CHAPTER 7: THE BALANCE OF POWER, EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY WARFARE AND TRADE, AND THE ORIGINS OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION
balance of power
War of Spanish Succession
Great Northern War
War of Polish Succession
War of Jenkins' Ear
War of Austrian Succession
Seven Years' War
What were some of the ways 18th century warfare contributed to the outbreak of the French Revolution?
What were some of the challenges France faced domestically that contributed to the outbreak of the French Revolution?
The next big event students usually learn about in this course is the French Revolution but, before we can get there, we need to briefly survey some of the important background conditions that help us understand why the French Revolution took place. Some of these reasons (like growth of Absolutism in France, or the appeal of Enlightenment ideas among French elites) we have already explored. Much of this chapter, therefore, will concern warfare and the enormous costs involved in warfare, which put France in a dire financial situation in the 1780s.
When we last dug deep into battlefield military history, we saw the development of the pike-shot-block in the Thirty Years War. Across the seventeenth century, European armies eventually abandoned the pike and adopted the bayonet which, when affixed to the muzzle of a musket, allowed a musketeer to double as a pikeman. Armies continued to experiment with artillery and cavalry, too, and the cost of ever-larger armies and the equipment they required meant that warfare remained a very expensive business. In some ways, the frequency of warfare among “great power” states during this time could be connected to the maturation of the Early Modern State and the bureaucratic apparatus required to keep it running. After all, expensive wars required effective tax collection schemes. We will take a closer look at six conflicts involving France and other “great powers,” as a way of demonstrating the levels of sophistication (but also expense) required by these monarchies.
Balance of Power
This phrase (“balance of power”) refers to a diplomatic arrangement between larger, wealthier, and militarily powerful European states (“great powers”) from the seventeenth century into the nineteenth century. The term is usually associated with nineteenth century, but we can borrow the concept here for our purposes. Basically, when one state or rival seems to grow too powerful, other states team up to fight the one in ascendance so that all the states will preserve a more-or-less equal level of power. What we see across the 1700s is one war after another, as these “great power” states sought to increase their wealth, their territory, their control of strategic resources or trade, or a combination of all three, via the threat or actual use of military force. The main pattern you should note is the frequency of large-scale military conflict and the expensive apparatus required to carry out war.
War of Spanish Succession, 1702-1713: Hapsburg v. Bourbon
This war saw Great Britain, the Austrian Hapsburgs, and the Austrian Netherlands face off against France and the Spanish Hapsburgs. King of Spain, Charles II, of the Spanish branch of the Hapsburg family, died without any heirs. He designated Philip Duc d ’Anjou, a French noblemen of the Bourbon family, as his heir to the throne of Spain. Philip Duc d ‘Anjou was also a grandson of King Louis XIV of France. So, when it appeared that Louis XIV was about to take control of Spain (via his grandson), in addition to being the Absolutist monarch in control of France, the Austrian branch of the family was alarmed. The Austrian Habsburgs and the Spanish Habsburgs were two lines of the same family, but these two lines had ruled Austria and Spain, respectively, separately for much of the past couple of centuries. So, in 1702, the Austrians were really more concerned about their provinces in the Netherlands, their territory in Italy, and their access to the Americas.
At first Great Britain was uninterested in taking part but eventually they joined the fight (largely because Louis XIV was also supporting a pretender’s claim to the English throne) and assisted the Austrians and the Dutch to fight the French and Germans. The Battle of Blenheim in August of 1704 was one of the major encounters and was a defeat for France. This was the first major military defeat for French soldiers for about fifty years and was followed by another defeat for France in 1709 at the Battle of Malplaquet. The ended with the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, which recognized Philip V (the French candidate) to rule King of Spain, in exchange for giving up his place in the line of succession to the French throne. (They also made pledges to ensure that Spain and France would never be united into one kingdom.) The treaty also kept the Spanish overseas empire intact, gave up Spanish control of the Spanish Netherlands and some territory in Italy, gave some Italian territory to Austria and others to larger Italian kingdoms (Italy was not a united state at this time), gave Great Britain control of important locations in the Mediterranean Sea, gave Great Britain control over the slave trade with the Americas, and forced the French to renounce their claim to the English throne. Spain was now a major power in decline, and Great Britain was positioned to become the major trading force in the Atlantic.
