Why Couldn't Louis XVI Tax The First Two Estates?

Discussion in 'Alternate History Discussion: Before 1900' started by KingOnTheEdge, Sep 10, 2019 at 10:13 PM.

  1. KingOnTheEdge Vive La Revolucion

    Mar 12, 2019
    The French Revolution was one of the bloodiest points in the beginnings of modern europe. And it all started over what was fundamentally a tax revolt. King Louis's not taxing the nobility and the clergy screwed france over financially and the peasants bore the brunt of it, justifiably getting uppity when the nobility still dressed like nobility.

    But Louis knew that taxing the Rich was the answer, he had plenty of advisors onside telling him so. So why didn't he, he was at least officially and Absolute Monarch. Hell, painting the picture of a king who works for the peasants against scheming dukes would serve him well in other areas, no?
    Zagan likes this.
  2. Basileus_Komnenos Imperator Romanorum Βασιλεύς των Ρωμαιων Αὔγουστος

    Dec 20, 2018
    Because Louis XVI took the throne at 19 where he was young and impressionable. The nobles were able to coax him into reestablishing the Parlements. The Parlement presented itself as preventing a tyrannical overreach by the King. In reality it was a noble dominated institution that jealously tried to maintain its power. Louis XVI had the power of Lit d'Justice to force what he wanted through but it would have been a major faux pas and the nobles would have had popular support against the King. He couldn't really cound on the army either as the King cut their pay and reduced the officer corps. This made the army extremely angry with the King. The King's main mistake was de-funding the army. Had the King abolished the Parlement the he could have allowed Necker to push for financial reform within France which the Nobles in the Parlement tried to block. Even the reactionary Charles X, the King's younger brother recognized that the nobles needed their financial privileges cut so that France would stay fiscally solvent.

    Unlike what they teach in school France wasn't an absolute Monarchy. Louis XIV wasn't an absolute monarch as his reign was all about a balancing act between himself and the nobility where the balance of power was slated in his favor. The King had the nobles move to Versailles so the various factions would be away from their centers of power and they were forced to wait on him in the hope that the King would be partial to their interests/objectives. The King appointed royal viceroys to manage the provinces while the nobles in Versailles. The nobles still kept their tremendous legal power and social authority. After Louis XIV died the nobles re-asserted themselves during the reign of Louis XV and Louis XVI. Louis XV the colossal idiot managed to lose France's colonial Empire and gave back the Austrian Netherlands to the Hapsburgs rendering his wars to be pointless. This damaged the prestige of the monarchy. The nobles realized this and asserted themselves. Louis XV realized that he screwed up and toward the end of his reign he used his remaining political capital to barely pass through the abolition of the Parlements. This would have freed the Kings to unify the legal system and modernize the highly archaic and inefficient tax code. France was not the unitary state that emerged after the Revolution and the reign of Emperor Napoleon. France was still a patchwork of various feudal domains and church lands each with their own tax codes and laws. One of the major grievances of the French Peasantry was that taxation was inconsistent across France and some paid less while others paid more. Had France managed to have a more competent Louis XV then France would have been able to reform its legal system and financial system. France needed a strong ruler to centralize the state and modernize the tax system. Napoleon I was this for France as he kept some of the major reforms of the Revolution intact. He also finally balanced the budget of France and with his Code Napoleon, he created a uniform set of laws for France. Napoleon was a more absolute ruler than Louis XIV ever was which was why he was able to push his reforms and policies without much opposition. This why France stabilized under him and was able to use its full potential to nearly conquer all of Continental Europe. In otl Ancien Regime France was limited by its archaic tax system, and many times during wars when the tide turned in their favor, they had to stop because they were going bankrupt.

