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French Revolution: Origins

When King Louis XV died in 1774, his son and heir apparent was no longer living, so it was his ill-fated grandson who inherited his throne, to be coronated king Louis XVI, at age 20. All this was promoted as the will of God — the view of conservatives. Louis XVI was said to rule by Divine Right. Louis's coronation was celebrated across France with expectations of heavenly blessings and more grandeur. This was fifteen years before the French Revolution.

Louis had been born into the Bourbon family, which won power in France less than 200 years before, following France's long and bloody religious warring between Catholics and Protestants. France's first Bourbon king, Henry IV, had been ruling the little kingdom of Navarre. He had been reared a Protestant and had been leading Protestant forces. He converted to Catholicism after having won his war and after having joined his kingdom of Navarre to France, his conversion matching the beliefs of France's majority Catholics. Now, around 200 years later, in 1774, it was Louis XVI's duty to maintain Bourbon family rule and its territory.

Louis XVI did not have the drive or self-confidence of those who had won power by their own drive and smarts. But he wanted to serve the people of France, and the House of Bourbon had ministers who would try to help him through the difficulties ahead.

Louis had married Marie-Antoinette in 1770, when she was fourteen and he fifteen — an arranged marriage, of course. She was born in Vienna, one of many daughters of the formidable Austrian ruler Maria-Theresa. But when Louis became king in 1774, and she became queen, she still had an immaturity and frivolity of mind that would make her of little help to her husband.

Louis XVI inherited trouble from the reign of his grandfather, and trouble into the next decade — the 1780s. Unlike some 19th century European conservatives would claim, there was more to the creation of the French Revolution than the writings of a handful of men whose ideas were sloganized as Liberté, égalité, fraternité. There had been the Seven Years' War (1755-64) with a French led coalition against a British led coalition, a war in which France lost territory and its monarchy gained a big debt. Then, in 1776, Britain's colonists began a war against their king, George III, and the French monarchy's ministers saw advantage for France in siding with the revolutionaries. With France's help, the rebel colonists won their war, but financial support for the American colonists drove Louis XVI's government to the brink of bankruptcy.

To save his government financially, an increase in revenue was needed. French trade and commerce had increased since the early 1700s, but agricultural production and distribution remained a problem. The Farmers around Paris consumed over 80 percent of what they grew, so if a harvest fell by around 10 percent, which was common, people went hungry. There had been insufficient government planning and an insufficient storage of grain for emergency shortages. Agriculture was three-quarters of the economy but it was backward compared to the agricultures of Britain and the Dutch Republic.

The French Revolution began with an economic crisis and unfolded with a lot of confused thinking among common people and by those able to influence decisions made my Louis XVI's government.

France's economic problems included the importation of cheaper and better quality British textiles, which was creating unemployment among France's spinners and weavers. In Paris, people were selling second-hand goods or working at odd jobs such as carrying water. Many were staying alive by petty thievery or prostitution — sometimes both. People were being buried every day without ceremony in pauper's graves. The Church was handing out bread and milk. The king's economic minister, Jacques Necker, forbade the export of grain, and he launched a program to import food, but this hardly helped.

Louis's government was taxing common people regularly and paying half of its revenues to cover debts owed to aristocrats and other lenders. The monarchy considered extending taxation to the nobility and to the Catholic Church, but this was a solution that the nobles and the clergy were opposed.

To solve its revenue problem the monarchy laid plans to convene a consultative body that had last met back in 1614 — the Estates General — a body with representatives from three sections of society: the Church (the First Estate); the nobility (the Second Estate); and those representing commoners (the Third Estate). Meanwhile, in July 1788, a hailstorm destroyed crops. France that year had its worst harvest in forty years, and the winter of '88-89 was severe. In Paris, construction workers were joining the ranks of the unemployed. People were being evicted from their homes. With bread more scarce, its price rose. People had been in the habit of eating mainly bread, and many were going hungry. In Paris in April 1789, workers rioted concerning wages too low to live on. Something like 25 people were killed and a lot of property destroyed. The year 1789 is commonly described as the first year of the French Revolution — the 5th of May according to Wikipedia, the day the Estates General convention opened. Britannica suggests the year 1787, a year of the tax crisis. The historian Simon Schama in his Chronicle of the French Revolution puts it together, writing of "the politicization of the money crisis that dictated the calling of the Estates-General."

PLEASE CONTINUE: The French Revolution: 5 May to 26 August 1789

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