Great Northern War, 1700-1721
This conflict was another “balance of power” struggle, pitting Sweden and the Ottoman Empire against Russia, Denmark/Norway (united at this time), Prussia, Hannover, and Saxony-Poland (also united at this time). For most of the 1500s and 1600s, Sweden had been building up a Baltic Sea empire and was preventing Russia from accessing the Baltic for its own purposes. Initially, the war went poorly for Russia and its allies, with the Battle of Narva as an important defeat in this regard. Eventually the Russians launched a comeback and scored a major victory at the Battle of Poltava, which is a moment where everyone realizes that Russia was now a major power in Europe. The 1721 Treaty of Nystad (ending the war) takes away all of the Swedes’ gains over the prior century-and-a-half, while also demonstrating Russia to be the strongest state in Eastern Europe.
The War of Polish Succession, 1733-1738.
This was another “balance of power” conflict, where the Russians and the Austrians supported their own preferred candidate (Frederick Augustus of Saxony) for succession to the throne of Poland. The context here is confusing but the former Polish king Stanislaw had been deposed by Augustus II, who became king but could not ensure the elevation of his son, Frederick Augustus, to the throne. Russia and Austria tried to pressure the Polish Diet to elect Frederick Augustus as their king (in exchange for some backroom deals) but the Polish Diet re-installed Stanislaw, despite warnings from Russia. The Russian army, along with an Austrian contingent invaded, seized Warsaw, and installed Frederick Augustus as King Augustus III. Stanislaw then fled to France (the deposed Stanislaw was the father-in-law of Louis XV) and France mobilized its army to strike at Austria. Spain, under Philip V, the uncle of Louis XV, entered the war on the French side. Great Britain decided to sit this one out and Russia and Saxony (a German territory – Germany was still not united into one state at this time) proceed to more-or-less mop up resistance in Poland. France got involved as the fighting approached the Rhine River. (There was also fighting in Italy.) Eventually the belligerents entered peace talks. The resultant Treaty of Vienna in 1738 supported keeping Augustus III (the candidate backed by the Austrians and the Russians) as the King of Poland. The ex-king Stanislaw, a French ally, was made the Duke of Lorraine, a French province in eastern France, near the border.
The War of Jenkins' Ear, 1739-1748 (in 1742 it merges in War of the Austrian Succession).
The end of the War of Spanish Succession in 1713 gave Great Britain a dominant position in Transatlantic trade, both in terms of cargo and in terms of slaves. Great Britain was supplying not just their own colonies but Spanish ones, too, and over time the Spanish grew suspicious that the British were cheating the limitations placed on them by the Treaty of Utrecht (see above). Tension festered in the escalation and eventually, after troops and ships were sent into trouble zones and each side made the other angry enough, the trade agreements were cut off and war began. It is called the “War of Jenkins’ Ear” because a British ship was boarded off the coast of Florida and the Spanish captain cut off the ear of the English captain (whom he had accused of smuggling). This caused an uproar when word got back to England and, according to the story, when the English captain in question testified before Parliament, he unwrapped his severed ear to show the MPs, to support his story. (This part of the story may be apocryphal, as the conflict was not named “War of Jenkins’ Ear” until about a hundred years later.) Most of the fighting took place in the Americas and eventually this war bled over (pun intended) into the War of Austrian Succession (see below). There is a local connection for us in Georgia, as the Battle of Bloody Marsh on St. Simon’s Island, GA, was the location of a fight between local colonial Georgia militia, commanded by General James E. Oglethorpe, and Spanish regulars who were sent to seize the colony of Georgia, in 1742. After much fighting and few decisive outcomes, the two sides began peace talks, but these were unsuccessful until the peace talks ending the War of Austrian Succession.
War of Austrian Succession, 1740-1748
Yet another “balance of power” confrontation. This time, Emperor of Austria (and the larger Holy Roman Empire), Charles VI, died without a male heir. Before his death, he had tried to secure diplomatic support for succession of his oldest daughter, Maria Theresa, to become Empress of Austria/HRE. However, Charles VI’s death seemed like the chance to strike for Austria’s rivals. This is the point where the Prussians enter the “great power” scene in a big way. Prussia was one of several large (and many smaller) principalities that made up the “Holy Roman Empire.” King Frederick William I of Prussia had modernized the Prussian Army into a well-trained, well-equipped force and his son, Frederick William II, was eager to use it. (Frederick William II succeeded his father in 1740.) In December, Frederick William II marched into neighboring territory of Silesia and took control, with the Austrian army not responding for two months’ time. The Battle of Mollwitz, between Prussia and Austria, was a major victory for the well-drilled Prussians, and announced that Prussia was a force to be reckoned with. The victory was really due to Prussian Field Marshal Schwerin, as the Prussian king had fled from the battlefield when the Austrians appeared to have the upper hand. And yet, the Prussian army’s superior training carried the day. Frederick William more-or-less committed thereafter to a policy of aggression, earning the reputation that the “the Prussian army always attacks.”
