Modern history


Towards the Estates-General

Impending bankruptcy, the rebellion of the Parlements, provincial disturbances, elections

The idea of the Estates-General was then in everyone’s mind, only it was impossible to see where it would lead. For the mass of people, the object was to make good a deficit that the lowliest banker today would take it upon himself to eliminate. So violent a remedy, applied to so trivial a problem, demonstrated that we had entered unknown regions politically.

– Chateaubriand, Memoirs

Imminent insolvency

As the 1780s went on, despite tensions and conflicts, things might have carried on as before for a long time, if the Treasury had not been empty and France facing imminent insolvency.

This was not the first time. Back in 1770, at the end of Louis XV’s reign, the state funds were exhausted in the wake of the disastrous Seven Years’ War. At that time, however, chancellor Maupeou, the last great minister of the Bourbon monarchy, had taken on as controller-general the cantankerous abbé Terray, and together they put through measures that still seem extraordinary, however blasé we are today about such matters: increased taxes, massive reduction of interest rates on the national debt, cutting of pensions paid by the state, forced loans, sale of new offices – a package that Terray’s enemies called bankruptcy, but that made it possible to stabilize the situation for a while.

This episode came against a background of chronic financial stagnation that had two major causes. First of all, there was no forward planning, for the country did not have a budget. It was accepted that the king should spend as he saw fit, and that receipts were subsequently adjusted to this. Since the different accounts overlapped from one year to the next, the controller-general himself never knew exactly how things stood, except at the moment when the funds ran out. The second reason had to do with aberrations in the tax system. The richest people – the senior clergy and high nobility – were practically untaxed. Exempt from the taille, they were in principle subject to the vingtième and the capitation, but these taxes were badly allocated and badly collected.1 The yield from indirect taxes was better, since their collection had been entrusted to the farmers-general, but here again the imposition was far from standardized: with the gabelle, for example, the price of a pound of salt varied from half a sou to thirteen sous depending on the region, which encouraged the activity of smugglers whom the gabelous hunted down to send to the galleys.

It was possible to maintain the state finances, one way or another, so long as there was no war. But at the end of the Ancien Régime, funds had been mopped up by the two billion livres or so spent on participation in the War of American Independence. During the fifteen years of Louis XVI’s reign the debt tripled, reaching 4½ billion livres in 1789, while interest had risen to 300 million livres per year, out of total receipts that were less than 500 million.

Necker, Calonne and the ‘territorial subvention’

For five years, from 1776 to 1781, the finances of France were directed by a Genevan banker, Jacques Necker. His reputation in Paris was due to his success as a speculator and to the philosophical salon held by his wife on the rue Michel-le-Comte, in the sumptuous Hôtel d’Halwyll built by Ledoux. Necker was seen as a financial genius, and an enlightened one. In reality, his main asset was his ability to inspire confidence for the loans that he raised. In February 1781 he had his Compte rendu au roi published, a remarkable double coup: on the one hand, he gave an account of finances that were in slight surplus, thanks to his wise management;2 on the other, he won genuine popularity by denouncing abuses of all kinds, from the royal kitchens to forests, prisons, the postal service and the gabelle, and by revealing the names of the beneficiaries of royal pensions. It mattered little that the accounts were completely fabricated. The text, published by the Imprimerie Royale, was a bestseller: seventeen successive editions were sold, a total of some 40,000 copies.3 But Necker’s vanity led to his losing everything. He asked to supervise the expenditure of the ministers of war and the navy, and demanded to be admitted to the Conseil d’En-haut,4 which was impossible for a foreigner. Maurepas, who presided over the Conseil, pressed the king to demand Necker’s resignation in May 1781. Yet this was good timing for Necker, as voices were being raised to denounce the false balance sheet of the Compte rendu.

