Modern history


There was one more Indian summer left to Versailles. On August 10, 1788, the last great formal audience was held, for the ambassadors of the Sultan of Mysore, Tipu Sahib. A continent away in his palace at Seringapatam, faith in the imperial power of the French monarchy was undimmed. The fleur-de-lis still flew from naval bases in the Indian Ocean and the genius of French mechanics had produced a clockwork tiger for the Sultan, which when wound would proceed to devour a British grenadier in its mouth. Would not France help the Tiger of the Carnatic to rid India of the curse of British imperialism?

This was not a high priority for Brienne. The King gave the ambassadors polite reassurances of an even less substantial kind than had been given to the Dutch, and fitted them out with a carriage drawn by six white horses. At the Opéra, where they were given the best seats, Mme de La Tour du Pin admired their yellow slippers planted, orientally, on the edge of their box. Since they were almost on stage it was sometimes hard to tell where fantasy ended and reality began.

No such problem afflicted Malesherbes. An evening in the same summer found him, together with Lafayette, drinking in a guinguette just outside the customs walls that now girded Paris. These countrified taverns where tables and benches were set in the open air pleased Malesherbes. The famous watering holes at La Courtille and Les Porcherons were too crowded in the warm months. But that still left a good number from the list proposed by Thiéry’s Guide – La Nouvelle-France, La Petite Pologne, Le Gros-Caillou and Le Grand et Le Petit Gentilly – all to his taste and within easy distance of his daughter’s house, where, these days, he liked to dine.

On this particular evening he had brought Lafayette along to help entertain two foreign visitors, a young Englishman, Samuel Romilly, and a Genevan, Etienne Dumont. Arriving from the Dover packet, they had reached Versailles in time to catch a glimpse of Tipu’s turbaned ambassadors gliding through the state rooms. Romilly was a precocious young lawyer, the product of the network of “advanced” ideas that spread from the Scottish universities through the Dissenting academies and the Birmingham Lunar Society. His head was full of projects, and he had duly been taken up by the liberal wing of the Whigs that met at Lord Shelburne’s mansion at Bowood. So Shelburne’s many friends in France, including the Abbé Morellet and Malesherbes himself, became Romilly’s and they talked together of “American” ideas of patriotism and liberty, linked together in comradely unity across the Channel.

Romilly was much taken with the “warmth and simplicity” he discovered in Malesherbes. His obvious pleasure in the joys of family life recommended him further. Romping with his grandchildren, the old man would toss his wig to the far side of the drawing room and lie on the rug so that small hands and feet could clamber merrily over his paunch. Informality towards adults and children alike was the coming thing in progressive Whig circles and would be celebrated in the family paintings of their most brilliant society artist, Thomas Lawrence. But it was often combined with a self-conscious modishness that jarred Romilly’s earnest Huguenot temper. Dumont was cut from similar cloth: an exiled pastor from the democratic revolution in Geneva that had been squashed by Vergennes in 1782. As the champion of Protestant emancipation in 1787, Malesherbes was already much admired, and when he took them on his usual tour-for-reformers to the prisons of Bicêtre and Salpêtrière, they were even more struck by his seriousness of purpose. There were still other links which drew together the young and the old in a humanitarian league. Friend to the evangelical leader of the campaign against the slave trade, William Wilberforce, Romilly was already engaged in the antislavery movement to which much of his life would be dedicated, and his Paris friends were similarly involved in the Société des Amis des Noirs.

To his young admirers Malesherbes could plausibly appear as a “man of the people,” for all his aristocratic rank and government service. With his bluff manner, shiny coat and snuff-bespattered cuffs he upstaged Lafayette and even Mirabeau in this guise. And in the tavern he planned a little joke turning on the discrepancy between nondescript appearance and democratic celebrity. “Have you by any chance heard of the Marquis de Lafayette?” he asked the innkeeper. The expected answer was “Of course, like all the world” – at which point he could reveal the identity of his redheaded drinking companion. But to still more merriment (except Lafayette’s) the response was “Why no, Monsieur, I can’t say I have. Pray, who is he?”

