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Medievalism, Absolutism, and the French Revolution


Sunday is Bastille Day, and that means another round of ruminations on the French Revolution in the conservative media. We see George Rutler at the conservative Catholic magazine Crisis discussing "convenient myths" behind the French Revolution today, and we find Liam Warner at The Wall Street Journal pinning the Democratic Party's current drive for slavery reparations on the Spirit of the French Revolution.

Fair enough. The murders and other other crimes committed by the Revolutionaries don't get enough press.

Ever since the Revolution, however, one can also identify an error in the opposite direction: to act as if all opposition to the French monarchy was itself unwarranted and excessive.

For example, modern-day opponents of the Revolution often follow in the footsteps of Joseph de Maistre, who led the effort to rehabilitate the old French ruling class in the eyes of his nineteenth-century contemporaries. De Maistre did not shy away from sweeping statements in support of the old regime, and he denied it was ever possible to morally oppose a monarch. Perhaps a representative example of his thinking is this:

"there is no better course than resignation and respect, I would even say love, for since we start with the supposition that the master exists and than we must serve him absolutely, is it not better to serve him, whatever his nature, with love than without it? [Emphasis added.]1

Demanding this sort of extreme deference to the French state, however, is just the sort of thing that got the monarchy into trouble in the first place.

But even for more mild opponents of the Revolution, such as Edmund Burke, there is a tendency to oppose the Revolution on the grounds that the French state represented that which was tried, true, and traditional. Some even suggest the French regime was representative of the limited, internationalist regimes of the Middle Ages. 

The conclusion we are then supposed to draw is that the Revolutionaries were overturning what was in truth a timid and prudent regime which had governed in a moderately laissez-faire fashion for centuries. Thus, the Revolutionaries were necessarily excessive in demanding reform of any significance.

This interpretation, however, draws a much too optimistic picture of the French state. 

The Medieval Monarchy was Long Gone by the time of the Revolution

In fact, the French state of the late eighteenth century was more characterized by mercantilism, absolutism, and centralization than by restraint. It was the French monarchy — not the Revolutionaries — who first destroyed the older decentralized medieval order and created the strong centralized state that would later fall into the hands of the radicals.  

Thus, by the time of the Revolution, long gone were the modest medieval institutions of old. In their place had grown the absolutist monarchy, which embraced and sought untrammeled centralized power as much as possible, and encouraged economic policies designed to benefit the friends of the monarchs at the expense of everyone else.

The Revolution — especially in its earlier bourgeois form, and only later usurped by the radicals — was not, therefore, a revolt against traditional Europe, but against a rising power of modern absolutism. 

Absolutism Arose After the Middle Ages

The transformation of the Frnech state had begun centuries earlier. 

In his history of economic thought, Murray Rothbard notes the "first and critically most important step in the rise in the power of the State at the expense of crippling the economy" had occurred in the fourteenth century, as "Philip IV, the Fair, king of France (1285–1314), moved to tax, plunder, and effectively destroy" important free trade zones and other market institutions beyond his control:

[Philip] also destroyed domestic capital and finance by repeated confiscatory levies on groups or organizations with money. In 1308, he destroyed the wealthy Order of the Templars, confiscating their funds for the royal treasury. Philip then turned to impose a series of crippling levies and confiscations on Jews and northern Italians...

It was particularly fateful that Philip the Fair inaugurated the system of regular taxation in France. Before then, there were no regular taxes. In the medieval era, while the king was supposed to be all-powerful in his own sphere, that sphere was restricted by the sanctity of private property. The king was supposed to be an armed enforcer and upholder of the law, and his revenues were supposed to derive from rents on royal lands, feudal dues and tolls. There was nothing that we would call regular taxation. In an emergency, such as an invasion or the launching of a crusade, the prince, in addition to invoking the feudal duty of fighting on his behalf, might ask his vassals for a subsidy; but that aid would be requested rather than ordered, and be limited in duration to the emergency period.

The constituted a significant break with the political economy of the Middle Ages. As described by historian Henri Pirenne:

It was not until the fifteenth century that the first symptoms of protection began to reveal themselves. Before that, there is no evidence of the slightest desire to favour national trade by protecting it from foreign competition. In this respect, the internationalism which characterised medieval civilization right into the thirteenth century was manifested with particular clarity in the conduct of the states. …[T]he princes of the Middle Ages were still without the slightest tinge of mercantilism, with the exception, perhaps, of Frederic II and his Angevin successors in the Kingdom of Naples. Here, indeed, under the influence of Byzantium and the Moslems in Sicily and Africa, we may detect at least the beginnings of State intervention in the economic system.

