Modern history


The Estates-General September 1788–July 1789

THE freak storm which swept across northern France on 13 July 1788, with hailstones so big that they killed men and animals and devastated hundreds of square miles of crops on the eve of harvest, came half-way through a year of catastrophic weather. Even out of the storm’s path the harvest proved poor, thanks to a long spring drought which had failed to swell the grain. Unusually, these conditions affected almost every region of the kingdom. Summer disasters were followed in the first months of 1789 by the longest, coldest winter within living memory. Northern France was in the grip of snow and ice from December to April, while in Provence and Languedoc delicate vines and olive-trees were killed in their thousands by frost. The whole of Louis XVI’s reign had been a time of economic difficulties, with wildly fluctuating grain, fodder, and grape harvests causing repeated disruption. Even good crops did not necessarily restore stability. A bumper harvest in 1785 had made grain cheap and abundant the year after, but any remaining surpluses were dissipated in 1787 by the removal of all controls from the grain trade in one of the few components of Calonne’s reform plan to meet no educated opposition. Necker, on resuming office in August 1788, immediately reimposed controls, but by then the damage was done. Grain prices had already begun to climb, and they went on doing so throughout the winter. They peaked in Paris, at their highest level since Louis XlV’s time, on 14 July 1789.

Steep rises in the price of grain, flour, and bread posed serious problems for that vast majority of Frenchmen who were wage-earners. In normal times bread absorbed anything between a third and a half of an urban worker’s wage, and from landless agricultural labourers it might take even more. As prices climbed over the spring of 1789 the proportion rose to two-thirds for the best-off and perhaps even nine-tenths for the worst. In these circumstances people had less to spend on other foodstuffs, heating, and lighting. So that bitter winter was particularly miserable even for those not thrown out of work entirely by frozen rivers, blocked roads, and immobilized mills and workshops. ‘The wretchedness of the poor people during this inclement season’, wrote the Duke of Dorset from Paris on 8 January 1789,1 ‘surpasses all description.’ There was certainly nothing to spare for consumer goods; and this produced a dramatic slump in demand for industrial products. In some areas production fell by up to 50 per cent, and there were widespread redundancies in textile towns like Rouen, Lyons, and Nîmes. Between 20,000 and 30,000 silk workers were said to be without employment in Lyons; while spinning and weaving as an extra source of income for hard-pressed country people disappeared as goods became unsaleable. People blamed new technology for undercutting the products of more expensive traditional methods. In Rouen spinning-jennies were smashed and workshops producing with them sacked. Above all they blamed another of Calonne’s legacies, the 1786 commercial treaty with Great Britain, which opened up the French market to British manufacturers. The agreement only came into operation in mid-1787, so that British imports, though undeniably cheaper and of higher quality, scarcely had time to do all the damage attributed to them by 1788 and 1789. But they clearly aggravated an already serious industrial depression, and provided one more reason, along with free trade in grain, for the working populace to blame the government. Over the winter of 1788 and spring of 1789 hardly anybody in France regretted the passing of the old political order. It had failed or let down too many people. Everybody assumed that change could only be for the better. But the process of working out what change there was to be took place in an atmosphere made tense by this acute and worsening economic crisis.

Necker’s return to power was greeted by several weeks of popular jubilation on the streets of Paris. Bonfires were lit, and his fallen predecessors were burned in effigy. On the Pont Neuf, excited crowds stopped passing coaches and forced those inside to emerge and bow to the statue of the legendary ‘good king’ Henry IV. But symbols of authority, such as guard posts and the houses of prominent officials, were also attacked, and troops were called out several times to clear the streets. They fired into the crowds, killing several demonstrators and wounding many more. The climax of these commotions came during the fourth week of September, when the parlement returned in triumph from its exile. Necker knew that nothing less than the abandonment of the previous ministry’s entire programme would satisfy public demand, and the recall of the parlements with all their old powers was the keystone of this policy. Accordingly, the Paris parlement reconvened on 24 September, amid renewed demonstrations and further bloodshed. The court’s first act was to ban all further tumults, while opening a judicial inquiry into the conduct of the police authorities. The magistrates realized, as they watched the price of bread inching upwards, that public effervescence could easily slip beyond anybody’s control. The return of the provincial parlements in the course of October, however, proved less turbulent. The days of bonfires, fireworks, and parades that greeted the restoration of the martyred ‘senators’ passed off in good humour. The first edict that the restored courts were required to register was the convocation of the Estates-General, which, in a further attempt to boost confidence, Necker now brought forward to January 1789.

No parlement hesitated to register. This was, after all, what they had been clamouring for for over a year. But the Parisian magistrates remained deeply suspicious of the government’s intentions. They remembered that in July Brienne had invited all and sundry to propose ideas for how the Estates should be constituted, while reserving the king’s own position. The edict now before them said nothing about the form of the assembly, or how it was to be chosen. Many wondered whether the intention was to establish a body as docile and powerless as the provincial assemblies had proved to be. It was to thwart such despotic wishes in advance that the parlement declared, in its formula of registration, that the constitution of the Estates-General must follow the last recorded precedent. It should meet ‘according to the forms observed in 1614’.

In 1614 the Estates-General (which had achieved very little) had met in three almost numerically equal but separately elected chambers representing the orders of clergy, nobility, and third estate. They had voted separately, by order. Throughout eighteen months of clamour for the Estates, hardly anybody appears to have been aware of this, or thought the question worth investigation. Even now it was several days before the truth became common knowledge. But once it did, the implications, if this precedent were followed, were obvious. The nobility and clergy would be enormously over-represented, both numerically and in terms of their share of the national wealth. Together they would always be able to outvote the third estate.

None of the provincial assemblies established in 1778 or 1787 had followed these principles. In them, third-estate numbers had been doubled, and voting was by head. Even the ancient but still active estates of Languedoc had double third-estate representation. And fresh in everybody’s mind, above all, was the example set in Dauphiné since the summer. In several provinces the noblemen who led the protests against the Lamoignon coup turned to the idea of resurrecting long-defunct provincial estates as a better shield against despotism than the parlements had proved to be. When, in the aftermath of the Day of Tiles, 106 noblemen of Dauphiné assembled to draft a petition to the king calling for provincial representation to be restored, they found themselves supported by the three orders of the city of Grenoble. At the prompting of the non-noble leaders of this urban movement, the judge Mounier and the young Protestant advocate Barnave, it was agreed to summon a meeting of representatives of the three orders of the entire province. They came together on 21 July in a nobleman’s mansion at Vizille, calling for the Estates-General, the return of the parlements, and the restoration of the province’s estates. Third-estate deputies at Vizille outnumbered the other two orders put together; and all present agreed that in the restored estates the third should be double the size of the other two, all deputies should be elected, and voting should be by head. On 2 August Brienne, now desperate for support from any quarter, agreed to revive the Dauphiné estates. Naturally enough other provinces without estates at once began to clamour for similar treatment, on similar terms; but before he fell Brienne only had time to authorize further progress in Dauphiné itself. He announced an assembly of the three orders of the province to draw up a constitution for the restored estates. It met at Romans on 5 September, and by the end of the month had produced a plan incorporating all the Vizille principles. It offered an obvious model for the Estates-General, beside which the forms of 1614 looked absurdly retrograde. By the beginning of October the pamphleteers of Paris were falling over themselves to point this out.