    Except in otl after the French Revolutionaries execute the King there were mass peasant rebellion in favor of the King and the Clergy. The Vendee Revolts had featured such fervent Royalist support that the Revolutionary Regime brutally suppressed it with brutal massacres of the civilian population. Some historians argue this as an example of genocide (though this is disputed). Even during the reign of Charles X many peasants outside Paris supported the King. Napoleon III also saw many Catholic peasants as his base of support. This was why Napoleon intervened in Italy in favor of the Papal States. By the time of the Revolution many peasants were suffering from famine and wanted tax relief. The National Assembly didn't solve the financial crisis and to make matters worse executed the King and started attacking the clergy. Many peasants didn't support such radicalism which was why huge revolts like what occurred in Vendee occurred.
    Last edited: Sep 11, 2019 at 9:11 AM
  3. FranzAncheNo Citizen of the Republic of Pistoia

    Oct 8, 2018
    Republic of Pistoia
    Taxing the Church wouldn't make any sense for Louis.
    At least officially, the revenues of the Church's possessions are used for charity (1) and to finance its missionary activity (2) around the globe.
    Taking away these money would be seen as (1) stealing from the poors and (2) working against the diffusion of the Religion that gives him legitimacy as King.
    Also, Louis himself was a convinced Catholic AFAIK, so he would think of what he's doing as stealing from the begging bowl.
    KaiserWilhelm likes this.
  4. Basileus_Komnenos Imperator Romanorum Βασιλεύς των Ρωμαιων Αὔγουστος

    Dec 20, 2018
    The Catholic peasantry would have also been pissed as that meant that the Church would have to increase tithes.
    KaiserWilhelm and FranzAncheNo like this.
  5. Mina-van-Mako Marquise of Excess (formerly Mako-Tochan)

    Jan 1, 2018
    My Domain
    @Basileus_Komnenos concerning the absolute monarchy part, I'd say the biggest mistake most people do is ignore "Le Régent". Louis XIV spent his whole reign trying to taylor a style of governance that would suit his idea of a good monarchy and reduce the threat that was the nobility. In the end, he almost achieved it.

    BUT Louis XV's Régent Philippe d'Orléans undid many of the absolutist law during his regency to secure the stability of the kingdom while the king was a child. Louis XVI wasn't an absolute monarch, he was pretty close to Anne of Britain actually...
  6. Maniakes Well-Known Member

    Oct 10, 2008
    To oversimplify, medieval/renaissance monarchs generally had three major sources of revenue:
    • Their own lands, which generated revenue like any other feudal holding
    • Sale of offices, monopolies, charters, patents, etc
    • Taxes
    Taxes differed significantly from the other two categories, since taxes generally needed to be authorized by the realm's legislative assembly (Parliament in England, the Estates General in France, the Cortes in Castille, etc). In general, the more the government depended on new or renewed tax legislation, the more powerful the legislature was relative to the king.

    Late Ancien Regime France is often described as an absolute monarchy, but as @Basileus_Komnenos pointed out, that's a misleading oversimplification. The Kings of France were a lot more absolute than their English counterparts, and one of the big reasons for that was that England's kings needed quite a bit of tax revenue to cover their expenses and England's Parliament made a point of only authorizing taxes for a few years at a time so the king had to keep going back to Parliament for more money. France's Estates General, on the other hand, had authorized several permanent in the 1400s. Most notably the Taille, a tax on non-noble lands (*) with the interesting feature that it wasn't assessed at a fixed rate: the King decided each year how much money he needed, and that amount was apportioned across provinces, each of which in turn apportioned it among landowners. So the king could raise and lower the main tax at will (subject to his practical ability to collect the tax, of course), but he couldn't change its structure without reconvening the Estates General.

    As it happened, the Kings of France had enough revenues from the Taille and other permanent taxes in addition to their own feudal incomes that they didn't bother calling the Estates General into session at all for the 175 year period from 1614 until 1789. Some kings (most notably Louis XIV) also got away with imposing additional taxes on their own authority. I'm a little fuzzy on the details of how, but it sounds like it boiled down to the King decreeing the tax and the appeals courts that could have declared the taxes illegal (the Parlements) being abolished/suppressed by the King at some times, and being bribed, intimidated, or persuaded to back the King's policies at other times.

    Louis XVI had allowed himself to be persuaded to reestablish the Parlements, which were dead-set against new Royal taxes, and he didn't feel he was in a position to abolish them again. And he needed more money to pay France's debts than he could reasonably raise with the Taille and other existing taxes, so that left reconvening the Estates General as a means of restructuring France's tax system.

