Modern history

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Revolution in Political Culture (1788–91)


From late 1788 onwards, more and more participants in and observers of the French political scene were recording a belief that a political phenomenon of a radically new kind was emerging. It was generally agreed that the crisis would be much more than a replay of the Fronde, as had been widely believed down to the summer of 1788. The event which precipitated this transformation was the re-emergence of the Paris Parlement into political life following its return from exile in September 1788. On 25 September, with popular cheers still ringing in their ears, the newly restored magistrates expressed the wish that the Estates General should meet ‘according to the forms observed in 1614’. It did not take long to register that this would involve the dominance of the First and Second Estates – the clergy and the nobility – over the Third Estate. In 1787–8, the parlements had led a movement of protest against government which had attracted a great deal of popular support within the public sphere. Now, the magistrates seemed intent on stabbing public opinion in the back. The impact of their action on their popularity was dramatic and sudden: they suddenly became part of the political problem rather than part of its solution.

The Parlement’s stance – instantly excoriated as ‘un-patriotic’ and ‘un-national’ – seemed particularly retrograde when set against the much-talked-about example of the Dauphiné. Here debates in the late summer over the recall of provincial estates had led to a meeting at Vizille of deputies from the three estates and from all over the province which had called for the doubling of representatives from the Third Estate and for voting by head and in common – a programme which Principal Minister Loménie de Brienne, in crafty pro-provincialist mood, endorsed. In many ways, the Vizille programme was not especially radical per se: certain provincial estates already had a larger Third Estate representation, while the recently created provincial assemblies had voting by head and in general assemblies as well. It was above all in the light of the Parlement’s provocative predilection for 1614 forms that the Vizille programme – the doubling of the Third, voting by head – became a yardstick for those demanding serious reform at the national level.

The huge public outcry against the Paris Parlement in the late autumn of 1788 scared most magistrates out of their Frondeur wits. Though a few magistrates, led by councillor Adrien Duport, maintained a radical stance, the Parlement as a whole back-pedalled fast. Their meetings were altogether graver now, as though, one councillor noted, ‘a dark veil had been drawn over the assembly’.1 Attempts by magistrates to curry popular favour by measures condemning grain speculation were offset by their attacks on patriot political pamphlets. The king further weakened the Parlement’s position by treating with contempt its claims to a political voice. The fiery ex-radical Duval d’Eprémesnil – erstwhile apostle of ‘debourbonization’ – was soon being hissed by the public as he walked through the Palais-Royal and cravenly promised the king that the Parlement would pass any financial edicts the government cared to introduce if he would deign to dissolve the Estates General.

The about-turn performed by the Parlement was a telling symptom of the seriousness of the political transformation taking place. In the past, the magistrates’ strength had derived from their role as mouthpiece of popular grievance. The court constituted, Malesherbes had noted in 1787, ‘the echo of Paris’, and, he continued, ‘the public of Paris is that of all the nation. It is the Parlement which speaks because it is the only body which has the right to speak … It is a question therefore of the whole nation.’2 This mouthpiece role of the Parlement was eclipsed during the magistrates’ exile, and other organs of expression emerged in their place. Clubs, driven underground by Brienne in 1787, came out into the open again. The duc d’Orléans’s Palais-Royal – a city-centre pleasure-ground and political headquarters – hummed with activity. Throughout the land, informal committees and meetings sprang up in towns large and small; coffee-houses, reading rooms and the other institutions of the bourgeois public sphere were abuzz with lively debate; newspapers blossomed – there were forty creations in 1788 alone – and pamphlet production soared. ‘Every day it’s raining pamphlets and brochures,’ exclaimed the Parisian publisher Nicolas Ruault in January 1789.3 Promoted – or given pretext – by Brienne’s edict of 5 July 1788 calling for the expression of views on the form in which the Estates General should meet, maybe as many as 4 million pieces of political commentary cascaded down on the French people from September 1788 to May 1789.