After a two-year interval, the post of controller-general was entrusted in 1783 to Charles Alexandre de Calonne, who had previously been intendant of Lille. He began by following Necker’s lead and disguising the disaster. New loans were used to continue the payments on state bonds (rentes), to ensure the credit of the Caisse d’Escompte5 and undertake major works such as the construction of the naval port of Cherbourg. Calonne maintained that the deficit would be paid off by 1797, but he must have been well aware that this was an impossible target. In August 1786, therefore, he submitted to the king a ‘plan for the improvement of finances’ that relied on a real financial revolution: the establishment of a ‘territorial subvention’, a tax on land that would be applied to all properties – noble, ecclesiastical or common – in proportion to their income. In parallel with this, trade in grain would be made free and internal customs duties suppressed. Finally, the plan envisaged the creation of municipal and provincial assemblies, elected on a property qualification and charged among other things with collecting the territorial subvention.

It was clear that the Parlements would refuse to register such a rupture with the existing system.6 So Calonne convened in February 1787 an assembly of notables, whose 144 members were prelates, great lords, parliamentarians and representatives of the provincial assemblies. It was a strange idea indeed to ask an assembly of the privileged to approve a plan reducing their privileges. Sure enough the assembly prevaricated, asked for details of the accounts, demanded compensation – in short, the whole business was a failure. Calonne also had powerful enemies, and was correctly accused of speculating in his own interest; when Vergennes died, the minister for foreign affairs and his main supporter, his position became untenable and he was dismissed on 8 April 1787.

The Parlements rebel

At this point, events gathered pace: ‘From 1787, the kingdom of France [was] a society without a state’, writes Furet.7 Loménie de Brienne, who succeeded Calonne after the campaign against him, could do nothing but take over the same projects. The notables maintained their opposition, and Brienne dismissed them on 25 May 1787. But since the country was on the verge of defaulting on its payments, he had now to force the Parlements to register the indispensable loans.

Under the double influence of Locke and Montesquieu, the Parlements viewed themselves as ‘intermediary bodies’ between the people and the king, guarantors of the contract made between the king and the nation. Their remonstrations provide an interesting sample of the democratic thought of that time. The basic laws, declared the Parlement of Rouen in 1771, were ‘the expression of the general will’. The law, the Parlement of Toulouse maintained in 1763, was based on ‘the free consent of the nation’. In 1768, the Parlement of Rennes proclaimed that ‘man is born free, men are originally equal, and these are truths that there is no need to prove’, while it was ‘one of the first conditions of society that particular wills must always bend to the general will’.8 In 1787–88, the popularity of the Parlements was at its height, and they did not hesitate to defy royal authority.

On 16 July 1787, the Paris Parlement called for a meeting of the Estates-General, which alone, it claimed, had the power to raise new taxes. On 6 August, the king was obliged to hold a lit de justice9 in order to obtain the registration of an edict establishing a tax on newspapers and posters, but the next day the Parlement annulled the registration, deeming it illegal. The crowd acclaimed the parliamentarians as they came out of the palace. The king then exiled the Parlement to Troyes, but the agitation spread to the provinces where other Parlements declared their solidarity with Paris. The whole noblesse de robe was in revolt. Brienne was obliged to concede: the new tax was withdrawn, the territorial subvention was buried, and the Parlement returned to Paris in a festive atmosphere, amid celebratory fireworks.

Bankruptcy, however, was imminent, and Brienne had to return to the Parlement to have a new loan of over 400 million livres accepted. In return, he granted the convocation of the Estates-General for 1792. On 19 November, during a dramatic session that was transformed at the last minute into a lit de justice, the king demanded registration of the loan. His cousin, the duc d’Orléans, rose to tell Louis XVI that the procedure was illegal, to which the king replied in Louis-quatorzien style: ‘It is legal, because I wish it.’ The next day, the duke was exiled to Villers-Cotterêts. The war continued. On 4 January 1788, the Parlement condemned the instrument of lettres de cachet,10 going on to present remonstrations to the king against the illegal registration of 19 November. On 3 May, it recalled the ‘fundamental laws of the kingdom’: only the Estates-General had the power to vote taxation, the Parlements must have the right of control over new laws, and lettres de cachet must be abolished.