Nor did Necker do anything to discourage them. On taking office he released all journalists imprisoned under Brienne for writing antiministerial tracts, and made it clear that he no longer intended to operate traditional controls on the press and publishing. He clearly believed that the wider the public debate the freer he would be in making final decisions about the form the Estates would take. But he had not expected the parlements’ intervention, and he was anxious not to let it pre-empt the issue. This was why, on 5 October, he announced that the Assembly of Notables would be reconvened in November to advise the king on all the problems involved. The effect was to fan public excitement still further and concentrate the attention of all educated men on the question of how best the nation could be represented. And since the parlement had thrown its weighty support behind the forms of 1614, the debate was initially conducted in terms of them. From the very start it was clear that most non-nobles found them unacceptable. How could what was good for Dauphiné not be good for the nation as a whole? And what were the real motives of the parlement? Was its intention merely to preserve the inequitable privileges of the first two orders, while keeping the most numerous and productive citizens in permanent political subjection? Now at last hostility to the ‘privileged orders’, which Calonne had tried so unsuccessfully to foment in March 1787, began to develop; and by the time the Notables convened on 6 November many of them were thoroughly alarmed. The magistrates of the parlement, so recently national heroes, now found themselves treated with hostility and suspicion, as did anybody who spoke up for the forms of 1614. By now, something like a nation-wide consensus seemed to be emerging in favour of ‘doubling the third’ and vote by head.

Nor did all nobles oppose it. In fact one largely noble group did a good deal to consolidate the consensus during the sittings of the Notables. Another of Brienne’s prohibitions revoked by Necker was the ban on political clubs. Throughout September and October they mushroomed in Paris, and early in November a particularly distinguished group began to meet at the house of one of the parlement’s leading radical magistrates, Adrien Duport. Later it would be remembered as the Society of Thirty, although its membership was nearer sixty. Drawn from the cream of the capital’s legal, literary, and social life, it included five peers, two dozen magistrates, celebrities like Lafayette, the mathematician Condorcet, and Target, the leading advocate of the Paris bar. There was Talleyrand, the newly appointed bishop of Autun; and Mirabeau, who described the society as ‘a conspiracy of decent folk’ (honnêtes gens). Nine-tenths of them were noblemen, but their aim was not to defend noble interests. What they opposed was the forms of 1614, and privileges of all sorts. ‘War on the privileged and privileges, that’s my motto’, Mirabeau had written in August,2 ‘Privileges are useful against Kings, but are contemptible against Nations and ours will never have any public spirit until it is rid of them.’ The society now bent all its efforts towards whipping up this public spirit by deliberately playing on the social anxieties and resentments of the bourgeoisie. In pamphlets commissioned by the society, and distributed in both capital and provinces at the affluent members’ expense, the middle classes were assured that the forms of 1614 were a plot by the privileged orders to keep them down. Typical enough was the Essai sur les Privilèges by the salon-haunting canon Sieyès of Chartres. Denouncing privilege as parasitic and socially divisive, creating unearned expectations, he implied (quite misleadingly) that privilege was a noble and clerical monopoly. Meanwhile the society was also circulating model petitions around the provinces on which municipalities could base appeals to Necker for doubling the third and vote by head; and in the course of November a national petitioning movement took shape. In towns all over the country the municipal authorities came under pressure from respectable bourgeois, who had often discussed the issues and concerted their actions in local literary clubs and discussion circles, to assemble town meetings to press the king for equitable third-estate representation. By the end of December over 800 petitions had been received. All this activity proved self-accelerating, and was soon far beyond the control of societies like Duport’s which had done so much to focus it. ‘Here one great issue absorbs all other objects’, an anonymous Parisian correspondent could write to Poland by 24 November.3 ‘There is no talk of anything but the claims of the third estate; nothing is written but pamphlets about the form of the Estates-General.’

The second Assembly of Notables met on 6 November against this background. It was not expected to sit for long, but in the event it went on until 12 December, amid mounting public agitation. A handful of new members had been added to those summoned in 1787, but they did not affect the Assembly’s overwhelmingly noble character. Necker confronted it with fifty-four questions about the form of the Estates, but by now the public was only interested in two. Strenuous efforts were made by certain members, led by the elder of the king’s two brothers, Provence, and Orléans, hungry as ever for popular acclaim, to persuade the Assembly to reject the forms of 1614. But most members seem to have been scared by the popular passions aroused since September, and they feared that if the traditional forms of the Estates were abandoned, the nobility and clergy might be swamped. And so only 33 Notables voted in favour of doubling the third, with 111 against. Vote by head, it is true, was only openly opposed by 50, but nobody voted in favour of it. Most thought this issue should be decided by the Estates themselves, once they met. Every word uttered in the second Assembly of Notables was known outside almost at once, and it was being denounced long before it broke up as a mere mouthpiece for the privileged orders. Even when it unanimously reiterated its commitment of 1787 to fiscal equality nobody was impressed. All its long proceedings achieved was to make a meeting of the Estates on 1 January impossible. They were now postponed until April or May, amid suspicions that they might yet not be allowed to convene at all.

Opponents of the forms of 1614 had more success in the unlikely quarter of the parlement of Paris. On 5 December, after a carefully planned lobbying operation by Duport and d’Eprémesnil, now back from his summer-long exile and anxious to retain his popularity, the court was persuaded by a narrow majority to qualify its disastrous declaration of 25 September. All it had meant by the forms of 1614, it now announced, was that the electoral constituencies should be the ancient jurisdictions of bailliages (in the north) and sénéchaussées (in the south). But the narrowness of the majority for this statement was eye-catching, and it was noticed that the parlement had not endorsed the third estate’s claims. And any conciliatory impact the movers of this declaration may have helped to make was eclipsed when, soon after the Notables dispersed, five of the seven princes of the blood petitioned the king not to grant either a doubling of the third or vote by head. The third should be content, they said, with fiscal equality. To give in to their other aspirations under pressure from outrageous public clamour would open the floodgates to attacks on wealth and property as well as privilege. It would lead on to complete destruction of the king’s faithful nobility. The king, however, was still smarting from the ‘noble revolt’ of the previous summer, and regarded his nobility as anything but faithful. He ignored the princes’ petition (which raised a new outcry against the intransigence of the privileged when it appeared in print) and tersely informed the parlement that he was not interested in their views on public affairs. These were now matters between him and the assembled nation—which many took as a hint that in the end the monarch’s natural benevolence would put him on the third estate’s side.

