United States Debt Crisis and the French Revolution

The current debt crisis in the United States in some ways echoes the financial crisis in monarchical France during the 1780s.

French historian Lloyd Kramer, Professor of History at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has published an interesting op-ed piece comparing these two financial crises.

In many ways the crisis of the king’s debt in pre-revolutionary was very different from today’s arguably artificial crisis in the United States over raising the debt ceiling (which has been raised many times over the past several decades without any serious political crisis).

Nonetheless, Kramer identifies several aspects of the French and American crises that do resemble each other.  Most interesting is his comparison of the Tea Party Republicans to French nobles of the 1780s—based on their complete unwillingness to accept increased taxation on the wealthiest members of their respective societies.

Lloyd Kramer’s op-ed is available online at NewsObserver.

Students of HIST 423 French Revolution and Napoleon will be interested in this piece.

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This entry was posted in Comparative Revolutions, French History, French Revolution and Napoleon, History in the Media. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to United States Debt Crisis and the French Revolution

  1. John Moser says:

    I guess Kramer hasn’t heard that the top 10% of income earners currently bear nearly 70% of the federal income tax burden, while the bottom half carry only 3%. This is hardly analogous to the situation in prerevolutionary France. More like the reverse is true.

  2. The question of comparing the tax burdens is interesting. I think that Kramer’s point is about the French nobility, rather than the top 10% of French society. French nobles in 1789 represented an estimated .52% (a mere one-half of 1 percent) of the French population. So, you would have to compare the French nobles (who were legally exempt from most major taxes, but did pay some indirect taxes) to the top one-half of 1 percent of the American population (and ask how much they actually pay in taxes). I thought that Kramer was referring to the French and American elites’ opposition to increasing their taxes in both cases.

  3. Lee Prevost says:

    Professor Kramer leads us to believe there are “striking similarities between the current paralysis in Washington and the financial crisis that preceded the famous revolution in 18th Century France.” I agree with the Professor there are similarities but I draw very different conclusions from them.
    In the 1780s, after multiple wars and heavy borrowing, the French government lacked revenues to pay debt and support services. The Professor draws the parallel between the wealthy today in the United States and the 18th century French nobles stating “the government was becoming insolvent because nobles and large landowners enjoyed tax exemptions and other special privileges” making the point that neither were providing their fair share.
    The nobles of 18th century France sound more like today’s American political class who buy votes with their policies, exclude themselves from their laws, and who live by different tax rules than the rest of us.
    And, unlike the nobles, todays wealthy pay most of the taxes as Tim Stone’s letter states: top 5% of earners . . . pay 58.72 percent of taxes while producing most of the jobs and goods and services in our country.
    According to Wikipedia, The French Revolution ignited because the commoners and to a lesser extent, the Bourgeoisie, (both of the productive class of 18th century France) were burdened with ruinously-high taxes levied to support wealthy aristocrats and their sumptuous, often gluttonous, lifestyles. But, the taxes of 18th century France was not nearly as high as they are on 21st century Americans. These commoners and Bourgeoisie sound rather like today’s Tea Party, except much less constrained.
    The French King appointed a special assembly of Notables (an 18th century predecessor to our recent Debt Commission), but the Notables could not agree on the proposed reforms. Unlike 18th century France, our Notables did agree on proposed reforms but our American Monarchy (President Obama) has failed to act on their recommendations.
    The Professor blames rigid ideology for today’s impasse. I won’t defend the wealthy but I will defend the right to pursue wealth as it is this powerful freedom that drives our economy. And I wish the Professor best of luck in his own pursuit with his new book. Isn’t that the American Dream?

    Lee Prevost

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