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Financing the French Revolution

The French Revolution promised the liberty of the individual and the expansion of private property and thus heralded a new age of prosperity. In formulating their commitment to these two principles, the leaders of the Revolution drew upon several generations of thought that linked personal freedom and private property with economic growth. By legislating the principles of economic liberty, the Revolutionary government expected dramatic progress to be made in agriculture. Like the monarchy, the Revolutionary leaders called for new agrarian institutions that would harness individual initiative. Property owners, they insisted, needed incentives to invest in land improvement if they were to surmount the technical conservatism of traditional agriculture. To encourage a spirit of enterprise among farmers, the Revolutionary government intended to abolish communal institutions that subjected land to practices benefiting the community instead of individual owners, such as forced crop rotation, mandatory fallow land, common pasture and meadowland, and common pasture rights. By abolishing collective rights in agriculture, lawmakers hoped to overcome, once and for all, the low productivity and technical rigidity of common-field farming.

The debates of the Constituent Assembly seem to indicate that most delegates to the Revolutionary assemblies agreed that communal properties and rights stood in the way of agricultural


progress. But what would be the best way to abolish common fields—to sell them off or to divide them among individual inhabitants? In 1790 the government issued a questionnaire soliciting the opinion of all local officials.

The response of local officials in Burgundy anticipated the legislation that was later adopted by the Revolutionary government. The Burgundians were emphatic about the relationship between personal freedom and the sacredness of private property; a revolution that provided only one was inadequate. If individuals were to be truly free, property also had to be free. The first step should be to eliminate communal properties, because they breed vice and sloth. "The inhabitants where common lands are extensive are usually lazy; they pass their lives in sloth, leading thin, undernourished herds. They live and die poor and because of laziness, they turn nothing to profit. Their children imitate this pernicious example and become a race of lazy good-for-nothings; the bane of the society." In contrast, the Burgundian officials reported that "where common lands were already divided, necessity, the mother of industry, compelled the peasants to work and to seek a way out of poverty. Freedom increases the sphere of speculation, and the assembly, by investing property with a sacred character, will inspire those citizens who lack it with the desire to seek it." Even the most ungrateful and sterile lands could be put into cultivation by farmers who were motivated to increase their personal wealth. "If the Revolution is to free the French people, it must also free agriculture and the proprietor. England owes its flourishing condition to its agriculture. The revolution that freed the English people also allowed the division of all communal land. There, because the laws protected the industrious and because the English have been completely freed from communal obligations, their fields are covered with livestock. This, too, could happen in France if only the government would set up similar laws that protected the industrious."[1]


Even before legislation to abolish communal lands was written, the officials of the Revolutionary government had done much to limit communal properties simply by ignoring the pre-Revolutionary restrictions on their sale. Since the 1660s, the monarchy had not permitted villages to alienate collectively owned properties. The officials of the Revolutionary government allowed communities that were short of funds to sell communal lands to individuals, however. Believing that "the best method to make land productive was to confine its usage to individual proprietors," one Burgundian official proposed to his superiors in Paris that the best way to advance agriculture was to sell communal properties to large landowners who were solvent. Partitioning the properties among all inhabitants, he noted, would create inefficient small parcels. Besides, partitions would deprive the community of an important potential source of collective revenue.[2]

Most of the major reforms enacted by the new government were aimed at liberating property owners from collective restraints. On June 5, 1791, mandatory crop rotations determined by the community were abolished by a law that permitted property owners to follow the rotations of their choice. Another essential agrarian reform, codified on September 28, 1792, declared that the right to enclose was essential to the right of property and could not be contested. A law of August 10, 1792, legalized the alienation or sale of communal properties and ordered indebted communities to sell communal properties. On August 14, 1792, the first of two laws was issued ordering communities to divide communal properties among the inhabitants. By declaring partitions obligatory without establishing regulations or procedures, this law raised expectations without providing solutions. Nevertheless, it encouraged local officials to accept the partitions proposed by communities.[3]

On June 10, 1793, the National Convention issued a complete code that specified and regulated all stages of the partition pro-


cess, including voting and assigning the costs; it also included guidelines for settling disputes. This law declared all previous partitions null and void. Indebted communities could not divide their lands until their debts were paid off, however.[4] Because most communities had accrued debts in supporting the Revolution, this stipulation marked a significant change in the Revolutionary government's commitment to agrarian individualism.[5] From that point on, the government's fiscal concerns took priority over agricultural expansion.

An action taken by the government in the following month severely restricted the course of agrarian reform. On August 24, 1793, finance minister Cambon declared that the debts acquired by communities in supporting the Revolution would become national debts. Communal assets became national properties up to the amount of debts, even though the debts were owed to private creditors. In other words, communal properties, like communal debts, were nationalized. This financial reform made it much more difficult for communities to get permission to alienate communal properties because state officials could and did use the reform to block such sales.[6]

In explaining this drastic measure, Cambon expressed the need to "seize with alacrity the occasion to give hope and consolation to the crowds of creditors who have waited and solicited their payment without success."[7] The Revolutionary government was at war and depended on private investors to advance funds to the state, provide loans, and buy nationalized lands, but


because of the declining value of the assignat and the difficulty of collecting taxes, potential investors were turning their backs on the Revolution. Why, then, was the protection of communal properties included in a plan to restore confidence in state finance? The answer lies in the connection between communal property and the village's ability to pay taxes. The village was integrated into the financial structure of the nation in ways that were unfamiliar to the economic reformers and the men of law who dominated the Revolutionary assemblies.