The relationship between leaders and led, tribunes and the People they so freely apostrophized, would be one of the great issues of the Revolution. But in the summer and autumn of 1788 it seemed unproblematic, at least to the circle in which Romilly and Dumont moved. Though Malesherbes’ spirits had been dashed by seeing history repeat itself and well-intentioned reforms wrecked by absolutist politics, the prospect of the Estates-General had filled him with renewed zest and optimism. Moreover, he was one of the earliest spokesmen for a true “national assembly” that would have no qualms about departing radically from the old, prescribed form of 1614. In that version the Estates met, deliberated and voted in separate orders. The proceedings in the Dauphiné had already breached that precedent, and Mounier and his colleagues had determined that when their provincial Estates met it should be as a single body, voting as individual representatives. In July, before the decision to summon the Estates-General had been taken, Malesherbes had written to the King in characteristically blunt terms recommending a similarly courageous departure – one that would, he believed, lay the foundation for a truly popular monarchy.

What is this Estates-General that is being recommended to you?… It is a vestige of ancient barbarism, a battlefield where three factions of the same people come to fight each other; it is a collision of all interests with the general interest… a means of subversion, not a means of renovation. Take this old structure for what it is, a ruin. We are attached to it only by memory. Seize the popular imagination with an institution that will surprise and please them… Let a King at the end of the eighteenth century not convoke the three orders of the fourteenth century; let him instead call together the proprietors of a great nation renewed by its civilization. A King who submits to a constitution feels degraded; a King who proposes a constitution obtains instead the highest glory among men and their liveliest and most enduring gratitude…

It was this dramatic abandonment of historical precedent that marked the first great turning point of the Revolution. On September 25, two days after it was reinstated to general acclaim, the Parlement of Paris announced that the Estates-General should be convened exactly according to the forms of 1614. Overnight it forfeited all the immense popularity it had gained during the confrontation with Lamoignon. From being a hero of the crowds, d’Eprémesnil was spoken of with jeering contempt. Events in the Dauphiné, much publicized in Paris, had preempted this attempt to draw the line at a traditional Estates-General.

Moreover, the apparatus of legal repression had been largely dismantled in the summer at the specific behest of the Parlement’s orators. Censorship, the Parlement’s traditional weapon, was removed, permitting a torrent of political literature to come flooding onto the streets. By September, pamphlets were appearing at the rate of something like ten a day. Second, an articulate minority within the Parlement led by Adrien Duport, Hugues de Sémonville and Guy-Jean Target were themselves insisting on a new kind of Estates-General in which the Third Estate would have numbers at least equal to the other two and in which votes would be taken “by head” or individually, so that any attempt to obstruct popular decisions would be defeated by numbers. What was being proposed was, in effect, a new form of representation – not by corporate bodies but by citizenship. Any group wanting to isolate itself from that general body of citizens and demanding particular or disproportionate representation instantly isolated itself as somehow “outside the Nation.”

Paradoxically, then, the “Third Estate” was an invention of the citizen-nobility. In November, a group calling itself first the Society of Thirty and later the Constitutional Club gathered at Duport’s house twice a week, often for four hours or more, to debate the nature of the coming representation. It was not an exclusively radical group. D’Eprémesnil was among the group, as was a fellow “constitutionalist” from the Parlement, Sabatier de Cabre. They did their best to argue for the preservation of a separate noble order as a bulwark against the corrupting power of monied property that they claimed would overwhelm a general representation. The majority of Duport’s club, however, were adamant that the Third Estate should have a representation at least equal to the other two combined and that the assembly should then deliberate and vote in common.

