Photographic book

The 1780s in France


French bread
French bread

Almost immediately contention arose regarding voting procedures in the upcoming Estates-General. In its last meeting, voting had been organized by estate, with each of the three estates meeting separately and each having one vote. In this way the privileged classes had combined to outvote the third estate, which constituted more than 90 percent of the population. In registering the edict to convene the Estates-General, the Parlement of Paris, which had been reinstated by the monarchy on September 23, 1788, ruled in favor of keeping this form of voting. The Parlement probably did this more to prevent the monarchy from potentially exploiting any new voting system to its advantage than to preserve noble privilege.

However, many observers read this decision as a betrayal of the third estate. As a result, a flood of pamphlets appeared demanding a vote by head at the Estates-General—that is, a procedure whereby each deputy was to cast one vote in a single chamber composed of all three estates. This method would give each estate a number of votes that more accurately represented its population and would make it more difficult for the first two estates to routinely outvote the third. Now two battles were being waged at the same time: one to protect the nation’s liberty against royal despotism, and the other over how the nation would be represented in the Estates-General. During the early months of 1789, the three estates prepared for the coming meeting by selecting deputies and drawing up cahiers des doléances (lists of grievances).

Storming of the Bastille


These lists reflected overwhelming agreement in favor of limiting the power of the king and his administrators and establishing a permanent legislative assembly. In an effort to satisfy the third estate, the monarchy had agreed to double the number of their representatives but then took no firm stand on whether the voting would proceed by estate or by head. When the Estates-General assembled at Versailles in May 1789, the monarchy proposed no specific financial plan for debate and left the voting issue unsettled. As a result, the estates spent their time engaged in debate of the voting procedure, and little was accomplished.

French family picture
French family picture

Five wasted weeks later, the third estate finally took the initiative by inviting the clergy and nobility to join them in a single-chambered legislature where the voting would be by head. Some individual members of the other estates did so, and on June 17, 1789, they together proclaimed themselves to be the National Assembly (also later called the Constituent Assembly). When officials locked their regular meeting place to prepare it for a royal address, members of the National Assembly concluded their initiative was about to be crushed. Regrouping at a nearby indoor tennis court on June 20, they swore not to disband until France had a constitution. This pledge became known as the Tennis Court Oath. On June 23, 1789, Louis XVI belatedly proposed a major overhaul of the financial system, agreed to seek the consent of the deputies for all new loans and taxes, and proposed other important reforms.

But he spoiled the effect by refusing to recognize the transformation of the Estates-General into the National Assembly and by insisting upon voting by estate—already a dying cause.

Moreover, he inspired new fears by surrounding the meeting hall of the deputies with a large number of soldiers. Faced with stiffening resistance by the third estate and increasing willingness of deputies from the clergy and nobility to join the third estate in the National Assembly, the king suddenly changed course and agreed to a vote by head on June 27. Despite much rejoicing, suspicions of the king’s intentions ran high. Royal troops began to thicken near Paris, and on July 11 the still-popular Necker was dismissed. To people at the time and to many later on, these developments were clear signs that the king sought to undo the events of the previous weeks. Crowds began to roam Paris looking for arms to fight off a royal attack. On July 14 these crowds assaulted the Bastille, a large fortress on the eastern edge of the city. They believed that it contained munitions and many prisoners of despotism, but in fact, the fortress housed only seven inmates at the time. The storming of the Bastille marked a turning point—attempts at reform had become a full-scale revolution. Faced with this insurrection, the monarchy backed down. The troops were withdrawn, and Necker was recalled. "France" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia

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