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The Estates - General September 1788 – July 1789 William Doyle, The Oxford History of the French Revolution Economic background to the events of 1789 The freak storm which swept northern France on 13 July 1788, with hailstones so big that they killed men and animals and devasted hundreds of square miles of crops on the eve of harvest, came half way through a year of catastrophic weather. Even freakish weather aside 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 and coldest winters within living memory. Economic background to the events of 1789 The whole of Louis XVI’s reign had been a time of economic difficulties, with wildly fluctuating grain, fodder, and grape harvest causing repeated disruption. A bumper harvest in 1785 had made grain cheap and abundant the year after, but any remaining surpluses were dissipated in 1787. Grain prices had begun to climb and they went on doing so through the winter of 1788-9. They peaked in Paris, at their hightest levels since Louis XIV’s time, on 14 July 1789. Economic background to the events of 1789 Steep rises in the prices of grain, flour, and bread posed serious problems for the 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 taken even more. As prices climed over the spring of 1789 the proportion rose to two-thirds for the best-off and perhaps even nine-tenths for the worst. Economic background to the events of 1789 In these circumstances people had less to spend on other foodstuffs, heating, and lighting. So bitter was the winter that even for those not thrown out of work, life was pretty miserable due frozen rivers, blocked roads, and immobilised mills and workshops. 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 Nimes. Economic background to the events of 1789 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 products. But above all, they blamed Calonne’s 1786 commerical treaty with the British manufacturers. According to Doyle, however, the agreement only came into place in mid-1787, so that British imports, though undoubtedly cheaper and of higher quality, scarcely had time at all to the damage attributed to them. Economic background to the events of 1789 But they clearly aggravated an already serious industrial depression, and provided on more reason, for the working populace to blame the government. According to Doyle, that over the winter of the 1788 and the spring of 1789, hardly anyone regretted the passing of the old political order. Everybody assumed that change could only be for the better. The calling of the Estates-General There were therefore high expectations when the Estates-General was called and according to Doyle ‘something like a nation-wide consensus seemed to be emerging in favour of ‘doubling the third’ and vote by head.’ According to Doyle one group of nobles did a good deal to consolidate this consensus. Throughout September and October of 1788 political clubs mushroomed in Paris and in December 1788 a particularly distinguished group began to meet at the house of Adrien Duport. Du Club de la Revolution The calling of the Estates - General Later it would be remembered as the Society of Thirty, although its membership was nearly sixty. Drawn from the cream of the capital’s legal, literary and social life, it included celebrities like Lafayette, the mathematican Condorcet, and Target, the leading advocate of the Paris bar. There was also Talleyrand and Mirabeau, who described the society as ‘a conspiracy of decent folk.’ Mirabeau The calling of the Estates - General They opposed the form of the Estates – General as it appeared in 1614 and privileges of all sorts. Mirabeau had written in August ‘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 calling of the Estates - General The society bent all of its efforts toward 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 the capital and provinces at the affluent members expense, the middle classes, according to Doyle, were assured that the forms of 1614 were a plot by the privileged orders to keep them down. The calling of the Estates- General Meanwhile the society was also circulating model petitions around the provinces on which muncipalities could bases appeals to Necker for doubling the third and vote by head; and during the course of November a national petitioning movement took shape. The second Assembly met on the 6 November against this background. By the end of December the government had received 800 petitions and on 27 December Necker met with the King and they announced that the third Estate in the Estates – General would be doubled. The Estates-General It was also against these circumstances that Sieyes pamphlet ‘What is the Third Estate?’ emerged and was published. ‘What is the Third Estate?’ argued that there was no place in a properly constituted nation for privileged groups of any sort. He suggested that the third-estate deputies, once elected should set themselves up without further ado as a national assembly and have no further dealings with the other two orders. According to Doyle, it was a commonplace for the third- estate cause to be called national; and ‘patriotism’ to become known as opposition to despotic government. The Estates-General According to Doyle, ‘What is the Third Estate?’ was only unique in that it was the most eloquent among hundreds of no less vehement pamphlets denouncing the privileged orders appearing over winter. These months also witnessed the emergence of third-estate leaders. Robespierre’s first foray into politics was his appeal To the Artesian Nation to abandon the archaic and privilege-ridden structure of the provincial estates of Artois. Robespierre The Estates-General In many districts the cahiers were based on models carefully put together and circulated by patriotic activists. According to Doyle, the first-estate deputation represented a clear defeat for the established Church hierarchy. Almost two-thirds of the 303 clerical deputies elected were ordinary parish priests. The Estates-General In the second-estate liberal minded nobles secured a third of the representation. Among them were the Duke of Orleans and several members of the Society of Thirty such as Lafayette. The nobility of the robe, according to Doyle, were delivered a disaster in the elections for representation. Only twenty-two members of this proud, articulate and self-confident section of society secured representation. The majority of the 282 deputies were petty provincial noblemen. The Estates-General Of the third estate representatives two-thirds of those elected had some form or other of legal qualifications. A quarter were advocates