The Assembly of Notables was a collective of 144 nobles and haute bourgeois who were convened for the first time since 1626, on 22 February 1787 by King Louis XVI and Comptroller-General Calonne in order to discuss taxation reform. Their approval was needed in order to demonstrate the stability of the French economy, thereby encouraging continued foreign investment, and also to make a stronger case to the French parlements who were needed to legislate the reforms.
Calonne proposed a series of changes including changes to tax privileges enjoyed by the First and Second Estates, in order to bring in more revenue to the French treasury and help repair the significant deficit caused by French spending in the American War of Independence. The Notables agreed that reform needed to occur in order to more evenly and equitably distribute the taxation burden across the population, in some cases even extending Calonne’s proposals, suggesting a broader application of the corvée, for instance. However, while they agreed that change needed to happen, they refused to unilaterally approve Calonne’s requests, stating that the input of those who would be paying taxes was necessary, with this idea of representative taxation drawn from the American War of Independence. Moreover, in order to better inform their decision-making, they “demanded to scrutinise the royal accounts”, an unprecedented request for royal accountability. They instead stated that only an Estates-General had the authority to approve any tax reform.
While the Marxist historians Rudé says that “the Notables refused to endorse ministerial reforms because their own cherished fiscal immunities were threatened”, Schama argues that “with respect to political self-consciousness the Notables were the first revolutionaries”1.
This was essentially the first form of resistance that the French monarchy had faced, and was of especial importance given that it originated from individuals who generally supported the monarchy as they were mostly of the Second Estate. Consequently, the King dissolved the Assembly on 25 May 1787 and dismissed Calonne (replacing him with de Brienne), further inciting the issue as the broader society now perceived the Notables as their champions and sharpened focus on reform.
Fenwick, J & Anderson, J. Liberating France. p.35 ↩
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