Louis XVI Calls the Estates-General

King Louis XVI called the Estates-General, the supreme French legislative body, to meet for the first time in more than 150 years. The disastrous fiscal condition of the French government required new taxes that only the Estates-General could authorize, but those same fiscal problems had caused significant unrest among the bourgeois members of the Third Estate, who were poised to take control of the government.

Summary of Event

When Louis XVI became king of France in 1774, he inherited a wealthy kingdom but an empty treasury and a government deeply in debt. Following a traditionally anti-British policy, France entered the American War of Independence on the side of the colonies. In order to continue this war the government had to borrow even more, thereby plunging the country into deeper financial trouble. [kw]Louis XVI Calls the Estates-General (May 5, 1789)
[kw]Estates-General, Louis XVI Calls the (May 5, 1789)
Estates-General (France)[Estates General]
[g]France;May 5, 1789: Louis XVI Calls the Estates-General[2810]
[c]Government and politics;May 5, 1789: Louis XVI Calls the Estates-General[2810]
Louis XVI
Sieyès, Emmanuel-Joseph
Necker, Jacques
Calonne, Charles-Alexandre de

By 1788, the government was on the verge of bankruptcy. Expenses for that year were estimated at 629 million livres, while revenues were expected to bring in only 503 million livres. The deficit of 126 million livres would have to be made up by loans at the usual high rate of interest. Charles-Alexandre de Calonne, the minister of finance, attempted to introduce financial reform without success, as had his predecessors Jacques Necker and Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot. Now it even became evident to the king that reform was imperative.

France was economically prosperous but its government was financially poor because of inequities in the tax structure and inefficient methods of collecting tax. The French Government had negotiated a free trade treaty with Britain in 1787. As a result France in the short term did not compete well with Britain, and French farmers and manufacturers suffered. Poor weather and harvests in 1787 had led to food shortages, even famine in some areas. Increased pressure was put upon the Crown and its ministers to relieve such distress. Neither the First Estate (the clergy) nor the Second Estate (the nobility) paid any taxes at all; the entire burden of taxes fell upon the Third Estate Third Estate (France) (the commons). Even within the Third Estate there was inequity; the wealthy bourgeoisie Bourgeoisie paid a lower percentage of the total taxes than did the poorer peasants; those who were least able were required to pay most.

In an attempt to balance the budget in 1787, Calonne suggested several major reforms. His most revolutionary suggestion was a “territorial subvention” to be paid by all landowners without distinction or exception. Since the largest owners of land were the nobility and the clergy, Calonne was in effect proposing to tax the two privileged orders. The king realized that reform was necessary, but he did not give Calonne his full support. Calonne therefore turned elsewhere, and with the approval of Louis he convened an Assembly of Notables. Because this gathering was dominated by the higher nobility, the notables rejected the proposed reforms.

Calonne then turned to the Parlement of Paris. This body, judicial rather than legislative, registered royal decrees to make them the law of the land. Calonne prevailed upon the king to hold a “royal session” (Lit de justice) in which the king appeared before the parlement and ordered it to register the decrees proposed. This action was taken on August 4, 1787, but the following day, the Parlement of Paris declared its actions of the previous day null and void. This tactic was symptomatic of the struggle between the king and his government, on one side, and the nobility, on the other.

The first meeting of the Estates-General, May 5, 1789.

(Harper & Brothers)

The basic issues became clearer during the following twelve months. The nobility would allow themselves to be taxed only if the king would share his powers with them. They envisaged a form of government similar to that of Great Britain, where the nobility could control the king without losing their cherished feudal rights. To gain this end, the Parlement of Paris took full advantage of the financial embarrassment of the Crown; it declared that it did not have the authority to register new tax decrees, which was the prerogative of the Estates-General. The last time the Estates-General had met was in 1614, and the privileged orders had then dominated the proceedings. Traditionally, the three estates met separately, and each voted as an order. The will of the estates was then expressed by each order casting one vote, with the majority view prevailing. In this manner, the clergy and the nobility were always able to prevent the Third Estate from tampering with their privileges.

In August of 1788, Louis called for a meeting of the Estates-General, to take place the following May. In the months leading up to that meeting, the fruits of Enlightenment political debate appeared in print throughout France, especially in Paris. Discussion of political representation, limits on monarchic power and the balance of power, the ideas of citizenship and nationhood, and the models of republicanism found in the ancient republics, in Britain, and the United States, all salted the discussion of what the Estates-General should or would do when it met.

During the second half of 1788, the Third Estate agitated to have the number of their representatives doubled so that they would be equal in numbers to the First and Second Estates combined. This request was granted by royal decree in December of 1788, although no mention was made about how the voting would take place. The subsequent election of the members of the Third Estate, the most democratic that Europe had seen and would see for many years to come, had for many in France the hallmarks of the election of representatives to a national assembly, though no official status as such had been given it. Such elections required the compilation of local cahiers (grievance lists), provoking further debate about reform. Combined, this raised expectations that the coming meeting of the Estates-General signified a fundamental change in French political culture. The nobility believed that it would make little difference how many representatives sat with the Third Estate since they had only one collective vote.

The greatest theoretical challenge to the traditional powers of both Crown and First and Second Estates came in February of 1788. In his pamphlet Qu’est-ce que le tiers état? (1789; What Is the Third Estate? 1963), the Abbé Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès argued that the true political nation of France was the Third Estate alone. This work, and others in a similar vein, would provide the script for the rise of the Third Estate from one of three orders to conceiving of itself as representing the French nation.


The Estates-General met on May 5, 1789, and from then until June 27, when the First and Second Estates joined the third, the conflict grew in intensity. Necker, who had been recalled as finance minister, was charged by the king with communicating the fiscal situation to the legislature, but he was largely ignored as unrest grew. Louis decided to dismiss Necker once again, call in troops, and disperse the Estates-General by force. The move backfired and led directly to the storming of the Bastille, beginning the French Revolution.

Further Reading

  • Baker, Keith Michael. Inventing the French Revolution. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990. A complex though compelling discussion of the political theories and debates which helped shape the revolution; includes an explanation of Sieyès’s contributions to the discussion of representation.
  • Doyle, William. Origins of the French Revolution. 3d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Chapter 13, “The Estates-General, May and June, 1789,” recounts the events of this period.
  • _______. The Oxford History of the French Revolution. 2d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. Doyle’s clear narration draws together recent research while covering the economic, political, and cultural facets of the revolution.
  • Furet, François. Revolutionary France, 1770-1880. Translated by Antonia Nevill. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 1992. Written by the major revisionist historian of the French Revolution, this work is particularly strong on French politics and political culture.
  • Jones, P. M. Reform and Revolution in France: The Politics of Transition, 1774-1791. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995. An analysis of governmental, social, and economic conditions in prerevolutionary France. Chapter 5 includes information about Necker and the Estates-General.
  • Lefebvre, Georges. The French Revolution: From Its Origins to 1793. Translated by Elizabeth Moss Evanson. New York: Columbia University Press, 1962. This remains one of the best accounts of the revolution and is particularly strong on France’s social ills preceding the calling of the Estates-General.
  • Rudé, George. The French Revolution: Its Causes, Its History, Its Legacy After Two Hundred Years. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1988. A noted expert in social history offers a readable account with a particularly helpful introduction to the continuing historiographic debate about the French Revolution.

Oath of the Tennis Court

Fall of the Bastille

France Adopts the Guillotine

Early Wars of the French Revolution

Execution of Louis XVI

Fall of Robespierre

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