A striking number of the Society were men whose reputations had been made as “public men” and patriotic celebrities. Their self-image already presupposed a sympathetic rapport between leaders and citizens. The Parlementaire Target, for example, who broke most decisively with his conservative colleagues, was already the god of the basoche, huzzahed from the galleries. His first great trial oration had been a sentimental epic worthy of the most mawkish invention of Rousseau. It had involved the rights of the villagers of Salency in Picardy to choose their own annual “Rose Queen” – the rosière. The ritual had been adopted by the bien-pensant nobility as a bucolic idyll and Orléans’ mistress Mme de Genlis had gone to Salency to play the harp at the crowning of therosière. When the local seigneur had claimed that the right to select the rosière belonged to him, not the village elders, and had taken the case all the way to the Parlement of Paris, Target had represented it in court as a classic trial of strength between innocence and force. In 1788 he rehearsed many of the same themes, amplified to the scale of national politics.

Lafayette, his kinsman de Noailles, the Duc de La Rochefoucauld-Liancourt, the Duc de Luynes and the Duc de Lauzun were likewise citizens whose rhetoric was all the more influential because they hailed from the summit of the peerage. For many of them, moreover, this was merely the second stage of a crusade that had begun in America. They were courtiers against the court, aristocrats against privilege, officers who wanted to replace dynastic with national patriotism. Though he was committed to a national assembly, Lafayette was not without some anxieties about the consequences of popular politics. And in an attempt to bring him closer to their line the Parlement made the “Hero of the Two Worlds” an honorary councillor. This worried his fellow member of the Thirty, Condorcet, who knew Lafayette’s weakness for adulation. To the American Philip Mazzei he wrote:

If you go to Lafayette’s house, try to exorcise the devil of aristocracy that will be there to tempt him in the guise of a councilor of Parlement or a Breton noble. For that purpose take along in your pocket a little vial of Potomac water, and a sprinkler made from the wood of a Continental army rifle and make your prayers in the name of Liberty, Equality and Reason, which are but a single divinity in three persons.

Others among Duport’s group included Talleyrand, already observing Lafayette with a leery eye; Mirabeau, whose boiling polemical radicalism was at this time compromised by scandals of every kind, sexual, monetary and diplomatic, collapsing about his ears; Genevan bankers like Clavière and Panchaud, both ex-allies of Calonne’s and now reverting to their democratic principles of 1782; the Abbés Morellet and Sieyès; the Provençal pastor Rabaut Saint-Etienne and not least Louis-Sébastien Mercier, the prophet of the apocalypse. The “conspiracy of well-intentioned men,” as they designated themselves, also included a number of those who had provided the brains for Calonne’s reform program, among them Du Pont de Nemours and the Abbé Louis.

While they disagreed on many details, the majority of the Club all subscribed to some basic principles that marked a dramatic break with Parlementaire argument. They rejected outright the axiom that there had, all along, been some sort of “fundamental constitution” that the Parlements had been concerned to conserve. The only true “fundamental law,” added Rabaut Saint-Etienne, was salus populi lex est (the welfare of the people is the supreme law). The mere fact, added Target, that antiquarians had to go rummaging around in the history of Charlemagne and the Carolingians was proof enough that France had no constitution and it was now necessary to create one from scratch.

Beyond Paris, there were provincial storm centers where urban champions of the Third Estate, following Mounier’s example in the Dauphiné, were embattled with more conservative nobles over the structure of their provincial Estates – and by extension over national representation. The fiercest such combat took place in Brittany, where a young generation of lawyers in towns like Nantes and Rennes (schooled in street tactics by the battles for the Parlement) now used oratory and crowd pressure to press for a radical redefinition of representation. Arthur Young, the English agricultural writer who visited Nantes in September, found it “as enflammé in the cause of liberty as any town in France can be” and listened to conversations that “prove how great a change is effected in the midst of the French.” The polemics issuing from the reading clubs and political committees that mushroomed in the Breton towns in 1788 made a point of ridiculing the sanction of antiquity, especially dear to the province’s nobility. “What does it matter to us,” wrote the lawyer Volney in his journal The Sentinel of the People, “what our fathers have done or how and why they have done it…? The essential rights of man, his natural relations to his fellows in the state of society – these are the eternal bases of every form of government.” The Patriotic Reflections of the Rennes law professor Jean Lanjuinais were harsher in their parody of conservative obstruction:

Negro slaves – you are reduced to the condition of brutes – but no innovations! Children of Asiatic kings – the custom is that the eldest of you strangle his brothers – but no innovations! People of Brittany you are badly off and the nobility is well off – but no innovations!

