Modern history


At this critical juncture, much was expected of a third kind of Patriot: the King. In village cahiers he had been cast as “the new Augustus” who “will renew the Age of Gold.” Unlike the old Augustus, however, Louis became decreasingly godlike in his self-confidence. As the Estates-General approached, his apprehensions grew. Berated by his wife and Artois for accepting the detestable Necker, he was himself far from convinced of the Minister’s capacity to defuse the crisis. Only hunting, eating and locksmithing worked to calm his ragged nerves. On one occasion he literally lost his grip. Because of repairs being done to the slates on the roof of the Marble Court, where Louis was walking, he was obliged to use a stepladder to reach the observatory. On the fifth rung the ladder began to slide. The drop was forty feet to the yard below and only the acrobatic reflex action of one of the workmen grabbing the King’s arms and hauling him to safety spared him a sudden and terrible injury.

The grateful monarch duly settled a handsome pension of twelve hundred livres on the man who had saved his life. Royal gestures towards an heroic subject were simple to make compared with the acute problem of whether to preserve or depart from the strictures of protocol. His master of ceremonies, the twenty-three-year-old Marquis de Dreux-Brézé, was no help, and the court consensus was that all traditional observances should be carefully maintained to avoid the impression that the Estates-General could indeed make things up as it went along. So the King, for example, agreed to retain the custom, impolitic at best, of requiring any member of the Third Estate addressing the throne to do so on bended knee.

In the heat of the moment, however, even the most fastidiously planned staging could go badly awry. At the end of his speech on opening day in the Salle des Menus Plaisirs, Louis doffed his hat – an “Henri IV” production in beaver with white plumes and a brilliant diamond set in the center – in customary salute to the assembly. After the correct, royally casual wave, he replaced it on his head, followed by the nobility, who thus assumed their superiority over the unprivileged Third. Either unsure of what the form was, or led by calculating mischief-makers, the Third then committed a heinous breach of protocol by putting their hats on too. In great confusion, some kept them on; more took them off again and, seeing this, Louis felt he then had to remove his own. For Gouverneur Morris, the American agent, who watched with increasing mirth, it was a delicious moment. But for the Queen, white with rage, the ceremonial collapse boded badly for things to come.

The Great Hat Fiasco might not have mattered had the assembly been spellbound by what the King had had to say. But that was not exactly its response. His address had been brief to the point of being perfunctory, and a peculiar mixture of enthusiasm and vexation. While he referred to the “great day, so ardently desired,” the King also made irritable references to the “much exaggerated desire for innovations.” If he seemed thus to speak with two voices, it was because he had yet to find his own. No doubt there was a conflict of sentiment going on inside his own personality, tempted by the acclaim of the people but frightened of its meaning. But that conflict was as nothing compared with the battle being fought out in his ministry, principally between Necker’s open-minded optimism and the more intransigent Keeper of the Seals, Barentin, who refused to consider anything but the traditional form of the separated Estates.

It was Barentin, in fact, whose speech followed the King’s. He sustained the tone of grudging concession by offering debate on the issue of a free press but issuing headmasterly warnings against “dangerous innovations.” Any damage that his speech might have done to the prospects of reconciliation was vitiated by its complete inaudibility. Necker, as usual, was better prepared to deal with the impossible acoustics in the 120-foot-long Salle des Menus Plaisirs. Since his own speech on finance lasted three hours it was just as well. He read the first half hour and then handed the text to the secretary of the Royal Committee on Agriculture, Broussonnet, whom he had hand-picked purely for the shrilly mega-phonic quality of his vocal projection. The effect was catastrophically miscalculated. For hour after relentless hour, lugubrious financial data of the 280-million-livre deficit were screeched at an assembly that was waiting instead for some grand act of rhetoric. It wanted to hear Necker the fiscal messiah, not Necker the accountant. Even more serious was the mounting impression that the Minister considered the gathering more as an administrative auxiliary than a reinventor of sovereignty.

While Necker’s address droned on, the King, as usual, fought a losing battle against the royal yawn. Deputies fidgeted, coughed, snoozed, sneezed and snored. Mme de La Tour Du Pin, seated on the benches of the noble spectators, suffered agonies of discomfort, having nothing but the knees of those behind her against which to rest her back. Germaine de Staël, for whom the occasion was supposed to be the apotheosis of Papa, became more and more downcast, her eyes, according to another close witness, visibly brimming with tears.

