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Honoré Gabriel Riquéti, Comte de Mirabeau (1749-1791) Born into an ancient noble family from Provence, the son of the marquis de Mirabeau was an active Free Mason before the revolution. In his youth he gained a reputation as a wild unscrupulous philanderer and endured several spells in prison under the orders of his disapproving father. In 1772 he married a wealthy heiress but continued to indulge his extravagent tastes and rampant libido. In fact, when he fell in love with one of his conquests he ran off with her to Switzerland and faced serious charges in France. Arrested in 1777 he was actually sentenced to death but after five years in prison he succeeded in having the death sentence relaxed .
Now free but as dissolute as ever, Mirabeau had to leave France once again, but returned to Paris in the mid-1780ies in search of employment in some diplomatic or political role. His private and public indiscretions, however, made him an undesirable element in the Paris of the final days of the Ancien Regime, though, and when the announcement was made that the king was to convoke the Estates-General Mirabeau put himself forward to represent the noble class of his home town of Aix. Rejected by his fellow nobles he stood for election as a third estate representative for both Aix and nearby Marseilles. He was elected in both towns and chose to represent Aix.
He had trained in the law and always been an avid reader of the many new ideas that were abroad in France in the 1780ies. Above all, he was a powerful speaker and a clever orator, a gift which brought him straight to the fore of the political revolution of May-June 1789. As early as May 6th, the day after the opening of the Estates-General, he was exhorting his fellow deputies not to disband until the verification of powers had been performed for the three orders as a single body. The nobles refused the idea that the three orders should debate and vote as a single body and this meant that no business could be conducted. Since neither the king nor his minister Necker intervened, there followed weeks of stalemate.
By June 12th the Third Estate decided that the other orders would simply be given an ultimatum. If they did not join the Third Estate, which represented 95% of the Nation, the Third Estate would simply constitute itself into a sovereign national Assembly and begin to conduct business without the other two orders. When the allotted time had elapsed, although no nobles and only a handful of clergymen had joined them, the deputies as the sole representatives of the nation. They decreed that together they constituted a National Assembly and that no taxes could be considered legal anywhere in France without the Assebly's agreement. This dramatic statement had a great effect on the clergy representatives and some 149 of their number agreed the next day to vote as members of the Assembly.
When the king ordered the chamber to be locked, the deputies simply took over a nearby sports hall, the Salle du Jeu de Paume. There they swore the solemn oath known to history as the 'Jeu de Paume Oath'. The next day the deputies found the sports hall closed but set themselves up undeterred in the nearby Chapel of St Louis, to which the clerical order had given them access. When the three orders were once again convoked by Louis and ordered to separate into their three orders, the deputies simply stayed put.
The king's Master of Ceremonies, Dreux-Brezé, backed by a handful of royal soldiers, came to order them to go to their assigned chamber. It was Mirabeau who now spoke up for the National Assembly with his celebrated and defiant refusal to be ejected 'other than by force of bayonets'. When informed of this act of defiance, the king simply said, "Well, damn it, let them stay!" It was a symbolic stand by the Assembly against the king's authority and may be said to constitute an important step on the road to a revolution that would change the face of Europe forever.
In the months to come Mirabeau remained a leading figure in the Constuent Assembly, collaborating with Sieyès on the Declaration of the Rights of ManLINK, although he had advocated accompanying it with a similar declaration of the duties of man. He was no radical revolutionary, though, advocating a constitutional monarchy with a strong executive authority in the hands of the king's appointed ministers. Indeed, he saw himself as the ideal man to take the role of first minister and sought to reconcile the king with the Assembly to this end.
This willingness to accept the king's authority and to convince the Assembly to do so made him the object of many deputies' suspicions but did not elicit any great confidence from Louis himself. Mirabeau's hopes of leading the king's government were quashed when the Assembly voted a resolution stating that no deputy could be a king's minister. This led him into disasterous secret pact with Louis XVI which was uncovered in the autumn of 1792 after the sacking of the Tuileries palace. Damning documentary evidence was found among the king's private affairs in the notorious 'iron wardrobe'.
By the time his secret came out, however, Mirabeau's dissolute life-style had already cheated the guillotine of this particular victim. Elected president of the National Assembly on January 30th, 1791 the comte de Mirabeau died of illness on April 2nd of that year.
This entry is part of the French Revolution University Project.