Episode 7: Cradle of the Revolution


Episode 7, ‘Cradle of the Revolution’, examines the consequences of the King suppressing the Parlements on May 8, 1788. As the political situation in Paris and the countryside deteriorated rapidly, armed revolts became a serious threat, radical bodies emerged, and the demands for Necker’s reinstatement and the summoning of the Estates-General continued to haunt the government.

Winners and Losers

In order to try to contain the backlash from suppressing the Parlements, the government introduced a package of sweeping reforms which, while robbing the Parlements of their authority, would debatably be quite beneficial to the Third Estate. Reforms included the promotion of lower courts (aiding the bourgeoisie in their quest for advancement) and new policies regarding prisons and death sentences. However, as with all reforms, the changes inevitably created winners and losers. Amongst the losers were those towns which were the seats of Parlements and had previously enjoyed a monopoly on justice in the region. These urban centers stood to lose all the various jobs that came with the perks of having a Parlement within the town’s walls. In a city like Paris, the proportion of the population employed by the Parlement would not be enough to seriously jeopardize the local economy, but the situation was very different in smaller urban centers. The government’s reforms were effectively promising a severe double hit to these communities. Firstly, the judicial power would be dispersed to rival towns as decentralization of the administration of justice occurred. Secondly, a significant portion of that town’s economy would dissipate in the process, as everyone from wigmakers to lawyers, pamphleteers to coach drivers would be impacted by the changes. Thus, smaller urban communities had a very good reason to resist the government’s suppression of the Parlement, and resistance is precisely what occurred. The flames of civil disobedience rose throughout the provinces as the battleground expanded from the Parisian suburbs (which were by no means quiet). Rennes and Pau both experienced violent demonstrations, while riots were experienced in Brittany, Bearn, Burgundy, Flanders, French-Comte and Provence.

“In Dauphiny and other Provinces, no taxes whatever can be collected, and accounts of some fresh act of Revolt and disobedience arrive every day from different parts of the Kingdom.” – The British Charge de Affairs

The Day of Tiles

On the 20th of May 1788 the Parlement of Dauphine declared Lamoignon’s May Edicts illegal, joining the rebellion of other Parlements against the government and resisting suppression.  In order to suppress the troublesome nobles, letters de cachet were served to the judges on the 7th of June, a Saturday. Saturday was also market day, which meant that all the peasants from nearby communities were in town. Like the townsfolk themselves, the peasants around Grenoble were fearful of Parlement’s suppression due to the economic impacts that would result should it occur. If the wig makers and lawyers had no jobs, the peasants had no customers, resulting in the local peasantry being just as ready to defend the Parlement as the other members of Grenoble’s populace.

The issuing of letters de cachet had the whole town on edge. Seeking to arrest the troublesome judges while maintaining order, the local troop commander, the Duc de Clermont-Tonnerre, made a critical error. In order to contain the situation and prevent it from becoming a full-fledged revolt, the Lieutenant-General of the Dauphine sent out his men in small detachments to try to quell the crowd. Instead of pacifying the populace, the presence of the troops merely infuriated the people, while the out-numbered, small detachments of soldiers did little to intimidate masses.  As the crowd began to rage against the half-baked attempt to contain it, the people of Grenoble took the rooftops. The King’s men came under fire, not from bullets, but from tiles. The populace threw roof tiles at the troops below, earning the revolt its iconic name. The troops fired back as the projectiles rained upon them, killing a handful of individuals but escalating the possibility a major civil revolt. Fearing the necessity of a bloody suppression should the situation deteriorate further, the Duc de Clermont-Tonnerre retreated from the city, and the Parlement’s judges were left in their place.

A Troublesome Ally

The lack of copious amounts of blood or death does not disqualify the revolt from a prominent place in the history of a revolution full of those things. The Day of Tiles is important because of its immediate repercussions and because of what it foreshadows.

The Parlement’s judges began to question if they really wanted to be left in their place. Stuck in a rioting city with a mob that was looting the wine cellars of the governor’s house, the judges began to think differently about their ally, the common people. Mobilising the masses seemed a good way to pressure the royal authorities, but once that mobilization had occurred, channeling their newly created weapon proved more difficult than anticipated. In fact, some judges began to fear the power of their ‘saviors’, and they were not the only ones horrified by the violence according to some Historians.

