Thursday, November 14, 2013

Neoclassicism (pt. 1)

In 1789 France was bankrupt.  The nation had been left in debt after the Seven Years' War and the American Revolutionary War.  The king's initial, answering decree to this dilemma was simply to increase taxes, but, clearly no economist himself, Louis XVI proved ineffective at establishing new taxation laws.  The taxes did not just rise higher, they shot dramatically upward.  Suddenly, the carefree aristocrats could no longer support their lavish lifestyles, while most peasants could not even afford food.  The rising complaint became the king's lack of concern for domestic matters.  Funding and military support had been so amply donated to the American Colonies over the past several years that France was itself at risk of collapsing into insurmountable debt.  The higher taxation that the king implemented to solve the problem only further infuriated the bourgeoisie, who quickly moved to skepticism over the effectiveness of their king, Louis XVI, in office.  The country was also suffering from an ongoing famine that led to a severe economic inflation.  Bread prices especially skyrocketed, and the first riots to break out in France among the lower-class masses dealt with this very issue.
But increasingly the nation's poor economic situation became a political issue.  Fed up on higher taxes, the French aristocracy began questioning the right of the king to absolute authority.  This had been an Enlightenment ideal (among its supporters had been Thomas Hobbes).  So, naturally an attack on their king's right to sovereignty meant not only a political struggle but an intellectual struggle as well, an ideological struggle, and even a philosophical one.  Unfortunately, circumstances were too intolerably bad to allow much time for heavy consideration over the subject—the subject which, though unspoken and indefinite, nevertheless pervaded the air: revolution—so the bureaucrats and members of the Third Estate near Versailles convened to debate and discuss the matter publically in conference.  (France did not, strictly speaking, have a parliament at this time, but neither was this a simple town meeting.  The Third Estate, briefly defined, was a societal order of lower-class people, represented by members who volunteered to appear in the Estates General, a series of ongoing political forum sessions similar to, but certainly not corresponding with, parliamentary assemblies.)  The debate was to be concerned with the nation's adoption of a constitution to replace the monarchical system of government hitherto practiced (and doubtless the idea for a constitutional government took inspiration from the American Revolution).  A constitution would limit the king's power and ensure a more stable government; but to what kind of problems would it lead?  And who would write the constitution for them?  These were all questions to be discussed in the assembly.
In late June, members of the Third Estate met in the city of Versailles to hold an Estates General assembly but were shocked to find the assembly house barred shut.  The king, fearing the growth of treacherous sentiment among the public, had the building locked and guarded, forbidding the citizens' entry into their own house of meeting.  Determined to enact this council, the five hundred plus attendees walked across the street to a nearby tennis court and met inside it.  The historic moment was commemorated in an unfinished drawing, which has since become famous, by artist Jacques-Louis David.  It was here, inside a tennis court, that members of the Third Estate decided to band together in full-out protest of the king and not stop until a constitution had been written.  Their statement of resolve toward this matter was called the Tennis Court Oath.
Perhaps the fact that the king had tried to stop ordinary citizens from meeting in public had something to do with their ultimate decision, but it has been argued that the king had not done so on purpose; that, because of the recent death of his son (sixteen days earlier) all political meeting houses were closed out of sheer formality, because the king was still in mourning.  Generally, however, it is agreed that the king overstepped his boundaries by banning citizens from public meeting houses—at least, that was the ruling of the French lower class in 1789.

No comments:

Post a Comment