Story of the French Revolution - Alice Birkhead

The First Procession

In that Convocation of the Notables, which Calonne had desperately summoned to hear of the wretched financial condition of the country and the King's patriotic wishes that the deficit might be met by a new act of generosity performed by the privileged class, Lafayette had demanded a National Assembly or States-General to include representatives from every part of France. Peers were there and men of the robe, soldiers and clergy of the highest class; seven "princes of the blood" dignified the ancient Assembly of Notables, which had not met since Richelieu's time. These shook their heads when Calonne became eloquent and spoke of a Land Tax which would be paid by the rich, for they loved the old saying, "The nobles fight, the clergy pray, the people pay," and they refused to give up their ancient rights. Brienne dismissed them, and their convocation would have been useless indeed had it not spread the magic word "States-General" through all France.

Brienne's measures to alleviate distress were futile, because the Parlement of Paris refused to register the fiscal edicts which he had proposed. There was to be a Land Tax, which the wealthy lawyers who formed the Parlement could not approve. There was to be a Stamp Tax, such as had aroused wrath in the American colonists. Suddenly the Parlement discovered that it had never had the power to register any edicts dealing with taxation, but had hitherto usurped the authority of the ancient States-General, which had not met since 1614. The people rejoiced to hear the refusal, and blessed the Parlement as it went into exile at Troyes, in Champagne, for that representative body of the Three Estates—Nobles, Clergy, and Commons—might, when called upon to meet, do more than deliberate upon finance or vote taxes to abolish the deficit of the nation. They might redress grievances which had grown intolerable during the long years of suppression which the commons had endured.

[Illustration] from Story of the French Revolution by Alice Birkhead


Yet the Parlement made terms with the Versailles government, and returned from exile when Brienne decided that the Stamp Tax should be withdrawn and the Land Tax made less troublesome to the privileged. The nation was assured that the States-General should be convoked in 1792 as soon as the loan, which took the place of taxation, had been exhausted by the needs of government.

Brienne anticipated some happy ending of the troubled state of France long before five years should pass, but 1788 saw the provincial parlements roused against Versailles. They refused to register edicts, and were exiled amidst the national anger that such an act of tyranny now roused. In August Brienne was obliged to promise that the States-General should be convoked in May of the following year.

Necker was recalled on August 24, 1788, France resounding with the cry of "Vive le Roi! Vive M. Necker!" while the nation rejoiced openly that Brienne had gone. Henceforth, the whole country spoke of the meeting of the States-General, and the structure of that ancient body was discussed by clubs and statesmen, while the twenty-five million commons palpitated with the mighty joy of reckoning themselves members of a voting class. The Parlement of Paris lost popularity suddenly by declaring for the old form of 1614, in which the Third Estate figured mainly as a show, leaving all real decisions to the nobility and clergy, their superiors.

The Third Estate had its champions among the pamphleteers, for Abbe Sieyes came from Chartres to Paris asking three questions which he could answer best himself. "What is the Third Estate? All. What has it hitherto been in our form of government? Nothing. What does it want to become? Something." Orleans, prince of the blood, and formerly Due de Chartres, opposed his own order when he gave utterance to the words, "The Third Estate is the Nation." He had long been suspected of disloyalty by Versailles.

The Court thought revolt impossible, though they admitted that the commons might be dangerous if encouraged by men of such influence. They settled that the Third Estate should join the King in taxing the First and Second Estates. All three Estates could be dismissed when the State Treasury was full again.

Necker proved himself feeble in all attempts to settle the two burning questions of the hour. He could not decide whether the commons should be represented by as many members as the clergy and the nobles united, since they were by far the most numerous class, nor whether the States-General, once assembled, should vote and deliberate in one body or three separate bodies. The Notables, assembled for the second time, did not incline to the patriotic side which demanded "vote by head," but they were dismissed before the royal edict went, forth ordering the election. of deputies and the preparation of cahiers  or writs of grievances in January 1789.

