The Library of Original Sources, Vol 7


Show Summary

The Condition of the French People


[Arthur Young was born September 7, 1741, in Suffolk, England. After a year spent in a mercantile house at Lynn, he took the supervision of Bradfield Hall from his mother (1759) and in 1767 undertook the management of a farm in Essex, on his own account. From this time most of his life was spent in studying and experimenting in agriculture and publishing accounts of what he had done and seen. His letters became immensely popular with the landlords of England. He undertook a number of journeys in order to visit and study the farms of England and France. The French journeys are what interest us here. He travelled through France from May to November, 1787; again on horseback in 1788, and a third time not long afterward. He is the best source of our information concerning the actual conditions existing among the French people just before the Revolution. He died in 1820.]

The gross infamy which attended lettres de cachet and the Bastile, during the whole reign of Louis XV. made them esteemed in England, by people not well informed, as the most prominent features of the despotism of France. They were certainly carried to an excess hardly credible; to the length of being sold, with blanks, to be filled up with names at the pleasure of the purchaser; who was thus able, in thegratification of private revenge, to tear a man from the bosom of his family, and bury him in a dungeon, where he would exist forgotten, and die unknown!a But such excesses could not be common in any country; and they were reduced almost to nothing, from the accession of the present King. The great mass of the people, by which I mean the lower and middle ranks, could suffer very little from such engines, and as few of them are objects of jealousy, had there been nothing else to complain of, it is not probable they would ever have been brought to take arms. The abuses attending the levy of taxes were heavy and universal. The kingdom was parceled into generalities, with an intendant at the head of each, into whose hands the whole power of the crown was delegated for everything except the military authority; but particularly for all affairs of finance. The generalities were subdivided into elections, at the head of which was a sub-delegue appointed by the intendant. The rolls of the taille, capitation, vingtiemes, and other taxes, were distributed among districts, parishes, and individuals, at the pleasure of the intendant, who could exempt, change, add, or diminish at pleasure.

Such an enormous power, constantly acting, and from which no man was free, must, in the nature of things, degenerate in many cases into absolute tyranny. It must be obvious that the friends, acquaintances, and dependents of the intendant, and of all his sub-delegues, and the friends of these friends, to a long chain of dependence, might be favoured in taxation at the expense of their miserable neighbours; and that noblemen in favour at court, to whose protection the intendant himself would naturally look up, could find little difficulty in throwing much of the weight of their taxes on others, without a similar support. Instances, and even gross ones, have been reported to me in many parts of the kingdom, that made me shudder at the oppression to which numbers must have been condemned, by the undue layouts granted to such crooked influence. But, without recurring to such cases, what must have been the state of the poor people paying heavy taxes, from which the nobility and clergy were exempted? A cruel aggravation of their misery, to see those who could best afford to pay, exempted because able! The inrollments for the militia, which the cahiers call an injustice without example, were another dreadful scourge on the peasantry; and, as married men were exempted from it, occasioned in some degree that mischievous population, which brought beings into the world, in order for little else than to be starved. The corvees, or police of the roads, were annually the ruin of many hundreds of farmers; more than 300 were reduced to beggary in filling up one vale in Lorraine: all these oppressions fell on the tiers etat only; the nobility and clergy having been equally exempted from tailles, militia and corvees. The penal code of finance makes one shudder at the horrors of punishment inadequate to the crime.b                               323,287
A few features will sufficiently characterize the old government of France:

1. Smugglers of salt, armed and assembled to the number of five, in Provence, a fine of 500 liv. and nine years galleys—in all the rest of the kingdom, death.

2. Smugglers, armed, assembled, but in number under five, a fine of 300 liv. and three years galleys. Second offense, death.

3. Smugglers, without arms, but with horses, carts or boats, a fine of 300 liv.; if not paid, three years galleys. Second offense, 400 liv. and nine years galleys. In Dauphin, second offense, galleys for life. In Provence, five years galleys.

4. Smugglers who carry the salt on their backs, and without arms, a fine of 200 liv. and if not paid, are flogged and branded. Second offense, a fine of 300 liv. and six years galleys.

5. Women, married and single, smugglers, first offense, a fine of 100 liv. Second, 500 liv. Third, flogged and banished the kingdom for life. Husbands responsible both in fine and body.

