Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER XIV: The Division of the Estates General into Orders. - Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution (LF ed.)
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CHAPTER XIV: The Division of the Estates General into Orders. - Germaine de Staël, Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution (LF ed.) 
Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution, newly revised translation of the 1818 English edition, edited, with an introduction and notes by Aurelian Craiutu (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2008).
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The Division of the Estates General into Orders.
The Estates General of France were, as I have just mentioned, divided into three orders—the clergy, the nobility, and the Third Estate—and accustomed to deliberate separately, like three distinct nations: each presented its grievances to the King, and each confined itself to its particular interests, which had, according to circumstances, more or less connection with the interests of the public at large. In point of numbers, the Third Estate comprised almost the whole nation, the two other orders forming scarcely a hundredth part of it. Having gained greatly in relative importance in the course of the last two centuries, the Third Estate demanded, in 1789, that the mercantile body, or the towns, without reference to the country, should have enough deputies to render the number of the representatives of their body equal to that of the two other orders together; and this demand was supported by motives and circumstances of the greatest weight.
The chief cause of the liberty of England has been the uniform practice of deliberating in two chambers instead of three. In no country where the three orders have remained separate has a free form of government as yet been established. The division into four orders, as is at present the case in Sweden, and was formerly in Aragon, is productive of delay in public business; but it is much more favorable to liberty.1 The order of peasants in Sweden, and in Aragon the equestrian order, gave two equal shares to the representatives of the nation, and to the privileged classes of the first rank; for the equestrian order, which may be compared to the House of Commons in England, naturally supported the interests of the people. The result, therefore, of the division into four orders was that in these two countries, Sweden and Aragon, liberal principles were early introduced and long maintained. Sweden has still to desire that her constitution be assimilated to that of England; but we cannot fail to respect that feeling of justice which, from the earliest time, admitted the order of peasants into the Diet. The peasantry of Sweden are accordingly enlightened, happy, and religious, because they have enjoyed that sentiment of tranquillity and dignity which can arise only from free institutions. In Germany the clergy have had seats in the upper house, but without constituting a separate order, and the natural division into two chambers has been always maintained. Three orders have existed only in France and in a few states, such as Sicily, which did not form a separate monarchy. This unfortunate division, having had the effect of giving always a majority to the privileged classes against the nation, has often induced the French people to prefer arbitrary power in the Crown to that dependence on the aristocratic orders, in which they were placed by such division in three orders.
Another inconvenience in France arose from the number of gentry of the second order, ennobled but yesterday, either by the letters of noblesse granted by the kings, as a sequel to the enfranchisement of the Gauls, or by purchased offices, such as that of secretary to the King, &c. which had the effect of associating new individuals to the rights and privileges of the old nobility. The nation would have willingly submitted to the pre-eminence of the families whose names are distinguished in history, and who, I can affirm, without exaggeration, do not in France exceed two hundred. But the hundred thousand nobles, and the hundred thousand clergy, who laid their claim for privileges equal to those of MM. de Montmorency, de Grammont, de Crillon, &c., created general discontent; for merchants, capitalists, and men of letters were at a loss to understand the superiority granted to a title acquired by money or obsequiousness, and to which a term of twenty-five years was deemed sufficient to give admittance to the chamber of nobles, and to privileges of which the most respected members of the Third Estate were deprived.
The House of Peers in England is an assemblage of patrician magistrates, indebted for its origin, no doubt, to the ancient recollections of chivalry; but entirely associated with institutions of a very different nature. Admission into it is daily obtained by eminence, sometimes in commerce, but particularly in the law; while the duty of national representatives, discharged by the peers in the state, affords the nation an assurance of the utility of the institution. But what advantage could the French derive from those Viscounts of the Garonne, or those Marquisses of the Loire, who not only did not pay their proportion of taxes to the state, but could not even be received at court, since for that purpose a proof of nobility for more than four centuries was necessary, and most of them could go hardly fifty years back? The vanity of this class of people could be displayed only on their inferiors, and these inferiors were twenty-four million in number.
It may be conducive to the dignity of an established church that there be archbishops and bishops in the Upper House, as in England. But what improvement could be ever accomplished in a country where the Catholic clergy composed a third of the representation and had an equal voice with the nation itself, even in legislative measures? Was it likely that this clergy would give its consent to religious toleration, or to the admission of Protestants to public offices? Did it not obstinately refuse the equalization of taxes, that it might keep up the form of free gifts, which increased its importance with government? When Philip the Tall2 dismissed churchmen from the Parlement of Paris, he said “that they ought to be too much occupied with spiritual matters to have time for temporal ones.” Why have they not all along submitted to this wise maxim?