On other words, by the sixteenth century and the rise of absolutism in France, the medieval world was long gone. Historian Jack Goldstone notes:

The high point of European feudalism,with largely independent knights and manor-lords binding their loyalties to superiors through oaths, a mainly local non-market economy, and serfs wholly bound to the land,disappeared well before 1500, in the century-and-a-half that followed the slow recovery from the Black Death. By the beginning of the sixteenth century, market economies, state-like political structures dominated by a central government under a King, had spread across most of Europe west of the Elbe.

Goldstone doesn't mean unhampered economies, of course. He means and economy increasingly characterized by cash-based payments and exchanges of commodities over longer distances.

What arose side-by-side with this was the mercantilism of the absolutist state, which the French state embraced with gusto in the sixteenth century.

As absolutist ideology spread in France, the ruling classes increasingly used the monarchy to consolidate power. Rothbard continues:

The sixteenth century French legalists also systematically tore down the legal rights of all corporations or organizations which, in the Middle Ages, had stood between the individual and the state. There were no longer any intermediary or feudal authorities. The king is absolute over these intermediaries, and makes or breaks them at will. Thus, as one historian sums up Chasseneux's view:

All jurisdiction, said Chasseneux, pertains to the supreme authority of the prince; no man may have jurisdiction except through the ruler's concession and permission. The authority to create magistrates thus belongs to the prince alone; all offices and dignities flow and are derived from him as from a fountain.

The French monarchs were only too delighted to play along, and the power of the French state over economic matters grew throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth century.

The lack of market freedom, however, took its toll. As the monarchs continued on with a multitude of elective wars and other forms of lavish spending, the French state found itself in financial trouble.

After the Failure of Liberal Reform Came the Revolution

The early French liberals, chief among them François Quesnay and A.R.J. Turgot, attempted to bring some sanity back to the French treasury. But thanks to the power of the monarchy and its allies, there was little they could do beyond attempt to convince the monarch to embrace more sane economic policies. Any attempts at decentralization or reform from outside the monarchy would likely be crushed with brutal efficiency by the monarchs who were happy to shed the blood of anyone who did not ascent to the state's edicts.

Thus Rothbard concludes,

The physiocrats' strategy proved a failure, and there was more to the failure than the vagaries of a particular monarch. For even if the monarch could be convinced that liberty conduced to the happiness and prosperity of his subjects, his own interests are often to maximize state exactions and therefore his own power and wealth. Furthermore, the monarch does not rule alone, but as the head of a ruling coalition of bureaucrats, nobles, privileged monopolists and feudal lords. He rules, in short, as the head of a power elite, or 'ruling class'. It is theoretically conceivable but scarcely likely that a king and the rest of the ruling class will rush to embrace a philosophy and a political economy that will end their power and put them, in effect, out of business. It certainly did not happen in France and so, after the failure of the physiocrats and Turgot, came the French Revolution. [Emphasis added.]

That is, after multiple reform attempts — thwarted by an ossified monarchy and ruling class —  "came the French revolution."

It is not the case that the the French state, in the days leading up the revolution, was merely a flawed institution, doing the best it could, and restrained in its exercise of power. The states of Louis XIV and Louis XVI were, on the contrary, absolutist states that wielded vast political and economic power, crushing enemies and exploiting ordinary citizens for the sake of enriching the regime's allies. Thus, the idea that no Frenchmen had a legitimate grievance against the French state has little foundation in the brutal realities of eighteenth century French political economy.

There is no denying, however, that the Revolution did indeed lead to countless blood-soaked excesses that cannot be defended. But even here, we see the fingerprints of the monarchs. It was the monarchs, after all, who had crushed local autonomy, crated a large, modernized bureaucratic regime, and manufactured the idea of a single French state answerable to the whims of whoever controlled the levers of power.

The absence of all this in the American colonies helps to explain why the American revolution never approached anything resembling its own Reign of Terror. A romanticized view of the American revolution — in which the conflict is imagined as a very civilized and restrained affair — has long been pushed by defenders. But the reality was far more violent. The American revolution was not at all immune from the troubles of mob violence, bloody internecine strife, and widespread theft from a displaced ruling class. All those elements existed in the colonies. What was lacking was a powerful centralized bureaucracy, a domestic standing army, and an idea that there could only be one people under a single state. 

That sort of thing was created in France in the incubators built by the French monarchs, and through this, the monarchs contributed greatly to their own demise.

  • 1. Quoted in Conservative Thinkers, From John Adams to Winston Churchill by  Peter Viereck

Contact Ryan McMaken

Ryan McMaken (@ryanmcmaken) is a senior editor at the Mises Institute. Send him your article submissions for the Mises Wire and Power and Market, but read article guidelines first. Ryan has a bachelor's degree in economics and a master's degree in public policy and international relations from the University of Colorado. He was a housing economist for the State of Colorado. He is the author of Commie Cowboys: The Bourgeoisie and the Nation-State in the Western Genre.

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