Estates General of 1789

The Estates General of 1789 was a general assembly representing the French estates of the realm: the clergy (First Estate), the nobility (Second Estate), and the commoners (Third Estate). Summoned by King Louis XVI, it was brought to an end when the Third Estate formed into a National Assembly, inviting the other two to join, against the wishes of the King. This signaled the outbreak of the French Revolution.

The decision to summon the Estates

First Assembly of Notables and peasants

The suggestion to summon the Estates General came from the Assembly of Notables installed by the King on 22 February 1787. It had not met since 1614. The usual business of registering the King’s edicts as law was performed by the Parlement of Paris. In this year it was refusing to cooperate with Charles Alexandre de Calonne‘s program of badly needed financial reform, due to the special interests of its noble members. Calonne was the Controller-General of Finances, appointed by the King to address the state deficit. As a last measure, Calonne was hoping to bypass them by reviving an archaic institution.[2] The initial roster of Notables included 137 nobles, among them many future revolutionaries, such as the Comte de Mirabeau and the Marquis de Lafayette, hero of the American Revolution. Lafayette had served in George Washington‘s army. Much of the debt had been incurred on behalf of the Americans. The final defeat of Lord Cornwallis at the Battle of Yorktown was due in large part to the participation of the French army and navy. If Calonne thought he would find more cooperation by changing the assembly, he was mistaken. He proposed a “land tax,” Subvention Territoriale, to be imposed on all land-holders, rich or poor. A storm of protest arose. Charges of mismanagement were made. Calonne was dismissed on 8 April 1787 and then was exiled. He commented on the French political scene from London.[3]

Calonne’s replacement was Étienne Charles de Loménie de Brienne, President of the Assembly of Notables. He was offered the post of Prime Minister, which was to include being Controller. The Notables nevertheless remained recalcitrant. They made a number of proposals but they would not grant the King money. Lafayette suggested that the problem required a national assembly. Brienne asked him if he meant the Estates General. On receiving an affirmative answer, Brienne recorded it as a proposal. Frustrated by his inability to obtain money, the King staged a day-long harangue, and then on 25 May dissolved the Notables. Their proposals reverted to the Parlement.[4]

Rebellion of the parliament

Turning again to the parliament, the King found that they were inclined to continue the issues that had been raised in the Assembly of Notables. Their proper legal function, besides giving advice to the King, was only to register, or record, his edicts as law, a matter of simple obedience, which the King’s father and grandfather had been able to command, sometimes by sternness, threats, and losses of temper. Unless registered, the edicts were not lawful.

On 6 July 1787, Loménie forwarded the Subvention Territoriale and another tax, the Edit du Timbre, or “Stamp Act,” based on the American model, for registration. Parlement refused an illegal act, demanding accounting statements, or “States,” as a prior condition. It was the King’s turn to refuse. The members of the Parlement began to jest that they required either the accounting States or the Estates General. The King could not let this slight to his authority pass. Parlement was commanded to assemble at the King’s palace at Versailles where, on 6 August, he ordered them in person to register the taxes. On 7 August back in Paris, the Parlement declared, in earnest this time, that the order was null and void, repudiating all previous registrations of taxes. Only the Estates General, they said, could register taxes.[5]

For the second time, the King summoned Parlement away from Paris, where crowds of people cheered their every act from the street, this time to meet at Troyes, Champagne on 15 August. He did not personally appear. By messenger he and Parlement negotiated an agreement: the King withdrew the Stamp Tax and modified the Land Tax to exclude the lands of people of title in return for the assured registration of further loans. Parlement was allowed to return on 20 September. Encouraged, Loménie, with the support of the King, went beyond the intent of the Parlement which was to grant specific loans. He proposed an Emprunt Successif (Successive Loan) until 1792 giving the King a blank cheque. When Parlement delayed the King resorted to a ruse; he scheduled a Royal Hunt for 19 November. On that day at 11:00 AM the King and his peers noisily entered the session of Parlement dressed in hunting clothes. They would confer with each other and have the decisions registered immediately, they said.[6]

