The Beginning of Revolution



Calling the Estates-General

The Estates-General of 1789 was a general assembly representing the French estates of the realm summoned by Louis XVI to propose solutions to France’s financial problems. It ended when the Third Estate formed into a National Assembly, signaling the outbreak of the French Revolution.

Learning Objectives

Analyze the reasons why Louis XVI called the Estates-General.

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Estates-General  of 1789 was the first meeting since 1614 of the French Estates-General, a general assembly representing the French estates of the realm. Summoned by King Louis XVI to propose solutions to his government’s financial problems, the Estates-General convened for several weeks in May and June 1789.
  • In 1787, pressured by France’s desperate financial situation, the King convened an Assembly of Notables. France’s finance minister, Charles Alexandre de Calonne, hoped that if the Assembly supported proposed finance reforms,  parlements  would be forced to register them. The plan failed but the Assembly insisted that the proposed reforms should be presented to the Estates-General.
  • Louis XVI convoked the Estates-General for May 1789. The King agreed to retain many of the divisive customs which had been the norm in 1614 but were intolerable to the Third Estate. The most controversial and significant decision remained the nature of voting.
  • On May 5, 1789, the Estates-General convened. The following day, the Third Estate discovered that the royal decree granting double representation also upheld traditional voting by orders. By trying to avoid the issue of representation and focus solely on taxes, the King and his ministers gravely misjudged the situation.
  • On June 17, with the failure of efforts to reconcile the three estates, the Third Estate 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 King tried to resist but after failed attempts to sabotage the Assembly and keep the three estates separate, the Estates-General ceased to exist, becoming the National Assembly.

Key Terms

  • parlements: Provincial appellate courts in the France of the Ancien Régime, i.e. before the French Revolution. They were not legislative bodies but rather the court of final appeal of the judicial system. They typically wielded much power over a wide range of subject matter, particularly taxation. Laws and edicts issued by the Crown were not official in their respective jurisdictions until assent was given by publication. The members were aristocrats who had bought or inherited their offices and were independent of the King.
  • estates of the realm: The broad orders of social hierarchy used in Christendom (Christian Europe) from the medieval period to early modern Europe. Different systems for dividing society members into estates evolved over time. The best-known system is the French Ancien Régime (Old Regime), a three-estate system used until the French Revolution (1789–1799). It was made up of clergy (the First Estate), nobility (the Second Estate), and commoners (the Third Estate).
  • Tennis Court Oath: An oath taken on June 20, 1789, by the members of the French Estates-General for the Third Estate who had begun to call themselves the National Assembly, vowing “not to separate, and to reassemble wherever circumstances require, until the constitution of the kingdom is established.” It was a pivotal event in the early days of the French Revolution.
  • Assembly of Notables: A group of high-ranking nobles, ecclesiastics, and state functionaries convened by the King of France on extraordinary occasions to consult on matters of state.
  • Estates-General: A general assembly representing the French estates of the realm: the clergy (First Estate), the nobles (Second Estate), and the common people (Third Estate).

The Estates-General (or States-General) of 1789 was the first meeting since 1614 of the general assembly representing the French estates of the realm: the clergy (First Estate), the nobles (Second Estate), and the common people (Third Estate). Summoned by King Louis XVI to propose solutions to his government’s financial problems, the Estates-General sat for several weeks in May and June 1789.

Assembly of Notables of 1787

An Assembly of Notables was a group of high-ranking nobles, ecclesiastics, and state functionaries convened by the King of France on extraordinary occasions to consult on matters of state. Throughout the history of modern France, such an assembly was convened only several times, serving a consultative purpose. Unlike the States-General, whose members were elected by the subjects of the realm, the assemblymen were selected by the king and were prominent men, usually of the aristocracy. In 1787, pressured by France’s desperate financial situation, the King convened an assembly. Repeated attempts to implement tax reform failed due to lack of the Parlement of Paris support, as parlement judges felt that any increase in tax would have a direct negative effect on their own income. In response to this opposition, the finance minister Charles Alexandre de Calonne suggested that Louis XVI call an Assembly of Notables. While the Assembly had no legislative power in its own right, Calonne hoped that if it supported the proposed reforms, parlement would be forced to register them. Most historians argue that the plan failed because the assemblymen, whose privileges the plan aimed to curb, refused to bear the burden of increased taxation, although some have noted that the nobles were quite open to changes but rejected the specifics of Calonne’s proposal. In addition, the Assembly insisted that the proposed reforms should actually be presented to a representative body such as the Estates-General.

Estates-General of 1789

Louis XVI convened the Estates-General in 1788, setting the date of its opening for May 1, 1789. Because it had been so long since the Estates-General had been brought together, there was a debate as to which procedures should be followed. The King agreed to retain many of the divisive customs which were the norm in 1614 but intolerable to the Third Estate at a time when the concept of equality was central to public debate. The most controversial and significant decision remained that of the nature of voting. If the estates voted by order, the nobles and the clergy could together outvote the commons by 2 to 1. If, on the other hand, each delegate was to have one vote, the majority would prevail.