Never was there any thing decisive done by the Estates General, merely from their unfortunate division into three instead of two orders. The Chancellor de l’Hôpital could not obtain his edict of peace, even temporarily, except from a convocation at St. Germains, in 1562, in which, by a rare accident, the clergy were not present.
The Assemblies of Notables, called together by the kings, almost all decided by individual votes; and the parliament, which in 1558 had at first consented to form a fourth and separate order, required in 1626 to vote individually in an Assembly of Notables, that they might not be distinguished from the nobility.3 The endless fluctuations exhibited in all the usages of France are more conspicuous in the composition of the Estates General than in any other political institution. Were we to insist obstinately on the past, as forming an immutable law for the present, we should be immersed in endless disputes, and should find that the past, which is brought forward as our guide, was itself founded on an alteration of an earlier “past.” Let us return then to matters that are less equivocal; the events of which we have been eyewitnesses.
The Archbishop of Sens, acting in the King’s name, invited the eminent writers of the day to publish their opinion on the mode of convening the Estates General. Had there existed constitutional laws decisive of the question, would the minister of the Crown have consulted the nation in this respect, through the medium of the press? The Archbishop of Sens, in establishing provincial assemblies, had not only rendered in them the number of deputies of the Third Estate equal to that of the two other orders collectively, but he had determined in the King’s name, that the voting should take place individually. The public mind was thus strongly prepared, both by the measures of the Archbishop of Sens and by the strength of the Third Estate itself, to obtain for the latter, in 1789, a larger share of influence than in antecedent assemblies of the Estates General. There was no law to fix the number of the three orders; the only established principle was that each order should have one voice. Had not a legal provision been made for a double representation of the Third Estate, it was undoubted that the nation, irritated at the refusal of its demand, would have sent a still greater number of deputies to the Estates General. Thus, all those symptoms of a political crisis, of which it is the part of a statesman to take cognizance, indicated the necessity of giving way to the spirit of the age.
Yet M. Necker did not take on himself to follow the course, which, in his own judgment, would have been the best; and confiding, it must be admitted, too much in the power of reason, he advised the King to assemble once more the Notables already convoked by M. de Calonne. The majority of these Notables, consisting of the privileged classes, were adverse to doubling the representatives of the Third Estate. One division only of the Assembly gave an affirmative opinion, and that division was under the presidency of Monsieur (now Louis XVIII). It is gratifying to think that a king, the first author of a constitutional charter proceeding from the throne,4 was at that time in unison with the people on the important question which the aristocrats still seek to represent as the cause of the overthrow of the monarchy.
M. Necker has been blamed for consulting the Notables without following their opinion—his fault lay in consulting them at all; but could anyone imagine that those privileged members of that Assembly, which had lately shown itself so adverse to the abuse of royal authority, should so soon defend the unjust claims of their own, with a pertinacity so much at variance with the opinion of the nation?
Yet M. Necker suspended the decision of the question of doubling the Third Estate as soon as he saw that a majority of the Notables differed from him; and there elapsed more than two months between the close of their Assembly and the decision of the council on 27th December, 1788. During this interval, M. Necker studied constantly the public feeling as the compass which, on this point, ought to guide the decisions of the King. The unanimity of the provinces was positive in regard to the necessity of granting the demands of the Third Estate, for the party of the unmixed aristocrats (aristocrats purs) was, as it had ever been, far from numerous; many of the nobles and clergy of the class of curés had gone over to the public opinion. The province of Dauphiny assembled, at Romans, its ancient states, whose meetings had long been discontinued, and admitted there not only the doubling of the deputies of the Third Estate, but the voting individually. A number of officers of the army discovered a disposition to favor the popular wish. All, whether men or women, who in the higher circles exercised influence on the public opinion, spoke warmly in favor of the national cause. Such was the prevailing fashion; it was the result of the whole of the eighteenth century; and the old prejudices, which still favored antiquated institutions, had at that time much less strength than at any other period during the twenty-five years that ensued. In short, the ascendancy of the popular wish was so great that it carried along with it the parliament itself. No body ever showed itself more ardent in the defense of ancient usages than the Parlement of Paris; every new institution seemed to it an act of rebellion, because, in fact, its own existence could not be founded on the principles of political liberty. Offices that were purchased by the occupants, a judicial body pretending to a right to pass bills for taxes, yet renouncing that right at the command of the King; all these contradictions, which could only be the result of chance, were ill calculated to bear discussion; consequently, they appeared singularly suspicious in the French magistracy. All requisitions against the liberty of the press proceeded from the Parlement of Paris; and if they opposed a limit to the active exercise of the royal authority, they, on the other hand, encouraged that kind of ignorance, which is of all things most favorable to absolute power. A body so strongly attached to ancient usages, and yet composed of men entitled by their virtues in private life to much esteem, decided the question naturally enough, by declaring that, as the number of the deputies of each order was not fixed by any usage or any law, it remained to be regulated by the wisdom of the King. This took place in the beginning of December, 1788, two months after the Assembly of the Notables.*
What! could the body that was considered as the representative of the past, yielding to the opinion of the day, relinquish indirectly on this occasion the maintenance of ancient customs!5 and could the minister, whose whole strength lay in his respect for the nation, have taken on himself to refuse that nation what in his conscience he thought equitable; what in his judgment he deemed necessary!