At no point back to the Fronde and the Wars of Religion had opinion been freer. Yet if everyone seemed to have his or her pet recommendation for the government, the latter constituted a silent, tranquil spot on a hyper-dynamic discursive map. Louis was increasingly subject to bouts of depression, worsened by anxieties about the health of his children. His fourth child, Sophie, died only a matter of months old in mid-1787, and the dauphin was chronically ailing. It can have hardly cheered the ruler, either, that his wife was widely rumoured to be conducting a sexual liaison with the comte de Fersen. Necker, who adopted an uncharacteristic wait-and-see attitude on his return to power, did nothing to remedy this eerie governmental paralysis. The Genevan’s return had reassured state creditors – partly through the massive loans he made to the government out of his own fortune – but he wagered that his best option was to ‘keep the administration of the finances in a kind of silence and obscurity’4 until fundamental reform could be considered in the Estates General. Necker’s position was worsened, moreover, by his weakness within the King’s Councils, where Keeper of the Seals Barentin and Household Minister Laurent de Villedeuil were proving to be last-ditch defenders of root-and-branch absolutism. Nor was he helped by the growing influence on the king of Marie-Antoinette. The latter realized Necker was a political necessity, but personally detested him. Her cronies (the Polignacs, Fersen, etc.) led a whispering campaign against him.

Irritated by the Parlement’s declaration for the forms of 1614, Necker decided to convoke a second meeting of the Assembly of Notables to seek advice on the procedures which the Estates General should adopt. This was not intended as a means of mobilizing public opinion, but rather as providing him with firmer authority within the political minefield that the Royal Council had become. In keeping with his new-found lack of political drive, he asked the Notables questions without offering much of a steer as regards the answers he wanted. His hands-off approach came a predictable cropper. The composition of the Assembly – which met from 6 November onwards – was much the same as Calonne’s hand-picked body of 1787 (there were still, pitifully, less than half a dozen commoners amongst them). And the body stuck just as doggedly as its predecessor to the script of privilege and tradition, spiced with constitutional justifications. Though the Notables did accept that all orders should be equally obliged to pay taxes, they specifically opposed either the doubling of the Third Estate or voting by head. To make matters worse, five of the seven Princes of the Blood (Orléans and Provence were the exceptions) saw fit to submit to Louis a Memorandum on 12 December, just as the Assembly was breaking up. This document, whose content was soon widely known, attacked ministerial policies which were producing ‘a revolution in the principles of government … through the fermentations of minds’. Fearful of a lurch towards either despotism or democracy, the Princes affirmed their belief that the Estates General should meet in the forms ‘consecrated by laws and usages’ and urged Louis to rely on ‘that courageous, ancient and respectable nobility which has spilt so much blood for king and fatherland’.5

The king and Necker must have allowed themselves a wry smile at the spectacle of truculent sycophancy presented by a high Sword nobility which had only months before been leading a Frondeur-like assault on royal power, alongside a Robe magistracy now also zealously on the fast lane back towards political and social conservatism. However, these moves complicated rather than simplified the task of devising rules and regulations for how the Estates General should be elected and run, all the more in that the publication of the Memorandum of the Princes of the Blood caused a downturn in the take-up of government loans. Government resolutions, enshrined in a document curiously called ‘Results of the Council’, issued on 27 December, and then in the electoral regulations of 24 January 1789, were pitched midway between the Vizille programme and the wishes of the conservative nobility. There would be roughly 1,000 deputies, elected within the framework of the bailliages (not through the provincial estates, as many nobles had urged).6 The number of deputies was to be proportional to an area’s population and tax-base. And the size of the Third Estate deputation would match those of the other two orders combined: the ‘doubling of the Third’ had been conceded. The issue of voting procedures was, however, left up in the air – a significant concession to the nobility, and the occasion for a new hailstorm of popular pamphleteering.

