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III: The Summons of the States-General - John Emerich Edward Dalberg, Lord Acton, Lectures on the French Revolution (LF ed.) 
Lectures on the French Revolution, ed. John Neville Figgis and Reginald Vere Laurence, with a foreword by Steven J. Tonsor (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000).
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The Summons of the States-General
The condition of France alone did not bring about the overthrow of the monarchy and the convulsion that ensued. For the sufferings of the people were not greater than they had been before; the misgovernment and oppression were less, and a successful war with England had largely wiped out the humiliations inflicted by Chatham.
But the confluence of French theory with American example caused the Revolution to break out, not in an excess of irritation and despair, but in a moment of better feeling between the nation and the king. The French were not mere reckless innovators; they were confiding followers, and many of the ideas with which they made their venture were those in which Burke agreed with Hamilton, and with his own illustrious countrymen, Adam Smith and Sir William Jones. When he said that, compared to England, the government of France was slavery, and that nothing but a revolution could restore European liberty, Frenchmen, saying the same thing, and acting upon it, were unconscious of extravagance, and might well believe that they were obeying precepts stored in the past by high and venerable authority. Beyond that common ground, they fell back on native opinion in which there was wide divergence, and an irrepressible conflict arose. We have to deal with no unlikely motives, with no unheard of theories, and, on the whole, with convinced and average men.
The States-General were convoked because there was no other way of obtaining money for the public need. The deficit was a record of bad government, and the first practical object was the readjustment of taxes. From the king’s accession, the revival of the old and neglected institution had been kept before the country as a remedy, not for financial straits only, but for all the ills of France.
The imposing corporation of the judiciary had constantly opposed the Crown, and claimed to subject its acts to the judgment of the law. The higher clergy had raised objections to Turgot, to Necker, to the emancipation of Protestants; and the nobles became the most active of all the parties of reform. But the great body of the people had borne their trouble in patience. They possessed no recognised means of expressing sentiments. There was no right of public meeting, no liberty for the periodical press; and the privileged newspapers were so tightly swaddled in their official character that they had nothing to say even of an event like the oath in the Tennis Court. The feelings that stirred the multitude did not appear, unless they appeared in the shape of disorder. Without it France remained an unknown quantity. The king felt the resistance of the privileged and interested classes which was the source of his necessity, but he was not apprehensive of a national opposition. He was prepared to rely on the Third Estate with hopefulness, if not with confidence, and to pay a very high price for their support. In a certain measure their interest was the same. The penury of the State came from the fact that more than half the property of France was not taxed in its proportion, and it was essential for the government to abolish the exception, and to bring nobles and clergy to surrender their privilege, and pay like the rest. To that extent the object of the king was to do away with privilege and to introduce equality before the law. So far the Commons went along with him. They would be relieved of a heavy burden if they ceased to pay the share of those who were exempt, and rejected the time-honoured custom that the poor should bear taxation for the rich. An alliance, therefore, was indicated and natural. But the extinction of privilege, which for monarchy and democracy alike meant fiscal equality, meant for the democracy a great deal more. Besides the money which they were required to pay in behalf of the upper class and for their benefit and solace, money had to be paid to them. Apart from rent for house or land, there were payments due to them proceeding from the time, the obscure and distant time, when power went with land, and the local landholder was the local government, the ruler and protector of the people, and was paid accordingly. And there was another category of claims, proceeding indirectly from the same historic source, consisting of commutation and compensation for ancient rights, and having therefore a legal character, founded upon contract, not upon force.
