Let’s take a moment and talk about one of the biggest reasons for the French Revolution…taxation. I guess to be more precise, uneven taxation. Here is the rub. Fully 50% of French revenue before the revolution went to pay the French debt. 50%! That is an outrageous number no matter how you slice it. How did it get so bad? First, the system of nobility must be looked at if we are going to understand this at all. Not only was it fashionable to be a noble, but it had certain advantages. They had special privileges that no one else had, including being allowed to carry a sword, display a special coat of arms, not being conscripted into the military, and even being allowed to be beheaded! The greatest of these, however, was in taxation. This went all the way back to the feudal period when a noble was expected to fight for his king. As such, he was exempted from the rigors of taxation as his pledging to fight and give his life was trade off enough. The taille was a great advantage. The problem by the 18th Century is that France didn’t have to defend the crown from invasion or a usurper of any sort. This rendered this particular advantage moot. It was not taken off of the books though, so many scrambled to become nobles in order to avoid this “taille” tax. It was a great incentive. The problem was that many were joining the ranks of the nobility because they were able to buy their positions. They were merchants and “nobles of the robe”…meaning that they didn’t earn their positions on the battle field as many had…they purchased them. These wealthy people now didn’t have to pay taxes. Problem? Certainly in terms of revenue for the Crown it was. Imagine wealthy people that were supposed to be paying taxes suddenly making a move (purchasing their nobility) in order to not have to pay taxes…simply because they could purchase their positions! This would put a serious dent in the income of the state and create a situation in which more and more are leaving the payroll as opposed to joining it.
Certainly, the number of nobility was MUCH less then everyone else (the Third Estate), but they were the ones that could best pay…and they weren’t. This is a serious problem, and one that the crown was slow to address. Add this problem to the fact that the clergy didn’t pay any taxes either (they did in the form of a “gift” to the state…much less then they could have afforded…some 16 millions against revenues of 250 millions*), one can see the serious problem facing the Crown. Is it any wonder that France could not address their money problems?
Why did not the Crown address this problem? This question will be answered in the next entry.
*William Doyle, The Oxford history of the French Revolution (Oxford [England: Clarendon Press, 1989), 32.