Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER XVI: Opening of the Estates General on the 5th of May, 1789. - Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution (LF ed.)
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CHAPTER XVI: Opening of the Estates General on the 5th of May, 1789. - 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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Opening of the Estates General on the 5th of May, 1789.
I shall never forget the hour that I saw the twelve hundred deputies of France1 pass in procession to church to hear mass, the day before the opening of the assembly. It was a very imposing sight, and very new to the French; all the inhabitants of Versailles, and many persons attracted by curiosity from Paris, collected to see it. This new kind of authority in the state, of which neither the nature nor the strength was as yet known, astonished the greater part of those who had not reflected on the rights of nations.
The higher clergy had lost a portion of its influence with the public, because a number of prelates had been irregular in their moral conduct, and a still greater number employed themselves only in political affairs. The people are strict in regard to the clergy, as in regard to women; they require from both a close observance of their duties. Military fame, which is the foundation of reputation to the nobility, as piety is to the clergy, could now only appear in the past. A long peace had deprived those noblemen who would have most desired it of the opportunity of rivaling their ancestors; and all the great lords of France were now illustrious obscures. The nobility of the second rank had been equally deprived of opportunities of distinction, as the nature of the government left no opening to nobles but the military profession. The nobles of recent origin were seen in great numbers in the ranks of the aristocracy; but the plume and sword did not become them; and people asked why they took their station with the first class in the country, merely because they had obtained an exemption from their share of the taxes; for in fact their political rights were confined to this unjust privilege.
The nobility having fallen from its splendor by its courtier habits, by its intermixture with those of recent creation, and by a long peace; the clergy possessing no longer that superiority of information which had marked it in days of barbarism, the importance of the deputies of the Third Estate had augmented from all these considerations. Their black cloaks and dresses, imposing numbers, and confident looks fixed the attention of the spectators. Literary men, merchants, and a great number of lawyers formed the chief part of this order.2 Some of the nobles had got themselves elected deputies of the Third Estate, and of these the most conspicuous was the Comte de Mirabeau.3 The opinion entertained of his talents was remarkably increased by the dread excited by his immorality; yet it was that very immorality that lessened the influence which his surprising abilities ought to have obtained for him. The eye that was once fixed on his countenance was not likely to be soon withdrawn: his immense head of hair distinguished him from amongst the rest, and suggested the idea that, like Samson, his strength depended on it; his countenance derived expression even from its ugliness; and his whole person conveyed the idea of irregular power, but still such power as we should expect to find in a tribune of the people.
His name was as yet the only celebrated one among the six hundred deputies of the Third Estate; but there were a number of honorable men, and not a few that were to be dreaded. The spirit of faction began to hover over France, and was not to be overcome but by wisdom or power. If therefore public opinion had by this time undermined power, what was to be accomplished without wisdom?
I was placed at a window near Madame de Montmorin, the wife of the Minister of Foreign Affairs, and I confess I gave myself up to the liveliest hope on seeing national representatives for the first time in France. Madame de Montmorin, a woman nowise distinguished for capacity, said to me, in a decided tone and in a way which made an impression upon me, “You do wrong to rejoice; this will be the source of great misfortunes to France and to us.” This unfortunate woman perished on the scaffold along with one of her sons; another son drowned himself; her husband was massacred on the 2d of September;4 her eldest daughter died in the hospital of a prison; and her youngest daughter, Madame de Beaumont, an intelligent and generous creature, sank under the pressure of grief before the age of thirty.5 The family of Niobe was not doomed to a more cruel fate than that of this unhappy mother; one would have said that she had a presentiment of it.
The opening of the Estates General took place the next day; a large hall had been hastily erected in the avenue of Versailles to receive the deputies.6 A number of spectators were admitted to witness the ceremony. A platform floor was raised to receive the King’s throne, the Queen’s chair of state, and seats for the rest of the royal family.
