Episode 8: Grievances of the Nation


Episode 8, ‘Grievances of the Nation’, examines the events that unfold once King Louis XVI announced the summoning of the Estates-General. The Paris Parlement was ridiculed by the public for attempting to ensure the nobility dominated the body, while Necker struggled to grapple with the violent situation he faced as he determined how the Estates-General should be constituted. Finally, the nation listed their grievances as they elected their delegates, giving us a snapshot into the thoughts of a nation on the brink of revolution.

The Paris Parlement and the People

On September 25, 1788, the Paris Parlement announced that the upcoming Estates-General would sit as it had in 1614. This announcement was a fundamental betrayal of its ally, the Third Estate. For months the people had violently demonstrated in favor of the Parlements as the courts battled the King, and without the help of the people, the Parlement would have lost the battle almost immediately. But after the Vizille Assembly had occurred and the Estates General had been summoned, the conservatives faction of the Paris Parlement knew they had to reveal their true desire for the nobility to control the Estates-General. Allowing the Third to have its representation doubled and for the body to vote by head instead of by order would have ensured the commons controlled the body. This outcome was unacceptable to the conservatives. Once in the hands of the people, the Estates-General might move to address the bankruptcy by implementing policies abhorrent to the conservative nobles of the court and the Parlements.

The problem for conservative forces in the Paris Parlement, and in Versailles as well, was that by the time they realized how much power the masses had amassed, it was debatable too late. In having the Third Estate aid them in their battle against the crown, the Parlements had unleashed the monster that would devour them. The Third Estate had found inspiration and encouragement from the obstructionist nobility and had thus become fiercely politicized. The transformation of the Estates General into a truly national legislative body was now the common people’s rallying cry. Through the Estates General, the Third would seek to rectify all its woes.

Historian Gaetano Salvemini describes the politicalization of the Third over the summer of 1788. For Salvemini, the obstructionist precedent set by the nobles, coupled with the revolutionary sitting of the Vizille Assembly, paved the way for an awaken and rebellious Third Estate, as well as a future clash with its noble allies:

“Here a unanimous resolution was passed demanding convocation of the Estates-General, failing which the province would refuse to pay any tax. The meeting urged the King to withdrawal the edicts of May 8th, declared any person accepting office in conformity with them infamous and a traitor to his country, and exhorted the other provinces of France to follow the example of Dauphin in its struggle against governmental despotism. The nobles, now far gone on the road to rebellion, and forced to accept help from the bourgeoisie in the fight against tyranny, recognized the right of the Third Estate to have as many representatives in the States-General as those of the first two orders together.

Thus began the intervention of a new element, that of the so- called ‘nationals”, in the struggle which, until now, had been confined to the Government and the nobility of the sword and robe. The middle-classes, hitherto apathetic and distrustful, roused themselves, took heart from the audacity of the nobles, and took up their stand in the forefront of the battle against despotism while being applauded by the feudal classes. For the time being, this served as a strategic point in the fight against absolutism; but soon it was to become the point from which the Third Estate were to launch an attack of another and more formidable kind in its fight against their then allies of the day, the nobility and clergy.”

That new attack, the one against the nobility and clergy, was to be launched in part as retaliation for the Parlement trying to isolate the Third Estate from the levers of power.  The public had already violently protested against government policies throughout the summer of 1788. The Paris Parlement had merely added more fuel to the fire, and as the debate in the public domain raged about how the Estates-General should sit, order continued to dissipate.

“Nantes is as enflammé; in the cause of liberty, as any town in France can be; the conversations I witnessed here, prove how great a change is effected in the minds of the French, nor do I believe it will be possible for the present government to last half a century longer, unless the clearest and most decided talents are at the helm. The American revolution has laid the foundation of another in France, if government does not take care of itself.” – Arthur Young

The present government won’t even last 50 weeks. The politicization of the masses, which had been occurring since the Assembly of Notables and accelerating with speed since the failed suppression of the Parlements, was becoming increasingly visible. There was now a never-ending stream of political publications, pamphlets, newspapers, and journals, and such a revolution of the press laid the groundwork for a revolution in society. Literacy rates in French cities were relatively high by the 1780s. Roughly two-thirds of the salaried workers in Paris were able to read at a rudimentary level, with female literacy rates only slightly less.  Importantly, Censorship had all but disappeared as the government headed towards bankruptcy, and this lack of suppression was permitting the radical press to further politicize the nation.