Despite this unpromising beginning, the King’s personal popularity was still a huge asset for the government. Wherever it seemed at all credible (and there was not much room for maneuver), his speech was interrupted with bursts of loyal applause – and not merely from the privileged orders. For the paradoxical reason that acts of popular violence were being committed in his name, the Revolution was his to command.

This was precisely Mirabeau’s hope, for if he was no longer an aristocrat, he would never be a democrat. Even in Provence, in the middle of his grandstanding, he made no secret of his royalism. What he sought, he insisted over and over again, was a new monarchy, one supported not by hierarchy and privilege, but by popular endorsement. Historians are inclined to dismiss this view as a disingenuously adopted pretext for self-advancement. And it would be idle to pretend that Mirabeau was not, in 1789, eaten up with ambition; that he saw himself as the first minister of such a monarchy. But it would be equally callow to see the concept of a popular monarchy as intrinsically foolish. It was, after all, exactly what d’Argenson had in mind nearly a half century before – an energetic king defining his sovereignty against rather than in behalf of privilege and aristocracy. And something like this plebiscitary patriotroyalism did, after all, come to pass in both the Bonapartist empires. It seems safe to say, however, that Mirabeau would have detested the despotism of the Bonapartes. Encouraged by the Shelburne-Whig view of monarchy, he believed its best warranty lay in governments that would be produced by, and remain accountable to, the legislature. And it was exactly the British flavor of this constitutional view that disqualified it in the eyes of his fellow citizens.

For if Mirabeau was much the most celebrated personnage among the deputies, he was not the only political talent. Most of the Society of Thirty that had met at Adrien Duport’s house had won election, including Target, the two de Lameth brothers and the Abbé Sieyès. Lafayette sat for the nobility of the Auvergne and other citizen-aristocrats, like Lally-Tollendal and Clermont-Tonnerre, joined him in the second order. Among the clergy were to be found Talleyrand, who had at last been elevated to the bishopric of Autun and had celebrated his first and last Mass in the cathedral on his ordination, and the more aggressively liberal Archbishop of Bordeaux, Champion de Cicé. Other figures who had made important contributions to the transformation of the Estates-General into a national assembly were also among the deputies of the Third: Mounier and Barnave from the Dauphiné, Rabaut Saint-Etienne from Nîmes.

This core group was abundantly gifted in intellect and eloquence, but it also came to Versailles having already undergone an intensive political apprenticeship, first in the revolts of summer 1788, and then in the intensive pamphlet and electoral campaigns of the following fall and winter. Some of its members, like Mounier and Mirabeau, had had direct experience of angry crowds in the streets. Even the apparently unworldly astronomer-academician Bailly (whose speciality was the moons of Jupiter) could claim formidable political education by having presided over the Paris elections to the Third. In deliberate defiance of the royal apportionment, the sixty Paris districts had produced a college of 407 electors – far larger than the designated body – and in yet another demonstration of autonomy, this assembly had constituted itself an unofficial form of the Commune that the royal government had expressly overruled. At the Hôtel de Ville, Bailly presided over a committee that had already arrogated to itself effective power of government in Paris.

None of this meant that a consensus emerged in the Third Estate on the strategic issue of an eventual constitution for the reborn France. Mirabeau, in particular, was a disruptive force by gratuitously reiterating his insistence on a royal veto long before the matter required discussion. But on the tactical matter of how to treat their relationship with the other two orders, there was far more accord. Here, Mirabeau was more helpful, appreciating accurately the obstructive power of inertia. On the days following the opening, the deputies agreed not to verify their credentials or begin any kind of deliberations except as a common body, joined with the other two orders. This guaranteed deadlock, for it was soon evident that notwithstanding the presence of a famous and articulate minority of nobles (including the Duc d’Orléans, who had provoked the King’s wrath by seating himself as a deputy), they were vastly out-numbered by a much larger majority who refused to budge from their separate convocation.

