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 as the three estates clashed over their respective powers. It was brought to an end when many members of the Third Estate formed themselves into a National Assembly, signalling the outbreak of the French Revolution.
The Estates-General meeting place
On 5 May 1789, amidst general festivities, the Estates-General convened in an elaborate but temporary lle 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. Many in the Third Estate viewed the double representation as a revolution already peacefully accomplished. However, with the étiquette of 1614 strictly enforced, the clergy and nobility ranged in tiered seating in their full regalia and the physical locations of the deputies from the Third Estate 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 vote per deputy ("voting by heads" rather than "by orders"). 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 as a concession wrung from the monarchy, rather than a magnanimous gift that would have convinced the populace of the king's good will.
Proceedings and dissolution
The Estates-General reached an impasse. The first item on the agenda involved the verification of powers. Honoré Mirabeau, 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 taxes of the king, the three estates began to discuss separately the organization of the legislature. Shuttle diplomacy 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 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), under 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 from the 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).
- SparkNotes: the French Revolution (1789–1799): The Estates-General: 1789
- Cathédrale Saint-Louis, since 1843.
- French Revolution 2007
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.69
- 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.