Today’s Debt: A Lesson From the Past

While reading my history textbook, I learned that the fiscal crisis in France was one of the many causes of the French Revolution. It weakened the king and undermined the French people’s support for the French government and eventually helped cause a revolution. By the 1780’s, France had a huge debt and did not manage their money well. Half of France’s budget went to interest payments on the government’s debt each year. About 25 % was put towards the military, and 6 % went to the King. This left under 20% to run the government and maintain the state.

There were no easy ways to fix this problem. One option was to cut spending. The government could not do this, however, because there was so little that could be cut. The government spent only 20% of its annual budget on maintaining the state. Another possibility was to declare bankruptcy, but the French government could not do this either. A third theoretical option was to raise taxes. Louis XVI tried to establish a property tax. He created the Assembly of Notables to promote support for the tax. However, the Assembly of Notables wanted control of government spending in return for their support. Louis XVI dismissed the Assembly and issued a decree imposing new taxes. The judges of the Parlement of Paris nullified Louis XVI’s decree, preventing Louis XVI from improving the fiscal position of France.

As I read all of this information, I began to think that France’s budget issues are somewhat similar to that of the US today. The US has a huge debt that totals over 16 trillion dollars. While the federal government will likely try to cut spending, it may also need to raise taxes. However, just like during the French Revolution, many people oppose new taxes and do not want to pay them. Because France was unable to resolve its tax and budget issues, the government faced a revolution. While I am not suggesting that there will be a revolution in the United States, I do feel that it might be helpful for the US government to look at history, specifically, the French revolution. US leaders should learn from the history of the French that it is important to resolve budget crises. US leaders should try to strike a balance, imposing taxes in a way that does not undermine the people’s support for the government.

For more information about the US budget and a nonpartisan analysis, visit the Congressional Budget Office website:

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3 Responses to Today’s Debt: A Lesson From the Past

  1. cmiller2015 says:

    Madison, you’re right, and that’s the scary part. The comparisons between the French Revolution and 21st century America are quite apparent, and a bit disturbing. Between the complete lack of centralism, the hostility towards taxes, the debt, the emphasis on women’s rights, and the use of obnoxious symbols, America looks as if a revolution is right around the corner. Secession was talked about a fair bit in the past few years, which is a terrifying though, considering that the last attempt at secession resulted in the greatest loss of American life ever. Below, I posted an article where Congressman Zack Wamp spoke about the possibility of secession, and praised Rick Perry for discussing the issue at some “Tea Party” rallies in 2009. Ron Paul also has videos on youtube where he discusses the possibility of secession. When important political figures feel so angry at the central government, it doesn’t bode well for the future. Hopefully no one ever feels angry enough to stage violent revolution, but it could happen, à la France.

  2. Casey says:

    I agree with both of you that the reality of our debt is a scary thing to break down. While congress cannot reach an agreement and we have the “fiscal cliff” looming over our heads, one can hear more talk that is just angry than talk that is somewhat productive. People are unwilling to reason, while liberals won’t cut spending the way the republicans want, the republicans refuse to accept any deal with any type of tax increase. If the government doesn’t want to see a French Revolution occur in America, they should help themselves and try to work together.

  3. Sarah W says:

    I think all of you bring up a really interesting point and I definitely agree with the basis of your opinion, Madison. However, I do believe it is worthy to point out that the national deficit today, in my opinion, is less culturally drastic and socially significant than it was during the French Revolution. Throughout the Revolution, France’s debt resulted in the reinstatement of institutions such as the Estates General, ultimately leading to a National Assembly, and violent protests protesting the King’s desire to destroy the Estates General. It was because of this debt that King Louis XVI needed to raise taxes, but instated the Estates General to appropriately levy such taxes. The instatement of such institutions reformed social aspects of France, given that in particular, members of the third estate wanted better representation. In addition to significant social reforms, the nation’s tough economic state resulted in an increase in bread prices, leading to a protesting group of women who protested their king at Versailles and the indulgence of Marie Antoinette. Considering these significant societal effects the debt and taxes had on French society, I think such effects are less evident today. While it is clear that the national debt must subside, Americans disagree as to whether or not taxes should be raised. Although this modern aspect of American politics bears similarities to that of King Louis XVI’s desire to impose taxes, this debate does not have, in my opinion, as significant effects. While tax imposition does further American partisanship, there is no governmental revolution that will occur, considering there is not a rising revolutionary group strong enough to disband our government. Also, one must consider Madison’s statistical points: the French government spent 6% of its budget for the King’s personal interests. This spending was obvious in the lavish Palace of Versailles. Spending in modern America, however, is quite different, as our government does not spend the nation’s budget as significantly on personal interests.

    Nonetheless, Madison, I do think that you have brought up a fascinating point. I can also see many similarities between the French and American debt. While both French and American society typically agree that the debt must be subsided, there are many disagreements as to how taxes should be levied. Similar to the American debate on tax impositions that has furthered partisanship, there were many social disagreements in French culture as well: the nobles wanted to protect their manorial rights, while the peasants were incapable of paying off such taxes.

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