But this is not all. At that time the adversaries of the King’s authority were the privileged orders, while the Third Estate were desirous of rallying round the Crown; and had not the King withdrawn himself from the representatives of the Third Estate after the opening of the Estates General, there is not a doubt that they would have supported his prerogative. When a sovereign adopts a system in politics, he ought to follow it with constancy, for changes bring on him the disadvantages of all the opposing parties. “A great revolution,” said Monsieur (Louis XVIII) to the municipality of Paris, in 1789, “is at hand; the King, by his views, his virtues, and his supreme rank, ought to be at its head.” All that wisdom could suggest on the occasion is contained in these words.
M. Necker, in the report accompanying the result of the council of 27th December, announced in the King’s name, that his Majesty would grant the suppression of the lettres de cachet, the liberty of the press, and the re-assembling of the Estates General at stated periods for the revision of the finances.6 He endeavored to snatch from the future deputies the good they were desirous of doing, that he might engross the affection of the people for the King. And no resolution, that ever proceeded from a throne, was productive of such enthusiasm as the result of the council. Addresses of congratulation arrived from all parts of the kingdom; and among the numberless letters received by M. Necker, two of the most remarkable were those from the Abbé, afterward Cardinal, Maury, and from M. de Lamoignon. The royal authority had at that time more power over the public mind than ever; the nation admired that strength of reason, and that candor, which made the King anticipate the reforms demanded by it; while the Archbishop of Sens had placed him in the most precarious situation by advising him to refuse today what he was obliged to grant tomorrow.
To profit, however, by this popular enthusiasm, it was necessary to proceed firmly in the same road. But six months after, the King followed a perfectly opposite plan; why, then, should M. Necker be accused of events which resulted from the rejection of his opinion and the adoption of that of the opposite party? When an unskillful commander loses a campaign victoriously begun by another, is it ever said that the victor of the early part is answerable for the defeat of a successor, whose manner of seeing and acting is entirely different? Some, however, will ask, was not the voting individually, instead of by orders, the natural result of doubling the representatives of the Third Estate; and have we not seen the consequence of the union of the three orders in one assembly? The natural consequence of the doubling of the Third Estate would have been deliberating in two chambers; and far from fearing such a result, it ought to have been desired. Why, then, will M. Necker’s adversaries say, did not he make the King express a resolution on this point at the time that the royal consent was given to doubling the deputies? He did not do it because he thought that a change of such a nature ought to be concerted with the representatives of the nation; but he proposed it as soon as these representatives were assembled. Unfortunately, the aristocratic party opposed it, and ruined France in ruining themselves.
A scarcity of corn, such as had not for a long time been felt in France, threatened Paris with famine in the winter of 1788, 1789. The infinite exertions of M. Necker, and the deposit of his own fortune, the half of which he had placed in the treasury, were the means of preventing incalculable calamities. Nothing excites so strong a disposition to discontent among the people as a dread of scarcity; yet, such was their confidence in the administration, that no tumult whatever occurred.
The Estates General bade fair to meet under favorable auspices; the privileged orders could not, from their situation, abandon the throne, although they had shaken it; the deputies of the Third Estate were grateful for the attention shown to their demands. There still remained, it is true, very serious subjects of contention between the nation and the privileged classes; but the King was so placed as to act the part of arbiter, by reducing his own power to a limited monarchy: if indeed the name of reduction can be given to the erection of barriers, which defend you from your own errors, and still more from those of your ministers. A monarchy wisely limited may be compared to an honest man, in whose soul conscience always presides over conduct.