6. Children smugglers, the same as women—fathers and mothers responsible; and for defect of payment, flogged.

7. Nobles, if smugglers, deprived of their nobility; and their houses razed to the ground.

8. Any persons in employments (I suppose employed in the salt works or the revenue), if smugglers, death. And such as assist in the theft of salt in the transport, hanged.

9. Soldiers smuggling, with arms, are hanged; without arms, galleys for life.

10. Buying smuggled salt, to resell it, the same punishments as for smuggling.

11. Persons in the salt employments, empowered if two, or one with two witnesses, to enter and examine houses even of the privileged orders.

12. All families and persons liable to the taille in the provinces of the Grandes Gabelles enrolled, and their consumption of salt for the pot and saliere (that is, the daily consumption, exclusive of salting meat, etc., etc.,) estimated at 7 pounds a head per annum, which quantity they are forced to buy, whether they want it or not, under the pain of various fines, according to the case.

The Capitaineries were a dreadful scourge on all the occupiers of land. By this term is to be understood the paramountship of certain districts, granted by the king to princes of the blood, by which they were put in possession of the property of all game, even on lands notbelonging to them; and, what is very singular, on manors granted long before to individuals; so that the erecting of a district into a capitainerie was an annihilation of all manerial rights to game within it. This was a trifling business, in comparison of other circumstances; for, in speaking of the preservation of the game in these capitaineries, it must be observed that by game must be understood whole droves of wild boars, and herds of deer not confined by any wall or pale, but wandering at pleasure over the whole country, to the destruction of crops; and to the peopling of the galleys by the wretched peasants, who presumed to kill them in order to save that food which was to support their helpless children. The game in the capitainerie of Montceau, in four parishes only, did mischief to the amount of 184,263 liv. per annum. No wonder then that we should find the people asking, "Nous demandons a grand cris la destruction des capitaineries and celle de tout sorte de gibier." And what are we to think of demanding, as a favour, the permission—"De nettoyer ses grains de faucher les pres artificiels, and d’ enlever ses chammes sans egard pour la perdrix on tout autre gibier." Now an English reader will scarcely understand it without being told, that there were numerous edicts for preserving the game which prohibited weeding and hoeing, lest the young partridges should be disturbed; steeping feed, lest it should injure the game; manuring with night soil, lest the flavour of the partridges should be injured by feeding on the corn so produced; mowing hay, etc., before a certain time, so late as to spoil many crops; and taking away the stubble, which would deprive the birds of shelter. The tyranny exercised in these capitaineries, which extended over 400 leagues of country, was so great that many cahiers demanded the utter suppression of them. Such were the exertions of arbitrary power which the lower orders felt directly from the royal authority; but, heavy as they were, it is a question whether the others, suffered circuitously through the nobility and the clergy, were not yet more oppressive. Nothing can exceed the complaints made in the cahiers under this head. They speak of the dispensation of justice in the manerial courts, as comprising every species of despotism; the districts indeterminate—appeals endless—irreconciliable to liberty and prosperity—and irrevocably proscribed in the opinion of the public—augmenting litigations—favouring every species of chicane—ruining the parties—not only by enormous expenses on the most petty objects, but by a dreadful loss of time. The judges, commonly ignorant pretenders, who hold their courts in cabarets, and are absolutely dependenton the seigneurs. Nothing can exceed the force of expression used in painting the oppressions of the seigneurs, in consequence of their feudal powers. They are "vexations qui sont le plus grand fleau des peuples.—Esclavage affligeant.—Ce regime desastreuse.—That the feodalite be forever abolished. The countryman is tyrannically enslaved by it. Fixed and heavy rents; vexatious processes to secure them; appreciated unjustly to augment them; rents, folidaires, and revenchables; rents, cheantes and levantes; fumages. Fines at every change of the property, in the direct, as well as collateral line; feudal redemption (retraite); fines on sale to the 8th and even the 6th penny; redemptions (rachats) injurious in their origin, and still more so in their extension: banalite of the mill,c of the oven, and of the wine and cider press; corvees by custom; corvees by usage of the fief; corvees established by unjust decrees; corvees arbitrary, and even fantastical; servitudes, prestations, extravagant and burthensome; collections by assessments incollectible; aveux, minus, impuniessemens; litigations ruinous and without end; the rod of seigneural finance forever shaken over our heads; vexation, ruin, outrage, violence, and destructive servitude, under which the peasants, almost on a level with Polish slaves, can never but be miserable, vile and oppressed. They demand also that the use of hand-mills be free; and hope that posterity, if possible, may be ignorant that feudal tyranny in Bretagne, armed with the judicial power, has not blushed even in these times at breaking hand-mills, and at selling annually to the miserable the faculty of bruising between two stones a measure of buckwheat or barley. The very terms of these complaints are unknown in England, and consequently untranslatable; they have probably arisen long since the feudal system ceased in this kingdom. What