Saturday, September 03, 2005

Let them eat cake!

The French Revolution had its pre-history: its origins in France's wars with Britain, the Jansenist challenges to the authority of the king, the financial difficulties of the monarchy, the rising fortunes of the bourgeoisie, the Enlightenment, growth of literacy and the public sphere. The unique situation made France a tinderbox.

The Revolution, however, took on a life of its own. Perhaps the most basic questions in French historiography concerns the continuity between the problems of Ancien Regime and the events of 1789 and after. As much as the political, social and cultural climate gave critics of the monarchy popular voices, their ideas did not end up leading the revolution. Other revolutionaries, radicals, came to the fore with new ideas that challenged the order of the Old Regime. They dared to constitute their nation anew, something never before imagined. Even the notion of 'revolution' as something more than a cyclical disturbance took on new meaning of recreation and separation from the past. As much as their were origins to the crisis, the revolution itself could not be imagined on the basis of its origins. As Roger Chartier noted,
The revolutionary event had a momentum and dynamic of its own that were not contained in any of its conditions of possibility. In this sense, the Revolution had no origins, properly speaking. Its absolute belief that it represented a new beginning had a performative value: by announcing a radical break with the past, it instituted one.

Louis XVI initially stood with the Revolution. The calling of the estates general to resolve the country's financial crisis was a risky, but necessary act. In 1788 a hailstorm destroyed the crops in central France and the Paris basin. Peasants would not be able to pay taxes and would themselves need help. Louis planned to ask the nobility to allowed itself to be taxed, an request that would open up the possibility that the powers of the monarchy would be limited.

No one came to Paris in 1789 to behead the king. In 1793 Louis XVI would be judged on his reactions to the crises that France would face, his insensitivity, his corruption, not what came before.


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