The government’s evident lack of clarity over its objectives for the Estates General boded ill for its ability to manage events. In a memorandum to the king, Malesherbes lamented that a king in the late eighteenth century should ‘convoke the three Orders of the fourteenth century’, instead of calling together ‘the proprietors of a great nation renewed by its civilization’. ‘Seize people’s imagination with an institution which will surprise them and please them, that the nation will approve.’7 Yet the call for a regenerative royal patriotism underestimated the torpor of the king and the deadlock which prevailed on the Royal Council. Rather than aim at imaginative innovation, as Malesherbes urged, so as to bring together the property-owning classes increasingly fractionalized by noble/commoner and aristocrat/anobli tensions, Louis seemed to opt for the divisively ersatz medievalism which he had favoured in his Reims coronation of 1775.8

In some senses it was ironic that in pamphlet and news-sheet, in discussion and debate, the nobility, along with the clergy, were being demonized as ‘the privileged orders’, egotistical obstacles standing in the way of serious reforms. For many individual nobles and clerics played a pivotal role in the crescendo of political criticism. One of the most active ‘patriot’ lobbies, for example, was the socially exclusive cross-class elite grouping called the ‘Society of Thirty’, which from late 1788 met several times a week at the house of the young parletnentaire, Adrien Duport. The ‘Thirty’ (a numerical underestimate, incidentally: around seventy members have been identified) contained only a sprinkling, if a classy one, of non-nobles: men such as the barrister Target, commentators Lacretelle and abbé Siéyès and bankers Clavière and Panchaud. There was a Robe wing to the group drawn from the Paris Parlement, though much of this drifted off towards conservativism in early 1789. The bulk of the membership was formed by overlapping sets of ‘patriot’ nobles – dukes and peers (d’Aiguillon, Noailles, etc.), ‘Americans’ (like Lafayette and the Lameth brothers), other military officers plus liberals such as Condorcet, La Rochefoucauld-Liancourt, Dupont de Nemours, Roederer and Mirabeau.

These men were well habituated to politics – but politics of many sorts. They had been involved in a variety of reform projects in the past: Dupont de Nemours had worked with Calonne, for example, Lacretelle alongside Malesherbes, and Morellet with Brienne. The mere fact that such a variegated group had sunk their differences – or at least chosen to come together as a group to argue out strategy – highlighted a certain defensiveness in their posture towards a government which looked far more threatening to contemporaries than it usually has to historians. The threat of the government opting for a bankruptcy which would ruin the rentier class, destroy social and political bonds and leave the path open for a new, tyrannical state power which would make John Law’s System look a plaything in comparison seemed real – and worryingly so.

The diversity of political experience on which the members of the Society of Thirty could draw – plus the fact that many were freemasons too, while a good number had belonged to the mesmerist movement – helped the group establish links and contacts in the nationwide dissemination of pamphlets and literature which the Society now undertook. ‘Patriot’ or ‘national’ literature, as it came to be known, called not merely for a patching-up of existing constitutional practices, but for the construction of a new, more truly national framework, encompassing a liberal constitutional regime, with a limited monarchy and a declaration of rights. The most powerful, as well as the most influential, text in this regard by one of the Society’s members was the famous pamphlet What is the Third Estate?, published by the cleric abbé Siéyès in January 1789. The answer (and the emphasis) he provided to his own question – ‘EVERYTHING’ – was symptomatic of the radical changes afoot. Siéyès contrasted the enormity of the contribution of the Third Estate to the wealth and prosperity of the nation with the parasitic and selfish role of the two ‘privileged orders’. Yet if in terms of production and utility, the Third Estate was ‘everything’, politically, in contrast, it amounted to ‘NOTHING’ – and this needed to change. In an act of transformative political will, the nation should look for a lead to representatives of the truly useful groups within society, which he itemized as agriculture, industry, the mercantile interest, ‘services pleasant to the person’ and the public services of the army, the law, the church and the bureaucracy – not a bad description, in fact, of the developing social constituency of the ‘national’ party. ‘Subtract the privileged orders’, he urged, in a phrase which combined arithmetical sophistication with great mobilizing shrewdness, ‘and the nation would not be less but more.’9