are these tortures of the peasantry in Bretagne, which they call chevanches, quintaines, soule, saul de poison, baiser de mariees; chansons; transporte d’oeuf sur un charette; silence des grenouillesd;corvee, a misericorde; milods; leide; couponage; cartelage; barage; fouage; marechausee; ban vin; ban d’aout; trousses; gelinage; civerage; taillabilite; vingtain; sterlage; bordelage; minage; ban de vendanges; droit d’accapte. In passing through many of the French provinces, I was struck with the various and heavy complaints of the farmers and little proprietors of the feudal grievances, with the weight of which their industry was burthened; but I could not then conceive the multiplicity of the shackles which kept them poor and depressed. I understood it better afterwards, from the conversation and complaints of some grand seigneurs, as the revolution advanced; and I then learned that the principal rental of many estates consisted in services and feudal tenures; by the baneful influence of which the industry of the people was almost exterminated. In regard to the oppressions of the clergy, as to tithes, I must do that body a justice, to which a claim cannot be laid in England. Though the ecclesiastical tenth was levied in France more severely than usual in Italy, yet it was never exacted with such horrid greediness as is at present the disgrace of England. When taken in kind, no such thing was known in any part of France, where I made inquiries, as a tenth: it was always a twelfth, or a thirteenth, or even a twentieth of the produce. And in no part of the kingdom did a new article of culture pay anything: thus turnips, cabbages, clover, chicory, potatoes, etc., paid nothing. In many parts meadows were exempted. Silk worms nothing. Olives in some places paid—in more they did not. Cows nothing. Lambs from the 12th to the 21st. Wool nothing. Such mildness in the levy of this odious tax is absolutely unknown in England. But mild as it was, the burthen to people groaning under so many other oppressions, united to render their situation so bad that no charge could be for the worse. But these were not all the evils with which the people struggled. The administration of justice was partial, venal, infamous. I have, in conversation With many very sensible men in different parts of the kingdom, met with something of content with their government, in all other respects than this; but upon the question of expecting justice to be really and fairly administered, everyone confessed there was no such thing to be looked for. The conduct of the parliaments was profligate and atrocious. Upon almost every cause that came before them, interest was openly made with the judges; and woe betide the man who, in a cause to support, had no means of conciliating favour, either by the beauty of a handsome wife, or by othermethods. It has been said by many writers that property was as secure under the old government of France as it is in England; and the assertion might probably be true, as far as any violence from the King, his ministers, or the great was concerned; but for all that mass of property, which comes in every country to be litigated in courts of justice, there was not even the shadow of security, unless the parties were totally and equally unknown; and totally and equally honest; in every other case, he who had the best interest with the judges, was sure to be the winner. To reflecting minds, the cruel and abominable practice attending such courts are sufficiently apparent. There was also a circumstance in the constiution of these parliaments, but little known in England, and which, under such a government as that of France, must be considered as very singular. They had the power, and were in the constant practice of issuing decrees without the consent of the crown, and which had the force of laws through the whole of their jurisdiction; and of all other laws, these were sure to be the best obeyed; for as all infringements of them were brought before the sovereign courts, composed of the same persons who had enacted these laws (a horrible system of tyranny!) they were certain of being punished with the last severity. It must appear strange, in a government so despotic in some respects as that of France, to see the parliaments in every part of the kingdom making laws without the King’s consent, and even in defiance of his authority. The English, whom I met in France in 1789, were surprised to see some of these bodies issuing arrests against the export of corn out of the provinces subject to their jurisdiction, into the neighbouring provinces, at the same time that the King, through the organ of so popular a minister as Mons. Necker, was decreeing an absolutely free transport of corn throughout the kingdom, and even at the requisition of the National Assembly itself. But this was nothing new; it was their common practice. The parliament of Rouen passed an arret against killing of calves; it was a preposterous one, and opposed by administration; but it had its full force; and had a butcher dared to offend against it, he would have found, by the rigour of his punishment, who was his master. Inoculation was favoured by the court in Louis XV.’s time; but the parliament of Paris passed an arret against it, much more effective in prohibiting, than the favour of the court in encouraging that practice. Instances are innumerable, and I may remark that the bigotry, ignorance, false principles, and tyranny of these bodies were generally conspicuous; and that the court (taxationexcepted) never had a dispute with a parliament, but the parliament was sure to be wrong. Their constitution, in respect to the administration of justice was so truly rotten, that the members sat as judges, even in causes of private property, in which they were themselves the parties, and have, in this capacity, been guilty of oppressions and cruelties which the crown has rarely dared to attempt.