Every thinking politician knew that the first of these categories, the beneficial rights that were superfluous and oppressive, could not be maintained, and that the nobles would be made to give up not only that form of privilege which consisted in exemption from particular taxes, but that composed of superannuated demands in return for work no longer done, or value given. Those, on the other hand, which were not simply mediaeval, but based upon contract, would be treated as lawful property, and would have to be redeemed. Privilege, in the eyes of the state, was the right of evading taxes. To the politician it meant, furthermore, the right of imposing taxes. For the rural democracy it had a wider significance. To them, all these privileges were products of the same principle, ruins of the same fabric. They were relics and remnants of feudalism, and feudalism meant power given to land and denied to capital and industry. It meant class government, the negation of the very idea of the state and of the nation; it meant conquest and subjugation by a foreign invader. None denied that many great families had won their spurs in the service of their country; everybody indeed knew that the noblest of all, Montmorency, bore the arms of France because, at the victory of Bouvines, where their ancestor was desperately wounded, the king laid his finger on the wound and drew with his blood the lilies upon his shield. When we come, presently, to the Abbé Sieyès, we shall see how firmly men believed that the nobles were, in the mass, Franks, Teutonic tyrants, and spoilers of the Celtic native. They intended that feudalism should not be trimmed but uprooted, as the cause of much that was infinitely odious, and as a thing absolutely incompatible with public policy, social interests, and right reason. That men should be made to bear suffering for the sake of what could only be explained by very early history and very yellow parchments was simply irrational to a generation which received its notion of life from Turgot, Adam Smith, or Franklin.
Although there were three interpretations of feudal privilege, and consequently a dangerous problem in the near future, the first step was an easy one, and consisted in the appeal by the Crown to the Commons for aid in regenerating the State. Like other princes of his time, Lewis XVI. was a reforming monarch. At his accession, his first choice of a minister was Machault, known to have entertained a vast scheme of change, to be attempted whenever the throne should be occupied by a serious prince. Later, he appointed Turgot, the most profound and thorough reformer of the century. He appointed Malesherbes, one of the weakest but one of the most enlightened of public men; and after having, at the Coronation, taken an oath to persecute, he gave office to Necker, a Protestant, an alien, and a republican. When he had begun, through Malesherbes, to remove religious disabilities, he said to him, “Now you have been a Protestant, and I declare you a Jew”; and began to prepare a measure for the relief of Jews, who, wherever they went, were forced to pay the same toll as a pig. He carried out a large and complicated scheme of law reform; and he achieved the independence of revolted America. In later days the Elector of Cologne complained to an émigré that his king’s policy had been deplorable, and that, having promoted resistance to authority in the Colonies, in Holland, and in Brabant, he had no claim on the support of European monarchs.
But the impulse in the direction of liberal improvement was intermittent, and was checked by a natural diffidence and infirmity of purpose. The messenger who was to summon Machault was recalled as he mounted his horse. Turgot was sacrificed to gratify the queen. Necker’s second administration would have begun a year and a half earlier, but, at the last moment, his enemies intervened. The war minister, Saint Germain, was agreeable to the king, and he wished to keep him. “But what can I do?” he wrote; “his enemies are bent on his dismissal, and I must yield to the majority.” Maurepas, at his death, left a paper on which were the names of four men whom he entreated his master not to employ. Lewis bestowed the highest offices upon them all. He regarded England with the aversion with which Chatham, and at that time even Fox, looked upon France, and he went to war in the just hope of avenging the disgrace of the Seven Years’ War, but from no sympathy with the American cause. When he was required to retrench his personal expenditure, he objected, and insisted that much of the loss should be made to fall on his pensioners. The liberal concessions which he allowed were in many cases made at the expense, not of the Crown, but of powers that were obstructing the Crown. By the abolition of torture he incurred no loss, but curbed the resources of opposing magistrates. When he emancipated the Protestants and made a Swiss Calvinist his principal adviser, he displeased the clergy; but he cared little for clerical displeasure. The bishops, finding that he took no notice of them, disappeared from his levée. He objected to the appointment of French cardinals. English travellers at Versailles, Romilly and Valpy, observed that he was inattentive at mass, and talked and laughed before all the court. At the Council he would fall asleep, and when the discussion was distasteful, he used to snore louder than when he slept. He said to Necker that he desired the States-General because he wanted a guide. When, in 1788, after skirmishing with magistrates and prelates, he took the memorable resolution to call in the outer people, to compel a compromise with the class that filled his court, that constituted society, that ruled opinion, it was the act of a man destitute of energy, and gifted with an uncertain and indistinct enlightenment. And Necker said, “You may lend a man your ideas, you cannot lend him your strength of will.”