No text played a greater role in the reassignment of meaning to the term ‘privilege’ than What is the Third Estate?. A sea-change in meaning which had been detectable in the polemics of the Maupeou years was now complete. ‘Freedom’ and ‘liberty’ were no longer the synonyms of ‘privilege’ but its antonyms. ‘Privilege’ now denoted a sectional and selfish right of possession prejudicial to the natural freedoms of fellow citizens who formed the nation. ‘Each man must forget himself’, urged Target, in phrases which evoked the debates over civic and corporative rights prior to 1789, ‘ … detach himself from his individual existence, renounce all corporative spirit (esprit de corps), belong only to the greater society and be a child of the fatherland.’10 Corporative privileges might have been ‘useful against kings’, but had become ‘detestable against nations’, as Mirabeau had it. This semantic modulation was coextensive with a shift from historical justifications for rights to natural law traditions.11 Whereas noble groupings still tended to think historically and to elaborate myths of national origins debated from Boulainvilliers onwards, canny patriots like Siéyès had realized that this was an argument which only the nobility could win, and so began to edge towards a more functional approach which stressed the indefeasibility of individual rights in nature. History for Siéyès was ‘the [dark] night of ferocity and barbarity’. As another pamphlet put it, ‘we ought to distrust the mania for proving what ought to happen by what has occurred; for it’s precisely what has occurred that we’re complaining about’.12 If there was a historical element to this type of argument it was to show that the French nation had somehow grown up to an age of reason since 1614: ‘would the garment of 1614 fit us any better’, demanded the Breton lawyer, Lanjuinais, ‘than the garment of a child fits a man in the prime of life?’13 The language of the pamphlets slipped from juridical terms, ‘restoration’ and ‘revival’, to the more biologically (or – significantly perhaps, considering the Jansenist roots of the patriot cause – theologically) ‘natural’ word ‘regeneration’.

Popular caricatures circulating over the spring and summer of 1789 portrayed a nobleman and an ecclesiastic in fright at the sudden wakening of a slumbering lion – representing, of course, the Third Estate or, more generally, the People, breaking the chains of their former enslavement. The image is arresting in a number of ways: the prise de conscience of the Third Estate; all three orders seen as the principal players in the unfolding drama; the lion-like strength and virtue of the People; and the identification of the two ‘privileged orders’ as likely victims of popular awakening. Perhaps most striking of all, however, is an absence: that of the king. The only sovereign in sight is the king of the jungle – the awakening People. The body of the nation was no longer being viewed as inhering in the royal body, but as separate from it, and comprising three estates (or possibly – depending how hungry the lion was – a single, leonine body). The unfolding political and social struggle set class against class, with the monarch as bystander and, perhaps, endorser of popular victory over the privileged orders.

In the impassioned whirligig of pre-Estates General debate, the French Nation was being reimagined not as the corporative, vertically arranged society of orders but as a more egalitarian society of ‘citizens’ diffused throughout the public sphere. The triumph of civic discourses made corporative self-justifications appear unpatriotically selfish and sectional. A doom-laden question-mark now attached to those who had hitherto most enjoyed the illicit fruits of privilege. For the quixotic Languedocian nobleman the comte d’Antraigues, ‘the Third Estate is the People, and the People are the Foundation of the State: it is the State itself, while the other orders are only parts of it’. Similarly, according to a Provençal pamphleteer in late 1788, the king’s self-ascribed role as ‘the nurturing father of the state’ had passed from the monarch to the Third Estate.14 There was no question as yet of republicanism being on the agenda, other than in the old, weak sense of a res publica or commonwealth to which both ruler and ruled owed allegiance. The fervent hope of all was that the monarch would follow the promptings of public opinion, and could be counted on against ‘despotic’ aristocratic cronies. A post-absolutist age seemed to be on the horizon.

