22.3: The Beginning of Revolution
22.3.1: 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.
Analyze the reasons why Louis XVI called the Estates-General.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- A general assembly representing the French estates of the realm: the clergy (First Estate), the nobles (Second Estate), and the common people (Third Estate).
- 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.
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 deCalonne 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.
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.
- Calling the Estates-General
“National Assembly (French Revolution).” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Assembly_(French_Revolution). Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0.
“Assembly of Notables.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Assembly_of_Notables. Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0.
“Estates-General of 1789.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Estates-General_of_1789. Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0.
“Couder_Stati_generali.jpg.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Estates-General_of_1789#/media/File:Couder_Stati_generali.jpg. Wikipedia Public domain.