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Assembly of Notables and the Estates General

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  • 0:02 Financial Crisis
  • 0:46 Assembly of Notables
  • 2:12 Estates General
  • 4:09 National Assembly
  • 5:15 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Troolin

Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will study the Assembly of Notables, which met in 1787, and the Estates General, which met in 1789. Neither group managed to solve France's financial crisis.

A Financial Crisis

By the mid-1780s, France was enveloped in a major financial crisis. The nation's economy had been weak for over a hundred years, and decades of war in Europe and America had exacerbated the problem. The national debt had grown to astronomical proportions. Taxation on the common people was reaching unbearable heights, while nobles and clergy remained exempt. On top of everything else, a series of bad harvests left much of France's population poor, hungry, and disgusted with the government's inability to handle money matters. In fact, by 1787, France was bankrupt, and King Louis XVI knew that he had to make some kind of change right away.

The Assembly of Notables

The king turned to his finance minister, Charles de Calonne, to come up with a plan. Calonne could see only one solution to France's financial crisis: tax the nobles, especially on their land holdings. Louis XVI agreed. The nobles, represented by the 13 parlements, or supreme courts, definitely did not. The king decided to gather the nobility together to explain to them why they would have to pay more taxes, and the best way he could do this was to call an Assembly of Notables.

The 144 members of the Assembly of Notables met for the first time in February of 1787. Most of the members were nobles, so they were annoyed by Calonne's financial presentation. Calonne offered the Assembly a choice. They could either agree to impose new taxes on the nobility or consent to force the nobles to give up their exempt status and pay the taxes currently in place.

Predictably, the Assembly refused both options and insisted that the government could not raise taxes or change the system at all without the approval of the Estates General, an assembly of delegates from France's three estates: the clergy, the nobility, and the common people. The assembly closed in May without making any progress in solving the financial crisis. Before they left, the members pressured the king to sack Calonne, which he did.

The Estates General

Calonne's replacement, Etienne Charles Lomenie de Brienne, tried very hard to avoid calling the Estates General. The parlements, however, were set on this option. They figured that the nobles and clergy working together could foil the king's taxation plans once and for all. The annoyed Louis XVI dissolved the parlements, but the nobles continued to dig in their heels.

Finally, the king realized that he had no other choice. He would have to give in to the nobles and call the Estates General if there was to be any chance to pull France out of its deepening financial emergency. He pulled former financial minister Jacques Necker out of retirement to help. Necker had a knack for interacting with the various groups, and the king needed that kind of person by his side.

The Estates General met for the first time since 1614 on May 5, 1789. The estates' members reflected the hierarchical French society. All three estates - the clergy, the nobles, and the common people - were represented, but the treatment of the three was not at all equal. While the clergy and nobility sat at the front of the meeting hall and dressed in full regalia, the members of the Third Estate, mostly fairly wealthy bourgeoisie dressed in somber black robes, were squished in the back of the room where they were hard pressed to see and hear what was going on.

According to the traditional practice of the Estates General, voting was by estate rather than head. Each estate could cast one vote. This was acceptable in the past when the numbers of delegates for each estate had been pretty much equal. Now, however, the Third Estate delegates outnumbered those of the other two, and they were understandably worried that the nobles and clergy would team up and outvote them despite their superior numbers. They demanded that each delegate receive his own vote, but naturally, the king and the other two estates refused.

The National Assembly

After a month of deliberations, the Estates General was no closer to solving France's problems. The Third Estate felt more left out than ever because the clergy and nobility often met in private, excluding the commoners, who were becoming more and more frustrated. Finally, the Third Estate's delegates decided to take matters into their own hands. They represented the majority of the nation, after all, and that, they felt, should give them the authority to rule. On June 17, 1789, the Third Estate broke away from the Estates General. Calling themselves the National Assembly, the delegates declared taxes illegal and demanded a new constitution.

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