A Bad Time to be Incompetent
The last decades of the 18th century were a bad time for France. Unusually harsh winters and mismanagement of the land have led to several years of below normal harvests. The peasants are on the verge of starvation, prices are sky rocketing. In Paris, nearly half of the people are unemployed. In the countryside, crime is on the rise as bandits robbed peasant farms looking for food or anything else they could pawn.
To make a bad situation even worse, the country was almost bankrupt from years of overspending and war. Sitting at the helm of this sinking ship was a lovably incompetent king named Louis XVI (pronounced Louie 16th) and his beautiful wife Marie Antoinette.
Now to be fair, these problems were not all Louie's fault ––or Marie's for that matter. Louis had the bad luck of being a weak king at the wrong time. He inherited the job from a long line of Louises. His grandfather (Louis XIV-aka the Sun King) was infamous for his lavish spending. Not only did Louis XIV spend more on one dinner than a peasant family would make in an entire year, he was responsible for building the largest private living space on earth- the Palace of Versailles, a 550,000 square foot palace complex that was situated about 11 miles from the capital of Paris. At Versailles, the French monarchs lived a lavish life while things grew steadily worse around them.
To make a bad situation even worse, poor harvests meant a shortage of wheat. No wheat meant no bread, which was the basic staple of every French meal. In the 1780s, a strong El Nino had formed over the Americas causing several bitterly cold winters in Europe. Reports in the winter of 1788 were of hail so large that it could kill a man unfortunate enough to be caught in the storm. The bitter cold spell damaged the wheat harvest, which led to a shortage of wheat. This shortage led to a jump in prices that hurt the poorest of the citizens.
In 1789, a poor Frenchman could expect to pay 90% of his daily pay just on one loaf of bread. At this point, only the rich could afford bread and even they were having a hard time finding any. Now, French people found themselves waiting in long lines just for the chance to buy a single loaf of bread. People were literally dying of starvation and some of the more desperate were forced to eat roots and grass to survive.
Violence occasionally broke out as criminals tried to hijack a wagon full of wheat that was making its way to the city. As the economic situation grew worse, anger exploded into violence. On 28 April 1789, workers at the Reveillon wallpaper factory in Paris began rioting when rumors spread that their wages were going to be cut. This turned out to be false; in fact, the factory owners were sympathetic to the plight of their workers. Soon similar rumors were flying across France and riots were breaking out at other factories. The government had to do something fast.
The Ancien Regime
The first thing that was on the king's mind was how to bring in more cash to the coffers. Here lies the problem. The people of France were divided in an outdated system called the Ancien Regime which placed people into three distinct classes called Estates. The First Estate was the clergy- the powerful leaders of the Catholic Church -most of whom were chosen by the king. In return, the church said that French kings ruled because God willed it.
The Second Estate was the aristocrats. This group could trace their family lines back to a lord or knight as far back as medieval times and held fancy titles like ‘Marquee’. Those who couldn't trace their heritage back that far could always buy their way into nobility for the right price.
The Third Estate was made up of everyone else from wealthy bankers to blacksmiths, to lawyers, to peasant’s farmers. This is who made up 97% of the French population but paid 100% of the taxes. Not only did the Third Estate have to pay direct taxes to the king, but 10% automatically went to the church in a tax (ahem, donation) called the tithe. If you didn't own your own land, which only 1/3 of this group did, then you had to pay taxes to the landlord (who probably belonged to one of the other two estates). Since medieval times, nobles had found rather creative ways of getting more taxes out of their peasants' tenants. Peasants had to pay a tax for tilling the land- even if that land was useless swamp. They had to pay to use the grain mill- even if the landlord didn't own a grain mill. Then there was the corvee- the tax peasants paid with unpaid labor on the lord's building projects.
Royal Spending Goes Wild!
Now you might think that being king would be a pretty awesome job. Just imagine, nobody could tell you what to do. That is except hundreds of years of court tradition. Living a life of leisure can get pretty dull. Over the years, the aristocracy of France created rules of etiquette that not only seem tedious, but downright strange. Anyone caught not observing these rigid rules would be seen as a social outcast. Nobody had more social responsibility than the king and queen. There were ceremonies for how to wake the royal sleepyheads, ceremonies for shaving, bathing, dressing, eating, and even going to the toilet. Each of these events was never done in private- sometimes 100 of the highest ranking nobles would be in attendance to watch the king eat his breakfast- in silence. To make sure all of these ceremonies were carried out with clockwork precision, the 550,000 square foot Versailles palace employed more than 6,000 servants whose only job might be to put on a slipper on the right foot of the king (yes, there was a left slipper attendant in case you were wondering).