In a sense, the construction of the nobility as a dangerous leech on the body politic in the electoral campaign of 1788–9 was Figaro’s revenge. Images of the selfish aristocrat and courtier during the reign of Louis XVI had fanned the flames of diffuse anti-noble sentiment within society. Anti-nobilism was given added plausibility and edge, moreover, by sectional bitterness evident in provincial politicking in late 1788 and early 1789. The nobility might have started the process of reform, but – like the Paris Parlement – now seemed to be pulling the ladder up after themselves, and becoming more rather than less intransigent. The Memorandum of the Princes in December 1788 seemed less a whimper in the wings than a campaign platform for a resurgent nobility. The liberal ‘Society of Thirty’ found itself competing against the pro-aristocratic propaganda put out by a secretive conservative caucus, the ‘Society of One Hundred’, which was organized by turncoat Duval d’Eprémesnil, and which probably had more direct influence in many regions than the ‘patriots’. In Dauphiné and Franche-Comté, nobles within the renovated provincial estates excluded any noble who did not have a fief from entering their ranks. Similar noble bloody-mindedness in the Breton estates caused anoblis to be driven out into the arms of the Third Estate. The hyper-wealthy merchant Jacques Cottin, ennobled by purchase of a venal royal secretaryship, for example, was excluded from the noble order – and went on to organize anti-noble lobbying in his native Nantes for elections to the Estates General. In nearby Rennes, inter-class tension led to street fighting in January 1789.

The nobility proved unable to master the electoral campaign. Framed for the sedate routines of the late medieval period, the rules of election, when adapted to the eighteenth century’s communications networks, ‘electrified’ (that word was used) political opinion across the whole nation. Some 100,000 copies of the electoral procedures, agreed on 24 January 1789, were disseminated. They inaugurated the most ambitious exercise in political consultation in French history hitherto – indeed, in world history hitherto. It is easy from the vantage point of the twenty-first century to highlight the democratic deficit: a tripartite electoral process, the absence of women,15 procedural shortcuts which disenfranchised many of the poor and so on. Even so, the process was extraordinarily wide-ranging. All nobles within each bailliage met together and chose their deputies for the Estates. Procedures for the First and Third Estates were more complicated. Monastic houses sent delegates to the clergy’s bailliage assemblies, though bishops and the secular clergy attended in person. The system for the Third Estate was particularly complex. Beneath the level of 200-odd bailliage assemblies, there was a sprawling structure of preliminary assemblies: at parish level in the countryside, but with more ornate procedures for towns, including electoral meetings for professional associations and trade guilds as well as parishes and sections. There was no property franchise – any male over twenty-five years old could be involved in the procedures (as long as he was on the tax rolls and not a servant, an actor or a bankrupt). Even though many individuals either chose not to turn up to assemblies or else were shouldered aside by wealthier individuals within a community, the scale of consultation was extraordinarily wide.

This huge electorate was, moreover, positively urged to speak for itself. The electoral regulation of 24 January 1789 stated that ‘His Majesty wishes that everyone, from the extremities of his realm and from the most remote dwelling places, may be assured that his desires and claims will reach Him.’16 As well as electing delegates and deputies, each cell within this vast honeycombed structure was invited to express views on reforms needing to be undertaken. As far as we can judge, the clear majority of electoral assemblies availed themselves of the right to form ‘books of grievances’ (cahiers des doléances). Indeed, they often saw this part of the process as more important than the election of candidates to convey them onwards. A good proportion – about half of the generalcahiers of the bailliages – were published at the expense of their collective authors.