By mid-December Necker knew that crucial decisions could not be put off much longer. Quite apart from the clamour of public debate and pamphleteering in Paris, there was growing confusion in the provinces over the issue of provincial estates. On this the minister obviously had no coherent policy. It was generally expected that estates like those of Dauphiné would soon be established where they did not exist; and there was a widespread assumption that deputies to the Estates-General would be chosen by them. Consequently the form of provincial estates was of particular importance. But few nobles, even if they accepted doubling the third, seemed prepared to abandon vote by order; and where estates already existed they showed no desire to give up traditional forms and procedures. How could the third be effectively doubled in Brittany, where every nobleman enjoyed a right to sit in person, and they regularly turned up in their hundreds? Any practical reform was bound to deprive most noblemen of their time-honoured political rights. Non-noble Bretons had in fact been complaining for years about under-representation in the provincial estates, and they now saw that if the Vizille principles were to be adopted in other provinces their position would become even more glaringly anomalous. So when a meeting of the Breton estates was announced for January, a town meeting in Rennes demanded that it should abolish all tax privileges in the province and widen third-estate representation. Prosperous, commercial Nantes went even further. On 4 November it called for limitation of noble and clerical numbers and demanded that the first two orders agree to these changes in advance or face a strike by third-estate deputies. Meanwhile meetings of other provincial estates were being authorized; and only in Dauphiné, where the pattern elaborated at Romans in September was followed, was there no serious dissension. Elsewhere those with privileged representation showed themselves determined to maintain it, even against fellow members of their own orders. In Provence, Artois, and Franche Comté only certain types of noble had traditionally participated, but they adamantly refused to admit others even for the purpose of electing deputies to the Estates-General. At the same time they spurned third-estate claims to increased representation and open election of members. Inevitably, the disappointed groups deluged the government with petitions.

These were the circumstances in which the first great decision about the Estates-General was taken. Necker spent the whole of the week before Christmas with the king, and on 27 December, in a document entitled Result of the King’s Council of State, he finally pronounced on the central questions in public debate since September. The third estate in the Estates-General was to be doubled. The advice of the Notables was therefore rejected, and the public pressure built up over the autumn had triumphed. The Notables had also opposed allowing deputies to be elected for and by orders other than their own. This, too, Necker ignored, to the alarm of some third-estate supporters who feared that highly placed noble or clerical candidates might be elected by over-deferential commoners. But in one thing he followed the Notables. He did not concede vote by head. He expressed the hope that, once the Estates had met, they would agree to deliberate and vote in common; but it must be by their own free choice. In this way Necker attempted to avoid alienating the first two orders while retaining the good will of the third. And so the popularity he craved so much remained unimpaired. But the price of this achievement was to leave a fundamental issue unresolved. Every elector casting his vote in the subsequent spring was aware that those he was helping to choose would need to confront it before they considered anything else,

The Result of the Council marked the end of the first phase in the electoral campaign. It had witnessed a transformation in the political atmosphere whose speed and scale astonished everyone. Since September public opinion had completely repolarized. The political consensus against despotism, which had exulted in the downfall of Brienne and Lamoignon and brought Necker to new peaks of public idolatry, still existed; but constitutional questions had now been pushed into the background by social ones, and on them the consensus had broken down. The bourgeoisie, hitherto mere spectators in public life, had suddenly realized that they were being offered a permanent role in it, and that by their own efforts they might make it a dominant role. But in the process all their latent resentments and antagonisms towards what were now always described as the privileged orders were aroused and inflamed. Not all those involved in this campaign were members of the third estate. Most of Duport’s society certainly were not. But in their own orders such people remained a minority, and the ferocity of the anti-noble and anti-clerical sentiments soon being widely expressed ensured that they made few further converts. Instead, alarmed nobles and clerics sought protection in the very precedents and privileges that educated commoners were now finding so obnoxious. Bourgeois fury at their intransigence then redoubled. It found its most eloquent expression in January 1789 in Sieyès’s pamphlet What is the Third Estate? which argued that there was no place in a properly constituted nation for privileged groups of any sort. The third estate, which had hitherto counted for nothing in the political order, was in fact everything; for a nation, Sieyès declared, was a body of associates living under a common law, and privileges by definition were exceptions to common law. The nobility were a caste of idle, burdensome usurpers, and there should be no question of allowing them to be chosen as third-estate deputies. Sieyès refused completely to believe in the good faith of nobles who had renounced fiscal privileges, pointing to a whole range of others they had not offered up. He suggested that the third-estate deputies, once elected, should set themselves up without further ado as a national assembly, and have no dealings with the other two orders. By now, indeed, it was a commonplace for the third-estate cause to be called national; and ‘patriotism’, which ever since the crisis of 1771 had meant opposition to despotic government, was increasingly taken over as a label for third-estate aspirations.

What is the Third Estate? was only the most eloquent among hundreds of no less vehement pamphlets denouncing the privileged orders appearing over the winter. And events in certain provinces seemed to bear out all their worst predictions. In Brittany the news of the Result of the Council became known as the third-estate deputies were arriving for the estates. They promptly agreed to transact no business until reform of the estates was accepted by the other two orders. The nobility, who had flocked in in unprecedented numbers for such an important meeting, refused all compromise, and on 3 January a royal order suspended proceedings for a month to allow tempers to cool. The nobility, enraged, continued to deliberate, in the teeth of bitter and increasingly violent denunciations from most of the province’s major towns. When the aristocratic parlement of Rennes forbade illicit municipal assemblies it was ignored, and some of its staunchest traditional supporters, the city’s law students, forsook it to join in the demands for reform of the estates. In an ill-judged attempt to exploit popular animosity towards the well-heeled bourgeois who led the reform movement, certain nobles set their chairmen, servants, and other dependants to organizing demonstrations against reform. On 26 January a vast crowd was assembled in the city centre calling for the maintenance of the Breton constitution and a lowering of the price of bread. It was attacked by bands of patriotic students, and several days of fighting culminated in the nobility being besieged in their meeting hall. In the end they fought their way out, sword in hand, and several people were killed. By the beginning of February the tumults had subsided somewhat; but the estates had achieved nothing, all hope of reconciliation between nobles and third estate in Brittany had gone; and the whole country had witnessed nobles prepared to fight rather than abandon their privileges.

These months also witnessed the emergence of third-estate leaders. Before November 1788 there had hardly been any. Only the names of the foremost Grenoble patriots, Mounier and Barnave, were widely known, and the campaign for doubling the third and vote by head had to be launched and orchestrated by the metropolitan aristocrats of Duport’s society. But once launched it was soon beyond the society’s control, and commoners began to speak for themselves. They wrote pamphlets: Volney’s periodical The People’s Sentinel did much to articulate and focus bourgeois grievances in Brittany, in the south the burden of generations of civil disabilities inspired the pen of the protestant pastor Rabaut de Saint-Étienne, while Robespierre’s first foray into politics was his appealTo the Artesian Nation to abandon the archaic and privilege-ridden structure of the provincial estates of Artois. They organized town meetings and drafted petitions to local, provincial, and central authorities. In Brittany the patriots of Nantes and other cities marshalled bands of volunteers to go to Rennes to fight the ‘iron swords’. And setting the pace of this activity almost everywhere were lawyers. ‘Everything would have been calm in Franche Comté, a bitter Besançon nobleman confided to his diary,4 ‘if ten advocates had been hanged.’ Ever since the end of the first Assembly of Notables the constitutional crisis had revolved around an attempt to browbeat the courts, raising issues to which no lawyer could remain indifferent. And once the Estates-General were won, the problem of their composition was a lawyer’s paradise. Besides, petty judges and advocates were the only members of the third estate with wide experience of public life, and the confidence to speak out which it bred. Such men expected their talents to be recognized and drawn upon in the new political order, resenting any suggestion of limiting their opportunities. Noble insistence on maintaining political privileges reminded them of the pride and arrogance of aristocratic magistrates whom they had all encountered in their professional lives, qualified to sit in judgement not by ability and knowledge, but by birth and wealth. The annals of judicial life in the later eighteenth century were littered with quarrels and clashes between bench and bar, petty and sovereign courts, whose legacy of bitterness, hitherto accepted as one of the unavoidable tribulations of the calling, now surfaced. Further occasions for such antagonisms to work themselves out were provided by the elections of the spring.