What is required, insisted Lanjuinais, is a constitution for the present, not the veneration of relics. “Would the garment of 1614 fit us any better than the garment of a child fits a man in the prime of life?” Likewise, the term privilege, which had been synonymous with liberties in the contest between crown and Parlements, was now deemed to be its antithesis. Political probity now required not that privileges be protected but obliterated.

Throughout much of France (and in some cases even in obstreperous Brittany) the nobility were ready to concede at least part of these demands made by their own radicals as well as bona fide spokesmen of the Third. As would be shown by the cahiers – statements of local complaints and expectations – a majority of the privileged class was prepared to abandon the most conspicuous feature of its status: exemption from taxation. So much of this exemption had been eroded that it was hardly a grand sacrifice, especially for the better-off nobles, who flourished it as a concession. But the command that they melt their order entirely into some more general union of the Nation was much more divisive, both between and within provinces. The repeated claim, that separate orders should persist simply because they had survived so long, increasingly fell on deaf ears.

At the end of 1788, then, the sanction of the past lost its power to persuade. The Parlementaire lawyer Pierre Lacretelle went so far as to regret that all monuments and ancient usages had not been consumed in a great fire (something the Revolution would symbolically enact in 1793). Instead, Condorcet and like-minded members of the Duport group argued, reason should guide the framers of a new constitution. “True principles, rationally determined,” the Comte d’Antraigues agreed, would show that political liberty and civil equality before the law were the proper bases of such a new order. But d’Antraigues, a friend of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s, went on to make the much more radical case (typical of the citizen-nobility) that the state and the People were one and the same:

The Third Estate is the People and the People is the foundation of the State; it is in fact the State itself; the other orders are merely political categories while by the immutable laws of nature the People is everything. Everything should be subordinated to it [the People]; its safety should be the first law of the State… It is in the People that all national power resides and it is for the People that all states exist…

D’Antraigues’ flirtation with popular sovereignty would not be long-lived. Elected a deputy to the Estates-General, he came to repent of his polemic and became as zealous a counter-revolutionary as he had been a proto-democrat. But his tract nonetheless went into fourteen editions and boiled down to the popular axiom “The Third Estate is not an order, it is the nation itself.”

Once this revolutionary proposition became a common truism, the defense of separate orders took on the color of sectional interest, selfish, unpatriotic and heedless of the concerns of the common people. And because the King had asked to hear those concerns, such views could even be represented as antimonarchical. Necker’s insistence on the strictly provisional nature of his administration and his abstention from declaring on the crucial issues of doubling the Third and voting by head opened up a political vacuum that was filled by arguments rather than solutions. On December 5 that space was made even wider when the Parlement of Paris backed away from its earlier intransigence. It now pronounced itself in agreement with Target that there was indeed no constitutional precedent for the Estates-General to follow. Instead, “reason, liberty and the general wish [voeu général]” would indicate the shape of the new institution!

Necker’s interim solution had been to convene a second Assembly of the Notables to offer advice on the form of the Estates-General. But while its predecessor had been more radical than expected, the opposite was true of the second Assembly. Only a minority took up the “national” positions. Worse, the princes of the blood – with the important exceptions of Orléans and, more surprisingly, the King’s brother Provence – declared, in a memorandum drawn up on December 5, that “the State is in peril” and that

a revolution is being prepared in the principles of government, brought on by the agitation of minds. Institutions held sacred and by which the monarchy has prospered for so many centuries have now been converted into problematic questions or even decried as injustices.