or notaries, among them people like Robespierre and Barnave. The third estate contingent also boasted Abbe Sieyes from the clergy and Mirabeau from the nobility following a decision by Necker to allow electors to choose outside their orders. The Estates- General And with this combination of representatives, according to Doyle the impasse that was to emerge between the third estate and representatives of the second estate and the king seemed somewhat inevitable. And with it began the truely revolutionary struggle. According to Doyle if the King had authorised voting by head in December, or if the nobility and clergy had agreed to common verification when the Estates-General had first met, all would have been in order. The motion moved by Sieyes that a final appeal should be sent to the other two orders to join at once in common verification was taken in public – the third estate had admitted spectators from the very beginning. The Estates-General And as the stalemate continued the numbers flocking to Versailles from Paris steadily increased. According to Doyle there was no support amongst these onlookers for the nobility or clergy and that these unruly crowds at Versailles represented a much wider public opinion. The Estates-General 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. The Estates - General According to Doyle, no one had trusted Mirabeau when the Estates-General began; but he soon demonstrated oratorical powers, and an unerring talent for expressing precisely what his fellow deputies were merely groping toward. The Estates-General Soon he was marshalling the thousands of subscribers to his journal behind the ‘patriotric’ causes. And although the focus of political attention was obviously at Versailles, the ‘forcing-house’ of political opinion was in the fashionable west end of Paris, in the arcades, cafes and walks of the Palais Royal. Thrown open to the public as a pleasure garden in 1780 by its owner, the Duke d’Orleans, by 1789 it had become a centre for rumour,debate and pamphleteering. The Estates-General Following the Royal Session that was prompted by the Tennis Court Oath and rumours regarding Necker’s subsequent resignation, some 10,000 people were reported to have congregated in the Palais Royal. Volatile crowds roamed the streets of Versailles and burst into the palace past troops who offered no resistance. In Paris two companies of the French guards (the same regiment that had shot down the Reveillon rioters two months beforehand), refused public-order duties. The Estates-General According to Doyle it was the massive popular backing that the National Assembly enjoyed that was enough to convine all but a handful of clergy to join them. On the 25 June, forty-eight of the second estate joined them. The king capitulated and on 27 June he ordered that the remaining of the first and second estate join the National Assembly. The National Assembly According to Doyle, there was now an expectation from the deputies on all sides that ‘whole business was over’ and that they could now get down to business and construct a constitution. But on June 30 a crowd of 4,000 stormed a prison on the left bank in Paris where ten mutinous French Guards were awaiting transfer to closer confinement. They released them and carried them back in triumph to the Palais Royal. The National Assembly Such incidents, according to Doyle, suggest 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 and, according to Doyle, it was justified. On the 27 June four regiments were ordered from the frontiers to the Paris region, and 1 July more troops were ordered up, taking the total to twenty thousand within a week. The National Assembly On 8 July Mirabeau moved a motion in the Assembly that the King be petitioned to withdraw the soldiers. The King’s reply was that they were there to restore public order. On 11 July Necker was dismissed and ordered to leave the country immediately. The National Assembly According to Doyle, Necker’s dismissal could not have been more ill timed. 12 July was a Sunday, nobody was at work. The food shortages and prices were reaching their peak. Necker had stood for control of the grain trade and subsidized bread prices. News of Necker’s dismissal reached the Palais Royal in the afternoon of the 12 July. Crowds immediately flocked to the theatres and forced them to close as a sign of mourning. The National Assembly Later in the day crowds milling around 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 the troops withdrew at nightfall, the city began to arm itself. That night they attacked the toll-gates around the city and broke down sections of the customs wall. The Tuileries Camille Desmoulins Map of Paris The National Assembly The next morning they turned their attention on where arms where thought to be stored, starting with the Abbey of Saint-Lazare. Blackest popular suspicions were confirmed when substantial stocks of grain wee also found there, and the monastery was looted amid ominous scenes of sacrilege and anti-clericalism. The National Assembly On the morning of the 14 July it was the turn of the Invalides, the military’s veteran’s hospital, where cannon was found as well as small arms. They were dragged across the city to the place de Greve, in front of the Hotel 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. After long hours of negotiation, open fire from the garrison defending the Bastille and the defection of French Guards, the Bastille was surrended. Taking of Weapons at the Invalides Storming of the Bastille The National Assembly During all this time the Assembly had been sitting at Versailles, and as the news from the capital filtered in they issued even more anguished appeals to the king to pull back the troops. He countered initially that in the circumstances the troops were even more necessary than ever. But on the afternoon of the 15 July he came to the Assembly in person to declare that he was ordering the army encamped around Paris to disperse. His former war minister and commander of the troops had advised the king that he could no longer rely on his troops. The National Assembly According to Doyle, Louis’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. The Estates-General was 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. The National Assembly According to Doyle, the government was ultimately foiled by a wave of popular support for the stand taken by the third estate and fellow-travellers in the other two orders. The storming of the Bastille, he suggests, 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. Whose revolution?
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