The system by which the deputies of 1789 were chosen was extremely complex. Regulations issued on 24 January prescribed that the basic constituencies should be the ancient bailliage and sénéchaussée jurisdictions. In order to ensure a rough parity of size and population, however, smaller (or ‘secondary’) bailliages and sénéchaussées were grouped. There were other exceptions, too. Eight major towns, including Lyons, Rouen, and Paris itself, were accorded separate representation. A number of small districts not granted separate representation initially were also accorded it later after petitions of protest. The greatest exception of all was the treatment of certain pays d’états. The regulation of 24 January effectively ended agitation for reforming or reviving provincial estates by making clear that they would not, contrary to earlier expectations, be the means of electing the national deputies. Nevertheless it was thought prudent to allow this right to the newly constituted estates of Dauphiné, and those of the technically distinct kingdom of Navarre. Brittany might have won it too, had it not been for the bitter quarrels that had marked the last attempts to convene the estates. After that it was decided to elect the Breton third-estate deputies by bailliages, the nobility and clergy choosing theirs in special assemblies representing the whole province.

With these exceptions, each of the 234 constituencies was to have an electoral assembly for each order. Every noble enjoying full transmissible nobility was entitled to participate in the noble assemblies, as was every beneficed clergyman in the clerical ones. Monasteries and chapters, however, were only allowed elected representatives: and the very numbers of the third estate made indirect representation the only possibility. Accordingly, every male taxpayer over 25 had the right to attend a primary assembly, which chose two delegates for every hundred households to sit in the assembly electing the ultimate third-estate deputies. Each constituency was to be represented in the Estates-General by two clerical, two noble, and four third-estate deputies, and choosing them was the main function of the electoral assemblies. But they were also required by tradition to draw up cahiers, or grievance-lists, to guide the deputies in their deliberations. In the third estate every village and every urban guild and corporation was entitled to send one in, and they were conflated at the local electoral assembly into a single cahier for the order. Inevitably in this process many of the concerns of the king’s poorer subjects were edited out. In many districts the ultimate text of cahiers was transparently based on models carefully put together and circulated by patriotic activists. Nevertheless the cahiers produced a picture of the outlook and preoccupations of a whole nation unique in Europe before the twentieth century. And the very fact of being asked to articulate their grievances and aspirations (with the implicit promise of redress) concentrated the minds of everybody involved on the seriousness of what was at stake. Throughout 1788 popular involvement in public affairs had been unprecedented, but still confined to a few major cities. The drafting of the cahiers drew in people throughout the country. The elections of 1789 were the most democratic spectacle ever seen in the history of Europe, and nothing comparable occurred again until far into the next century.

Nor did the government make any serious attempts to influence the outcome. It was rumoured that ministers hoped to use the diplomatic embarrassments created by Mirabeau’s scurrilous Secret History of the Court of Berlin, published in January, to prevent its notorious author from being elected; but if that was so they failed. Necker in any case thought that government interference in the elections would do more harm than good, creating bad blood in an assembly that ought to be inspired by goodwill. And yet the very rules he laid down affected the results in important ways. They ensured that the electoral assemblies of the first estate were dominated by parish priests rather than members of the ecclesiastical corporations who had hitherto monopolized the government of the Church. They excluded from the second-estate assemblies all new nobles whose status had not yet become fully hereditary, and swamped formerly dominant groups, such as courtiers and sovereign court magistrates, with petty nobles of long lineage, slender means, and little public experience. And the indirect system adopted for the third estate effectively eliminated peasants, artisans, and everybody without abundant leisure from the stage at which deputies were chosen, while allowing the possibility of electing members of the other two orders.

The Estates-General were summoned to meet at Versailles on 27 April, and the elections ordered to be completed by then. In the event the Estates did not convene until 5 May, and the last elections were not over until far into July. These late elections, including those of Paris which were only completed in May, were influenced by the course of events in the body to which they were electing. But most went forward in March and April, and their background was continual pamphleteering, prolonged cold weather, and a slowly rising level of popular discontent as the harvest shortfalls of the previous summer pushed bread prices inexorably upwards, and the attendant industrial crisis swelled the ranks of the unemployed. Incidents were reported from all over the country of market-day riots, popular price-fixing, and ransacking of barns, warehouses, monasteries, and country houses where hoarding of grain and flour was suspected. In Provence there was also widespread refusal to pay tithes or taxes, and at Marseilles men of property became so alarmed at the inability of the established authorities to maintain order that on 23 March electors of all three estates combined to take over the city’s government and set up a ‘patriotic guard’ of substantial citizens. It was an idea with an important future nationally, but at this stage many found the overthrow of legitimate authorities shocking.

In any case, though stretched, the normal forces of law and order still seemed capable of preventing popular passions from boiling over completely. This was most graphically shown when, late in April, disorder reached Paris. The outbreak was precipitated by electoral excitement following the first meetings of the sixty districts in which members of the capital’s third-estate electoral assembly were to be chosen, on 21 April. On the twenty-third, as the assembly of the Sainte-Marguérite district was discussing itscahier, one of its more prominent members, the wallpaper manufacturer Reveillon, remarked that the price of bread ought to be brought down to levels that wage-earners on 15 sous a day could afford. Reveillon was well known for his benevolence towards the unemployed, but in the highly charged atmosphere of the occasion his words were interpreted as a call for wage reductions. Similar remarks by Henriot, a saltpetre manufacturer, in another electoral assembly had the same effect. Over the next few days rumours of wage reductions swept the faubourg Saint-Antoine, the capital’s working east end, and on the twenty-seventh Henriot’s house was sacked by angry crowds. In response, troops posted in the district were reinforced, but the next day they were swamped by several thousand rioters who stormed Reveillon’s house and factory and destroyed everything in them. In the evening a strong detachment of the French Guards was brought in and opened fire; after two hours of further tumult the crowd dispersed leaving twenty-five dead and almost as many more wounded. Rumour magnified the casualties to hundreds, and there was much dark talk of plots. This was the atmosphere that greeted the deputies now arriving at Versailles for the opening of the Estates. The rioters were known to have cheered the names of the king, of Necker, and the third estate. But they had also shouted ‘down with the rich!’ as they sacked prominent citizens’ property, and the full force of authority had been deployed too late to prevent them. The capital must have appeared to the deputies even more disturbed than their native provinces.