To surrender to a majoritarian view of representation, they went on, was to deliver France to extraordinary dangers. Should the Third Estate’s “revolution in the constitution of the state” prevail, they foresaw kings coming and going according to the caprice of public opinion dressed up as the national will.

The Memorandum of the Princes was not unperceptive about the dangers of the course into which the monarchy was being swept in a state of rudderless optimism. But to the pamphleteers of the Third Estate it was taken as direct evidence of a conspiracy against the “popular monarchy” in the process of being created. As the debate intensified the government was even more reluctant to provide direction. On December 27 an exceptionally summary edict, without any kind of preamble, deepened this confusion. Against the advice of the Assembly of the Notables it proclaimed that the Third Estate would indeed have double representation. But it refrained from ordering deliberation in common and votes by head, a decision that made a mockery of the generosity towards the Third. Necker’s view seems to have been that somehow the Estates-General would make up its own mind without too much disorder.

All these fumbling initiatives, second thoughts and obfuscations were in the strongest contrast to the Patriots of the Third Estate, whose view had the virtue of clarity and decisiveness. Away with those who had for so long purported to represent the People but, when that representation was at hand, revealed themselves to be not its champions but its oppressors. Any current issue could be converted into the rhetoric of Patriots and Privileged. In his petition on behalf of Citizens Domiciled in Paris, Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin (ex-Jesuit and physician) had argued for the doubling of the Third on the basis of exactly this distinction. His tract had been adopted by the Six Merchant Guilds of the city and six thousand copies had been distributed under their aegis. The Parlement attempted to suppress its circulation and on the eighth of December took steps against Guillotin himself. He was arraigned before the court but the crowd demonstration in his favor was so noisily intimidating that his triumphant acquittal was virtually a foregone conclusion.

There was one further feature of the Third Estate that in the bitter winter of 1788–89 would strengthen its claim to be the authentic embodiment of the reborn Nation: its labor. Many of the tracts that had designed the identity of the Third Estate had already drawn an invidious contrast between venally acquired privilege and the productivity of the roturier, a term that itself conjured up the emblem of the laboring shovel. A memorandum on the Estates-General drawn up by the municipal officers of Nantes was emphatic on this point:

The third estate cultivates the fields, constructs and mans the vessels of commerce, sustains and directs manufactures, nourishes and vivifies the kingdom… It is time that a great people count for something…

The cahier of a village in the Vosges, Hareville-sous-Montfort, would make the same point more invidiously. The nobility that claimed it supported His Majesty, it explained, “only does so at the price of drawing fat pensions off the state,” whereas it is “the Third Estate that pays all the time and which works night and day to cultivate the land which produces grain to feed all of the people.”

The many prints that began to appear around this time, featuring the tiller of the soil bearing on his back the two privileged orders, made essentially the same point.

It was left to the Abbé Sieyès’ Quest-ce que le Tiers-Etat?, the most incisive of all the pamphlets, to make the schism between the useful and the useless decisive. “What is necessary that a nation should prosper?” asked the first of his famous rhetorical questions. “Individual efforts and public functions” came the answer. And it was the Third Estate that supplied all of the former. The Third Estate, then, was not a mere “order.” It was the Nation itself. Those who claimed a special status outside the Nation were thereby confessing their parasitism. By mischance and misappropriation the Third Estate, which was everything, had been, politically, nothing. Only when the fecklessness of the privileged had threatened the destruction of the patrie could it seek to be, as Sieyès modestly put it, “something.”

The Third Estate was an idea and an argument before it was a social reality. And Sieyès’ pamphlet was its most inspired invention: cogent, lucid – apparently indisputable except by invoking the unfrightening phantom of historicity. It not only gave form and shape to the new national polity, it pointed a threatening finger at those who separated themselves from it. “It is impossible to say what place the nobility and clergy ought to occupy in the social order,” he warned. “This is equivalent to asking what place should be assigned to a malignant disease which preys upon and tortures the body of a sick man.”

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