That was too much, even for the easy-going Louis XVI. He had two parliamentarians arrested in the Palais de Justice itself, Goilard de Montsabert and Duval d’Esprémesnil, and on 8 May 1788 decreed the application of six edicts that Lamoignon, his minister of justice, had prepared to put an end to the Parlement’s opposition. Royal acts would now be registered by a plenary court whose members were appointed by the king. The Parlements saw their judicial role cut back in favour of forty-seven ‘grand bailiwicks’. Many special courts were suppressed. Lamoignon’s edicts thus removed from the Parlements the best part of their financial, judicial and legislative power.

But this move came too late. Agitation spread in both town and country, extending from the Parlements to enlightened fractions of the privileged orders. Not of course without ambiguity: their concern was both to defend their freedoms with the inspiration of new ideas, and to maintain threatened traditions. Chateaubriand recalled: ‘Forced registrations, lits de justice and imposed exile, in making the magistrates popular, drove them to demand freedoms of which they were not at heart sincere partisans. They called for the Estates-General, not daring to admit that they desired legislative and political power for themselves.’11

Disturbances in Grenoble and Vizille

It was in the Parlement cities that open rebellion broke out in the spring and summer of 1789. On 9 May, a big demonstration was held in the streets of Rennes, attracting nobles, parliamentarians and students. The following day, the intendant Bertrand de Molleville and the commander of the royal forces, the comte de Thiard, ‘gentleman of the court, erotic poet, a gentle and frivolous soul’,12 came close to being hacked to pieces. The confrontation between demonstrators and a hesitant army continued throughout the month of May. In Pau, where people feared the suppression of the provincial Estates of Béarn, the hill folk led by the local nobility imprisoned the intendant and reinstalled the Parlement in the Palais de Justice. But it was in the Dauphiné that the disturbances acquired national significance. In Grenoble, a considerable number of people – advocates, procureurs,13 clerks and public scribes – made a living from the Parlement. Despite being closed down by the Lamoignon edicts, this Parlement continued to meet. On 7 June, the duc de Clermont-Tonnerre, lieutenant-general of the province, called on its members to go into rural exile. Egged on by the judicial auxiliaries, protestors invaded the streets and occupied the city gates. Some climbed up on the rooftops and hurled tiles at the soldiers of the Royal-Marine. Women seized church bells to sound the tocsin, unharnessed vehicles to block the roads and protected the parliamentarians who had gathered in the hôtel of their president.14 The governor’s mansion was pillaged, and Clermont-Tonnerre narrowly escaped a beating. At the end of the day, the rioters, now masters of the city, joyfully reinstated the parliamentarians in their palace. This journée des tuiles15 led to an event on a quite different scale: on 21 July, at the initiative of Mounier and Barnave, two advocates who would soon become famous, a total of 490 representatives of the Dauphiné – nobles, ecclesiastics, and 276 deputies from the municipalities around Grenoble – met at the château de Vizille. This assembly in which the Third Estate was a majority demanded for the Dauphiné a meeting of the provincial Estates with double representation for the Third, and for the kingdom as a whole an Estates-General to be summoned where voting would be not by order but by head. ‘The three orders of the Dauphiné will never divide their cause from that of the other provinces and, in sustaining their particular rights, they will not abandon those of the nation.’ The assembly further called for no more taxes to be paid before the Estates-General was convened.

This had a tremendous echo throughout the kingdom. Faced with a revolt in which the Third Estate was joined by a part of the privileged orders, capitulation became inevitable. On 8 August, Brienne announced that the Estates-General would be convened for 1 May 1789. After using up the last available monies – the funds of the invalides (veterans), subscriptions for hospitals and the victims of hailstorms – he was obliged to suspend state payments. On 24 August he resigned, and Louis XVI recalled the man who appeared the only possible saviour, Necker whom he had dismissed seven years previously. Finally, as Mirabeau put it, Necker was king of France.

The recall of Necker

The last moments of the Ancien Régime, the eight months between the recall of Necker and the opening of the Estates-General at Versailles, were anything but a calm before the storm. Political struggles over the manner of voting in the Estates-General were accompanied noisily off stage by popular reactions to an economic crisis and a crisis of provisions that came to a head at precisely this time.

