Calling the Estates-General

The Estates-General of 1789 was a general assembly representing the French estates of the realm summoned by Louis XVI to propose solutions to France’s financial problems. It ended when the Third Estate formed into a National Assembly, signaling the outbreak of the French Revolution.

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Key Takeaways

Key PointsThe Estates-General of 1789 was the first meeting since 1614 of the French Estates-General, a general assembly representing the French estates of the realm. Summoned by King Louis XVI to propose solutions to his government’s financial problems, the Estates-General convened for several weeks in May and June 1789.In 1787, pressured by France’s desperate financial situation, the King convened an Assembly of Notables. France’s finance minister, Charles Alexandre de Calonne, hoped that if the Assembly supported proposed finance reforms, parlements would be forced to register them. The plan failed but the Assembly insisted that the proposed reforms should be presented to the Estates-General.Louis XVI convoked the Estates-General for May 1789. The King agreed to retain many of the divisive customs which had been the norm in 1614 but were intolerable to the Third Estate. The most controversial and significant decision remained the nature of voting.On May 5, 1789, the Estates-General convened. The following day, the Third Estate discovered that the royal decree granting double representation also upheld traditional voting by orders. By trying to avoid the issue of representation and focus solely on taxes, the King and his ministers gravely misjudged the situation.On June 17, with the failure of efforts to reconcile the three estates, the Third Estate 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.The King tried to resist but after failed attempts to sabotage the Assembly and keep the three estates separate, the Estates-General ceased to exist, becoming the National Assembly.Key Termsparlements: Provincial appellate courts in the France of the Ancien Régime, i.e. before the French Revolution. They were not legislative bodies but rather the court of final appeal of the judicial system. They typically wielded much power over a wide range of subject matter, particularly taxation. Laws and edicts issued by the Crown were not official in their respective jurisdictions until assent was given by publication. The members were aristocrats who had bought or inherited their offices and were independent of the King.estates of the realm: The broad orders of social hierarchy used in Christendom (Christian Europe) from the medieval period to early modern Europe. Different systems for dividing society members into estates evolved over time. The best-known system is the French Ancien Régime (Old Regime), a three-estate system used until the French Revolution (1789–1799). It was made up of clergy (the First Estate), nobility (the Second Estate), and commoners (the Third Estate).Tennis Court Oath: An oath taken on June 20, 1789, by the members of the French Estates-General for the Third Estate who had begun to call themselves the National Assembly, vowing “not to separate, and to reassemble wherever circumstances require, until the constitution of the kingdom is established.” It was a pivotal event in the early days of the French Revolution.Assembly of Notables: A group of high-ranking nobles, ecclesiastics, and state functionaries convened by the King of France on extraordinary occasions to consult on matters of state.Estates-General: A general assembly representing the French estates of the realm: the clergy (First Estate), the nobles (Second Estate), and the common people (Third Estate).

The Estates-General (or States-General) of 1789 was the first meeting since 1614 of the general assembly representing the French estates of the realm: the clergy (First Estate), the nobles (Second Estate), and the common people (Third Estate). Summoned by King Louis XVI to propose solutions to his government’s financial problems, the Estates-General sat for several weeks in May and June 1789.

Assembly of Notables of 1787

An Assembly of Notables was a group of high-ranking nobles, ecclesiastics, and state functionaries convened by the King of France on extraordinary occasions to consult on matters of state. Throughout the history of modern France, such an assembly was convened only several times, serving a consultative purpose. Unlike the States-General, whose members were elected by the subjects of the realm, the assemblymen were selected by the king and were prominent men, usually of the aristocracy. In 1787, pressured by France’s desperate financial situation, the King convened an assembly. Repeated attempts to implement tax reform failed due to lack of the Parlement of Paris support, as parlement judges felt that any increase in tax would have a direct negative effect on their own income. In response to this opposition, the finance minister Charles Alexandre de Calonne suggested that Louis XVI call an Assembly of Notables. While the Assembly had no legislative power in its own right, Calonne hoped that if it supported the proposed reforms, parlement would be forced to register them. Most historians argue that the plan failed because the assemblymen, whose privileges the plan aimed to curb, refused to bear the burden of increased taxation, although some have noted that the nobles were quite open to changes but rejected the specifics of Calonne’s proposal. In addition, the Assembly insisted that the proposed reforms should actually be presented to a representative body such as the Estates-General.