The number of delegates elected was about 1,200, half of whom formed the Third Estate. The First and Second Estates had 300 each. But French society had changed since 1614, and these Estates-General were not like those of 1614. Members of the nobility were not required to stand for election to the Second Estate and many were elected to the Third Estate. The total number of nobles in the three Estates was about 400. Noble representatives of the Third Estate were among the most passionate revolutionaries, including Jean Joseph Mounier and the comte de Mirabeau.

On May 5, 1789, the Estates-General convened. The following day, the Third Estate discovered that the royal decree granting double representation also upheld the traditional voting by orders. The apparent intent of the King and his advisers was for everyone to get directly to the matter of taxes, but by trying to avoid the issue of representation they had gravely misjudged the situation. The Third Estate wanted the estates to meet as one body and for each delegate to have one vote. The other two estates, while having their own grievances against royal absolutism, believed – correctly, as history would prove – that they would 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 lacked 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 to be a concession wrung from the monarchy rather than a gift that would have convinced the populace of the King’s goodwill.

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Painting by Auguste Couder showing the opening of the Estates-General, ca. 1838.

The suggestion to summon the Estates General came from the Assembly of Notables installed by the King in February 1787. It had not met since 1614. The usual business of registering the King’s edicts as law was performed by the Parlement of Paris. In 1787, it refused to cooperate with Charles Alexandre de Calonne’s program of badly needed financial reform, due to the special interests of its noble members.

On June 17, with the failure of efforts to reconcile the three estates, the Communes – or the Commons, as the Third Estate called itself now – 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 King tried to resist. On June 20, he ordered to close the hall where the National Assembly met, but deliberations moved to a nearby tennis court, where they proceeded to swear the Tennis Court Oath by which they agreed not to separate until they had settled the constitution of France. Two days later, removed from the tennis court as well, the Assembly met in the Church of Saint Louis, where the majority of the representatives of the clergy joined them. After a failed attempt to keep the three estates separate, that part of the deputies of the nobles who still stood apart joined the National Assembly at the request of the King. The Estates-General ceased to exist, becoming the National Assembly.

Establishment of the National Assembly

Following the storming of the Bastille on July 14, the National Assembly became the effective government and constitution drafter that ruled until passing the 1791 Constitution, which turned France into a constitutional monarchy.

Learning Objectives

Critique the National Assembly, its establishment, and its goals

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • After the Third Estate discovered that the royal decree granting double representation upheld the traditional voting by orders, its representatives refused to accept the imposed rules and proceeded to meet separately. On June 17, with the failure of efforts to reconcile the three estates, the Third Estate declared themselves redefined as the National Assembly, an assembly not of the estate but of the people.
  • After Louis XVI’s failed attempts to sabotage the Assembly and to keep the three estates separate, the Estates-General ceased to exist, becoming the National Assembly. It renamed itself the National Constituent Assembly on July 9 and began to function as a governing body and constitution-drafter. Following the storming of the Bastille on July 14, the National Assembly became the effective government of France.
  • The leading forces of the Assembly at this time were the conservative foes of the revolution (“The Right”); the Monarchiens inclined toward arranging France along lines similar to the British constitution model; and “the Left,” a group still relatively united in support of revolution and democracy. A critical figure in the Assembly was Abbé Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès, who authored a pamphlet called “What Is the Third Estate?”
  • In August 1789, the National Constituent Assembly abolished feudalism and published the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, but the financial crisis continued largely unaddressed and the deficit only increased.
  • In November, the Assembly suspended the old judicial system and declared the property of the Church to be “at the disposal of the  nation.” In 1790, religious orders were dissolved and the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, which turned the remaining clergy into employees of the state, was passed.
  • In the turmoil of the revolution, the Assembly members gathered the various constitutional laws they had passed into a single constitution and submitted it to recently restored Louis XVI, who accepted it. Under the Constitution of 1791, France would function as a constitutional monarchy.

Key Terms

  • Estates-General: A general assembly representing the French estates of the realm: the clergy (First Estate), the nobles (Second Estate), and the common people (Third Estate).
  • estates of the realm: The broad orders of social hierarchy used in Christendom (Christian Europe) from the medieval period to early modern Europe. Different systems for dividing society members into estates evolved over time. The best-known system is the French Ancien Régime (Old Regime), a three-estate system used until the French Revolution (1789–1799). It was made up of clergy (the First Estate), nobility (the Second Estate), and commoners (the Third Estate).
  • Tennis Court Oath: An oath taken on June 20, 1789, by the members of the French Estates-General for the Third Estate, who had begun to call themselves the National Assembly, vowing “not to separate, and to reassemble wherever circumstances require, until the constitution of the kingdom is established.” It was a pivotal event in the early days of the French Revolution.
  • Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen: A fundamental document of the French Revolution and in the history of human and civil rights, passed by France’s National Constituent Assembly in August 1789. It was influenced by the doctrine of natural right, stating that the rights of man are held to be universal. It became the basis for a nation of free individuals protected equally by law.
  • What Is the Third Estate?: A political pamphlet written in January 1789, shortly before the outbreak of the French Revolution, by French thinker and clergyman Abbé Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès. The pamphlet was Sieyès’ response to finance minister Jacques Necker’s invitation for writers to state how they thought the Estates-General should be organized.