King Louis and his beautiful wife Marie Antoinette tried to escape all of this dull ceremony by keeping themselves amused. Life at Versailles was spent attending one dinner party after another. While peasants starved, the nobility enjoyed lavish dinners. Louis spent much of his free time hunting on the vast grounds of Versailles.
Now if you are thinking “wow, what a waste”, you are not alone. The longer the common people went hungry, the angrier they became. Up until 1789, most of the monarchy-bashing came from the middle class liberals known as philosophes (thinkers) who could afford to sit around in coffee houses debating enlightenment ideals. Now, even the poor were getting in on the debate. Word on the street was about how wasteful the monarchy and aristocracy was. Every day King Louis and the royals would sit down to dinner (we call it lunch today) that included more food than a large peasant family ate in a week. The king as it turns out, is no shy eater and would eat an entire roast chicken, pork roast, and still have room for a dozen pastries. His not-so-healthy appetite became such a concern for Marie Antoinette that she banned him from reading the dinner menu in the hopes of curbing his appetite. The royal courtiers were not so polite about it- calling him 'the fat pig' behind his back.
Marie, as the Queen of France, was expected to both host and attend lavish parties for the other nobles and courtiers. After all, if you couldn't entertain properly what sort of a queen were you? Marie's schedule was kept booked with dinner parties, ceremonies, court appearances, and balls. Etiquette dictated that nobles should never be seen in the same outfit twice -how embarrassing- and so Marie became infamous for the woman who bought 100 dresses a year during a time of increasing economic hardship...to the common people, the royals and nobility represented everything that was wrong with France.
Tennis Court Oath
On May 5, 1789, The Estates General met for the first time in 140 years. This legislative body was made up of representatives from each of the Three Estates but voting was done “by order” rather than by head. The first move by the Third Estate was to get the king to double the number of representatives because, after all, since they were the majority in the population shouldn't they also have a majority in Estates General? The king surprisingly agreed to their demand. Then he refused to allow the representatives to vote “by head” and instead kept voting “by order”.
Basically, all this meant is that nothing had been achieved at all. The First and Second Estates would continue to band together and outvote the Third Estate. To add insult to injury, King Louis made a point of greeting the delegates of the First and Second Estates as they filed into the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles where the meeting was to take place, but completely ignored the delegates of the Third Estate.
Clearly, the needs of the common people were not the top priority at Versailles. It probably goes without saying that the three estates spent most of their time arguing about class differences while little real work actually was accomplished. The 600 delegates of the Third Estate could clearly see which way the wind was blowing and that tax reforms were not going to go through the Estates General or the king. So, in an act of defiance born out in those moments of total frustration, the Third Estate did something truly radical.
On June 17, they declared themselves the true representative body of all of France- now known as the National Assembly- and they alone had the right to make laws for the country. When Louis heard news of this he acted in his typical indecisive way, he had the door to their meeting room locked “for renovations”. When the Third Estate learned of this they simply took their meeting next door to a large indoor handball court. There they voted to not disband until they had written a constitution for France. The famous tennis court oath had declared the Ancien Regime dead and a new France was born without a single drop of blood. King Louis wasn’t taking this revolution lying down. He stormed into the meeting and declared:
“Not one of your projects, not one of your resolutions can have force of law without my special consent. I order you to separate immediately.”
Not one of the delegates left. When guards were sent in to force them out, some of the soldiers openly defied orders to carry out their orders. Then someone shouted to Louis' messengers, "tell your master that we are assembled here by the will of the people, and that we will leave only at the point of a bayonet!"
The king now found himself outnumbered and embarrassed and so, had no choice but to recognize the new National Assembly. When news of the bloodless revolution spread across the Atlantic, Thomas Jefferson, who was also the Ambassador for France, was amazed by how calmly the French people had overthrown the old feudal system. But, little did anyone know that the real revolution was just getting started. By the time it was finished thousands of necks would meet the blade of the guillotine including King Louis and his wife Marie Antoinette.