In fact, the position of the nobility seems to have actually hardened from the more fluid and moderate line taken in so many of their assemblies. While they were all prepared to surrender their tax exemptions, in the face of mounting violence in the countryside many of them were now less sure of doing away with local seigneurial dues than had been apparent from the cahiers, lest they give some sort of license to a general attack on property. Even fewer were prepared to melt their collective identity into a general assembly. The Comte d’Antraigues, for example, who had been the earliest and boldest voice identifying the Third as a synonym for the Nation, now became a stickler for form. He insisted that until a constituent assembly had been convened – which could do anything it wished – the deputies were necessarily bound by the preceding conventions of the Estates of 1614. That this alteration of the collective mood of the nobility should have occurred was perhaps a tribute to the bewitching powers of Versailles itself. In the midst of the Patriotic euphoria of the electoral assemblies, with each speaker outbidding the other in the magnanimity of his views, a greater number of the nobility had felt able to endorse a vision of a liberalized France. Collected together within the highly ritualized, pseudo-chivalric circumstances of the palace city, they fell under the sway of their own reinvented history. This was especially true of the most blue-blooded grandees, who had often been elected deputies out of sheer deference to their impressively congested armorial bearings. Their reaction to the fashionable “young colonels” of the Orléans set who were urging them to be “good Patriots and citizens” was to dig in their heels against metropolitan modishness. They, not some overdressed popinjay from the Palais-Royal, represented the blood and soil of France.

These sentiments of knightly fraternity – a Gothic version of the citizen variety – affected even champions of the up-to-date like Ferrières. Though in different about the issue of voting by head or order, he nonetheless confessed to his wife that he didn’t have it in him to desert his brother-peers. Even Lafayette felt checked by the cluck-clucking noises coming from Mount Vernon, where Papa Washington was looking on disapprovingly at the antics of the impetuous and inconstant French.

Things stood quite otherwise, however, with the clergy. And that, in the end, was what broke the deadlock. Where small electorates often produced disproportionately archaic results in the second order, the opposite was true for the first. For it was in the Church, more than any other group in France, that the separation between rich and poor was most bitterly articulated. At stake was not some abstractly defined principle of social justice or natural rights – but the fate of the Christian mission itself. The Enlightenment cliché of a steadily secularizing France completely fails to take account of just how deeply rooted the hold of Christian belief was in very large areas of the country. (Of all the failures of the French Revolution, none would be so inevitable and so dismal as the campaign of “dechristianization.”) It was not just that the Church in France was merely marking time. Rather it was going through one of its periodic upheavals in which the claims of the pastoral clergy to embody the true spirit of the primitive evangel – humble, propertyless and teaching the Gospel through works of charity and education – were argued against the worldly reality of episcopal big business.

At its most extreme, the division was startling. The wealthiest bishops like Strasbourg enjoyed an income of fifty thousand livres a year. The very poorest – vicars on fixed incomes without supplemental property or revenues – like Bréauté of Rouen barely subsisted on three hundred, while the standard stipend for curés congrués was only seven hundred. According to the curé of Saint-Sulpice at Nevers, once he had paid for pastoral expenses and food and clothing for his one servant, he was left with five sous a day for himself – or one quarter of the daily wage of an unskilled laborer in Paris. “When a priest is fortunate enough,” wrote the same Abbé Cassier, “after twenty years of work and so much misery to obtain a little living of four or five hundred livres he can consider his fortune made and, taking possession of his church, he can mark out in the churchyard, in his capacity as first pauper of the parish, the site of his grave.”

Not all country priests were this desperate. At least half – the curés bénéficiés – supplemented their income from tithes and some small piece of revenue-yielding property that they might farm directly or rent. But this still made the country curates in the Estates-General much the most authentic representatives of the majority of Frenchmen. They were certainly much closer to the People so freely apostrophized by the Third Estate than the lawyers, functionaries and professional men who made up that body. In another important respect they could also claim to speak for their constituents, for the great majority (perhaps 70 percent) of the forty thousand rural priests were native to their parish district or region. This made a forcible contrast to the aristocratic clans who carved up the great bishoprics among them and dispatched their junior relatives off to this or that diocese without a thought of any but the most crudely proprietary relationship.

