Monday, 25 January 2016

The Estates-General

"Le Serment du Jeu de paume" by Jacques-Louis David
Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons - 

The American War

In January 1777 Louis XVI granted the American rebels 2 million livres, without interest, to be repaid only when ‘the United States are settled in peace and prosperity’. This was a politically smart but financially disastrous decision as France was suffering from a series of bad harvests and attacks on farmers and bakers. The responsibility for balancing the books rested with, the Genevan banker, Jacques Necker, who became Director-General of Finances in June.   
'Jacques Necker'  Joseph-Siffrein Duplessis -
Licensed under Public domain v
ia Wikimedia Commons 
In February 1778 France formally allied with the Americans and in July declared war on Britain.  In October 1781 Lord Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown to French and American troops. Since 1689 France had fought four wars with Britain. Unlike the others, this was a decisive victory. At the Peace of Paris in September 1783 Britain was forced to recognise the independence of the American colonies.

The Crown goes bankrupt

However, this victory was won at a huge cost.  In 1781 Necker was forced out of office. He had attempted to reform the country’s finances by raising loans on the international money market, while trying unsuccessfully to limit government spending. He then made the grave error of publishing a wildly optimistic overview of French finances, the Compte Rendu, which allowed his enemies to manoeuvre his dismissal.  

'Charles-Alexandre de Calonne, 1784',  by
Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun
The Royal Collection.
Licensed under Public domain
via Wikimedia Commons 
It was now impossible to conceal the enormous deficit. By early 1782 France had lent or given outright to the Americans $28 million, with another $6 million to follow.  In July a new vingtième was levied, with a time limit four years, and in November a new Controller-General, Charles-Alexandre de Calonne, was appointed. He inherited a debt of 112 million livres.

The Assembly of Notables

On 20 August 1786, with the time limit on the vingtième due to expire on 31 December, Calonne told the king that a complete collapse in France’s finances was imminent. He proposed a reform package, including cuts in government spending, tax reforms and a liberalisation of internal trade. Under normal circumstances he would have submitted these proposals to the country’s main court, the Parlement of Paris for ratification, but he feared that they would be rejected. Instead he persuaded the King to summon an Assembly of Notables, who would be given the responsibility of reviewing his proposals. 

On 22 February 1787 the Assembly, consisting of 144 ‘notables’ assembled in Versailles.  Some historians see this is the true beginning of the French Revolution. The proposals were reviewed in committees, each headed by a Prince of the Blood.  The nobles agreed to a fairer share of the tax burden, but the bishops resisted the application of this principle to the Church.  

On 8 April Calonne was dismissed because of his failure to bring about reform and was replaced on 1 May by Loménie de Brienne, archbishop of Toulouse. He put forward a modified version of Calonne’s reforms: a unitary land tax, civil liberty, free trade, tax reform, and the establishment of local elective assemblies. These proposals were turned down by the Notables and their assembly was disbursed on 25 May. Brienne then turned to the Parlement of Paris and the provincial parlements for his legislation to be registered. There followed a period of confrontation between Brienne and the Parlement of Paris. At one point the parlement was exiled to Troyes. When it returned to Paris on 28 September there were demonstrations in Paris in its favour. 

On 19 November Brienne put forward proposals to the Parlement to increase government borrowing at the same time as bringing in stringent economies. When, after a long debate the Parlement showed itself reluctant to ratify the measures, and thus make them law, Louis said, ‘it’s legal because I wish it’. This was a catastrophic move. The loans were registered, in spite of the Parlement’s protest but Louis had lost credibility.

The reforming proposals were so controversial that the idea was rapidly gaining ground that another body, of greater political legitimacy, would have to be summoned to agree to them.  In November 1787 the king agreed to the summoning of the Estates-General, a consultative body of clergy, nobles and representatives of the Third Estate, which had last met in 1614.

