The French Revolution: The Estates General

A little over a year ago, I posted what has become one of my most popular posts on this blog. It was a post about the peasantry in the French Revolution. Riveting stuff, right! Well, I suppose it’s all the students taking a course on the French Revolution that google “peasants, French Revolution” that brings them over to my page. So in hoping to continue the trend of adding to the scholarly works out there (and maybe helping a schoolboy with his homework), here’s another essay I wrote about the French Revolution. This one about the Estates General. 

King Louis XVI decided the best way to navigate out of the financial and political quagmire which was choking late eighteenth century France was to convene the Estates General.  The Estates General was the national assembly consisting of all three classes of society: the clergy, the nobility, and the commoners known as the Third Estate.  In the months leading up to this great assembly which had not been assembled since 1614, few people expected an all out class revolution.  However, as the bourgeoisie-dominated Third Estate convened, they aggressively took every action open to them to provoke an outcome that was nothing short of overthrowing the old order and establishing a nation of the people.

Early on the bourgeoisie quickly moved to grab the reigns of the Third Estate delegation.  The bourgeoisie were a broad class of commoners made up of businessmen and professionals.  Many were quite wealthy while others lived a modest existence still somewhat above that of the workers and peasants.  As the commoners from the regional provinces gathered to choose delegates, the bourgeoisie exhibited superior knowledge of economic issues and skilled experience in speaking in debates (Lefebvre 63).   Their educated ways were no match for the workers and peasants who readily chose the bourgeoisie to represent the Third Estate in the Estates General.  This fact, no doubt, made the Third Estate delegation much bolder and audacious than if comprised of only peasants (Lefebvre 63).  The bourgeoisie would not be intimidated by the privileged.  The Estates General would be their one chance to speak up boldly and demand equality for all individuals in France.  Once given this opportunity, they bonded together, stood firm and pressed the issues relentlessly which pushed France closer and closer to revolution.

It became obvious that French finances could not be maintained as is.  The nation was bankrupt and the Third Estate already shouldered nearly the entire tax burden for the state.  The bourgeoisie obviously would not allow this unfair system to continue.  The aristocracy made it clear that they were open to concessions in the upcoming assembly.  They acknowledged that the Third Estate was over-taxed, and they were willing to have discussion concerning this issue; however, they did not want the discourse of the Estates General to stray into the area of attacking the first two orders (Lefebvre 56).  Perhaps it was a matter of the aristocracy ‘tipping its hand’ which made the bourgeoisie even bolder.  They must have surmised that fairer taxes would naturally be one of the outcomes of the Estates General.  They also felt they had a friend in Necker, the chief finance minister of the king. Necker undoubtedly knew that if the coffers were going to be filled again, it would have to come from the first two estates.  The timing could not have been better, so when certain opportunities presented themselves, the bourgeoisie acted decisively.

In July of 1788, King Louis invited everyone to study the past assemblies and determine what modern changes would be appropriate (Lefebvre 50).  When later in the year it was determined that the assembly would be constituted in the same manner it had during the last gathering in 1614, the bourgeoisie protested greatly (Lefebvre 50).  This was the French equivalent of the “Intolerable Acts.”  The bourgeoisie jumped into action forming a committee that would recommend candidates for the Estates General and circulate petitions outlining the grievances which would have to be addressed (Lefebvre 51).  It was all out war with the first two orders.  They would now focus all of their efforts on overthrowing the inequalities which had so long separated French society.  Despotism was no longer the focus.  The overturning of the privileged classes now clearly was the focus (Lefebvre 50).

A major point of contention became the number of delegates per order.  According to French law, the Estates General was to be constituted with the clergy, nobles and commoners in separate houses with each one having a single vote on issues (Lefebvre 58).  This gave the privileged classes a two to one majority over the vast population of the commoners.  This is a classic example of minority rule.  The bourgeoisie insisted on ‘Doubling the Third’, the idea that the Third Estate should have the same number of delegates as the clergy and nobles combined.   The goal of the Third Estate was that with the help of the liberal clergy they would be able to carry the majority and be able to pass their agenda at will if they could vote by head and not by order (Lefebvre 53).  So when the act called The Result of the Council ruled that doubling should occur but yet did not address specifically the voting by head issue, the bourgeoisie seized this ambiguity as being a victory (Lefebvre 57). They pushed forward with their planning as if the vote by head issue was settled in spite of protest from the nobility.

The purposely contentious bourgeoisie pushed and prodded their agenda at every turn.  They refused to sit for the Provincial Estates until the nobility and clergy consented to pay a fair share of taxes (Lefebvre 59).  On the first meeting of the Estates General, they purposefully put on hats to imitate the action of the nobles and signify their equality with the Second Estate (Lefebvre 74).  One of the first orders of business when all their delegates were assembled is that they called themselves the National Assembly (Lefebvre 78).  Their intentions were clear.  The Third Estate was the nation of France.  They were the will of the people.  They were wrestling the reins of power into the hands of the population.

As the summer drama of 1789 heated up, gridlock resulted between the three orders.  The Third Estate resolved that they would not dissolve their assembly until their demands were met.  Necker was relieved of his duty by the king to a cry outcry among the populace.  The use of force against the assembly seemed to be a viable and possibly logical option.  At the height of uncertainty, the bourgeoisie in near unison committed themselves to the cause in one of the great turning points in history which set the course for revolution – the Oath of the Tennis Court.   As they were locked out of their assembly hall, they signed the written oath to remain assembled as the national body until a constitution was written (Lefebvre 81).  This was the turning point.  This was Hancock’s signature on the Declaration of Independence – the point of no return.  They were determined to see this through wherever it may lead.

The storming of the Bastille, the peasant agrarian revolts and the mass protests at Versailles in October of 1789 would not have been possible without a bourgeoisie committed to bringing about change.  At every turn in the road, the bourgeoisie acted boldly, determined to set French society on a new course.  No one could have predicted the resulting revolution, but it no doubt would not have happened without the audacious desires of a people wanting equality.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Works Cited

LeFebvre, Georges. The Coming of the French Revolution. Trans. R.R. Palmer. Princeton:

Princeton University Press, 2005.

 

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