From Estates General to National Assembly

The Estates-General, convened by Louis XVI to deal with France’s financial crisis, assembled on May 5, 1789. Its members were elected to represent the estates of the realm: the First Estate (the clergy), the Second Estate (the nobility), and the Third Estate (the commoners) but the Third Estate had been granted “double representation” (twice as many delegates as each of the other estates). However, the following day, the Third Estate discovered that the royal decree granting double representation also upheld the traditional voting by orders. That meant that the nobles and the clergy could together outvote the commoners by 2 to 1. If, on the other hand, each delegate was to have one vote, the majority would prevail. As a result, double representation was meaningless in terms of power. The Third Estate refused to accept the imposed rules and proceeded to meet separately, calling themselves the Communes (“Commons”).

On June 17, with the failure of efforts to reconcile the three estates, the Third Estate 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 King tried to resist. On June 20, he ordered to close the hall where the National Assembly met, but the deliberations were moved to a nearby tennis court, where they proceeded to swear the Tennis Court Oath by which they agreed not to separate until they had settled the constitution of France. After Louis XVI’s failed attempts to sabotage the Assembly and keep the three estates separate, the Estates-General ceased to exist, becoming the National Assembly.

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Drawing by Jacques-Louis David of the Tennis Court Oath.

The oath was both a revolutionary act and an assertion that political authority derived from the people and their representatives rather than from the monarch himself. Their solidarity forced Louis XVI to order the clergy and the nobility to join with the Third Estate in the National Assembly to give the illusion that he controlled the National Assembly. The Oath signified for the first time that French citizens formally stood in opposition to Louis XVI, and the National Assembly’s refusal to back down forced the king to make concessions.

National Constituent Assembly

The Assembly renamed itself the National Constituent Assembly on July 9 and began to function as a governing body and a constitution-drafter. Following the storming of the Bastille on July 14, the National Assembly (sometimes called the Constituent Assembly) became the effective government of France. The number of delegates increased significantly during the election period, but many deputies took their time arriving, some of them reaching Paris as late as 1791. The majority of the Second Estate had a military background and the Third Estate was dominated by men of legal professions. This suggests that while the Third Estate was referred to as the commoners, its delegates belonged largely to the bourgeoisie and not the most-oppressed lower classes.

The leading forces of the Assembly were the conservative foes of the revolution (later known as “The Right”); the Monarchiens (“Monarchists,” also called “Democratic Royalists”) allied with Jacques Necker and inclined toward arranging France along lines similar to the British constitution model; and “the Left” (also called “National Party”), a group still relatively united in support of revolution and democracy, representing mainly the interests of the middle classes but strongly sympathetic to the broader range of the common people.

A critical figure in the Assembly and eventually for the French Revolution was Abbé Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès, who for a time managed to bridge the differences between those who wanted a constitutional monarchy and those who wished to move in more democratic (or even republican) directions. In January 1789, Sieyès authored a pamphlet What Is the Third Estate?, a response to finance minister Jacques Necker’s invitation for writers to state how they thought the Estates-General should be organized. In it he argues that the Third Estate – the common people of France – constituted a complete nation within itself and had no need for the “dead weight” of the two other orders, the clergy and aristocracy. Sieyès stated that the people wanted genuine representatives in the Estates-General, equal representation to the other two orders taken together, and votes taken by heads and not by orders. These ideas had an immense influence on the course of the French Revolution.

Work of the Assembly

On August 4, 1789, the National Constituent Assembly abolished feudalism (action triggered by numerous peasant revolts), sweeping away both the seigneurial rights of the Second Estate and the tithes (a 10% tax for the Church) collected by the First Estate. During the course of a few hours, nobles, clergy, towns, provinces, companies, and cities lost their special privileges. Originally the peasants were supposed to pay for the release of seigneurial dues, but the majority refused to pay and in 1793 the obligation was cancelled.

On August 26, 1789, the Assembly published the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, which comprised a statement of principles rather than a constitution with legal effect. Influenced by the doctrine of natural right, it stated that the rights of man were held to be universal, becoming the basis for a nation of free individuals protected equally by law. Simultaneously, the Assembly continued to draft a new constitution. Amid the Assembly’s preoccupation with constitutional affairs (many competing ideas were debated), the financial crisis continued largely unaddressed and the deficit only increased. The Assembly gave Necker complete financial dictatorship.

The old judicial system, based on the 13 regional parliaments, was suspended in November 1789 and officially abolished in September 1790.

In an attempt to address the financial crisis, the Assembly declared, on November 2, 1789, that the property of the Church was “at the disposal of the nation.” Thus the nation had now also taken on the responsibility of the Church, which included paying the clergy and caring for the poor, the sick, and the orphaned. In December, the Assembly began to sell the lands to the highest bidder to raise revenue. Monastic vows were abolished, and in February 1790 all religious orders were dissolved. Monks and nuns were encouraged to return to private life. The Civil Constitution of the Clergy, passed in July 1790, turned the remaining clergy into employees of the state.

