The Estates-General were a very old part of the governing system in France, but by 1789 they had not met for a hundred and fifty years. Despite some superficial resemblances, the Estates were not the French equivalent of an English Parliament. Instead, they were convoked on an irregular basis whenever the monarchy felt the need to seek the advice of its subjects. Consequently, the Estates-General in France had no institutional permanence, no clearly defined powers, and no archives. The one element that was constant was the requirement that they meet in three separate chambers, the First Estate, the clergy; the Second Estate, the nobility; and the Third Estate, everyone else. This reflected the assumption that society was divided into those who prayed, those who fought, and those who worked.
The calling of the Estates-General in 1789 took place in a context where many were worried that the crown's appetite for new revenues was limitless and that there were few defenses against it. That was the lesson many drew from the last fiscal controversy in the previous reign, the Maupeou crisis of the early 1770s. This had ballooned into a constitutional crisis over the fundamental laws of the kingdom, the accountability of ministers, and the right to tax. The regional sovereign courts, known as parlements, raised these issues and when they refused to back down, the crown abolished them in 1770–1771. Louis XVI restored the parlements in 1774 on his accession to the throne, but their general timidity afterward convinced many observers that they had lost the ability to constrain the crown's fiscal rapaciousness. Thus when the new financial crisis began after the American Revolutionary War (1775–1783) and following extravagant postwar spending, many bodies throughout the kingdom began to call for an Estates-General. Both an Assembly of Notables (1787) and the Parlement of Paris claimed that only an Estates-General could consent to the government's demand for new taxes. The refusal of the parlement to register fiscal reforms and its publication of a new declaration of fundamental laws provoked the government into abolishing it once again in May 1788. The subsequent rioting in several important provincial towns like Rennes and Grenoble sapped the government's credit rating. By August, the government could no longer borrow and so promised to convoke an Estates-General for the following year.
At the same time, the public was being deluged with vast numbers of scandal stories about the court and its nefarious influence on national life. Suspicion of the court was hardly new but beginning with the reign of Louis XV (ruled 1715–1774), it took on a new life. The subject matter was the king and his mistresses, but the subtext was the emasculating influence of women in national life. Later, the stories told about Marie-Antoinette were utterly fantastic. The tales of her sexual debauchery extended the earlier themes of emasculation to a broad dialogue on how the court corrupted the nation. The Affair of the Diamond Necklace (1785), in which the aging Cardinal de Rohan was duped into buying a necklace to gain the queen's favor, illustrates this perfectly. Scurrilous pamphlets soon regaled the public with stories of clerical hypocrisy, sexual intrigue, and syphilitic queens. The broader lesson was that the nation itself had been corrupted by a decadent court. Indeed, for the writer Mathieu-François Pidansat de Mairobert, the themes of despotism and corruption were linked: the French were incapable of resisting tyranny because they were decadent. Even someone as sober as the Marquis de Lafayette partly believed this. According to him, ministers "think it their duty to preserve despotism. There are swarms of low and effeminate courtiers. The influence of women, and love of pleasure have abated the spirits of the Nation . . ." For some, therefore, the Estates General were supposed to regenerate the nation. For others, the problem of despotism was paramount, and the solution was a written constitution. For Lafayette, the financial crisis of the monarchy was an opportunity to impose a National Assembly. By the end of 1788, he was endorsing a Bill of Rights, much like the American one. This implied an end of privilege and equality before the law. Others, soon to be called "patriots," were moving in the same direction. The writer Honoré-Gabriel Riqueti, Count de Mirabeau, who became an important figure in the French Revolution, wrote, "Privileges are useful against kings, but they are detestable against nations, and ours will never have civic spirit so long as it is not delivered of them." In the provinces, a talented Breton law professor, Jean-Denis Lanjuinais, who was a member of the Estates-General and the National Assembly, wrote, ". . . the nobility with its privileges, in its origin and in its nature, is only too often a militia armed against the citizens, only a parasitical corps living from the work of the people while sneering at them."
Many hoped the Estates-General would thus be the device to effect a vast transformation. What stood in the way was the Parlement of Paris's declaration of 23 September 1788, that the Estates-General meet according to the forms of 1614; that is, any one of the three chambers could veto the actions of the other two. Thus began a furious pamphlet campaign for a doubling of the number of Third Estate deputies and for vote by head. The patriots' strategy was to demand a single chamber with as many deputies in the Third Estate as in the other two combined. It was hoped this would produce a reliable majority for reform. As experience would prove, this was not always the case. The government conceded doubling in January 1789, but without vote by head. This meant little.
The elections to the Estates-General took place with this uncertainty, but the results did show the essential difference between the nobility and the upper Third Estate. At each stage in the multitiered electoral process, electors had to produce a cahier de doléances, or statement of grievances. An analysis of these statements illustrates the essential points of conflict in the early Revolution. Nobles were willing to surrender their tax privileges. They did insist on keeping their monopolies of high office in church and state, while the upper Third Estate wanted a merit system. Other divisions were political. Nobles wanted vote by order; the Third Estate, vote by head. On many issues, like the importance of a periodic Estates-General with responsibility for fiscal matters, they agreed. Nonetheless, on the issue of civil equality and the shape of the future legislature, they were not in agreement.
It is often said that the crown was in a position to broker a compromise, but this is doubtful. When the Estates-General opened at Versailles on 5 May 1789, the crown showed it was interested in restoring finances and little else. The debate among the orders over vote by head or by estate continued for the next six weeks because neither the Second nor the Third Estate was willing to compromise. The Third broke the stalemate by declaring itself the National Assembly (June 17), declaring it would begin a roll call of all deputies of all three orders, and declaring in the Tennis Court Oath (June 20) that it had sovereign power to write a constitution. It also defied Louis XVI's suggestion in the Royal Session (June 23) that the Estates-General decide some issues by order and others by head. Finally, in order to gain time for a projected dissolution of the Estates-General, Louis XVI ordered the privileged orders to meet in common with the Third. But dissent and desertion in the army as well as the taking of the Bastille (July 14), which turned the entire capital over to the revolutionaries, forced the king to call off the coup. The now renamed Constituent Assembly would go on to produce the document that made the Revolution revolutionary: the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (August 26).
See also Ancien Régime ; Diamond Necklace, Affair of ; France ; Louis XVI (France) ; Marie-Antoinette (France) ; Revolutions, Age of .
Shapiro, Gilbert, and John Markoff. Revolutionary Demands: A Content Analysis of the Cahiers de Doléances of 1789. Foreword by Charles Tilly; with contributions by Timothy Tackett and Philip Dawson. Stanford, 1998.
Tackett, Timothy. Becoming a Revolutionary: The Deputies of the French National Assembly and the Emergence of a Revolutionary Culture (1789–1790). Princeton, 1996.