The cahiers de doléances provide a matchless snapshot of the state of the nation’s hopes and fears on the eve of major political transformation. It was emphatically not, however, an opinion poll, and it bore the marks of its immediate context as well as of longer-term attitudinal shifts and social structures. Elections were taking place in March and April 1789, when an economic crisis which had originated the previous summer was playing out, and this gave a powerful socio-economic twist to debates which hitherto had been largely political and constitutional. As we have seen, the 1780s had proved a tough decade for some sectors of the agrarian economy.17 The 1787 harvest was poor, and its effects were amplified by an appalling hailstorm on 13 July 1788 which had destroyed crops from Normandy to the Toulousain. Grain, vines and orchards all suffered – only to suffer again in the winter from extremely cold weather, followed by a damaging thaw which inhibited circulation. The price of bread and firewood virtually doubled between September 1788 and February 1789, and though this meant there were speculative profits to be made by those producers who held a surplus, the number of individuals in that position was far lower than during other eighteenth-century crises. The money famine triggered by the counterfeiting scandal of 1786 also contributed to a slump in consumer demand for manufactured goods, which led to lay-offs and a spate of business failures. The downturn in many industries in the late 1780s initiated by the Anglo-French Trade Treaty had already reduced employment possibilities for urban and rural workers alike. By 1789, observers were reporting 25,000 unemployed silk workers in Lyon, 10–12,000 idle textiles workers in Rouen and Abbeville respectively, to whom were added thousands more in the surrounding villages. Half a century of market integration and communication improvement, plus the government’s administrative experience at relief operations, ensured that the crisis remained at the level of dearth rather than outright famine. The countryside was not emptied of starving individuals as they had been in 1709, but remained full of hungry, angry and anxious peasants. Necker deployed a good deal of energy in buying grain abroad to alleviate hunger and shortages. Even so, there was a limit to what government could do. Rural paupers hit the road in large numbers, and the highways of France came to be covered by beggars and vagrants seeking work, hand-outs and shelter. A lot, therefore – including the social restabilization of rural France – was riding on the 1789 harvest.

Popular hopes for political reform were thus given an added charge by fears and anxieties deriving from the economic situation. This translated into grain- and bread-related disturbances on the pattern of the 1775 ‘Flour War’. Starting with attacks on bakers’ shops in towns in Brittany in January, riots became widespread over the electoral period of March and April in Flanders in the north and, in the Midi, in Dauphiné, Provence, Languedoc and the Guyenne. To keep the peace, government deployed troops, and though the latter’s morale started to fray, the army held good. The problem of order was exacerbated by the ‘moral economy’ convictions of many rioters, who demanded a fair price for bread and sought out local grain supplies through taxation populaire. They now claimed, moreover, that their actions had somehow been legitimized by the king. ‘People everywhere are attacking priests, nobles and bourgeois,’ Necker was informed by a worried Intendant of Provence (whose jurisdiction witnessed over fifty disturbances between March and June). ‘Peasants ceaselessly proclaim that the destruction and pillaging is in line with the king’s wishes.’18 On 27–8 April, Paris was racked by the so-called ‘Réveillon riots’, in which a misinterpreted remark attributed to the eponymous wallpaper manufacturer to the effect that wages needed to come down sparked a severe bout of rioting in the industrial Faubourg Saint-Antoine area. It was put down by the Gardes-Françaises regiment with around fifty insurgents killed or wounded. (With telling lack of political acumen, the king blamed the Paris Parlement for the riot.)

The chance conjunction of grave economic crisis with the most extensive exercise in political consultation in the early modern period provided an explosive context for the framing of popular demands. The king had offered a dialogue with his people, and his people took him at his word, supplying a veritable logorrhoea of complaint: parish cahiers managed on average around forty doléances, nobles 158, Third Estate bailliages 234. Expressions of loyalty to the king suggested a good deal of strategic thinking, for one did not bite the hand that was promising to feed: ‘it was necessary to be cautious’, a Third Estate deputy later recalled, ‘so as not to frighten despotism too much’.19 Beneath a veneer of respect, however, the cahiers talked the language of citizens rather than subjects, and were more prone to preach the sacred rights of the nation then the sacred person of the monarch. True to his mood of inspirational torpor, Necker refrained from influencing the procedures, even chastising local royal officials who attempted to do so. Budding politicians did their best to shape popular opinion. Model cahiers were circulated widely to try to consolidate the culture of complaint, yet enjoyed relatively little success. Those which the duc d’Orléans had Siéyès write, and then had sent out in droves, seem not to have influenced even the peasant communities on his own domains, let alone anyone else, though some urban cahiers sent out into their rural hinterland did produce a measure of imitation. In general, however, peasant assemblies seem to have known how to discriminate between their own views and those which others wished to foist upon them.

