The Estates-General and the French Revolution

What was the Estates-General?

The Estates-General (or States-General) was a representative assembly in Old Regime France. Although often compared to legislatures such as America’s Congress or Britain’s Parliament, the assembly had an advisory role and did not possess the right to create laws. In order to ensure that the body advised the King on behalf of the entire nation, the Estates-General was composed of delegates representing one of the three estates of the kingdom. Although the Estates-General was created in 1302, the body had rarely been summoned in the centuries prior to the French Revolution. The Estates-General played a key role in escalating the revolutionary events of 1789. 

Estates-General Definition

The Estates-General (in French, États Généraux) was a representative assembly in Old Regime France. Its purpose was to advise the King, primarily on financial matters. The assembly was composed of representatives from all Three Estates.

Origins of the Estates-General

The first Estates-General was held in 1302 and has its origins in the development of corporate representation in the 13th century. The Estates-Generals were generally summoned as an opportunity for the Three Estates to give aid and counsel. In other words, the assembly was convoked to approve tax increases and provide advice on political or social issues. 

With time the body started to amass considerable power, particularly during the chaotic 13th century and the hardships of the Hundred Years War. According to custom, the French could not be taxed without their consent, and it was argued by some that this consent had to be granted by the Estates-General. While this increased the importance of the assembly, it also made the body a threat to the absolute powers of the monarch. As absolutism gained in popularity amongst French kings, monarchs deliberately curtailed the influence and power of the Estates-General.

Why hadn’t an Estates-General been called in 175 years?

Prior to the Estates-General of 1789, the last Estates-General had been summoned in 1614. Although more than thirty Estates-Generals had been summoned since 1302, the monarchs of the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries had deliberately reduced their reliance on the assembly’s aid and council. Neither Louis XIV nor Louis XV convoked an Estates-General, while their two immediate predecessors (Henry IV and Louis XIII) called only one each. The reason for this lies in the rise of absolute monarchy. 

The reigns of Louis XIV and Louis XV were underpinned by absolutism. Absolute monarchy dictates that the monarch holds supreme autocratic authority and that the ruler is not restricted by laws, legislatures, or customs. The act of summoning an Estates-General would have weakened the notions of absolute monarchy, as no monarch with absolute power would require the aid or council of a representative body which had not been ordained by God (as the monarchs claimed they had been, through the notion of divine right). It’s for this reason that Louis XVI so vehemently resisted calls to convoke an Estates-General in 1787 and 1788. Ultimately, Louis XVI was forced to summon an Estates-General and it was widely perceived to be a sign of reduced monarchical power. 

The role of the Parlements and the Assembly of Notables in summoning the Estates-General of 1789

Although Kings Louis XIV and Louis XV had refused to summon an Estates-General, the assembly remained popular within some cohorts of the nation. In 1787, the Assembly of Notables refused to adopt Calonne’s and Brienne’s taxation reforms and instead demanded that the Estates-General be summoned in order to approve the government’s agenda. The Finance Minister, Étienne Brienne, refused to do so and sought to introduce his proposed reforms with the endorsement of the Paris Parlement.

Although initially cooperative, the parlements (led by the Paris Parlement) soon obstructed the government’s agenda. The parlements asserted that new taxes could only be approved by the Estates-General. On the 6th of August 1787, the King tried to force the Paris Parlement to ratify his reforms through a lit de justice. Unusually, members of the Parlement soon pronounced this session to be illegal and reiterated their calls for an Estates-General.

A painting of the Vizille Assembly of 1788, which acted as a miniature Estates-General.
The Vizille Assembly of 1788, which acted as a miniature Estates-General for the province of Dauphiné. The body’s existence and radical demands placed significant pressure on the government to call a national Estates-General.