In the turmoil of the revolution, the Assembly members gathered the various constitutional laws they had passed into a single constitution and submitted it to recently restored Louis XVI, who accepted it, writing “I engage to maintain it at home, to defend it from all attacks from abroad, and to cause its execution by all the means it places at my disposal.” The King addressed the Assembly and received enthusiastic applause from members and spectators. With this capstone, the National Constituent Assembly adjourned in a final session on September 30, 1791. Under the Constitution of 1791, France would function as a constitutional monarchy.

The Storming of the Bastille

The medieval fortress, armory, and political prison in Paris known as the Bastille became a symbol of the abuse of the monarchy. Its fall on July 14, 1789 was the flashpoint of the French Revolution.

Learning Objectives

Explain the swell of popular emotion that led to the storming of the Bastille

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • During the reign of Louis XVI, France faced a major economic crisis, exacerbated by a regressive system of taxation. On May 5, 1789, the Estates-General convened to deal with this issue, but were held back by archaic protocols that disadvantaged the Third Estate (the commoners). On June 17, 1789, the Third Estate reconstituted themselves as the National Assembly, a body whose purpose was the creation of a French constitution.
  • Paris, close to insurrection, showed wide support for the Assembly. The press published the Assembly’s debates while political discussions spread into the public squares and halls of the capital. The Palais-Royal and its grounds became the site of an ongoing 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, reportedly imprisoned for refusing to fire on the people.
  • On July 11, 1789, with troops distributed across the Paris area, Louis XVI dismissed and banished his finance minister, Jacques Necker, who had been sympathetic to the Third Estate. News of Necker’s dismissal reached Paris on July 12. Crowds gathered throughout Paris, including more than ten thousand at the Palais-Royal.
  • Among the troops under the royal authority, there were foreign mercenaries, most notably Swiss and German regiments, that were seen as less likely to be sympathetic to the popular cause than ordinary French soldiers. By early July, approximately half of the 25,000 regular troops in Paris and Versailles were drawn from these foreign regiments.
  • On the morning of July 14, 1789, the city of Paris was in a state of alarm. At this point, the Bastille was nearly empty, housing only seven prisoners. Amid the tensions of July 1789, the building remained as a symbol of royal tyranny.
  • The crowd gathered outside around mid-morning, calling for the surrender of the prison, the removal of the cannon, and the release of the arms and gunpowder. Following failed mediation efforts, gunfire began, apparently spontaneously, turning the crowd into a mob. Governor de Launay opened the gates to the inner courtyard, and the conquerors swept in to liberate the fortress at 5:30.

Key Terms

  • Estates-General: A general assembly representing the French estates of the realm: the clergy (First Estate), the nobles (Second Estate), and the common people (Third Estate).
  • National Assembly: A revolutionary assembly formed by the representatives of the Third Estate (the common people) of the Estates-General that existed from June 13 to July 9, 1789. After July 9, it was known as the National Constituent Assembly although popularly the shorter form persisted.

Storming of the Bastille: Background

During the reign of Louis XVI, France faced a major economic crisis, partially initiated by the cost of intervening in the American Revolution and exacerbated by a regressive system of taxation. On May 5, 1789, the Estates-General convened to deal with this issue, but were held back by archaic protocols that disadvantaged the Third Estate (the commoners). On June 17, 1789, the Third Estate reconstituted themselves as the National Assembly, a body whose purpose was the creation of a French constitution. The king initially opposed this development, but was forced to acknowledge the authority of the assembly, which subsequently renamed itself the National Constituent Assembly on July 9.

Paris, close to insurrection, showed wide support for the Assembly. The press published the Assembly’s debates while political discussions spread into the public squares and halls of the capital. The Palais-Royal and its grounds became the site of an ongoing 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, reportedly imprisoned for refusing to fire on the people. The Assembly recommended the imprisoned guardsmen to the clemency of the king, They returned to prison and received pardon. The rank and file of the regiment now leaned toward the popular cause.

Social Unrest

On July 11, 1789, with troops distributed across the Paris area, Louis XVI, acting under the influence of the conservative nobles of his privy council, dismissed and banished his finance minister, Jacques Necker, who had been sympathetic to the Third Estate. News of Necker’s dismissal reached Paris on July 12. The Parisians generally presumed that the dismissal marked the start of a coup by conservative elements. Liberal Parisians were further enraged by the fear that royal troops would attempt to shut down the National Constituent Assembly, which was meeting in Versailles. Crowds gathered throughout Paris, including more than ten thousand at the Palais-Royal. Among the troops under the royal authority were foreign mercenaries, most notably Swiss and German regiments, that were seen as less likely to be sympathetic to the popular cause than ordinary French soldiers. By early July, approximately half of the 25,000 regular troops in Paris and Versailles were drawn from these foreign regiments.

