The Cahiers de Doléances of 1789

Sam Vancea, Dickson College 2008

The Cahier de Doleances of Angers.
In response to declining political stability in France the French parliament, known as the Estates General, met in May, 1789. In March and April, representatives from the three Estates - the clergy, the aristocracy and the common people (which included bourgeoisie, peasants and urban poor) - pooled lists of grievances, complaints and proposed reforms which are known as the cahiers de doléances. These cahiers were a clear starting point to the revolution, a statement of the grievances of each class. Since the cahiers as a whole represent general public opinion, these documents give an insight into the chief grievances of the French people on the eve of revolution. Apparent in the cahiers is the opinion that the country’s political and legal system was corrupt and needed amendment. Furthermore, revision is demanded of the existing taxation policies, which had expanded to burden all three estates to varying degrees. Present in the cahiers is an underlying theme of Enlightenment thought, revealing that such ideas were generally widespread and popular among the people of France. Despite the fact that the cahiers of all estates clearly confirm the people desired change, the proposed changes were exclusively directed to the rooting out of inadequacies in the present system, but not the eradication of the monarchy. At this stage the monarchy was greatly respected. The cahiers of the 1789 Estates General reveal the existence of key popular grievances and opinions that would shape and give rise to the great political upheaval of the decade to come.

The cahiers scrutinise the effectiveness of French government, politically and legally, highlighting an opinion that corruption had infiltrated the administration, and that change was needed. The management of France had contributed to its instability and Frenchmen felt it was not serving their best interests. At the heart of the problem were perceived arbitrary abuses which were not held in check. The aristocracy describes them as,

…the abuses which have accumulated in France during a long succession of centuries… [that conflict with the rights of citizens through] laws which attack property, liberty and personal safely (Cahier of The Nobility of Blois in Whitcombe, 1898).

These abuses took the form of corruption in ‘police regulations… exclusive privileges which fetter industry… [and] the administration of justice’. Changes were called for to limit the crisis of corruption; an example being the nobility urging the Estates General to ‘make the capitalists pay taxes in proportion to their affluence and luxury’. Moreover, the cahiers recognise that one solution would be to give more power to the Estates General, the nation’s representatives. A general outline for this new system, similar to England’s constitutional monarchy, was proposed: The king would enjoy the full extent of ‘executive power’ (Cahier of The Nobility of Blois in Whitcombe, 1898) necessary to insure the law is upheld but would not be able to modify the laws without the nation consenting. These laws were to be given greater reverence and respect by all, including the monarch. The cahiers reveal that French people believed the present system of governing was corrupt and that giving more power to the nation would help to remedy the situation.

Another urgent issue frequently addressed was the taxation system and taxes on necessities like salt, which all three Estates identified as excessive. On this issue the three estates were of the same mind. The Clergy of Romoratin believed that ‘the burden of taxation… has become excessive’ (Cahier of the Clergy of Blois and Romoratin in Kreis n.d.). The Nobility suggested that taxes ‘ought not to be otherwise than voluntary' (Cahier of The Nobility of Blois in Whitcombe, 1898) and the peasantry, worst affected, called for total remittances. The Clergy felt that the taxes on salt were ‘disastrous for the people’ (Cahier of the Clergy of Troyes in Beik, 1971). The Third Estate at Rouen complained of the profits gained at the expense of the people:

a barrel of salt that cost the farmer 360 to 400 livres produces 3000 livres… an enormous and revolting profit (Cahier of the Hatters and Furriers of Rouen in Kaplow, 1971).

Practical changes were suggested to ease the situation: the exemplary commoners of Dourdon stated their wishes that ‘every personal tax be abolished’ in favour of land and property taxes and that levies should be ‘borne equally’ among social classes with reductions for the poor (Third Estate of Dourdan in Goodlet 2001). Furthermore, new taxes would need the consent of the nation (Cahier of the Clergy of Blois and Romoratin in Kreis n.d.). It is clear the excessive taxation affected all levels of society and hence immediate reforms were a priority in the cahiers. Above all, the cahiers assert the view that taxation was borne unequally, an assertion augmented by deeper currents of enlightened thought that were clearly gaining ground in the French population at large.

The cahiers reveal that, by 1789, the ideas of the enlightened thinkers had embedded themselves in the general populace, resulting in certain core principles, such as the Rights of Man, equality and freedom of thought, being integrated into the documents. These modern ideas which, in many ways contradicted the values of the ancien regime, are present in cahiers from all three estates. They offer a logical prelude to the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen endorsed by the National Assembly several months after the cahiers were written. This revolutionary reformation of thought was characterised by the concept of a set of inalienable rights, which the Nobility recognises as of utmost importance stating:

From the right of personal liberty arises the right to write, to think, to print and to publish (Cahier of The Nobility of Blois in Whitcombe, 1898).

The Third Estate, which later created the National Assembly in an effort to improve equality, asked that they be allowed to present themselves as equals to the other estates, ‘without distinction that might degrade them’ (Cahier of the Third Estate of Dourdan in Goodlet 2001). Moreover, the Clergy, by far the least radical of the three estates, at least showed recognition of the ideas and approved freedom of speech. Rights relating to personal safety are cited as extremely important, with the cahiers criticising violations of the ‘most sacred of the rights of man’ (Cahier of The Nobility of Blois in Whitcombe, 1898), and asking no citizen be exiled or held prisoner unlawfully. Last, academic merit over birthright is discussed, surprisingly supported by the Nobility. Ideas fundamental to the Eighteenth century Enlightenment were infused in the documents, indicating that this mindset was of strong influence among French people. However, the cahiers also express support for the monarchical system of the day.

Although critical changes were called for, the cahiers reveal that at this stage the old regime was still widely respected and ultimately valued as an appropriate form of government. The Estates represent their grievances and reforms simply as inadequacies in the present system and did not question the monarchy itself.

The…third estate of… Dourdan… forgets at this moment its misfortunes and impotence, to harken only to its foremost sentiment and its foremost duty, that of sacrificing everything to the glory of the Patrie and the service of His Majesty (Cahier of the Third Estate of Dourdan in Goodlet 2001).

This Third Estate cahier, beginning as such despite continuing to request significant change, provides an example of this type of thinking evident in the cahiers at large. The French spirit, and ultimately the happiness of the nation was, according to one Third Estate cahier, bound to the monarchy and the happiness of the king. This revealed that people of all levels of society were at least sympathetic towards the monarch. Explaining this is possibly a desire to promote stability and avoid the problematic upheaval that ultimately became the Revolution. The Clergy asked that the monarchy be further cemented by collecting a set of laws in code ‘which forever assures to the nation its purely monarchical government’ (Cahier of the Clergy of Troyes in Beik, 1971). The monarchy was valued and intertwined with French national pride and spirit and none, at this stage, demanded its removal.

The cahiers, collected from the people of France, offer a singular glimpse into the social climate of the times. Though they did not always agree, the cahiers of the three Estates reveal several beliefs and grievances held universally across the social spectrum of France in 1789. The governing of the country was held as corrupt and inefficient, and people called for more power to the nation to help solve the abuses. Taxes, especially on necessities, had become a great burden, and all three estates requested urgent change. Underneath these complaints and requests was the influence of the radical thought known as the Enlightenment; its ideas relating to personal liberty and equality present in the writings, and ultimately contradicting the present system. At this stage however, the French paradoxically desired to hold on to their glorious ancient regime, a symbol of national pride and dignity, and a system whose leadership had in, previous decades, afforded France great prestige, power, and wealth. All the main ideas and issues presented in the cahiers reveal general opinions held by the French, opinions that helped spark the Revolution.

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