Seven Years' War, 1754-1763 (in North America = the French and Indian War).
This conflict begins in North America and then extends back to Europe. French fur traders and British colonists were in dispute over access and control over modern-day Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Western Virginia. The early skirmishing and campaigning involves a (very young) George Washington, as well as various Native Americans allied with the French and others with the British, and the French tend to have the upper hand, militarily. In Europe, there are still unresolved tensions after the War of Austrian Succession, which leads to a novel combination of states allied together and against heretofore allies, now turned rivals. More specifically, Great Britain, Prussia, Portugal, Hannover, Hesse, and Brunswick (the last three are German principalities, along with Prussia) align against Austria, France, Russia, Saxony, Sweden, and Spain. The most notable military action here is that Prussia is nearly eaten alive by the Russians, until the Czar recalls the army and the Prussians then stomp on the Austrians without having to worry about the Russians, and ends up keeping the territory it stole from Austria (Silesia). The Treaty of Paris in 1763 ends the war, with enormous territorial changes in North America but little change in Europe.
What this brief run-down of European warfare in the 18th century has shown (or, at least, one thing that it has shown) is that warfare was nearly constant in the century leading up to the French Revolution. While 18th century warfare was not as costly as those of the 20th century, there were still heavy financial burdens to shoulder (aside from the toll in human lives, although the numbers of soldiers and civilians affected were smaller than what we see in the 19th and 20th centuries). However, these wars were projects launched by unelected monarchs and their advisors (almost always elites and nobles). By this I mean that the average subject had little to say in the matter, and little to gain in the case of victory. In the case of defeat, these unlucky subjects were left paying the bills.
PAUSE for 60-Second Quiz #1. What were some of the ways 18th century warfare contributed to the outbreak of the French Revolution? Which statement is not correct?
France spent lots of money fighting the War of Spanish Succession
France spent lots of money fighting the Great Northern War
France spent lots of money fighting the War of Austrian Succession
France spent lots of money fighting the French and Indian War/Seven Years War
Origins and Early Phases of the French Revolution
Next, we are going to talk about the origins of the French Revolution. There were many reasons or causes for the Revolution. The classic story begins with the French national debt generated by all of the wars described above but, while economics are important to the story, there are some additional reasons we need to examine, too.
For some historians, the greatest cause of the revolution, in terms of explanatory power, was a population increase. The eighteenth century across Europe saw great increases in the French population. From 1700 until the outbreak of the Revolution in 1789, the population of France increased by 48%, from 18 million to 26 million people. That was a huge increase! For some context, Great Britain also had experienced a great population increase during that same time that went from 5.8 million to 9.1 million people, but they were better able to handle their population increase in one of two ways: first by immigration to its colonies in North America, second through the employing of more people in industry, which was developing fast in Britain. (See Chapter 10.) As the Industrial Revolution began in Great Britain, it naturally took some time to spread to the continent, so France in the late 18th century did not have as many factories as Great Britain, and therefore factory jobs in cities were not as readily available for people displaced from rural areas. The people who were pushed off their land because there was not enough land to work migrated to the cities, and especially to Paris. The population of Paris went from 100,000 in the early 18th century to 600,000 at the time of the revolution. Unemployment in Paris had been around 10%, but by 1789, unemployment in Paris was 50%. People were dying in the streets of exposure.
Paris therefore became a volatile place in the 1780s because of the population increase and the high unemployment there. Up to that point in the 19th century, it had been very quiet on the whole. The King had occasionally supplied bread for the people of Paris when times were hard, and the Catholic church had charitable institutions that took care of the impoverished people of Paris. However, there were now so many impoverished people in Paris that the existing charities could not adequately take care of them. It is not hard to understand starving people being more easily provoked to anger and taking action, even in the face of an Absolutist monarch with a large standing army at his disposal. After all, if the poor people of Paris (and elsewhere) were already starving to death, they might feel they had little to lose in standing up to the king. So, the population increase was one big cause of the Revolution.
