Chapter 9 : The States-General

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Chapter 9

Kropotkin, P. (1927). The Great French Revolution, 1789-1793 (N. F. Dryhurst, Trans.) New York: Vanguard Printings. (Original work published 1909)


Opening of States General--King's distrust--People not represented--"Third Estate"--Establishment of National Assembly--Oath in Tennis Court--King annuls resolutions of Assembly--Speech of Mirabeau--People threaten force

On May 4, 1789, the twelve hundred deputies of the States-General assembled at Versailles, repaired to the church of Saint Louis to hear Mass in connection with the opening ceremony, and the next day the King opened the session in the presence of a crowd of spectators. And already from this opening meeting the tragic inevitability of the Revolution began to unfold itself.

The King felt nothing but distrust towards the representatives of the nation whom he had convoked. He had at last resigned himself to convoking them, but he complained before the deputies themselves of "the restlessness of spirit," the general ferment throughout the country, as if such restlessness was in itself factitious, and not caused by the actual condition of France; as if that assemblage had been a useless and capricious violation of kingly rights.

France, too long held back from reform, had at last come to feel the necessity of a complete revision of all her institutions--and the King only mentioned a few trifling reforms in finance, for which a little economy in expenditure would have sufficed. He demanded "the agreement of the Orders" at a time when the provincial assemblies had already proved to men's minds that the existence of separate Orders was superannuated--a dead weight, a survival of the past. At a time, too, when everything, as in Russia to-day, needed reconstruction, the King expressed his fear above all things of "innovation"! Thus, in the King's speech, the life-and-death struggle about to begin between royal autocracy and representative power was already foreshadowed.

As to the nation's representatives, they themselves in their divisions were already displaying signs of the deep cleavage which was to manifest itself throughout the Revolution between those who would cling to their privileges and those who would strive to demolish them.

The national representation, in fact, even then showed its chief defect. The people were not represented at all, the peasants were absent. It was the middle classes who took it upon themselves to speak for the people in general; and with regard to the peasantry, in the whole of this assembly, made up of lawyers, notaries, attorneys, there were perhaps five or six who knew anything about the real position, much less the legal position of the immense mass of the peasants. All of them, being townsmen, were well able to defend the townsman; but as to the peasant, they did not even know what he required, or what would be injurious to him.

Civil war already exists within these precincts, where the King, surrounded by nobles, speaks as master to the Third Estate, and reminds them of his "benefits." The Keeper of the Seals, Barentain, disclosing the real intention of the King, dwells upon the part to which the States-General should confine themselves. They are to consider the taxes which they will be asked to vote, they are to discuss the reform of civil and criminal law, they are to vote on a law concerning the Press, to check the liberties which it had recently arrogated to itself, and that will be all. There were to be no dangerous reforms: "All just demands have been granted; the King has not been stopped by discreet murmurs; he has indulgently deigned to ignore them; he has pardoned even the expression of those false and extravagant matters under cover of which it was intended to substitute harmful chimeras for the unalterable principles of the monarchy. Gentlemen, you will reject with indignation these dangerous innovations."

All the struggles of the four succeeding years lay in these words, and Necker, who followed the King and the Keeper of the Seals, in his speech lasting three hours, added nothing to advance either the great question of representative government, which absorbed the middle classes, or that of the land and the feudal exactions, which interested the peasants. The adroit Comptroller of Finance knew how to make a three-hours' speech without compromising himself either with the Court or the people. The King, faithful to the views he had already expressed to Turgot, did not understand the seriousness of the moment, and left to the Queen and princes the task of intriguing to prevent the concessions which were demanded of him.

But neither did Necker comprehend that it was a question of surmounting not merely a financial crisis, but a political and social crisis of the utmost seriousness, and that under these circumstances a policy of maneuvering between the Court and the Third Estate was bound to be fatal. For if it was not already too late to prevent a Revolution, it was at least necessary to make some attempt at an honest, straightforward policy of concessions in the matter of government; the time had come to bring forward, in their most important aspects, the great land problems on which the misery or well-being of a whole nation depended.

