Estates-General

About France Category: History

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    The French Revolution was a period in the history of France covering the years 1789 to 1799, in which republicans overthrew the monarchy and the Roman Catholic Church perforce underwent radical restructuring. This article covers the earliest period of the revolution, from the meeting of the Estates-General (May 5, 1789) to the storming of the Bastille (July 14, 1789) and its immediate aftermath down to July 27, 1789.

    The Estates-General and the Communes

    In 1789, in order to deal with France’s national financial crisis, King Louis XVI was forced to call a meeting of the Estates-General, the first such meeting since 1614. In the run-up to that convocation, it had been determined that the Third Estate (representing the commoners) would have twice as many representatives as the other two estates (the First Estate representing the clergy and the Second Estate representing the nobility).When the Estates-General convened in Versailles on May 5, 1789 amidst general festivities, many in the Third Estate initially viewed this double representation as a revolution already peacefully accomplished. However, with the etiquette of 1614 strictly enforced, the clergy and nobility in their full regalia, and the physical locations of the deputies from the three estates dictated by the protocol of an earlier era, an immediate impression emerged that less had, in fact, been achieved.

    When Louis XVI and Barentin (the Keeper of the Seals) addressed the deputies on May 6, the Third Estate discovered that royal decree granting double representation was something of a sham. Yes, they had as more representatives than the other two Estates combined, but voting would occur “by orders”: the 578 representatives of the Third Estate, after deliberating, would have their collective vote weighted exactly as heavily as that of each of the other Estates.

    The apparent intent of the king and of Barentin was for everyone to get directly to the matter of taxes. The larger representation of the Third Estate would remain merely a symbol, while giving them no extra power. Jacques Necker, the king’s director-general of the finances, had more sympathy with the Third Estate, but on this occasion he spoke only about the fiscal situation, leaving it to Barentin to speak on how the Estates-General was to operate.

    Trying to avoid the issue of representation and focus solely on taxes, the king and his ministers had gravely misjudged the situation. The Third Estate wanted the Estates to meet as one body and vote per deputy (“voting by poll” rather than “by orders”). The other two estates, while having their own grievances against royal absolutism, believed — correctly, as history was to prove — that they stood to lose more power to the Third Estate than they stood to gain from the king.

    Necker sympathized with the Third Estate in this matter, but the astute financier lacked equal astuteness as a politician. He decided to let the impasse play out to the point of stalemate before he would enter the fray. As a result, by the time the King yielded to the demand of the Third Estate, it seemed to all as a concession wrung from the monarchy, rather than a magnanimous gift that would have convinced the populace of the king’s good will.

    The Estates-General reached an impasse immediately. The first item on the agenda involved the verification of powers. Mirabeau, noble himself but elected to represent the Third Estate, tried but failed to keep the all three orders in a single room for this discussion. Instead of discussing the taxes of the king, the three estates began separately to discuss not taxes but the organization of the legislature.

    Shuttle diplomacy continued without success until May 27, 1789, when the nobles voted to stand firm for separate verification. The following day, Abbé Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès (a member of the clergy, but, like Mirabeau, elected to represent the Third Estate) moved that the Third Estate, which was now meeting as the Communes (English: “Commons”), proceed with verification and invite the other two estates to take part, but not to wait for them.

    On June 17, 1789, and with the failure of efforts to reconcile the three Estates, the Communes completed their own process of verification, thereby becoming the only Estate whose powers had been appropriately legalized. The Communes almost immediately voted a measure far more radical: they declared themselves redefined as the National Assembly, an assembly not of the Estates but of the People. They invited the other orders to join them, but made it clear that they intended to conduct the nation’s affairs with or without them.

    The National Assembly

    This newly constituted assembly immediately linked itself to the capitalists — the sources of the credit needed to fund the national debt — and to the common people. They consolidated the public debt and declared all existing taxes to have been previously illegally imposed, but voted in these same taxes provisionally, only as long as the Assembly continued to sit.

    This restored the confidence of capital and gave it a strong interest in keeping the Assembly in session. As for the common people, the Assembly established a committee of subsistence to deal with the food shortages.

    Initially, the Assembly announced (and for the most part probably believed) itself to be operating in the interests of the king as well as the people. In theory, royal authority still prevailed and the process of adopting new laws continued to require the king’s consent.

