About Food Shortages in the French Revolution

by Scott Thompson

Although "liberty, equality and fraternity" was the slogan of the French Revolution, many of those who participated were motivated by the high cost of food more than by any political ideals. Food shortages contributed to the rioting that led to the Revolution and persisted despite the Revolution. They drove the increasing anger and radicalism of the Parisian lower classes.

Hunger, Anger and the Revolution

City-dwellers in the 18th century were dependent on a constant supply of grain from the country. The "sans-culottes," or urban poor, had to spend more than half of their income just to get enough food to survive in 1788, the year before the Revolution began. After unusually cold weather ruined the harvest, an unskilled laborer in 1789 could expect to spend 97 percent of his wages on bread, according to historian Gregory Stephen Brown. The high price of bread fueled the rising anger of the urban lower classes. Widespread violence soon destabilized the country, followed by the storming of the Bastille and the beginning of the Revolution.

Continuing Shortages, Continuing Violence

As the Revolution continued, early expectations for a quick resolution to the food shortage issue were not met. Harvests did not improve, winters were cold, and many rural areas of the country rose in rebellion against the Revolutionary government, interfering with the supply of food to the cities. Many sans-culottes believed that farmers and merchants were deliberately taking advantage of the situation by hoarding grain to inflate prices. Angry mobs attacked marketplaces and called for hoarders to be executed. Angry mass meetings in Paris denounced butchers for taking too much profit when the people of the city were starving.

The Parisian Mob

The French Revolution was initially led by middle-class political clubs, but the anger of the sans-culottes often drove events in ways the politicians could neither predict nor control. Eight thousand protesters stormed the revolutionary Convention in 1793 to demand price controls on bread and grain. The politicians gave in and introduced a series of laws called the Maximums to control prices, but food shortages continued and radicals saw them as the deliberate work of traitorous counter-revolutionaries. In 1793, the two primary revolutionary political clubs were the Girondins and the Jacobins. The Girondins were supporters of free market principles and rejected the idea of price controls or other restrictions on business. Rioting sans-culottes were unconcerned with concepts like free enterprise, especially when they couldn't get enough food to eat.

The Terror Begins

The Jacobins were initially not as radical as the more extreme elements of the Parisian mob, but they were aligned more closely with the sans-culottes than the Girondins were, and they used this as an opportunity to purge their enemies from the revolutionary Convention. After the Jacobins seized control of the Revolution, the government established the Committee of Public Safety to ferret out counter-revolutionaries and food hoarders. The Committee soon assumed absolute control over the French government, and the Reign of Terror began. Although public anger about food shortages drove the increasing radicalism of the Revolution, the Jacobins were just as unsuccessful at resolving the food crisis as their enemies were.

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