During the public demonstrations that started on July 12, the multitude displayed busts of Necker and Louis Philippe II, Duke of Orléans (of the House of Bourbon, the ruling dynasty of France, who actively supported the French Revolution). The crowd clashed with royal troops and unrest grew. The people of Paris expressed their hostility against state authorities by attacking customs posts blamed for causing increased food and wine prices, and started to plunder any place where food, guns, and supplies could be hoarded. That night, rumors spread that supplies were being hoarded at Saint-Lazare, a huge property of the clergy, which functioned as convent, hospital, school, and even a jail. An angry crowd broke in and plundered the property, seizing 52 wagons of wheat which were taken to the public market. That same day, multitudes of people plundered many other places, including weapon arsenals. The royal troops did nothing to stop the spreading of social chaos in Paris during those days.

Storming of the Bastille

On the morning of July 14, 1789, the city of Paris was in a state of alarm. The partisans of the Third Estate in France, now under the control of the Bourgeois Militia of Paris (soon to become Revolutionary France’s National Guard), earlier stormed the Hôtel des Invalides without significant opposition with the intention of gathering weapons held there. The commandant at the Invalides had in the previous few days taken the precaution of transferring 250 barrels of gunpowder to the Bastille for safer storage.

At this point, the Bastille was nearly empty, housing only seven prisoners. The cost of maintaining a garrisoned medieval fortress for so limited a purpose led to a decision, made shortly before the disturbances began, to replace it with an open public space. Amid the tensions of July 1789, the building remained as a symbol of royal tyranny.

The crowd gathered outside around mid-morning, calling for the surrender of the prison, the removal of the cannon, and the release of the arms and gunpowder. Two representatives of the crowd outside were invited into the fortress and negotiations began. Another was admitted around noon with definite demands. The negotiations dragged on while the crowd grew and became impatient. Around 1:30 p.m., the crowd surged into the undefended outer courtyard. A small party climbed onto the roof of a building next to the gate to the inner courtyard and broke the chains on the drawbridge. Soldiers of the garrison called to the people to withdraw but in the noise and confusion these shouts were misinterpreted as encouragement to enter. Gunfire began, apparently spontaneously, turning the crowd into a mob.

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“The Storming of the Bastille” by Jean-Pierre Houël, Bibliothèque Nationale de France.

A 2013 analysis of the Bastille dimensions showed that it did not tower over the neighborhood as was depicted in the paintings but was a comparable height.

The firing continued and a substantial force of Royal Army troops encamped on the Champs de Mars did not intervene. With the possibility of mutual carnage suddenly apparent, Governor de Launay ordered a cease-fire at 5 p.m.. A letter offering his terms was handed out to the besiegers through a gap in the inner gate. His demands were refused, but de Launay nonetheless capitulated as he realized that with limited food stocks and no water supply his troops could not hold out much longer. He accordingly opened the gates to the inner courtyard, and the conquerors swept in to liberate the fortress at 5:30 p.m. The king first learned of the storming only the next morning through the Duke of La Rochefoucauld. “Is it a revolt?” asked Louis XVI. The duke replied: “No sire, it’s not a revolt; it’s a revolution.”

The Declaration of the Rights of Man

The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, passed by France’s National Constituent Assembly in August 1789, is a fundamental document of the French Revolution that granted civil rights to some commoners, although it excluded a significant segment of the French population.

Learning Objectives

Identify the main points in the Declaration of the Rights of Man

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (1791) is a fundamental document of the French Revolution and in the history of human and civil rights. The inspiration and content of the document emerged largely from the ideals of the American Revolution. The key drafts were prepared by General Lafayette, working at times with his close friend Thomas Jefferson.
  • The concepts in the Declaration come from the tenets of the Enlightenment, including individualism, the social contract as theorized by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and the separation of powers espoused by Montesquieu. The spirit of secular natural law rests at the foundations of the Declaration.
  • At the time of writing, the rights contained in the declaration were only awarded to men. Furthermore, the declaration was a statement of vision rather than reality as it was not deeply rooted in the practice of the West or even France at the time. It embodied ideals toward which France pledged to aspire in the future.
  • While the French Revolution provided rights to a larger portion of the population, there remained a distinction between those who obtained the political rights in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen and those who did not. Those who were deemed to hold these rights were called active citizens, a designation granted to men who were French, at least 25 years old, paid taxes equal to three days of work, and could not be defined as servants.
  • Tensions arose between active and passive citizens throughout the Revolution and the question of women’s rights emerged as particularly prominent. The Declaration did not recognize women as active citizens. The absence of women’s rights prompted Olympe de Gouges to publish the Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen in September 1791.
  • The Declaration did not revoke the institution of slavery, as lobbied for by Jacques-Pierre Brissot’s Les Amis des Noirs and defended by the group of colonial planters called the Club Massiac. However, it played an important rhetorical role in the Haitian Revolution.