Since 1786, for example, Talleyrand had been waiting impatiently for one of the Archbishop of Bourges’ many fits of apoplexy to finish him off so that he could mobilize friends and relations in a campaign for the succession. But the old boy showed infuriating resilience, and by the time he did succumb, Talleyrand’s patron, Calonne, had been replaced by the unsympathetic Brienne. He was forced to sit the matter out until another timely demise – at Lyon – produced the desired vacancy. The incumbent Bishop of Autun moved to Lyon, and at last Talleyrand found himself on his knees on January 16, 1789, with all the solemnity he could muster, vowing to obey the apostolic succession of Saint Peter and “preserve, defend, augment and promote the authority, honors, privileges and rights of the Holy Church.” The next day he laid hands on the pallium of Autun, said to be made from the wool of blessed sheep that had grazed in the pastures of the first Christians of antiquity, and more to the point, on the twenty-two thousand livres of his episcopal income. Together with his old benefice of Saint-Rémy and a new one at Poitiers, this added up to a decent income of over fifty thousand livres a year. That evening the defender of Saint Peter had dinner as usual with his mistress, Adelaide de Flahaut, in the Louvre.

This immense transfer of property and power had been accomplished without Talleyrand going anywhere near Autun. It was the twelfth of March before he deigned to arrive for his official entry at the cathedral, where he vowed (again) to remain faithful to his “bride of Autun.” Holy Week was impending, but it was the political, not the religious timetable that determined Talleyrand’s appearance, for he was eager to be elected by the clergy of Autun to the Estates, and to this end he had fully prepared the cahier for the chapter and diocese. It was a typical document of his image of France: rational, liberal, constitutionalist – hardly concerned at all with the care of souls. To secure election on the second of April he went through the motions of being a Good Bishop – exhorting seminarians to prayer, attempting (unsuccessfully) to celebrate Mass without garbling the rubrics and, at his most bare-faced, preaching a homily – “The Influence of Morality on the Leaders of Peoples” – to the Oratorian college. Ten days after his election to the Estates, on the tenth of April, and less than a month after his arrival at Autun, he disappeared for good. It was Easter Sunday and he had, at all costs, to avoid saying Mass.

It is hard to imagine a greater distance between Talleyrand’s concept of the Church and that of the country priests who composed almost two thirds of the order of the clergy at Versailles. It would be wrong to see the Bishop of Autun as wholly amoral. As he had already proved as agent-general of the clergy, his understanding of the Church was, as he supposed, “modern.” Its clergy were spiritual functionaries of the state, vested with educational and social responsibilities, and supplying the kind of moral stewardship that would assuage the popular yearning for belief without presuming to adjudicate law or share in government. If this fell a good deal short of his episcopal oath, it was a view that would be institutionalized under the Directory, the Bonapartist state – and for much of the century that followed.

It was, however, remote from the kind of social evangel of Rousseau’s Savoyard Vicar, in which simple souls were to abjure the corruptions of property and urbanity, the better to steer fellow children of nature to a morally pure existence. Many strands in French religious history led towards this austerely defined piety: Jansenism, “Richerism” and a form of Presbyterianism that was sometimes explicitly and sometimes only implicitly Protestant. It was also, however, embedded in much of what the angrier cahiers of the curates – both in town and country – had to say. Their enemies were wealth, whether monastic or episcopal, and aristocracy, lay or clerical. Their tocsin was rung for the poor and famished, the indebted and the vagrant, whom they fed and sheltered in the worst of circumstances.

Their strength of numbers in the electoral assemblies and the dove-tailing of their gospel with Third Estate rhetoric emboldened the curates to confront the Lords of the Church directly. “Who are you, Messieurs les Grands Vicaires?” asked the curé of Charly, to puncture their pretensions. “Nothing. Me, I am a curé, and my title will never be effaced.” At Béziers, the Bishop of Agde felt intimidated by the crowd of 260 curates in an assembly of 310. Often Bishops or their nominees failed to get elected at all. Others who were, made no secret of their dismay at having to sit on a deputation with a holy rabble. “It is not without repugnance that I accept this commission” was the gracious comment of the Bishop of Luçon on being elected along with five curés.

Against the purple and scarlet robes of the bishops and archbishops, the curates wore their black with the same self-conscious defiance as the deputies of the Third. Not surprisingly, enough of them shared the position of the Third for them to divide their order down the middle on the crucial matter of verification of credentials.

