France’s poor were dealt with taxes and famine, while the rich lounged in luxury. King Louis VI called an emergency meeting to fix France’s problem. Instead it would lead to the king’s overthrow and the French Revolution.
In the 1780’s, France’s government had accumulated debt from two recent wars. France had lost the Seven Years War, from 1754-1763. Fought against Great Britain and its allies, the war ended in defeat, with France losing large expanses of land including almost all their colonies in the Americas, mainly Canada and the Louisiana Territory.
The second war, the American Revolution, was a gamble that seemed to have paid off. British colonies in North America had revolted over high taxes and regulations. Triggered by their defeat and territorial losses in the Seven Years War, France signed a treaty of alliance with the Americans. A month later, the British formally declared war and hostilities resumed after more than a decade. The French were able to change the tide of the war. In 1783, the war concluded with the Treaty of Paris with an American and French victory. They had inflicted a heavy defeat on their rival, but not without growing their debt.
Throughout the 1780’s, a mild famine spread throughout France. Less wheat was being produced compared to the years before, and people were hungry. On top of that, the burden of France’s enormous debt was being placed on the backs of commoners. While the peasants paid the taxes, the rich and nobility lounged and spent their money on luxuries, paying very little taxes.
Meanwhile, throughout Europe, an intellectual movement known as the Enlightenment was taking hold. The Enlightenment spread ideas that hadn’t been considered in generations. Philosophers were bringing new scientific concepts to light, philosophers of the Enlightenment were spreading political philosophies like democracy. Throughout much of the 18th Century, most people would scoff at the idea of democracy. But the American Revolution showed that people could have a successful government without a monarchy.
With debt and famine still lingering over France, the king, Louis XVI, summoned an emergency meeting at the Palace of Versailles known as the Convocation of the Estates General that would meet in May 1789, to discuss raising taxes to pay off the debt. This was a meeting of representatives of each estate, essentially social classes. The first estate was comprised of the clergy, making up approximately 0.5% of France’s population. The second estate was the nobility, making up 1.5% of the population. The third estate encompassed the rest of the population, the peasantry and commoners of France, 98% of the population.
In the Convocation of the Estates General, which met on May 5, representatives from each estate met to vote on how to raise taxes. There were approximately 300 delegates in both the first and second estates, and 600 from the third. During the convocation, there was a debate of how the votes should be cast. One way, supported by the Louis XVI and much of the first and second estates, was to vote as estates. This would give the first and second estates an advantage because the third each estate would have one vote no matter the number of representatives in it. The second way of voting was one vote per delegate, which was supported by the delegates of the third estate and some members of the other estates.
The first and second estates ultimately had their way, forcing each estate to have equal power. Representatives of the third estate, furious at what they perceived to be an unjust rule, gathered in an assembly hall in Versailles without approval from the king. On June 13, they declared themselves the National Assembly of France and invited members of the other states to join them. Days later, the entire first estate voted to join the National Assembly.
King Louis XVI, unpleased with what was happening, had the doors of the assembly hall locked once the National Assembly temporarily dispersed. The National Assembly instead moved to an indoor tennis court in Versailles. On June 20, they took a vow agreeing not to dissolve the assembly until a constitution had been established. This was known as the Tennis Court Oath. Every member of the assembly except one person took the oath.
On the June 23, the king held a Royal Session. While the meeting took place, Louis XVI proposed limited reforms that were opposed by the National Assembly. Louis tried to intimidate the members of the assembly, but the tense meeting concluded with King Louis giving in, allowing the National Assembly to remain. The Estates General was falling apart as many members joined the National Assembly, and Louis XVI saw this. He soon ordered the remaining members of the first and second estates to join the National Assembly, in an attempt to appease them. On July 9, The National Assembly renamed themselves the National Constituent Assembly and instituted themselves as a new governing body of the country.
Meanwhile, soldiers were moving on Paris.
Sources for the Beginning of the French Revolution: