French Revolution: Political Deadlock to Estates General

It is said,

Revolutions or volcanoes do not break out suddenly without reason or long evolution. We only see the sudden burst and are surprised. But underneath the surface of the earth, many forces play against each other for long ages and this friction between these various forces led to the sudden eruption of lava. They burst forth in mighty flames shooting up to the sky, and molten lava rolls down the mountainside.

Volcanic Eruption
Volcanic Eruption

Same is true in the case of revolutions. The stratification of society in which majority section suffers because of powerful minorities generally leads to some friction among the sections.This friction force increases in magnitude when some intellectuals demand equality, fraternity and liberty for all. The magnitude of friction force reaches its peak when there is a wide economic gap in society. One section is starving to death and another one is enjoying a luxurious life. In a complete scenario, there can not be a sudden reason for the outbreak of the revolution. There are both long term and short term causes for this. But it is true that eruption of the revolution is sudden.

Foolish people in authority, blind to everything that does not fit in with their ideas, imagine that revolutions are caused by agitators. Agitators are people who are discontented with the existing condition and desire a change and work for it. Every revolutionary period has its full supply of them. They are themselves the outcome of the ferment and dissatisfaction that exist.

Common people, in general, do not want to go for the extreme solutions. They always try to have a simple and adaptable solution for their problems. But when bureaucracy is not in the mood to listen to their causes and when economic conditions are such that their day to day suffering grows and life becomes almost an intolerable burden, then even the weak are prepared to take risks and go for a way out of their misery.

French Revolution
French Revolution

We have already seen the distress and discontentment among the masses during the seventeenth and eighteenth century of France. These all were the signals for the coming of the revolution in the France.

Political deadlock

We have seen the circumstances that build the ground for an inevitable revolution. People were starving to death and though the Louis-XVI was not in his senses and to handle the financial crisis he was going to impose new taxes. Louis-XVI committed a mistake of sending military aid in America (1781) under commander Lafayette, which led to financial bankruptcy in France. To overcome this situation he appointed a capable finance minister Turgot. Turgot gave very simple and genuine solution to overcome financial bankruptcy. Like:

  1. Economic reforms: – Reforms in the agricultural sector, which would empower primary sector of the country and would definitely strengthen the secondary and tertiary sector.
  2. Taxes on nobility.
  3. To reduce the unnecessary expenditure of Royal Palace.

The proposals given by Turgot were very genuine but King outrightly refused all these proposals and dismissed Turgot. After the dismissal of Turgot, Louis-XVI planned to impose new taxes. In France of the Old Regime, the monarch did not have the power to impose taxes according to his will alone. Rather he had to call a meeting of the Estates General which would then pass his proposals for new taxes.

Estates General

The Estates General was a political body. However, the monarch alone could decide when to call a meeting of this body. Louis-XVI finally summoned the Estates-General in May 1789. This body consisted of the representatives of the three estates of the realm as they were called: clergy, nobles, commons or peasants.

In composition, it was thus not unlike to British Parliament. But there were many differences between two. The British Parliament had been meeting more or less regularly for some hundreds of years and had got well established with traditions and rules and methods of doing work. The Estate General on the other hand seldom met and had no traditions.

The British Parliament had been meeting more or less regularly for some hundreds of years and had got well established with traditions and rules and methods of doing work. The Estate General on the other hand seldom met and had no traditions. The last time it was done was in 1614Voting in the Estates General in the past had been conducted according to the principle that each estate had one vote.

France: Constitute of Estates General
France: Constitute of Estates General

General Assembly

On 5 May 1789, the Estates-General was opened by the Louis-XVI at Versailles. A magnificent hall in Versailles was prepared to host the delegates. The first and second estates sent 300 representatives each, while the 600 members came to represent the third estate. The prosperous and educated members of the third estate represented themselves in Estates General. However, their grievances and demands were listed in some 40,000 letters which the representatives had brought with them.

The king invited Estates General with his own hidden agenda that, he thought that the clergy and nobility section would unite and would vote in the favour of the imposing of new taxes. But this calling of Estates General backfired upon him because people of the third estate came with some demands:

  1. Common people in a large number started marching towards Paris to attend General Assembly.
  2. The voting pattern was based on the one estate one vote but the commons or the middle classes began to take the bit between their teeth and insist that no taxation could be levied without changing the existing voting pattern of Estate General.
  3. So the members of the third estate demanded that voting now is conducted by the assembly as a whole, where each member would have one vote.
France: Estates General
France: Estates General

Oath of Tennis-Court

When the king rejected this proposal, members of the third estate walked out of the assembly in protest. The representatives of the third estate viewed themselves as leader of the whole French nation. On 20 June they assembled in the hall of an indoor tennis court in the grounds of Versailles. This is known as the Oath of the Tennis-Court.

They declared themselves a National Assembly and decided not to disperse till they had established a constitution to check the powers of the monarch. They were led by Mirabeau and Abbé Sieyés. Though Mirabeau belonged to a noble family but still gave leadership to the national assembly. He asked people to do away with a society of feudal privilege.

France: The Tennis Court Oath
Estates General: The Tennis Court Oath

While the National Assembly was drafting a constitution at Versailles, the rest of France was facing a turmoil. A severe winter was followed by a bad harvest. The price of bread rose, people were starving from hunger. After spending hours in long queues to take pieces of bread, crowds of angry women stormed into the shops. Louis-XVI once again faced intellectual bankruptcy and took very harsh steps, which consequently irritated the common mass. Like:

  1. Necker came with the idea to change the existing voting pattern but Louis-XVI imprisoned Necker.
  2. The King called his forces but his own soldiers denied to obey his orders. Frightened Louis-XVI in his usual foolishness, intrigued to get foreign regiments to shoot down his own people.

The common people finally rose in Paris and led to the attack on Bastille on 14th of July, 1789 with two major objectives:

  1. To release political prisoners.
  2. To collect arms and ammunitions to give strong resistance to the foreign army.

The Fall of Bastille

The fall of Bastille is a great event in history. It began the French Revolution. This was a signal for popular risings all over the country. It meant the end of the old order in France, of feudalism and grand monarchy and privilege. It was a terrible and terrifying portent for all the kings then present in Europe. France, which earlier set the fashion of grand monarchs, was now waiting for its new order to come and take over the grievances of the people. Some looked at the event with fear and trembling, but many saw hope in the new order.

France: Fall of Bastille
France: Fall of Bastille

All these events led to recognition of National Assembly by the King, which we will discuss in next coming post 🙂

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