And as to the representatives themselves, neither the two privileged orders, nor yet "the Third," grasped the full extent of the problem which was confronting France. The nobility dreamed of regaining their ascendancy over the Crown; the clergy thought only of maintaining their privileges; and the Third Estate, although it knew quite well what steps to take for the conquest of power in favor of the middle classes, did not perceive that there was yet another problem, infinitely more important to solve--that of giving back the land to the peasant, in order that, possessing a land freed from heavy feudal citations, he might double and treble the production of the soil, and so put an end to the incessant periods of scarcity which were undermining the strength of the French nation.

Could there be any way out of these conditions but by conflict and struggle? The revolt of the people: the rising of the peasants, the Jacquerie, the insurrection of the workers in the towns, and of the poor in general--in a word, the Revolution, with all its struggles, its hatreds, its terrible conflicts and its revenges, were they not all inevitable ?

For five weeks the "deputies of 'the Third'" tried by parleying to induce the deputies of the other two Orders to sit together, while the Royalist committees on their side worked to maintain the separation. The negotiations led to nothing. But as the days went by the people of Paris assumed a more and more menacing attitude. In Paris, the Palais Royal, turned into an open-air club to which every one was admitted, voiced the general exasperation. It rained pamphlets for which the people scrambled. "Every hour produces something new," says Arthur Young. "Thirteen came out to-day, sixteen yesterday and ninety-two last week. . . . Nineteen-twentieths of these productions are in favor of liberty. . . . The ferment at Paris is beyond conception."1 The orators who harangued openly in the streets, standing on a chair in front of a café, already spoke of seizing upon the palaces and chateaux of the noble landlords. One heard already, like the rumbling of a coming storm, threatening of the coming Terror, while at Versailles the people collected at the doors of the Assembly to insult the aristocrats.

The deputies of the "Third " felt that they were being supported. By degrees they grew bolder, and on June 17, upon a motion of Sieyés, they declared themselves at last a "National Assembly." In this way the first step towards the abolition of the privileged classes was taken, and the people of Paris greeted this first step with thunderous acclamations. Thus encouraged, the Assembly voted that the established taxes, being illegal, should be levied only provisionally, and only for as long as the Assembly sat. The people should not be any longer bound to pay them when once the Assembly should be dissolved. A "Committee of Subsistence" was appointed to combat the famine, and capitalists were reassured by the Assembly's consolidation of the National Debt--an act of the greatest prudence at that moment, since the National representation had to maintain itself at any cost, and to disarm a power, the power of the money-lender, who would be dangerous if he took sides with the Court.

But this meant revolt against the Royal authority. Accordingly the princes, d'Artois, Condé and Conti, together with the Keeper of the Seals, began to plan a coup coup d'état. On a given day the King was to go in great state to the Assembly. There he would annul all the resolutions of the Assembly, he would decree the separation of the Orders, and would himself fix the few reforms, which should be passed by the Three Orders sitting separately. And what did Necker, that perfect representative of the middle classes of the period, oppose to this stroke of authority, to the coup coup d'état prepared by the Court? Compromise! He, too, wanted a display of authority, a Royal Session, and in this session the King was to grant the capitative vote without distinction between the Three Orders in the matter of taxes; but for everything concerning the privileges of the nobility and clergy separate sittings of the Orders were to be maintained. Now, it is evident that this measure was still less possible to realize than that of the princes. A coup coup d'état is not risked for a half-measure, which, moreover, could not be maintained for more than a fortnight. How could taxation have been reformed without impinging on the privileges of the two superior Orders?

It was on June 20, therefore, that the deputies of "the Third," emboldened by the more and more threatening attitude of the people in Paris, and even at Versailles, decided to resist the plans for dismissing the Assembly, and for that purpose to bind themselves together by solemn oath. Seeing their Assembly Hall closed on account of the preparations that were being made for the Royal Session, they went in procession to a kind of private hall, the hall of the Tennis Court in the Rue Saint-Francois. A crowd Imarched with the procession through the streets of Versailles, headed by Bailly. Some volunteer soldiers offered their services to mount guard for them. The enthusiasm of the crowds which surrounded them on all sides upheld the deputies.

