Elliot Fernandez

The Estates General of 1789 French Revolution

The French Revolution began with the convocation of the Estates General, the assembly of the three estates. The States General of 1789 were transformed into a National Constituent Assembly, which turned the country into a constitutional and parliamentary monarchy.
Elliot Fernandez
Elliot Fernandez
He has a degree in History from the Autonomous University of Barcelona (2009) and a Master's in World History from Pompeu Fabra University (2011).
Post on 2022-12-22 | Updated on 2023-02-16

Once the representatives of each estate who would be called to participate in the Estates General at Versailles were chosen, the solemn opening took place on May 5, 1789, with King Louis XVI present. Soon, the disagreements in the form of voting would make evident the great differences between the 3 estates present there. And the fact is that the Third Estate, with almost 600 deputies, wanted to meet in a single room and vote per person, and not as a bloc, while the privileged wanted to deliberate separately and cast a vote by estate, as tradition wanted. It was the first even of the French Revolution.

The disagreement ended with the separate meeting, in an improvised locale, of the deputies of the Third Estate, who through an oath undertook to give a constitution to France. The Estates General of 1789 were transformed, by the will of the Third Estate, into a National Constituent Assembly, whose mission would be to transform the country into a constitutional and parliamentary monarchy.

The meeting of the States General of France, May 1789

Following the protocol of the great events of the State, on May 2, 1789, the representatives of the three estates who had come from all over the country for the meeting of the Estates General were received. It should be noted that the last time the Estates General met was in 1614.

According to tradition, the nobles always wore golden clothes, the high clergy wore purple, and the third estate wore black. May 5, 1789 was the date chosen for the solemn opening, in Versailles, of the States General, which had to decide whether the first and second states paid taxes or not. Faced with what could happen, Louis XVI warned the Swiss Guard (10,000 men) to surround Paris and Versailles for fear of riots.

Inauguration of the Estates General 1789
Inauguration of the States General, in Versailles at the Salle des Menus Plaisirs, on May 5, 1789.
Bibliothèque nationale de France

On May 5, the States General will be inaugurated in a room of the Hotel des Menus Plaisirs. Louis XVI made the opening speech where he insisted that he, as the king, would be the judge of the discussions. Minister Necker also spoke, giving a picture of the country's economic situation. No response was given to the complaints of the "Cahiers de doléances ". This was the first disappointment for most deputies.

Another point of disagreement was the idea of ​​the representatives of the third estate to deliberate together and vote by person and not by estate.

Opening of the Estates General 1789
Opening of the States General on 5 May 1789 with the presence of King Louis XVI. Image of Jean Michel Moreau le Jeune

The great discussion of the Estates General: joint voting by estates or by person?

From May 6, the discussion about the voting method becomes more lively. Louis XVI was in favour of continuing with the tradition that marked that each estate had to meet separately. But not everyone was in favour of this option within the first and second estate. 47 members of the second state wanted the verification of all members to be done jointly. And from the first estate there were 114 who wanted common verification. This discussion will last a whole month.

On June 12, abbé Sieyès proposed that all members of the first and second estates who wanted common verification join with the third estate. The third state accepted it, but in the second state only 79 people accepted it and the first state postponed giving an answer.

On June 13 the entire Third Estate and some members of the Second and First Estates met together. On June 17, Abbé Sieyès proposed that the meeting of the second and third estates change its name. I suggested the name "Assembly of known and verified representatives of the nation ". Jean-Joseph Munier recommended the name "Legitimate Assembly of the representatives of the majority of the nation in the absence of the minor ". And the Count of Mirabeau (noble) proposed that the meeting become the representative of the French people and that it be called the "National Assembly".

The name change was approved, and it was declared that any increase in taxes that had not been voted in the National Assembly was to be annulled throughout France. This was the legal moment of breaking with the past. June 17, 1789 happened to be the day on which the French representative parliamentary system was born.

The National Assembly: the political and legal revolution from above

A political revolution was taking place from above. Political and legal revolution. On June 20, Louis XVI banned the meeting of the National Assembly citing reform work in the room where it was meeting. He will declare that the Assembly could no longer meet and that any session will be unconstitutional. And at the same time he convened a Royal Session for June 23.

