The Revolution was made by the educated middle class or bourgeoisie-certain lawyers, doctors, priests, some small landowners, and a few merchants. The French middle class paid taxes, but was barred from high civil, military, and diplomatic employment and was subject to social slights. It was small in numbers-five per cent. of the population perhaps. It had read Rousseau, Voltaire, and Diderot, and was full both of grievance and idealism.
The bulk of the population (ninety per cent.) were peasants, conspicuous for hard work and attachment to their property. In many parts of France they owned land, and they were much better off than German or Spanish peasants. But their very " prosperity " made them more impatient of the very heavy burdens they had to bear. The royal government taxed them and demanded road labour and military service. The lords of manors, even if they had sold their lands, retained manorial rights; there were, too, tithes to the Church. In all, three-quarters of a peasant's income went in miscellaneous dues. But the peasant, though not unintelligent, was not likely to have made a national movement.
There was a quarter of a million nobles (one per cent. of the nation), some very great lords, others mere honorary noblesse. Many were hangers-on at the palace of Versailles, and their bailiffs squeezed the peasants: others did the squeezing directly. Where the nobles retained the paternal feudal way of life, as in Brittany, they and the clergy were popular. The nobles had privileges but no powers: government at Versailles and in every province was carried on by ministers and officials usually selected from the nobility, but unpopular with the other nobles, who indeed were nearly as full of grievances as the middle class. Some were followers of Rousseau.
The higher clergy were usually of noble birth, clever worldlings, appointed while young to abbacies or bishoprics. Their posts carried great emoluments. The humbler priests were usually very poor, of peasant origin, and conscious of the need for reform. Neither clergy nor nobles, though best able to pay, paid direct taxes. The taxes were "farmed " to contractors, a vicious system. No wonder that the national revenue was inadequate.
The States General contained three Houses-Clergy, Nobles, and the Third Estate or Commons, who were embarking entirely unprepared on great changes. Mirabeau, an unscrupulous but astute noble of great energy and ambition, took the lead in the Third Estate, and forced the other Estates to join it in a National Assembly. The King meant to dissolve it by military force, but the Paris mob forced him to come to Paris, where he remained under guard. Meanwhile the Assembly abolished feudalism and the privileges of nobles and clergy. The peasants were already burning castles and title deeds. The Assembly with much windy rhetoric abolished the old provincial boundaries and provincial tolls, and set committees to work to prepare other reforms. But, like the English parliament in 1641, they now ran into difficulties over the Church. They took all its property in France, issued paper money called assignats on the security of the lands, promised to pay all clergy reasonable salaries, and set up a new Church, with Catholic doctrine and ritual and government by elected bishops. The Pope and all loyal Catholics refused consent, churches were closed, and a large section of the country was alienated.
Probably no one could have saved the King and Queen, who were sulkily plotting revenge. Mirabeau, who might have done it, died in 1791. Soon afterwards the royal family made off to join the royal princes and nobles who had already fled to Germany, hoping to get the military assistance of the Queen's brother, the Austrian Emperor. They were caught, and henceforward were not trusted. Elections for a new Assembly took place that year. It had been agreed, unwisely, that no members of the States General should sit in the new Assembly, which was filled with unpractical young men. A party known as the Girondins took the lead, extreme reformers but not so violent as the Jacobins, a political group who were gaining influence.
The King was forced in 1792 to declare war on his Austrian and Prussian friends, who invaded France, hoping to gain territory but determined not to be involved too deeply, since the second partition of Poland was pending. The nation was roused by the famous hymn, " The Marseillaise," sung by a regiment of revolutionaries from Marseilles; its bloodthirsty words echo the panic produced by the menace of invasion.