Who then were these men, in whom the boundless hopes and expectations aroused by months of frenzied debate and discussion were invested? What sort of deputies had the elections produced? The first-estate deputation represented a clear defeat for the established Church hierarchy. Three-quarters of the 303 clerical deputies elected were ordinary parish priests. Only 46 were bishops; so that the nobles, canons, and regulars who had hitherto controlled all the levers of power in the Church were exposed as lacking the confidence of their subordinates. The clerical cahiers reinforced this impression, with demands for higher stipends, abolition of tithe impropriation, unrestricted access to diocesan administrative posts, canonries, and bishoprics, and church government by elected synods. Third-estate propagandists had campaigned hard for such results, and welcomed them as a sign that the clergy would be sympathetic in the Estates to the ‘patriotic’ cause. They paid less attention to issues on which the clergy were united: the need to retain and indeed increase the Church’s control over education, to maintain censorship against the impieties of ‘so-called philosophy’, and to limit the toleration enjoyed by Protestants. In return for the surrender of their fiscal privileges, the clergy expected that the new order would confirm and reinforce the authority of the Catholic Church within the nation. The clerical consensus on these matters far outweighed the order’s internal disagreements about the position of parish priests, but such deeper solidarities escaped the notice of most observers in the excitement of the elections. Their true importance would only emerge at a later stage, as yet scarcely foreseen by anybody.

In the case of the nobility, too, the elections brought rejection of groups hitherto taken for leaders of the order. Courtiers expected almost automatic election. (‘Most of the young Nobility’, reported the Duke of Dorset on 19 February,5 ‘are … quitting this Capital, ambitious of being deputed to the great National Assembly.’) But once in the long-unvisited provinces where their estates lay, they frequently found themselves bitterly opposed by local squires resentful of their lofty ways. Often they were returned with great difficulty, although in the end they did better than the bishops in the clerical order, securing around a third of the representation. Among them were the Duke d’Orléans, and several members of the Society of Thirty such as Lafayette. On the other hand the elections were a complete disaster for the robe nobility of the sovereign courts. Only twenty-two members of this proud, articulate, and self-confident oligarchy secured seats, although they included heroes of the 1788 struggles like Duport, Fréteau, and d’Eprémesnil. But few rough country squires were returned either, despite their showing at the electoral assemblies. The largest contingent among the 322 who sat as noble deputies was made up of town-dwelling scions of old-established provincial families, not poor, but whose only previous experience of public life, if they had any at all, had been in the army. Like the parish clergy, they recognized that they were being presented with a unique opportunity to vent the frustrations and resentments of generations, and many of the noble electoral assemblies were extremely stormy. Some split, returned rival lists of deputies, and drew up rival cahiers. The nobility of Brittany, outraged that their province’s delegation was not to be returned by its estates, voted to boycott the elections, and no Breton nobles ever sat in the Estates-General.

Noble cahiers reflected their authors’ disarray. Only on agreement to give up all fiscal privileges was there near unanimity. A mere 8 per cent of cahiers, it is true, called for voting by head in the Estates; but the number insisting on vote by order on all occasions barely exceeded 40 per cent, the rest being prepared for one form or another of compromise. Nobility, almost 40 per cent thought, should be the reward of services and talent rather than riches; but no other question rallied opinion on a comparable scale. After the Estates met, the noble deputies would polarize into a ‘liberal’ minority of around ninety who were prepared to seek ways of coming to terms with third-estate aspirations, and an intransigent majority. The liberals tended to be younger, more metropolitan, better travelled, and better read; but they were drawn, like their opponents, from right across the social spectrum of the nobility. The second order in the State, therefore, came to the political tests of 1789 in confusion. Prepared and in many ways eager for change, they were nevertheless unnerved by the hostility towards them that had sprung up since the autumn; and, torn apart by internal resentments and snobberies far more complex than those affecting the clergy, they had none of the first order’s deeper unity to fall back on. For all its impressive combination of wealth, power, and place, the French nobility was far weaker, less well organized, and less self-confident than its third-estate opponents imagined. These disadvantages were fully mirrored by the deputies sent to represent it at Versailles.

The third-estate deputies, by contrast, were remarkably homogeneous and united. No peasants or artisans got beyond the first electoral stage, when the minority who voted at all (in Paris, even, only a quarter of the 50,000 or so electors chose to exercise their right) tended to be people of some education and leisure, and to prefer others like themselves. Those who went to the secondary assemblies, not to mention those finally returned for the Estates-General, were expected to pay their own expenses. More important still, the elections were inevitably dominated by people experienced in public speaking, handling meetings, and drafting documents. This meant above all the lawyers and office-holders who had been so conspicuous in all the public agitation since September 1788. Two-thirds of those elected had some form or other of legal qualifications. A quarter were advocates or notaries, among them people like Barnave and Robespierre. Forty-five per cent (294) were holders of venal offices, including many senior judges frombailliage andsénéchaussée courts who had been entrusted by electoral regulations with the organization of the third-estate assemblies. In contrast there were only 99 deputies involved in trade or industry. Only 9 members of the other two orders benefited from Necker’s decision to allow electors to choose outside their orders, although they included Sieyès from the clergy and Mirabeau from the nobility. But although the third-estate contingent boasted these and other celebrities who had come to public notice during the struggles of the preceding two years—men like Mounier, the leader of the Dauphiné patriots, Target the pride of the Parisian bar, and eminent scientists like the astronomer Bailly—most of the deputies were unknown and untested outside their own localities. Apart from their similar social and educational background, what united them more than anything was their commitment to voting by head and civil and fiscal equality. Any doubts about this commitment did not survive the first days of the Estates’ meeting.

The opening session of the Estates-General eventually took place on 5 May, amid great pomp and ceremonial. After a solemn service of dedication the afternoon before, the three orders processed to the largest hall in Versailles in the costume dictated by precedent—the clergy in their vestments, the nobility in silk, swords, cloth-of-gold waistcoats, and white-plumed hats, and the third in sober black. Huge and expectant crowds watched the parade, and it would probably have been impossible for any of the opening speeches to match the hopes placed in them. But nobody had expected to be bored, which was what the speeches of the Keeper of the Seals and Necker achieved. The former was completely inaudible; and the latter’s voice gave out half an hour into his three-hour oration, which then had to be read out for him. Nor, despite repeated bursts of enthusiastic applause, were the issues on everybody’s mind squarely addressed. While insisting that the Estates had not been convoked for reasons of financial necessity, Necker nevertheless concentrated most of his remarks on fiscal and budgetary matters. He promised royal and ministerial support for a whole range of administrative and judicial reforms, although he hinted that in the last resort the king would retain the power to reject measures he did not like. But on the question of voting he continued to sit on the fence. While recommending common voting on the most momentous or urgent issues, he declared that on others vote by order might be more appropriate; and in any case the question must be settled not by authority, but by the free agreement of the clergy and nobility to give up vote by order. They could only do this by first convening separately to verify the election returns of their respective orders. Over the preceding week the air had been full of far from groundless rumours that a party at Court led by Artois and the queen were pressing for Necker’s dismissal; and shrewder members of his audience guessed that in drafting the speech the minister had not enjoyed a free hand. But most—on all sides—were disappointed by his equivocations, and extremists left the hall determined to settle the question of verification clearly before any other business was transacted.

