Necker and the Estates-General

  • Swiss banker Jacques Necker returned as director general of finance and insisted that Louis XVI call together Estates-General, a congress that originated in medieval period and consisted of three estates (1st Estate was clergy, 2nd Estate the nobility, and 3rd Estate the rest of French people)
  • May 5, 1789, Louis XVI convened Estates-General but it was apparent that its archaic arrangement would not be accepted by its present members
  • Parlement of Paris invoked an old rule mandating that each estate receive one vote, regardless of size; though Third Estate was vastly larger than clergy and nobility, its vote was overridden by combined votes of clergy and nobility

Resentment against the Church

  • 1st and 2nd Estates were closely related, linked to royalty and shared many similar privileges; their votes often went the same way, automatically neutralizing any effort by Third Estate
  • In a country as secularized as France, giving the church a full third of the vote was ill-advised: although France’s citizens would ultimately have their revenge, the church’s voting power fostered more animosity
  • Numerous philosophers in France spoke out against religion and many resented being forced to follow the decisions of the church on a national scale

Divides in the Third Estate

  • 3rd Estate varied greatly in socioeconomic status: some members were peasants and labourers, whereas others had occupations, wealth, and lifestyles of nobility -> disparities between members made it difficult for wealthy members to relate to peasants with whom they were grouped
  • Estates-General remained in a prolonged internal feud -> men such as Sieyès argued that Third Estate’s unity would give advantage of massive size, a force that could not be ignored

“What Is the Third Estate?”

  • Insultingly, delegates from 3rd Estate were forced to wear traditional black robes and to enter meeting hall by side door -> fed up with mistreatment, activists took to streets in protest
  • Most famous pamphlet was written by liberal clergy member Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès titled “What Is the Third Estate?” -> in response to his own question, Sieyès answered, “The Nation”
  • Sieyès articulated pervasive feeling that though a small minority might be in control, France truly belonged to the masses à Third Estate was roused to action, inciting the masses to take matters into their own hands if aristocracy failed to give them due respect

The Third Estate’s Revolt

  • As impasse in Estates-General continued, 3rd Estate became convinced of its entitlement to liberty
  • Since neither king nor other estates would acquiesce to its requests, 3rd Estate began to organize within itself and recruit actively from other estates -> June 17, 1789, bolstered by wide support, Third Estate broke away from Estates-General and proclaimed itself the National Assembly
  • National Assembly granted itself control over taxation; shortly thereafter, a majority of representatives of clergy and forty-seven members of nobility joined the cause

Blaming the Aristocracy

  • Reconvening of Estates-General presented aristocracy and clergy with opportunity to appease Third Estate and maintain control, but they focused only on maintaining their dominance rather than address important issues that plagued France
  • Third Estate wasn’t seeking revolution – just a bit of liberty and a more equitable tax burden; revolution might have been avoided had the Noble and Clerical Estates simply acquiesced to some of Third Estate’s moderate proposals -> instead, they lit revolutionary flame

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