Estates-General of 1789
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The Estates-General (or States-General) of 1789 (French: Les États-Généraux de 1789) was the first meeting since 1614 of the French 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). 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 but came to an impasse over the first item on the agenda, whether they should vote by estate, giving the first two estates an advantage, which was the king's choice, or vote all together, giving the Third Estate the advantage. It was brought to an end when the Third Estate formed into a National Assembly, inviting the other two to join, against the wishes of the king, signaling the outbreak of the French Revolution.
Convening the Estates-General
Edict of January 24, 1789
The Estates-General were summoned by a royal edict, dated to January 24, 1789. It comprised two parts: a Lettre du Roi and a Règlement.
The Lettre announces:
- "We have need of a concourse of our faithful subjects, to assist us surmount all the difficulties we find relative to the state of our finances .... These great motives have resolved us to convoke the assemblée des États of all the provinces under our authority ...."
The King promises to address the grievances of his people. The "most notable persons" of each community and judicial district are summoned "to confer and to record remonstrances, complaints, and grievances." Elections for Deputies are to be held. He says that he intends "reform of abuse", "establishment of a fixed and durable order", and "general prosperity". The Lettre is signed "Louis".
Lettres de Convocation were sent to all the provinces, with the Réglement prescribing the methods of election. During the preceding autumn, the Parlement of Paris, an aristocratic advisory body to the king, had decided that the organization of the convention would be the same as in 1614, the last time the Estates had met. Some 175 years had gone by since then. The Estates were thus not a functional institution in French society. By reviving them as much as possible like they had been, the King and the Parlement intended to control the authority of the people. The previous Estates had voted by order: that is, 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 issue was widely discussed in the press during the autumn of 1788. The people would nevertheless accept any national convention, confident that enough members of the Nobility and the Clergy would be with them to sway the votes. A National Party was formed. It argued that France had never had a constitution and the proper function of the Convention was to establish one. The royalist defenders, on the other hand, accepted the absolute monarchy as the constitution. Just to be certain, the press began to demand that the Commons be allocated twice as many delegates as each of the other two Estates. In an attempt to bolster his failing popularity, the king acceded to this measure of "doubling the Third". He was confident of his influence over the Nobility and Clergy.
Elections of early Spring 1789
The Réglement that went out by post in January thus specified separate voting for delegates of each Estate. Each tax district (cities, boroughs, and parishes) would elect their own delegates to the Third Estate. The Bailliages, or judicial districts, would elect delegates to the First and Second Estates in separate ballots. Each voting assembly would also collect a Cahier, or "Notebook", of grievances to be considered by the Convocation. The election rules differed somewhat depending on the type of voting unit, whether city, parish, or some other. Generally the distribution of delegates was by population: the most populous locations had the greatest number of delegates. The City of Paris was thus dominant. The electorate consisted of males 25 years and older, property owners, and registered taxpayers. They could be native or naturalized citizens.
The number of delegates elected was about 1200, 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 identical to those of 1614. Members of the nobility were not required to stand for election to the Second Estate, and many of them were elected to the Third Estate. The total number of nobles in the three Estates was about 400. Some of the nobles of the Third Estate were among the most passionate revolutionaries. Election to the Third Estate would not save them from the guillotine during the Terror, but that was an unknown future.
The Nobles in the Second Estate were the richest and most powerful in the kingdom. The king could count on them, but that was of little use to him in the succeeding course of history. He had also expected that the First Estate would be predominantly the noble Bishops. The electorate, however, returned mainly parish priests, most of whom were sympathetic to the Commons. The Third Estate elections returned predominantly magistrates and lawyers. The lower levels of society, the landless, working men, though present in large numbers in street gangs, were totally absent from the Estates-General, as the king had called for "the most notable persons".
The grievances returned were mainly about taxes, which the people considered a crushing burden. Consequently the people and the king were totally at odds from the very beginning. Aristocratic privilege was also attacked. The people resented the fact that nobles could excuse themselves from most of the burden of taxation and service that fell on the ordinary people. A third type complained that the ubiquitous tolls and duties levied by the nobility hindered internal commerce.