This deadlock continued until May 1788. Louis XVI copied Louis XV’s tactic and forcibly suppressed the parlements. These judicial reforms (the May Edicts) created significant public unrest, particularly in communities dependent on the presence of parlements for local economic prosperity. On 7 June 1788, the ‘Day of Tiles’ revolt occurred when soldiers tried to forcibly close the Parlement of Grenoble. This revolt paved the way for the Vizille Assembly (the Estates-General of Dauphiné), and made the government’s position untenable. On the 8th of August 1788, the government relented and announced the summoning of an Estates-General. 

Voting by head and by order

Despite its long history, the manner in which the Estates-General voted was a matter of dispute throughout 1788 and 1789. 

Traditionally, the Estates-General had met as three separate estates, and voting was conducted ‘by order’. In this format, each estate deliberated on an issue by themselves before casting one vote as a collective estate. This meant that the Third Estate could be outvoted by the First and Second Estates two to one, despite the Third Estate representing roughly 97% of the population. 

Given that the Estates-General had not met since 1614, it was unclear if the Estates-General would follow the convention of voting by order.

An alternative arrangement was for the Estates-General to vote ‘by head’. In this arrangement, instead of each estate deliberately independently, all deputies would deliberate as one united assembly. Each deputy would be entitled to one vote, and a simple majority would be required to endorse a proposal. Furthermore, it was suggested that the Third Estate should have its representation doubled, as the Third Estate comprised the vast majority of the kingdom. With the Third’s representatives totaling the number of representatives for the First and Second Estates combined, and with each deputy casting one vote, it was envisioned that this structure would result in a more national and representative assembly.

On the 25th of September 1788, the Paris Parlement attempted to settle the debate. According to its edicts, the Estates-General was to follow the customs of the last assembly held in 1614. By following this form and procedures, the Estates-General would vote by order instead of by head (and the Third’s representation would remain equal to the other estates). 

The actions of the Paris Parlement outraged many in the Third Estate. Riots promptly broke out across the kingdom, including in Paris, Dijon, Pau, and Rennes. For the summer of 1788, the parlements had stylized themselves as the defenders of liberty and the people. However, the actions of the courts in September saw their popularity plummet as they were accused of serving the interests of the aristocratic elite. The popular press rapidly embraced calls for ‘voting by head’ and ‘doubling the Third’.

With unrest growing and the debate intensifying, Jacques Necker (who had replaced Brienne in August) summoned the second Assembly of Notables. This Assembly, recalled in November 1788, was given the mandate of examining the form and procedures of the Estates-General. Historians debate as to what outcome Necker sought (see podcast episode 1.08 Grievances of the Nation), but ultimately the Notables confirmed the edicts of the Paris Parlement. Voting by head and doubling the Third’s delegation were rejected by the body. 

On the 27th of December 1788, King Louis XVI, urged on by Necker, agreed to double the number of representatives for the Third Estate. However, the question of voting remained unresolved. The failure to address the manner in which the Estates-General would vote was significant because the size of each estate’s delegation was irrelevant if the estates voted by order (as each estate would only have one vote each). 

The electoral process

On the 24th of January 1789, King Louis XVI issued another edict that provided instructions for electing deputies to the Estates-General. Large-scale elections did not exist in Old Regime France (which had previously been a bastion for absolute monarchy), resulting in the design and implementation of a whole new electoral system. 

For the First and Second Estates, each bailliage was deemed its own electoral assembly. All nobles and clergymen could participate in these assemblies. Critically, the inclusion of parish priests in the electoral assemblies of the First Estate had a significant impact on shaping the estate’s delegation. While some members of the higher clergy were elected as representatives, many clerics who originally came from the Third Estate were elected as well (more details below). The presence of a large number of parish priests within the First Estate’s delegation was critical to the revolutionary events of June 1789. 

For the Third Estate, the electoral process was more complex and broken down into multiple stages. 

In the countryside, male taxpayers who were over the age of 25 were allowed to participate in parish assemblies. These parish assemblies elected representatives to bailliage assemblies. The same process happened in urban communities, but with the addition of representatives from guilds and corporations. The bailliage assemblies were ultimately responsible for electing deputies to the Estates-General. These assemblies also completed the compilation of the cahiers de doléance (lists of grievances).