“The censorship of the period was light by the standards of earlier kings, extremely light by the authoritarian standards of the Roman Catholic Church or the Communist dictatorships of later times or, indeed, of the despots who ruled most of eighteenth-century Europe. The Crown made only half-hearted efforts to stifle or to direct public debate.” – Historian John Bosher

Necker’s Dilemma

Between A Rock And A Hard Place

Having returned to office in late August 1788, Necker was faced with a very different country to the one he departed in 1781. The situation was going from bad to worse, and the nation was increasingly a combination of ungovernable and unpredictable. To make matters worse, the nation was on the brink of bankruptcy, an event which would have opened the door to chaos. Seeking to avoid bankruptcy at all cost, Necker sought to summon the Estates General earlier in order to ensure funds flowed continuously into the French treasury. In order to do that, however, he needed to address two very important questions. Should the Third be doubled, and should the Estates vote by order or by head?

With violence playing out on the streets of Paris and other urban centers, answering these two simple questions was anything but easy. To many contemporary observers, Necker faced a huge challenge in successfully (and peacefully) summoning the Estates-General and avoiding bankruptcy.

“In other circumstances I should have been pleased to inform Your Majesty of my father’s appointment, but the ship is being placed in his hands so close to the rocks that even my boundless admiration is scarcely enough to give me confidence” – Madame de Staël, Necker’s daughter, in a letter written on 4 September 1788 to Gustavus III, the King of Sweden.

“The Resignation of the Archbishop of Sens has been followed by some circumstances not flattering to the Administration of that Prelate. On his leaving Versailles, on Tuesday, the populace surrounded his carriage and insulted him with every reproachful epithet which they could bestow ; and in the evening he was burnt in Effigy at the Place Dauphine in Paris. The public, in general, who had been rather licentious in their Comments upon the conduct of the Archbishop while in Office, have since let loose their whole rage against him, and the mischief under which the Nation has groaned of late, is entirely ascribed to his arbitrary Counsels, and want of abilities in the management of affairs.

It must indeed be confessed (as far as reliance can be placed upon those who have been chiefly employed of late in matters of Finance) that he has betrayed the greatest insufficiency in that important branch of administration. But, if people, on the one hand, have condemned this Minister with some precipitation, the favor shown to the new one seems to be equally premature and exaggerated, a circumstance which perhaps ought not to be considered as altogether advantageous, since nothing less than miracles are now, daily, expected from him.” – Daniel Hailes, a senior British diplomat in Paris

Assembly of Notables 2.0

The debate over the Estates-General’s composition energized the Third Estate and had brought the nation to the brink of civil disorder. Necker needed to make a decision, and to help him, he tried to get another to make the decision for him. With the King indecisive and the Parlement now loathed by the people, Necker summoned a new Assembly of Notables to advise on how the Estates-General should be regulated. In the second Assembly of Notables, the government received a body with an altogether different persona from that of the first. Despite being comprised of many of the same individuals, the Assembly did not behave in the same obstructionist and debatably radical manner it did in 1787. Instead, the second Assembly of Notables was staunchly conservative in its composition, refusing to endorse the doubling of the Third Estate and recommending the Estates General sit as it had in 1614. Essentially siding with the Paris Parlement, it would appear that the Notables too had grown wary of the common people and the violence of previous months had prompted them to reconsider the prospect of handing the Third Estate the levers of power.

“Opinion became daily more decided, and Necker wishing, yet fearing, to satisfy it, and desirous of conciliating all orders, of obtaining general approbation, convoked a second assembly of notables on the 6th of November, 1788, to deliberate on the composition of the states-general, and the election of its members. He thought to induce it to accept the double representation of the third estate, but it refused, and he was obliged to decide, in spite of the notables, that which he ought to have decided without them.” – Historian Francois Mignet

Who did Necker support?

According to Mignet’s retelling of events, Necker desired the doubling of the Third Estate, and he summoned the Notables to help him to do just that. The Notables thus foiled Necker’s plan to empower the Third Estate. However, whether Necker supported the Third’s cause, or just sought a resolution that would give him an Estates-General and thus loans and taxes, is a matter for historical debate. Other Historians believe Necker secretly wished for the Third Estate to remain disenfranchised within the Estates-General, and that only public pressure forced his hand.