The connection between communal properties and the fiscal solvency of communities was, however, becoming clear to local tax officials. In a letter dated May 23, 1793, to his superiors in Paris, the conseil général of the Côte-d'Or was explicit about the relationship. Referring to the chronic difficulty of collecting taxes from the villages, he said he was "convinced by the experience of the previous year that the lateness of municipalities that do not have communal revenues to acquit their local charges must be placed high among the causes which prevented the return of contributions in 1791."[8] Preventing the collection of local taxes from interfering with the collection of national taxes had become a major concern.[9] District officials reported that communities without some form of collective revenue had great difficulty meeting emergency village expenses. Communities with communal properties had a distinct advantage since they could lease those properties to defray municipal expenses. When faced with emergency expenses, they did not have to resort to heavy internal taxes that left little for the national tax collectors. The deputy of the bailliage of Dijon expressed similar concerns in a letter to his supervisors in Paris about the risks of partitioning communal lands. He acknowledged "the justice and perhaps the necessity of the laws that during the Old Regime forbade the alienation of communal properties." The reason for those restrictions, he insisted, was that the revenues from communal properties "were needed to pay the costs of public works


such as repairing public buildings, constructing canals, controlling floods, improving roads, etc." Communities without communal resources had trouble dealing with these expenses, which "could arise with little warning."[10] The officials of the Revolutionary government soon realized what officials of the Old Regime state had long known: Village solvency depended on the preservation of communal properties. Because they were better able to pay local taxes, communities with communal properties could more easily make their contributions to the state.

The nationalization of communal debts marked the turning point in the Revolutionary government's commitment to the elimination of communal property. Legislation to continue the abolition of communal agriculture was never released; therefore, the intention of the laws of 1791 and 1792 was never realized. For example, the Revolutionary government never suppressed the community's right to common pasture and as a result, the arable land of all villages was still open to the communal herd after the harvest. The government never ordered villagewide enclosures, even though without such a measure the legislation it did issue was useless. Partitions did not occur with great regularity because few villages were free of all debts. Nor did the government succeed in producing a rural code that abolished gleaning rights or mandatory rotations. Reform failed during and after the Revolution for the same reasons that the monarchy failed to restructure agriculture in the late eighteenth century.[11]

By 1796, the commitment of the Revolutionary government to agrarian individualism had come full circle. The law of June 10, 1793 (the code for partitions), was rescinded on June 9, 1796, and all legal procedures and court cases that had resulted from that law were suspended. Communities could no longer even consider partitioning their properties; many were forced to reassemble lands that had already been divided. A law of May 21, 1797, divested communities of the right to alienate or to exchange their communally owned properties. There was no longer any question of selling communal properties; many communities were ordered to reconstitute the common lands they


might have sold.[12] The Revolutionary government, like the monarchy it had replaced, had become the protector of village properties and rights.

Had the Revolutionary government turned its back on individualism and liberty? Far from it. The same government that declared the alienation of communal properties illegal had in fact restored the freedom of the grain trade and had gone so far as to order six-month prison sentences for anyone who publicly opposed the free marketing of grain. It was not a commitment to liberalism that was lacking. Rather, the links between village solvency, common fields, and state finance had motivated the government to reverse its agricultural policies. As the government's financial problems began to become insurmountable, budgetary concerns took priority over agricultural reform. The inclusion of measures aimed at protection of village properties in the program to nationalize the debt was in part an acknowledgment of the importance of those properties to the nation's fiscal structure.


In the philosophy of eighteenth-century liberalism, the communities were considered anachronisms that stood in the way of economic and political progress. Inspired by that liberal philosophy and by the English example, the Revolutionary government set out to dismantle the corporate village. Yet despite much ideological rhetoric in support of individualism and economic liberty, the government's administrators eventually reconstructed the village they had set out to destroy.

Was the reconstruction of the corporate village a concession to peasant violence by the Revolutionary government? The letters of provincial officials reveal little concern with either peasant welfare or the threat of peasant unrest. Problems of village debt, tax collection, and provisioning the cities and the army dominate their correspondence. Even the documents pertaining to the restoration of the village commons do not reveal fear of an


autonomous peasant movement. The state had compelling reasons of its own to reconstruct the corporate village.

The administrative correspondence between Paris and Dijon suggests that the Revolutionary government had to abandon its commitment to agrarian reform because of fiscal priorities rather than because of threatened peasant resistance. Administrators of the Revolutionary government were more concerned with collecting taxes and calming the fears of tax collectors and investors alike than with encouraging agrarian change. Both before and during the Revolution, the French state, preoccupied with international wars, fiscal chaos, and administrative weakness, proved incapable of promoting agricultural growth. The Revolution brought the Burgundian countryside to conditions similar to those that in 1661 had prompted Louis XIV to reinforce communal property.


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