Areican And French Revolution (Revised) During the late 1700’s, two great revolutions occurred, the American Revolution and the French Revolution. These two historical events happened at the same time, but had a great number of differences and very little similarity. When French Revolution occurred, it turned into a very violent and bloody event, while the American Revolution was almost nonviolent, aside from the war. In 1774, King Louis XVI made a decision that could have prevented the French Revolution by breathing new life into the French economy: he appointed Physiocrat Robert Turgot as Controller General of Finance. The Physiocrats were a small band of followers of the French physician Francois Quesnay, whose economic prescriptions included reduced taxes, less regulation, the elimination of government-granted monopolies and internal tolls and tariffs, ideas that found their rallying cry in the famous slogan, laissez-faire, laissez-passer.” The Physiocrats exerted a profound influence on Adam Smith, who had spent time in France in the 1760s and whose classic “The Wealth of Nations” embodied the Physiocratic attack on mercantilism and argued that nations get rich by practicing free trade. Of Smith, Turgot, and the Physiocrats, the great French political leader and author Frederic Bastiat (1801-1850) wrote: The basis of their whole economic system may be truly said to lie in the principle of self-interest.
. . The only function of government according to this doctrine is to protect life, liberty, and property.” Embracing the principle of free trade not just as a temporary expedient, but as a philosophy, Turgot got the king to sign an edict in January 1776 that abolished the monopolies and special privileges of the guilds, corporations, and trading companies. He then dedicated himself to breaking down the internal tariffs within France. By limiting government expense, he was able to cut the budget by 60 million livres and reduce the interest on the national debt from 8.7 million livres to 3 million livres. Had Turgot been allowed to pursue his policies of free trade and less government intervention, France may very well have become Europe’s first common market and avoided violent revolution.
Unfortunately for France and the cause of freedom, resistance from the Court and special interests proved too powerful, and Turgot was removed from office in 1776. The dismissal of this great man, wrote Voltaire, crushes me. . . .
Since that fatal day, I have not followed anything . . . and am waiting patiently for someone to cut our throats.” Turgot’s successors, following a mercantilist policy of government intervention, only made the French economy worse. In a desperate move to find money in the face of an uproar across the country and to re-establish harmony, Louis XVI agreed to convene the Estates-General for May 1789. Meanwhile, the king’s new finance minister, Jacques Necker, a Swiss financial expert, delayed the effects of mercantilism by importing large amounts of grain.
On May 5, the Estates-General convened at Versailles. By June 17, the Third Estate had proclaimed itself the National Assembly. Three days later, the delegates took the famous Tennis Court Oath, vowing not to disband until France had a new constitution. However, the real French Revolution began not at Versailles but on the streets of Paris. On July 14, a Parisian mob attacked the old fortress known as the Bastille, liberating, as one pundit put it, two fools, four forgers and a debaucher.” The Bastille was no longer being used as a political prison, and Louis XVI had even made plans to destroy it. That made little difference to the mob, which were actually looking for weapons.
Promising the guards safe-conduct if they would surrender, the leaders of the mob broke their word and hacked them to death. It would be the first of many broken promises. Soon the heads, torsos, and hands of the Bastille’s former guardians were bobbing along the street on pikes. In all, as historian Otto Scott put it, a glorious victory of unarmed citizens over the forces of tyranny, or so the newspapers and history later said. The French Revolution had begun.
Despite the bloodshed at the Bastille and the riots in Paris, there was some clear-headed thinking. Mirabeau wanted to keep the Crown but restrain it. We need a government like England’s, he said. The French would never accept it though, for they hated anything to do with the English. On October 5, the Assembly adopted the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, a good document all right, but only if it were followed. Twenty-eight days later, the Assembly showed they did not intend to do so: the government confiscated all church property in France.
It was the wrong way to go about creating a free society. Certainly the Church was responsible for some abuses, but to seek to build a free society by undermining property rights is like cutting down trees to grow a forest. Such confiscation only sets a precedent for further violation of property rights, which in turn violates individual rights, the very rights of man and the citizen the new government was so loudly proclaiming. By confiscating church property, no matter how justified, France’s Revolutionary leaders showed that they weren’t interested in a true free society, only in one created in the image of their own philosophers. Soon France began to descend into a state of anarchy in which it would remain for the next 25 years. In towns where royalist mayors were still popular, bands of men invaded town halls and killed city magistrates.
Thousands of people sold their homes and fled the country, taking with them precious skills and human capital. Francois Babeuf, the first modern communist, created a Society of Equals dedicated to the abolition of private property and the destruction of all those who held property. The king’s guards were eventually captured and killed. The Marquis de Sade, from whom we get the term sadism, was released from prison. The Paris Commune took over control of Paris. In the spring of 1792, the First Committee of Public Safety was established, charged with judging and punishing traitors.
Soon the streets of Paris began to run with blood, as thousands of people were killed by the guillotine. As more soldiers were needed to liberate the rest of Europe, France instituted history’s first universal levy, the ultimate in state control over the lives of its citizens. For opposing the Revolution, most of the city of Lyons was destroyed. Lafayette, who at first had embraced the Revolution, was arrested as a traitor. Soon a progressive income tax was passed, prices on grain were fixed, and the death penalty given out to those who refused to sell at the government’s prices.
Every citizen was required to carry an identity card issued by his local commune, called Certificates of Good Citizenship. Every house had to post an outside listing of its legal occupants. The Revolutionary Communes had committees that watched everyone in the neighborhood and special passes were needed to travel from one city to another. The jails were soon filled with more people than they had been under Louis XVI. Eventually, every citizen was technically guilty of crimes against the state. The desire for absolute equality resulted in everyone being addressed as citizen, much as the modern-day Communist is referred to as comrade.” Education was centralized and bureaucratized. The old traditions, dialects, and local allegiances that helped prevent centralization were swept away as the Assembly placed a mathematical grid of departments and municipalities on an unsuspecting France.
Each department was to be run exactly as its neighbor. Since differences were aristocratic, plans were made to erase individual cultures, dialects, and customs. In order to accomplish this, teachers that were paid by the state began to teach a uniform language. Curriculum was controlled totally by the central government. Summing up this program, Saint just said, Children belong to the State, and advocated taking boys from their families at the age of five. So much of modern statism, with all of its horror and disregard for individualism, began with the French Revolution.
The purge, the commune, the color red as a symbol of statism, even the political terms Left, Right, and Center came to us from this period. The only thing that ended the carnage, inside France, at least, was a man on horseback, Napoleon Bonaparte. The French Revolution had brought forth first anarchy, then statism, and finally, dictatorship. Had it not been for the unyielding spirit of the average Frenchman and France’s position as the …