Necker was appointed director-general of finance and minister of state, which enabled him to attend the Conseil d’En-haut despite being a foreigner. He did what he did best, bring in funds: thanks to various advances, he was able to resume the kingdom’s payments. He recalled the Parlements. In Paris, on 23 September 1788, the ‘fathers of the nation’ made a triumphant return, saluted by cannon and fireworks. But this popular celebration was short-lived: on the 25th, the Parlement decreed that the Estates-General would be convened ‘following the form observed in 1614’ under the regency of Marie de Médicis – which meant that the delegates would deliberate in separate orders, and that voting would be by order and not by head. That would mean keeping the Third Estate in its place, that is, nowhere.

This was a fatal decision: the last chance for reform had not been grasped. Indignation was as strong as enthusiasm had been shortly before: those whom the Third Estate had thought were its champions cared only for their own privileges. A great public debate was launched in hundreds of pamphlets. As Arthur Young noted: ‘The business going forward in the pamphlet shops of Paris is incredible. I went to the Palais-Royal to see what new things were published, and to procure a catalogue of all. Every hour produces something new. Thirteen came out today, sixteen yesterday, and ninety-two last week.’ Discussions were held in clubs, in cafés, and under the arcades of the Palais-Royal, which belonged to the duc d’Orléans:

But the coffee-houses in the Palais-Royal present yet more singular and astonishing spectacles; they are not only crowded within, but other expectant crowds are at the doors and windows, listening à gorge déployée to certain orators, who from chairs or table harangue each his little audience: the eagerness with which they are heard, and the thunder of applause they receive for every sentiment of more than common hardiness or violence against the present government, cannot easily be imagined.16

The question was to get the Estates-General to adopt the rules laid down at Vizille: doubling the number of delegates for the Third Estate, and voting by head. In the Paris hôtels, far from the tumult of the streets and cafés, leading bourgeois and representatives of the privileged orders met together to form what was called the ‘patriotic party’ or ‘national party’ – the word nation, little used until then, suddenly acquired a revolutionary resonance. This was also, significantly, the moment when the expression ‘Ancien Régime’ appeared.

These meetings, held at the homes of Adrien Duport and Lafayette, and at the United States embassy under Thomas Jefferson, were attended by great lords – including the duc d’Aiguillon and duc de La Rochefoucauld, men of the law such as Hérault de Séchelles and Lepeletier de Saint-Fargeau, and financiers such as Clavière, as well as Sieyès, the Lameth brothers, Talleyrand, Condorcet and Mirabeau. The aim, for many of them, was an English-style constitutional monarchy, and several who aspired to this goal would later be found in the club des Feuillants17 alongside the Moderates18 of the Constituent Assembly.


It was then that these two characters came to the fore, each of whom would play leading roles in the events that followed, in the same camp but not in the same style. Mirabeau was forty years old in 1789. He was notorious for his scandalous life, his internments in the fort de Vincennes, his pornographic writings and his pamphlet Des lettres de cachet et des prisons d’État. But suddenly, galvanized by the general commotion and furious at having been rejected by the order of the nobility in Provence, he turned into an orator, with an eloquence that owed nothing to Quintilian’s rules and aroused wild enthusiasm wherever he spoke. In January 1789, he pronounced before the Estates of Provence, convened along traditional lines, a Discours sur la représentation illégale de la Nation provençale dans les États actuels, et sur la nécessité de convoquer une Assemblée générale des trois ordres. Following this speech, flower-sellers embraced the speaker and bankers acclaimed him. A little later, ‘When he was elected, a splendid procession of three hundred carriages accompanied him from Marseille to Aix, and these rich carriages of the haute bourgeoisie were draped with garlands of flowers that the people had woven.’19

Nowadays, when everything provides an occasion for speeches that no one listens to, it is rather hard to imagine such a passionate reception. On the eve of the Revolution, however, speech-making was a new political instrument. The king of France never gave speeches, and neither did his ministers. Eloquence was the business of lawmen and above all of the Church – funeral orations, homilies of various kinds, great sermons that sometimes touched on political topics – but those who ran the business of the state never spoke in public. And besides, what public would they have spoken to? But suddenly, in the twilight of the Ancien Régime, political eloquence sprang up and immediately reached a zenith. Mirabeau was the first of the great revolutionary orators whose speeches, printed in hundreds of thousands of copies, were heard right across the country. With them, speech became a political act – a phenomenon that, to my knowledge, has never been repeated since the Revolution, at least in France.20