It is impossible to justify the excesses of the people on their taking up arms; they were certainly guilty of cruelties; it is idle to deny the facts, for they have been proven too dearly to admit of a doubt. But is it really the people to whom we are to impute the whole? Or to their oppressors, who had kept them so long in a state of bondage? He who chooses to be served by slaves, and by ill-treated slaves, must know that he holds both his property and life by a tenure far different from those who prefer the service of well-treated freemen; and he who dines to the music of groaning sufferers, must not, in the moment of insurrection, complain that his daughters are ravished and then destroyed; and that his sons’ throats are cut. When such evils happen, they surely are more imputable to the tyranny of the master than to the cruelty of the servant. The analogy holds with the French peasants—the murder of a seigneur, or a chateau in flames, is recorded in every newspaper; the rank of the person who suffers, attracts notice; but where do we find the register of that seigneur’s oppressions of his peasantry, and his exactions of feudal services, from those whose children were dying around them for want of bread? Where do we find the minutes that assigned these starving wretches to some vile pettyfogger, to be fleeced by impositions, and a mockery of justice, in the seigueural courts? Who gives us the awards of the intendant and his sub-delegues, which took off the taxes of a man of fashion, and laid them, with accumulated weight, on the poor, who were so unfortunate as to be his neighbours? Who has dwelt sufficiently upon explaining all the ramifications of despotism, regal, aristocratical, and ecclesiastical, pervading the whole mass of the people; reaching, like a circulating fluid, the most distant capillary tubes of poverty and wretchedness? In these cases the sufferers are too ignoble to be known; and the mass too indiscriminate to be pitied. But should a philosopher feel and reason thus? should he mistake the cause for the effect? and giving all his pity to the few, feel no compassion for the many, because they suffer in his eyes not individually, but by millions? The excesses of the people cannot, I repeat, be justified; it would undoubtedly have done them credit, both as menand christians, if they had possessed their new acquired power with moderation. But let it be remembered, that the populace in no country ever use power with moderation; excess is inherent in their aggregate constitution; and as every government in the world knows, that violence infallibly attends power in such hands, it is doubly bound in common sense, and for common safety, to so conduct itself, that the people may not find an interest in public confusions. They will always suffer much and long, before they are effectually roused; nothing, therefore, can kindle the flame, but such oppressions of some classes or order in the society, as give able men the opportunity of seconding the general mass; discontent will soon diffuse itself around; and if the government take not warning in time, it is alone answerable for all the burnings, and plunderings, and devastation, and blood that follow. The true judgment to be formed of the French revolution must surely be gained from an attentive consideration of the evils of the old government: when these are well understood—and when the extent and universality of the oppression under which the people groaned—oppression which bore upon them from every quarter, it will scarcely be attempted to be urged that a revolution was not absolutely necessary to the welfare of the kingdom. Not one opposing voice can, with reason, be raised against this assertion: abuses are certainly to be corrected, and corrected effectually: this could not be done without the establishment of a new form of government; whether the form that has been adopted were the best, is another question, absolutely distinct. But that the above mentioned detail of enormities practiced on the people required some great change is sufficiently apparent; and I cannot better conclude such a list of detestable oppressions, than in the words of the Tiers Etat of Nivernois, who hailed the approaching day of liberty with an eloquence worthy of the subject.