Estates-General of 1789

Louis XVI convened the Estates-General in 1788, setting the date of its opening for May 1, 1789. Because it had been so long since the Estates-General had been brought together, there was a debate as to which procedures should be followed. The King agreed to retain many of the divisive customs which were the norm in 1614 but intolerable to the Third Estate at a time when the concept of equality was central to public debate. The most controversial and significant decision remained that of the nature of voting. If the estates voted by order, the nobles and the clergy could together outvote the commons by 2 to 1. If, on the other hand, each delegate was to have one vote, the majority would prevail.

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 like those of 1614. Members of the nobility were not required to stand for election to the Second Estate and many 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, including Jean Joseph Mounier and the comte de Mirabeau.

On May 5, 1789, the Estates-General convened. The following day, the Third Estate discovered that the royal decree granting double representation also upheld the traditional voting by orders. The apparent intent of the King and his advisers was for everyone to get directly to the matter of taxes, but by trying to avoid the issue of representation they 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 would prove – that they would 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 lacked 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 to be a concession wrung from the monarchy rather than a gift that would have convinced the populace of the King’s goodwill.


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Painting by Auguste Couder showing the opening of the Estates-General, ca. 1838.


The suggestion to summon the Estates General came from the Assembly of Notables installed by the King in 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 1787, it refused to cooperate with Charles Alexandre de Calonne’s program of badly needed financial reform, due to the special interests of its noble members.

On June 17, with the failure of efforts to reconcile the three estates, the Communes – or the Commons, as the Third Estate called itself now – 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. The King tried to resist. On June 20, he ordered to close the hall where the National Assembly met, but deliberations moved to a 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, removed from 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. After a failed attempt to keep the three estates separate, 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 ceased to exist, becoming the National Assembly.


Establishment of the National Assembly

Following the storming of the Bastille on July 14, the National Assembly became the effective government and constitution drafter that ruled until passing the 1791 Constitution, which turned France into a constitutional monarchy.


Key Takeaways

Key PointsAfter the Third Estate discovered that the royal decree granting double representation upheld the traditional voting by orders, its representatives refused to accept the imposed rules and proceeded to meet separately. On June 17, with the failure of efforts to reconcile the three estates, the Third Estate declared themselves redefined as the National Assembly, an assembly not of the estate but of the people.After Louis XVI’s failed attempts to sabotage the Assembly and to keep the three estates separate, the Estates-General ceased to exist, becoming the National Assembly. It renamed itself the National Constituent Assembly on July 9 and began to function as a governing body and constitution-drafter. Following the storming of the Bastille on July 14, the National Assembly became the effective government of France.The leading forces of the Assembly at this time were the conservative foes of the revolution (“The Right”); the Monarchiens inclined toward arranging France along lines similar to the British constitution model; and “the Left,” a group still relatively united in support of revolution and democracy. A critical figure in the Assembly was Abbé Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès, who authored a pamphlet called “What Is the Third Estate?”In August 1789, the National Constituent Assembly abolished feudalism and published the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, but the financial crisis continued largely unaddressed and the deficit only increased.In November, the Assembly suspended the old judicial system and declared the property of the Church to be “at the disposal of the nation.” In 1790, religious orders were dissolved and the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, which turned the remaining clergy into employees of the state, was passed.In the turmoil of the revolution, the Assembly members gathered the various constitutional laws they had passed into a single constitution and submitted it to recently restored Louis XVI, who accepted it. Under the Constitution of 1791, France would function as a constitutional monarchy.Key TermsEstates-General: A general assembly representing the French estates of the realm: the clergy (First Estate), the nobles (Second Estate), and the common people (Third Estate).estates of the realm: The broad orders of social hierarchy used in Christendom (Christian Europe) from the medieval period to early modern Europe. Different systems for dividing society members into estates evolved over time. The best-known system is the French Ancien Régime (Old Regime), a three-estate system used until the French Revolution (1789–1799). It was made up of clergy (the First Estate), nobility (the Second Estate), and commoners (the Third Estate).Tennis Court Oath: An oath taken on June 20, 1789, by the members of the French Estates-General for the Third Estate, who had begun to call themselves the National Assembly, vowing “not to separate, and to reassemble wherever circumstances require, until the constitution of the kingdom is established.” It was a pivotal event in the early days of the French Revolution.Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen: A fundamental document of the French Revolution and in the history of human and civil rights, passed by France’s National Constituent Assembly in August 1789. It was influenced by the doctrine of natural right, stating that the rights of man are held to be universal. It became the basis for a nation of free individuals protected equally by law.What Is the Third Estate?: A political pamphlet written in January 1789, shortly before the outbreak of the French Revolution, by French thinker and clergyman Abbé Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès. The pamphlet was Sieyès’ response to finance minister Jacques Necker’s invitation for writers to state how they thought the Estates-General should be organized.