The enterprise was far beyond the power and quality of his mind, but the lesson of his time was not lost upon him, and he had learnt something since the days when he spoke the unchanging language of absolutism. He showed another spirit when he emancipated the serfs of the Crown, when he introduced provincial and village councils, when he pronounced that to confine local government to landowners was to offend a still larger class, when he invited assistance in reforming the criminal code in order that the result might be the work, not of experts only, but of the public. All this was genuine conviction. He was determined that the upper class should lose its fiscal privileges with as little further detriment as possible. And, to accomplish this necessary and deliberate purpose, he offered terms to the Commons of France such as no monarch ever proposed to his subjects. He declared in later days, and had a right to declare, that it was he who had taken the first step to concert with the French people a permanent constitution, the abolition of arbitrary power, of pecuniary privilege, of promotion apart from merit, of taxation without consent. When he heard that the Notables had given only one vote in favour of increased representation of the Third Estate, he said, “You can add mine.” Malouet, the most high-minded and sagacious statesman of the Revolution, testifies to his sincerity, and declares that the king fully shared his opinions.
The tributary elements of a free constitution which were granted by Lewis XVI., not in consultation with deputies, not even always with public support, included religious toleration, Habeas Corpus, equal incidence of taxes, abolition of torture, decentralisation and local self-government, freedom of the press, universal suffrage, election without official candidates or influence, periodical convocation of parliament, right of voting supplies, of initiating legislation, of revising the constitution, responsibility of ministers, double representation of the Commons at the States-General. All these concessions were acts of the Crown, yielding to dictates of policy more than to popular demand. It is said that power is an object of such ardent desire to man, that the voluntary surrender of it is absurd in psychology and unknown in history. Lewis XVI. no doubt calculated the probabilities of loss and gain, and persuaded himself that his action was politic even more than generous. The Prussian envoy rightly described him in a despatch of July 31, 1789. He says that the king was willing to weaken the executive at home, in order to strengthen it abroad; if the ministers lost by a better regulated administration, the nation would gain by it in resource, and a limited authority in a more powerful state seemed preferable to absolute authority which was helpless from its unpopularity and the irreparable disorder of finance. He was resolved to submit the arbitrary government of his ancestors to the rising forces of the day. The royal initiative was pushed so far on the way to established freedom that it was exhausted, and the rest was left to the nation. As the elections were not influenced, as the instructions were not inspired, the deliberations were not guided or controlled. The king abdicated before the States-General. He assigned so much authority to the new legislature that none remained with the Crown, and its powers, thus practically suspended, were never recovered. The rival classes, that only the king could have reconciled and restrained, were abandoned to the fatal issue of a trial of strength.
In 1786 the annual deficit amounted to between four and five millions, and the season for heroic remedies had evidently come. The artful and evasive confusion of accounts that shrouded the secret could not be maintained, and the minister of finance, Calonne, convoked the Notables for February 1787. The Notables were a selection of important personages, chiefly of the upper order, without legal powers or initiative. It was hoped that they would strengthen the hands of the government, and that what they agreed to would be accepted by the class to which they belonged. It was an experiment to avert the evil day of the States-General. For the States-General, which had not been seen for one hundred and seventy-five years, were the features of a bygone stage of political life, and could neither be revived as they once had been, nor adapted to modern society. If they imposed taxes, they would impose conditions, and they were an auxiliary who might become a master. The Notables were soon found inadequate to the purpose, and the minister, having failed to control them, was dismissed. Necker, his rival and obvious successor, was sent out of the way, and the Archbishop of Toulouse, afterwards of Sens, who was appointed in his place, got rid of the Assembly. There was nothing left to fall back upon but the dreaded States-General. Lafayette had demanded them at the meeting of the Notables, and the demand was now repeated far and wide.
