July 02, 2014July 14 is Bastille Day, France's version of Independence Day. Not only is it a national holiday for France, but the story behind the French Revolution is a symbol of what happens when big government and inadequate citizen rights get out of hand, and the rest of the world would do well to note the causes.
It was said that Versailles, the royal palace, was built by Louis XIV, lived in by Louis XV, and paid for by Louis XVI. Versailles is a beautiful palace. However, a mansion such as Versailles didn't come cheap, and Louis XIV depleted the French treasury by building it.
The construction lasted several decades, with the French debt for it gradually increasing. It wasn't even completed in the lifetime of Louis XIV. Louis XIV outlived all his children and grandchildren, and when he died in 1715 he was succeeded by his great-grandson, known as Louis XV.
In the mid-1700s, France and England took their traditional rivalry to North America, resulting in what we know as the French and Indian War (the one where General Washington fought on the side of the British). France was defeated in the war, retaining only Quebec after the issue of territories was settled. Winning a war is expensive enough, but losing in the days before war relief was worse and the loss of a tax base from the Louisiana Territory aggravated the financial problems. To get back at the British, France sent assistance to the rebels during the American Revolution, a gesture much appreciated by us, but another expense for a nation which could ill afford it.
Running out of ways to finance France's spending, Louis XVI, who had succeeded Louis XV in 1774, came up with the idea of taxing the nobility and clergy, who were immune from taxation. The rest of France liked this idea. The nobility and clergy didn't.
To discuss this matter, Louis XVI called a meeting of the Estates General, combining input from the First Estate (the clergy), the Second Estate (nobility), and the Third Estate (bourgeoisie and peasants). The Estates General had not been called to session in two centuries, resulting in an uncertainty on how voting took place. The First and Second Estates believed that each Estate got one vote. The Third Estate, comprising 98 percent of the population, felt that voting should be proportional.
Louis XVI decided in favor of the First and Second Estates, maintaining the burden to be paid for by the Third Estate.
This was how the peasants got to the point where a representative allegedly pleaded with Marie Antoinette that the peasants had no bread, whereupon she made the "Let Them Eat Cake" remark which would survive her. That attitude wasn't appreciated much by the peasants, either.
Shortly afterwards the Third Estate demonstrated why numerical advantage should be given credence.
On July 14, 1789, a group of French citizens stormed the Bastille, the national prison in Paris. There were not enough loyal guards to maintain the Bastille in the hands of the government. From there on it was all downhill for the monarchy.
King Louis XVI became Citizen Louis Bourbon. With the monarchy abolished, and the nobility stripped of its power, taxation became a bit more equitable, primarily because the system of representation became more equitable. The revolutionary phrase "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity" sums up the revolution better than I could.
Bastille day should serve as a lesson to politicians who insist on big government. The reason for the French Revolution wasn't that the people with royalty rights to the Marseillaise didn't want "Louie, Louie" to become the French national anthem.