From Estates General to National Assembly

The Estates-General, convened by Louis XVI to deal with France’s financial crisis, assembled on May 5, 1789. Its members were elected to represent the estates of the realm: the First Estate (the clergy), the Second Estate (the nobility), and the Third Estate (the commoners) but the Third Estate had been granted “double representation” (twice as many delegates as each of the other estates). However, the following day, the Third Estate discovered that the royal decree granting double representation also upheld the traditional voting by orders. That meant that the nobles and the clergy could together outvote the commoners by 2 to 1. If, on the other hand, each delegate was to have one vote, the majority would prevail. As a result, double representation was meaningless in terms of power. The Third Estate refused to accept the imposed rules and proceeded to meet separately, calling themselves the Communes (“Commons”).

On June 17, with the failure of efforts to reconcile the three estates, the Third Estate 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. The King tried to resist. On June 20, he ordered to close the hall where the National Assembly met, but the deliberations were moved to a 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. After Louis XVI’s failed attempts to sabotage the Assembly and keep the three estates separate, the Estates-General ceased to exist, becoming the National Assembly.


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Drawing by Jacques-Louis David of the Tennis Court Oath.


The oath was both a revolutionary act and an assertion that political authority derived from the people and their representatives rather than from the monarch himself. Their solidarity forced Louis XVI to order the clergy and the nobility to join with the Third Estate in the National Assembly to give the illusion that he controlled the National Assembly. The Oath signified for the first time that French citizens formally stood in opposition to Louis XVI, and the National Assembly’s refusal to back down forced the king to make concessions.

National Constituent Assembly

The Assembly renamed itself the National Constituent Assembly on July 9 and began to function as a governing body and a constitution-drafter. Following the storming of the Bastille on July 14, the National Assembly (sometimes called the Constituent Assembly) became the effective government of France. The number of delegates increased significantly during the election period, but many deputies took their time arriving, some of them reaching Paris as late as 1791. The majority of the Second Estate had a military background and the Third Estate was dominated by men of legal professions. This suggests that while the Third Estate was referred to as the commoners, its delegates belonged largely to the bourgeoisie and not the most-oppressed lower classes.

The leading forces of the Assembly were the conservative foes of the revolution (later known as “The Right”); the Monarchiens (“Monarchists,” also called “Democratic Royalists”) allied with Jacques Necker and inclined toward arranging France along lines similar to the British constitution model; and “the Left” (also called “National Party”), a group still relatively united in support of revolution and democracy, representing mainly the interests of the middle classes but strongly sympathetic to the broader range of the common people.

A critical figure in the Assembly and eventually for the French Revolution was Abbé Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès, who for a time managed to bridge the differences between those who wanted a constitutional monarchy and those who wished to move in more democratic (or even republican) directions. In January 1789, Sieyès authored a pamphlet What Is the Third Estate?, a response to finance minister Jacques Necker’s invitation for writers to state how they thought the Estates-General should be organized. In it he argues that the Third Estate – the common people of France – constituted a complete nation within itself and had no need for the “dead weight” of the two other orders, the clergy and aristocracy. Sieyès stated that the people wanted genuine representatives in the Estates-General, equal representation to the other two orders taken together, and votes taken by heads and not by orders. These ideas had an immense influence on the course of the French Revolution.

Work of the Assembly

On August 4, 1789, the National Constituent Assembly abolished feudalism (action triggered by numerous peasant revolts), sweeping away both the seigneurial rights of the Second Estate and the tithes (a 10% tax for the Church) collected by the First Estate. During the course of a few hours, nobles, clergy, towns, provinces, companies, and cities lost their special privileges. Originally the peasants were supposed to pay for the release of seigneurial dues, but the majority refused to pay and in 1793 the obligation was cancelled.