On August 8, 1788, the king summoned the States-General for the following year, to the end, as he proclaimed, that the nation might settle its own government in perpetuity. The words signified that the absolute monarchy of 1788 would make way for a representative monarchy in 1789. In what way this was to be done, and how the States would be constituted, was unknown. The public were invited to offer suggestions, and the press was practically made free for publications that were not periodical. Necker, the inevitable minister of the new order of things, was immediately nominated to succeed the Archbishop, and the funds rose 30 per cent in one day. He was a foreigner, independent of French tradition and ways of thought, who not only stood aloof from the Catholics, as a Genevese, but also from the prevailing freethinkers, for Priestley describes him as nearly the only believer in religion whom he found in intellectual society at Paris. He was the earliest foreign statesman who studied and understood the modern force of opinion; and he identified public opinion with credit, as we should say, with the city. He took the views of capitalists as the most sensitive record of public confidence; and as Paris was the headquarters of business, he contributed, in spite of his declared federalism, to that predominance of the centre which became fatal to liberty and order.
Necker was familiar with the working of republican institutions, and he was an admirer of the British model; but the king would not hear of going to school to the people whom he had so recently defeated, and who owed their disgrace as much to political as to military incapacity. Consequently Necker repressed his zeal in politics, and was not eager for the States-General. They would never have been wanted, he said, if he had been called to succeed Calonne, and had had the managing of the Notables. He was glad now that they should serve to bring the entire property of the country, on equal terms, under the tax-gatherer, and if that could have been effected at once, by an overwhelming pressure of public feeling, his practical spirit would not have hungered for further changes.
The Third Estate was invoked for a great fiscal operation. If it brought the upper class to the necessary sense of their own obligations and the national claims, that was enough for the keeper of the purse, and he would have deprecated the intrusion of other formidable and absorbing objects, detrimental to his own. Beyond that was danger, but the course was clear towards obtaining from the greater assembly what he would have extracted from the less if he had held office in 1787. That is the secret of Necker’s unforeseen weakness in the midst of so much power, and of his sterility when the crisis broke and it was discovered that the force which had been calculated equal to the carrying of a modest and obvious reform was as the rush of Niagara, and that France was in the resistless rapids.
Everything depended on the manner in which the government decided that the States should be composed, elected, and conducted. To pronounce on this, Necker caused the Notables to be convoked again, exposed the problem, and desired their opinion. The nobles had been lately active on the side of liberal reforms, and it seemed possible that their reply might relieve him of a dreaded responsibility and prevent a conflict. The Notables gave their advice. They resolved that the Commons should be elected, virtually, by universal suffrage without conditions of eligibility; that the parish priests should be electors and eligible; that the lesser class of nobles should be represented like the greater. They extended the franchise to the unlettered multitude, because the danger which they apprehended came from the middle class, not from the lower. But they voted, by three to one, that each order should be equal in numbers. The Count of Provence, the king’s next brother, went with the minority, and voted that the deputies of the Commons should be as numerous as those of the two other orders together. This became the burning question. If the Commons did not predominate, there was no security that the other orders would give way. On the other hand, by the important innovation of admitting the parish clergy, and those whom we should call provincial gentry, a great concession was made to the popular element. The antagonism between the two branches of the clergy, and between the two branches of the noblesse, was greater than that between the inferior portion of each and the Third Estate, and promised a contingent to the liberal cause. It turned out, at the proper time, that the two strongest leaders of the democracy were, one, an ancient noble; the other, a canon of the cathedral of Chartres. The Notables concluded their acceptable labours on December 12. On the 5th the magistrates who formed the parliament of Paris, after solemnly enumerating the great constitutional principles, entreated the king to establish them as the basis of all future legislation. The position of the government was immensely simplified. The walls of the city had fallen, and it was doubtful where any serious resistance would come from.