Nearly the entire government was now face-to-face. They argued the problems and issues concerned until dusk, some six hours later. Parlement believed that the problem had gone beyond the government and needed the decisions of the Estates General which did not correspond to the King’s concept of monarchy. At the end of the day, the King demanded the registration of the Successive Loan. The Duc d’Orléans (a previous Notable, a relative of the King, and an ardent revolutionary), known as Philippe Égalité, asked if this were a Royal Session of the Peers or a Session of Parlement. On being told it was a Royal Session he replied that edicts were not registered at Royal Sessions. The King retorted, Vous êtes bien le maître (do as YOU will) with some sarcasm as the King’s will was legally required, and strode angrily from the session with a retinue. Lettres de Cachet, or arbitrary arrest warrants, followed on the 20th for D’Orleans and two others. They were taken into custody and held under comfortable conditions away from Paris; D’Orleans on his country estate. Parlement began a debate on the legality of Lettres de Cachet. The men being held became a cause célèbre.[7]

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As the King and Parlement could accomplish no more together De Brienne, over the winter, pressed for an alternative plan; to resurrect even more archaic institutions. The Grand Bailliages, or larger legal jurisdictions that once had existed, would assume Parlement legal functions, while the Plenary Court, last known under Louis IX, when it had the power to register edicts, would assume the registration duties of the Parlement, leaving it with no duties to perform. The King planned a sudden revelation and dismissal of Parlement. However, Jean-Jacques Duval d’Eprémesnil heard the government presses running and bribed the printer to give him the proofs of the edict. Hearing it read the next day, 3 May 1788, Parlement swore an oath not to be disbanded and defined a manifesto of their rights.

Warrants were issued for Eprémesnil and another but they escaped from their homes over the rooftops in the early morning to seek refuge in Parlement. The King sent his guards into Parlement to arrest them. They surrendered. Parlement filed silently out between a line of guards. The commander gave the key to the building to the King.[8]

The Return of Necker

The transfer of power to the new government was to begin on 8 May 1788 with the registration of the edicts establishing it in the regional Parlement. The latter refused unanimously following the Parlement of Paris. If the King’s commissioners forced the issue Parlement abandoned the meeting place only to return the next day to declare the registration null and void. Armed protest swept the kingdom. Street fighting broke out at Rennes, Brittany. A deputation sent to Paris from there was imprisoned in the Bastille. The Bretons in Paris founded the Breton Club, later the Jacobin Society. The Grand Bailliages could not be created and the Plenary Court met only once.[9]

Convening the Estates-General

Edict of 24 January 1789

The Estates-General were summoned by a royal edict dated to 24 January 1789. It comprised two parts: a Lettre du Roi, and a Règlement.[10]

The Lettre announces:”We have need of a concourse of our faithful subjects, to assist us surmount all the difficulties we find relative to the state of our finances… These great motives have resolved us to convoke the assemblée des États of all the provinces under our authority ….”

The King promises to address the grievances of his people. The “most notable persons” of each community and judicial district are summoned “to confer and to record remonstrances, complaints, and grievances.” Elections for Deputies are to be held. He says that he intends “reform of abuse,” “establishment of a fixed and durable order,” and “general prosperity.” The Lettre is signed “Louis.”

Lettres de Convocation were sent to all the provinces with the Règlement prescribing the methods of election. During the preceding autumn the Parlement of Paris, an aristocratic advisory body to the King, had decided that the organization of the convention would be the same as in 1614, the last time the Estates had met. As 175 years had gone by since then it is clear the Estates were not a functional institution in French society. By reviving them as much as possible like they had been the King and the Parlement intended to control the authority of the people. The previous Estates had voted by order; that is, the Nobles and the Clergy could together outvote the Commons by 2 to 1.

If on the other hand, each delegate were to have one vote, the majority would prevail. The issue was widely discussed in the press during the autumn of 1788. The people would nevertheless accept any national convention confident that enough members of the Nobility and the Clergy would be with them to sway the votes. A National Party was formed. It argued that France had never had a constitution and the proper function of the Convention was to establish one. The royalist defenders, however, accepted the absolute monarchy as the constitution. Just to be certain the press began to demand that the Commons be allocated twice as many delegates as each of the other two Estates. In an attempt to bolster his failing popularity the King acceded to this measure of “doubling the Third.” He was confident of his influence over the Nobility and Clergy.[11]

Elections of early Spring 1789

The First Estate represented 100,000 Catholic clergy; the Church owned about 10 percent of the land and collected its own taxes (the tithe) on peasants. The lands were controlled by bishops and abbots of monasteries, but two-thirds of the 303 delegates from the First Estate were ordinary parish priests; only 51 were bishops.[12] The Second Estate represented the nobility, about 400,000 men and women who owned about 25 percent of the land and collected seigneurial dues and rents from their peasant tenants. About a third of the 282 deputies representing the Second Estate were nobles, mostly with minor holdings. The Third Estate representation was doubled to 578 men, representing 95 percent of the population of roughly 25 million. Half were well-educated lawyers or local officials. Nearly a third were in trades or industry; 51 were wealthy land owners.[13][14]