Who comprised the Estates-General?

Multiple factors influenced the composition of the Third Estate’s deputation. Firstly, the multi-staged electoral process deliberately weakened the voices of radicals by making their election more difficult to obtain. Secondly, deputies had to pay for the expenses of traveling to and residing at Versailles, meaning that only deputies of reasonable wealth could afford to attend the assembly. 

Because of this, most of the Third Estates delegation was composed of members of the bourgeoisie rather than the working classes (such as day laborers or peasants).  Roughly one-third of the deputation were lawyers, with another third possessing an education in law despite not actively practicing the profession. Interestingly, some deputies for the Third Estate actually came from the Second Estate, such as the Comte de Mirabeau. 

The composition of the First and Second Estate’s representatives was by no means homogeneous in nature. Parish priests and members of the lower clergy dominated elections for the First Estate, resulting in a significant number of deputies who were sympathetic to the grievances of the Third. More than 200 of the 296 First Estate deputies were parish priests, while only 51 were bishops. In the Second Estate, roughly 70 percent of the deputies had connections to the armed forces. The remaining delegates were largely landed aristocrats or members of the Old Regime’s institutions, such as the Parlements.

How did the Estates-General become the National Assembly?

When the Estates-General met on the 5th of May 1789, the deputies had to conduct a process referred to as ‘verification’. What this meant was that the deputies had to verify the identities of each representative and confirm that they had been lawfully elected. 

Illustration of the Estates General of May 1789.
An illustration of the Estates-General of May 1789.

In order to conduct verification, the three estates split into separate groups to conduct their verifications independently. However, some factions within the Third Estate refused to allow the Third to verify its deputies. These factions, including the Brenton Club and the Dauphiné Delegates, saw the process of independent verification as akin to agreeing to vote by order instead of by head. Those in favor of voting by head argued that the entire Estates-General should verify each deputy, irrelevant of the estate they represented. As a result, they invited the other estates to join them to collectively verify every deputy as one singular body.

The First and Second Estates promptly rejected this invitation (the First Estate voted 134 to 114, the Second Estate voted 188 to 46). Undeterred, the Third Estate continued to refuse to verify its deputies. On the 10th of June 1789, Abbe Sieyès proposed that the Third Estate verify the deputies for every estate, even if the other estates refused to join them. This was a highly contentious and radical proposal, but the Third Estate supported it nonetheless. On the 12th, the Third Estate commenced its verification for all deputies. On the 14 of June, defectors from the First Estate started to join the Third Estate. Encouraged by growing numbers of priests joining them, the Third Estate voted on the 17th of June to declare itself the National Assembly (the vote was 490 to 90) . On the 19th, the First Estate voted 149 to 137 to join the National Assembly. The escalating crisis resulted in the intervention of the government, with the King suspending all meetings until a Séance royale had occurred. This suspension led directly to the Tennis Court Oath as well as the Third’s ongoing refusal to sit as a separate estate in a traditional Estates-General. The King eventually gave in to the demands of the Third, especially once it was clear that the majority of the First Estate’s delegates would insist on joining the Third Estate to form one united assembly. 

Quick Answers for Students

  • What was the Estates-General?

The Estates-General was a representative assembly in Old Regime France. Its purpose was to advise and aid the King. The assembly was composed of representatives from all Three Estates.

  • When was the Estates-General called?

Louis XVI announced on the 8th of August 1788 that an Estates-General would be summoned.

  • When did the Estates-General start?

The Estates-General of 1789 commenced on the 5th of May 1789.

  • Why was the Estates-General called?

In order to avoid bankruptcy, the French government needed to undertake a range of fiscal and taxation reforms. The Estates-General was called in order to endorse the reforms proposed by the government and enable the state to avert bankruptcy.

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