The act of the council of 27th December was adopted by the ablest ministers of the Crown, such as MM. de St. Priest, de Montmorin, and de la Luzerne; the Queen herself thought proper to be present at the debate on doubling the members of the Third Estate. It was the first time that she appeared at council; and the approbation given spontaneously by her to the measure proposed by M. Necker might be considered in the light of an additional sanction; but M. Necker, acting in fulfillment of his duty, necessarily took the responsibility on himself. The whole nation, with the exception of perhaps a few thousand individuals, were at that time of his opinion; since then, none but the friends of justice and of political liberty, such as it was understood on the opening of the Estates General, have remained consistent during twenty-five years of vicissitude. They are few in number, and death thins them daily; but death alone has the power of diminishing this faithful army; for neither corruption nor terror would be able to detach the most obscure combatant from its ranks.
[1. ] In Sweden, the four estates were the nobility, the clergy, the bourgeoisie, and the peasants. The Cortés of Aragon comprised the nobility, the knights, the clergy, and the “people.”
[2. ] Philip the Tall (Philip V), King of France (from 1316) and King of Navarre (as Philip II, from 1314), who largely succeeded in restoring the royal power to what it had been under his father, Philip IV, did not convoke the clergy to all the sessions of the Parlement of Paris.
[3. ] The Assembly of Notables of 1558 comprised the three traditional orders and the presidents of the parlements of the kingdom, which formed a special order in itself. The Assembly of Notables that met in 1626 addressed the serious budgetary problems facing France at that time.
[4. ] Allusion to the Charter of 1814 granted by Louis XVIII on his return to the throne of France in 1814.
[* ] Extract of the decree of Parlement of 5th Dec. 1788, the peers being present.
Considering the actual situation of the nation, &c., this court declares that, in distinguishing in the Estates General of 1614, the convoking, the composition, and the number:
In regard to the first point the court must call for the form established at that period; that is, convoking by bailiwicks and senechalships, not by governments or généralités; this form, sanctioned century after century by many examples, and by the last Estates, being the only method to obtain a complete assemblage of the electors in the legal form before officers independent from their situation.
In regard to the composition of the Assembly, the court neither could nor ought to infringe in the slightest manner on the right of the electors; a right founded in nature, in the constitution, and hitherto respected—that of committing their powers to the citizens whom they judge most deserving of them.
In respect to the number, that of the respective deputies not being determined by any law, or any usage, for any of the orders, it has not been within the powers or intention of this court to decide it; the said court can only trust to the wisdom of the King for the measures necessary to arrive at that course which reason, liberty, justice, and the general wish shall point out. The said Parlement has further decreed that the said Lord the King should be most humbly entreated to permit no longer delay in assembling the Estates General, and to take into his consideration, that there would be no cause for agitation in the public mind or disquietude in the orders, if he were pleased, on calling together that assembly, to declare as sacred
The future assembling of the Estates General;
Their right to assign, as a security, certain fixed taxes to the public creditors; their duty to the people to grant no other tax without defining it both as to amount and duration; their right to fix and appropriate freely the funds of each department at the demand of the King;
The resolution of our said Lord the King to take steps to suppress all taxes which constitute a distinction between the higher orders and the class which alone supports them, and to replace them by taxes payable equally by the kingdom at large;
The responsibility of ministers;
The right of the Estates General to bring actions before the courts of justice in all cases that directly interest the nation at large, without prejudicing the rights of the King’s procureur general in similar cases;
A connection between the Estates General and the higher courts of justice, of such a nature that the courts ought not, and cannot, suffer the collection of any tax unless legally voted, nor further the execution of any law not passed by the Estates General;
The individual liberty of citizens by the obligation to bring every man detained in a royal prison forthwith before his natural judges;
And the legitimate liberty of the press, the only prompt and sure resource of men of character against the licentiousness of the worthless; leaving, however, the author or publisher answerable for his writings after they are printed.
By means of these preliminary arrangements, which are from this moment in the hands of His Majesty, and without which there cannot exist a truly national assembly, it appears to this court that the King would afford the members of the magistracy the most gratifying return for their zeal, by procuring to the nation, by means of well-established liberty, all the happiness to which it is entitled.
Decrees, consequently, that the motives, the principles, and the wishes of this decree shall be laid before our Lord the King, through the medium of very humble and respectful supplication.
[5. ] In its session of September 25, 1788, the members of the Parlement of Paris voted in favor of upholding the forms of the 1614 meeting of the Estates General. Public opinion forced them to change their view three months later.
[6. ] The council of December 27, 1788, that established the number of deputies of the Third Estate made no decision on the seminal issue of voting by order or by head. Necker’s comments on this issue can be found in De la Révolution française, pt. I, 64–67. On this issue, also see Doyle, The Oxford History of the French Revolution, 92–94.