Meantime, the agitation in the provinces, and the explosion of pent-up feeling that followed the unlicensed printing of political tracts, showed that public opinion moved faster than that of the two great conservative bodies. It became urgent that the Government should come to an early and resolute decision, and should occupy ground that might be held against the surging democracy. Necker judged that the position would be impregnable if he stood upon the lines drawn by the Notables, and he decided that the Commons should be equal to either order singly, and not jointly to the two. In consultation with a statesmanlike prelate, the Archbishop of Bordeaux, he drew up and printed a report, refusing the desired increase. But as he sat anxiously watching the winds and the tide, he began to doubt; and when letters came, warning him that the nobles would be butchered if the decision went in their favour, he took alarm. He said to his friends, “If we do not multiply the Commons by two, they will multiply themselves by ten.” When the Archbishop saw him again at Christmas, Necker assured him that the Government was no longer strong enough to resist the popular demand. But he was also determined that the three houses should vote separately, that the Commons should enjoy no advantage from their numbers in any discussion where privilege was at stake, or the interest of classes was not identical. He hoped that the nobles would submit to equal taxation of their own accord, and that he would stand between them and any exorbitant claim of equal political power.
On December 27 Necker’s scheme was adopted by the Council. There was some division of opinion; but the king overruled it, and the queen, who was present, showed, without speaking, that she was there to support the measure. By this momentous act Lewis XVI., without being conscious of its significance, went over to the democracy. He said, in plain terms, to the French people: “Afford me the aid I require, so far as we have a common interest, and for that definite and appropriated assistance you shall have a princely reward. For you shall at once have a constitution of your own making, which shall limit the power of the Crown, leaving untouched the power and the dignity and the property of the upper classes, beyond what is involved in an equal share of taxation.” But in effect he said: “Let us combine to deprive the aristocracy of those privileges which are injurious to the Crown, whilst we retain those which are offensive only to the people.” It was a tacit compact, of which the terms and limits were not defined; and where one thought of immunities, the other was thinking of oppression. The organisation of society required to be altered and remodelled from end to end to sustain a constitution founded on the principle of liberty. It was no arduous problem to adjust relations between the people and the king. The deeper question was between the people and the aristocracy. Behind a political reform there was a social revolution, for the only liberty that could avail was liberty founded on equality. Malouet, who was at this moment Necker’s best adviser, said to him: “You have made the Commons equal in influence to the other orders. Another revolution has to follow, and it is for you to accomplish it—the levelling of onerous privilege.” Necker had no ambition of the kind, and he distinctly guarded privilege in all matters but taxation.
The resolution of the king in Council was received with loud applause; and the public believed that everything they had demanded was now obtained, or was at least within reach. The doubling of the Commons was illusory if they were to have no opportunity of making their numbers tell. The Count of Provence, afterwards Lewis XVIII., had expressly argued that the old States-General were useless because the Third Estate was not suffered to prevail in them. Therefore he urged that the three orders should deliberate and vote as one, and that the Commons should possess the majority. It was universally felt that this was the real meaning of the double representation, and that there was a logic in it which could not be resisted. The actual power vested in the Commons by the great concession exceeded their literal and legal power, and it was accepted and employed accordingly.
The mode of election was regulated on January 24. There were to be three hundred deputies for the clergy, three hundred for the nobles, six hundred for the Commons. There were to be no restrictions and no exclusions; but whereas the greater personages voted directly, the vote of the lower classes was indirect; and the rule for the Commons was that one hundred primary voters chose an elector. Besides the deputy, there was the deputy’s deputy, held in reserve, ready in case of vacancy to take his place. It was on this peculiar device of eventual representatives that the Commons relied, if their numbers had not been doubled. They would have called up their substitutes. The rights and charters of the several provinces were superseded, and all were placed on the same level.
A more sincere and genuine election has never been held. And on the whole it was orderly. The clergy were uneasy, and the nobles more openly alarmed. But the country in general had confidence in what was coming; and some of the most liberal and advanced and outspoken manifestations proceeded from aristocratic and ecclesiastical constituencies. On February 9 the Venetian envoy reports that the clergy and nobles are ready to accept the principle of equality in taxation. The elections were going on for more than two months, from February to the beginning of May.
