I read that in France at the time of the French revolution, the monarch did not have the power to impose taxes on his will alone. Rather he had to call a meeting of the Estates General which would then pass his proposal for new taxes. Is this correct ?

But the last meeting of the estates general was called in 1614. Does it mean that no tax laws were changed for almost 175 years! Were there any other reasons that compelled the Estates General meeting.

1 Answer 1


The reason for the meeting was finance. I don't have that research to hand, but France was absolutely screwed for finance. They had a structural deficit and had tried everything (including inventing entirely new and fantastic monetary systems, firing successive finance ministers, etc.) There wasn't a mechanism to levy new taxes or to change the allocation of existing taxes. It had been tried, and internal inertia and hostile stakeholders had ruined the effort (Imagine that every bureaucrat in France was Ted Cruz).

update in response to comments. The King could declare a new tax, but unless he went door to door to collect it, he would receive no tax revenue. Tax collectors performed the function their fathers did, in the way their fathers did, and distributed the revenue the way their fathers did. The tax collector didn't work for an institution, he held a sinecure, and there was no real way to remove him from office. (which had something to do with the levels of corruptions which are unimaginable to modern students.) Every tax collector, every judge, every magistrate, every gendarme, every minor elected official had their own version of how the government was supposed to work. (actually they had two - one they paid lip service to, and one they actually carried out day to day.) If the King declared "Water is wet", the entrenched bureaucracy of these street level bureaucrats would interpret that as "The King has declared that water is wet, and in accordance with my ancient prerogatives and the authority of my office, I interpret that to mean that I should have more jam on my bread!". And there wasn't anyone in the whole country that could disagree. The king could dismiss you from his presence, and might be able to dismiss you from a top level office, but he didn't control enough offices in the country to make a difference. It was "personal rule" not just because he ruled without governance, but because the limit of his authority was the limit of his personal influence.

There is an excellent source (I've lost the title and reference, but the paper made a deep impression on me) about efforts to reform the French Salt Tax. Can anyone recall?

France didn't have the equivalent of a constitution, or a real legislative branch. France had a perplexing combination of absolute personal rule combined with entrenched customs that could not be altered by any known mechanism.

If I remember correctly, the Estates General was called as a "Hail Mary" play - get the largest possible buy in to the emergency measures necessary to keep the country from disintegrating into anarchy.

Additional resources provided by the redoubtable @LangLangC

  • France and the Failure to Modernize Macroeconomic Institutions provides a bit more context for the assertions I've made above - two quick examples:

    Further complicating matters was the ability of regions, groups and individuals to obtain tax exemptions. Over time, this patchwork quilt of taxation produced a sense of general inequity in the tax burden and resistance to the imposition of new taxes or reduction in tax privileges. The ability of the Crown to gain new taxation was hindered by the absence of a national representative institution that could grant new taxes legitimacy. Furthermore, the tax collection system was operated by contractors who had considerable autonomy.


The ceremony of enregistrement was required to legitimize a monarch’s edicts, making them enforceable at law throughout the kingdom.

Which is a tightly packed clue to the failure of governance that created the need to summon the Estates General.

  • So, as I understand it, the monarch must have had powers to make changes on his own (it might have been done in the past) but here was an extraordinary situation where the changes required were impossible to push without agreement with the estates.
    – Vivek
    Jan 14, 2014 at 6:27
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    Whether they had a written, formal one or not, France had enough of one to keep the king from getting his tax without calling the Estates. He thus was using the equivalent of France's constitutional framework, just as in England the kings would have to summon Parliament for such a purpose. After Charles II, in England Parliament gave itself the ability to call itself and thus became a permanent fixture in governance. Before that, if the king could scrounge money elsewhere he could keep them out of it.
    – Oldcat
    Jul 10, 2015 at 20:50
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    @Oldcat, these are good points. I disagree with your conclusion, but I think the points you raise should be considered and discussed. I'm not sure that I am competent to discuss the point, but I am confident that it wouldn't fit in the comments section. The distinction between constitutionalism and absolutism, statutory and customary law may not even be appropriate to H:SE. All that said, you raise some very good points.
    – MCW
    Jul 10, 2015 at 23:16
  • A bit vague to go on. If the paper isn't hdl.handle.net/10419/94249 search.proquest.com/docview/1296483383 or jstor.org/stable/10.1086/323656 I'd want more details about what it was that made such a deep impression on you? Oct 23, 2019 at 11:13

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