"Les plaintes du peuple se sont long-temps perdues dans l’espace immense qui le spare du trône; cette classe la plus nombreuse et la plus intressante de la socit; cette classe qui mrite les premiers soins du gouvernement, puisqu’ elle alimente toutes les autres; cette classe laquelle on doit et les arts ncessaires la vie, et ceux qui en embellissent le tours; cette classe enfin qui en recueillant moins a toujours pay davantage, peut-elle apres taut de ficles d’oppression et de misère compter aujourdhui fur un sort plus heureux? Ce seroit pour ainsi dire blasphmer l’autorit tutlaire sous laquelle nous vivons qued’n douter un seul moment. Un respect aveugle pour les abus tablis ou pour la violence ou par la superstition, une ignorance profonde des conditions du pacte social voila ce qui a perptu jusqu’ nous la servitude dans laquelle out gemi nos pères. Un jour plus pure est près d’eclorre; le roi a manifest le desir de trouver des sujets eapables de lui dire la vrit; une de ses loix l’edit de cration des assmbles provinciales du moi de Juin, 1787, annonce que le voeu le plus pressent de son coeur sera toujours celui qui tendra au soulagement et au bonheur de ses peuples: une autre loi qui a retenti du centre du Royaume ses dernires extrmits nous a promis la restitution de tous nos droits, dont nous n’avions perdu, et dont nous ne pouvions perdre que l’exercise puisque le fond de ces mêmes droits est inalinable et imprescriptible. Osons done secouer le joug des anciennes erreurs; osons dire tout ce qui est vrai, tout ce qui est utile; osons rclaimer les droits essentiels et primitifs de l’homme: la raison l’equit, l’opinion gnrale, la bienfaisance connue de notre auguste souverain tout coneour assurer le succs de nous dolances."

[The complaints of the people have long lost themselves in the vast space that separates them from the throne. This class, the most numerous and the most interesting of society; this class which deserves the first attentions of government, since it feeds all the others; this class to which we owe the arts necessary to life and those which adorn progress; this class, in short, which in getting less has always paid more,—can it, after so many centuries of oppression and misery, count to-day upon a happier fate? To doubt it for a single moment would be to blaspheme the tutelary authority under which we live. A blind respect for established abuses or for violence or for superstition, a profound ignorance of the social compact, these are what have perpetuated up to our time the servitude in which our fathers groaned. A brighter day is about to dawn. The king has shown a desire to find subjects capable of telling him the truth. One of his laws, the decree known as "Creation of Provincial Assemblies, June, 1787," announces that the most pressing wish of his heart will always be to promote the relief and the happiness of his people. Another law which has resounded from the center of the kingdom to its farthest extremities has promised us the restitution of all our rights. It is only the exercise of those rights that we have lost, or could lose, for their very foundations are inalienable and imprescriptible. Let us therefore shake off the yoke of ancient errors; let us dare to say all that is true, all that is useful; let us dare to reclaim the essential and primitive rights of men. Reason, equity, public opinion, the well-known benevolence of our august sovereign, all co-operate to assure the success of our complaints.]

Having seen the propriety, or rather the necessity, of some change in the government, let us next briefly inquire into the effects of the revolution on the principal interests in the kingdom.

In respect to all the honours, power, and profit derived to the nobility from the feudal system, which was of an extent in France beyond anything known in England since the revolution, or long parliament: in 1640, all is laid in the dust, without a rag or remnant being spared: the importance of these, both in influence and revenue, was so great that the result is all but ruin to numbers. However, as these properties were real tyrannies; as they rendered the possession of one spot of land ruinous to all around it—and equally subversive of agriculture, and the common rights of mankind, the utter destruction brought on all this species of property does not ill deserve the epithet they are so fond of in France; it is a real regeneration of the people to the privileges of human nature. No man of common feelings can regret the fall of that abominable system, which made a whole parish slaves to the lord of the manor. But the effects of the revolution have gone much farther; and have been attended with consequences not equally justifiable. The rents of land, which are as legal under the new government as they were under the old, are no longer paid With regularity. I have been lately informed (August, 1791), on authority not to be doubted, that associations among tenantry, to a great amount and extent, have been formed, even within fifty miles of Paris, for the nonpayment of rent; saying, in direct terms, we are strong enough to detain the rent, and you are not strong enough to enforce the payment. In a country where such things are possible, property of every kind, it must be allowed, is in a dubious situation. Very evil consequences will result from this; arrears will accumulate too great for the landlords to lose, or for the peasants to pay, who will not easily be brought to relish that order and legal government, which must necessarily secure these arrears to their right owners. In addition to all the rest, by the new system of taxation, there is laid a land tax of 300 millions, or not to exceed 4s. in the pound; but under the old government their vingtiemes did not amount to the seventh part of such an impost. In whatever light, therefore, the case of French landlords is viewed, it will appear that they have suffered immensely by the revolution. That many of them deserved it, cannot, however, be doubted, since we see their cahiers demanding steadily that all their feudal rights should be confirmed: that the carrying of arms should be strictly prohibited to everybody butnoblemen; that the infamous arrangements of the militia should remain on its old footing: that breaking up wastes, and inclosing commons should be prohibited: that the nobility alone should be eligible to enter the army, church, etc.: that lettres de cachet should continue: that the press should not be free: and, in fine, that there should be no free corn trade.

