Estates General from 1789

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Opening of the Estates General on May 5, 1789, painting by Jean-Michel Moreau

The Estates General of the year 1789 ( French États généraux de 1789 ) designate the selection and the meetings of the Estates Assembly held from May to June 1789 in France . The until then absolute ruling King Louis XVI. convened them to get new taxes granted in the face of a national bankruptcy . This participation of the estates ( clergy , nobility , third estate ) in the political decision-making process was after the unsuccessful assembly of notablesthe second decisive step towards the end of absolutism in France. It was the first such meeting in 175 years, the last time before that in 1614 in a similar form at the time of the minor Louis XIII. had been held.

In the course of the assembly of the Estates General in 1789 , it became increasingly clear to the representatives of the Third Estate, that is, primarily the bourgeoisie , that the hoped-for political participation would remain unfulfilled. They therefore constituted the National Assembly . This meant the de facto end of the Estates General and initiated the development of the French Revolution that followed immediately .


For a variety of reasons, the French state had been heavily indebted for decades. All previous measures to solve this crisis had failed. A meeting of notables was last convened in 1787. The king and his government are counting on this assembly of selected and high-ranking figures to approve the planned financial reforms. However, the government unexpectedly met resistance and was unable to implement its plans. Charles Alexandre de Calonne was replaced as General Controller of Finance by Étienne Charles de Loménie de Brienne . But even he was unable to persuade the assembly to make concessions on the financial question. Its members declared, among other things, that they were not responsible for such decisions and referred to the Estates General. This request was rejected by the king. The meeting was then dissolved.

As a result, the parliaments became the centers of an anti-absolutist opposition movement, supported by sections of the nobility. The parliamentary councils also continued to demand that the Estates General be convened. On July 16, 1787, the Paris Parliament declared that only the Estates General were authorized to raise new taxes. The councils expressly intended the traditional form of the meeting with voting according to estates and not according to heads and referred expressly to the form of the last meeting of 1614. The idea of ​​the Estates General spread quickly, but there were very different ideas about goals and composition .

The government reacted inconsistently in the summer of 1788. It promised that the Estates General would be convened in 1792. Almost at the same time it tried to deprive parliaments of their central rights. This led to a number of revolts. The clergy refused the king a large part of the so-called voluntary taxes. But in addition to the opposition of these aristocratic-conservative forces, it became apparent, for example, at the Brick Day in Grenoble and, above all, at the subsequent assembly of the Dauphiné province that the bourgeoisie, as the third estate, also demanded a say. The king bowed to the pressure and on August 8, 1788, summoned the Estates General for May 1, 1789. He gave in to the pressure of parts of the nobility and the bourgeoisie and admitted the failure of the absolutist system.

Formation of the public

Portrait of Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès by Jacques-Louis David from 1817

The drama of the financial crisis became apparent a few days later when the state had to suspend its payments for the time being. Jacques Necker was then appointed as the new head of the finance department. The situation was also tense because there had been severe crop failures in 1787 and 1788 and because the winter of 1788/89 had been hard.

The exact composition and functioning of the Estates General had Louis XVI. in the dark. Therefore, privileged groups feared they would lose some of their influence. On September 25, 1788, the Paris Parliament therefore demanded the convening of the Estates General, following the example of 1614. A newly convened Notable Assembly in November / December 1788 could not come to an agreement. A large part also wanted to build on the tradition.

Thus the notables and members of parliament stood against the meanwhile prevailing opinion among the bourgeoisie. The third stand wanted to follow the example of Grenoble and demanded the doubling of its delegates and voting by heads and not by stands. Malesherbes argued, for example, for the separation of classes to be abolished, i.e. for a real national assembly.

Under pressure from parliament, censorship was largely abolished. A large number of political papers and pamphlets subsequently appeared . In the following months the formation of a political public that was interested in fundamental changes increased. Political clubs were formed again after an earlier ban . The discussion was varied; the demand for political co-determination of the Third Estate gained more and more weight. In this environment, demands arose for a doubling of the representatives of the Third Estate and for voting according to heads and not according to categories in the future Assembly of the States General.

Necker succeeded in persuading the king in the State Council to double the number of third estate representatives for the Estates General on December 27, 1788. The courts should be the basis for the elections. Nothing was said about the voting mode in the Estates General. The conflict between the representatives of the Third Estate and the privileged became tougher, and in Brittany there were even clashes like civil wars. Representatives of the Third Estate made increasingly radical demands. In February 1789, Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès published his well-known work What is the Third Estate? . In it, the nobility was denied belonging to the French nation .