The Fall of the Bastille
King Louis was under intense pressure from the nobility as well as his wife to put an end to the rebellion. One clergyman told the king that restoring the power of the monarchy was important enough that even Paris should be burned, if that's what it took to achieve it. In July 1789, a rumor is flying around Paris that the king is sending in troops to surround the city, disband the National Assembly. The most frightening news apparently really got people's culottes in a bunch when word reached Parisians that the king had ordered troops to shoot to kill.
As it turns out, things might have been a little over hyped It was true that German mercenaries had encircled Paris (most of the French soldiers had refused to fight against the common people). It was not true that they were given a license to kill. But that mattered little to the hysteric mobs that were now racing to arm themselves to defend against the coming attack. The first thing that they did was to raid the military hospital where they nabbed 20,000 muskets. Now all they needed was gunpowder, and they knew exactly where to find it.
The Bastille was well known to the people of Paris. The huge stone structure loomed above the city as a symbol of medieval oppression. For centuries it had been used as a prison where anyone could be locked away and tortured at the whim of the king. No courts, no fair trial. In July 1789, it held only a few lunatics and petty criminals, but the Bastille was a symbol of royal oppression and the people wanted it destroyed.
On the morning of July 14th, 1789 (now known as Bastille Day) a large mob of really ticked off Parisians surrounded the fortress which was guarded by only a dozen or so soldiers. Most of the soldiers had fled earlier and a few had defected to join the mob, bringing two cannons with them. When their demands to surrender the fortress were not met, they busted down the wooden door that led to the courtyard. There, a few nervous soldiers fired on the crowd. This only made them angrier.
The crowd demanded that the Governor of the Bastille, an elderly soldier by the name of Marquis de Launay lower the drawbridge. He was convinced to surrender only after the mob, now with the gunpowder they needed, turned the cannon to the walls of the Bastille. De Launay, seeing no other choice, lowered the gates. The crowd seized the guards and stabbed them to death. But the bloodthirsty crowd had a special fate planned for de Launay. They dragged him through the streets hurling insults and kicks at him. Finally he cried out, "let me die"; with that they began stabbing him to death and then sawed his head and paraded it around town on a pike. All in good fun, of course.
Later that day when news about the fall of the Bastille reached the king, he asked, “is it a revolt”? One of his advisers then replied “no sire, it is a revolution”. But, don’t bother going to Paris looking for the Bastille; it wasn't turned into a museum or national monument. Parisians wasted no time in using crow bars, pick axes, and even their bare hands to tear it apart brick by brick which were then sold as souvenirs.
A New Constitution
The timing of the French Revolution was no accident. These were the age of new liberal ideas about democracy and human freedom known as the Enlightenment. If you wanted to see Enlightenment ideals in action you only had to look across the Atlantic at the new United States. Throughout the summer of 1789 news of the revolution and the National Assembly was the talk of the town. In coffee houses and salons throughout Paris, middle-class liberals called Philosophes (thinkers) were busy debating what direction the new government should take.
The people began to divide up into competing political clubs that tried to influence the direction the new government would take. For now, the moderates who supported a constitutional monarchy like in Britain were in control. Some of the more radical thinkers wanted to get rid of the king and make France a true democracy. Then there were the most radical of all, the Jacobins who wanted to do away with the both king and the Catholic Church. The National Assembly was popular but the people were not ready to get rid of their beloved king just yet. After the fall of the Bastille, when he made a visit to the city of Paris, the people lined up to greet him with shouts of "Long live the National Assembly, Long live the king".
Meanwhile, throughout France not much of anything had been done by the National Assembly or the king to control the out-of-control price of bread. The people were literally growing violent with hunger. Reports came in daily about peasants who had been robbed or shopkeepers who had been beaten for their bread. Many peasants began refusing to pay their taxes to the nobles and some even decided to go one step further and burn down the grand country estates of the nobility.
For the first time the commoners had a voice in France and the one message that they wanted the king to hear was that something had to be done to bring unemployment and rising prices under control.
