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The French Revolution: 5 May to 26 August 1789

The Estates General met on 5 May 1789 at a grand hall by the king's palace at Versailles, twelve miles outside of Paris (five days after George Washington was inaugurated president). The get-together had trouble with the first item on the agenda: a technicality about voting. Delegates representing the Third Estate (the commoners) numbered around 600, about half of convention's total delegates. They were mostly lawyers and complained that they represented 97 percent of the nation's population and should have more influence. They were not accommodated, walked out and created their own convention.

Act One of the revolution was underway. Liberal-minded clergy and nobility among the convention delegates joined the walk out, and members of National Assembly cheered as these nobles announced their willingness to give up their feudal rights. The National Assembly called for the creation of a parliamentary system similar to what the British had (a constitutional monarchy), and they swore not to disperse until a constitution had been written and ratified – to be known as the Tennis Court Oath.

The National Assembly also considered the country's debt problem — with the interests of businessmen (officially commoners)in mind. They agreed to consolidate the public debt, and they declared themselves in charge of taxes. They were on their way to winning the support of men of commerce, and for the less wealthy commoners the Assembly created a committee to deal with food shortages.

King Louis didn't accept the National Assembly's creation or declarations. He addressed the Estates General, saying that no taxes would be raised except by consent of representatives of the people and that never had any king done so much for any nation.

The Estates General convention closed on June 27 with fireworks and celebration. Meanwhile, messages of support poured into the National Assembly from Paris and other French cities. The National Assembly held to its course of revolution, and it renamed itself the National Constituent Assembly. It addressed the king in polite but firm terms, requesting the removal of the troops that surrounded them. King Louis declared that he alone could judge the need for troops, and he stated that the troops had been deployed strictly as a precautionary measure.

Angry Parisians, meanwhile, had been blaming the old order (the monarchy), hoarders and greedy merchants and the rich in general for their troubles. They were marching in the streets. Cavalry tried to disperse them. On 12 July there was violence between soldiers and local crowds. On the 13th, demonstrators threw stones and debris at the cavalry, and rumors spread that more troops were about to attack the city. Barricades were erected. Crowds emptied gun shops Soldiers joined the crowds and joined the looting. On the 14th, a mob stormed an old fort in the city — the Bastille — to obtain gunpowder and more guns. The fort's defenders killed 98 and wounded 78. The crowd killed a few of the 30 or so soldiers defending the fort and released the seven who had been jailed in the Bastille. The commander of the fort, the Marquis de Launay, was beheaded. His head was put on a stake, and a crowd paraded across the city carrying Launay's severed head as a sign of victory. Many Parisians saw themselves as having taken control of the city.

In Paris a militia of armed took the name of National Guard and considered themselves as having replaced the king's troops. Rather than launch a war against the people of Paris, Louis sought to maintain what he thought was his good standing with his subjects, and he endorsed the new order in Paris. Some were to see this as a big break for the revolution and as the king's surrender to an irrational mob.

People outside of Paris were also rebelling. By mid-July a so-called "Great Fear" arose as peasants with property became afraid of imaginary bands of vagrants. And there were actual attacks by mobs on manor houses and the castles of nobles, and some nobles were killed.

In towns, mobs attacted tax offices. Soldiers threw down their weapons, and about half of the municipalities experiencing mob actions risings fell to new leadership that associated itself with the authority of the National Constituent Assembly. In some municipalities, revolutionary committees shared power with the town councils.

Delegates to the National Constituent Assembly were alarmed by the spreading violence. They made speeches about lifting the yoke that for centuries had weighed upon the peasants. On August 4 the Assembly made the abolition of feudal privileges official. Nobles were prohibited from charging dues, from making people work on roads or from holding exclusive hunting rights. The National Constituent Assembly removed nobles as makers of law in what had been their areas of rule. Courts run by nobles were abolished. Nobles were declared as no longer exempt from paying taxes. And the National Assembly ended obligations to pay tithes to the Church.

Clinging to their idea of a constitutional monarchy, the National Constituent Assembly sought the king's cooperation. King Louis caved-in again and announced his agreement with the "spirit" of the constitution. But when he expressed his own ideas about specific points, newspapers supporting revolution interpreted the king's opinions as hostile opposition. Newspapers spread animosity toward the king, and deputies to the National Convention and many others who supported the revolution viewed King Louis with greater suspicion.

On August 27, intellectuals influenced by the Enlightenment had their say. The National Constituent Assembly issued its Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen — the draft of which had been discussed with Thomas Jefferson, then United States ambassador to France. It was a statement of principles drawn in part from the American Declaration of Independence. It spoke of a right to resist oppression and the right to property. It claimed that all "men" should be equal before the law, that arbitrary arrests should be illegal, that people should be presumed innocent until proven otherwise in a court of law, that there should be freedom of opinion concerning religion, and that virtue and talent should be the only requirements for public office. But these words alone were not about to make the French Revolution.

Sound judgment would be needed to steer the revolution on a course toward or near the ideals expressed by the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. Instead the revolution was on its way down a path of fervor and foolishness. Collectively those giving direction to the revolution didn't quite understand what they were doing.


PLEASE CONTINUE: The French Revolution: Ferver and Foolishness to 1795

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