The noble revolt

On 8 May 1788 Brienne issued his ‘May Edicts’, aimed at reorganising the courts in order to undermine the power of the parlements, reducing them to simple appeal courts and diminishing their jurisdiction. These measures were the last attempt of the French monarchy to remain absolute.  By the beginning of June the country was in the grip of widespread revolts from the nobility, followed by riots and disturbances throughout the country, such as the Day of the Tiles in Grenoble. In July Brienne was forced to make concessions and to agree to call the Estates-General. 

On 16 August the French state became, in effect, bankrupt, when it had to suspend payment of the interest on some of its debts.  On 25 August Brienne was dismissed and was replaced by Necker, now seen as a financial wizard.  Necker restored the parlements to their former powers and agreed to the summoning of the Estates-General in the following year. Necker made it clear from the start that he regarded himself as little more than a caretaker for the Estates-General. As William Doyle writes:
‘The bankruptcy of the monarchy was therefore not only financial but political and intellectual too. It had collapsed in every sense, leaving an enormous vacuum of power.’

From Estates-General to National Assembly

Since the foundation of the Estates-General in the Middle Ages the three estates had always met separately, which meant that, though numerically inferior, the first two estates could always outvote the third. By the eighteenth century this had come to seem anachronistic and unfair.

The early months of 1789 saw intense political activity. In Paris and the major provincial towns political clubs sprang up and a campaign was started to double the number of representatives of the Third Estate and bring in voting by head. The Abbé Sieyès published his hugely influential What is the Third Estate?.  

‘What is the Third Estate? Everything. What has it represented in the political order until now? Nothing. What is it asking for? To become something.’

Throughout the country cahiers des doléances were drawn up which provided an unprecedented record of popular grievances and demanded reforms in taxation and the abolition of seigneurial and ecclesiastical dues. 

At the same time there were disturbances throughout France caused by prolonged cold weather and the poor harvests of the previous year.

Meanwhile the complex process of electing representatives for the 234 constituencies continued. Though every male taxpayer over 25 had the right to attend a primary assembly and choose delegates to elect the representatives, the peasants and artisans left the choosing
Honoré-Gabriel Riqueti, Marquis de Mirabeau, 
by Joseph Boze - .
Licensed under Public domain 
via Wikimedia Commons 
to the bourgeoisie. The result was that the representatives of the Third Estate were overwhelmingly middle class (lawyers and merchants) with some nobles such as the comte de Mirabeau and clergy such as the Abbé Sieyès also elected. 

When the Estates-General met at Versailles on 5 May, it was clear that there was a strong numerical majority for reform. In the first-estate deputation the bishops were greatly outnumbered by the parish clergy. The second estate elections returned a significant number of reformers, chief among them the king’s cousin, the duc d’Orléans and the Marquis de Lafayette, the hero of the American war. 

The Estates-General was immediately deadlocked over the issue of voting by head. On 10 June the Third Estate passed by 493 votes to 41 a formal motion, proposed by Sieyès, calling all three estates to meet as one body. With this the true revolutionary struggle began.  On 17 June, the Third Estate, joined by some clergy, voted 490/90 to adopt the title of National Assembly. Two days later the Second Estate voted to join them. On 20 June, finding the meeting place of the National Assembly closed, the deputies repaired to a nearby tennis court and in the Tennis Court Oath swore not to disperse until a constitution had been established.

On 23 June the king held a Royal Session at which he tried to regain the initiative by overruling the decrees of the Third Estate and ordering the estates to meet separately. But when he left the deputies remained in their places. On 24 and 25 June most of the clergy and nobility joined the National Assembly, which on 9 July proclaimed itself the National Constituent Assembly. 

All these events were public knowledge. The debates of the Third Estate were open to the public and crowds flocked to Versailles to watch them. They were also reported in daily newspapers such as Mirabeau’s Letters to his Constituents. In Paris the gardens of the duc d’Orléans’ Palais Royal had become the centre for rumours and debates.  

By the summer of 1789, therefore, the king and his government had lost control of events, and attempts to regain the initiative would only backfire.

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