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The French Revolution (1789–1799)

History SparkNotes

The Estates-General: 1789

France’s Financial Crisis: 1783–1788

The National Assembly: 1789–1791

May 5, 1789 Louis XVI summons Estates-General for its first meeting since 1614
June 17 Third Estate breaks away from Estates-General, establishes itself as National Assembly
Key people
Jacques Necker -  Director general of finance who returned to office after Calonne’s dismissal
Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès -  Author of influential “What Is the Third Estate?” pamphlet, which influenced the Third Estate to break off from the Estates-General

Necker and the Estates-General

In the wake of Calonne’s dismissal, Louis XVI brought back Swiss banker Jacques Necker, who had previously served a ten-year stint as director general of finance. After assessing the situation, Necker insisted that Louis XVI call together the Estates-General, a French congress that originated in the medieval period and consisted of three estates. The First Estate was the clergy, the Second Estate the nobility, and the Third Estate effectively the rest of French society.

On May 5, 1789, Louis XVI convened the Estates-General. Almost immediately, it became apparent that this archaic arrangement—the group had last been assembled in 1614—would not sit well with its present members. Although Louis XVI granted the Third Estate greater numerical representation, the Parlement of Paris stepped in and invoked an old rule mandating that each estate receive one vote, regardless of size. As a result, though the Third Estate was vastly larger than the clergy and nobility, each estate had the same representation—one vote. Inevitably, the Third Estate’s vote was overridden by the combined votes of the clergy and nobility.

Resentment Against the Church

The fact that the Estates-General hadn’t been summoned in nearly 200 years probably says a thing or two about its effectiveness. The First and Second Estates—clergy and nobility, respectively—were too closely related in many matters. Both were linked intrinsically to the royalty and shared many similar privileges. As a result, their votes often went the same way, automatically neutralizing any effort by the Third Estate.

Additionally, in a country as secularized as France at the time, giving the church a full third of the vote was ill-advised: although France’s citizens would ultimately have their revenge, at the time the church’s voting power just fostered more animosity. There were numerous philosophers in France speaking out against religion and the mindless following that it supposedly demanded, and many resented being forced to follow the decisions of the church on a national scale.

Divides in the Third Estate

Beyond the chasm that existed between it and the other estates, the Third Estate itself varied greatly in socioeconomic status: some members were peasants and laborers, whereas others had the occupations, wealth, and lifestyles of nobility. These disparities between members of the Third Estate made it difficult for the wealthy members to relate to the peasants with whom they were grouped. Because of these rifts, the Estates-General, though organized to reach a peaceful solution, remained in a prolonged internal feud. It was only through the efforts of men such as Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès (see below) that the members of the Third Estate finally realized that fighting among themselves was fruitless and that if they took advantage of the estate’s massive size, they would be a force that could not be ignored.

“What Is the Third Estate?”

To add insult to injury, delegates from the Third Estate were forced to wear traditional black robes and to enter the Estates-General meeting hall by a side door. Necker tried to placate the Third Estate into tolerating these slights until some progress could be made, but his diplomatic efforts accomplished little. Fed up with their mistreatment, activists and pamphleteers of the Third Estate took to the streets in protest.

The most famous effort was a pamphlet written by liberal clergy member Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès titled “What Is the Third Estate?” In response to his own question, Sieyès answered, “The Nation.” The pamphlet articulated the pervasive feeling in France that though a small minority might be in control, the country truly belonged to the masses. Sieyès’s pamphlet compelled the Third Estate to action, inciting the masses to take matters into their own hands if the aristocracy failed to give them due respect.

The Third Estate’s Revolt

As the impasse in the Estates-General continued, the Third Estate became more convinced of its entitlement to liberty. Seeing that neither the king nor the other estates would acquiesce to its requests, the Third Estate began to organize within itself and recruit actively from the other estates. On June 17, 1789, bolstered by communitywide support, the Third Estate officially broke away from the Estates-General and proclaimed itself the National Assembly. In so doing, it also granted itself control over taxation. Shortly thereafter, many members of the other estates joined the cause.

Blaming the Aristocracy

Although the reconvening of the Estates-General presented France’s aristocracy and clergy with a perfect opportunity to appease the Third Estate and maintain control, they focused only on maintaining the dominance of their respective estates rather than address the important issues that plagued the country. When the Estates-General convened, the Third Estate wasn’t seeking a revolution—just a bit of liberty and a more equitable tax burden. The entire Revolution might have been avoided had the first two estates simply acquiesced to some of the Third Estate’s moderate proposals. Instead, they fell back on tradition and their posh lifestyles and lit the revolutionary flame.

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