Our country is now taking the road by which it will pass to destruction, to wit: by consolidation of power first, and then corruption, its necessary consequence. — Thomas Jefferson

Stories of the French Revolution - Walter Montgomery

The States-General

The poor people in France were in a most miserable condition. Bread was very dear and grievance of many kinds abounded. Once, not long after the young king ascended the throne, the poor rose up, and went with a petition to Versailles. The king appeared on a balcony, and spoke to them not unkindly; but by the advice of his ministers, two of the leaders were hanged on a new gallows.

The king by and by had to reduce the expenses of his household, and Versailles became an altered place. The wolf-hounds were given up; then the bear-hounds; then the falcons; and one nobleman after another, who had a good salary, was dismissed.

A minister named Calonne, a clever man, did some service for a while in raising money, and so making the king's path easier; but it was all moonshine, as we say. Things were really getting worse. Calonne then proposed to do a very wise thing, we think; namely, to call together the notables,—a thing which had not been done as long as the king could rule without them. These notables were peers, dignified churchmen, soldiers, lawyers, and men of mark, to the number of one hundred and thirty-seven, who sat in seven companies, each under a prince. Calonne was for taxing all,—even the upper classes, who stupidly thought they ought to be free. This was so little liked that Calonne had to resign and leave the country in haste.

After nine weeks' chatter the notables departed each to his home, without having done much, except to pave the way for a National Assembly.

A clever Swiss banker, named Necker, had also labored, like Calonne, in the thorny path of managing the king's money-bags; but as he, like Calonne, advised that the Clergy and Nobles should be taxed, he was dismissed, but called back again amid the plaudits of the people. Necker's portrait was carried aloft in a procession through the streets of Paris; while a wicker figure of an archbishop who was very unpopular was burned on the Pont Neuf by a wild mob. A charge of cavalry was made, and many people killed and wounded.

No States-General had met for one hundred and seventy-four years, and it was a hard matter to know how to get them to work together. But it was at last decided they should meet, to get France out of her troubles; and so the king sent a signal through the land in the frosty January of 1789. Men were everywhere ordered to elect their members, and to draw up a list of their grievances. And of grievances there was no end. In the month of April the members elected were arriving at Versailles, hunting up lodgings, and making preparations for the opening day. But before that day arrived, a terrible event had taken place in Paris, showing the violence of the people. A certain paper manufacturer, named Reveillon, had his works in the most unruly part of Paris, named St. Antoine. Reveillon had been heard to say that a journeyman paper-maker might live well on fifteen sous a day. This seems to have roused the wrath of the rough inhabitants of St. Antoine, and they gathered with menacing looks about the manufactory. Reveillon sent for some soldiers, who cleared the street, and posted themselves therein for the night.

But on the morrow matters grew worse, and so another detachment of troops was ordered to the spot. These men could hardly with gun and bayonet reach it, so choked with lumber and crowds was the street. The soldiers fired at the mob, who were already in the building engaged on the work of destruction, and the mob replied with yells and showers of stones and tiles. As the riot went on, some of the king's Swiss Guards, with two pieces of cannon, were sent; and when the rioters saw the steady, determined faces of the redcoats and their lighted matches, they slank away into their dens, leaving no less than four or five hundred dead men in that one street. The unfortunate paper-maker, who had lost all but his life, took refuge in the Bastille, and the dead were buried with the title of "Defenders of their Country."

Twelve hundred and fourteen gentlemen were now assembled at Versailles, and each one kissed the king's hand in the palace. It was noticed, however, that while the Nobles and Clergy had both folding doors thrown open for them, the members of the third estate, or Commons, had only one opened for them. A spacious hall had been prepared, the king taking great interest in its fitting up. There was room in it for six hundred Commoners in front, for three hundred Clergy on one side, and three hundred Nobles on the other.

Paris Mob

On Monday, May 4, the town of Versailles was a human sea. Men clustered thick about roofs and chimneys, and every window was thronged with sight-seers, all intent on the march of the twelve hundred deputies from the Church of St. Louis, where they assembled, to the Church of Our Lady, where they were to hear a sermon. The Commons walked in black; the Nobles in embroidered velvet and plumes; the Clergy in their proper robes. After them came the king and queen and royal household. Several men afterward famous were among the Commons; as Danton, Camille, Desmoulins, and Mirabeau. There, too, went the bilious Robespierre, spectacles on nose; and there was Dr. Guillotin, who gave his name to the instrument of death. "With my machine," said he, "I whisk off your head in a moment, and you feel no pain." One clergyman, the Abbe Sieyes, sat among the Commons.

Next day the States-General assembled in their noble hall, and the king made a speech to them. When he finished, he put on his hat. The Nobles followed suit, and put on their hats; and then the third estate, or Commons, did the same. Then arose a cry, "Hats off! Hats off!" And some cried, "Hats on!" The king, to put an end to a ridiculous dispute, took his own hat off again. This was but a slight thing, but it showed the temper of the Commons.

For six whole weeks the Commons did nothing but wait. They saw the Nobles and Clergy wanted to sit and act separately, and they were resolved to do nothing at all, until they could all act together as one body in one chamber. This the king and court did all they could to prevent, fearing lest the weight of the Commons should incline the whole States-General to take the direction of liberty, equality, and fraternity,—things which the privileged classes always have hated and always will.