In this blog, let us learn about the outbreak of the revolution in France. In France of the Old Regime, the monarch did not have the power to impose taxes according to his will alone. Rather he had to call a meeting of the Estates-General which would then pass his proposals for new taxes. The Estates-General was a political body to which the three estates sent their representatives. However, the monarch alone could decide when to call a meeting of this body. The last time it was done was in 1614.
On 5 May 1789, Louis XVI called together an assembly of the Estates-General to pass proposals for new taxes. A resplendent hall in Versailles was prepared to host the delegates. The first and second estates sent 300 representatives each, who were seated in rows facing each other on two sides, while the 600 members of the third estate had to stand at the back. The third estate was represented by its more prosperous and educated members.
The outbreak of the revolution: Peasants, artisans, and women
Peasants, artisans, and women were denied entry to the assembly. However, their grievances and demands were listed in some 40,000 letters that the representatives had brought with them. Voting in the Estates-General in the past had been conducted according to the principle that each estate had one vote. This time too Louis XVI was determined to continue the same practice.
But members of the third estate demanded that voting now be conducted by the assembly as a whole, where each member would have one vote. This was one of the democratic principles put forward by philosophers like Rousseau in his book The Social Contract. When the king rejected this proposal, members of the third estate walked out of the assembly in protest.
The representatives of the third estate viewed themselves as spokesmen for the whole French nation. On 20 June they assembled in the hall of an indoor tennis court in the grounds of Versailles. They declared themselves a National Assembly and swore not to disperse till they had drafted a constitution for France that would limit the powers of the monarch.
They were led by Mirabeau and Abbé Sieyès. Mirabeau was born in a noble family but was convinced of the need to do away with a society of feudal privilege. He brought out a journal and delivered powerful speeches to the crowds assembled at Versailles. Abbé Sieyès, originally a priest, wrote an influential pamphlet called What is the Third Estate.? While the National Assembly was busy at Versailles drafting a constitution, the rest of France seethed with turmoil.
A severe winter had meant a bad harvest; the price of bread rose, often bakers exploited the situation and hoarded supplies. After spending hours in long queues at the bakery, crowds of angry women stormed into the shops. At the same time, the king ordered troops to move into Paris. On 14 July, the agitated crowd stormed and destroyed the Bastille.
In the countryside rumors spread from village to village that the lords of the manor had hired bands of brigands who were on their way to destroy the ripe crops. Caught in a frenzy of fear, peasants in several districts seized hoes and pitchforks and attacked chateaux. They looted hoarded grain and burnt down documents containing records of manorial dues.
After-effects of the outbreak of the revolution
A large number of nobles fled from their homes, many of them migrating to neighboring countries. Faced with the power of his revolting subjects, Louis XVI finally accorded recognition to the National Assembly and accepted the principle that his powers would from now on be checked by a constitution.
On the night of 4 August 1789, the Assembly passed a decree abolishing the feudal system of obligations and taxes. Members of the clergy too were forced to give up their privileges. Tithes were abolished and lands owned by the Church were confiscated. As a result, the government acquired assets worth at least 2 billion lives.