After the French Revolution, the privileges of the aristocracy were abolished. Some nobles were executed, others migrated, but what happened to those who stayed in France? Did they live off what remained of their patrimony? Did they start working? If so, what kind of work did they do? Are there any records or statistics for where the French nobility ended up?
The Reign of Terror resulted in an estimated 40,000 executions, primarily landed nobility, courtiers and clergy. Many upper class French emigrated to other countries. A typical example is that of Pierre du Pont, founder of the chemical company E. I. du Pont de Nemours and Company. Being a member of the lesser nobility, the revolution never got around to executing him, so he survived. After 1794 the executions stopped, but the persecution continued. The economy was bad and the socialist elements that controlled the government made life difficult for ex-nobles. Du Pont tried becoming a printer, but it was hard to make money, so he left for America with his family.
Other nobles just made do as best they could, working educated jobs. Many became lawyers, doctors or accountants. Large estates were broken up, but many nobles who survived still possessed smaller property or buildings and were able to retain and operate them after the Thermidorian Reaction, essentially becoming landlords. Some survivor types like Talleyrand acted like nothing ever happened. They just changed their spots to whatever was needed and stayed as rich as ever, serving the powers that be.
There are many books on the terror if you want details of who was killed and when. As I have written above, the current estimate is about 40,000 dead. A good book to get started is "The Terror in the French Revolution" by Hugh Gough. That book has a bibliography with over 200 references.
For those who did remain, we have to remember a few things about these French nobles:
- Military - as Nobility of the Sword with their attendant private armies because pre-Revolution, military positions were reserved for nobles, i.e. they still had power.
- Lands - there was no land nationalisation/confiscation against a large part of the nobles (Second Estate). This allowed them to carry on because they retained their private property. Only the First Estate's (clergy) lands were targeted for confiscation.
- Education/Leadership - this was early-/pre-Industrial France, most of the population were still working farmers and not particularly well-educated. They still needed the ex-nobles ('fellow citizens') to provide leadership at the national and provincial levels, especially against threats from other countries (Britain, Austria. etc. of the French Revolutionary Wars)
- Napoleon Bonaparte - reinstated (his version of) the French nobility which basically recalled back to old nobility who was willing to serve him.
Other (More Elaborate) Points
- Active Participants of the Revolution
Stating the obvious, there were multiple causes of the French Revolution. One of it was the Assembly of the Notables, i.e. the French nobility. Hence, they were not quiet by-standers before or after the Revolution. Because of the lack of co-operation of Assembly of the Notables with the King -- as well squabbling among themselves -- the direct result was convening of Estate-General of 1789, which started the Revolution, i.e. 5th of May, 1789.
- Moderates vs Jacobins
One key-point to note is that, during this period, the nobility was not a monolihic block. In fact many did participate openly in support of curtailing the King's powers (Robespierre), which is not the same as abolishing the monarchy (which only happened later). Others chose to try to moderate the demands of the bourgeoisie (especially the Jacobins), who were the leaders of the Third Estate. In any case, the Revolution was not directed at anyone in particular, neither the monarch nor the nobility (during the initial phase anyway). This was during the Enligthenment (equality, rationality, etc), hence it was very much a worker's revolt (as opposed to anti-monarch/anti-noble).
- Nobles Not Threatened (Initially)
Things only started to go wrong only about a year later, with the abolition of the French nobility by the newly constituted National Assembly, on 19th June 1790, which caused the mass emigration of the nobility (mainly to Germany). Even after this decree, nobles were considered free citizens, and to do as they wish (i.e. even the Reign of Terror was more chaotic than specifically directed at nobility).
The decree of 19 June was not an attempt to exterminate nobles physically, and even in the Terror there would be no intention of that.
Source: Aristocracy and Its Enemies in the Age of Revolution (Oxford, 2009), p.6.