On May 4 the deputies moved in a stately procession to hear Mass in the Church of St. Louis: the Versailles clergy in front, then the representatives of the Third Estate, dressed in black, then the noble delegates, colorful and plumed, then the ecclesiastical deputies, then the King and Queen, surrounded by the royal family. The townspeople crowded the streets, the balconies, and the roofs; they applauded the commoners, the King, and the Duc d’Orléans, and received with silence the nobles, the clergy, and the Queen. For a day everyone (except the Queen) was happy, for what so many had hoped for had come to pass. Many, even among the nobles, wept at the sight of the divided nation apparently made one.
On May 5 the deputies assembled in the immense Salle des Menus Plaisirs (Hall of Minor Diversions), about four hundred yards from the royal palace. There were 621 commoners, 308 clergy, 285 nobles (including twenty of the noblesse de robe). Of the ecclesiastical deputies some two thirds were of plebeian origin; many of these later threw in their lot with the commoners. Nearly half the deputies of the Third Estate were lawyers, five per cent were professional men, thirteen per cent were businessmen, eight per cent represented the peasantry.63 Among the clergy was Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, bishop of Autun. Mirabeau, anticipating Napoleon’s phrase about “mud in a silk stocking,” described Talleyrand as “a vile, greedy, base, intriguing fellow, whose one desire is mud and money; for money he would sell his soul; and he would be right, for he would be exchanging a dunghill for gold”;64 which hardly did justice to Talleyrand’s flexible intelligence. Among the nobles were several men who advocated substantial reforms: Lafayette, Condorcet, Lally-Tollendal, the Vicomte de Noailles, the Ducs d’Orléans, d’Aiguillon, and de La Rochefoucauld-Lian-court. Most of these joined Sieyès, Mirabeau, and other deputies of the Third Estate in forming Les Trentes, a “Society of Thirty” which acted as an organizing group for liberal measures. Prominent in the delegation of the Third Estate were Mirabeau, Sieyès, Mounier, Barnave, Jean Bailly the astronomer, and Maximilien Robespierre. All in all this was the most distinguished political assembly in French annals, perhaps in all modern history. Generous spirits throughout Europe looked to this gathering to raise a standard to which the oppressed in every nation might repair.
The King opened the first session with a brief address frankly confessing the financial distress of his government, ascribing this to “a costly but honorable war,” asking for an “augmentation of taxes,” and deploring “an exaggerated desire for innovation.” Necker followed with a three-hour speech admitting a deficit of 56,150,000 livres (it was really 150,000,000), and asking sanction for a loan of 80,000,000 livres. The deputies fidgeted over the brain-taxing statistics; most of them had expected the liberal minister to expound a program of reform.
The struggle of the classes began the next day, when the nobles and the clergy went to separate halls. The general public now forced its way into the Salle des Menus Plaisirs; soon it was influencing votes by its vigorous—and usually organized—expression of approval or dissent. The Third Estate refused to acknowledge itself a separate chamber; it waited resolutely for the other estates to join it and vote man by man. The nobles replied that voting by classes—each class one vote—was an unalterable part of the monarchical constitution; to merge the three classes in one and allow individual voting, in an assembly where the Third Estate was already half the total and could readily win some support from the lower clergy, would be to surrender the intelligence and character of France to mere number and bourgeois dictation. The clerical delegates, divided between conservatives and liberals, took no stand, waiting to be guided by events. A month passed.
Meanwhile the price of bread continued to rise despite Necker’s attempts to regulate it, and the danger of public violence increased. The flood of pamphlets mounted. Arthur Young wrote on June 9:
The business going forward at present in the pamphlet shops of Paris is incredible. I went to the Palais, Royal to see what new things were published, and to procure a catalogue of all. Every hour produces something new. Thirteen came out today, sixteen yesterday, ninety-two last week. … Nineteen twentieths of these productions are in favor of liberty, and commonly violent against the clergy and the nobility. … Nothing in reply appears.65
On June 10 the deputies of the Third Estate sent a committee to the nobles and the clergy again inviting them to a.joint meeting, and declaring that if the other orders continued to meet separately the Third Estate would proceed without them to legislate for the nation. The break in the contest of collective wills came on June 14, when nine parish priests came over to the commoners. On that day the Third Estate elected Bailly its president, and organized itself for deliberation and legislation. On the fifteenth Sieyès proposed that since the delegates in the Salle des Menus Plaisirs represented ninety-six per cent of the nation, they should call themselves the “Assembly of the Recognized and Verified Representatives of the French Nation.” Mirabeau thought this too broad a term, which the King would surely reject. Instead of retreating, Sieyès simplified the proposed name to Assemblée Nationale. It was so voted, 491 to 8966 This declaration automatically changed the absolute monarchy into a limited one, ended the special powers of the upper classes, and constituted, politically, the beginning of the Revolution.
