Front Page Titles (by Subject) IV: The Meeting of the States-General - Lectures on the French Revolution (LF ed.)
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
IV: The Meeting 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).
About Liberty Fund:
The copyright to this edition, in both print and electronic forms, is held by Liberty Fund, Inc.
Fair use statement:
The Meeting of the States-General
The argument of the drama which opened on May 6, 1789, and closed on June 27, is this:—The French people had been called to the enjoyment of freedom by every voice they heard—by the king; by the notables, who proposed unrestricted suffrage; by the supreme judiciary, who proclaimed the future Constitution; by the clergy and the aristocracy, in the most solemn pledges of the electoral period; by the British example, celebrated by Montesquieu and Voltaire; by the more cogent example of America; by the national classics, who declared, with a hundred tongues, that all authority must be controlled, that the masses must be rescued from degradation, and the individual from constraint.
When the Commons appeared at Versailles, they were there to claim an inheritance of which, by universal consent, they had been wrongfully deprived. They were not arrayed against the king, who had been already brought to submission by blows not dealt by them. They desired to make terms with those to whom he was ostensibly opposed. There could be no real freedom for them until they were as free on the side of the nobles as on that of the Crown. The modern absolutism of the monarch had surrendered; but the ancient owners of the soil remained, with their exclusive position in the State, and a complicated system of honours and exactions which humiliated the middle class and pauperised the lower. The educated democracy, acting for themselves, might have been content with the retrenchment of those privileges which put them at a disadvantage. But the rural population were concerned with every fragment of obsolete feudalism that added to the burden of their lives.
The two classes were undivided. Together they had elected their deputies, and the cleavage between the political and the social democrat, which has become so great a fact in modern society, was scarcely perceived. The same common principle, the same comprehensive term, composed the policy of both. They demanded liberty, both in the State and in society, and required that oppression should cease, whether exercised in the name of the king or in the name of the aristocracy. In a word, they required equality as well as liberty, and sought deliverance from feudalism and from absolutism at the same time. And equality was the most urgent and prominent claim of the two, because the king, virtually, had given way, but the nobles had not.
The battle that remained to be fought, and at once commenced, was between the Commons and the nobles; that is, between people doomed to poverty by the operation of law, and people who were prosperous at their expense. And as there were men who would perish from want while the laws remained unchanged, and others who would be ruined by their repeal, the strife was deadly.
The real object of assault was not the living landlord, but the unburied past. It had little to do with socialism, or with high rents, bad times, and rapacious proprietors. Apart from all this was the hope of release from irrational and indefensible laws, such as that by which a patrician’s land paid three francs where the plebeian’s paid fourteen, because one was noble and the other was not, and it was an elementary deduction from the motives of liberal desire.
The elections had made it unexpectedly evident that when one part of territorial wealth had been taken by the State, another would be taken by the people; and that a free community, making its own laws, would not submit to exactions imposed of old by the governing class on a defenceless population. When the notables advised that every man should have a vote, this consequence was not clear to them. It was perceived as things went on, and no provision for aristocratic interests was included in the popular demands.
In the presence of imminent peril, the privileged classes closed their ranks, and pressed the king to resist changes sure to be injurious to them. They became a Conservative party. The court was on their side, with the Count d’Artois at its head, and the queen and her immediate circle.
The king remained firm in the belief that popularity is the best form of authority, and he relied on the wholesome dread of democracy to make the rich aristocrats yield to his wishes. As long as the Commons exerted the inert pressure of delay, he watched the course of events. When at the end of five tedious and unprofitable weeks they began their attack, he was driven slowly, and without either confidence or sympathy, to take his stand with the nobles, and to shrink from the indefinite change that was impending.
When the Commons met to deliberate on the morning of the 6th of May, the deputies were unknown to each other. It was necessary to proceed with caution, and to occupy ground on which they could not be divided. Their unanimity was out of danger so long as nothing more complex was discussed than the verification of powers. The other orders resolved at once that each should examine its own returns. But this vote, which the nobles carried by a majority of 141, obtained in the clergy a majority of only 19. It was evident at once that the party of privilege was going asunder, and that the priests were nearly as well inclined to the Commons as to the noblesse. It became advisable to give them time, to discard violence until the arts of conciliation were exhausted and the cause of united action had been pleaded in vain. The policy of moderation was advocated by Malouet, a man of practical insight and experience, who had grown grey in the service of the State. It was said that he defended the slave trade; he attempted to exclude the public from the debates; he even offered, in unauthorised terms, to secure the claims, both real and formal, of the upper classes. He soon lost the ear of the House. But he was a man of great good sense, as free from ancient prejudice as from modern theory, and he never lost sight of the public interest in favour of a class. The most generous proposals on behalf of the poor afterwards emanated from him, and parliamentary life in France began with his motion for negotiation with the other orders.