The edict was acclaimed with joy "as the news of Victory, Deliverance, and Enfranchisement" by the class which had been ignored in politics since 1614. "To the proud, strong man it has come; whose strong hands shall be no more gyved; to whom boundless unconquered continents lie disclosed. The weary day-drudge has heard of it; the beggar with his crust moistened in tears."

The great Salles des Menus at Versailles was made ready to receive the deputies by order of the King. There was to be a great gala and procession on May 4th of 1789. The weather was propitious, and there was a general hope of happiness to come. The poorer deputies of the Third Estate found lodgings too expensive for their slender purse, since there was a general concourse from all parts of France to Paris and Versailles, but their hearts beat high with patriotism and the proud belief that they too could help to save the State from ruin.

Rich draperies floated from the balconies of houses; the sound of bells, ringing for the solemn ceremony, was mingled with the fanfare of trumpets and the roll of drums. The deputies assembled in the cathedral of Notre Dame when May 5th dawned, and awaited the coming of their King.

Then the procession filed out, the deputies of the Third Estate marching at the front, as men of the least importance, sad in garb, and, for the most part, humble in their mien. They wore a close-fitting black costume, with a short black mantle of either wool or silk, a plain muslin cravat, and a small round hat, which had no feathers, no cord, nor band of any kind. The Queen's "boudoir council" had decreed that the people's representatives of 1789 should be clad in garments modeled on those worn by the "vilains" or meanest class of 1614! Here and there a distinguished face or a striking carriage was conspicuous among this sombre mass of six hundred men, for double representation had been granted to the Third Estate. The wild Marquis of Mirabeau had been elected deputy of the commons, though his birth entitled him to a higher place. His strangely powerful, scarred face would have redeemed a multitude of more commonplace men than had been mustered for this 5th of May.

Maximilian Robespierre, the deputy from Arras, walked stealthily and with a deferential manner among men royal in their own provinces. None marked him closely, since all eyes were drawn to the gallant Marquis, the fame of whose exploits had rung through Europe before he opened a cloth-shop at Marseilles and turned tailor in order to be elected representative of the people he was naturally inclined to rule.

Close to the deputy from Arras, perhaps, walked Dr. Guillotin, who detested acts of violence, and spoke eloquently for men condemned to suffer death in its cruelest form. He was planning even then the machine for beheading victims of capital punishment painlessly. It had been used in Italy, but was adopted by France later as La Guillotine, for men were grateful to the good doctor for his merciful inventive powers, and King Louis himself advised some shaping of the blade that would lessen the suffering of the condemned.

The stately Queen was received in silence, though she looked more truly aristocratic than any member of the insolent Court streaming before her in the white plumes and laces, the rich embroidery and velvet that made the pageant so gay. Marie Antoinette would have ignored cold glances, but the cry from the crowd, "Long live Orleans!" stung her with its insult as she passed through the subjects who acclaimed her enemy. There were rumors that Orleans would have liked to enroll himself with the Third Estate, which he supported, being treasonable to his own order, and he had given much money to gain popularity among them. He was hideous through the excesses of his life, and grossly ornamented, but he pleased the Parisians, who disliked the beautiful, proud Queen.

If his wife betrayed emotion, the King was phlegmatic in his aspect as he walked under the sacred canopy of the Catholic Church. He believed that the majesty of the episcopal purple would awe subjects and prevent violence. A dais of violet velvet, adorned with the golden fleur-de-lis, had been prepared in the Church of St Louis, whither the twelve hundred deputies were bound. The King and Queen sat there, wrapped for the last time in all the panoply of state. Servile respect, indeed, was not paid to them even on this occasion of high ceremony, for the deputies applauded the speech of the Archbishop of Nancy, which dwelt especially on the true piety of the King of France, and in the presence of royalty it had never been usual to applaud.