For a full month following the opening session on May 5, the proceedings of the Estates had been paralyzed (as Mirabeau and his colleagues fully intended they should be) over verification. Once the ceremonies were over, the deputies of the Third could have sat where they chose in the large Salle des Menus Plaisirs. But they carefully left the benches of the two orders vacant pending the day when they might return for common deliberation. On the eighteenth they issued a formal summons for common verification, arguing that all three orders were no more than arbitrary divisions of one body, and must proceed accordingly.

Ferrières was bored and exasperated. “Our Estates do nothing,” he wrote to Henriette on the fifteenth. “Every day we gather at nine in the morning and leave at four in the afternoon, spending our time in useless gossip.” Though he had come with liberal credentials, the more time elapsed the more impatient he became with the “intrigues” of the Third, whom he blamed for the impasse. He even dined with Artois, the Polignacs and Vaudreuil, who swept him off his feet with urbane charm. “The Count [Vaudreuil] and I have become friends,” he warbled excitedly to Henriette. Diane de Polignac threw him a compliment and he was hers to command. Commenting on its conversational freedom, he wrote that their house was lHôtel de la Liberté.

Mirabeau had a quite different notion of Liberté. As Ferrières was retreating from public opinion Mirabeau was busy shaping it. On the seventh of May he began publishing the Journal of the Estates-General, designed to communicate its proceedings – and editorialize on their import. Its banner bore the legend Novus Rerum Nascitur Ordo – A New Order of Things Is Born. The government immediately shut it down, thus guaranteeing a large readership for its successor, The Letters of M. de Mirabeau to His Constituents. The campaign of challenging the government through self-promotion was not casually adopted. His strategy seems to have turned on the eventual possibility of replacing Necker at the head of a ministry that could, simultaneously, command the confidence of the King and the assembly. For some weeks, all of his comments, public and private, on Necker were scathing. But in the last week of May, his friend Malouet – the ex-intendant of Saint-Domingue and the only high officer in the Third – discovered that for all the clash of personalities, the position of the two men on the assembly was not that far apart. Both wanted verification in common; both wanted to create a popular monarchy. But no sooner was this kite flown than it fell abruptly to earth. Mirabeau came to see Necker at his office. “Well, Monsieur,” said the Minister without looking up from his papers, “M. Malouet tells me you have some propositions to put to me. What are they?” “My proposition is to wish you good day,” retorted Mirabeau, who turned on his heel and departed, fuming.

Though “commissioners” were dispatched from the orders to conduct some sort of negotiations, they succeeded only in confirming the polarization of the second and third orders. On June 3, the deputies of Paris at last took their seats, with Sieyès the last on the list, considerably strengthening the radical forces in the assembly, which now habitually referred to itself as the “Commons.” In particular, this radicalization meant sabotaging a compromise painfully worked out by Necker in which electoral disputes within each order were to be referred to a general commission of reconciliation composed of representatives from all three houses. On June 10, Mirabeau interrupted a reading of the agreement to allow Sieyès to present a motion. That statement dismissed compromise on the grounds of intransigence on the part of the nobles and proposed instead to send a final ultimatum to the other orders, before proceeding with the roll call. That would force either an admission of deadlock or a capitulation. In any event, it was an act of revolutionary self-authorization – though scarcely the first in a line of such departures that had begun in Grenoble a year earlier.

In a thoughtful recent study of Necker’s role in the events of 1789, R. D. Harris has made the point that it was this essentially unreasonable claim for the ascendancy of the Third over the other two orders that doomed any attempt at compromise and propelled France to revolution rather than peaceful change. He sees this as the ominous exercise of majoritarian rule over unprotected minorities. The alternative was a dispersed form of government, on something like the British model, with the aristocracy preserved in an upper house and the “Commons” making up a lower, representative body.