Abbé Sieyès was as drab as Mirabeau was flamboyant. Steered unwillingly into the priesthood, in 1788 he was grand vicar of the bishop of Chartres. He found public speaking hard, but his pamphlet What Is the Third Estate?, published in January 1789, was an immediate success: 30,000 copies were sold in the first few weeks, and four editions followed one another – with only the fourth bearing the author’s name. Public readings of it were given in cafés. Thinking no doubt of Diogenes and his lantern, Mirabeau wrote to Sieyès: ‘So there is a man in France.’ Sieyès himself confidently maintained that his book had been ‘the theoretical manual by which the great developments of our Revolution were effected, and the only guide of our loyal representatives’.21

‘Theoretical manual’ is scarcely saying too much. Sieyès saw further and faster than others. The duplication of the Third Estate’s representation, and voting by head, were from his point of view highly insufficient demands:

I have emphasized that the deputies of the clergy and the nobility have nothing in common with the national representation, that no alliance is possible between the three orders in the Estates-General, and that, not being able to vote in common, they cannot vote either by order or by head … How can the people not be panic-stricken at the sight of two privileged bodies, and perhaps part of a third, seeming to be disposed in the guise of the Estates-General to determine its future and subject it to a fate as immutable as it would be unhappy? … It is certain that the deputies of the clergy and the nobility are not the representatives of the Nation. They are, therefore, incompetent to vote on its behalf.22

Sieyès, whose programme would be carried out to the letter during the Estates-General, went through the Revolution in silence (‘the mole of the Revolution’, Robespierre called him) but acquired great influence again under the Directory. If Mirabeau was fully and joyously a man of the eighteenth century, Sieyès, for his part, belonged already to the nineteenth – not because he lived until 1836, but because his thoughts in action inspired, sometimes unbeknown to themselves, the doctrinaires, the liberals and the constitutionalists of the Restoration and the July monarchy.

Food crisis, peasant riots, economic crisis, unemployment

The unrest stoked by the patriotic party spread to the whole country. The Paris Parlement was forced to revoke its September edict and agree to the doubling of representation for the Third Estate, but it would not give way on voting by order, which was clearly the essential point. Necker, always careful to ‘seem much and do little’, as Michelet put it, did however wrest from the king concessions that were spelled out by the royal decree of 24 January 1789, and changed the composition and mode of convocation of the Estates-General. ‘The inhabitants of the towns would no longer be represented by oligarchic municipalities, but by electors of their own choosing who would nominate the deputies, in concert with electors chosen by the inhabitants of the countryside, who would for the first time have a vote. Parish priests would sit in person, in the assemblies of their order, and would be in a majority there.’23 These innovations, without ceding on voting by order, did however pave the way for the victory of the Third Estate.

This political tussle took place in a context of serious economic crisis. The views of historians on the French economy before the Revolution seem at first to show strange contradictions. For Jaurès, ‘the Revolution did not arise from a background of misery’, while Mathiez is even more explicit: ‘And so the Revolution was not to break out in an exhausted country, but, on the contrary, in a flourishing land on a rising tide of progress. Poverty may sometimes lead to riots, but it cannot bring about great social upheavals.’24Michelet, however, addressing himself to ‘sensitive men who weep over the evils of the Revolution’, wrote: ‘Come and see, I beseech you, this people lying in the dust, like poor Job, amid their false friends, their patrons, their influential protectors – the clergy and royalty.’25 Many contemporary testimonies are in the same vein:

The 10th [June]. The want of bread is terrible: accounts arrive every moment from the provinces of riots and disturbances, and calling in the military, to preserve the peace of the markets. The prices reported are the same as I found at Abbeville. 5f. a pound for white bread, and 3½ to 4f. for the common sort, eaten by the poor: these rates are beyond their faculties, and occasion great misery.26

Ernest Labrousse did not mince his words: ‘The Revolution did indeed appear in certain respects a revolution of poverty, as Michelet had presented it, and contrary to the thesis of Jaurès taken up by Mathiez.’27

These contradictory opinions relate to different moments in time. Over the relatively long run, it is generally accepted that the second half of the eighteenth century in France was a period of economic growth, as we say today, and of improvement in living standards – although unequally distributed, as we have seen. ‘By comparing different periods, moreover, it is easy to convince oneself that in no period since the Revolution has public prosperity improved more rapidly than it did in the twenty years prior to the Revolution.’28 But in the years 1786–89 this tendency went into reverse, due to the combination of a series of measures and events whose deleterious effects would come to a head, by fatal chance, in the summer of 1789.