Opening of the Convention
On 5 May 1789, amidst general festivities, the Estates-General convened in an elaborate but temporary Île des États set up in one of the courtyards of the official Hôtel des Menus Plaisirs in the town of Versailles near the royal château. With the étiquette of 1614 strictly enforced, the clergy and nobility ranged in tiered seating in their full regalia, while the physical locations of the deputies from the Third Estate were at the far end, as dictated by the protocol. When Louis XVI and Charles Louis François de Paule de Barentin, the Keeper of the Seals of France, addressed the deputies on 6 May, the Third Estate discovered that the royal decree granting double representation also upheld the traditional voting "by orders", i.e. that the collective vote of each estate would be weighed equally.
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. Director-General of Finance Jacques Necker had more sympathy for 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 to 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 for each delegate to have one vote. 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 to be a concession wrung from the monarchy, rather than a magnanimous gift that would have convinced the populace of the king's goodwill.
Proceedings and dissolution
The Estates-General reached an impasse. The first item on the agenda involved the verification[clarification needed] of powers. Honoré Mirabeau, a noble himself but elected to represent the Third Estate, tried but failed to keep all three orders in a single room for this discussion. Instead of discussing the king's taxes, the three estates began to discuss separately the organization of the legislature. These efforts continued without success until 27 May, when the nobles voted to stand firm for separate verification. The following day, Abbé Sieyès (a member of the clergy, but, like Mirabeau, elected to represent the Third Estate) moved that the representatives of the Third Estate, who now called themselves the Communes ("Commons"), proceed with verification and invite the other two estates to take part, but not to wait for them.
On 13 June 1789, the Third Estate had arrived at a resolution to examine and settle in common the powers of the three orders and invited to this common work those[clarification needed] of the clergy and nobles. On 17 June, with the failure of efforts to reconcile the three estates, the Communes completed their own process of verification and 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. As their numbers exceeded the combined numbers of the other estates, they could dominate any combined assembly.
The King tried to resist. Under the influence of the courtiers of his privy council, he 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. On 20 June, he ordered the Salle des États, the hall where the National Assembly met, closed. The Assembly moved their deliberations to the king's tennis court (Jeu de paume), where they proceeded to swear the Tennis Court Oath (Serment du jeu de paume), by which they agreed not to separate until they had settled the constitution of France. Two days later, deprived of use of 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: efforts to restore the old order had served only to accelerate events.
In the séance royale of 23 June, the King granted a Charte octroyée, a constitution granted by royal favour, which affirmed, subject to the traditional limitations, the right of separate deliberation for the three orders, which constitutionally formed three chambers. This move failed; soon, 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 had ceased to exist, having become the National Assembly (and after 9 July 1789, the National Constituent Assembly).
- Portalis, Roger; Béraldi, Henri (1881). Les Graveurs du Dix-Huitième Siècle. Tome Second. Paris: Damascène Morgand et Charles Fatout. p. 397.
- Louis XVI (1789). Lettre du Roi pour la Convocation des États-Généraux a Versailles, le 27 Avril, 1789, et Règlement y Annexé. Paris: L'Imprimerie Royale. p. 3. "Nous avons besoin du concours de nos fidèles Sujets, pour nous aider à surmonter toutes les difficultés où nous nous trouvons relativement à l'état de nos finances .... Ces grands motifs nous ont déterminés à convoquer l'assemblée des États de toutes les Provinces de notre obéissance ...."
- The analysis of the preceding two paragraphs is that of Neely 2008, pp. 55–58
- Boyer, John W.; Kirshner, Julius (1986). "From Reform to Revolution". In Baker, Keith Michael. The Old Regime and the French Revolution. University of Chicago readings in Western civilization (Chicago: University of Chicago Press). pp. 180–184.
- Elections results come from Neely 2008, pp. 61–63
- SparkNotes: the French Revolution (1789–1799): The Estates-General: 1789
- Cathédrale Saint-Louis, since 1843.
- French Revolution 2007
- Neely, Sylvia (2008). A concise history of the French Revolution. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield.
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press
- This article incorporates text from the public domain History of the French Revolution from 1789 to 1814, by François Mignet (1824), as made available by Project Gutenberg.
- Wilde, Robert (2014). "The Estates General and the Revolution of 1789". about.com. Retrieved 1 March 2014.