Let us learn about french society during the late eighteenth century. In 1774, Louis XVI of the Bourbon family of kings ascended the throne of France. He was 20 years old and married to the Austrian princess Marie Antoinette. Upon his accession, the new king found an empty treasury. Long years of war had drained the financial resources of France. Added to this was the cost of maintaining an extravagant court at the immense palace of Versailles.
Under Louis XVI, France helped the thirteen American colonies to gain their independence from the common enemy, Britain. The war added more than a billion lives to a debt that had already risen to more than 2 billion lives. Lenders who gave the state credit now began to charge 10 percent interest on loans. So the French government was obliged to spend an increasing percentage of its budget on interest payments alone.
To meet its regular expenses, such as the cost of maintaining an army, the court, running government offices or universities, the state was forced to increase taxes. Yet even this measure would not have sufficed. French society in the eighteenth century was divided into three estates, and only members of the third estate paid taxes. The society of estates was part of the feudal system that dated back to the middle ages.
The term Old Regime is usually used to describe the french society during the late eighteenth century and the institutions of France before 1789. However, only a small number of them owned the land they cultivated. About 60 percent of the land was owned by nobles, the Church, and other richer members of the third estate. The members of the first two estates, that is, the clergy and the nobility, enjoyed certain privileges by birth.
The most important of these was the exemption from paying taxes to the state. The nobles further enjoyed feudal privileges. These included feudal dues, which they extracted from the peasants. Peasants were obliged to render services to the lord. to work in his house and fields to serve in the army or to participate in building roads.
French Society During the Late Eighteenth Century: The Church
The Church too extracted its share of taxes called tithes from the peasants, and finally, all members of the third estate had to pay taxes to the state. These included a direct tax, called taille, and a number of indirect taxes which were levied on articles of everyday consumption like salt or tobacco. The burden of financing activities of the state through taxes was borne by the third estate alone.