In accordance with ancient custom, when a deputy was a plenipotentiary more than a representative, it was ordained that the preliminary of every election was the drawing up of instructions. Every corner of France was swept and searched for its ideas. The village gave them to its elector, and they were compared and consolidated by the electors in the process of choosing their member. These instructions, the characteristic bequest to its successors of a society at the point of death, were often the work of conspicuous public men, such as Malouet, Lanjuinais, Dupont, the friend of Turgot and originator of the commercial treaty of 1786; and one paper, drawn up by Sieyès, was circulated all over France by the duke of Orleans.
In this way, by the lead which was taken by eminent and experienced men, there is an appearance of unanimity. All France desired the essential institutions of limited monarchy, in the shape of representation and the division of power, and foreshadowed the charter of 1814. There is scarcely a trace of the spirit of departing absolutism; there is not a sign of the coming republic. It is agreed that precedent is dead, and the world just going to begin. There are no clear views on certain grave matters of detail, on an Upper House, Church and State, and primary education. Free schools, progressive taxation, the extinction of slavery, of poverty, of ignorance, are among the things advised. The privileged orders are prepared for a vast surrender in regard to taxes, and nobody seems to associate the right of being represented in future parliaments with the possession of property. On nine-tenths of all that is material to a constitution there is a general agreement. The one broad division is that the Commons wish that the States-General shall form a single united Assembly, and the other orders wish for three. But on this supreme issue the Commons are all agreed, and the others are not. An ominous rift appears, and we already perceive the minority of nobles and priests, who, in the hour of conflict, were to rule the fate of European society. From all these papers, the mandate of united France, it was the function of true statesmanship to distil the essence of a sufficient freedom.
These instructions were intended to be imperative. Nine years before, Burke, when he retired from the contest at Bristol, had defined the constitutional doctrine on constituency and member; and Charles Sumner said that he legislated when he made that speech. But the ancient view, on which instructions are founded, made the deputy the agent of the deputing power, and much French history turns on it. At first the danger was unfelt; for the instructions were often compiled by the deputy himself, who was to execute them. They were a pledge even more than an order.
The nation had responded to the royal appeal, and there was agreement between the offer and the demand. The upper classes had opposed and resisted the Crown; the people were eager to support it, and it was expected that the first steps would be taken together. The comparative moderation and serenity of the Instructions disguised the unappeasable conflict of opinion and the furious passion that raged below.
The very cream of the upper and middle class were elected; and the Court, in its prosperous complacency, abandoned to their wisdom the task of creating the new institutions and permanently settling the financial trouble. It persisted in non-interference, and had no policy but expectation. The initiative passed to every private member. The members consisted of new men, without connection or party organisation. They wanted time to feel their way, and missed a moderator and a guide. The governing power ceased, for the moment, to serve the supreme purpose of government; and monarchy transformed itself into anarchy to see what would come of it, and to avoid committing itself on either side against the class by which it was always surrounded or the class which seemed ready with its alliance.
The Government renounced the advantage which the elections and the temperate instructions gave them; and in the hope that the elect would be at least as reasonable as the electors, they threw away their greatest opportunity. There was a disposition to underrate dangers that were not on the surface. Even Mirabeau, who, if not a deep thinker, was a keen observer, imagined that the entire mission of the States-General might have been accomplished in a week. Few men saw the ambiguity hidden in the term Privilege, and the immense difference that divided fiscal change from social change. In attacking feudalism, which was the survival of barbarism, the middle class designed to overthrow the condition of society which gave power as well as property to a favoured minority. The assault on the restricted distribution of power involved an assault on the concentration of wealth. The connection of the two ideas is the secret motive of the Revolution. At that time the law by which power follows property, which has been called the most important discovery made by man since the invention of printing, was not clearly known. But the underground forces at work were recognised by the intelligent conservatives, and they were assuming the defensive, in preparation for the hour when they would be deserted by the king. It was therefore impossible that the object for which the States-General were summoned should be attained while they were divided into three. Either they must be dissolved, or the thing which the middle-class deputies could not accomplish by use of forms would be attempted by the lower class, their masters and employers, by use of force.