The struggle began the next morning. Amid the confusion and hesitations of deputies still unfamiliar with each other and awed by the momentousness of what they were involved in, men who knew clearly what they wanted made the running. In the third estate representatives from Brittany and Dauphiné, whose provincial political experience over preceding months was far wider than that of others, argued that separate verification would inevitably lead to separate voting too. It must therefore be opposed. After a prolonged and chaotic debate the third (whose idea of themselves was reflected in their adoption of the tendentious title, ‘the Commons’) agreed not to verify any of their powers, or indeed transact any business at all, in isolation. The nobility, meanwhile, showed no hesitation. On 7 May they voted by 188 votes to 46 to proceed with separate verification. By the eleventh it was complete, and the order declared itself constituted. The clergy, too, voted to proceed with separate verification, but only after lengthy debate, and only by 133 votes to 114. Nor, when the process was complete, did they go so far as to declare themselves constituted. Earnest and sincere ministers of the gospel as most of them were, they hoped to find some harmonious compromise. And so they welcomed a deputation sent by the third on 7 May asking for tripartite discussions about common verification and called upon the nobility to do the same. A week later the nobility agreed; but when the representatives of the three orders met they found the third’s mandated to accept nothing but vote by head. Responding in kind, the nobles argued that all the precedents were against common verification, and on 26 May they withdrew from the talks. The third, now reinforced by the arrival of deputies from Paris, thereupon renewed its appeals to the clergy, inviting them ‘in the name of the God of peace and the national interest, to join with them in the general assembly hall, and there act in concert to bring about union and concord’. As the clergy agonized over this further assault on their conscience, on the twenty-ninth the king himself intervened to condemn the inaction of the Estates. He urged resumption of conciliatory talks, and they were resumed, but with no more positive result than before. Meanwhile, on 4 June, the heir to the throne died, plunging the king into days of gloomy inertia which paralysed all ministerial activity. By the second week of the month third-estate patience was running out. Against their previous resolutions, they had already begun to organize themselves and establish procedures, and on 3 June they elected Bailly as their president. There was now constant talk of unilateral action, of declaring the ‘Commons’ to be the national assembly, and of proceeding to verification of powers on that basis without further reference to the other two orders. On 10 June this talk at last culminated in a formal motion, moved by Sieyès, that a final appeal should be sent to the other two orders to join at once in common verification. Failing that, the Commons would proceed anyway. The motion was carried by 493 votes to 41. The message was transmitted the next day; and when, on the twelfth, no response was received from the other two orders, the roll-call began.

With it began the true revolutionary struggle. If the king had authorized vote by head the previous December, or if the nobility and clergy had agreed to common verification when the Estates had first met, all would have been in order, and the chain of the law remain unbroken. The time they waited before ‘cutting the cable’ (in Sieyès’s phrase) shows how reluctant the law-soaked deputies of the third were to flout legality. For to declare themselves the only legitimate body of national representatives without reference to the other two orders was in effect to take the law into their own hands. They recognized, too, that there was no going back. The decision was taken in public, for unlike the other two orders the third had admitted spectators from the very beginning, and as the stalemate continued the numbers flocking daily from Paris to Versailles steadily increased. There was no support among these onlookers for the nobility or the clergy, whereas every intransigent speech in the ‘Commons’ was greeted with wild applause. Pleas for caution and restraint from the minority who still clung to dwindling hopes of agreement were drowned with jeers and catcalls.

Nor is there much doubt that the unruly crowds at Versailles represented a much wider public opinion, aroused by months of frenzied publicity and now by daily newspaper accounts of what the Estates-General were doing, or rather not doing. Leading this field were Mirabeau’s Letters to his Constituents, in which one of the most prominent deputies produced regular and accurate (though scarcely unbiased) reports of everything that happened in the great assembly. Nobody had trusted Mirabeau when the Estates began; but he soon demonstrated hitherto untried oratorical powers, and an unerring talent for expressing precisely what his fellow deputies were merely groping towards. Soon he was marshalling the thousands of subscribers to his journal behind the ‘patriotic’ cause, especially in Paris where the long-drawn-out elections also sustained the political temperature. And although the focus of political attention was obviously at Versailles, the forcing-house of political opinion was in the fashionable west end of the capital, in the arcades, cafés, and walks of the Palais Royal. Thrown open to the public as a pleasure garden in 1780 by its owner, the Duke d’Orléans, by 1789 it had become a centre for rumour, debate, and pamphleteering.

I went to the Palais-Royal [wrote Arthur Young on 9 June] 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, and ninety-two last week … one can scarcely squeeze from the door to the counter … Nineteen twentieths of these productions are in favour of liberty, and commonly violent against the clergy and nobility … But the coffee-houses in the Palais-Royal present yet more singular and astonishing spectacles; they are not only crowded within, but other expectant crowds are at the doors and windows, listening à gorge déployée to certain orators, who from chairs and tables harangue each his little audience. The eagerness with which they are heard, and the thunder of applause they receive for every sentiment of more than common hardiness or violence against the present government, cannot easily be imagined.6

What perhaps can be imagined is the excitement at Versailles when, on 13 June, as the deputies from Poitou were called, three parish priests presented their credentials. There was ecstatic applause. The long-strained solidarity of the clerical order had at last cracked; and over the next few days sixteen other clerics also broke ranks. But that left a problem once the roll-call was complete. Who did the deputies now speak for? Clearly they represented more than just the third. Sieyès, following the logic of his own What is the Third Estate?, believed they were already a fully fledged national assembly, and many of the more outspoken deputies agreed with him. But others feared that to take this title would blight still-lingering hopes of conciliation with the nobility and majority of the clergy, and on 15 June Sieyès tried to accommodate such reservations by moving that they call themselves ‘Assembly of the known and verified representatives of the French Nation’. Two days of debate followed, producing formulations ever more tortuous and wordy, amid signs of growing impatience from the public galleries. It all played into Sieyès’s hands, and by the seventeenth he felt able to propose the title he had always wanted. By then an overwhelming majority recognized that there was no sensible alternative, and the name National Assembly was adopted by 491 votes to 89. In the euphoria of that moment cool-headed radicals went even further. Target and Le Chapelier, the leading Breton deputy, proposed that all existing taxes be declared illegal but provisionally sanctioned until a new system could be devised. Authorization would lapse if ever the Assembly ceased to meet. The implications were clear, but carried unanimously. The Assembly was claiming sovereignty, and inviting taxpayers to defy any government which tried to dissolve it. The challenge now was not merely to the other two orders, but to royal authority itself. As the British ambassador (a duke) reported to his foreign secretary (another) the next day:7 ‘If His Majesty once gives His decided approbation of the proceedings, such as they have hitherto been, of the Tiers-Etat, it will be little short of laying His Crown at their feet.’