In 1787, as we have seen, Calonne had suppressed all regulation of the grain trade. Farmers, previously obliged to take grain to the market, were now permitted to sell it directly. Movement by land and sea became free, including exports, with the idea that better prices would thereby be obtained for the producers. But the harvest of 1788 was catastrophic, because of a drought followed by hail. Barns were empty, which triggered a general rise in prices that peaked in summer 1789, the lean time before the harvest. At that point, bread, the popular staple, cost up to double its customary price.

In April 1789, after putting a stop to exports of grain, Necker finally authorized a census of stocks and a requisition, but few intendants complied with these measures. The people, seeing carts loaded with grain and flour on the roads every day, began to exercise a ‘taxation populaire’: helping themselves and paying (or not) the price deemed fair. As the syndic (mayor) of Avoise, in the Pays de la Loire, wrote: ‘It is impossible to find within half a league’s radius a man prepared to drive a cartload of wheat. The populace is so enraged that men would kill for a bushel. No decent people dare leave home.’ Riots flared up in succession from top to bottom of the kingdom. ‘In the future department of the Nord, which was not the most distressed area: a riot in Cambrai on 13 March, in Hondschoote on the 22nd, in Hazebrouck and Valenciennes on the 30th, in Bergues on 6 April, in Dunkirk on the 11th, Lille on the 29th, Douai on the 30th.’29 In the south-east, riots broke out on 14 March at Manosque, with stones being thrown at the bishop, on the 17th in Toulon where the arsenal workers had not been paid for three months, at Aix on the 24th, then at Barjols, Pertuis and Saint-Maximin.30

At the same time, the effects of the free-trade treaty signed with England in September 1786 began to make themselves felt. The French had hoped for an increase in wine exports, but the most notable outcome was a textiles crisis. The country’s main industry suddenly experienced the competition of British manufactures with more advanced mechanization than in France, where the great bulk of work was still done by hand and at home. In 1785 there were 5,672 cotton weavers in Abbeville and Amiens, reduced by 1789 to no more than 2,000; it is estimated that a total of 36,000 individuals lost their livelihood.31 There was little desire to follow the English example. The drapers of Caen, in their book of grievances, were frankly hostile: ‘As the machines will considerably prejudice the poor people and reduce weaving to nothing, we demand their suppression. This suppression is all the more just in that the weaving with these instruments is very bad and the materials produced are all defective and of poor quality.’32 In the south, the silk harvest of 1787 was bad, and Lyon in 1789 counted some 30,000 unemployed. According to some estimates, unemployment in the silk industry reached a level of 50 per cent.33

The Réveillon affair in Paris: electoral system, the books of grievances

In Paris, where bread cost four and a half sous per pound up from three sous a few months earlier, anger was reinforced by a feeling of humiliation on the part of working people who would be unable to vote, as this required an income on which at least six livres was paid in tax. In the faubourg Saint-Antoine, it was said that Réveillon, a rich manufacturer of wallpaper, proposed a reduction in workers’ wages in order to lower prices and stimulate the economy. This Réveillon was not a bad employer and there is no certainty that he actually did make this suggestion, but it was unfortunately echoed by a certain Henriot, who possessed saltpetre works in the faubourg. On the night of 26 April, gatherings formed in the faubourg Saint-Marcel, where news had arrived that Réveillon and Henriot had spoken ill of the workers. A procession set out towards the right bank, carrying effigies of the two villains to be burned on the place de Grève. On the following day, the crowd, now swelled by workers from the faubourg Saint-Antoine and dockers from the Seine river port, sacked Réveillon’s house, which was poorly protected by a small contingent of gardes-françaises. The cavalry and infantry were promptly called in, opening fire first of all with blanks, then with live bullets. At the end of the day, twelve dead were counted on the soldiers’ side, and more than 300 on the side of the rioters.34