Before the meeting Malouet once more approached the minister with weighty counsel. He said: “You now know the wishes of France; you know the instructions, you do not know the deputies. Do not leave all things to the arbitrament of the unknown. Convert at once the demands of the people into a constitution, and give them force of law. Act while you have unfettered power of action. Act while your action will be hailed as the most magnificent concession ever granted by a monarch to a loyal and expectant nation. To-day you are supreme and safe. It may be too late to-morrow.”
In particular, Malouet advised that the Government should regulate the verification of powers, leaving only contested returns to the judgment of the representatives. Necker abided by his meditated neutrality, and preferred that the problem should work itself out with entire freedom. He would not take sides lest he should offend one party without being sure of the other, and forfeit his chance of becoming the accepted arbitrator. Whilst, by deciding nothing, he kept the enemy at bay, the upper classes might yet reach the wise conclusion that, in the midst of so much peril to royalty and to themselves, it was time to place the interest of the state before their own, and to accept the duties and the burdens of undistinguished men.
Neither party could yield. The Commons could not fail to see that time was on their side, and that, by compelling the other orders to merge with them, they secured the downfall of privilege and played the game of the court. The two other orders were, by the imperative mandate of many constituencies, prohibited from voting in common. Their resistance was legitimate, and could only be overcome by the intervention either of the Crown or the people. Their policy might have been justified if they had at once made their surrender, and had accomplished with deliberation in May what had to be done with tumult in August. With these problems and these perils before them, the States-General met on that memorable 5th of May. Necker, preferring the abode of financiers, wished them to meet at Paris; and four or five other places were proposed. At last the king, breaking silence, said that it could be only at Versailles, on account of his hunting. At the time he saw no cause for alarm in the proximity of the capital. Since then, the disturbances in one or two places, and the open language of some of the electors, had begun to make him swerve.
On the opening day the queen was received with offensive silence; but she acknowledged a belated cheer with such evident gladness and with such stately grace that applause followed her. The popular groups of deputies were cheered as they passed—all but the Commons of Provence, for they had Mirabeau among them. He alone was hissed. Two ladies who watched the procession from the same window were the daughter of Necker and the wife of the Foreign Minister, Montmorin. One thought with admiration that she was a witness of the greatest scene in modern history; and the other was sad with evil forebodings. Both were right; but the feeling of confidence and enthusiasm pervaded the crowd. Near relations of my own were at Rome in 1846, during the excitement at the reforms of the new Pope, who, at that moment, was the most popular sovereign in Europe. They asked an Italian lady who was with them why all the demonstrations only made her more melancholy. She answered: “Because I was at Versailles in 1789.”
Barentin, the minister who had opposed Necker’s plans and viewed the States-General with apprehension and disgust, spoke after the king. He was a French judge, with no heart for any form of government but the ancient one enjoyed by France. Nevertheless he admitted that joint deliberation was the reasonable solution. He added that it could only be adopted by common consent; and he urged the two orders to sacrifice their right of exemption. Necker perplexed his hearers by receding from the ground which the Chancellor had taken. He assured the two orders that they need not apprehend absorption in the third if, while voting separately, they executed the promised surrender. He spoke as their protector, on the condition that they submitted to the common law, and paid their taxes in arithmetical proportion. He implied, but did not say, that what they refused to the Crown would be taken by the people. In his financial statement he under-estimated the deficit, and he said nothing of the Constitution. The great day ended badly. The deputies were directed to hand in their returns to the Master of Ceremonies, an official of whom we shall soon see more. But the Master of Ceremonies was not acceptable to the Commons, because he had compelled them to withdraw, the day before, from their places in the nave of the church. Therefore the injunction was disregarded; and the verification of powers, which the Government might have regulated, was left to the deputies themselves, and became the lever by which the more numerous order overthrew the monarchy, and carried to an end, in seven weeks, the greatest constitutional struggle that has ever been fought out in the world by speech alone.