To the clergy the revolution has been yet more fatal. One worn will dispatch this inquiry. The revolution was a decided benefit to all the lower clergy of the kingdom; but it was destructive of all the rest, It is not easy to know what they lost on the one hand, or what the national account will gain on the other. Mons. Necker calculates their revenue at 130,000,000 liv., of which only 42,500,000 liv. were in the hands of the curees of the kingdom. Their wealth has been much exaggerated: a late writer says they possessed half the kingdom. Their number was as little known as their revenue; one writer makes them 400,000; another 81,400; a third, 80,000.

The clergy in France have been supposed by many persons in England to merit their fate from their peculiar profligacy. But this idea is not accurate: that so large a body of men, possessed of very great revenues, should be free from vice, would be improbable, or rather impossible; but they preserved, what is not always preserved in England, an exterior decency of behavior. One did not find among them poachers or fox-hunters, who, having spent the morning in scampering after hounds, dedicate the evening to the bottle, and reel from inebriety to the pulpit. Such advertisements were never seen in France as I have heard of in England: "Wanted, a curacy in a good sporting country, where the duty is light and the neighbourhood convivial." The proper exercise for a country clergyman is the employment of agriculture; which demands strength and activity—and which, rigorously followed, will fatigue enough to give ease its best relish. A sportsman parson may be, as he often is in England, a good sort of man, and an honest fellow; but certainly this pursuit, and the resorting to obscene comedies, and kicking their heels in the jig of an assembly, are not the occupations for which we can suppose tithes were given. Whoever will give any attention to the demands of the clergy in their cahiers, will see that there was on many topics an ill spirit in that body. They maintain, for instance, that the liberty of the press ought rather to be restrained than extended: that the laws against it should be renewed and executed: that admission into religious orders should be,as formerly, at sixteen years of age: that lettres de cachet are useful and even necessary. They solicit to prohibit all division of commons; to revoke the edict allowing inclosures; that the export of corn be not allowed; and that public granaries be established.

The ill effects of the revolution have been felt more severely by the manufacturers of the kingdom than by any other class of the people. The rivalry of the English fabrics, in 1787 and 1788, was strong and successful; and the confusions that followed in all parts of the kingdom had the effect of lessening the incomes of so many landlords, clergy, and men in public employments; and such numbers fled from the kingdom, that the general mass of the consumption of national fabrics sunk perhaps three-fourths. The men, whose incomes were untouched, lessening their consumption greatly, from an apprehension of the unsettled state of things; the prospects of a civil war, suggested to every man that his safety, perhaps his future bread, depended on the money which he could hoard. The inevitable consequence was turning absolutely out of employment immense numbers of workmen. I have, in the diary of the journey, noticed the infinite misery to which I was a witness at Lyons, Abbeville, Amiens, etc., and by intelligence I understood that it was still worse at Rouen: the fact could not be otherwise. This effect, which was absolute death, by starving many thousands of families, was a result that, in my opinion, might have been avoided. It flowed only from carrying things to extremities—from driving the nobility out of the kingdom, and seizing, instead of regulating, the whole regal authority. These violences were not necessary to liberty; they even destroyed true liberty, by giving the government of the kingdom, in too great a degree, to Paris, and to the populace of every town.