The still grief-stricken king scarcely understood what was happening. The term ‘National Assembly’, he said, was ‘only a phrase’. His ministers all saw that it was much more than that, but they were divided over how to proceed. Unknown to his master or Necker, the war minister began to reinforce the garrisons around Paris, a move welcomed by the queen and the Count d’Artois, who had been advocating strong measures for weeks. Necker, while disapproving of the third’s assertion of sovereignty, believed that they must be conciliated. He proposed that the king hold a ‘Royal Session’ to reassert his authority while proposing a programme of popular concessions. The plan was agreed, but the draft speeches which Necker had prepared for the occasion were significantly modified in his absence by the queen and her party, and the decision to hold a Royal Session was not formally notified to any of the three orders before they arrived at their respective meeting places on the morning of Saturday 20 June, to find the doors locked and guarded by soldiers. On the previous day, the clergy had at last voted by a narrow majority to join the National Assembly, and the excited deputies arrived the next morning expecting to give them a triumphant reception. Locked doors and soldiers stunned them, and posters announcing the Royal Session for the following Monday merely aroused suspicion that a dissolution was imminent. Even those who had opposed the decisions of 17 June were outraged by this ‘act of despotism’,8 and it became a point of principle to carry on meeting despite the royal prohibition. A nearby indoor tennis-court was commandeered, and there, with indignant crowds packing all approaches, the deputies took a solemn oath never to disperse until ‘the constitution of the Realm and public regeneration are established and assured’. When, the following Monday, the Royal Session was postponed by a day, the Assembly made a point of sitting again. This time it was able to welcome the majority of the clergy and, to general jubilation, three noblemen from Dauphiné. The solidarity and determination of the other two orders was evidently now crumbling fast.

Nor did the Royal Session do anything to restore it. Necker, who over the weekend had taken elaborate steps to reassure the public that no dissolution was intended, felt compromised by the changes made to his plans in council, and ostentatiously stayed away. And when the king began, as in a lit de justice under what men were already starting to call the old order, by nullifying the decisions of 17 June, nobles were seen to smile and ‘patriots’ in all three orders prepared for the worst. In fact the programme put forward by the king was quite imaginative, and most observers agreed, at the time and later, that if it had been put forward in May it would have been generally acclaimed. In a thirty-five-point declaration he promised that in future no taxes and loans would be raised without the consent of the Estates-General, and that several unpopular taxes would be abolished or modified. He promised to abolish arbitrary imprisonment, forced labour on the roads, and serfdom. He announced the general establishment of provincial estates. But he also declared all feudal rights to be inviolable property, and he merely urged, and did not order, the nobility and clergy to give up their fiscal privileges. All this was preceded by a declaration that the three orders were sacrosanct. The first two were indeed exhorted to join with the third to discuss matters of common concern; and to ease the tender consciences of nobles who felt bound to separate deliberation by mandates from their electors, all binding mandates were declared invalid. But the nobility and clergy were accorded a veto on all matters concerning their particular interests and privileges; and spectators, who had done so much to encourage the third’s boldness, were excluded from all future sessions. Unprecedented numbers of troops surrounded the meeting hall that day, and the king concluded the proceedings with an overt threat. Nothing the Estates did, he declared, was valid without his approval. If they refused to co-operate, he would ‘see to the wellbeing of my peoples’ alone, considering himself their only true representative. Then he ordered the deputies to disperse, and resume deliberations, separately, the next day.

What happened next proved a turning-point. As nobles and clerics obediently filed out of the hall, the third, and the clergy who had joined them over the previous few days, stood their ground. When the Grand Master of Ceremonies reiterated the king’s orders, Mirabeau declared that nothing but bayonets could force the National Assembly to move. There was a general shout of approval, and the Assembly went on to renew the Tennis Court Oath, reiterate all it had done since the seventeenth and declare its members inviolable. The king, meanwhile, had emerged from the Royal Session to be confronted with Necker’s resignation. So distracted was he that, when told that the third estate was refusing to move, he said they might stay. As in a previous Royal Session on 19 November 1787, with one word a whole strategy was thrown away. Later that night Necker was persuaded to withdraw his resignation, but by then news of his absence from the Royal Session had reached Paris, and been taken as a sign of his dismissal. The Palais Royal exploded.

The ferment in Paris [noted Young the next day] is beyond conception; 10,000 people have been all this day in the Palais Royal ... To my surprise, the King’s propositions are received with universal disgust … the people seem, with a sort of frenzy, to reject all idea of compromise, and to insist on the necessity of the orders uniting … They are also full of suspicions at M. Necker’s offering to resign, to which circumstance they seem to look more than to much more essential points.9

Volatile crowds also roamed the streets of Versailles and burst into the palace past troops who offered no resistance. When Necker appeared he was hailed as father of the people, and grandiloquently promised he would not abandon them; but known opponents of the patriotic cause were mobbed, jostled, and had the windows of their lodgings broken. Troops saved the archbishop of Paris from being lynched, but boasted of doing so without firing an unpatriotic shot. In Paris on the twenty-fourth two companies of the French Guards, the same regiment that had shot down the Reveillon rioters two months beforehand, refused public-order duties. ‘Who could prevent this disorder?’, wrote a worried, though not unpatriotic, Parisian on the twenty-fifth.10 ‘The police have no strength and no credit.’

Yet these events brought victory to the National Assembly. The king’s failure to respond to their defiance and the massive popular backing they obviously enjoyed were enough for all but a handful of the remaining separate clergy. On the twenty-fourth most of them came over. Ever since the seventeenth Orleans and a minority of other nobles had been trying to persuade their own order to agree to common verification. On the twenty-fourth they made one last effort, to no avail. The next day forty-eight of them appeared in what was now being called the ‘National Hall’. Forty or fifty more were plainly on the point of following them. Clearly the king could no longer rely on the first two orders to obey him, and the wavering of the French Guards suggested that even force might fail. In these circumstances he made the final surrender. On 27 June he wrote to the presidents of the clerical and noble orders ordering them to join the National Assembly. A few felt betrayed, and tried to protest, but even they soon recognized that they had no choice. And when that news broke, there were huge displays of popular jubilation and fireworks in both Paris and Versailles, The king and queen, appearing in tears on the balcony of the palace, were cheered deafeningly. ‘The whole business now seems over’, Arthur Young wrote,11 ‘and the revolution complete.’