Despite these dramatic developments, the electoral campaign opened in a general atmosphere of hope. ‘La France profonde’ had changed a great deal since Brienne’s creation of the provincial and district assemblies, and above all of the municipalities for villages and small towns. The syndic, no longer appointed by the intendant but elected by the taxpayers, decided the business of the commune along with the municipal council, and in particular the allocation and utilization of tax: an apprenticeship in public affairs whose effects would not be long in making themselves felt.

The electoral system was different for each of the three orders. The geographical framework was the baillage (bailiwick) or sénéchaussée (seneschalsy) – the 373 judicial constituencies of the Ancien Régime. For the privileged orders, the electoral assembly met in the capital of the baillage to appoint its delegates to the Estates-General. The assembly of the nobility was made up of all those ‘possessing a fief’, and that of the clergy of all ecclesiastics, including parish priests; the lower clergy took advantage of its majority position to remove from its deputation most of the court prelates. For the Third Estate, voting was indirect, the primary electors being all men over twenty-five who were inscribed on the tax rolls. In the towns, these electors voted by corporation or by district, appointing one or two deputies per hundred voters. These deputies formed a town assembly, which sent delegates to the baillage assembly that in turn elected deputies to the Estates-General. In the countryside, the electoral system was more or less the same, with parish assemblies instead of town ones.

At the end of this process, a total of 1,139 deputies attended the Estates-General. The nobility’s deputation counted 270 members, of whom only a few were court nobles, with a good number, around a third, supporting liberal ideas. In the clergy’s deputation parish priests were a large majority (200 out of 291), and they would end up aligning themselves with the Third Estate. The latter, for its part, sent a delegation of 578 members to Versailles, chiefly lawyers of one kind or another (over 400), including advocates and holders of minor office in the legal and administrative system of the provinces. The rest were businessmen, bankers and industrialists. Agriculture was represented by some fifty large landed proprietors. The deputation of the Third Estate did not include either artisans or peasants, and so the majority of the kingdom’s population went unrepresented: it was far from ‘this union of different classes, this great appearance of the people in its formidable unity’ that Michelet speaks of.35 We should instead listen to Tocqueville: ‘It is strange to see the odd state of security in which those who occupied the middle and upper levels of the social edifice lived on the eve of the Revolution, and to hear them cleverly discussing among themselves the virtues, gentleness, devotion, and innocent pleasures of the people, when 1793 was already opening the ground beneath their feet; the spectacle is at once absurd and terrifying.’36

The 60,000 cahiers de doléances (books of grievances), compiled at each level of the various assemblies and subsequently merged at the baillage level, form an immense treasure trove that defies any attempt at overall study. Let us once more quote Tocqueville to close this chapter:

I have carefully read the registers of grievances drawn up by the three orders before their meeting in 1789. I underline the three orders – the nobility, the clergy and the Third Estate. In one place a change of law is requested, in another a change of practice and I take note of these. Thus I continued my reading to the very end of this immense work. When I came to gather all the individual wishes, with a sense of terror I realized that their demands were for the wholesale and systematic abolition of all the laws and all the current practices in the country. Straightaway I saw that the issue here was one of the most extensive and dangerous revolutions ever observed in the world.37

1[The taille was the most important direct tax of the Ancien Régime, though its application varied between the different provinces. The capitation was a poll tax, and the vingtième (twentieth) a direct tax on property. – Translator]

2‘The actual state of the finances is such that, despite the deficit of 1776 [on top of the previous deficits], despite the immense expenses of the war, and despite the interest on the loans taken out to support it, the ordinary revenues of Your Majesty at this moment exceed Your Majesty’s ordinary expenses by 10 million and 200 thousand livres’ (Archives de la Révolution française, Oxford: Maxwell, n.d., pp. 12–13).

3Chartier, The Cultural Origins of the French Revolution, p. 180.