But would the King accept this demotion? To so incline him the National Assembly decreed that all existing taxes should be paid as formerly until the Assembly should be dissolved; that thereafter no taxes should be paid except those that had been authorized by the Assembly; that the Assembly would as soon as possible consider the causes and remedies of the bread shortage; and that after a new constitution had been accepted the Assembly would assume and honor the debts of the state. One of these measures aimed to quiet the rioters; another sought the support of the bondholders; all were cleverly designed to reduce the resistance of the King.
Louis consulted his Council. Necker warned him that unless the privileged orders yielded, the States-General would collapse, taxes would not be paid, and the government would be bankrupt and helpless. Other ministers protested that individual voting would mean dictatorship by the Third Estate, and the reduction of the nobility to political impotence. Feeling that his throne depended upon the nobles and the clergy, Louis decided to resist the National Assembly. He announced that he would address the Estates on June 23. Necker, defeated, offered to resign; the King, knowing that the public would resent such a move, prevailed upon him to stay.
For the scheduled séance royale the Salle des Menus Plaisirs had to be prepared by some new physical arrangements. Orders for this were sent to the palace artisans, without notification to the Assembly. When the deputies of the Third Estate tried to enter the hall on June 20 they found its doors shut and the interior occupied by workingmen. Believing that the King was planning to dismiss them, the deputies moved to a nearby tennis court (Salle du Jeu de Paume), and took an oath that made history:
The National Assembly, considering that it has been summoned to establish the constitution of the kingdom, to effect the regeneration of public order, and to maintain the true principles of monarchy, that nothing can prevent it from continuing its deliberations in whatever place it may be forced to establish itself, and, finally, that wheresoever its members are assembled, there is the National Assembly, decrees that all members of this Assembly shall take a solemn oath not to separate, and to reassemble wherever circumstances may require, until the condition of the kingdom is established, and consolidated upon firm foundations; and that, the said oath taken, all members, and each one of them individually, shall ratify this steadfast resolution by signature.67
All but two of the 557 deputies and twenty alternates who were present signed; fifty-five more and five priests signed later. When news of these events reached Paris an angry multitude gathered around the Palais-Royal and swore to defend the National Assembly at whatever cost. At Versailles it became dangerous for a nobleman or a prelate to appear in the streets; several were manhandled, and the Archbishop of Paris saved himself only by promising to join the Assembly. On June 22 the sworn deputies met in the Church of St. Louis; there they were joined by a few nobles and 149 of the 308 ecclesiastical delegates.
On June 23 the three estates met in the Salle des Menus Plaisirs to hear the King. The hall was surrounded by troops. Necker was conspicuously absent from the royal retinue. Louis spoke briefly, and then delegated a secretary of state to read his decision. This rejected as illegal and void the assumption of the deputies who had declared themselves a National Assembly. It allowed a united meeting of the three orders, and individual voting on affairs not affecting the class structure of France; but nothing was to be done to impair “the ancient and constitutional rights … of property, or the honorific privileges … of the first two orders”; and matters concerning religion or the Church must receive the approval of the clergy. The King conceded to the States-General the right to veto new taxes and loans; he promised equality of taxation if the privileged orders voted for it; he offered to receive recommendations for reform, and to establish provincial assemblies in which voting would be individual. He agreed to end the corvée, lettres de cachet, tolls on internal trade, and all vestiges of serfdom in France. He concluded the session with a brief display of authority:
If you abandon me in this great enterprise I will work alone for the welfare of my people.... I will consider myself alone their true representative. … None of your plans or proceedings can become law without my express approval.... I command you to separate at once, and to proceed tomorrow morning each to the hall of his own order to renew your deliberations.68
When the King had gone, most of the nobles and a minority of the clergy departed. The Marquis de Brézé, grandmaster of ceremonies, announced to those deputies who remained that it was the King’s will that all should leave the hall. Mirabeau made a famous reply: “Monsieur, … you have here no place nor voice nor right to speak.... If you have been charged to make us leave this hall, you will have to seek orders to employ force, … for we shall not leave our places except by the power of the bayonet.”69 This declaration was seconded by a general cry: “That is the will of the Assembly.” De Brézé withdrew. Orders were given to local troops to clear the hall, but some liberal nobles persuaded them to take no action. Told of the situation, the King said, “Oh, well, the devil with it; let them stay.”70
On June 24 Young noted in his diary: “The ferment at Paris is beyond conception; ten thousand people have been all this day in the Palais Royal. … The constant meetings there are carried to a degree of licentiousness, and fury of liberty, that is scarcely credible.”71 The municipal authorities were unable to maintain order, for they could not rely upon the local “French Guards”; many of these had relatives who expounded the popular cause to them; some of these soldiers fraternized with the throngs around the Palais-Royal; in one regiment at Paris there was a secret society pledged to obey no orders hostile to the National Assembly. On June 25 the 407 men who had elected the deputies of the Third Estate for Paris met and substituted themselves for the royal government of the capital; they chose a new municipal council, nearly all of the middle class, and the old council abandoned to them the task of protecting life and property. On that same day forty-seven nobles, led by the Duc d’Orléans, moved over to the Salle des Menus Plaisirs. The victory of the Assembly seemed secure. Only force could dislodge it.