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The Réglement that went out by post in January thus specified separate voting for delegates of each Estate. Each tax district (cities, boroughs, and parishes) would elect their own delegates to the Third Estate. The Bailliages, or judicial districts, would elect delegates to the First and Second Estates in separate ballots. Each voting assembly would also collect a Cahier, or “Notebook”, of grievances to be considered by the Convocation. The election rules differed somewhat depending on the type of voting unit, whether city, parish or some other. Generally, the distribution of delegates was by population: the most populous locations had the greatest number of delegates. The City of Paris was thus dominant. The electorate consisted of males 25 years and older, property owners, and registered taxpayers. They could be native or naturalized citizens.[15]

The number of delegates elected was about 1,200, half of whom formed the Third Estate. The First and Second Estates had 300 each. But French society had changed since 1614, and these Estates-General were not identical to those of 1614. Members of the nobility were not required to stand for election to the Second Estate, and many of them were elected to the Third Estate. The total number of nobles in the three Estates was about 400. Noble representatives of the Third Estate were among the most passionate revolutionaries in attendance, including Jean Joseph Mounier and the comte de Mirabeau. Despite their status as elected representatives of the Third Estate, many of these nobles were executed by guillotine during the Terror.[16]

The Nobles in the Second Estate were the richest and most powerful in the kingdom. The King could count on them, but that was of little use to him in the succeeding course of history. He had also expected that the First Estate would be predominantly the noble Bishops. The electorate, however, returned mainly parish priests, most of whom were sympathetic to the Commons. The Third Estate elections returned predominantly magistrates and lawyers. The lower levels of society, the landless, working men, though present in large numbers in street gangs, were totally absent from the Estates-General, as the King had called for “the most notable persons”.

The grievances returned were mainly about taxes, which the people considered a crushing burden.[17] Consequently, the people and the King were totally at odds from the very beginning. Aristocratic privilege was also attacked. The people resented the fact that nobles could excuse themselves from most of the burden of taxation and service that fell on the ordinary people. A third type complained that the ubiquitous tolls and duties levied by the nobility hindered internal commerce.[18]

Opening of the Convention

On 5 May 1789,[19] amidst general festivities, the Estates-General convened in an elaborate but temporary Île des États set up in one of the courtyards of the official Hôtel des Menus Plaisirs in the town of Versailles near the royal château. With the étiquette of 1614 strictly enforced, the clergy and nobility ranged in tiered seating in their full regalia, while the physical locations of the deputies from the Third Estate were at the far end, as dictated by the protocol. When Louis XVI and Charles Louis François de Paule de Barentin, the Keeper of the Seals of France, addressed the deputies on 6 May, the Third Estate discovered that the royal decree granting double representation also upheld the traditional voting “by orders”, i.e. that the collective vote of each estate would be weighed equally.

The apparent intent of the King and of Barentin was for everyone to get directly to the matter of taxes. The larger representation of the Third Estate would remain merely a symbol while giving them no extra power. Director-General of Finance Jacques Necker had more sympathy for the Third Estate, but on this occasion he spoke only about the fiscal situation, leaving it to Barentin to speak on how the Estates-General was to operate.

Trying to avoid the issue of representation and to focus solely on taxes, the King and his ministers had gravely misjudged the situation. The Third Estate wanted the estates to meet as one body and for each delegate to have one vote. The other two estates, while having their own grievances against royal absolutism, believed – correctly, as history was to prove – that they stood to lose more power to the Third Estate than they stood to gain from the King. Necker sympathized with the Third Estate in this matter, but the astute financier lacked equal astuteness as a politician. He decided to let the impasse play out to the point of stalemate before he would enter the fray. As a result, by the time the King yielded to the demand of the Third Estate, it seemed to all to be a concession wrung from the monarchy, rather than a magnanimous gift that would have convinced the populace of the King’s goodwill.[20]

Proceedings and dissolution

The Estates-General reached an impasse. The Second Estate pushed for meetings that were to transpire in three separate locations, as they had traditionally. The Comte de Mirabeau, a noble himself but elected to represent the Third Estate, tried but failed to keep all three orders in a single room for this discussion. Instead of discussing the King’s taxes, the three estates began to discuss separately the organization of the legislature. These efforts continued without success until 27 May, when the nobles voted to stand firm for separate verification. The following day, the Abbé Sieyès (a senior member of the clergy, but, like Mirabeau, elected to represent the Third Estate) moved that the representatives of the Third Estate, who now called themselves the Communes (“Commons”), proceed with verification and invite the other two estates to take part, but not to wait for them.