Key Terms

  • The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen: A fundamental document of the French Revolution and in the history of human and civil rights passed by France’s National Constituent Assembly in August 1789. It was influenced by the doctrine of natural right, stating that the rights of man are held to be universal. It became the basis for a nation of free individuals protected equally by law.
  • March on Versailles: A march began during the French Revolution among women in the marketplaces of Paris who, on the morning of October 5, 1789, were near rioting over the high price and scarcity of bread. Their demonstrations quickly became intertwined with the activities of revolutionaries, who were seeking liberal political reforms and a constitutional monarchy for France. The market women and their various allies grew into a crowd of thousands. Encouraged by revolutionary agitators, they ransacked the city armory for weapons and marched to the Palace of Versailles.
  • natural law: A philosophy that certain rights or values are inherent by virtue of human nature and can be universally understood through human reason. Historically, natural law refers to the use of reason to analyze both social and personal human nature to deduce binding rules of moral behavior. Although it is often conflated with common law, the two are distinct. Common law is not based on inherent rights, but is the legal tradition whereby certain rights or values are legally recognized by virtue of already having judicial recognition or articulation.
  • separation of powers: A model for the governance of a state (or who controls the state) first developed in ancient Greece. Under this model, the state is divided into branches, each with separate and independent powers and areas of responsibility so that the powers of one branch are not in conflict with the powers associated with the other branches. The typical division of branches is legislative, executive, and judiciary.
  • social contract: A theory or model that originated during the Age of Enlightenment that typically addresses the questions of the origin of society and the legitimacy of the authority of the state over the individual. Its arguments typically posit that individuals have consented, either explicitly or tacitly, to surrender some of their freedoms and submit to the authority of the ruler or magistrate (or to the decision of a majority) in exchange for protection of their remaining rights. The question of the relation between natural and legal rights, therefore, is often an aspect of this theory. The term comes from a 1762 book by Jean-Jacques Rousseau which discussed this concept.

Intellectual Context

The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (August 1791) is a fundamental document of the French Revolution and in the history of human and civil rights. The inspiration and content of the document emerged largely from the ideals of the American Revolution. The key drafts were prepared by General Lafayette, working at times with his close friend Thomas Jefferson, who drew heavily upon The Virginia Declaration of Rights drafted in May 1776 by George Mason (which was based in part on the English Bill of Rights 1689), as well as Jefferson’s own drafts for the American Declaration of Independence. In August 1789, Honoré Mirabeau played a central role in conceptualizing and drafting the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.

The Declaration emerged from the tenets of the Enlightenment, including individualism, the social contract as theorized by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and the separation of powers espoused by Montesquieu. The spirit of secular natural law rests at the foundations of the Declaration. Unlike traditional natural law theory, secular natural law does not draw from religious doctrine or authority. The document defines a single set of individual and collective rights for all men. Influenced by the doctrine of natural rights, these rights are held to be universal and valid in all times and places. Correspondingly, the role of government, carried on by elected representatives, is to recognize and secure these rights.

Thomas Jefferson — the primary author of the U.S. Declaration of Independence —was in France as a U.S. diplomat and worked closely with Lafayette on designing a bill of rights for France. In the ratification by the states of the U.S. Constitution in 1788, critics demanded a written Bill of Rights. In response, James Madison’s proposal for a U.S. Bill of Rights was introduced in New York in June 1789, 11 weeks before the French declaration. Considering the 6 to 8 weeks it took news to cross the Atlantic, it is possible that the French knew of the American text, which emerged from the same shared intellectual heritage. The same people took part in shaping both documents: Lafayette admired Jefferson, and Jefferson, in turn, found Lafayette an important political and intellectual partner.

Natural Rights

At the time of writing, the rights contained in the declaration were only awarded to men. Furthermore, the declaration was a statement of vision rather than reality as it was not deeply rooted in the practice of the West or even France at the time. It embodied ideals toward which France aspired to struggle in the future.

In the second article, “the natural and imprescriptible rights of man” are defined as “liberty, property, security and resistance to oppression.” It demanded the destruction of aristocratic privileges by proclaiming an end to feudalism and exemptions from taxation. It also called for freedom and equal rights for all human beings (referred to as “Men”) and access to public office based on talent. The monarchy was restricted and all citizens had the right to take part in the legislative process. Freedom of speech and press were declared and arbitrary arrests outlawed. The Declaration also asserted the principles of popular sovereignty, in contrast to the divine right of kings that characterized the French monarchy, and social equality among citizens, eliminating the special rights of the nobility and clergy.

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The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789 by Jean-Jacques-François Le Barbier.

The Declaration is included in the preamble of the constitutions of both the Fourth French Republic (1946) and Fifth Republic (1958) and is still current. Inspired by the American Revolution and also by the Enlightenment philosophers, the Declaration was a core statement of the values of the French Revolution and had a major impact on the development of freedom and democracy in Europe and worldwide.

Limitations

While the French Revolution provided rights to a larger portion of the population, there remained a distinction between those who obtained the political rights in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen and those who did not. Those who were deemed to hold these political rights were called active citizens, a designation granted to men who were French, at least 25 years old  paid taxes equal to three days of work, and could not be defined as servants. This meant that at the time of the Declaration only male property owners held these rights. The category of passive citizens was created to encompass those populations that the Declaration excluded from political rights. In the end, the vote was granted to approximately 4.3 out of 29 million Frenchmen. Women, slaves, youth, and foreigners were excluded.

