On 8 August 1788, King Louis XVI acquiesced to public pressure and called for the convocation of the Estates-General for 1 May 1788, thus signalling the success of the Aristocratic Revolution.
The Estates-General was last convened in 1614, and had been constituted of a total of 900 deputies, 300 from each Estate. Voting rights were by Estate, meaning that the Third Estate effectively had no influence whatsoever.
The Paris Parlement, having championed the convocation of an Estates-General in order to decide the issue of tax reform, stated on 25 September 1788, that this new Estates-General should be constituted and run as was done in 1614. With this singular statement, the Paris Parlement lost the support of the Third Estate.
Instead, the Third Estate, inspired by What is the Third Estate?, demanded that the number of deputies from the Third Estate by doubled to 600 in order to better reflect the composition of society, and also that voting be by head and not by Estate. On 5 December 1788, Louis XVI agreed to the demand for a doubling of the number of representatives but did not make a decision on the issue of voting procedure. Many historians argue that if the King had been more decisive and had made a call as to the demand for voting by head, then the Revolution may have run a different course than it did, potentially even being averted to some extent1.
The Estates-General officially opened on 5 May 1789 at Versailles. From the outset, the Third Estate were marginalised, as they were forced to dress in black while the clergy wore formal clerical clothing and the nobility dressed in fine suits with hats. Furthermore, when they were to be first officially presented to the King, the Third Estate were kept waiting for several hours. Moreover, the King’s indecision over voting procedure effectively left it at the status quo, meaning that voting was still by Estate. Outraged at the consistent lack of respect being shown to them, the Third Estate representatives seceded from the Estates-General and created the National Assembly.
Louis XVI declared the National Assembly to be illegal and held a Royal Session on 23 June 1789, as an attempt to restore his royal authority and prerogative. In order to appease the radical National Assembly, the King made several concessions, including agreeing to abolish lettres de cachet (arbitrary royal decrees to imprison an individual without notice or explanation), establish a free press and not imposing any taxes without the prior consent of the nation’s representatives. However, while he made these concessions, he stood firm in outlawing the creation of the National Assembly and ordered all deputies to disperse and meet separately the following morning. It was here that two key leaders of the National Assembly, Mirabeau and Bailly, openly defied the King, with Mirabeau declaring that “we are here by the will of the nation and we will go only if we are driven out by bayonets” and Bailly stating that “the assembled nation cannot be given orders”.
As such, on 27 June 1789, Louis XVI finally capitulated and agreed to the issue of voting by head. In doing so, he undermined his own royal power as an absolute divine right monarch. In retaliation, the King blamed Necker for his own strife and sacked him on 11 July 1789, and also sent 18000 troops to circle the outskirts of Paris so as to quell any further appetite for reform.
Fenwick, J & Anderson, J. Liberating France. p.77 ↩
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