Human rights or state security? The debate goes back to the French Revolution, says Charles Williamsby Charles Williams / June 16, 2016 / Leave a comment
Published in July 2016 issue of Prospect Magazine
The French Revolution: From Enlightenment to Tyranny
by Ian Davidson (Profile, £25)
In January 1789, King Louis XVI of France, on advice from his ministers but with no support from his courtiers and outright opposition from his Austrian wife, launched what we would now call an exercise in market research. In August the previous year, he had called a meeting at Versailles of that obsolete institution the États Généraux (Estates General) in the faint hope that they could agree a solution to France’s immediate problem: the crisis in the public finances. The crisis had been the result of France’s inefficient and unfair tax system, several years of failed harvests and the costs of her participation in the Seven Years’ War with Britain (1756-63), and the American Revolutionary War (1778-83). In addition, France had a weak monarch and a corrupt privy council with no stomach for the corrective measures proposed by successive finance ministers.
The three Estates—clergy, nobles and commoners, the last comprising about 95 per cent of a population of 25 million—were duly instructed to submit cahiers de doléances (books of grievances) from towns, parishes, villages or guilds to Versailles before the delegates first met in May 1789. Forty thousand were produced, many of which have survived. There was a measure of agreement across the Estates about the need for political reform (apart from some of the clergy’s complaints about their bishops), but those of the Third Estate made particularly uncomfortable reading for the royal court. Almost all called for the end of arbitrary arrests and punishment, for regular meetings of the Estates General, a review of the rights of a seigneur and a fair tax system.
The process was far from scientific but most historians agree that they provide a good indication of the nation’s mood. At any rate, when they found their way into the hands of the elected delegates on 5th May 1789 at a meeting in the Hôtel des Menus Plaisirs at Versailles, they provided plenty of political red meat. In short, they formed a rough and ready blueprint for a Constitution.