On August 26, 1789, the Assembly published the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, which comprised a statement of principles rather than a constitution with legal effect. Influenced by the doctrine of natural right, it stated that the rights of man were held to be universal, becoming the basis for a nation of free individuals protected equally by law. Simultaneously, the Assembly continued to draft a new constitution. Amid the Assembly’s preoccupation with constitutional affairs (many competing ideas were debated), the financial crisis continued largely unaddressed and the deficit only increased. The Assembly gave Necker complete financial dictatorship.

The old judicial system, based on the 13 regional parliaments, was suspended in November 1789 and officially abolished in September 1790.

In an attempt to address the financial crisis, the Assembly declared, on November 2, 1789, that the property of the Church was “at the disposal of the nation.” Thus the nation had now also taken on the responsibility of the Church, which included paying the clergy and caring for the poor, the sick, and the orphaned. In December, the Assembly began to sell the lands to the highest bidder to raise revenue. Monastic vows were abolished, and in February 1790 all religious orders were dissolved. Monks and nuns were encouraged to return to private life. The Civil Constitution of the Clergy, passed in July 1790, turned the remaining clergy into employees of the state.

In the turmoil of the revolution, the Assembly members gathered the various constitutional laws they had passed into a single constitution and submitted it to recently restored Louis XVI, who accepted it, writing “I engage to maintain it at home, to defend it from all attacks from abroad, and to cause its execution by all the means it places at my disposal.” The King addressed the Assembly and received enthusiastic applause from members and spectators. With this capstone, the National Constituent Assembly adjourned in a final session on September 30, 1791. Under the Constitution of 1791, France would function as a constitutional monarchy.


The Storming of the Bastille

The medieval fortress, armory, and political prison in Paris known as the Bastille became a symbol of the abuse of the monarchy. Its fall on July 14, 1789 was the flashpoint of the French Revolution.


Key Takeaways

Key PointsDuring the reign of Louis XVI, France faced a major economic crisis, exacerbated by a regressive system of taxation. On May 5, 1789, the Estates-General convened to deal with this issue, but were held back by archaic protocols that disadvantaged the Third Estate (the commoners). On June 17, 1789, the Third Estate reconstituted themselves as the National Assembly, a body whose purpose was the creation of a French constitution.Paris, close to insurrection, showed wide support for the Assembly. The press published the Assembly’s debates while political discussions spread into the public squares and halls of the capital. The Palais-Royal and its grounds became the site of an ongoing meeting. The crowd, on the authority of the meeting at the Palais-Royal, broke open the prisons of the Abbaye to release some grenadiers of the French guards, reportedly imprisoned for refusing to fire on the people.On July 11, 1789, with troops distributed across the Paris area, Louis XVI dismissed and banished his finance minister, Jacques Necker, who had been sympathetic to the Third Estate. News of Necker’s dismissal reached Paris on July 12. Crowds gathered throughout Paris, including more than ten thousand at the Palais-Royal.Among the troops under the royal authority, there were foreign mercenaries, most notably Swiss and German regiments, that were seen as less likely to be sympathetic to the popular cause than ordinary French soldiers. By early July, approximately half of the 25,000 regular troops in Paris and Versailles were drawn from these foreign regiments.On the morning of July 14, 1789, the city of Paris was in a state of alarm. At this point, the Bastille was nearly empty, housing only seven prisoners. Amid the tensions of July 1789, the building remained as a symbol of royal tyranny.The crowd gathered outside around mid-morning, calling for the surrender of the prison, the removal of the cannon, and the release of the arms and gunpowder. Following failed mediation efforts, gunfire began, apparently spontaneously, turning the crowd into a mob. Governor de Launay opened the gates to the inner courtyard, and the conquerors swept in to liberate the fortress at 5:30.Key TermsEstates-General: A general assembly representing the French estates of the realm: the clergy (First Estate), the nobles (Second Estate), and the common people (Third Estate).National Assembly: A revolutionary assembly formed by the representatives of the Third Estate (the common people) of the Estates-General that existed from June 13 to July 9, 1789. After July 9, it was known as the National Constituent Assembly although popularly the shorter form persisted.