Arrived at the hall of the Tennis Court, excited and touched by a fine emotion, they all but one took a solemn oath not to separate before they had given France a Constitution.

No doubt these were but words; there was even something theatrical in this oath; but that matters little. There are moments when words are required to make hearts vibrate. And the oath taken in the hall of the Tennis Court made the hearts of revolutionary youth vibrate throughout the length and breadth of France. Woe to the Assemblies that are incapable of such an attitude and such words.

Besides, this act of courage on the part of the Assembly bore immediate fruit. Two days later the Third Estate, being obliged to sit in the church of Saint Louis, found the clergy coming to take part in their deliberations.

The great blow of the Royal Session was struck the following day, June 23, but its effect was already weakened by the oath in the Tennis Court and the sitting in the church of Saint Louis. The King appeared before the deputies. He annulled all the resolutions of the Assembly, or rather of the Third Estate; he decreed the maintenance of the Orders, determined the limits of the reforms to be accomplished, threatened the States-General with dissolution if they did not obey, and ordered all the deputies to separate for the time being. Upon this the nobility and clergy obediently left the hall, but the deputies of "the Third" kept their places. Then it was that Mirabeau uttered his beautiful and famous speech, in which he said that the King was only their mandatory, that they held their authority of the people, and having taken the oath they could not separate without having framed a Constitution. Being here by the will of the people they would leave only by the force of the bayonet.

Now, it was exactly this force which the Court no longer possessed. Necker had already told them, in February, and very truly, that obedience was nowhere to be found, and that they could not be sure even of the troops.

As to the people of Paris, we have seen in what kind of humor they were on April 27. Every moment a general rising of the people against the rich was feared in Paris, and a few ardent revolutionaries had not hesitated to go into the gloomy faubourgs in search of reinforcements against the Court. Even at Versailles, on the eve of the Royal Session, the people had almost killed a clerical deputy, the Abbé Maury, as well as d'Espréménil, a deputy of "the Third," who had come over from the nobility. On the day of the Royal Session the Keeper of the Seals and the Archbishop of Paris were so "hooted, abused and scoffed at, so overwhelmed with shame and rage," that the King's secretary, Passeret, who accompanied the minister, "died of the shock the same day." On the 24th, the Bishop of Beauvais was nearly killed by a blow on the head from a stone. On June 25, the crowd hissed the deputies of the nobility and clergy. All the windows were broken in the palace of the Archbishop of Paris. "The troops refused to fire on the people," says Arthur Young bluntly. The King's threat was therefore meaningless. The people's attitude was too menacing for the Court to resort to bayonets, and this is why Louis XVI. uttered this exclamation, "After all . . . let them stay "

As to the Assembly of the Third Estate itself, was it not deliberating under the watchful cyts and menaces of the people who filled the galleries ? As early as June 17, when the Third Estate declared itself a National Assembly, that memorable decision was arrived at amid the acclamations of the galleries and of the two or three thousand persons who surrounded the Hall of Assembly. The list of the three hundred deputies of "the Third "who were opposed to it went the round of Paris, and there was even some talk of burning their houses. And when the oath was being taken in the Tennis Court, and Martin Dauch opposed it, Bailly, the president of the Assembly, prudently made him escape by a back door to avoid facing the people gathered at the front of the hall, and for several days he had to remain in hiding.

Without this pressure put upon the Assembly by the people, it is quite possible that the brave deputies of "the Third," whose names are remembered in history, might never have succeeded in overcoming the resistance of the timorous who had ranged themselves with Malouet.

As to the people of Paris, they made open preparations for the revolt, which was their reply to the military coup d'état prepared by the Court against Paris for July 16.


1Arthur Young, TraveIs in France, pp.153,176 (London, I892).

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