The Oath of the Ball Game. Estates General 1789.
Jacques-Louis David, The Oath of the Ball Game, Musée du Château de Versailles

But on June 20, in defiance of the king's orders, the representatives of the third estate and some members of the clergy and nobility meet in the "Tennis Court game" and promise not to leave until a constitution is approved for France. The deputy for Paris Jean Sylvain Bailly was appointed as president of the National Assembly.

On June 21, Louis XVI closes the tennis courtroom. It does not use violence. The members of the National Assembly go to the Church of Sant Luis and are joined by 149 members of the first state, who pass to the third state.

On June 23, the royal session was held where Louis XVI spoke and banned the National Assembly and affirmed that the distinction between the estates should be maintained. It will declare null and void the decisions of the National Assembly. The king insisted that the Estates General could only deliberate on taxes. Louis XVI made a counteroffer:

But the third estate did not accept it and Louis XVI ordered to dissolve the session. Then came the decisive moment: the representatives of the first and second states left the room, but the third state stayed. Henri-Évrard de Dreux-Brézé, Grand Master of Ceremonies, ordered them out of the room, while the Swiss Guard surrounded the building outside. The Count of Mirabeau addressed Brezé and told him that they would not leave their place unless it was by force of arms. Bailly, as president of the Assembly, said "the nation does not receive orders ". Brézé had the Swiss Guard withdrawn, and the Third Estate continued the meeting.

The Constituent Assembly immediately adopted three fundamental decrees:

On June 24, the second state passed to the third. And on June 25, members of the first state moved to the third. On June 27, Louis XVI, advised by Mirabeau, recognized what was already a fact: that the first and second estates had passed into the third estate. Louis XVI himself saw that the only option he had to continue reigning was acceptance by the National Assembly.

On June 28, the Estates General became the National Assembly when all the representatives who had not yet joined it. The National Assembly represented the nation. On July 9, the National Assembly became a constituent, with the aim of making a new constitution for the Kingdom of France.

For many revisionist historians the French Revolution ends here, in July 1789.

The National Constituent Assembly (1789-1791)

National Assembly
Engraving of the National Assembly, February 4, 1790. Source: National Archives

The Events of the Storming of the Bastille in Paris and the storming of the castles in the French countryside (the great fear)

On July 9, Louis XVI, seeing that events had gone too far, warned a German regiment to settle in Paris, four Swiss regiments (at the Champ de Mars) and a regiment from Provence (at the Invalides). A total of 30,000 men surround Paris.

The people of Paris seeing that the king had placed the army at the gates of the city decided to arm themselves in a case, to defend the National Assembly. They go to look for weapons in the armouries, the Invalids. On July 11, Louis XVI deposed Necker. The people of Paris continued to arm themselves for what might happen. On July 14 they returned to the Invalides, took 3,000 rifles and went to the Bastille for gunpowder. The Bastille was defended by the Marquis of Lanay. Finally, the armed people entered the Bastille, where the gunpowder was kept.

The taking of the Bastille
The storming of the Bastille on July 14

On July 14, the Bastille was stormed, an act that was not premeditated. He had gone there to look for weapons. On July 15, Louis XVI returned from hunting and asked what had happened. Was it a revolt? No, they answer, it's a revolution. Louis XVI put Necker back as minister. Necker was appreciated by the people. On July 16, Necker was reinstated in his position.

The news of the storming of the Bastille spread throughout the kingdom. That the Bastille, which represented the oppressive power, had been stormed spread through the provinces, and people thought that if they had been able to storm the Bastille in Paris, the country people could abolish the lordly rights by storming the castles of the gentlemen and burning the papers.

Spontaneously, the lords' castles begin to be attacked. It was not a revolution but a revolt. He was only looking to burn the contracts.

The great fear
The "great fear"

This movement that began on July 13/16 will last until August: The Great Fear or War of the Castles. Rural movement. Here the urban and rural movement converge. It is also done for fear of the aristocratic plot in consort with the nobles to eliminate the Constituent Assembly. There are also uncontrolled elements. The abolition of manorial rights is called for.