The Chancellor, M. de Barentin, took his seat on the stage of this species of theater; the three orders were, if I may so express myself, in the pit, the clergy and nobility to the right and left, the deputies of the Third Estate in front. They had previously declared that they would not kneel on the entrance of the King, according to an ancient usage still practiced on the last meeting of the Estates General. Had the deputies of the Third Estate put themselves on their knees in 1789, the public at large, not excepting the proudest aristocrats, would have termed the action ridiculous, that is, wholly inconsistent with the opinions of the age.
When Mirabeau appeared, a low murmur was heard throughout the assembly. He understood its meaning; but stepping along the hall to his seat with a lofty air, he seemed as if he were preparing to produce sufficient trouble in the country to confound the distinctions of esteem as well as all others. M. Necker was received with bursts of applause the moment he entered; his popularity was then at its height; and the King might have derived the greatest advantage from it, by remaining steadfast in the system of which he had adopted the fundamental principles.
When the King came to seat himself on his throne in the midst of this assembly, I felt, for the first time, a sensation of fear. I observed that the Queen was much agitated; she came after the appointed time, and her color was visibly altered. The King delivered his discourse in his usual unaffected manner; but the looks of the deputies were expressive of more energy than that of the monarch, and this contrast was disquieting at a time when, nothing being as yet settled, strength was requisite to both sides.
The speeches of the King, the Chancellor, and M. Necker all pointed to the reinstatement of the finances. That of M. Necker contained a view of all the improvements of which the administration was capable; but he hardly touched on constitutional questions; and confining himself to cautioning the Assembly against the precipitation of which it was too susceptible, he made use of a phrase which has since passed into a proverb, “Ne soyez pas envieux du temps”—“do not expect to do at once that which can be accomplished only by time.” On the rising of the Assembly, the popular party, that is, the majority of the Third Estate, a minority of the nobility, and several members of the clergy, complained that M. Necker had treated the Estates General like a provincial administration, in speaking to them only of measures for securing the public debt and improving the system of taxation. The grand object of their assembling was, doubtless, to form a constitution; but could they expect that the King’s minister should be the first to enter on questions which it belonged to the representatives of the nation to introduce?
On the other hand, the aristocratic party, having seen from M. Necker’s speech that in the course of eight months he had sufficiently reinstated the finances to be able to go on without new taxes, began to blame the minister for having convened the Estates General, since there was no imperious call for them on the score of money. They no doubt forgot that the promise of convening them had been given by the Crown before the recall of M. Necker. In this, as in almost every other point, he observed a medium; for he would not go the length of saying to the representatives of the people, “Employ yourselves only on a constitution”; and still less would he consent to relapse into the arbitrary system, by contenting himself with momentary resources, that would neither have given a stable assurance to the public creditors, nor have satisfied the people in regard to the appropriation of its sacrifices.7
[1. ] The Estates General consisted of twelve hundred deputies. For more information, see Doyle, The Oxford History of the French Revolution, 93–111.
[2. ] The reader may find it interesting to compare Madame de Staël’s ideas on this topic with Burke’s sarcastic description of the nefarious role played by lawyers in the Constituent Assembly.
[3. ] Honoré Gabriel Riqueti, Comte de Mirabeau (1749–91), was a prominent French orator and statesman who played a leading role in the debates of the Constituent Assembly until his untimely death in April 1791. For an excellent selection of his political writings (discourses and notes), see Chaussinand-Nogaret, ed., Mirabeau entre le roi et la Révolution.
[4. ] Reference to the massacres of September 2, 1792.
[5. ] In reality, at thirty-five, not thirty.
[6. ] Reference to La Salle des Menus Plaisirs, Avenue de Paris, at Versailles, an older store transformed to accommodate the Assembly of Notables in 1787. It was reshaped to accommodate the meeting of the Estates General.
[7. ] The importance of finding a middle way between the extremes was also emphasized by Necker in De la Révolution française, pt. I, 34–35, 137–38.