He was supported by Mounier, one of the deepest minds of that day, and the most popular of the deputies. He was a magistrate of Grenoble, and had conducted the Estates of Dauphiné with such consummate art and wisdom that all ranks and all parties had worked in harmony. They had demanded equal representation and the vote in common; they gave to their deputies full powers instead of written instructions, only requiring that they should obtain a free government to the best of their ability; they resolved that the chartered rights of their province should not be put in competition with the new and theoretic rights of the nation. Under Mounier’s controlling hand the prelate and the noble united to declare that the essential liberties of men are ensured to them by nature, and not by perishable title-deeds. Travellers had initiated him in the working of English institutions, and he represented the school of Montesquieu; but he was an emancipated disciple and a discriminate admirer. He held Montesquieu to be radically illiberal, and believed the famous theory which divides powers without isolating them to be an old and a common discovery. He thought that nations differ less in their character than in their stage of progress, and that a Constitution like the English applies not to a region, but to a time. He belonged to that type of statesmanship which Washington had shown to be so powerful—revolutionary doctrine in a conservative temper. In the centre of affairs the powerful provincial betrayed a lack of sympathy and attraction. He refused to meet Sieyès, and persistently denounced and vilified Mirabeau. Influence and public esteem came to him at once, and in the great constructive party he was a natural leader, and predominated for a time. But at the encounter of defeat, his austere and rigid character turned it into disaster; and as he possessed but one line of defence, the failure of his tactics was the ruin of his cause. Although he despaired prematurely, and was vociferously repentant of his part in the great days of June, parading his sackcloth before Europe, he never faltered in the conviction that the interests of no class, of no family, of no man, can be preferred to those of the nation. Napoleon once said with a sneer: “You are still the man of 1789.” Mounier replied: “Yes, sir. Principles are not subject to the law of change.”
He desired to adopt the English model, which meant: representation of property; an upper house founded upon merit, not upon descent; royal veto and right of dissolution. This could only be secured by active cooperation on the part of all the conservative elements. To obtain his majority he required that the other orders should come over, not vanquished and reluctant, but under the influence of persuasion. Mirabeau and his friends only wished to put the nobles in the wrong, to expose their obstinacy and arrogance, and then to proceed without them. The plan of Mounier depended on a real conciliation.
The clergy were ready for a conference; and by their intervention the nobles were induced to take part in it. There, on May 23, the Archbishop of Vienne, who was in the confidence of Mounier, declared that the clergy recognised the duty of sharing taxes in equal proportion. The Duke of Luxemburg, speaking for the nobles, made the same declaration. The intention, he said, was irrevocable; but he added that it would not be executed until the problem of the Constitution was solved. The nobles declined to abandon the mode of separate verification which had been practised formerly. And when the Commons objected that what was good in times of civil dissension was inapplicable to the Arcadian tranquillity of 1789, the others were not to blame if they treated the argument with contempt.
