Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER XVIII: Conduct of the Third Estate During the First Two Months of the Session of the Estates General. - Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution (LF ed.)
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CHAPTER XVIII: Conduct of the Third Estate During the First Two Months of the Session of the Estates General. - 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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Conduct of the Third Estate During the First Two Months of the Session of the Estates General.
Several individuals among the nobility and clergy, the first persons in the country, inclined strongly, as we have already said, to the popular party, and there was a great number of intelligent men among the deputies of the Third Estate. We must not form an opinion of the France of that time judging by the France of the present day: twenty-five years of continual danger, of every kind, have unfortunately accustomed the French to employ their faculties only for their personal defense or interest; but in 1789 the country contained a great number of intelligent and philosophic minds.1 Why, it may be asked, could they not adhere to the government under which they had been thus formed? It was not the government, it was the advanced knowledge of the age which had developed all these talents, and those who felt they possessed them felt also the necessity of exercising them. Yet the ignorance of the people in Paris, and still more in the country, that ignorance which results from the long oppression and neglected education of the lower orders, contained the seeds of all those misfortunes which afterward overpowered France.2 Of distinguished men the country contained perhaps as many as England; but the stock of good sense that belongs to a free nation did not exist in France. Religion founded on inquiry, education generally diffused, the liberty of the press, and the right of voting at public elections, are sources of improvement which had been in operation in England for more than a century. The Third Estate desired that France should be enriched by a part of these advantages; the national wish strongly supported that desire; but the Third Estate, being the strongest party, could have only one merit, that of moderation, and unfortunately it was not in a disposition to adopt it.
There were two parties among the deputies of the Third Estate; the leaders of the one were Mounier and Malouet3 —of the other Mirabeau and Sieyès.4 The former aimed at a constitution in two chambers, and were in hopes of obtaining this change from the nobles and the King by amicable means; the other was superior in point of talent, but unfortunately more guided by passion than opinion.
Mounier had been the leader of the calm and well-planned revolution in Dauphiny. He was a man passionately devoted to reason and moderation. He was enlightened rather than eloquent, but consistent and firm in his path, so long as it was in his power to choose one.5 Malouet, whatever might be his situation, was always guided by his conscience. Never did I know a purer mind, and if he lacked anything that prevented him from acting efficiently, it was the fact that in his actions he did not engage enough with other people, trusting always to the self-evidence of truth without sufficiently reflecting on the means of bringing it home to the conviction of others.6
Mirabeau, who knew and who foresaw everything, was determined to make use of his thundering eloquence only to gain himself a place in the first rank, from which he had been banished by his immorality. Sieyès was the mysterious oracle of approaching events; he has, undoubtedly, a mind of the greatest compass and strength, but that mind is governed by a very wayward temper; and as it was a matter of difficulty to extort a few words from him, these, from their rarity, passed for little less than orders or prophecies. While the privileged classes were employed in discussing their powers, their interests, their ceremonials; in short, whatever concerned only themselves; the Third Estate invited them to join in a deliberation on the scarcity of provisions and state of the finances. What advantageous ground did the deputies of the people choose, when soliciting a union for such purposes! At last the Third Estate grew weary of these unavailing efforts, and the factious among them rejoiced that the inutility of these attempts seemed to prove the necessity of more energetic measures.
Malouet required that the chamber of the Third Estate should declare itself the assembly of the representatives of the majority of the nation. Nothing could be said against this incontestable title. Sieyès proposed to constitute themselves purely and simply the “National Assembly of France”; and to invite the members of the two orders to join them. A decree passed to this effect, and that decree constituted the Revolution.7 How important would it have been to have prevented it! But such was the success of this measure that the deputies of the nobility from Dauphiny, and some of the clergy, acceded immediately to the invitation; the influence of the assembly gained ground every hour. The French are more prompt than any other people in perceiving where strength lies; and partly by calculation, partly by enthusiasm, they press on toward power, and give it additional impulse by rallying under its banners.
The King, as will appear from the next chapter, was much too tardy in interfering in this critical state of things; and, by a blunder, not unfrequent on the part of the privileged classes, who, though always weak, are full of confidence, the grand master of the ceremonies thought proper to shut up the hall of meeting of the Third Estate, that the platform, the carpeting, and other preparations for the reception of the King might be completed. The Third Estate believed, or professed to believe, that they were forbidden to continue their meetings; the troops that were now advancing from all directions to Versailles placed the deputies decidedly on the vantage ground. The danger was sufficiently apparent to give their resistance an air of courage, while it was not so real as to keep back even the timid among them. Accordingly all the members of the Assembly concurred in meeting in the tennis court (salle du jeu de Paume) at Versailles, and bound themselves by an oath to maintain the national rights. This oath was not without dignity, and if the privileged classes had been stronger when they were attacked, and the national representatives had made a more moderate use of their triumph, history would have consecrated that day as one of the most memorable in the annals of liberty.8
[1. ] Madame de Staël refers here to the civic apathy during the First Empire and the first years of the Bourbon Restoration. A similar warning can be found in Benjamin Constant’s well-known speech, “The Liberty of the Ancients Compared to That of the Moderns,” given at the Athénée Royal in Paris in 1819; the English translation is in Benjamin Constant, Political Writings, 309–28. In his turn, Tocqueville also admired the people of 1789 for having real convictions and pursuing noble ideals: “Everybody followed his own convictions boldly, passionately. . . . I have never met with a revolution where one could see at the start, in so many men, a more sincere patriotism, more disinterest, more true greatness. . . . This is 1789, a time of inexperience doubtless, but of generosity, of enthusiasm, of virility, and of greatness, a time of immortal memory.” (The Old Régime and the Revolution, vol. I, 208, 237, 244)
[2. ] According to Jacques Godechot, on the eve of the Revolution the literacy rate in France was 50 percent for men and only 20 percent for women.
[3. ] Mounier and Malouet belonged to the monarchiens, a group that also included Lally-Tollendal and Clermont-Tonnerre. Proponents of a moderate form of monarchy in 1789, they endorsed the initial demands of the Third Estate and demanded that France adopt the principles of constitutionalism of England. In the footsteps of Montesquieu, the monarchiens put forward a moderate plan of reform that sought to create a constitutional monarchy in France by reconciling the rights of the monarch with those of the nation. Unfortunately, their middling political project was defeated soon after the fall of the Old Regime and the monarchiens slipped into obscurity. For detailed biographical notes about them, see Furet and Halévi, Orateurs de la Révolution française, vol. I: Les Constituants, 1256–61, 1311–16, 1356–62, 1496–1502. For an analysis of their political thought, see Griffith’s Le Centre perdu: Malouet et les “monarchiens” dans la Révolution française. For a brief presentation of the monarchiens, see Ran Halévi’s entry in A Critical Dictionary of the French Revolution, 370–79.
[4. ] For a recent English translation, see Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès, Political Writings. For Mirabeau’s discourses, see the selection edited by Chaussinand-Nogaret, Mirabeau entre le roi et la Révolution.
[5. ] For an interesting self-portrait of Mounier, see his preface to Considérations sur les gouvernements (Paris, 1789), 4.
[6. ] For more information, see Malouet, Mémoires.
[7. ] The debates on this issue had more than a purely symbolical import and paved the way for the Assembly declaring itself the Constituent Assembly on June 20, 1789.
[8. ] The event occurred on June 20, 1789.