LV. The French Revolution and the Restoration of Monarchy in France
BRITAIN had hardly lost the Thirteen Colonies-in America before a profound social and political convulsion at the very heart of Grand Monarchy was to remind Europe still more vividly of the essentially temporary nature of the political arrangements of the world.
We have said that the French monarchy was the most successful of the personal monarchies in Europe. It was the envy and model of a multitude of competing and minor courts. But it flourished on a basis of injustice that led to its dramatic collapse. It was brilliant and aggressive, but it was wasteful of the life and substance of its common people. The clergy and nobility were protected from taxation by a system of exemption that threw the whole burden of the state upon the middle and lower classes. The peasants were ground down by taxation; the middle classes were dominated and humiliated by the nobility.
In 1787 this French monarchy found itself bankrupt and obliged to call representatives of the different classes of the realm into consultation upon the perplexities of defective income and excessive expenditure. In 1789 the States General, a gathering of the nobles, clergy and commons, roughly equivalent to the earlier form of the British Parliament, was called together at Versailles. It had not assembled since 1610. For all that time France had been an absolute monarchy. Now the people found a means of expressing their long fermenting discontent. Disputes immediately broke out between the three estates, due to the resolve of the Third Estate, the Commons, to control the Assembly. The Commons got the better of these disputes and the States General became a National Assembly, clearly resolved to keep the crown in order, as the British Parliament kept the British crown in order. The king (Louis XVI) prepared for a struggle and brought up troops from the provinces. Whereupon Paris and France revolted.
The collapse of the absolute monarchy was very swift. The grim-looking prison of the Bastille was stormed by the people of Paris, and the insurrection spread rapidly throughout France. In the east and north-west provinces many chateaux belonging to the nobility were burnt by the peasants, their title-deeds carefully destroyed, and the owners murdered or driven away. In a month the ancient and decayed system of the aristocratic order had collapsed. Many of the leading princes and courtiers of the queen's party fled abroad. A provisional city government was set up in Paris and in most of the other large cities, and a new armed force, the National Guard, a force designed primarily and plainly to resist the forces of the crown, was brought into existence by these municipal bodies. The National Assembly found itself called upon to create a new political and social system for a new age.
It was a task that tried the powers of that gathering to the utmost. It made a great sweep of the chief injustices of the absolutist regime; it abolished tax exemptions, serfdom, aristocratic titles and privileges and sought to establish a constitutional monarchy in Paris. The king abandoned Versailles and its splendours and kept a diminished state in the palace of the Tuileries in Paris.
For two years it seemed that the National Assembly might struggle through to an effective modernized government. Much of its work was sound and still endures, if much was experimental and had to be undone. Much was ineffective. There was a clearing up of the penal code; torture, arbitrary imprisonment and persecutions for heresy were abolished. The ancient provinces of France, Normandy, Burgundy and the like gave place to eighty departments. Promotion to the highest ranks in the army was laid open to men of every class. An excellent and simple system of law courts was set up, but its value was much vitiated by having the judges appointed by popular election for short periods of time. This made the crowd a sort of final court of appeal, and the judges, like the members of the Assembly, were forced to play to the gallery. And the whole vast property of the church was seized and administered by the state; religious establishments not engaged in education or works of charity were broken up, and the salaries of the clergy made a charge upon the nation. This in itself was not a bad thing for the lower clergy in France, who were often scandalously underpaid in comparison with the richer dignitaries. But in addition the choice of priests and bishops was made elective, which struck at the very root idea of the Roman Church, which centred everything upon the Pope, and in which all authority is from above downward. Practically the National Assembly wanted at one blow to make the church in France Protestant, in organization if not in doctrine. Everywhere there were disputes and conflicts between the state priests created by the National Assembly and the recalcitrant (non-juring) priests who were loyal to Rome.
In 1791 the experiment of Constitutional monarchy in France was brought to an abrupt end by the action of the king and queen, working in concert with their aristocratic and monarchist friends abroad. Foreign armies gathered on the Eastern frontier and one night in June the king and queen and their children slipped away from the Tuileries and fled to join the foreigners and the aristocratic exiles. They were caught at Varennes and brought back to Paris, and all France flamed up into a passion of patriotic republicanism. A Republic was proclaimed, open war with Austria and Prussia ensued, and the king was tried and executed (January, 1793) on the model already set by England, for treason to his people.