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The French Revolution: the First 112 Days

The Estates General met on 5 May 1789 at a grand hall near the king's palace at Versailles, twelve miles outside of Paris (five days after George Washington was inaugurated president). There was trouble with the first item on the agenda: a technicality about voting. Delegates representing the Third Estate (the commoners) were mostly lawyers and numbered around 600 (about half of convention's total delegates). They said they represented 97 percent of the nation's population and should therefore have more influence at the convention. They were not accommodated. Liberal-minded clergy and nobility among the delegates joined them in walking out. They created their own convention, which they called the National Assembly.

Members of National Assembly, now outside the Estates General, cheered as the nobles among them 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.

The National Assembly also considered the country's debt problem, and did so with the interests of businessmen (officially commoners) in mind. They agreed to consolidate the public debt, and they declared themselves in charge of taxes. 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.

As for the new body called the National Assembly, still at Versailles, messages of support came from Paris and other French cities. The National Assembly held to its course of revolution. It renamed itself the National Constituent Assembly, and it addressed the king in polite but firm terms, requesting the removal of the troops that surrounded them. King Louis responded, declaring that he alone could judge the need for troops, and he stated that the troops had been deployed strictly as a precautionary measure.

While this was going on, angry Parisians were blaming the old order (the monarchy), hoarders and greedy merchants and the rich in general for their troubles. Encouraged, 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 of the aroused Parisians saw themselves as having taken control of the city.

In Paris a militia of armed men called themselves the National Guard. As revolutionaries they considered their force as legitimate, as having replaced the king's troops. Louis responded weakly. Rather than launch a war against the people of Paris, he sought to maintain what he thought of as his good standing with his subjects. He endorsed the new order in Paris, and some were to see this as his 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. There were actual attacks by mobs on manor houses and the castles of nobles, and some nobles were killed. In towns, mobs attacked tax offices. Soldiers threw down their weapons, and about half of the municipalities experiencing mob actions fell to new leadership that associated itself with the authority of the revolution's National Constituent Assembly. In some municipalities, revolutionary committees shared power with the town councils.

Delegates to the National Constituent Assembly, including respectable members of the business community (bourgeoisie), were alarmed by the spreading violence, but they added new positions to their program for revolution. There were speeches about lifting the yoke that for centuries had weighed upon the peasants, and on August 4 the Assembly made the abolition of feudal privileges official. Also, they prohibited nobles from charging dues, from making people work on roads and ended exclusive hunting rights. 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. Leftist news sheets spread animosity toward the king, and deputies to the National Convention and many others who supported the revolution avoided a measured interpretation of events in favor of viewing King Louis with greater suspicion.

On August 27, Enlightenment intellectuals 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.

CONTINUE READING: The French Revolution: Fervor and Foolishness to 1795

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