Cahiers de Doléances and elections

Cahier de doléances from Angers

In connection with the forthcoming opening of the general estates, each of the estates in each municipality wrote a complaint book ( Cahiers de Doléances ). This was then given to their envoys to the Estates General. These complaints booklets are a unique source for the sensitivities of the different social groups in the different parts of the country shortly before the beginning of the revolution. They also reflect the wishes of the Estates General with regard to the reforms they consider necessary. The picture is not uniform. Hardly anyone wanted the abolition of royalty. However, reforms were called for in numerous areas, both in the area of ​​constitution and administration, and with regard to the abolition of feudal relationships of dependence. The urban complaints books, and especially those from Paris, were more radical and theoretical in their demands than those in the country or in small towns.

On January 14, 1789, the electoral process was established. This took place in one, two or three stages, depending on whether the voters were aristocratic or those of the Third Estate and whether they were towns or rural communities. This means that the nobility and clergy elected their representatives directly and the third estate through electors . In principle, every male Frenchman over the age of 25 who had a permanent residence and was entered on the tax list had the right to vote. However, this did not apply to the discriminated Ashkenazi Jews of eastern France who spoke Yiddish or Alsatian . The more acculturated Sephardic Jews of southern France, on the other hand, were considered French and were allowed to vote.

The level of voter participation can no longer be determined. A total of 1165 MPs were elected. Of these, a little less than 600 belonged to the Third Estate and around 300 each to the nobility and clergy. There were only 46 bishops among the clergy. Some of them, like Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, belonged to the Liberals. Most of the clergy were members of the lower clergy. The proportion of liberals among the nobles made up about a third. Among them, some like Lafayette stood out.

There were no farmers or artisans among the deputies of the Third Estate. Almost all of the representatives came from the middle classes. In addition to a few merchants and rentiers, the lawyers dominated there. Among them were Mounier from the Dauphine and Robespierre from Arras . A nobleman and a clergyman played a leading role, but they had been elected as members of the Third Estate - Mirabeau and Sieyès .

Opening of the meeting

Overture des États généraux à Versailles, May 5, 1789, painting by Auguste Couder , 1839

The opening was planned precisely beforehand. Here, Louis XVI. the chance to use the staging to emphasize the similarities, rather the organization clearly emphasized the differences between the estates and the special role of the king. While Necker wanted to deal with the matter more like a business in Paris, the king, supported by advisors, insisted on an overt ceremony.

The meeting place was the Menus Plaisir hall, which was built in the palace complex of Versailles especially for the assembly of notables . Attempts were made to reconstruct the old procedures. However, since these were largely forgotten, the external processes were partially reinvented. The plans extended to clothing. The MPs wore officially prescribed robes. The high clergy and the members of the nobility were splendidly decorated. The nobility, for example, wore a black silk skirt, a waistcoat made of cloth interwoven with gold and silver, a lace scarf and a plumed hat. The hat should correspond to the fashion from the time of Henry IV , but reflected the ideas of it more than the actual clothing of the 17th century. The representatives of the Third Estate, on the other hand, had to appear entirely in black.

On May 4th, one day before the official opening, the delegates were received by the king. While Louis XVI. the representatives of the nobility and clergy received in the Cabinet du roi, the deputies of the third estate had to wait in another room and then had to pass the king. The men of the Third Estate had to bow their knees in front of the throne. The delegates then marched into the Ludwigskirche in a splendid procession. Once again the court ceremony offered the splendor of royalty. Heralds on white horses in velvet robes of purple and dressed with the sign of the lily blew silver trumpets. The guard of the Cent Suisses preceded the king in uniforms from the Renaissance .

All in all, the old order was invoked again and the Third Estate humiliated. Its deputies were placed at the head of the procession, that is, they were as far away from the king as possible. While the nobility and clergy had reserved places in the church, the commoners had to look for a place. The protocol tips did not forget the representatives of the Third Estate.

