France was suffering following a period of profligacy on the part of its kings. Louis XV had spent heavily on developing Versailles as his showpiece capital and a series of wars had led to heavy loans to finance the participation.
Louis XVI came to the throne in 1774 inheriting huge debts from his grandfather Louis XV. But he was a heavy spender in his own right, particularly on the American Revolutionary War.
Versailles had been an ongoing royal project from 1664 onwards but Louis XV undertook a radical expansion of the palace and the gardens, he also established nearby ministry offices there in a bid to make it more like a capital. He spent heavily on creating Versailles as his national showpiece.
Prior to the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-48) most French citizens had paid an annual lump-sum fee rather than an income-related set of charges. This war added to their financial woe so a dixième tax, was introduced levying a 10% tax on all income. Louis XV declared that this tax would be removed after the war. But when this proved unwise a new tax, the vingtième, 5% of income was proposed.
But the vingtième was re-levied to cover the incurred high costs for his part in the Seven Years’ War (1754 -1763). The nobles objected and many were arrested.
It should be noted that the nobles by then were not so much a group of ancient land owners. A quarter of them, some 6,000 families, had purchased their status as ‘nobles’ during the eighteenth century. These were educated and entrepreneurial newcomers who had espoused new industries and approaches. Bizarrely the common people were being taxed to meet royal debts, a large part of which were directly owed to these ‘nobles’.
The clergy were 100,000 strong owning some 10% of the land. Their high officials, the abbots and bishops, were awarded nobility status, their canons were usually from bourgeois families. The church objected more successfully against these taxes than the nobles. The clergy was subsequently made exempt from them.
The population of France had grown from 19 million to 26 million by the second half of the 18th century. Some 21 million of these were engaged in agriculture and represented three-quarters of its then GDP. It was in fact one of the leading European producers of agricultural produce, producing c 15% of Europe’s total output. But they did not plan well for poor harvests, no storage of grain for example.
Though France was not all rural, containing six of the largest 35 European cities of the time. Road improvements had reduced the journey of just under 1,000 kilometres from Paris to Toulouse from fifteen days in the 1760s to just eight days in the 1780s. Not that this helped the general populace overly much.
Paris itself had a 650,000 population and unemployment was rife from low-cost British textile imports that had thrown a large spanner in to their local industry.
To relieve his position Louis XVI looked to his controller-general Charles Alexandre de Calonne to redefine the taxation system. He came up with a major overhaul, dumping a whole series of taxes to be replaced by a universal land tax that would for the first time be levied on the gentry.
Calonne called an Assembly of Notables in 1787 to discuss its implementation. Its gross membership (that is 144 of them!) had only ten non-nobles. They dismissed the plan out of hand but suggested that this was because such a plan needed the King to have consulted the nation, they could not be considered as representative.
After much wrangling and some personnel changes a gathering of Les Ėtats Généraux (Estates-General) was called for May 1789. The Estates General comprised representatives of the church, nobility and the bourgeoisie but was not weight-related. There were 1200 delegates and half of these were lawyers!
Many of the church and the nobility were from the same families and would evidently vote together and sway any vote. But the Third Estate, the people, represented 97% of the total population and argued they should become more proportionate for any votes.
So when the Estates General convened in Versailles the positions were already entrenched. The three groups had to meet before the assembly so that they would arrive with their Cahiers de Doléances – their list of issues and grievances.
When the Third Estate met they used the opportunity to lobby for equal representation and to have the nobility’s effective power of veto abolished. The nobility of course were very satisfied with their traditional privileges and were not prepared to see them weakened in any way.
The Third Estate was making little progress so they established their own separate meeting in the King’s indoor tennis court and took for themselves the title of the ‘National Assembly’. This was in direct defiance of the king and essentially made clear that this body now believed itself to be the supreme power in France.
Their first piece of business was to swear an oath, this was the Serment du Jeu de Paume or Tennis Court Oath. The oath was that they would not halt their assembly until a reform of the current constitution had been approved. Over the next week they gained converts from the other two estates. Most of the church deputies joined them and 47 of the more liberal nobles.
Louis had little choice but to recognise the new assembly and from 12th June it met as the National Constituent Assembly in Versailles to thrash out a new constitution. By August it produced a series of decrees that abolished most of the privileges of the nobles and the clergy had previously enjoyed.