Deputies on all sides certainly hoped so, and there was now much talk of getting down to business and constructing a constitution. Everybody, even third-estate deputies, had been unnerved by the scale and vigour of the popular ferment unleashed over the preceding fortnight. Responsible men now looked forward to a period of dignified calm, allowing a return to normality and social harmony. Yet as July began there was little sign of that. On 30 June a crowd of 4,000 stormed a prison on the left bank where ten mutinous French Guards were awaiting transfer to closer confinement. They released them, carried them back in triumph to the Palais Royal, and fêted them with a public collection. Such incidents suggested that the ferment was far from over. Despite the euphoric scenes of 27 June, suspicion of the Court’s motives was still widespread and profound. What was more, it was justified. On 26 June four regiments were ordered from the frontiers to the Paris region, and around the same time the king asked the veteran Marshal de Broglie to assume supreme command. On 1 July more troops were ordered up, making a fivefold increase, to well over 20,000, in less than a week. Nobody could fail to notice the build-up, or the number of foreign regiments involved, presumed to be more reliable than French ones. On 8 July Mirabeau moved a motion in the Assembly that the king be petitioned to withdraw the soldiers, and nobody spoke against it. The king’s bland reply was that their presence was necessary to preserve public order. It seems clear, however, that their true purpose was what everyone suspected: to intimidate Paris and reverse concessions made since mid-June. At Court, the queen and Artois remained determined to get rid of Necker. Persuading him to stay on 23 June had been a temporary necessity in their eyes, but they continued to try to exclude him from all important decisions while they cast about for more pliable replacements. By 11 July they thought they had found them. That afternoon, the minister was presented with a royal letter dismissing him and ordering him to leave the country immediately. He complied at once, shocked though he was. Three other ministers fell the next day; Broglie became minister of war and Breteuil, an old rival of Calonne and a known authoritarian, was made chief of the Council. Precisely what the new ministry intended to do is not clear. For once the news of Necker’s fall broke, it scarcely had time to do anything.

The changes could hardly have been more ill timed. Everybody was frightened and unnerved by two weeks of troop movements. As 12 July was a Sunday, nobody was at work. Above all, the food shortages and high prices which had been foreseeable since the previous summer were reaching their peak, the dangerous midsummer weeks between the exhaustion of old stocks and the harvesting of new. Necker, of course, stood for control of the grain trade and subsidized bread prices. Over the spring he had fought a losing battle to keep Paris cheaply supplied, but one consequence was to drain other markets, and May was marked by bread riots all over Flanders, Artois, Picardy, and Normandy. News of them did much to persuade conscience-stricken clergy to break ranks and join the third in June, so that some action might be taken. But by the time the orders merged, disturbances were occurring much closer to the capital, and early in July news arrived that at Lyons riots against high prices had culminated in the destruction of the city’s ring of toll-gates. Between 4 and 7 July the Assembly debated the grain trade, although inconclusively, since most deputies believed it ought to be free but given the popular mood were reluctant to say so. And meanwhile bread prices in Paris crept up towards their highest level in twenty years.

News of Necker’s dismissal reached the Palais Royal in the afternoon of the twelfth. Everyone sensed that a decisive trial of strength had begun. At once crowds flocked to the theatres and forced them to close as a sign of mourning. Later in the day groups milling in the Tuileries gardens were set upon by German cavalry who had been ordered to clear the area. It looked like the beginning of the long-dreaded military action; and although, after some uncertain skirmishing, the troops withdrew at nightfall, the whole city was by then frantically trying to arm itself. And once armed, the populace did not hesitate to act. That night, following the example from Lyons, they attacked the toll-gates around the city and broke down sections of the customs wall. The night sky was lit up by fires which destroyed most of the gatehouses. The next morning they turned their attention to places where arms were thought to be stored, starting with the abbey of Saint-Lazare. Blackest popular suspicions were confirmed when substantial stocks of grain were also found there, and the monastery was looted amid ominous scenes of sacrilege and anti-clericalism. Men of property were now seriously alarmed. The preceding Saturday the electors of Paris, who had continued to meet unofficially after their electoral duties had been discharged late in May, had already agreed to set up a citizens’ militia to maintain order when troops could not be trusted. Now they hurried to activate their decision, and by the evening of the thirteenth patrols were out. ‘But’, wrote a member of one of them,12 ‘we made a sorry showing; we could not contain the people’s fury; if we had gone too far, they would have exterminated us. It is not the moment to reason with them.’

On the morning of the fourteenth it was the turn of the Invalides, the military veterans’ hospital, where cannon were found as well as small arms. They were dragged across the city to the place de Grève, in front of the Hôtel de Ville. From there it was only a few hundred yards to the most formidable of all arsenals, the towering state prison of the Bastille. Here was the next obvious place to search, but it did not seem possible to storm such a fortress, and nobody knew until afterwards how poorly manned and defended it was. So first the electors tried to negotiate a handover. But when impatient crowds forced an entry to the inner courtyard the garrison panicked and opened fire, killing almost a hundred. Now military expertise intervened. Discipline in the French Guards regiment had never recovered after the mutinies and desertions of the last week in June. New defections, followed by bibulous celebrations in the Palais Royal, were reported daily. But experience had not gone the way of discipline, and French Guards now appeared before the Bastille with the cannon brought from the Invalides. The drawbridge and gates could not have withstood them at point-blank range, and the governor knew it. The Bastille surrendered.

During all this time the Assembly was sitting at Versailles, and as the news from the capital filtered in they issued ever more anguished appeals to the king to pull back the troops. He countered initially that in the circumstances the troops were more necessary than ever. But then, on the afternoon of the fifteenth, he came to the Assembly in person to declare that he was ordering the army encamped around Paris to disperse. The delirious deputies cheered him, threw their hats in the air, and escorted him in a body back to the palace, where the tearful scenes of 27 June were re-enacted. There was much talk of his natural goodness and concern for the well-being of his peoples. But it was not that which had produced such a spectacular change of policy. Throughout the thirteenth and fourteenth the army had indeed been poised to restore order in Paris, and there were enough troops to do it, even if the carnage would have been fearful. But the example of the French Guards was disquieting. Might other regiments follow their example? Morale was certainly under pressure from forced marches, poor quarters, and constant appeals by anxious civilians not to act against defenceless patriots. Commanders were increasingly reluctant to put their men’s discipline to the test, and Broglie was too experienced an officer to take risks in such circumstances. He advised the king that he could no longer rely on his army.

Louis XVI’s acceptance of that advice marked the end of royal authority. The monarch recognized that he no longer had the power to enforce his will. He was therefore compelled finally to accept all that had been done since mid-June. The Estates-General had gone. They had been replaced by a single National Assembly with no distinction of orders, claiming sovereignty in the name of the nation, and a mission to endow France with a constitution. For four tense weeks the queen, Artois, and their coterie had plotted and schemed to reverse these achievements. Ultimately they were foiled by a wave of popular support for the stand taken by the third estate and fellow-travellers in the other two orders, an atmosphere so intoxicating that the very forces the Court was calling up to contain it were infected. The storming of the Bastille marked the climax of the movement. Challenged by it, Louis XVI drew back, leaving the people of Paris convinced that they alone had saved the National Assembly from destruction. Henceforth they would see themselves as guardians of the liberty won that day. This was no ordinary revolt, as the Duke de La Rochefoucauld-Liancourt is reputed, perhaps apocryphally, to have told Louis XVI. Apocryphal or not, it was still true. This was a Revolution.

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