The failure of the conference was followed by an event which confirmed Necker in the belief that he was not waiting in vain. He received overtures from Mirabeau. Until that time Mirabeau had been notorious for the obtrusive scandal of his life, and the books he had written under pressure of need did not restore his good name. People avoided him, not because he was brutal and vicious like other men of his rank, but because he was reputed a liar and a thief. During one of his imprisonments he had obtained from Dupont de Nemours communication of an important memoir embodying Turgot’s ideas on local government. He copied the manuscript, presented it to the minister as his own work, and sold another copy to the booksellers as the work of Turgot. Afterwards he offered to suppress his letters from Prussia if the Government would buy them at the price he could obtain by publishing them. Montmorin paid what he asked for, on condition that he renounced his candidature in Provence. Mirabeau agreed, spent the money on his canvass, and made more by printing what he had sold to the king. During the contest, by his coolness, audacity, and resource, he soon acquired ascendency. The nobles who rejected him were made to feel his power. When tumults broke out, he appeased them by his presence, and he moved from Marseilles to Aix escorted by a retinue of 200 carriages. Elected in both places by the Third Estate, he came to Versailles hoping to repair his fortune. There it was soon apparent that he possessed powers of mind equal to the baseness of his conduct. He is described by Malouet as the only man who perceived from the first where the Revolution was tending; and his enemy Mounier avows that he never met a more intelligent politician. He was always ready to speak, and always vigorous and adroit. His renowned orations were often borrowed, for he surrounded himself with able men, mostly Genevese, versed in civil strife, who supplied him with facts, mediated with the public, and helped him in the press. Rivarol said that his head was a gigantic sponge, swelled out with other men’s ideas. As extempore speaking was a new art, and the ablest men read their speeches, Mirabeau was at once an effective debater—probably the best debater, though not the most perfect orator, that has appeared in the splendid record of parliamentary life in France. His father was one of the most conspicuous economists, and he inherited their belief in a popular and active monarchy, and their preference for a single chamber.
In 1784 he visited London, frequented the Whigs, and supplied Burke with a quotation. He did not love England, but he thought it a convincing proof of the efficacy of paper Constitutions, that a few laws for the protection of personal liberty should be sufficient to make a corrupt and ignorant people prosper.
His keynote was to abandon privilege and to retain the prerogative; for he aspired to sway the monarchy, and would not destroy the power he was to wield. The king, he said, is the State, and can do no wrong. Therefore he was at times the most violent and indiscreet of men, and at times unaccountably moderate and reserved; and both parts were carefully prepared. As he had a fixed purpose before him, but neither principle nor scruple, no emergency found him at a loss, or embarrassed by a cargo of consistent maxims. Incalculable, and unfit to trust in daily life, at a crisis he was the surest and most available force. From the first moment he came to the front. On the opening day he was ready with a plan for a consultation in common, before deciding whether they should act jointly or separately. The next day he started a newspaper, in the shape of a report to his constituents, and when the Government attempted to suppress it, he succeeded, May 19, in establishing the liberty of the press.
The first political club, afterwards that of the Jacobins, was founded, at his instigation, by men who did not know the meaning of a club. For, he said to them, ten men acting together can make a hundred thousand tremble apart from each other. Mirabeau began with caution, for his materials were new and he had no friends. He believed that the king was really identified with the magnates, and that the Commons were totally unprepared to confront either the court or the approaching Revolution. He thought it hopeless to negotiate with his own doomed order, and meant to detach the king from them. When the scheme of conciliation failed, his opportunity came. He requested Malouet to bring him into communication with ministers. He told him that he was seriously alarmed, that the nobles meant to push resistance to extremity, and that his reliance was on the Crown. He promised, if the Government would admit him to their confidence, to support their policy with all his might. Montmorin refused to see him. Necker reluctantly consented. He had a way of pointing his nose at the ceiling, which was not conciliatory, and he received the hated visitor with a request to know what proposals he had to make. Mirabeau, purple with rage at this frigid treatment by the man he had come to save, replied that he proposed to wish him good morning. To Malouet he said, “Your friend is a fool, and he will soon have news of me.” Necker lived to regret that he had thrown such a chance away. At the time, the interview only helped to persuade him that the Commons knew their weakness, and felt the need of his succour.
Just then the expected appeal reached him from the ecclesiastical quarter. When it was seen that the nobles could not be constrained by fair words, the Commons made one more experiment with the clergy. On May 27 they sent a numerous and weighty deputation to adjure them, in the name of the God of peace and of the national welfare, not to abandon the cause of united action. The clergy this time invoked the interposition of Government.
On the 30th conferences were once more opened, and the ministers were present. The discussion was as inconclusive as before, and, on June 4, Necker produced a plan of his own. He proposed, in substance, separate verification, the crown to decide in last instance. It was a solution favourable to the privileged orders, one of which had appealed to him. He wanted their money, not their power. The clergy agreed. The Commons were embarrassed what to do, but were quickly relieved; for the nobles replied that they had already decided simply to try their own cases. By this act, on June 9, negotiations were broken off.