Marie Antoinette frowned and bit her lip, recognizing that the personality of the King could never make him dreaded, though he might be popular still. She disapproved of his simple act of courtesy when the first meeting of the States-General took place the next day in the Salle des Menus, which was gorgeous enough to dazzle the humblest members of the Third Estate. The King's speech ended, he put on his hat, a weighty head-gear generously plumed. The noblesse donned their hats too, according to the custom of old times, and with defiance the slouched hats of the Third Estate were clapped on at once. There were cries of "Hats off" from the Court, indignant to see a privilege usurped, but the sturdy deputies refused to obey till Louis himself took off his hat again, thus showing a clumsy kind of tact which pleased the crowd. The claim to equality had been made, as the Queen well knew and others who were scornful of the rights of the Third Estate.

The next day the nobility and clergy retired to a separate apartment to "verify their powers," a ceremony which was necessary before their deliberations could have weight. The six hundred left alone realized that double representation was not all that they had to gain. They determined to demand that the Three Estates should be merged in one for the business which France gave them to perform. A feeling of impatience agitated the vast Salle des Menus where spectators thronged to hear the speeches of the deputies. There was famine in the provinces because bread was sold to the poor at a ruinous price. These representatives of the people could do nothing to help those who had elected them till their powers were verified. The noblest reformers fretted at the delay and heard speeches with impatience, for the nation needed more than words. Pamphlets issued from the Press defending the claim of the Third Estate, and orators in the Palais Royal were clamorous, denouncing the obstinacy of the nobility and clergy who still held aloof.

[Illustration] from Story of the French Revolution by Alice Birkhead


Mirabeau struggled towards recognition, speaking with eloquence to the deputies of the Third Estate. He urged that the clergy should be asked, "in the name of the God of peace," to join the commons since many of the Second Estate had shown signs of wavering loyalty to the body to which they belonged. A president of the commons was appointed whose powers seemed likely to become greater than those of Necker, now losing popularity day by day.

On June 17th the Third Estate declared themselves the National Assembly and boldly assumed the privilege of verifying their powers alone. The King was timid in his reproaches, but the Queen became hostile to the States-General she had at first approved because it took the place of the Parlement which had not justified her in the trial of Cardinal de Rohan.

The Third Estate were to meet the deputies of the Second and receive their submission in the Salle des Menus on June 20th, but heralds-at-arms appeared in the streets of Versailles on Saturday, June 20th, and proclaimed a Royal Session to be held on the Monday of the following week.

The deputies flocking to the hall of meeting through the rain found that the doors were closed and workmen were busy within preparing for the reception of His Majesty, who had ordered that no meeting of States-General should take place until the Royal Session of next week. The president himself was turned away amid the angry muttering of the throng who had come to listen to the speeches of Mirabeau and his fellow-deputies. When a voice was raised crying "To the tennis-court," there was an eager echo from the crowd. The deputies sought the covered enclosure where nobles occupied their frivolous hours and looked towards Bailly, who seated himself at a wooden trestle and claimed to be the first to take the oath that he would never separate from the National Assembly or deny its powers, wheresoever it should meet.

"Six hundred right hands rise with President Bailly's to take God above to witness that they will not separate for man below but will meet in all places, under all circumstances, wheresoever two or three can get together, till they have made the Constitution."

The swarm of spectators held their breath, realizing that these were profoundly solemn words. "Vive In Nation! Vive le Rai!" they cried at length, and the applause could be heard far beyond the tennis-court which had been put to such strange use. In vain for the King to admit the commons grudgingly to the hall on June 23rd. In vain for de Breze, the King's messenger, to bid the commons leave the hall after Louis and his retinue. "Messieurs, you have heard the King's orders." Mirabeau's reply was fierce and prophetic of the days to come. "Go, Monsieur," he said, "tell those who have sent you that we are here by the will of the people and that nothing but the force of bayonets will drive us hence."

The soldiers were not sent for, the Third Estate, with the defiant deputies, had triumphed. Workmen ordered to take down the royal platform listened to the voice of Mirabeau, leader of the National Assembly, and eloquent in victory.