The first measures of the Constituent Assembly

Faced with the events of the summer of 1789 throughout France, the National Constituent Assembly meets and begins to discuss important measures to abolish feudal rights. There was a division of positions between:

The option that won was a position that officially abolished feudalism, but inside it would hide Aguillon's proposal. They are the Decrees of 4 August 1789 abolishing feudalism. The Constituent Assembly revalidates them on August 11.

Officially, dominant feudalism is abolished (dead hands, bad uses). On the property it is established that a ransom must be paid to have full ownership. To have full ownership, twenty years had to be advanced what you paid in one year. If you paid it in kind, it had to be advanced twenty-five years. Who could pay this ransom was the upper bourgeoisie. In practice no one bought the land.

In 1793 the Convention of the Mountain abolished feudalism without ransom. But this measure only lasts for one year. Faced with the abolition of feudalism, a legal problem arises in the Constituent Assembly. If feudalism was abolished, this meant legitimizing the idea of ​​property. To alleviate this defect, he drafted the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen of August 26, 1789, which was to be the preamble to the 1789 constitution.

The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen

Declaration of the Rights of Man

Very important declaration, as a preamble to the future constitution. In 1793 there will be a new declaration of rights and in 1795 the third. They were meant to be the spirit that the constitutions had to succeed. In 1789 there was a break with the Old Regime. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen speaks of representatives of the people, who are elected by the people. The declaration is inspired by natural rights, which are inalienable to every person and sacred to man.

What is natural law?

All men are born free. Natural law begins to be elaborated by philosophers of the 15th and 16th centuries. It is known as modern natural law that which is elaborated from the experience of the discovery of America. Writers and philosophers like Bartolomé de las Casas talk about crimes and the Spanish genocide in America. The theory of De las Casas passes to the School of Salamanca where Father Vitoria will say that all humanity is born free and, therefore, there should be no masters or slaves. This theory is reworked by Bodin and English revolutionaries such as Locke, who give political meaning to natural law.

If everyone is free, there can be no masters or slaves. This goes against the ancient natural law that justifies slavery. Locke will say that if man is born free, the natural state of happiness is nature, but in this state nature is human. Man in order to live in society needs to choose representatives, and they make a first pact: delegate to the representatives, but on the condition that they respect natural law.

Both Girondins and Jacobins take different ways of doing things depending on the way they see society. They speak of a double pact:

The declaration of 1789 is universal, which is why the French Revolution is exportable. We talk about equality. In the declaration, before being a citizen one must be a man (humanity).

But in the same month of September 1789, the population was already divided into active and passive citizens and there are people who will begin to criticize this. From here the revolution became more radical. With the constitution of 1791 the declaration will not be fulfilled. It was not a bourgeois statement, but the bourgeoisie took advantage of it.

A bourgeois can never make this statement because natural law placed liberty before property. Capitalist relations restrict freedom. The declaration of 1795 talks about rights and duties.
The Declaration of Rights is a natural rights revolution. The class interpretation was made by Marxists. Categorizing the revolution as bourgeois is a mistake, because natural rights did not benefit the bourgeoisie.

On August 8, Abbé Sieyès divides the population into active citizens and passive citizens. In the back was the king who played the role of accepting the declaration but preparing the counter-revolution. Revolutions are conservative, always.

The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen must be interpreted from a natural rights perspective. The law is above everything. Law can never contradict natural rights. It is a revolutionary text for the time. First is the man, then the citizen. It is more important to be a free man than a citizen. First is freedom, then the citizen. This is the interpretation made by the radical sector of the revolution. That is why any constitution that did not respect natural rights had the right to rebel.

The Declaration does not oppose freedom and equality. Being free means that you are not subject to anyone's power, therefore everyone is equal. It is reciprocal, there is no need to sign a contract. The text is revolutionary, it breaks with the past. The Communist Manifesto of 1848 is published because according to Marx liberalism does not fulfil what it had proposed. The problem is that economic liberalism will dominate, not political liberalism. Natural law implies that liberty is above property. In practice, the opposite happened.