But this is to sigh for an option that had already become obsolete. Doubtless such an alternative was theoretically conceivable for Necker (whose Genevan version of a bicameral legislature had repeatedly collapsed), or for moderates like Malouet. But it utterly overlooks the entire history of the elections, the rhetoric of their assemblies and the material expectations that were riding on a much more ambitious political transformation. It was no longer merely a question of fine-tuning the modernizing monarchy, but of some sort of collective rebirth. Citizenship for many deputies of the Third, like Barnave from Grenoble and Robespierre from Arras, was, just as Rousseau had insisted, indivisible. It was the expression of a sublime reciprocity between the individual and the General Will: indeed the only way they could be reconciled and made whole. It was, to be sure, exactly the kind of “strange and unaccountable appeal… to ideal and visionary rights of nature” that Arthur Young found so objectionable, but it was the authentic voice of the Revolution.

Nor – for better or worse – had this moment been reached through sage deliberations on workable government in the manner of the American Constitutional Convention. To wish that it had is to mistake the process by which politics unfolded in France – a process that was always intensely theatrical and histrionic. That may have been deplorable, like the waves of applause from public spectators at the proceedings of the assembly, which Arthur Young could never accustom himself to and thought “grossly indecent.” But it was only through such stage business, and the augmented reality of Romanticism, with its emotional swoop from euphoria to terror, that the advocates of change could mobilize their public. Reasoned debate was entirely beside the point. “The people of Paris,” observed Etienne Dumont, “were filled with inflammable gas like a balloon.”

Paradoxically, since he was the arch-manipulator of the charismatic moment, Mirabeau was sometimes embarrassed by this unruly spontaneity, “the spectacle of young schoolboys escaped from the rod and mad with joy because they are promised an extra day’s vacation.” To try to bring some semblance of order into the proceedings, he encouraged his Genevan friend Dumont to translate Romilly’s account of British parliamentary rules – an initiative that brought down on him a storm of indignation for being enslaved to antique, foreign customs.

All of these considerations were swept aside on June 13. On that date, three curés responded to the roll call initiated by Sieyès. Since the first order had voted to verify separately only by the narrow margin of 133 votes to 114, the moment was decisive. The three were all from the Poitou – Ferrières’ province – and their leader, Jallet, the curé of Cherigny, had become well known for his piety and patriotism. The son of a gardener on a seigneurial estate (more virtuous botany!), he had been for thirty years a model of saintly humility, administering to the sick and needy while subsisting in the most impoverished circumstances. He was so poor that initially he could not afford the journey to Versailles, which, along with his living expenses, was paid by subscription. Walking into the Salle des Menus Plaisirs and announcing his presence, he was greeted with a roar of acclaim, embraced by his colleagues over and over again and carried shoulder-high in triumph to a seat.

On the fourteenth, as the roll call proceeded inexorably, more priests, hailing from Brittany and Lorraine, appeared, including Grégoire, the curé of Emberménil and champion of the rights of Jews. By the nineteenth there were more than a hundred joining the assembly, which had by this time claimed a new name for itself. The debate on the subject of a title, begun two days earlier, had quickly revealed different political personalities. Sieyès, still the most radical voice, had insisted that since the assembly represented “96 percent” of the nation, it should not delay any further the “common work of national restoration.” His title for such a body, however, was not the stuff of inspirational manifestos: “The Known and Verifiable Representatives.” Mounier had been even more cautious, proposing “the major part of the representation, convened in the absence of the minor part.” Mirabeau, typically, had attempted to cut through these abysmally cumbersome nomenclatures by suggesting “Representatives of the People,” a proposal criticized for its excessively plebeian connotations! Before the end of the proceedings at ten that night, the meeting had decided by a large majority to call itself “National Assembly” and – again on Mirabeau’s motion – that all present taxes should be declared null and void unless authorized by that body.

It was a moment of self-definition. Ninety deputies had voted against the majority of four hundred and ninety. But their anxieties about this act of self-authorization were overwhelmed in the onrush of high patriotic passion. Arthur Young, normally all sobriety, was no more immune than the participants to this surge of political adrenaline.

The spectacle of the representatives of twenty-five millions of people just emerging from the evils of two hundred years of arbitrary power and rising to the blessings of a freer constitution, assembled with open doors under the eye of the public, was framed to call into animated feelings every latent spark, every emotion of a liberal bosom; to banish whatever ideas might intrude of their being a people too often hostile to my own country and to dwell with pleasure on the glorious idea of happiness to a great nation, of felicity to millions yet unborn.

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