The effect of the revolution to the small proprietors of the kingdom, must, according to the common nature of events, be, in the end, remarkably happy; and had the new government adopted any principles of taxation, except those of the oeconomistes, establishing at the same time an absolute freedom in the business of inclosure, and in the police of corn, the result would probably have been advantageous, even at this recent period. The committee of imposts mention (and I doubt not their accuracy) the prosperity of agriculture, in the same page in which they lament the depression of every other branch of the national industry. Upon a moderate calculation there remained in the hands of the classes depending on land, on the account of taxes in the years 1789 and 1790, at least 300,000,000 liv.; the execution of corvees was as laxas the payment of taxes. To this we are to add two years tithe, which I cannot estimate at less than 300,000,000 liv. more. The abolition of all feudal rents, and payments of every sort during those two years, could not be less than 100,000,000 liv., including services. But all these articles, great as they were, amounting to near 800,000,000 liv., were less than the immense sums that came into the hands of the farmers by the, high price of corn throughout the year 1789; a price arising almost entirely from Mons. Necker’s fine operations in the corn trade, as it has been proved at large; it is true there is a deduction to be made on account of the unavoidable diminution of consumption in every article of land produce, not essentially necessary to life; every object of luxury, or tending to it, is lessened greatly. But after this discount is allowed, the balance in favour of the little proprietor farmers must be very great. The benefit of such a sum being added as it is to the capital of husbandry, needs no explanation. Their agriculture must be invigorated by such wealth—by the freedom enjoyed by its professors: by the destruction of its innumerable shackles; and even by the distresses of other employments, occasioning new and great investments of capital in land: and these leading facts will appear in a clearer light when the prodigious division of landed property in France is well considered; probably half, perhaps two-thirds, of the kingdom are in the possession of little proprietors, who paid quit-rents, and feudal duties, for the spots they farmed. Such men are placed at once in comparative affluence; and as ease is thus acquired by at least half the kingdom, it must not be set down as a point of trifling importance. Should France escape a civil war, she will, in the prosperity of these men, find a resource which politicians at a distance do not calculate. With renters the case is certainly different; for, beyond all doubt, landlords will, sooner or later, avail themselves of these circumstances by advancing their rents; acting in this respect, as in every other country, is common; but they will find it impossible to deprive the tenantry of a vast advantage, necessarily flowing from their emancipation.

The confusion which has since arisen in the finances, owing almost entirely to the mode of taxation adopted by the assembly, has had the effect of continuing to the present moment (1791) a freedom from all impost to the little proprietors, which, however dreadful its general effects on the national affairs, has tended strongly to enrich this class.

The effects of the revolution, not on any particular class of cultivators, but on agriculture in general, is with me, I must confess, veryquestionable; I see no benefits flowing particularly to agriculture (liberty applies equally to all classes, and is riot yet sufficiently established for the protection of property), except the case of tithes; but I see the rise of many evils; restrictions and prohibitions on the trade of corn—a varying land-tax—and impeded inclosures, are mischiefs on principle, that may have a generative faculty; and will prove infinite drawbacks from the prosperity, which certainly was attainable. It is to be hoped that the good sense of the assembly will reverse this system by degrees; for, if it is not reversed, agriculture cannot flourish.

The effect of the revolution, on the public revenue, is one great point on which Mons. de Calonne lays considerable stress; and it has been since urged in France that the ruin of 30,000 families, thrown absolutely out of employment, and consequently out of bread, in the collection of the taxes on salt and tobacco only, has had a powerful influence in spreading universal distress and misery. The public revenue sunk, in one year, 175 millions: this was not a loss of that sum; the people to whom assignats were paid on that account lost no more than the discount; the loss, therefore, to the people to whom that revenue was paid, could amount to no more than from 5 to 10 per cent. But was it a loss to the miserable subjects who formerly paid those taxes; and who paid them by the sweat of their brows, at the expense of the bread out of their children’s mouths, assessed with tyranny, and levied in blood? Do they feel a loss in having 175 millions in their pockets in 1789, more than they had in 1788? and in possessing another 175 millions more in 1790, and the inheritance in future? Is not such a change ease, wealth, life and animation to those classes who, while the pens of political satirists slander all innovations, are every moment reviving, by inheriting from that revolution something which the old government assuredly did not give? The revenue of the clergy may be called the revenue of the public: those to whom the difference between the present payment of one hundred and forty millions, and the old tithes are a reduction of all revenue, are, beyond doubt, in great distress; but what say the farmers throughout the kingdom, from whom the detestable burthen of those taxes was extorted? Do they find their culture lightened, their industry freed, their products their own? Go to the aristocratical politician in Paris, or at London, and you hear only of the ruin of France—go to the cottage, of the metayer, or the house of the farmer, and demand of him what the result has been—there will be but one voice from Calais to Bayonne. If tithes were to be at onestroke abolished in England, no doubt the clergy would suffer, but would not the agriculture of the kingdom, with every man dependent on it, rise with a vigour never before experienced?

