The Estates-General, May 1789
Historically, the only 'representative' council of the whole nation was called the Estates-General. The council was divided into three estates; the Aristocracy, the Clergy and the Third Estate. The Third Estate was made up of all those who were neither nobles nor clergymen (ie about 95% of the population) and in each region or major town, an electorate based on limited suffrage voted representatives from among the local notables.
It had not been called since 1614, largely because during the 17th century the Bourbon Kings Louis XIII (aided by Cardinal Richelieu) and Louis XIV had gathered all power around the person of the monarch, instituting the system of government known as Absolutism. In the summer of 1788, however, the Estates-General were called once more, in a bid to resolve the growing economic and political crisis. Louis wanted a rubber-stamp for his well-intended but totally inadequate reform proposals. He was in for a surprise!
When the Estates-General met there was an immediate problem because the estates were supposed to debate issues separately and vote en bloc. This would mean that as long as the nobles and the church could vote together, the 3rd Estate could never veto. This was especially important because the 3rd Estate numbered twice as many representatives as each of the other two estates. There had been much politicking in the run-up to the opening of the estates and this question of whether the votes would be by order or by individual had been hotly debated without any resolution.
The National Assembly
The opening session on May 5th was a disappointment to any who were hoping for dramatic reform. The King's minister Necker delivered a three-hour monologue listing the many economic difficulties to be resolved with a bewildering array of facts and figures to illustrate them. The next thing to be done was for all representatives to display their credentials and be registered for voting. The 3rd demanded that this process take place while all three orders were present, and when this requirement was rejected they refused to co-operate at all. For over a month neither side budged and on June 10th the 3rd decided to act unilaterally. Some of the 'low' clergy parish priests etc joined them and on June 17th they proclaimed themselves to be a 'National Assembly' and claimed the authority to pass decrees. The first blow had been struck in a struggle that was to last many years and cost many lives.
Despite the absence of any representatives from the aristocracy and only a few Low Church priests representing the Clergy, the Constituent Assembly went to work unilaterally on developing new financial legislation. The King was most disconcerted by this unilateral action and ordered the meeting hall to be locked up under the false pretence that it was being prepared for a banquet. When the representatives arrived on June 20th, they found the doors guarded by soldiers but they did not give up so easily.
The Tennis Court Oath
They repaired to a nearby indoor tennis court1 and, at Mounier's suggestion, swore an oath not to disband until they had provided France with a new constitution. The next day the assembly met in a nearby church where they were joined by a further 148 priests and a handful of nobles from the ranks of the aristocrat representatives. On June 23rd Louis XVI addressed the assembly, annulling the decisions it had made and prohibiting the three orders from acting together.
When the king left the chamber, the marquis de Deux-Brézé, master of ceremonies at the meeting, reminded the assembly of the King's orders, prompting a rebellious and impoverished noble to make a reply on behalf of the assembly that catapulted him to the front-line of the revolution. The comte de Mirabeau told Deux-Brézé to "Go and tell those that sent you that we are here at the will of the people and that we will not leave our places except by the force of your bayonettes!" He then proposed that the assembly declare itself inviolable. Louis is said to have commented when he heard the news, "Well, if they don't want to go, then let them stay!” even going as far as ordering the remaining representatives from the aristocracy and clergy to take their places with the others in a single chamber. This was a true political revolution - the absolute monarch had been defied and had capitulated. It was only the beginning, though, of ten years of revolution, counter-revolution, blood, battles, political manoeuvring and executions.
The Fall of the Bastille
Meanwhile, back in Paris...
News of the king's dismissal of the popular minister Necker had been badly received among the already discontented people of Paris, and radical orators were daily to be heard inciting the people to rise up against the nobles and claim their rights. There was fear among the population of brigands and also of troops that the king had stationed near the capital to suppress any revolt. The defiant attitude of the Third Estate and their claiming the title of National Assembly inspired many to increase their demands for reforms from the king. On the 13th a committee had been formed from members of the Third Estate to draw up plans for the creation of a city militia. The next day a crowd entered Les Invalides military hospital and armed themselves with 3,000 rifles and a few cannon. From there they made for the looming Bastille tower to the east (an approximate equivalent to The Tower of London in the UK) where they hoped to acquire more arms.
The officer in command of the small garrison in the Bastille was a noble, the Marquis de Launay. While attempting to negotiate with the Parisians he unwisely allowed them into the outer courtyard. A shot was fired and in the confusion several of the defending cannoniers changed sides and opened fire on the keep. After four hours of fighting Launay surrendered on condition he would not be killed. He was promptly dragged to the Hotel de Ville and executed along with some of his officers and an unpopular state official called Flesselles. Their heads were paraded through the streets on pikes.
Often the main event associated with the French revolution, the Bastille was not a significant victory in itself. The 'political prisoners' released from the Bastille that day comprised 'two madmen, a débauché and four forgers'. When the king received the news he agreed to dismiss the nearby troops, recalled Necker and publicly accepted the 'patriotic' symbol of the tricolor cockade at the Hotel de Ville. The next day the parisian insurgents were organised into a National Guard and placed under the command of Lafayette, the hero of the American Revolution.
The Agrarian Revolution
As news of the fall of the Bastille spread across the country, peasants in many areas panicked and attacked their lords' chateaux, often burning tax records. This is sometimes called the 'agrarian revolution'. Although these violent eruptions of peasant anger and frustration must have contributed to the political tension of the times, it is not true to say that they *are* the French Revolution; not an uncommon misconception. In 1789, it was a political revolution that was taking place.