A royalist’s account of the causes of the French Revolution (1797)

Francois, Marquis de Bouille, was a French aristocrat and supporter of the king, who was deeply involved in the failed flight to Varennes. Writing in his memoirs in 1797, de Bouille offers his view of the causes of the French Revolution:

“The turning point was 1789. It was in that year that the Revolution, already apparent in the minds, customs and way of life of the French nation, began to take effect in government. I will describe the principal reasons for this and some of the events to which it led.

The king had placed his confidence in M. de Vergennes, an anxious minister, frightened of the court and of the great men, lacking character or talent and yet wise and enlightened; he influenced rather than directed the king’s conduct. Alarmed by the dangerous situation of the kingdom, he made it clear to the king and convinced him of the need for extraordinary measures and a new system of administration if disaster was to be avoided.

The most striking of the country’s troubles was the chaos in its finances, the result of years of extravagance intensified by the expense of the American War of Independence, which had cost the state over twelve hundred million livres. No one could think of any remedy but a search for fresh funds, as the old ones were exhausted.

Monsieur de Calonne, Minister of Finance, had conceived a bold and wide-ranging plan. This was put to the king, who gave it his approval and promised to support its implementation with the full weight of his authority. Without either threatening the basis of the French monarchy or damaging the sovereign’s authority, this plan changed the whole previous system of financial administration and attacked all its vices at their root. The worst of these were: the arbitrary system of allocation, the oppressive cost of collection, and the abuse of privilege by the richest section of taxpayers. This abuse extended not merely to the great and influential of the realm, but to the first orders of the state, that is, the clergy and the nobility, to the provinces, and to the towns, so that the whole weight of public expenditure was borne by the most numerous but least wealthy part of the nation, which was crushed by the burden.

The plan was to be endorsed by an Assembly of Notables of the kingdom which was to circumvent the need to consult the parlements. It was the more welcome to the king in that it fulfilled his dearest wish: the relief of the most numerous class of his subjects. The Notables were thus summoned for January 29th 1787; I was appointed to this Assembly; it had not met since 1626, in the reign of Louis XIII. The Notables, who comprised the leading figures among the clergy, nobility, magistracy and the principal towns, were naturally bound to oppose the ending of abuses from which they profited.

Nevertheless, most of the nobles, and others under direct government influence, were well intentioned. They would have carried the rest with them but for the intrigues of the archbishop of Toulouse, Lomenie de Brienne, one of the Notables. All the assembly did was to destroy the minister who had set up the plan, M. de Calonne. Abandoned by the king, he was disgraced and forced to go into exile for fear of being given up to the fury of the people.

Lomenie de Brienne was put in charge of the administration of finance. Shortly afterwards the king was imprudent enough to make him principal minister. Brienne dismissed the Notables and was soon at the mercy of the parlements. He gathered a few remnants of M. de Calonne’s plans, containing some useful insights and suggestions for solving the immediate problems; but the magistracy [parlements] opposed a stubborn resistance to their execution.

Then the troubles began. They broke out first in Brittany, where the government was compelled to bring in armed forces, but did not dare use them owing to the reluctance shown by the troops, especially the officers. In Paris the people’s discontent, already raised to the point of rebellion by factious members of the parlement, gave rise to riots which had to be put down by military force.

The upheavals were even more violent in 1788. Tired of opposition from the parlements, Brienne persuaded the king to adopt the fanciful idea of setting up a plenary court intended to prevent them from achieving that share in the legislature they were trying to grasp. Then the parlements, inspired by the idea of the Assembly of Notables, demanded the convocation of the Estates General. They were quite sure the court would refuse it. The clergy made the same request — and the same mistake.

The government made a still greater one: it promised to call the Estates General. They had not met for almost two hundred years, and in this long period of time there had been such great changes in the minds, the way of life, in the character, customs and government of the French nation that their meeting now could only produce upheaval.”