- From Deficit to Deluge: The Origins of the French Revolution
Kaiser and Van Kley have brought together the essays of leading historians adept at an array of disciplinary methodologies to examine the origins of the French Revolution. Kaiser, in his chapter, draws on political science to analyze foreign policy, factions of the royal court, and public opinion. Jeffrey Merrick draws on gender studies to explore conflicts about the definition of paternal authority. Jeremy Popkin explores the debates about the interests of slave-owning planters and the colony of Saint-Domingue.
Gail Bossenga coins the term "court capitalism" to denote the private ownership of government functions, financial offices exploited by investors, and lucrative rewards accruing to high nobles enjoying the king's favor. This system, akin to what Porshnev described, back in 1963, as "centralized feudal rent," made it impossible for the monarchy to borrow at sustainable rates of interest and cover the government's basic expenses.1
In an essay of historical sociology, Jack Goldstone presents the recent scholarship portraying high wages, urban demand, booming trade and manufacturing, and rising agricultural productivity, especially on the large farms of the Paris basin. Yet after a judicious evaluation of the evidence, he concludes that real wages, relative to grain prices, declined by [End Page 458] at least one-third between the periods 1726-1750 and 1768-1777, a conclusion indicating stagnant labor productivity in agriculture. Goldstone argues that the old regime seemed unfair from the peasants' perspective. It augmented the fiscal pressure on the land at a time when rents and food prices increased, and the sizes of the peasants' parcels of land, and of their marketable surpluses, dwindled.
Van Kley provides a detailed analysis of the monarchy's efforts to extirpate Jansenism, which emphasized Augustine's theology of grace, from the French Catholic Church. From 1725 to 1765, the Crown, and the highest clergymen allied to it, arbitrarily imprisoned 40,000 to 50,000 Jansenists. The resistance to this religious policy, Van Kley argues, undermined all of the pillars of royal absolutism established by Louis XIV in the seventeenth century.
Keith Baker offers the best statement of his ideas since the publication of his book Inventing the French Revolution (New York, 1990). He argues that new forms of knowledge about political economy, the role of government, and civil and criminal law presumed the ability of people to remake social relations. They provided the ideas, arguments, memories, and anticipations for people to interpret the contingent events generated by the monarchy's efforts to reform the economy and administration and the resistance that these efforts galvanized among the defenders of corporate privileges in the tribunals.
In the end, the editors' partiality to intellectual history leads to a striking neglect of sociology. Kaiser and Van Kley invoke Tocqueville, in the conclusion, to argue that the radical and cavalier anti-clericalism, the "secularized millenarianism," of the Revolution emerged from the context created by the Jansenist conflict. Tocqueville, however, argued precisely the contrary, that the Church neglected the theological concerns, which are crucial to the editors, and instead generated resentment by its complicity in the mundane issues of tithes, power, and privilege.2 Kaiser and Van Kley write, "[The] peasants came into electoral contact with literate bourgeois lawyers who . . . apprised them of the unjustness of their seigniorial obligations" (266). The peasants' familiarity with these obligations, from having been subjected to them, we are to believe, had nothing to do with their perceptions of injustice. [End Page 459]
1. Boris Porchnev, Les Soulèvements populaires en France de 1623 à 1648 (Paris, 1963), 563-566.
2. Alexis de Tocqueville, The Old Régime and the French Revolution (Garden City, 1955; orig. pub. 1856), 6-7.