Peasant cahiers were invariably the most localist of those drafted in the spring of 1789. The rights of provinces and the big political and constitutional issues debated in extenso at bailliage assemblies were outside the field of vision of most peasant cahiers, nor did the latter call for the overthrow of the local power of the nobility and the clergy (a programme they would actually enact within a matter of months through insurrectionary means). Peasants grasped that the cahier consultation was a ‘weapon of the weak’,20which dictated expressions of gratitude rather than threats of revolt. Consequently, they spoke the language of the parish pump, appearing most at ease with concretely itemizing their burdens and dramatizing their sufferings rather than exigently specifying the manner of their relief: ‘We beg His Majesty to have pity on our farmland because of the hail we have had,’ was the sweeping imprecation of the peasants of Menouville in the Paris basin.21 Yet despite the deference and apparent conservatism of their demands, overall the peasant cahiers constituted a corrosive assault on the institutions and local beneficiaries of the Bourbon polity. Three-quarters of peasants’ cahiers demanded an alleviation of royal, seigneurial or ecclesiastical impositions, and eight of the ten most frequently found demands related to tax burdens. Peasant attachment to a moral economy spilled over into a kind of moral fiscality. It was not the fact of state taxation which peasants opposed. Even though there were more demands for lower state taxes than any other complaint, linguistic analysis reveals a general equation between the terms ‘citizen’ and ‘tax-payer’. Yet if tax-paying was taken for granted, what offended most was taxation whose imposition was arbitrary or erratic and which served to enrich intermediaries (the General Farm was a particular target in this respect). Even though much of their protest focused on the state, they were far more critical of nobles and clerics than their peasant forebears who had formulated cahiers in 1614. It was – again – the unfairness of seigneurs’ exactions (which contrasted with the diminution of the services which seigneurs actually provided) which irritated the most. Symbolic of their resentments was the way in which insouciant lords allowed their pigeons and doves to ruin peasant crops, while prohibiting any right to resist.22 By the same token, there were fewer complaints against the ecclesiastical tithe in localities in which the bulk of the monies stayed within the community and could be recirculated as charity or employment; it was when the crops simply disappeared off to the towns that peasants got upset. The peasantry were more than sufficiently attuned to the legalistic culture of the Bourbon polity not to call for the overthrow of the whole system. They did, however, look for substantial reforms, and urged either redemption or even (in around a quarter of cases) abolition of seigneurial levies of one sort or another. Under the same moralizing prism, the towns also sometimes came in for criticism as homes of usurious money-lenders, feudal lawyers and surveyors, and ruthless manufacturers profiting from exploitatively cheap rural labour.

The assemblies at which peasant cahiers were composed tended to be socially skewed towards the wealthier landowners – there were often few wage-earners present, while the very poor were routinely excluded in most places. This social filtration continued higher up in the consultation process too. The bailliage assemblies of the Third Estate were very much the creature of the urban bourgeoisie, plus any anoblis who had been ejected from the noble assemblies. The anti-urban complaints of many peasant communities came out in the wash, as did many anti-seigneurial grievances. This highlighted the fact that many urban bourgeois benefited from the seigneurial system, but was also in part a reflection of the Third Estate’s wish that the targets of complaint should not be excessively parochial, and should link up to the broader concept of the ‘nation’. The call for regular meetings of the Estates General with power over taxation issues was widespread. This often opened out into a more general attack on forms of privilege injurious to the bourgeoisie’s status and careers or which were perceived as humiliatingly demeaning. Tax equality was also supported in many noble cahiers, but the Third Estate was more emphatic in its demands for equality before the law, the abolition of venality and equality in state careers such as the army. They also urged the removal of internal barriers to free trade (though, sensitive to the impact of the Anglo-French Trade Treaty, they enjoined protection from foreign competition). Peasant cahiers often showed impatience with the market; those of the Third Estate were impatient only with obstacles placed upon it.

