- In France of the Old Regime, the monarch did not have the power to impose taxes according to his will alone .
- The monarch had to call a meeting of the Estates General which would then pass his proposals for new taxes.
- The Estates General was a political body to which the three estates sent their representatives .
- However, the monarch alone could decide when to call a meeting of this body. The last time it was done was in 1614 .
- On 5 May 1789 , Louis XVI called together an assembly of the Estates General to pass proposals for new taxes .
- A resplendent hall in Versailles was prepared to host the delegates .
- The first and second estates representatives were seated in rows facing each other on two sides with 300 members each while the 600 members of the third estate had to stand at the back .
- The third estate was represented by more prosperous and educated members .
- Peasants , artisans and women were denied entry to the assembly but their grievances and demands were listed in some 40,000 letters that the representatives had brought with them.
- In the past, voting in the Estates General had been conducted according to the principle that each estate had one vote . This time too Louis XVI was determined to continue the same practice .
- But members of the third estate demanded that voting now be conducted by the assembly as a whole , where each member would have one vote .
- This was one of the democratic principles put forward by philosophers like Rousseau in his book The Social Contract .
- But the king rejected this proposal .
- As a sign of protest, the members of the third estate walked out of the assembly.
- Representatives of the Third Estate took the oath raising their arms in the direction of Bailly , the President of the Assembly , standing on a table in the centre.
- The representatives of the third estate viewed themselves as spokesmen for the whole French nation .
- On 20 June they assembled in the hall of an indoor tennis court in Versailles and declared themselves as a National Assembly and swore not to disperse till they had drafted a constitution for France to limit the powers of the monarch .
- Mirabeau was born into a noble family who brought out a journal and delivered powerful speeches to the crowds assembled at Versailles .
- Abbé Sieyès was originally a priest and wrote an influential pamphlet called ‘ What is the Third Estate ’ ?
- While the National Assembly was busy drafting a constitution at Versailles the rest of France seethed with turmoil .
- A bad harvest happened due to a severe winter which led the price of bread to rose , the bakers exploited this situation and hoarded supplies .
- People had to spend hours in long queues at the bakery due to which the crowd of angry women stormed into the shops .
- At the same time, the king ordered troops to move into Paris .
- On 14 July , the agitated crowd stormed and destroyed the Bastille .
- Meanwhile, in the countryside rumours started to spread from village to village that the lords of the manor had hired bands of brigands to destroy the ripe crops .
- Caught in a frenzy of fear , peasants in several districts seized hoes and pitchforks and attacked chateaux .
- They looted hoarded grain and burnt down documents containing records of manorial dues which forced a large number of nobles to flee from their homes , many of them migrated to neighbouring countries .
- Forced by the revolts , Louis XVI finally recognised the National Assembly and accepted the principle that his power would now on checked by the constitution .
- On the night of 4 August 1789 , the Assembly passed a decree ( an official order ) abolishing the feudal system of obligations and taxes .
- Members of the clergy too were forced to give up their privileges .
- Tithes were abolished and lands owned by the Church were confiscated (seized).
- As a result, the government acquired assets worth at least 2 billion livres .
France Becomes a Constitutional Monarchy
- The National Assembly completed the draft of the constitution in 1791 intending to limit the power of the monarch .
- Instead of concentrating powers in the hands of one person , these powers were now separated and assigned to different institutions - the legislative , executive and judiciary .
- This made France a constitutional monarch .
- As a result of the Constitution of 1791, the National Assembly , which was indirectly elected , had the power to make laws . Citizens voted for a group of electors who in turn chose the assembly .
- But not all citizens had given the right to vote . Only men above 25 years of age who paid taxes equal to at least 3 days of a labourer’s wage were given the status of active citizens , that is, they were entitled to vote .
- The remaining men and all women were classed as passive citizens .
- To qualify as an elector and then as a member of the Assembly , a man had to belong to the highest bracket of taxpayers .
- The constitution of France began with the Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizens .
- Rights such as the right to life , freedom of speech , freedom of opinion , and equality before the law , were established as natural and inalienable rights , that is, they belonged to each human being by birth and could not be taken away .
- It was the duty of the state to protect each citizen’s natural rights .
- The majority of men and women in the eighteenth century could not read or write . So images and symbols were frequently used instead of printed words to communicate important ideas.
- The painting by Le Barbier uses many such symbols to convey the content of the Declaration of Rights .