The decision had been taken in the apartments of the Duchess of Polignac, the queen’s familiar friend, and it made a breach between the court and the minister at the first step he had taken since the Assembly met. Up to this point the aristocracy were intelligible and consistent. They would make no beginning of surrender until they knew how far it would lead them, or put themselves at the mercy of a hostile majority without any assurance for private rights. Malouet offered them a guarantee, but he was disavowed by his colleagues in a way that warned the nobles not to be too trusting.
Nobody could say how far the edifice of privilege was condemned to crumble, or what nucleus of feudal property, however secured by contract and prescription, would be suffered to remain. The nobles felt justified in defending things which were their own by law, by centuries of unquestioned possession, by purchase and inheritance, by sanction of government, by the express will of their constituents. In upholding the interest, and the very existence, of the class they represented, they might well believe that they acted in the spirit of true liberty, which depends on the multiplicity of checking forces, and that they were saving the throne. From the engagement to renounce fiscal exemption, and submit to the equal burden of taxation, they did not recede, and they claimed the support of the king. Montlosier, who belonged to their order, pronounced that their case was good and their argument bad. Twice they gave the enemy an advantage. When they saw the clergy waver, they resolved, by their usual majority of 197 to 44, that each order possessed the right of nullification; so that they would no more yield to the separate vote of the three Estates than to their united vote. Evidently the country would support those who denied the veto and were ready to overrule it, against those who gave no hope that anything would be done. Again, when they declined the Government proposals, they isolated themselves, and became an obstruction. They had lost the clergy. They now repulsed the minister. Nothing was left them except their hopes of the king. They ruined him as well as themselves. It did not follow that, because they supported the monarchy, they were sure of the monarch. And it was a graver miscalculation to think that a regular army is stronger than an undisciplined mob, and that the turbulent Parisians, eight miles off, could not protect the deputies against regiments of horse and foot, commanded by the gallant gentlemen of France, accustomed for centuries to pay the tax of blood, and fighting now in their own cause.
There was nothing more to be done. The arts of peace were exhausted. A deliberate breach with legality could alone fulfil the national decree. The country had grown tired of dilatory tactics and prolonged inaction. Conciliation, tried by the Commons, by the clergy, and by the Government, had been vain. The point was reached where it was necessary to choose between compulsion and surrender, and the Commons must either employ the means at their command to overcome resistance, or go away confessing that the great movement had broken down in their hands, and that the people had elected the wrong men. Inaction and delay had not been a policy, but the preliminary of a policy. It was reasonable to say that they would try every possible effort before resorting to aggression; but it would have been unmeaning to say that they would begin by doing nothing, and that afterwards they would continue to do nothing, Their enemy had been beforehand with them in making mistakes. They might hazard something with less danger now.
Victory indeed was assured by the defection among the nobles and the clergy. Near fifty of the one, and certainly more than one hundred of the others, were ready to come over. Instead of being equal, the parties were now two to one. Six hundred Commons could not control the same number of the deputies of privilege. But eight hundred deputies were more than a match for four hundred. Therefore, on June 10, the Commons opened the attack and summoned the garrison. Mirabeau gave notice that one of the Paris deputies had an important motion to submit. The mover was more important than the motion, for this was the apparition of Sieyès, the most original of the revolutionary statesmen, who, within a fortnight of this, his maiden speech, laid low the ancient monarchy of France. He was a new member, for the Paris elections had been delayed, the forty deputies took their seats three weeks after the opening, and Sieyès was the last deputy chosen. He objected to the existing stagnation, believing that there was no duty to the nobles that outweighed the duty to France. He proposed that the other orders be formally invited to join, and that the House should proceed to constitute itself, and to act with them if they came, without them if they stayed away. The returns were accordingly verified, and Sieyès then moved that they should declare themselves the National Assembly, the proper name for that which they claimed to be.
In spite of Malouet, and even of Mirabeau, on June 17 this motion was carried by 491 to 90. All taxes became dependent on the Assembly. The broad principle on which Sieyès acted was that the Commons were really the nation. The upper classes were not an essential part of it. They were not even a natural and normal growth, but an offending excrescence, a negative quantity, to be subtracted, not to be added up. That which ought not to exist ought not to be represented. The deputies of the Third Estate appeared for the whole. Alone they were sufficient to govern it, for alone they were identified with the common interest.
Sieyès was not solicitous that his invitation should be obeyed, for the accession of the other orders might displace the majority. Those who possessed the plenitude of power were bound to employ it. By axiomatic simplicity more than by sustained argument Sieyès mastered his hearers.