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3. The Estates General and the Revolution of 1789

History of the French Revolution


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The Calling of the Estates General
In late 1788 Necker announced that the meeting of the Estates General would be brought forward to January 1st 1789 (in reality, it didn't meet until May 5th of that year). However, this edict neither defined the form the Estates General would take nor set out how it would be chosen. Afraid that the crown would take advantage of this to 'fix' the Estates General and transform it into a servile body, the Parlement of Paris, in approving the edict, explicitly stated that the Estates General should take its form from the last time it was called: 1614. This meant the estates would meet in equal numbers, but separate chambers. Voting would be done separately, with each having a third of the vote.

Bizarrely, no one who had called for the Estates General over the past years appears to have previously realised what soon became obvious: the 95% of the nation who comprised the third estate could be easily outvoted by a combination of the clergy and nobles, or 5% of the population. Recent events had set a very different voting precedent, as a provincial assembly which had been called in 1778 and 1787 had doubled the numbers of the third estate and another called in Dauphin had not only doubled the third estate but allowed for voting by head (one vote per member, not estate).

A clamour soon arose demanding the doubling of third estate numbers and voting by head and the crown received over eight hundred different petitions, mainly from the bourgeois who had woken up to their potentially vital role in future government. Necker responded by recalling the Assembly of Notables to advise himself and the king on the various problems. It sat from November 6th until December 17th and protected the noble's interests by voting against doubling the third estate or voting by head. This was followed by the Estates General being postponed by a few months. The uproar only grew.

On December 27th, in a document entitled 'Result of the King's Council of State' – the result of discussion between Necker and the King - and contrary to the advice of the nobles the crown announced that the third estate was indeed to be doubled. However, there was no decision on voting practices, which was left to the Estates General itself to decide.

The Third Estate Politicizes.
The debate over the size and voting rights of the third estate brought the Estates General to the forefront of conversation and thought, with writers and thinkers publishing a wide range of views. The most famous was Sieyès' 'What is the Third Estate', which argued that there shouldn’t be any privileged groups in society and that the third estate should set themselves up as a national assembly immediately after meeting, with no input from the other estates. It was hugely influential.

Terms like 'national' and 'patriotism' began to be used ever more frequently and became associated with the third estate. More importantly, this outburst of political thought caused a group of leaders to emerge from the third estate, organizing meetings, writing pamphlets and generally politicizing the third estate across the nation. Chief among these were the bourgeois lawyers, educated men with an interest in the many laws involved.

Choosing the Estates
To choose the Estates France was divided up into 234 constituencies. Each had an electoral assembly for the nobles and clergy while the third estate was voted on by every male taxpayer over twenty five ears of age. Each sent two delegates for the first and second estates and four for the third. In addition, every estate in every constituency was required to draw up a list of grievances, the cahiers de doleances. Every level of French society was thus involved in voting and vocalising their many grievances against the state, drawing in people across the nation. Expectations were high.

The election results provided the elites of France with many surprises. Over three quarters of the first estate (the clergy) were parish priests rather than the previously dominant orders like bishops, less than half of which made it. Their cahiers called for higher stipends and access to the highest positions in the church. The second estate was no different, and the many courtiers and high ranking nobles who assumed they’d be automatically returned lost out to lower level, much poorer, men. Their cahiers reflect a very divided group, with only 40% calling for voting by order and some even calling for voting by head. The third estate, in contrast, proved to be a relatively united group, two thirds of which were bourgeois lawyers.

From Estates General to National Assembly
The Estates General opened on May 5th. There was no guidance from the king or Necker on the key question of how the Estates General would vote; solving this was supposed to be the first decision they took. However, that had to wait until the very first task was finished: each estate had to verify the electoral returns of their respective order.

The nobles did this immediately, but the third estate refused, believing that separate verification would inevitable lead to separate voting. The clergy passed a vote which would have allowed them to verify, but they delayed to seek a compromise with the third estate. Discussions between all three took place over the following weeks, but time passed and patience began to run out. People in the third estate began to talk about declaring themselves a national assembly and taking the law into their own hands. Critically for the history of the revolution, and while the first and second estates met behind closed doors, the third estate meeting had always been open to the public. The third estate deputies thus knew they could count on tremendous public support for the idea of acting unilaterally as even those who didn't attend the meetings could read all about what happened in the many journals which reported it.

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