Tensions arose between active and passive citizens throughout the Revolution and the question of women’s rights emerged as particularly prominent. The Declaration did not recognize women as active citizens despite the fact that after the March on Versailles on October 5, 1789, women presented the Women’s Petition to the National Assembly, in which they proposed a decree giving women equal rights. In 1790, Nicolas de Condorcet and Etta Palm d’Aelders unsuccessfully called on the National Assembly to extend civil and political rights to women. The absence of women’s rights prompted Olympe de Gouges to publish the Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen in September 1791. Modeled on the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, it exposes the failure of the French Revolution, which had been devoted to equality.

The Declaration did not revoke the institution of slavery, as lobbied for by Jacques-Pierre Brissot’s Les Amis des Noirs and defended by the group of colonial planters called the Club Massiac. Thousands of slaves in Saint-Domingue, the most profitable slave colony in the world, engaged in uprisings (with critical attempts beginning also in August 1791) that would be known as the first successful slave revolt in the New World. Slavery in the French colonies was abolished by the Convention dominated by the Jacobins in 1794. However, Napoleon reinstated it in 1802. In 1804, the colony of Saint-Domingue became an independent state, the Republic of Haiti.

Legacy

The Declaration, together with the American Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights, inspired in large part the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It has also influenced and inspired rights-based liberal democracy throughout the world. It was translated as soon as 1793–1794 by Colombian Antonio Nariño, who published it despite the Inquisition and was sentenced to be imprisoned for ten years for doing so. In 2003, the document was listed on UNESCO’s Memory of the World register.

The March on Versailles

Concerned over the high price and scarcity of bread, women from the marketplaces of Paris led the March on Versailles
on October 5, 1789.  This became one of the most significant events of the French Revolution, eventually forcing the royals to return to Paris.

Learning Objectives

Describe the March on Versailles

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Women’s March on Versailles was one of the earliest and most significant events of the French Revolution. On the morning of October 5, 1789, women were near rioting in the Paris marketplace over the high price and scarcity of bread. Their demonstrations quickly became intertwined with the activities of revolutionaries, who were seeking liberal political reforms and a constitutional monarchy for France.
  • At the end of the Ancien Régime, the fear of famine became an ever-present dread for the lower strata of the Third Estate. Rumors swirled that foods, especially grain, were purposely withheld from the poor for the benefit of the privileged. While the march turned into a more general revolutionary upsurge, this fear remained at its roots.
  • Despite its post-revolutionary mythology, the march was not a spontaneous event. Speakers at the Palais-Royal mentioned it regularly, but the final trigger was a royal banquet on October 1 at which the officers at Versailles welcomed the officers of new troops, a customary practice when a unit changed its garrison. The lavish banquet was reported in newspapers as nothing short of a gluttonous orgy, which outraged the commoners.
  • On the morning of October 5, a young woman struck a marching drum at the edge of a group of market women who were infuriated by the chronic shortage and high price of bread. As more and more women and men arrived, the crowd grew to more than 7,000 individuals. One of the men was Stanislas-Marie Maillard, a prominent conqueror of the Bastille who by unofficial acclamation was given a leadership role.
  • Although the fighting ceased quickly and the royal troops had cleared the palace attacked by the revolutionaries, the crowd was still everywhere outside. Lafayette convinced the king and later the queen to address the crowd, which calmed the participants of the march. However, the revolutionaries forced the royals to return to Paris.
  • As a result of the march, the monarchist faction in the Assembly effectively lost its significance,  Robespierre raised his public profile considerably, Lafayette found himself tied too closely to the king; Maillard returned to Paris with his status as a local hero made permanent. For the women of Paris, the march became the climax of revolutionary hagiography. The royals were effectively trapped in Paris.

Key Terms

  • March on Versailles: Taking place on October 5, 1789, one of the earliest and most significant events of the French Revolution. Women in the marketplaces of Paris were near rioting over the high price and scarcity of bread. Their demonstrations quickly became intertwined with the activities of revolutionaries, who were seeking liberal political reforms and a constitutional monarchy for France.
  • Great Fear: A general panic that took place between July 17 and August 3, 1789, at the start of the French Revolution. Rural unrest had been present in France since the worsening grain shortage of the spring. Fueled by rumors of an aristocratic “famine plot” to starve or burn out the population, both peasants and townspeople mobilized in many regions.
  • flight to Varennes: An attempted escape from Paris during the night of June 20-21, 1791 by King Louis XVI of France, his queen Marie Antoinette, and their immediate family
    in order to initiate a counter-revolution at the head of loyal troops under royalist officers concentrated at Montmédy near the frontier.
  • Pacte de Famine: A conspiracy theory adopted by many in France during the 18th century. The theory held that foods, especially grain, were purposely withheld for the benefit of privileged interest groups. During this period, French citizens obtained much of their nourishment from grain.
  • National Assembly: A revolutionary assembly that existed from June 13 to July 9, 1789, and was formed by the representatives of the Third Estate (the common people) of the Estates-General.