The Ills of French Society
Another cause was the ills of the French society. Like most of its neighbors at this time, France was an unequal society, where your social status (determined by your birth, mostly) gave (or denied) access to all sorts of legal privileges. Speaking specifically for France, society was divided into three different classes or “Estates” (which mirrored the old Medieval social order):
The First Estate was the high clergy of the Roman Catholic Church, meaning the cardinals, archbishops, bishops, etc. – the senior officers of the Church, who were recognized as basically nobles. These positions were often filled by the second or third sons of noble families whose oldest brother would of course inherit their father’s title and lands. So, the clergy was a place that these younger sons could go. (The military was the other option -- they could become officers. You had to have a noble title to be an officer in the King’s army.) The lower clergy like the parish priests were basically members of the Third Estate (see below).
The Second Estate was the nobility. This included dukes, counts, marquises, etc.… By the 1780s, feudalism as a system for raising an army (which was the original purpose, in the early Medieval period) was more-or-less over but the descendants of all those knights and higher nobles had still inherited their titles of nobility, their country estates, their chateaus, and were still collecting rents and other fees from landless peasants who lived on these feudal estates. The First and Second Estates combined only totaled around 200,000 people -- less than 1% of the French population. However, these two estates also owned 45% of the land in France. (We can read landownership as a rough measure of wealth, although it’s not the same as wages or liquid assets.) The first and second estates also had special legal privileges that had been established over time- the most important being that they were exempt from taxation. They also had the right to hunt wherever they pleased.
The Third Estate
The Third Estate was, by definition, everybody else who was not in the First or Second Estates. For a long time, it was common to envision the poor, rural peasant as the definition of the “Third Estate” but that is too simplistic (and also would obscure much about the French Revolution, if it were true). Rather, the Third Estate ran the gamut of wealthy, middling, and poor.
The Middle class or Bourgeoisie.
There were doctors, lawyers, teachers, bankers, and other professionals. There were also shopkeepers, artisans, merchants, entrepreneurs in this group. These people may have owned some property and may enjoyed a comfortable living, but we should not assume that for all of them. There were maybe 1,000,000 bourgeoisie. What set the bourgeoisie apart from the nobility above is their tax liabilities, and the fact that nobles monopolized valuable government service jobs.
Next were the city workers. These were the manual laborers in the cities and the most volatile element of French society. There were around 3,500,000 city workers.
The majority of the French population -- around 85% -- were the peasants, the farmers, many of which owned their own lands. On this class fell the tax burdens of France. The Peasants had to pay all sorts of taxes: The taille (pronounced “tai”), a land tax; the tithe, a church tax, the gabelle, a tax on salt, which was very high (by law Every French citizen had to buy 16 lbs. of salt per year at a cost 50 to 60 times its actual worth). The peasants were also forbidden to hunt and fish, because these were activities reserved exclusively for the nobility. Parties of nobles out hunting might trample a peasant’s crops in their fields, but the peasant had no recourse but to sit by and watch. The Peasantry would actually take very little part in the French Revolution. They were pretty much a conservative group. But there was lots of disparity between the classes and this was a factor in the Revolution.
Of course, the ideas of political, social and economic reform from the Enlightenment had marked effects on the situation in France. Especially important were the works of Locke, Montesquieu and Rousseau, which questioned divine monarchy and stood for ideas of rational government organization, individualism, natural rights and secularism. The Enlightenment may not have produced the revolution directly, but it played a great role in fostering the atmosphere in which the revolution could take place. And the American Revolution seemed to demonstrate that a liberal state base on Enlightened principles could work. Many French officers like the Marquis de Lafayette had fought in the American Revolution, and brought these ideas back to France.
Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette: Factor/cause of the Revolution
Another factor that led to the French Revolution was the character of Louis XVI and his wife, Marie-Antoinette. Louis is usually thought of as being ugly and tyrannical. He was overweight, but not a bad looking fellow. He had been twenty when he came to the throne and only thirty-eight when he was beheaded, so he wasn’t that old. Marie-Antoinette was an Austrian princess and a great beauty. She had married Louis when she was 15 and was not very happy with him at first because he could not consummate the marriage until they had been married for a year and he had an operation. Louis was a good and religious man but was a rotten king because he tried to please everybody.
