Hope > The Pre-Revolution
> A Summary of what was going on...
Wasteful government spending and an abuse of power began the chain of events that led to the upheaval of 1789. For several years, the government had covered its deficits with loans. In 1783, the Parliament of Paris began to remonstrate against such loans, saying that the deficit could be eliminated by curtailing expenditure. Public opinion, fueled by publicity given to lavish court spending, seemed to share this view.
Charles-Alexandre de Calonne, the Controller-General, denied that extravagance was the problem. He thought that more money could be raised through taxation if the privileged classes would give up their exemptions and pay their fair share of taxes. He maintained that the country's financial difficulties stemmed from the heavy costs incurred by France during the American Revolution.
Whatever the cause of the deficit, Calonne realized that during 1786, France had to find new sources of revenue or face bankruptcy the following year. He persuaded Louis XVI to convene an Assembly of Notables before whom he would explain the government's predicament and propose a series of reforms to increase income by levying more taxes on the right people. He assured the King that no more burdens would be laid on the poorer classes.
This Assembly of Notables consisted of 144 delegates drawn from the most distinguished members of the aristocracy, the prelates of the French Catholic church and government officials; all were appointed by King Louis.
Calonne assumed that as soon as he had explained the financial situation to them, their patriotism and sense of fiscal responsibility would lead them to approve his reforms. The Assembly did agree to most of Calonne's reforms, subject to major revisions; they thought the tax rate should be based upon ability to pay. However, the Notables did not trust Calonne's explanation for the origins of the deficit, and demanded that they be allowed to inspect the relevant financial records. This behavior took Calonne by surprise, and he refused. The result of this refusal was Calonne's dismissal on April 8, 1787.
Calonne's successor was the Archbishop of Toulose, Loménie de Brienne. An enlightened prelate, he really wanted to carry out the reforms stipulated by the Assembly. He persuaded the King to make many concessions, including turning over the financial accounts to the Notables' scrutiny. However, the Assembly demanded that a permanent commission, independent of the royal government, be established to supervise the administration of finances. The King could not consent to such a restriction of his power; the Assembly was dismissed on May 26.
Brienne did, however, go ahead with his reforms, which were to be passed by the Parliament of Paris. In July it refused to register Brienne's tax edicts, saying that only the Estates General had the authority to approve such measures.
And so, the cry for the Estates General swept across the country. After trying to meet a compromise with the Parliament, Brienne resorted to force. By the edicts of May 1788, the Parliament of Paris was shorn of its right to register edicts and present remonstrance; these were transferred to a new court, whose members were appointed by King Louis XVI.
The May edicts created opposition throughout the Kingdom. Violence flared in some provinces and threatened to spread to others. Brienne realized it was impossible to resist the public demand for the Estates General and on July 5th, 1788, Louis XVI promised to summon them. Although Brienne still wished for a delay, the threat of bankruptcy forced his hand and on August 8, the King promised to convoke the Estates General no later than May 1, 1789.
Unfortunately, the government was compelled to renege on the interest payments on some of its loans and resort to paper money. King Louis' closest advisors convinced him to accept Brienne's resignation and call upon Swiss banker Jaques Necker, who was previously the finance minister from 1777 to 1781, to lead the country out of the crisis.