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the fiscal crisis of the old regime
convening at versailles
evolution into national assembly

The convening of the Estates-General in May 1789 is generally thought of as the opening act of the French Revolution. The Estates-General was the Old Regime assembly of delegates from the three estates of the kingdom: the clergy, or First Estate; the aristocracy, or Second Estate; and the commoners, or Third Estate. Over the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, however, the French monarchy had grown increasingly absolute in its powers, and the Estates-General did not meet between 1614 and 1789. After so lengthy a hiatus, it is not surprising that the decision to convene them in August 1788 was akin to opening Pandora's box.

the fiscal crisis of the old regime

A fiscal crisis brought on that fateful decision. In the late 1770s the French monarchy sent both financial and material aid to the American colonies in their struggle for independence from the British crown. King Louis XVI's finance minister, Jacques Necker, paid for this aid by levying a temporary tax in 1776, and by contracting a number of short-term loans, scheduled to fall due in the late 1780s and 1790s. When Necker resigned his post in 1781 he published an accounting of the royal budget, which showed a modest surplus in the treasury. Either Necker misread the situation or he misrepresented it intentionally, because just five years later it became clear to a new finance minister, Charles-Alexandre de Calonne, that the royal treasury was in serious trouble. For 1787 Calonne projected that interest on the debt would absorb 50 percent of taxes collected, and that 50 percent of the anticipated tax revenue had already been spent in advance.

The crown could not easily impose additional taxes, because France was not presently at war, nor was additional borrowing in European financial markets an option. Faced with a looming crisis, Calonne convinced Louis XVI to convoke an Assembly of Notables in February 1787. The Assembly of Notables was a carefully selected group of 144 men, including 7 princes of the blood, 14 bishops, 36 titled noblemen, 12 intendants and councillors of state, 38 magistrates from the parlements, 12 representatives from the pays d'état (the relatively privileged provinces of the kingdom), and 25 mayors. Calonne presented to this distinguished group an ambitious program, calling for tax reform, the abolition of internal tariffs, and creation of provincial assemblies. When the notables balked at these proposals, Calonne appealed to the public for support, which infuriated the assembly. Courtly intrigue led to Calonne's dismissal and his replacement by Étienne-Charles de Loménie de Brienne, who had led resistance among the notables. Loménie was no more successful than Calonne, however, in persuading the Assembly of Notables to endorse either structural reform or new taxes. They insisted that only the Estates-General could authorize such extraordinary measures.

convening at versailles

Faced with this impasse, Louis XVI recalled Jacques Necker to office. In August 1788 Necker persuaded the king to convene the Estates-General, and a second Assembly of Notables was called to rule on its composition. In the midst of spirited public debate and discussion, this second assembly of privileged elites issued a very traditional ruling, calling for equal representation for each of the three estates, separate meeting quarters for each estate, and voting by estate rather than by head. The ruling aroused considerable public protest, particularly in Paris, and a flurry of published pamphlets, most notable among them Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès's What Is the Third Estate? Two questions in particular became quite contentious: Should the Third Estate be granted additional delegates, to reflect their greater proportion of the population, as some argued? And how should the delegates vote, by head or by order? At the urging of Necker, the king in December 1788 ordered a "doubling of the Third," but the question of how the delegates would vote remained unresolved until after the Estates-General convened at Versailles in May 1789.

On 5 May 1789 the Estates-General met at Versailles. The delegates, numbering 1,139, half from the Third Estate, filed ceremoniously past the king to their seats in the meeting hall, the clergy and nobility dressed in their finery and the delegates of the Third Estate dressed drably in black. The delegates brought with them the cahiers de doléances, or grievance lists, that voters had drawn up in electoral assemblies throughout France at the request of the king. The nature of the elections—multistage and indirect in the case of the Third Estate—meant that the cahiers were relatively moderate, but they reflected consensus on a number of issues. They called for equitable taxation, judicial reform, and reform of the seignorial system. The cahiers of the clergy and nobility, while frequently expressing a willingness to pay their share of taxes, also asserted the legitimacy of traditional privilege. The most significant thing about the cahiers is that they had, in a sense, politicized the country—for several weeks people had given serious consideration to the problems confronting the country and had offered advice to the king. All eyes were now focused on Versailles to see what the king and the Estates-General together would do.

evolution into national assembly

Louis XVI received the cahiers, greeted the delegates, and ordered the three estates to reassemble in their separate meeting halls for the verification of credentials. Neither the king nor his ministers offered a program for reform. No strong leadership was evident; no clear direction was marked out. Nothing was said about the method of voting, but the separate meeting halls suggested that voting would be by order, not head. Alarmed at that suggestion, and disturbed by the lackluster opening of the assembly, the delegates of the Third Estate refused to verify credentials until the issue of voting was resolved. Six weeks passed with no apparent progress. Delegates sent pessimistic reports home to their constituents, and the mood grew increasingly restive. Led by the comte de Mirabeau, a fiery orator, and the political tactician Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès, the Third Estate called for a written constitution, and on 10 June invited the other two estates to meet together with it. A number of parish priests, resentful of the power and affluent lifestyle of the upper clergy, rallied to the Third Estate. On 17 June, heartened by that support, the Third Estate adopted the program set out earlier in Sieyès's pamphlet and declared itself the National Assembly.

Liberal aristocrats and a number of clergy now joined the Third Estate, and when the king ordered their meeting hall locked on 20 June, 576 deputies swore the Tennis Court Oath. Wherever they met there was the nation, they declared, and they would not adjourn until France had been given a new constitution. Louis XVI attempted to thwart that initiative on 23 June, by ordering the three estates to resume their separate deliberations, but in the face of determined resistance he accepted unified deliberation and voting by head on 27 June. On 9 July 1789 the delegates to the Estates-General declared themselves the National Constituent Assembly. A handful of delegates, conservative clergy or nobility, now resigned their seats and returned home, asserting that their constituents had not elected them to a National Assembly. But the vast majority set immediately to work and within months had drafted the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, issued decrees abolishing seignorial dues and other privileges, redrew the administrative map of France, abolished noble titles, and confiscated the properties of the church to pay off the national debt. All of this was not accomplished without royal resistance, nor without popular uprising, especially in Paris. But before they adjourned, in the fall of 1791, the deputies of the Constituent Assembly had adopted a new constitution, creating a constitutional monarchy.

See alsoFrench Revolution; Louis XVI.


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Paul R. Hanson