4.2: Reforming the Estates and the Monarchy

Frustrated by the system, the Third Estate representatives did revolt, and in June 1789 proclaimed themselves the National Assembly, the new “official” congress of France capable of passing and reforming laws. (Some members of the Second and First Estates supported their Third Estate colleagues, among the most vocal being Church official Abbé Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyés, who actually coined the name “National Assembly.”)

The king responded by locking the Third Estate out of the meeting-hall in the palace of Versailles. The reps gathered next-door in the indoor handball court and swore that they would not stop meeting, even if the king prevented them. This “Tennis Court Oath” was the warning sign to the king that the people would no longer obey his authority, yet Louis remained stubborn in enforcing the old system.

The common people in Paris, just a few miles away from Versailles, knew that violence from the First and Second Estates was on the horizon. However, as in the case of the American Revolution, the supply of gunpowder was protected by the king in a prison-fortress in the middle of the city called the Bastille. On July 14, the Revolution turned violent as angry mobs stormed the prison, killed the warden and several guards, and paraded around the streets with the decapitated heads on sticks. The king vowed to crush the rebellion, and the National Assembly applauded the use of violence to send a message. (Unfortunately, this would just be the beginning of such violence.)

As Fall 1789 approached, the mobs grew in their boldness and their control, and some of the nobility started to flee the country. The National Assembly drafted a document that laid out the principles of the Revolution (the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen). Shortly after, the mobs stormed Versailles, demanding that the king move to Paris to rule instead of staying isolated in his palace away from his people. The National Assembly created a government-controlled Church to solve the country’s debt problems by confiscating Church lands and property. Many devout Catholics, though they disliked the monarchy, rejected this attack on the Church, and civil war spread around the country.

In 1791, the king and his family were caught trying to escape and were all made prisoners, as the National Assembly became the “Legislative Assembly,” now ruling the country “in cooperation” with the king. The Assembly soon developed three factions, the names of which we still use today to describe political views: on the left side of the assembly hall were radicals who wanted to change the government in order to solve the country’s problems. In the center of the hall were people who wanted some change but not drastic change, in order to keep the country stable. On the right wing were people who did not want to change the government and were more conservative (traditional) in their views.


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