Who was free? Who had property? There was no equality. Natural law implies the right to freedom. The language, the homeland... comes second. The first is freedom. The problem is that it is not fulfilled.
The bourgeoisie would not be the revolutionary layer because the bourgeoisie does not want the right to freedom but the right to property. Those who defend natural law are a sector of the people, in Paris the Sans-CulottesFrom 1795, economic liberalism prevailed. They implement a declaration of rights and duties. Rights in society that give them to a minority. Burke and Smith's view prevails.

The new administrative organization of the State: debates in the Constituent Assembly

From September-October 1789, debates begin in the Constituent Assembly to see how the French state should be organized. This is where the real debates begin. One sector will say that the revolution is over. Another sector is of the opposite opinion, that the revolution must be consolidated and that all the lines of the declaration must be applied.

Trends within the Assembly:

There will be a clash between the conservative wing and the patriots. In the month of September it is discussed, at the proposal of Bailly, whether the Assembly should be unicameral or bicameralFinally, it was approved that there would be a single chamber by 849 votes in favour, 89 against and 100 abstentions and that the king would be the head of state with the right to a suspensive veto over the Legislative Assembly. The king can veto a law up to 3 times. Finally, in two years she will have to be sanctioned. Many decrees of this era will be applied to the era of Terror. The king dedicated himself to obstructing the work of the Assembly, which is why he ended up storming the Tuileries.

From November 1789, the first Constituent Assembly was officially established with Bailly as president. In the Constituent Assembly there will be deputies who will sit on the right (aristocrats and monarchists) and on the left (patriots). This is the origin of the distinction between right and left in today's parliaments. Within the right was the extreme right sector, the blacks, who wanted a return to the Old Regime. 200 nobles had fled France to take refuge in Austria.

Political clubs

The Constituent Assembly discussed the reorganization of the Kingdom of France. The discussions of the Constituent Assembly were an extension of the debates that produce them in the Political Clubs. With the Revolution, political debates were opened to the public for the first time. If before they were held in the salons, where only the nobles had access, now the Political Clubs are open spaces.

In September 1789 there were three clubs:

Jacobin Club
The convent where the "Jacobin" club will meet

In July 1791 a part of the Club of the Friends of the Constitution (Jacobins) disagrees with other members of the club to accuse the king of absconding and the club is divided between:

From the Breton Club arose in 1790 the Society of Friends of the Rights of Man (Cordeliers)the most left-wing group of all. He will want to get all iusnaturalism applied. They include George-Jacques DantonJean-Paul Marat, Jacques-René Hebert. This will be the only club open to everyone. The rest of the clubs had to pay a fee. In the dues clubs, the revolutionary bourgeoisie were there, not the people, but they were all Jacobins and met in the same place. This caused heated debates. In the assembly there was one-person voting, there was no voting by group. There were no homogenous groups, everyone voted what they thought.

The clubs made it possible to bring politics, until then within the private sphere, into the public sphere. Through them, a very wide dissemination of the debates was carried out. It was the first time that public debates reached the population.

On August 10, 1792, the Patriots will remain as the only group within the Breton Club and will be known as Jacobins. In a republic where power comes from below, a group or a trend is unconstitutional. There could be no freedom of opinion as long as there were groups that attempted against the republic. Within the Jacobins, in 1792, three basic tendencies emerged:

Since 1789, elections have been pending to elect the deputies of the Constituent Assembly. Electoral districts had to be drawn up first. In Paris the districts were made into neighbourhoods. In Paris the Sans-culottes and women, since they could not access the clubs, maintained their electoral structure. The Sans-culottes took advantage of the network organized in each neighbourhood and appropriated it to hold their meetings as if they were clubs.

The sectional movement begins. The majority of sections (43 out of 48) are the ones that take the revolutionary movement to the streets to pressure the Constituent Assembly to be more radical. The sectional movement coincides with the Girondins. People were organized.

From the beginning there were two powers: the power of the Commune (the sections) and the power of the Assembly. In the sectional movement, it was the masses who controlled it and that is why they stormed the Bastille.