After the fall of the Bastille, rumors and fear swept across the countryside as peasants began to hear talk that the nobility was planning an armed attack on the peasants and bring an end to their beloved National Assembly. Not ones to sit back and wait for the attacks to happen, the peasants took matters in their own hands. The grand chateaus of the nobles were burned to the ground by angry mobs. Graineries were looted and a few unlucky nobles were even killed on the spot. As the peasants saw the smoke rising from the next village, their worst fears were confirmed. Realizing that an angry mob of peasants (even if they are on your side) is never a good thing, the National Guard was called in to restore order bringing an end to The Great Fear.
Meanwhile in Paris, the people were complaining that the National Assembly was all talk and no action. Food prices were still high as was unemploynment. The National Assembly decided to spread a little good will by abolishing feudalism and reforming those hated tax codes; so now the First and Second Estates had to pay their fair share. Later in the month of August, the Declaration of the Rights of Man, one of the most important documents of modern history was written, which gave male citizens the right to vote- if you owned property that is (women would have to wait another 155 years).
In addition, freedom of religion was extended to everyone. Before that, being a Protestant could land you in hot water. Inspired by Enlightenment thinkers like John Locke, the Revolution took up the slogan of "Liberte, Fraternitie, and Equalite" (liberty, brotherhood, equality). All of this revolutionary spirit gave birth to the first Constitution of France that made the National Assembly the law making body while the king was allowed to share power by being able to wield the veto.
The Arrest of the King
Even though the king openly supported the National Assembly, in secret he was plotting to restore the absolute power of the monarchy. Egged on by his wife, Louis tried to stall signing the new constitution into law. After all, the last thing he wanted was to give up his power. Historians believe that Louis was biding his time until he could gather reinforcements from outside the country. After the Great Fear many nobles had fled the country and from this point on would be known as émigrés.
All of this stalling only made moody revolutionaries downright suspicious of the royals. Perhaps, that Louis wasn't as loyal to the revolution after all. In October, rumors had spread that back in Versailles the nobles were still living it up while the people starved. Some people never learn. This outraged a group of women who marched to Versailles to bring the king back to Paris (oh, and kill the queen). These were not your dainty noblewomen, but were dock workers who were not afraid to brawl when the time called for it. Now was one of those times. As they marched in the rain to Versailles armed with pikes and knives, they drew new recruits from the villages- if someone was foolish enough to refuse, they quickly had a change of heart once the "fish ladies" put the muscle on 'em.
By the time the mob reached Versailles on the morning of October 5, 1789, the crowd had swelled to 6,000 strong. Someone had even brought along a cannon. The crowd demanded to see the king and refused to leave until they got bread. But they were disappointed when they were told that the king was out hunting. When Louis returned, his advisers quickly got him up to speed on the situation.
The mob sent in six representatives to talk to Louis who awed them with his sympathetic words; he told them that he had nothing but love for the people of Paris and he would give them the bread they wanted. However, when the six women delivered the news to the angry mob, they claimed that they had been bribed. Some even wanted to hang them as enemies of the revolution. Louis was advised to use his soldiers to fire on the crowd. Louis refused, saying that he could never spill the blood of his citizens. As a king he may have been incompetent but no one could accuse the king of being heartless.
Later that night, a small group broke away and found an unlocked door to the palace. Armed with scythes and knives they headed straight for the queen's bedchamber. Some overheard them arguing about who would get which of the queen's body parts. Marie barely escaped through a secret chamber leading to the king's chamber. Had she delayed for even a minute later the queen would certainly have been killed. The enraged women had already torn apart two of the guards and were now parading their heads on a pike. When they reached the royal bedchamber they stabbed it to shreds.
The next morning, the king stepped out onto the balcony to face the crowd who were chanting, "To Paris, to Paris!" The king had no choice but to agree. Later that day the crowd returned to Paris with the royal family in tow as well as 50 wagons full of stolen flour. As they walked alongside the royal carriage they praised the king and hurled curses at the queen. The royal family was placed under house arrest in Paris at the Tuillerie Palace where the people could keep a closer eye on their king. They would never see Versailles again.
But, if you're one of those radical sympathizers who were wishing to get rid of the king once and for all, you won't have to wait long- the royal execution and French Reign of Terror are just around the corner.