The official opening on May 5th began with a short speech by Louis XVI. This was contradicting itself. On the one hand, she emphasized the importance of the day long awaited by many, on the other hand, she warned against excessive innovations. The keeper of the seals, Charles de Barentin , spoke after him , but so quietly that no one understood him. Only at the end did he get louder and reject all innovations. Necker's speech filled the following three hours, but Necker's speech was mostly read out by a representative. It was a presentation of the current financial situation. Necker had only admitted a deficit of 56 million and applied for a loan of 80 million. The king's side attempted to limit the meeting to the purely technical aspect of financial policy, although Mirabeau had already appealed to the king on March 5 to immediately debate head-to-head voting. Necker indicated only very cautiously that in the future it might be possible to vote by head and not by class.

The way to the National Assembly

Gabriel de Riqueti Count of Mirabeau, portrait by Joseph Boze

The reduction of the Estates General to the financial question failed because the public expected fundamental reforms. The king acted hesitantly. Had he ordered a separation of the estates, the nobility and clergy would have supported him. If he had opted for cross-booth advice, the third booth would have been on his side. His indecision has weakened his position.

On May 6, the representatives of the nobility and clergy began to meet in separate sessions to examine the powers of the representatives of their estates. The third estate deputies did nothing. You were undecided. An examination of their legitimacy on the basis of the state would have recognized the old form of the state general. Demanding a clear vote by head would have meant the transition to revolution, which at that time only a few MPs from Brittany or the Dauphiné were ready to go. But there was also no one among the deputies who would have been prepared to simply bow to the traditions of class voting. But demonstratively they called themselves Députés des communes , following the example of the revolt in Grenoble and the English lower house . Mirabeau published a magazine with reports on the negotiations, which was immediately banned. For this reason alone, its follow-up publication attracted a lot of attention.

The deputies of the nobility were constituted on May 11th. Although there was a minority among them who advocated joint deliberations with the other estates, including the Duke of Orleans , the majority were against it. Among the clergy, the internal quarrel between the lower clergy and the bishops prevented this step. This dispute led the clergy to propose mediation efforts between the three estates. The third estate finally proposed the unification of both groups. In the meantime the bishops had called the king to mediate. He proposed his ministers to the estates as arbitrators. New negotiations began on May 30th. But it soon became apparent that the contrasts were too great. So the nobility rejected the new self-designation of the third estate. The actual standstill lasted until June 9th.

Within the group of representatives of the Third Estate, based on the deputies from Brittany, agreements had taken place and others were invited to support. In addition, a number of leaders emerged. At Sieyès' request, the third estate deputies decided on June 10 to give up their restraint. The MPs from the other two estates were invited to join them. On the evening of June 12th the meeting with the deputies of the other two estates was supposed to take place, but none of them appeared. Only on the 13th did three pastors join them. In the following days the influx increased more and more. The question of self-designation soon arose. While Mirabeau and Mounier pleaded for a wait and see, Sieyès pushed through the term 'National Assembly' on June 17th after a two-day debate. On June 19, the clergy decided by 169 votes to 157 to join the Third Estate.

The ball house oath. Washed pen drawing by Jacques-Louis David , 1791

When the king had the meeting room closed on June 20 on the grounds that it had to be prepared for another meeting on June 23, the deputies who appeared in front of closed doors unceremoniously occupied the ball sports hall nearby , where they were in the so-called ball house oath, "never to separate until the state has a constitution [...] and only to give way to the violence of the bayonets" . The National Assembly thereby declared itself to be the Constituent Assembly .

When the General Assembly was supposed to be dissolved in the session on June 23, the President-elect Jean-Sylvain Bailly refused to obey the Master of Ceremonies, who had brought the dissolution order, with the famous saying that the assembled nation should not take orders from anyone.

After the king's cousin, the Duke of Orléans , sided with the National Assembly with other representatives of the nobility, Louis XVI. finally on June 27th and approved the National Assembly, which formally constituted itself on July 9th, 1789 as the National Constituent Assembly.

See also

Constituencies of the Estates General from 1789



  1. Weather makes history
  2. ^ Daniel Gerson: French Revolution. In: Wolfgang Benz (Hrsg.): Handbuch des Antisemitismus . Volume 4: Events, Decrees, Controversies. De Gruyter Saur, Berlin 2011, ISBN 978-3-11-025514-0 , p. 134 (accessed via De Gruyter Online).
  3. The oath. (No longer available online.) Archived from the original on April 13, 2014 ; Retrieved May 28, 2014 . Info: The archive link was inserted automatically and has not yet been checked. Please check the original and archive link according to the instructions and then remove this notice. @1@ 2Template: Webachiv / IABot /