“The middle classes of Grenoble were in a state of terror. During the night they organised a militia of citizens that took possession of the town gates as well as of some military posts, which they yielded to the troops soon after. Cannon were trained on the rebels, while the parlement took advantage the darkness to disappear. From June 9 to 14 reaction triumphed, but on the 14th news came that there had been a rising at Besancon and that the Swiss soldiers had refused to fire on the people. Upon this the people’s spirit revived, and it was proposed to convoke the Estates of the province.” – Historian Petr Kropotkin

Yet some members of the radical wings of the Parlement did not fear the masses. In the power vacuum created by the absence of the King’s authority, some radical individuals showed how a few skilled orators could manipulate chaos to advance their own goals, a sight witnessed repeatedly throughout the revolution. One such judge was Jean-Joseph Mounier. Mounier used the disarray to force the summoning of the Estates of Dauphine, a provincial, miniature Estates-General. In doing so, the Day of Tiles cemented Grenoble’s place as the cradle of the revolution. There would finally be an Estates General in France! It may not have represented all of France, but all of France was watching.

The Vizille Assembly (The Dauphine Estates)

Historian Robert Johnson describes the situation and what follows:

“Not only did the provincial Parlements support that of Paris in its resistance to the Court, but the provinces themselves began to stir, and finally, a month after d’Éspréménil’s arrest, a large meeting at Grenoble decided to call together the old Estates of the province, the province of Dauphiné.

This was almost civil war, and threatened to plunge France back into the conditions of two centuries earlier. The Government ordered troops to Grenoble to put down the movement. The commanding general, however, on arriving near the city, found the situation so alarming that he agreed to a compromise, whereby the Estates were to hold a meeting, but not in the capital of the province. Accordingly, at the village of Vizille, on the 21st of July, several hundred persons assembled, representing the three orders, nobility, clergy, and Third Estate of the province; and of these it had been previously agreed that the Third Estate should be allowed double representation.

The leading figure of the assembly of Vizille was Jean Joseph Mounier. He was a middle class man, a lawyer, upright, intelligent, yet moderate, who felt the need of reform, and who was prepared to labour for it. He inspired all the proceedings at Vizille, and as secretary of the Estates, had the chief part in drawing up its resolutions. These demanded the convocation of the States-General of France, pledged the province to refuse to pay all taxes not voted by the States-General, and called for the abolition of arbitrary imprisonment on the King’s order by the warrant known as the lettre de cachet.”

The demands of the Vizille Assembly were nothing short of revolutionary. Its calls for countrywide defiance were revolutionary. Its very existence was in fact revolutionary. Everything the Assembly did was a direct challenge to the authority of the King. Antoine Barnave described the events as the initial foundations of a democratic revolution. Considering the language used by Mounier at the Assembly, it is hard to argue with Barnave’s point of view (Amongst other things, Mounier had declared that, “the rights of man derive from nature alone and are independent of conventions”). The Assembly challenged the very foundations of the Old Regime, the traditions of the French nation, and the justification of the status quo. Judging by the ramifications as described by Historian Robert Johnson, the challenge had a significant effect:

“The effect of the resolutions of the assembly of Vizille through France was immediate. They were simple, direct, and voiced the general feeling; they also indicated that the moment had come for interfering in the chronic mismanagement of affairs. So irresistible was their force that Loménie de Brienne and the King accepted them with hardly a struggle.”

Five weeks after the Vizille Assembly met, France was a different place. With a revolutionary body openly defying the Crown, and with civil disobedience increasing throughout the Kingdom, the government had to admit defeat. On the 8th of August, Louis agreed to call an Estates-General for 1 May 1789. On the 25th of August, Brienne resigned. Facing immediate bankruptcy, Brienne had to suspend government payments as one of his final acts. The minister had attempted to suppress the Parlements but instead had only suppressed his career. After the revolutionary events in the Dauphine, the minister had no choice but to go. In the words of Historian Shalier Mathews, Brienne was, “abandoned by the clergy, disobeyed by the army, fought by the Parlements and the courts, and hated by the nation”.

New Language In The Press

The tone, style, and verbiage of the press underwent a significant transformation as the Parlement’s battled their suppression with the help of the common people. A shift occurs throughout the press and the public debate that fuels the transformation of an aristocratic revolt morphing into a revolutionary one.