On June 26, over Necker’s opposition, the conservatives in the King’s ministry informed him that the local troops in Versailles and Paris could no longer be trusted to obey orders, and they persuaded him to send for six provincial regiments. On the twenty-seventh, veering to Necker’s advice, Louis bade the noble and ecclesiastical deputations to unite with the rest. They did, but the nobles refused to take part in the voting, on the ground that the mandates of their constituents forbade them to vote individually in the States-General. Most of them, in the next thirty days, retired to their estates.
On July 1 the King summoned to Paris ten regiments, mostly Germans and Swiss. In the first weeks of July six thousand troops under the Maréchal de Broglie occupied Versailles, and ten thousand men under the Baron de Besenval took up positions around Paris, chiefly in the Champ de Mars. The Assembly and the people believed that the King was planning to disperse or intimidate them. Some deputies were so fearful of arrest that they slept in the Salle des Menus Plaisirs instead of going to their homes at night.72
Amid this terror the Assembly appointed a committee to draw up plans for a new constitution. The committee brought in a preliminary report on July 9, and from that day the deputies called themselves the “National Constituent Assembly.” The dominant sentiment was for a constitutional monarchy. Mirabeau argued for “a government more or less like England’s,” in which the Assembly would be the legislature, but he continued, in the two years left to him, to urge the retention of a king. He praised Louis XVI for a good heart and generous intentions, occasionally confused by shortsighted counselors, and he asked:
Have these men studied, in the history of any people, how revolutions commence and how they are carried out? Have they observed by what a fatal chain of circumstances the wisest men are driven far beyond the limits of moderation, and by what terrible impulses an enraged people is precipitated into excesses at the very thought of which they would have shuddered?73
The Assembly suspected that Mirabeau was being paid by the King or the Queen to defend the monarchy, but essentially it followed his advice. The delegates, now predominantly middle class, felt that the populace was becoming dangerously unmanageable, and that the only way to prevent a general disintegration of social order was to maintain, for some time to come, the present executive structure of the state.
They were not so well disposed toward the Queen. It was known that she participated actively in support of the conservative faction in the Royal Council, and was wielding political power far beyond her competence. During these critical months she had borne a bereavement that may have impaired what capacity she might have had for calm and prudent judgment. Her older son, the Dauphin Louis, suffered so severely from rickets and curvature of the spine that he could not walk without help,74 and on June 4 he died. Broken by grief and fear, Marie Antoinette was no longer the captivating woman who had frolicked through the first years of the reign. Her cheeks were pale and thin, her hair was turning gray, her smiles were wistful, remembering happier days; and her nights were darkened with consciousness of the crowds cursing her name in Paris and protecting and frightening the Assembly in Versailles.
On July 8 Mirabeau put through a motion asking the King to remove from Versailles the provincial troops that were making the gardens of Le Nôtre an armed camp. Louis answered that no harm was intended to the Assembly, but on July 11 he showed his hand by dismissing Necker and ordering him to leave Paris at once. “All Paris,” Mme. de Staël recalled, “flocked to visit him in the twenty-four hours allowed him to prepare for his journey. … Public opinion transformed his disgrace into a triumph.”75 He and his family left quietly for the Netherlands. Those who had supported him in the ministry were discharged at the same time. On July 12, in complete surrender to the advocates of force, Louis appointed the Queen’s friend, Baron de Breteuil, to replace Necker, and de Broglie was made secretary for war. The Assembly and its incipient revolution seemed doomed.
They were saved by the people of Paris.