This study will explore the role of the peasants in the French Revolution and will argue that without the massive participation of the peasants, the Revolution would not have succeeded.
Ironically, the dispute which had prevailed before the Revolution between the peasants and the monarchy focused on the modernization efforts of the monarchy in the realm of agriculture and the peasants' resistance to such efforts. As we read in Goodwin, "In the latter part of the eighteenth century, the French peasants were almost as unprogressive in economic matters as the nobility were reactionary in politics. This was because (the peasants) considered that the progress of scientific agriculture would jeopardize their accustomed means of livelihood . . . The agrarian problem in France at this period arose mainly from the clash between the monarchy's efforts to improve agricultural productivity and the determination of the peasants to retain their traditional methods of cultivation and communal rights" (Goodwin 19-20).
While it is true that the French peasant farmer prior to the Revolution was "personally free and . . . has also often become an owner-occupier of the soil," it is also true that this relative freedom and the peasants' common ownership of land did not in any real sense give the farmers a measure of economic security.
In fact, "There can be little doubt . . . that the majority of the rural inhabitants of France were wretchedly impoverished . . . The vast majority of peasant-proprietors and tenant-farmers, because of the inadequacy of their holdings, usually had to engage in some form of rural by-industry, or even . . . work as agricultural day-labourers. In other words, the economic position of most peasants, on the eve of the revolution, was precarious in the extreme" (Goodwin 20-21).
The plan proposed by the monarchy in the guise of modernization would have taken land from the peasants and worsened their economic po...