Two words sum up this shift in the public debate: ‘nation’ and ‘treason’. The Third Estate started to identify themselves as “the nation”, while the two privileged classes were not. Once marginalized, the two privileged orders were fast depicted by some radicals as leeches, parasites, and viruses. In short, they were categorized as traitors to the nation. This depiction was not new, but the doubling of the representation of Third Estate delegates at Vizille helped to bring the issues of representation, sovereignty, and citizenship to the fore. The Revolution would struggle to grapple with these ideas over the coming years. What does it mean to be French? Who comprises the French nation? What rights does citizenship infer? What to do with traitors? These questions would never be settled, and they were flung to the forefront of public debate as this aristocratic revolution transformed into a revolutionary one.

Necker Returns, Violence Continues, Parlement Surprises

The King recalled Necker to replace Brienne after his finance minister resigned on August the 25th. The King still resented Necker from the events at the start of the decade, and his wife did too. The Queen penned a letter to the Austrian Ambassador on the 20th of August making it clear she dreaded the return of the Genevan Banker. Necker’s daughter, Madame de Staël, noted the frosty reception she received from the court upon her arrival:

I waited on the Queen according to custom on the day of St. Louis: the niece of the Archbishop of Sens, who had that morning been dismissed from office, was also at the levee; and the Queen showed clearly, by her manner of receiving the two, that she felt a much stronger predilection for the removed minister, than for his successor.

The Queen’s animosity was not shared by all. Madame de Staël continues to write, “The courtiers acted differently for never did so many persons offer to conduct me to my carriage.”

Historian Bertha Garinder describes the situation as follows:

“Necker’s return to office was greeted with a burst of applause from one end of France to the other. His financial ability was relied on to stave off bankruptcy, and it was known that he had always recalled to opposed the court, and that he now desired the meeting of the States- General. But his popularity was due to those causes alone; not to any proof that he had given or could give of his fitness to direct the royal policy. As he failed to comprehend the real causes of the impending revolution, he would be unable to moderate its violence.”

As highlighted by Garinder, the violence which first engulfed many provincial cities and regions after Lamignon tried to suppress the Parlements was becoming more problematic and persistent. The capital was not immune to the disorder either. When Brienne resigned, effigies of the bishop were burnt in the streets. One effigy was burnt at the base of the statue of former a king, a potent symbol of the deteriorating power of both King’s and their Ministers. Clashes with the authorities became commonplace, and the Gazette de Leyde published the following regarding Necker’s return and the toxic mixture of celebration and civil disobedience which it prompted: “The degree of excitement was such, at the resignation of the archbishop of Sens, that the people’s joy at the appointment of the new minister could not be contained within the limits of order. For three days skyrockets and other fireworks were fired from the Palais-Royal and place Dauphine. People even forced the inhabitants of the district to illuminate their houses and, following the English fashion, broke the windows of any that were not lit up.”

The violence didn’t end upon Necker’s return. At the end of August, riots in Paris resulted in six guardhouses being burnt to a crisp. Historian Petr Kropotkin noted that, “On September 14, 1788, when the retirement of Lamoignon became known, the riotings were renewed. The mob rushed to set fire to the houses of the two ministers, Lamoignon and Brienne, as well as to that of Dubois.”

Royal authority was in tatters, and a revolution was bubbling away. According to Historian John Boscher, it was this violence, which had been occurring for months, which forced the King to summon the Estates-General and recall Necker.

“Why did this royal coup fail? Why did Louis XVI discharge Lamoignon on 14 September 1788 and why, on 23 September, did he give up the May edicts and restore all of the parlements? The answer is that Louis XVI decided to bow before a storm of hostile public opinion which blew up during the Lamoignon- Lomenie de Brienne ministry. Whatever may be said ex post facto about Louis’s judgment, any ruler might have found the protests of these months daunting. They came from every direction and seemed to be growing.” – Historian John Bosher

In the face of such violence and resistance, its understandable why the government can at times appear to be paralyzed. The addition of Necker to the ministry did not seem to help contain the masses even if it did help to contain the looming bankruptcy. With the court unsure how to respond to the deteriorating situation, the Parlement sparked further outrage in a blatant grab for power. Seeking to regain the initiative and control the increasingly unstable crowd, the conservatives within the Parlement of Paris took drastic action.  On the 25th of September, 1788, the Parlement announced that the Estates-General would meet as it did in 1614. The Three Estates would vote by order, each with equal members. Robbing the people of the sovereignty they sought, the Parlement had revealed its true colors. Overnight, the Parlement had become the enemy of the people. The Parlements may have provoked the aristocratic revolt, but it was the common people who ensured its success, and the Parlement had just declared war on the common people. It was a war it was likely to lose.

Grey History