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On 13 June 1789, the Third Estate had arrived at a resolution to examine and settle the powers of the three orders. They invited the clergy and nobles to work with them on this endeavor. On 17 June, with the failure of efforts to reconcile the three estates, the Communes completed their own process of verification and almost immediately voted a measure far more radical: they declared themselves redefined as the National Assembly, an assembly not of the estates, but of the people. They invited the other orders to join them but made it clear that they intended to conduct the nation’s affairs with or without them. As their numbers exceeded the combined numbers of the other estates, they could dominate any combined assembly.

The King tried to resist. Under the influence of the courtiers of his privy council, he resolved to go in state to the Assembly, annul its decrees, command the separation of the orders, and dictate the reforms to be effected by the restored Estates-General. On 20 June, he ordered the hall where the National Assembly met, closed.[21] The Assembly moved their deliberations to the nearby tennis court, where they proceeded to swear the ‘Tennis Court Oath‘, by which they agreed not to separate until they had settled the constitution of France. Two days later, deprived of the use of the tennis court as well, the Assembly met in the Church of Saint Louis, where the majority of the representatives of the clergy joined them: efforts to restore the old order had served only to accelerate events.

In the séance royale of 23 June, the King granted a Charte octroyée, a constitution granted by royal favor, which affirmed, subject to the traditional limitations, the right of separate deliberation for the three orders, which constitutionally formed three chambers. This move failed; soon, that part of the deputies of the nobles who still stood apart joined the National Assembly at the request of the King. The Estates-General had ceased to exist, having become the National Assembly (and after 9 July 1789, the National Constituent Assembly).

See also


  1. Portalis, Roger; Béraldi, Henri (1881). Les Graveurs du Dix-Huitième Siècle. Tome Second. Paris: Damascène Morgand et Charles Fatout. p. 397.
  2. Carlyle 1902, p. 63
  3. Carlyle 1902, pp. 63–66
  4. Carlyle:1902, pp. 70–73
  5. Carlyle 1902, pp. 75–77
  6. Carlyle 1902, pp. 81–84
  7. Carlyle 1902, p. 85
  8. Carlyle 1902, pp. 86–95
  9. Carlyle 1902, pp. 95–97
  10. Louis XVI (1789). Lettre du Roi pour la Convocation des États-Généraux a Versailles, le 27 Avril, 1789, et Règlement y Annexé. Paris: L’Imprimerie Royale. p. 3. Nous avons besoin du concours de nos fidèles Sujets, pour nous aider à surmonter toutes les difficultés où nous nous trouvons relativement à l’état de nos finances …. Ces grands motifs nous ont déterminés à convoquer l’assemblée des États de toutes les Provinces de notre obéissance ….
  11. The analysis of the preceding two paragraphs is that of Neely 2008, pp. 55–58
  12. William Doyle, The Oxford History of the French Revolution (1989) p 59
  13. Doyle, The Oxford History of the French Revolution (1989) pp. 99–101
  14. Albert Soboul, The French Revolution 1787–1799 (1975) pp. 127–29.
  15. Boyer, John W.; Kirshner, Julius (1986). Baker, Keith Michael, ed. From Reform to Revolution. The Old Regime and the French Revolution. University of Chicago readings in Western civilization. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. pp. 180–84.
  16. von Guttner, Darius (2015). The French Revolution. Nelson Cengage. p. 225.
  17. Schwab, Gail M.; Jeanneney, John R. (1995-01-01). The French Revolution of 1789 and Its Impact. Greenwood Publishing Group.
  18. Elections results come from Neely 2008, pp. 61–63
  19. Dyer, Thomas Henry; Hassall, Arthur (1901-01-01). 1679-1789. G. Bell and sons.
  20. SparkNotes: the French Revolution (1789–1799): The Estates-General: 1789
  21. Palmer, Robert R. (2016-06-10). The World of the French Revolution. Routledge. ISBN 9781317189565.