Storming of the Bastille: Background

During the reign of Louis XVI, France faced a major economic crisis, partially initiated by the cost of intervening in the American Revolution and exacerbated by a regressive system of taxation. On May 5, 1789, the Estates-General convened to deal with this issue, but were held back by archaic protocols that disadvantaged the Third Estate (the commoners). On June 17, 1789, the Third Estate reconstituted themselves as the National Assembly, a body whose purpose was the creation of a French constitution. The king initially opposed this development, but was forced to acknowledge the authority of the assembly, which subsequently renamed itself the National Constituent Assembly on July 9.

Paris, close to insurrection, showed wide support for the Assembly. The press published the Assembly’s debates while political discussions spread into the public squares and halls of the capital. The Palais-Royal and its grounds became the site of an ongoing meeting. The crowd, on the authority of the meeting at the Palais-Royal, broke open the prisons of the Abbaye to release some grenadiers of the French guards, reportedly imprisoned for refusing to fire on the people. The Assembly recommended the imprisoned guardsmen to the clemency of the king, They returned to prison and received pardon. The rank and file of the regiment now leaned toward the popular cause.

Social Unrest

On July 11, 1789, with troops distributed across the Paris area, Louis XVI, acting under the influence of the conservative nobles of his privy council, dismissed and banished his finance minister, Jacques Necker, who had been sympathetic to the Third Estate. News of Necker’s dismissal reached Paris on July 12. The Parisians generally presumed that the dismissal marked the start of a coup by conservative elements. Liberal Parisians were further enraged by the fear that royal troops would attempt to shut down the National Constituent Assembly, which was meeting in Versailles. Crowds gathered throughout Paris, including more than ten thousand at the Palais-Royal. Among the troops under the royal authority were foreign mercenaries, most notably Swiss and German regiments, that were seen as less likely to be sympathetic to the popular cause than ordinary French soldiers. By early July, approximately half of the 25,000 regular troops in Paris and Versailles were drawn from these foreign regiments.

During the public demonstrations that started on July 12, the multitude displayed busts of Necker and Louis Philippe II, Duke of Orléans (of the House of Bourbon, the ruling dynasty of France, who actively supported the French Revolution). The crowd clashed with royal troops and unrest grew. The people of Paris expressed their hostility against state authorities by attacking customs posts blamed for causing increased food and wine prices, and started to plunder any place where food, guns, and supplies could be hoarded. That night, rumors spread that supplies were being hoarded at Saint-Lazare, a huge property of the clergy, which functioned as convent, hospital, school, and even a jail. An angry crowd broke in and plundered the property, seizing 52 wagons of wheat which were taken to the public market. That same day, multitudes of people plundered many other places, including weapon arsenals. The royal troops did nothing to stop the spreading of social chaos in Paris during those days.

Storming of the Bastille

On the morning of July 14, 1789, the city of Paris was in a state of alarm. The partisans of the Third Estate in France, now under the control of the Bourgeois Militia of Paris (soon to become Revolutionary France’s National Guard), earlier stormed the Hôtel des Invalides without significant opposition with the intention of gathering weapons held there. The commandant at the Invalides had in the previous few days taken the precaution of transferring 250 barrels of gunpowder to the Bastille for safer storage.

At this point, the Bastille was nearly empty, housing only seven prisoners. The cost of maintaining a garrisoned medieval fortress for so limited a purpose led to a decision, made shortly before the disturbances began, to replace it with an open public space. Amid the tensions of July 1789, the building remained as a symbol of royal tyranny.

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The crowd gathered outside around mid-morning, calling for the surrender of the prison, the removal of the cannon, and the release of the arms and gunpowder. Two representatives of the crowd outside were invited into the fortress and negotiations began. Another was admitted around noon with definite demands. The negotiations dragged on while the crowd grew and became impatient. Around 1:30 p.m., the crowd surged into the undefended outer courtyard. A small party climbed onto the roof of a building next to the gate to the inner courtyard and broke the chains on the drawbridge. Soldiers of the garrison called to the people to withdraw but in the noise and confusion these shouts were misinterpreted as encouragement to enter. Gunfire began, apparently spontaneously, turning the crowd into a mob.