a An anecdote which I have from an authority to be depended on, will explain the profligacy of government, in respect to these arbitrary imprisonments. Lord Albemarle, when ambassador in France, about the year 1753, negotiating the fixing of the limits of the American colonies, which, three years after, produced the war, calling one day on the minister for foreign affairs, was introduced, for a few minutes, into his cabinet, while he finished a short conversation in the apartment in which he usually received those who conferred with him. As his lordship walked backwards and forwards in a very small room (a French cabinet is never a large one), he could not help seeing a paper lying on the table, written in a large legible hand, and containing a list of the prisoners in the Bastile, in which the first name was Gordon. When the minister entered, Lord Albemarle apologized for his involuntary remarking the paper; the other replied that it was not of the least consequence, for they made no secret of the names. Lord Athen said that he had seen the name of Gordon first in the list, and he begged to know, as in all, probability the person of this name was a British subject, on what account he had been put into the Bastile. The minister told him that he knew nothing of the matter, but would make the proper inquiries. The next time he saw Lord Albemarle he informed him that, on inquiring into the case of Gordon, he could find no person who could give him the least information; on which he had had Gordon himself interrogated, who solemnly affirmed that he had not the smallest knowledge, or even suspicion, of the cause of his imprisonment, but that he had been confined 30 years; however, added the minister, I ordered him to be immediately released, and he is now at large. Such a case wants no comment.

b It is calculated by a writer (Recherches et Confid. par M. le Baron de Cormere, tom. ii. p. 187), very well informed on every subject of finance, that, upon an average, there were annually taken up and sent to prison or the galleys, men, 2,340; women, 896; children, 201; total, 3,437; 300 of these to the galleys (tom. i. p. 112). The salt confiscated from these miserables amounted to 12,633 quintals, which, at the mean price of 8 liv. are………………………………101,064 liv.
          2,7721b of salted flesh, at 10f………1,386          1,086 horses, at 50 liv…………….54,300          52 carts, at 150 liv…………………7,800          Fines……………………………..53,207          Seized in houses…………………105,530

c By this horrible law the people are bound to grind their corn at the mill of the seigneur only; to press their grapes at his press only; and to bake their bread in his oven; by which means the bread is often spoiled, and more especially wine, since in Champagne those grapes which, pressed immediately, would make white wine, will, by waiting for the press, which often happens, make red wine only.

dThis is a curious article; when the lady of the seigneur lies in, the people are obliged to beat the waters in marshy districts, to keep the frogs silent, that she may not be disturbed; this duty, a very oppressive one, is commuted into a pecuniary fine.


Related Resources

French Revolution

Download Options

Title: The Library of Original Sources, Vol 7

Select an option:

*Note: A download may not start for up to 60 seconds.

Email Options

Title: The Library of Original Sources, Vol 7

Select an option:

Email addres:

*Note: It may take up to 60 seconds for for the email to be generated.

Chicago: "The Condition of the French People," The Library of Original Sources, Vol 7 in The Library of Original Sources, ed. Oliver J. Thatcher (Milwaukee, Wisconsin: University Research Extension Co., 1907), 375–388. Original Sources, accessed December 2, 2023,

MLA: . "The Condition of the French People." The Library of Original Sources, Vol 7, in The Library of Original Sources, edited by Oliver J. Thatcher, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, University Research Extension Co., 1907, pp. 375–388. Original Sources. 2 Dec. 2023.

Harvard: , 'The Condition of the French People' in The Library of Original Sources, Vol 7. cited in 1907, The Library of Original Sources, ed. , University Research Extension Co., Milwaukee, Wisconsin, pp.375–388. Original Sources, retrieved 2 December 2023, from