    Events had now bypassed Necker’s previous plan of conciliation — a complex scheme of giving in to the Communes on some points while holding firm on others. No longer interested in Necker’s advice, Louis XVI, under the influence of the courtiers of his privy council, resolved to go in state to the Assembly, annul its decrees, command the separation of the orders, and dictate the reforms to be effected by the restored Estates-General.

    One can (barely) imagine that if Louis had simply marched into the Salle des États where the National Assembly met, his plan might have succeeded. Instead, he remained at Marly and ordered the hall closed, expecting to prevent the Assembly from meeting for several days while he prepared. The Assembly simply moved their deliberations to the king’s tennis court, where they proceeded to swear the Tennis Court Oath (June 20, 1789), under which they agreed not to separate until they had given France a constitution.

    Two days later, deprived of use of the tennis court as well, the National Assembly met in the church of Saint Louis, where the majority of the representatives of the clergy joined them: efforts to restore the old order had served only to accelerate events.

    When, on June 23, 1789, in accord with his plan, the king finally addressed the representatives of all three estates, he encountered a stony silence. He concluded by ordering all to disperse.

    The nobles and clergy obeyed; the deputies of the common people remained seated in a silence finally broken by Mirabeau, whose short speech culminated, “A military force surrounds the assembly! Where are the enemies of the nation? Is Catiline at our gates? I demand, investing yourselves with your dignity, with your legislative power, you inclose yourselves within the religion of your oath. It does not permit you to separate till you have formed a constitution.” The deputies stood firm.

    Necker, conspicuous by his absence from the royal party on that day, found himself in disgrace with Louis, but back in the good graces of the National Assembly.

    Those of the clergy who had joined the Assembly at the church of Saint Louis remained in the Assembly; forty-seven members of the nobility, including the duke of Orléans, soon joined them; by June 27, the royal party had overtly given in, although the likelihood of a military counter-coup remained in the air. The French military began to arrive in large numbers around Paris and Versailles.

    Messages of support poured into the Assembly from Paris and other French cities. On July 9, 1789 the Assembly, reconstituting itself as the National Constituent Assembly, addressed the king in polite but firm terms, requesting the removal of the troops (which now included foreign regiments, who showed far greater obedience to the king than did his French troops), but Louis declared that he alone could judge the need for troops, and assured them that the troops had deployed strictly as a precautionary measure.

    Louis “offered” to move the assembly to Noyon or Soissons: that is to say, to place it between two armies and deprive it of the support of the Parisian people.

    Necker’s dismissal and the storming of the Bastille

    Paris, close to insurrection, and, in Mignet’s words, “intoxicated with liberty and enthusiasm,” unanimously expressed its support for the Assembly. The press published the Assembly’s debates; political debate spread beyond the Assembly itself into the public squares and halls of the capital. The Palais Royal and its grounds became the site of a continuous meeting.

    The crowd, on the authority of the meeting at the Palais Royal, broke open the prisons of the Abbaye to release some grenadiers of the French guards, imprisoned for refusing to fire on the people. The Assembly recommended them to the clemency of the king; they returned to prison, and received pardon. Their regiment now leaned toward the popular cause.

    On July 11, 1789, with troops at Versailles, Sèvres, the Champ de Mars, and Saint-Denis, the king, acting under the influence of the conservative nobles of his privy council, banished Necker (who headed for Brussels), and completely reconstructed the ministry.

    The marshal Victor François, Duc de Broglie, la Galissonnière, the duke de la Vauguyon, the Baron Louis de Breteuil, and the intendant Foulon, took over the posts of Puységur, Armand Marc, comte de Montmorin, La Luzerne, Saint Priest, and Necker.

    News of Necker’s dismissal reached Paris in the afternoon of Sunday, July 12, 1789. The Parisians generally presumed that the dismissal marked the start of a coup by conservative elements. Crowds gathered throughout the city, including more than ten thousand at the Palais Royal.

    Camille Desmoulins, according to Mignet, successfully rallied the crowd by “mount[ing] a table, pistol in hand, exclaiming: ‘Citizens, there is no time to lose; the dismissal of Necker is the knell of a Saint Bartholomew for patriots! This very night all the Swiss and German battalions will leave the Champ de Mars to massacre us all; one resource is left; to take arms!’”