“It was the general opinion in France that in the States-General, in which the three classes would be separately represented, the Third Estate ought to have twice as many members as the two others, and that the voting should be by individuals. But Louis XVI. and Necker were opposed to this, and even convoked a second Assembly of Notables on November 6, 1788, which would, they were sure, reject the doubling of numbers in the Third Estate and the individual vote. This was exactly what happened; but in spite of that, public opinion had been so predisposed in favour of the Third Estate by the provincial Assemblies that Necker and the Court were obliged to give in.” –  Historian Peter Kropotkin

“The agitation in the provinces, and the explosion of pent-up feeling that followed the unlicensed printing of political tracts, showed that public opinion moved faster than that of the two great conservative bodies. It became urgent that the Government should come to an early and resolute decision, and should occupy ground that might be held against the surging democracy. Necker judged that the position would be impregnable if he stood upon the lines drawn by the Notables, and he decided that the Commons should be equal to either order singly, and not jointly to the two. In consultation with a statesmanlike prelate, the Archbishop of Bordeaux, he drew up and printed a report, refusing the desired increase. But as he sat anxiously watching the winds and the tide, he began to doubt; and when letters came, warning him that the nobles would be butchered if the decision went in their favour, he took alarm. He said to his friends, “If we do not multiply the Commons by two, they will multiply themselves by ten.” When the Archbishop saw him again at Christmas, Necker assured him that the Government was no longer strong enough to resist the popular demand.” – Historian John Dalberg-Acton

Giving in to the demands of the people, on December 27, 1788, Necker announced the Third Estate will be doubled. No declaration was made as to how the Estates-General would vote or how it would be elected, ensuring that civil unrest would continue to unfold throughout the country. On January 27, Historian George Leberve describes the situation in Rennes as a civil war on the streets. Nobles and bourgeoise groups vied for control of governing bodies, hoping to use them to influence the local elections for the Estates-General.  As hostility increased between the haves and the have-nots, the Swiss journalist Mallet du Pan wrote, “The public debate has totally changed in its emphasis; now the King, despotism, and the Constitution are only very secondary questions; and it has become a war between the Third Estate and the other two orders.” Finally, the government announced how elections would take place, yet the government still had failed to decide how the Estates-General would sit. In failing to definitively decide how the Estates-General should function early on, Historian Shalier Matthews slams Necker’s leadership and ability to dictate the agenda, “In nothing was the incompetence of Necker more clearly shown than in his refusal to decide in advance whether the new body should vote, by order as in 1614, or by member.”


Lists of Grievances

While electing their delegates and deputies, the people of France drew up lists of grievances. It was intended that the Estates General could use these lists to pinpoint what policies should be pursued, and how the Estates-General could govern for the benefit of both the people of France and for a specific area of the country. The result of these lists is that the hopes and desires of an entire nation can be found in more than 40,000 unique, independent lists. Furthermore, the government made a deliberate attempt not to influence their contents, and thus we have a snapshot of the minds of the French citizenry just months before a monumental revolution was undertaken.

In the cahiers, as they’re known, one can see a combination of social and economic grievances, as well as local and national issues. Political grievances were also voiced through these documents, and in venturing into the political, the people were challenging the foundations of the Old Regime. Those cahiers that didn’t call for a constitution outright often called for one implicitly. For example, some called for the Estates-General to convene regularly, for the trial of ministers when they acted in an illegal or despotic manner, and for the administration of taxation by newly created and elected municipal governments.

Historian Edward Lowell describes just how political the cahiers of all three orders could be:

“It is a mistake to assume that the Frenchmen of 1789 cared chiefly for civil and social reforms, and only incidentally for reforms of a political character. In most of the cahiers the political reforms are first mentioned and are as elaborately insisted on as any others. If there be any difference in this respect among the Orders, it is that the Nobility are more urgent for the political part of the programme than either the Clergy or the Third Estate. The priests were much occupied with their own affairs. The peasantry were thinking of the hardships they suffered. But all intelligent men felt that social and economic reforms would be unstable unless an adequate political reform were made also. The deputies of the three orders were in many cases instructed not to consider questions of state debt or taxation until the proposed constitution had been adopted.”

These calls for political reform, for a constitution, inevitably infringed on the King’s authority. Many Historians, however, note the praise of both the King and the monarchy. Lacking uniform hostility towards the Old Regime, it appears that the people were inclined more towards reform than revolution. Historian Robert Johnson, noting just how popular the King remained amongst the people, goes as far to claim that,

“The illusion of Bourbonism was at that moment, so far as surface appearances went, practically untouched.”

Untouched or not, an unintended erosion of royal power occurred as a direct result of the symbolism of the lists themselves. Through the cahiers, the people, in their eyes, had told the King their problems. When inaction was the only thing to come from these lists, poorer members of the Third Estate assumed that it not because the King did not care, but because corruption in his government was preventing his remedies. Thus, some members of the Third Estate would feel justified in taking matters into their own hands. In the coming months, the disorder that had recently plagued the urban communities would infiltrate the countryside. This disorder would be so great that it would be known as the Great Fear.

Grey History