4[The Council of State, the body of the king’s highest advisers, comprising no more than six ministers, had been known since Louis XIV’s time as the Conseil d’En-haut, as it met on the first floor of the Versailles palace, close to the royal chamber. – Translator]

5[Following the collapse of John Law’s Banque Royale in 1720, France did not have a central bank, but the Caisse d’Escompte (discount counter), established in 1767, performed some of the functions of such a bank, purchasing commercial paper and government securities and having a monopoly on coinage. – Translator]

6There were fourteen Parlements in France at this time, the Paris one being the oldest and most influential. The parliamentarians bought their office for a high price, and bequeathed it to their heirs. Their role was chiefly a judicial one, but also political as they had the power to refuse to register royal edicts and decrees.

7Furet, Interpreting the French Revolution, p. 24.

8See on these points Alfred Cobban, A History of Modern France, London: Penguin, 1990, vol. 1: 1715–1799, p. 130.

9This was a session of the Parlement held in the presence of the king. His presence reduced the Parlement to an advisory role, and decisions were taken by royal authority, whatever the Parlement’s reluctance.

10[These ‘letters of the signet’ were orders direct from the king and countersigned by one minister, but they particularly came to mean orders of arbitrary imprisonment. In the eighteenth century it was not uncommon for wealthy families to purchase a lettre de cachet in order to dispose of inconvenient relatives; the marquis de Sade was imprisoned under such a lettre. – Translator]

11François-René de Chateaubriand, Memoirs of Chateaubriand: From his Birth in 1768, Till His Return to France in 1800, Whitefish, MT: Kessinger, 2010, p. 190. (Translation modified)


13[The procureur was a state official at a variety of levels, essentially the legal representative of a local or national administration. – Translator]

14Martine Lapied, ‘Une absence de révolution pour les femmes?’, in Michel Biard, ed., La Révolution française, une histoire toujours vivante, Paris: Tallandier, 2010.

15The event gave rise to the expression ‘faire une conduite de Grenoble’, i.e. chase someone out with hisses and boos.

16Arthur Young’s Travels in France, pp. 153–4.

17See below, p. 133.

18[The term ‘Moderate’ was first used politically in 1789; after the Declaration of Rights was voted in, its opponents sought to ‘moderate’ its principles. Modérés came subsequently to mean the followers of Lafayette who sought a constitutional monarchy, then of the ‘triumvirate’ (see below, p. 91), and in 1793 was used of Danton and his supporters. – Translator]

19Jaurès, Histoire socialiste, p. 125.

20Parliamentary eloquence in the early years of the Third Republic never reached the same level, or the same relationship to action. It seems far more dated than the words of Danton or Saint-Just.

21In Opinions publiques du citoyen Sieyès, year VIII, p. 17. Cited by Albert Mathiez, Le Directoire, Paris: Armand Colin, 1934, p. 6.

22Sieyès, Political Writings, pp. 148, 150.

23Mathiez, Le Directoire, p. 6.

24Mathiez, The French Revolution, p. 12.

25Jules Michelet, Histoire de la Révolution Française, Paris: Robert Laffont, 1999, vol. 1, p. 86.

26Arthur Young’s Travels in France, p. 154.

27Ernest Labrousse, La crise de l’économie française à la fin de l’Ancien Régime et au début de la Révolution, Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1944, p. xlii.

28Tocqueville, The Ancien Régime, p. 155.

29Georges Lefebvre, The Great Fear, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982, p. 125.

30Andress, The French Revolution and the People, p. 96.

31Ibid., p. 14.

32Jaurès, Histoire socialiste, p. 140.

33Cobban, A History of Modern France, p. 140.

34Michelet was the first, if I am not mistaken, to see the Réveillon affair as a police provocation, an opportunity for the Court to concentrate troops around Paris (Histoire de la Révolution Française, p. 100). Although his arguments are indirect and not very convincing, they have been adopted by many historians in his wake.

35Ibid., p. 98.

36Tocqueville, The Ancien Régime and the French Revolution, p. 123.

37Ibid., p. 145. My emphasis.

You can support our site by clicking on this link and watching the advertisement.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!