March on Versailles: Background

The Women’s March on Versailles, also known as The October March, The October Days, or simply The March on Versailles, was one of the earliest and most significant events of the French Revolution. On the morning of October 5, 1789, women in the marketplaces of Paris were near rioting over the high price and scarcity of bread. Their demonstrations quickly became intertwined with the activities of revolutionaries seeking liberal political reforms and a constitutional monarchy for France.

At the end of the Ancien Régime, the fear of famine became an ever-present dread for the lower strata of the Third Estate. Rampant rumors of a conspiracy theory held that foods, especially grain, were purposely withheld from the poor for the benefit of the privileged (the Pacte de Famine). Stories of a plot to destroy wheat crops in order to starve the population provoked the so-called Great Fear in the summer of 1789.

Despite its post-revolutionary mythology, the march was not a spontaneous event. Speakers at the Palais-Royal mentioned it regularly and the idea of a march on Versailles had been widespread. The final trigger came from a royal banquet held on October 1 at which the officers at Versailles welcomed the officers of new troops, a customary practice when a unit changed its garrison. The royal family briefly attended the affair. The lavish banquet was reported in newspapers as nothing short of a gluttonous orgy. Worst of all, the papers dwelt scornfully on the reputed desecration of the tricolor cockade; drunken officers were said to have stamped upon this symbol of the nation and professed their allegiance solely to the white cockade of the House of Bourbon. This embellished tale of the royal banquet became the source of intense public outrage.

The Day of the March

On the morning of October 5, a young woman struck a marching drum at the edge of a group of market women who were infuriated by the chronic shortage and high price of bread. From their starting point in the markets of the eastern section of Paris, the angry women forced a nearby church to toll its bells. More women from other nearby marketplaces joined in, many bearing kitchen blades and other makeshift weapons. As more women and men arrived, the crowd outside the city hall reached between 6,000 and 7,0000 and perhaps as high as 10,000. One of the men was Stanislas-Marie Maillard, a prominent conqueror of the Bastille, who by unofficial acclamation was given a leadership role.

When the crowd finally reached Versailles, members of the National Assembly greeted the marchers and invited Maillard into their hall. As he spoke, the restless Parisians came pouring into the Assembly and sank exhausted on the deputies’ benches. Hungry, fatigued, and bedraggled from the rain, they seemed to confirm that the siege was mostly a demand for food. With few other options available, the President of the Assembly, Jean Joseph Mounier, accompanied a deputation of market-women into the palace to see the king. A group of six women were escorted into the king’s apartment, where they told him of the crowd’s privations. The king responded sympathetically and after this brief but pleasant meeting, arrangements were made to disburse some food from the royal stores with more promised. Some in the crowd felt that their goals had been satisfactorily met.

However, at about 6 a.m., some of the protesters discovered a small gate to the palace was unguarded. Making their way inside, they searched for the queen’s bedchamber. The royal guards fired their guns at the intruders, killing a young member of the crowd. Infuriated, the rest surged towards the breach and streamed inside.

Although the fighting ceased quickly and the royal troops cleared the palace, the crowd was still everywhere outside. Lafayette (commander-in-chief of the National Guard), who had earned the court’s indebtedness, convinced the king to address the crowd. When the two men stepped out on a balcony an unexpected cry went up: “Vive le Roi!” The relieved king briefly conveyed his willingness to return to Paris. After the king withdrew, the exultant crowd would not be denied the same accord from the queen and her presence was demanded loudly. Lafayette brought her to the same balcony, accompanied by her young son and daughter. However pleased it may have been by the royal displays, the crowd insisted that the king come back with them to Paris. At about 1 p.m. on October 6, the vast throng escorted the royal family and a complement of 100 deputies back to the capital, this time with the armed National Guards leading the way.

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An illustration of the Women’s March on Versailles, October 5, 1789, author unknown.

The march symbolized a new balance of power that displaced the ancient privileged orders of the French nobility and favored the nation’s common people, collectively termed the Third Estate. Bringing together people representing sources of the Revolution in their largest numbers yet, the march on Versailles proved to be a defining moment of that Revolution.

Consequences of the March

The rest of the National Constituent Assembly followed the king within two weeks to new quarters in Paris, excepting 56 pro-monarchy deputies. Thus, the march effectively deprived the monarchist faction of significant representation in the Assembly as most of these deputies retreated from the political scene. Conversely, Robespierre’s impassioned defense of the march raised his public profile considerably. Lafayette, though initially acclaimed, found he had tied himself too closely to the king. As the Revolution progressed, he was hounded into exile by the radical leadership. Maillard returned to Paris with his status as a local hero made permanent. For the women of Paris, the march became the source of apotheosis in revolutionary hagiography. The “Mothers of the Nation” were highly celebrated upon their return and would be praised and solicited by successive Parisian governments for years to come.

Louis attempted to work within the framework of his limited powers after the women’s march but won little support, and he and the royal family remained virtual prisoners in the Tuileries. Desperate, he made his abortive flight to Varennes in June 1791. Attempting to escape and join with royalist armies, the king was once again captured by a mixture of citizens and national guardsmen who hauled him back to Paris.