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The National Assembly and Revolution

Calling the Estates-General opened a can of worms for Louis XVI that no one expected. The process of electing the representatives created a stir among all the social classes. Suddenly everyone looked to the future, a future perhaps without an absolutist and a future with at least considerable change. Each social group in France had its own ideas about what needed to be changed and how. The clergy had ideas about church reform, the nobility had ideas about taxation, and the common people had ideas about all kinds of social and political reform. Each of these groups made up the legal social classes of France called the estates.

The Three Estates

At the time Louis XVI called for a session of the Estates-General, France had three legal classes or orders of citizens. Though they were legal classes they certainly were not distinct. Each of France’s twenty-five million or so inhabitants fell into one of the three estates.

The clergy, all one hundred thousand of them, made up the first estate. The Church owned about 10 percent of the land in France but paid relatively little in the way of taxes. The second estate consisted of several hundred thousand nobles and accounted for about 25 percent of the French land. Membership in the second estate had nothing to do with wealth; they had hereditary claims to membership because their ancestors were nobles. Members of the second estate often were wealthy, though, because of their holdings of land or because of the age-old right to tax peasants for their own benefit. The second estate also enjoyed a variety of tax exemptions, many dating back generations. Even those who possessed little wealth believed themselves superior to the third estate and at least equal to the first estate.

More than twenty-four million French, everyone who was neither clergy nor nobility, fell into the third estate. It made no difference whether a person was a wealthy businessman or a poor urban worker, a well-to-do lawyer or a rural peasant. If a Frenchman was neither clergy nor nobility, he was a commoner.

Historians have long debated the source of the social tension leading up to the French Revolution. Some historians emphasize the tensions between the three estates. In many cases, members of the third estate were wealthier than some of the members of the second estate and, therefore, resented being treated like the other commoners. Other historians have emphasized the differences between the individuals within the estates. The wealthiest members of each of the three estates had very different economic and political interests from the poorer members of each estate. Even though many lawyers and merchants were members of the third estate, their interests were nothing like the interests of the peasants and the urban poor. Though the classes were divided legally, many members of the second and third estates had more in common with one another than with other members of their own estates.

Becoming the National Assembly

After their election to the Estates-General, the delegates made their way to Versailles in 1789. The majority of delegates from the first estate were not wealthy. The second estate’s delegates were split economically and politically, but most were wealthy nobles and only a few were liberals seeking real change. Most of the third estate’s delegates were lawyers and government officials whose interests lay in social advancement. For the most part, the poor had no representation.

Though the delegates came from different estates, there were a few things that nearly all wanted to see changed. Nearly all the delegates wanted to move away from absolutism, to have the Estates-General meet regularly, and to give them power over the monarch with regard to taxes and laws.

When the Estates-General last met in 1614, the three estates met separately and votes were counted by estate. In other words, the first and second estates often voted 2 to 1 against the third estate, thereby maintaining power over the commoners. For the 1789 meeting, the third estate’s number of representatives was increased to equal the first and second estates’ delegates combined. The change came by royal decree largely in response to the rather vocal demands of the members of the third estate and an army of pamphleteers who championed the cause. The third estate’s delegates were excited about the possibilities until they learned that the estates were still going to meet separately, just like in the old days. From virtually the first day of the meetings, the estates locked horns in a stalemate. The third estate refused to meet unless Louis XVI agreed that all the estates meet as a single assembly. Six weeks later, some of the liberal priests left the first estate and went to meet with the third estate.

On June 17, the members of the third estate decided to call themselves the National Assembly. A few days later, the National Assembly showed up to meet in their regular meeting place and discovered that the meeting hall had been “closed for repairs.” They smelled a conspiracy against them, so they found an indoor tennis court where they could meet. It was there, led by Abbé Emmanuel Sieyès (1748-1836), that they swore the famous Tennis Court Oath, a vow that they would not leave until the National Assembly had written a new constitution for France. Sieyès had written the influential pamphlet What is the third estate?, in which he argued that the third estate, not the other two, truly represented the French people. Days later, the king ordered the three estates to meet together. However, on the heels of that order, he changed his mind and decided to try absolutism once more. Louis dismissed some of his liberal advisors and he ordered troops to Versailles to disband the Estates-General.

Would You Believe?

The most influential painter of this time, Jacques Louis David, painted a stirring scene of the Tennis Court Oath. In the painting, a brewing storm can be seen outside through an open window. Indeed, a storm was brewing in France.

Bastille and the Great Fear

Louis XVI couldn’t have picked a worse time to try to flex his muscles. Economic conditions were terrible in France, especially around Paris. Awful harvests resulted in exorbitant bread prices, prices the poor could not afford. As prices spiraled, workers lost their jobs at astounding rates. While the king, and those before him, had made decisions that adversely affected the economy, the poor people believed that the king and the nobles were directly responsible for the shortages, the high prices, the unemployment, and the general state of despair.

In mid-July of 1789, the poor of Paris, who began to gather in crowds demanding food, caught wind of troop movement; they feared the king had dispatched the troops to disband the crowds and attack the city. In a panic caused by misunderstanding, the mobs descended on a prison called the Bastille, believing it housed massive supplies of weapons and gunpowder that could be used to defend the city against the attacking royal troops.

The mob demanded entry but the prison’s governor refused. When the mob tied to force its way in, the guards opened fire and killed almost 100 Parisians. The mobs continued until the prison surrendered. They killed some of the guards and the governor, and put the governor’s head on a pike; the mayor of Paris met the same fate. The crowds then appointed the Marquis de Lafayette commander of the “army” in Paris. The poor of Paris had begun the armed revolution and had effectively taken control of the city away from the king.

The chaos didn’t remain isolated in Paris for long. In the days and weeks that followed the storming of Bastille, peasants throughout France, also suffering from hunger and high prices, rebelled against their feudal lords. Throughout the French countryside, peasants attacked their masters, pillaged their estates, and burned the paperwork that bound them to their lords.

Would You Believe?

Shortly after they abolished serfdom the nobles reneged somewhat, but the peasants paid no attention. The French peasants never again paid the fees and fines of feudalism to their former masters.

They destroyed the fences that enclosed fields and had their way with the forests and the farmland. The Great Fear, as it was known, terrified the nobles. In reaction, an assembly gathered at Versailles and abolished serfdom and many of the unpleasant fees and fines that went with serfdom. The peasants had brought about change and established themselves as a force to be reckoned with in the revolution.

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