    A growing crowd, brandishing busts of Necker and of the duke of Orleans, passed through the streets to the Place Vendôme, where they put a detachment of the Royal-allemand (the king’s German soldiers) to flight by a shower of stones. At the Place Louis XV, the dragoons of the prince de Lambesc shot the bearer of one of the busts; a soldier was also killed. Lambesc and his soldiers ran rampant, attacking not only the demonstrators but anyone in their path.

    The regiment of the French guard favourably disposed towards the popular cause had remained confined to its barracks. With Paris becoming a general riot, de Lambesc, not trusting the regiment to obey this order, posted sixty dragoons to station themselves before its dépôt in the Chaussée-d’Antin.

    Once again, a measure intended to restrain only served to provoke. The French regiment routed their guard, killing two, wounding three, and putting the rest to flight. The rebellious citizenry had acquired a trained military contingent; as word of this spread, even the foreign troops refused to fight in what looked to be a civil war with a divided military.

    The rebels gathered in and around the Hôtel de Ville and sounded the tocsin. Distrust between the leading citizens gathered within the building and the masses outside was exacerbated by the failure or inability of the former to provide the latter with arms.

    Between political insurrection and opportunistic looting, Paris reeled in chaos. In Versailles, the Assembly stood firm, and went into continuous session so that it could not, once again, be stealthily deprived of its meeting space.

    The French people to this day commemorate the storming of the Bastille prison on July 14th, 1789 on Bastille Day. The insurgents invaded the Hôtel des Invalides to gather arms, and after four hours of combat, seized the Bastille, killing Marquis Bernard de Launay and several of his guard.

    Although the Parisians released only seven prisoners — four forgers, two lunatics, and a dangerous sexual offender — it became a potent symbol of everything hated under the ancien régime. Returning to the Hôtel de Ville, the mob accused the prévôt des marchands (roughly, mayor) Jacques de Flesselles of treachery; en route to an ostensible trial at the Palais Royal, he was assassinated.

    The citizenry of Paris, expecting a counterattack, entrenched the streets, built barricades of paving stones, and armed themselves as well as they could, especially with improvised pikes. Meanwhile, at Versailles, the Assembly remained ignorant of most of the Paris events, but eminently aware that Marshal de Broglie stood on the brink of unleashing a pro-Royalist coup to force the Assembly to adopt the order of June 23 and then to dissolve.

    The Viscount de Noailles apparently first brought reasonably accurate news of the Paris events to Versailles. M. Ganilh and Bancal-des-Issarts, despatched to the Hôtel de Ville, confirmed his report. By the morning of July 15 the outcome appeared clear to the king as well, and he and his military supporters backed down, at least for the time being. Lafeyette took up command of the National Guard at Paris; Jean-Sylvain Bailly — leader of the Third Estate and instigator of the Tennis Court Oath — became the city’s mayor under a new governmental structure known as the commune.

    The king announced that he would recall Necker and return from Versailles to Paris; on July 27, in Paris, he accepted a tricolor cockade from Bailly and entered the Hôtel de Ville, as cries of “Long live the Nation” changed to “Long live the King”.

    Nonetheless, after this violence, nobles — little assured by the apparent and, as it was to prove, temporary reconciliation of king and people — started to flee the country as émigrés. Early émigrés included the count d’Artois and his two sons, the prince de Condé, the prince de Conti, the Polignac family, and (slightly later) Charles Alexandre de Calonne, the former finance minister. They settled at Turin, where Calonne, as agent for the count d’Artois and the prince de Condé, began plotting civil war within the kingdom and agitating for a European coalition against France.

    Necker returned from Basel to Paris in triumph (which proved short-lived). He discovered upon his arrival that the mob had cruelly murdered Foulon and Foulon’s nephew, Berthier, and that the baron de Besenval (commander under de Broglie) was held prisoner. Wishing to avoid further bloodshed, he overplayed his hand by demanding and obtaining a general amnesty, voted by the assembly of electors of Paris.

    In demanding amnesty rather than merely a just tribunal, Necker misjudged the weight of the political forces. He overestimated the power of the ad hoc assembly, which almost immediately revoked the amnesty to save their own role, and perhaps their own skins, instituting a trial court at Châtelet. Mignet counts this as the moment when the Revolution left Necker behind.

    The successful insurrection at Paris spread throughout France. People organized themselves into municipalities for purposes of self-government, and into bodies of national guards for self-defense, in accord with principles of popular sovereignty and with complete disregard for claims of royal authority. In rural areas, many went beyond this: some burned title-deeds and no small number of châteaux.

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