowledge, was the premier cooperative project of the French Enlightenment, the Encyclopedia, organized and edited by Denis Diderot. The idea behind the project initially was to just collect virtually all human knowledge into a single source but it soon progressed into not just collecting but advancing knowledge. And most of the great Enlightenment era thinkers and scientists contributed essays on various topics, including Voltaire and Montesquieu and Rousseau, the three guys we’re about to talk about.

The encyclopedia eventually ran to 28 volumes, published one at a time between 1751 and 1772, representing the most advanced views on a wide range of topics, including politics and religion. It was naturally opposed by the royal and ecclesiastic authorities, and so the encyclopedia had to live in that gray area of tacit permission to publish that could be revoked at any moment. 

Now, as you can imagine, one of the chief targets of the philosophes was the Catholic Church, which, in their view, used fear-inducing superstition to extract money from gullible fools. They never tired of pointing out the blatant hypocrisies of the Church, whose leaders lived in lavish style while the souls they were supposed to be saving lived in abject poverty. A poverty exacerbated by a forced taille that men in silk robes with bejeweled hands collected from peasants in rags without any apparent moral dilemma. 

The greatest enemy of the Catholic Church during the Age of Enlightenment was, of course, Voltaire. Voltaire burst onto the scene in 1718 and then spent the rest of his 60 year long public career railing against the clergy in essays and novels, letters, plays, poems. 

But it’s important to note that most of the philosophes, Voltaire included, were not atheists. They were instead deists. They believed in a supreme being who created and set the universe in motion but they were supremely skeptical of all this talk about a God who played favorites on the mortal plane, the miracles he was supposed to have performed, and the hell he would send you to if you offended him. This, they believed, was all complete nonsense. And guys like Voltaire turned a biting and sarcastic wit against the clergy who promoted all of this nonsense simply to exploit the ignorant masses. And Voltaire famously quipped that quote

the first priest was just the first rogue who met the first fool

Now, if Voltaire was the great voice of the Enlightenment on matters of religion, the great voice on matters of politics was a guy we talked about a bit at the end of the American Revolution: Montesquieu. After spending a lifetime traveling and researching and reflecting, Montesquieu published The Spirit of the Laws in 1748, and it became the authoritative text on the science of politics. All the men who tried to remake France in the 1790s used Montesquieu as their touchstone which is a bit ironic as Montesquieu was conservative and approached politics with a particularly aristocratic worldview that would have made him the darling of the revolutions for about a week and a half in 1788 and after that, a counterrevolutionary pig. 

Montesquieu, as you know, believed in the separation of powers and balanced government and the necessity of public consent to protect liberty and property. He also believed that there had to be intermediary institutions between the rabble and the power or the whole thing would spin off into anarchy. Not only that, but Montesquieu was also deeply committed to the idea that political institutions must conform to the societies within which they are made. For him, there was no universally pure model and there was no sense in trying to cram a square peg into a round hole

Montesquieu’s theories were taught everywhere and read by practically every major revolutionary figure. And despite his obviously conservative worldview, they all treated him as the authority on building a just and rational and stable government, which will become super important when everyone goes off to build a just and rational and stable government – not that they ever really had much success. 

So we’ll finish today with the Enlightenment era writer and philosopher who wound up completely opposed to the prevailing spirit of the times: Jean Jacques Rousseau. He first came to the public’s attention in 1750 when he submitted an entry to an essay contest sponsored by the Academy of Dijon. The question was: Has the restoration of the sciences and arts contributed to the purification of morals? The expected answer being, well, of course, the difference between the essays would simply be how eloquently this obvious answer was presented. 

But Rousseau’s submission, now known as the Discourse on the Arts and Sciences, said no, man is naturally good, and human institutions serve only to corrupt his natural goodness. The essay, written with passionate force, won first prize. And I’ve never seen this anywhere else, but I had a professor in college tell me that the reason it won was because the judges believed it had been a masterful work of satire and that they tried to rescind the award when they found out that Rousseau was serious. 

From that point on, Rousseau spent the rest of his life expanding on this theme. And his work would help form the basis of the Romantic movement that would take hold in the early 19th century as a direct reaction to the failures of Enlightenment rationalism. Today, his most famous book is The Social Contract, which describes an idealized system of political authority that properly aligns to the natural sovereign will of the people. And we’ll talk more about this concept of the general will when we start plunging into the more nightmarish episodes of the Revolution, because, as it turns out, you can justify an awful lot if you think you are defending this thing called the general will. 

But at the time, his most popular works were Emile, A Treatise on Education, Confessions, a soul searching autobiography, and then Julie or The New Heloise story of forbidden love, which no one reads today, but at the time was probably the bestselling book of the century. What struck such a chord was not so much what Rousseau was saying, but how he said it. He was all passion and emotion, which blew the minds of the reading public, who were used to the dry intellect of the philosophes. When he died in 1778, a cult of personality had already grown up around Rousseau, of which many of our future revolutionaries were enthusiastic members. 

So as obvious a role as the Enlightenment played in the coming revolution, there is no doubt that it does not give you a complete picture of what informed the worldviews of the men and women who would help bring it about. 

So we’re going to leave it off there for this week. So what we’ve got is a regime in need of reform and a thousand ideas swirling around out there about how best to reform it next time we’ll start getting into the specific failed attempts to implement some of those thousands of reform ideas around the time power was passing from Louis XV to Louis XVI, the effort to scale back the power of the Parlement, for example, or all the economic reforms that the physiocrats trying to push through. 

Unfortunately for all of us, though, we have been hit with a minor family emergency, and I’m not going to be able to put an episode out next week. It’s completely lame, I know, because I just came back. I promise you, I do not want to have to set the show aside because I’m just starting to get warmed up here. But it is what it is. So when we come back in two weeks, we’ll dive into the specific chain of events that led ultimately to the Ancien Régime not crumbling bit by bit, but rather with that brutal, suddenness.

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