Unlike Louis XIV, Louis XVI was not interested in the details of government and could not really handle the running of the government, which after Louis XIV’s centralization efforts, was quite a task. Louis would go to sleep in council meetings that were held to furnish him with information to help him make decisions. He was often pushed into making decisions by the Queen and his court. He was also slow witted and stubborn. All of this worked against him. Louis sincerely wished to help his people and he tried to rebuild hospitals in Paris, which had notoriously high death rates. He was able to build a few but was really not that effective. He was a good person at heart. He just made the wrong kinds of decisions at the wrong time -- he would take a hard line when he needed to go soft and would go soft when he needed to be firm. Marie-Antoinette was also a handicap for Louis. She was very frivolous -- she had grown up in the Austrian- Hapsburg Royal Family -- and was used to a life of luxury. Marie was fairly ignorant of the problems of the French people. The fact that she was a Hapsburg also made her less than popular with the French people.
Another cause of the French Revolution was the economic crisis which gripped France in the years just prior to the revolution. This was due partially to the rapid population growth and due to a string of poor harvests. Harvests were especially bad in 1788-89 and, unsurprisingly, when people are hungry, they tend to become revolutionary. The poor harvests resulted in a shortage of bread and growing starvation. Inflation only made the situation worse for the poor. France experienced a 45% increase in prices between 1730 and 1780, with only 20% increase in wages, and another 62% inflation between 1785 and 1789 the three years leading up to the revolution, with only a 22 % increase in wages. A good index to make these numbers sound like something tangible is the price of bread. in August 1788, a Parisian worker spent half of his income on bread, but by July 1789 he was spending 80% of his income on bread alone.
These problems gave France an air of economic crisis in 1789 that helped determine the timing of the revolution. The economic crisis not only effected the common people, it also had effects on businessmen, manufacturers, and other entrepreneurs. These economic problems were made worse by a handful of other long-term economic problems that led to the Revolution, including a corrupt and outdated taxation system which was not very effective, and the royal debt.
We mentioned above the tax on salt (gabelle), and the tax on land (the taille). Salt purchases were mandated by law; the taille (really a household tax) was increasing each year, too, to try to collect enough money to pay the debts associated with France’s wars. We also learned above that much of France’s wealth was concentrated in the First and Second Estates. These classes of French society were also exempt from paying taxes, meaning that the generally wealthier people did not have to pay taxes, and the generally less wealthy people had to carry the burden of paying these taxes.
The onerousness of these taxes was increased because of the reliance on tax farmers. Tax farmers were government officers who were charged with collecting a set amount of revenue from their district – however they accomplished it. And any extra they might take in was, well, just icing on the top that they got to keep. So, tax farmers had an incentive to over-collect and keep the change, which only made regular French people angrier.
The collection of these taxes was all the more important because of the massive debts the King of France had to finance. The French government was in enormous debt due to France’s wars with Britain such as the Seven Years War and due to France’s aid to America during the American Revolution. The French debt had risen to 4 billion livres by the end of 1789. (This would be above around $800,000,000 today – not that large a sum, but it worried the King and his financiers because it was getting worse every year.
Eventually, it was the seeming necessity of collecting those taxes that gave disgruntled French aristocrats and leaders of the Third Estate an opening to pursue a revolution.
PAUSE for 60-second Quiz #2: What were some of the challenges France faced domestically that contributed to the outbreak of the French Revolution? Which statement is not true?
France had experienced a population boom that was driving people to the cities, where they could not easily find work.
France had experienced a string of bad harvests, so there were food shortages.
The French population was exposed to Enlightenment ideas about natural rights and skepticism toward Absolute monarchies.
The French population was required to pay enormously burdensome taxes with no exceptions.
Key to 60-second quizzes:
B. France was not involved in this conflict.
D. The clergy and the nobles were exempt from paying taxes.
Primary Source Exercise
After you have read the primary source listed above (as well as Chapter 7), answer the following questions, based on what you have learned so far:
What do you think is important to know about the author of this text? What can you learn from the words he wrote on the page? What can you infer or piece together from the background information in the textbook chapter? Why is this important?
What are the author’s goals in writing this text? To whom did he address it? What purpose did it serve? Can you point to one or more examples to support this analysis?
What, if any, hidden assumptions can you detect in this text? That is, can you find word choices, phrasing, innuendo, or other examples of the author’s (explicit or implicit) bias with regard to the subject matter? Does this bias (or these assumptions) affect how you understand and react to the authors’ words? Why or why not?