    (*) This is subtly different from "lands owned by non-nobles". If a noble sold his land to a commoner, the land would remain "noble land" exempt from the Taille.
  7. Chrispi Byzantine Logothete

    Feb 11, 2004
    Constantinople, Capital of the World
    Not to get into an argument about whether not helping the Americans gain independence from Britain would save the ancien régime from total collapse (it would... for another ten years, tops; the most implacable of France’s many enemies was the exponential function.) The delay, however, would give the ~Revolution a different flavor. Most likely an even bloodier one. The extra decade or so would have likely made Louis seize, pardon the pun, power like his predecessors.

    Historically, Louis attempted to pass Necker’s tax reforms, but the Parlement of Paris blocked them as an attack on the nobility, eventually forcing Louis’ hand in convening the Parlement in person in the so-called Lit de justice, and forced it to register the new taxes. Furthermore, he dissolved that judicial body, and exiled its members. This caused Paris to explode in riots; in correspondences, the exiles urged the other parlements throughout France to resist the registrations in their provinces as well. Louis relented, withdrew the tax and restored the Parlement of Paris, preferring now to call an Assembly of Notables, which likewise rejected the reforms and recommended calling an Estates-General instead. So it was, and the rest is, well you know...

    Alternately, a more confident and decade-older Louis would pass the needed reforms and have Paris record them, which it would, of course, not do. Louis would then call the Paris Parlement in a Lit de justice just like ours; however, not only would he dissolve it, but would simply arrest Parlement and send them to the Bastille, incommunicado...
  8. KingOnTheEdge Vive La Revolucion

    Mar 12, 2019
    Wouldn't that be good for Louis? he taxes the nobility, the peasants don't have less money to buy more expensive bread, and while the parlementaires would complain, does that really lead to a violent overthrow of the king?
  9. Matteo Well-Known Member

    Oct 30, 2012
    Louis XVI did not tax the first two orders because he did not want to do so without their consent and that they of course did not want to lose their tax privilege.

    A part of the nobility wanted to undo the centralization (relative but very real compared to the early 17th century) of power that Louis XIV had performed.

    It is barely known that just before the French Revolution, there was an attempt at what scholars call the noble revolution to weaken the king’s power in favor of the nobility.

    Basically the nobles refused to cooperate in Louis XVI’s attempts to solve the debt, budget and fiscal crisis.

    The rich nobles wanted their share of power and would not agree to being taxed without such a share.

    The non rich and the impoverished nobles stuck to their non fiscal privileges in the army, the royal administration, ... etc.

    On their side, the rich non nobles who were more taxed than nobles did not want to be more taxed, less even without obtaining a share in power.

    The well off non nobles felt quite the same and strongly resented the privileged of the impoverished nobility.

    The poor non nobles wanted bread, land, work.

    This because of such a mess that Louis XVI was finally convinced by some of his advisors or ministers to summon for a reunion of the General Estates (that had not been summoned for almost 2 centuries).

    The point was that Louis XVI’s personality was characterized by a lack of confidence and authority. He had no clear idea of the precise set of measures on which he would just ask for the General Estates advice. Instead, he made the fatal mistake to ask the delegates of the General Estates (who were all rich or well-off, be they delegates of the clergy, of the nobility or of the third Estate) : what would you do to fixe the budget and debt crisis ?

    Everybody then interpreted such a behavior as a flagrant sign of the king’s personal weakness and that there was a de facto vacancy of power. So a wide majority was gathered with most of the delegates of the third Estate and a large part of the delegates of the clergy and the nobility to declare themselves as the National Assembly representing the will of the People (which they had not been elected to be) and created a parallel power challenging the king’s authority.

    And this king was unable to make the decisions and to stick to the decisions that would have enabled him to take back control of the political agenda.

    The irony is that the General Estates/National Assembly did not do what it had been summoned to.

    It did not balance budget and solve the debt problem. Its members, who were those who held or represented those holding the public debt, took measures to make sure that the government/crown would not solve the debt/fiscal crisis at their expense by going bankrupt.

    So they organized a mass privatization of the public properties (kind of yeltsinian privatizations, to avoid bankruptcy on the treasury bonds they held), most of which belonged to the Catholic Church but were dedicated to financing what were in fact the public elementary schools and healthcare systems. Which caused an economic and social catastrophee and worsened the enduring political crisis.
    Basileus_Komnenos likes this.
  10. Chrispi Byzantine Logothete

    Feb 11, 2004
    Constantinople, Capital of the World
    The question is not so much can Louis survive, but can France?