He passed through a country facing famine and rehearsing revolution. In several districts, in the spring of 1789, there were repeated revolts against taxes and the cost of bread. In Lyons the populace invaded the offices of the tax collector and destroyed his registers. At Agde, near Montpellier, the people threatened a general pillage unless the prices of commodities were reduced; they were reduced. Villages fearing a shortage of grain forcibly prevented the export of grain from their districts. Some peasants talked of burning all châteaux and killing the seigneurs (May, 1789).51 At Montlhéry the women, hearing that the price of bread had been raised, led a mob into the granaries and bakeries, and seized all available bread and flour. Similar scenes at Bray-sur-Seine, Bagnols, Amiens, almost everywhere in France. In town after town orators aroused the people by telling them that the King had postponed all tax payments.52 A report ran through Provence in March and April that “the best of kings desires tax equality; that there are to be no more bishops, nor seigneurs, nor tithes, nor dues, no more titles or distinctions.”53 After April 1, 1789, feudal dues were no longer paid. The “voluntary” surrender of these dues by the nobility on August 4 was not an act of self-sacrifice but the recognition of an accomplished fact.
In Paris the excitement mounted almost daily as the meeting of the States-General approached. Pamphlets poured from the press, oratory lifted its voice at the cafés and clubs. The most famous and powerful pamphlet in all history appeared in January, 1789, written by the freethinking Abbé Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès, vicar general of the diocese of Chartres. Chamfort had written, “Qu’est-ce que le Tiers état?—Tout. Qu’a-t-il?—Rien” (“What is the Third Estate? Everything. What does it have? Nothing.”) Sieyès made this explosive epigram into an arresting title, and turned it into three questions that soon half of France was asking:
What is the Third Estate? Everything.
What has it been, till the present, in the political order? Nothing.
What does it ask? To become something.54
Of the 26,000,000 souls in France, Sieyès pointed out, at least 25,000,000 belonged to the Third Estate—the untitled laity; in effect the Third Estate was the nation. If, in the States-General, the other classes should refuse to sit with it, it would be justified in constituting itself the “Assemblée Nationale.” That phrase endured.
Hunger was even more eloquent than words. As relief stations were set up in Paris by the government, the clergy, and the rich, beggars and criminals flocked in from the hinterland to eat and to risk their nothing in acts of desperation. Here and there the populace took matters into its own hands; it threatened to hang at the nearest lamppost any merchant hiding grain or charging too much for it; often it stopped and sacked convoys of grain before these could reach the market; sometimes it mobbed the markets and took by force, without pay, the grain that peasants had brought in to sell.55 On April 2 3 Necker issued through the Royal Council a decree empowering judges and police to take inventory of private granaries, and to compel them, where bread was running short, to send their grain to the market; but this order was loosely enforced. Such was the picture of Paris in the spring.
In these angry mobs the Duc d’Orléans saw a possible instrument for his ambitions. He was the great-grandson of that Philippe d’Orléans who had been regent of France (1715-23). Born in 1747, named Duc de Chartres at five, he married at twenty-two Louise-Marie de Bourbon-Penthiévre, whose wealth made him the richest man in France.56 In 1785 he succeeded to the title of Duc d’Orléans; after 1789, through his advocacy of popular causes, he was known as Philippe Égalité. We have seen him challenging the King in the Parlement and exiled to Villers-Cotteréts. Soon back in Paris, he determined to make himself an idol of the people, hoping that he might be chosen to succeed his cousin Louis XVI in case the harassed King should abdicate or be deposed. He gave largesse to the poor, recommended nationalization of ecclesiastical property,57 and threw open to the public the garden and some rooms of his Palais-Royal in the very heart of Paris. He had the graces of a generous aristocrat and the morals of his ancestor the Regent. Mme. de Genlis, governess of his children, served him as liaison with Mirabeau, Condorcet, Lafayette, Talleyrand, Lavoisier, Volney, Sieyès, Desmoulins, Danton. His fellow Freemasons gave him substantial support.58 The novelist Choderlos de Laclos, his secretary, acted as his agent in organizing public demonstrations and revolts. In the gardens, cafés, gambling houses, and brothels near his palace the pamphleteers exchanged ideas and formed plans; here thousands of people, of all classes, joined in the agitations of the hour. The Palais-Royal, as a name for all this complex, became the hub of the Revolution.
It is alleged and probable, but not certain, that the money of the Duke, and the activity of Choderlos de Laclos, played a part in organizing the attack upon the Réveillon factory in the Rue St.-Antoine. Réveillon was leading a revolution of his own: replacing wall paintings and tapestry with vellum paper painted by artists in a technique developed by him, and producing what an English authority has called “undoubtedly the most beautiful wallpapers that have ever been made.”59 His factory employed three hundred men, whose minimum wage was twenty-five sous ($1.56?) per day.60 At a meeting of the electoral assembly of Ste.-Marguerite a dispute arose between middle-class electors and workingmen; there was some apprehension that wages might be cut,61 and a false62 report was spread that Réveillon had said, “A workingman with wife and children can live on fifteen sous a day.” On April 27 a crowd gathered before the manufacturer’s house and, unable to find him, burned him in effigy. On the twenty-eighth, reinforced and armed, it invaded his home, sacked it, made bonfires of its furniture, drank the liquor from its cellar, and appropriated currency and silver plate. The rioters moved on to the factory and plundered it. Troops were sent against them; they defended themselves in a battle that raged for several hours; twelve soldiers and over two hundred rioters were killed. Réveillon closed his factory and moved to England.
This was the mood of Paris as the elected deputies and their substitutes arrived for the States-General at Versailles.