French Revolution:

The Estates-General and the National Assembly

Étienne Charles Loménie de Brienne succeeded Calonne. His attempts to procure money were thwarted by the Parlement of Paris (see parlement), and King Louis XVI was forced to agree to the calling of the States-General. Elections were ordered in 1788, and on May 5, 1789, for the first time since 1614, the States-General met at Versailles. The chief purpose of the king and of Necker, who had been recalled, was to obtain the assembly's consent to a general fiscal reform.

Each of the three estates—clergy, nobility, and the third estate, or commons—presented its particular grievances to the crown. Innumerable cahiers (lists of grievances) came pouring in from the provinces, and it became clear that sweeping political and social reforms, far exceeding the object of its meeting, were expected from the States-General. The aspirations of the bourgeoisie were expressed by Abbé Sieyès in a widely circulated pamphlet that implied that the third estate and the nation were virtually identical. The question soon arose whether the estates should meet separately and vote by order or meet jointly and vote by head (thus assuring a majority for the third estate, whose membership had been doubled).

As Louis XVI wavered, the deputies of the third estate defiantly proclaimed themselves the National Assembly (June 17); on their invitation, many members of the lower clergy and a few nobles joined them. When the king had their meeting place closed, they adjourned to an indoor tennis court, the jeu de paume, and there took an oath (June 20) not to disband until a constitution had been drawn up. On June 27 the king yielded and legalized the National Assembly. At the same time, however, he surrounded Versailles with troops and let himself be persuaded by a court faction, which included the queen, Marie Antoinette, to dismiss (July 11) Necker.

Sections in this article:

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2023, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

See more Encyclopedia articles on: French History