If the content of the cahiers reflected a process of social filtration, this was even truer of the composition of the delegations mandated by the bailliage electoral assemblies to convey their wishes to the Estates General in Versailles. The Third Estate delegation of 604 members contained not a single peasant or working man. Those actively engaged in economic activity (merchants and manufacturers for the most part) made up a solid corps of some ninety deputies, to whom could be added around forty landowners. These were far outnumbered by the more vocal and articulate professional bourgeoisie: there was a score of medical men, but lawyers made up no less than a quarter of the 648 deputies elected, and office-holders of one sort or another around a half. Altogether, the Third Estate deputies comprised the different elements of the educated upper fraction of the urban elite – a fact which did not escape the critical scrutiny of peasants and working men. ‘Among the representatives chosen from the order of the Third Estate’, wailed an anonymous Parisian pamphleteer in the Complaints of the Poor People addressed to the Estates General in late spring, ‘there is not one from our class; and it seems as if everything has been done for the sake of rich men and property-owners.’23 The indirect form of election to the Estates General for the Third Estate had thus papèred over a major line of division – between the rich and poor.

Elections for the clergy and nobility were more direct, with the result that both the contents of their cahiers and their elected delegates were less ideologically and socially unified than those of the Third Estate. The clergy universally expected Catholicism to remain the centre of French life, and some felt that the toleration recently accorded to Protestants should be reversed. The biggest division showing up within the ecclesiastical order, however, was between the upper and the lower clergy. The numerical predominance of the latter ensured a more solid representation than they could ever dream of having at the prelate-dominated Assembly of the Clergy: around two-thirds of ecclesiastical deputies in the Estates General were parish priests, numbering 192 as against fifty-one bishops within a total delegation of 295. The nobility’s bailliage assemblies were also marked by divisions. The exclusion of anoblis and the presence of large numbers of country gentry (around a quarter of the delegation as a whole) gave the meetings a very provincial and at times yokelish ethos. The most striking feature of the delegation as a whole was the triumph that it represented for the noblesse de race. Although maybe one-third of the nobility overall in 1789 had received their status since 1700, and another one-third since 1600, no fewer than 80 per cent of the Estates General delegation had been ennobled before 1600 (and nearly three-quarters overall in the Middle Ages). The Robe magistracy, who over the century had borne aloft the interests of the order in national politics, was sidelined as a result: the Sword outnumbered the Robe in the nobility’s delegation eight to one. Around fifty of the 282 deputies in the delegation were liberal aristocrats (including a good admixture from the Society of Thirty), to whom could be added around forty liberal country gentlemen. Some seventy-five had served as soldiers, adding to the Estates General’s professional orientation.

Noble cahiers reflected this degree of fragmentation. They often showed a good deal of consensus with the wishes of their local Third Estate assembly on constitutional, financial and personal freedom matters. Those assemblies where the gentry element dominated, however, tended to dig in their heels over the privilege issue, attached disproportionate importance to symbolic emblems of their superiority, which irritated the bourgeoisie (such as wearing swords and castellating their residences) and were recalcitrant to major reform of the seigneurial system. In contradistinction to Third Estate cahiers, the nobles spoke the language of ‘preservation’ and ‘maintenance’ rather than ‘suppression’ or ‘abolition’. Careful content analysis of general cahiers suggests a pattern whereby there was relative consensus between the Third Estate and the nobility in the regions which were pays d’élection (and where thereby administrative centralization was more pronounced), which had been more profoundly penetrated by capitalism and improved communications, and whose economic life was dominated by smallish towns. In contrast, there were greater signs of conflict between the Second and Third Estates in big cities, in peripheral regions (including most pays d’état) where traditional elites retained a good deal of provincial power, and in regions in which capitalism had made fewer inroads.

Surveying this extraordinary scene of national decision-making, Gouverneur Morris, US envoy in Paris, felt that his host country could be compared with his own fledgling homeland: France was ‘a nation which exists in hopes, prospects and expectations – the reverence for antient establishments gone, existing forms shaken to the very foundation and a new order of things about to take place, in which perhaps even to the very names, all former institutions will be disregarded’.24 It was not mere reform which was on the cards, but wholesale political regeneration.

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