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The French Revolution

The French Revolution

by William H. Benson

August, 15, 2013

     King Louis XVI welcomed 1201 delegates into his Hall of Mirrors at his palace in Versailles, ten miles west of Paris, on Saturday, May 2, 1789. The king had called this Estates-General to assist him in resolving his government’s financial crisis. It was bankrupt, drowning in debt, and unable to borrow additional funds from any bank or country.

    The king recognized that he needed additional tax revenues now. For centuries, France’s kings had exempted the aristocrats and clergymen from paying any taxes, even though they received income and owned property. The noblemen and bishops rejected each of the king’s finance ministers’ plans to tax them, and there matters stood when the delegates filed into the king’s splendid Hall of Mirrors.

     Over the next three months, the Estates-General’s members transformed themselves into a National Assembly, a legislative body of delegates determined to write a constitution.

     The delegates soon heard the dire news that on July 14, a mob in Paris had stormed into the Bastille, freed the seven prisoners held there, and murdered the guards. The common French people hated the Bastille because it represented the king’s oppressive rule, a place of torture and confinement.

     In the days that followed, the peasants and common people across all of France learned of the Storming of the Bastille, and they too rushed into their manors’ households and confiscated their bread and belongings. Because society’s bottom echelon attacked the top, the nobility and clergymen were terrified, and so a Great Fear swept over France. No longer would peasants defer to their oppressors.

     On August 4, the National Assembly’s delegates decided they must act now if they wished to stop the riots. That day and into the night, they passed nineteen decrees that abolished France’s ancient feudal system. They freed the serfs, who for centuries had been bound to the land and forced to pay duties to the landowners. The delegates abolished all mandatory tithes to the church. They decreed that all French citizens would pay taxes equally. They announced that all citizens were eligible to serve in the government or military.

     The August decrees calmed the people, causing the Great Fear to subside.

     Three weeks later, on August 26, the National Assembly’s delegates adopted seventeen articles in The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of Citizens. The second article defines these rights as “liberty, property, security, and resistance of oppression.” The fourth defines liberty as “the power of doing whatever does not injure another.” The tenth states that the government cannot harass any man “on account of his opinions, not even on account of his religious opinions.” The eleventh states that “every citizen may speak, write, and publish freely.”

     The thirteenth declares that taxes are “to be divided equally among the members of the community, according to their abilities.” The fifteenth states that “Every community has a right to demand of all its agents, an account of their conduct.”

     In that summer of revolution in 1789, the August decrees and the Declaration transformed France. They eradicated the aristocrats’ privileges. Gone were their titles. Henceforth, France was a meritocracy where all would work, pay taxes, and permitted to voice their opinions. Also, the state would not force people to pay tithes to support the clergy, and the peasants were free to move off the farm.

     Unless you are a French citizen, none of these decrees or rights apply to you. If you are an American, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights apply to you.

     Does any man and woman in truth possess any of these rights? I say that people do have rights, but only if their current government says they do. If a dictator, such as a Robespierre or Napoleon, assumes the reigns of power, he will stomp them into the ground. People’s rights exist so long as that government that instituted them exists. If it fails, so too do the rights.

     In the preamble to the Declaration, the National Assembly’s delegates said that “ignorance, neglect, or contempt of human rights, are the sole causes of public misfortunes and corruptions of Government.” The reverse is believed true. Recognize the people, their right to rule and pass self-governing laws, and misfortunes and corruption will dissipate.

     George Will, the columnist, said that “the business of America is not business. The business of America is liberty, and securing the blessings of freedom.”