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The National Assembly of France: Creation, History & Impact

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  • 1:20 Estates-General, May 1789
  • 2:19 The National Assembly
  • 2:59 Closure & Tennis Court Oath
  • 4:05 End of Authority
  • 5:41 Early Reforms & War
  • 7:33 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we explore the initial phase of the French Revolution and the creation of the National Assembly of France. We'll also discuss the reforms it initiated and the events in France prior to the Assembly's fall in 1792.

Background and Crisis

According to an old Chinese proverb, 'while crises are certainly dangerous, they also present opportunities.' While this saying might be simple, it can certainly be used to explain the initial situation facing the people of France in one of the most complex events of Western history: the French Revolution.

Indeed, France and the French government were in crisis-mode in the late 1780s. Decades of paying for wars with foreign powers and defending French territory in North America, coupled with the unbridled opulence of the French court, had caused the French government to rack up a deep national debt in the hundreds of millions of livres. Furthermore, the French government was unable to collect adequate tax money to pay these debts, as both the French nobility and the clergy were exempt from taxation. As a result, the brunt of the French taxation fell upon the peasantry and the working poor: the vast majority of the population, which possessed only a minute fraction of the country's wealth.

To make matters worse, this heavily taxed portion of the population was in no way able to meet the demands required of it to even pay a small amount of taxation - let alone the vast sums which the situation required - as a series of bad harvests in the second half of the 18th-century drove up food prices and made it nearly impossible for the poor to feed themselves and their families - let alone pay taxes.

Estates-General, May 1789

After calling the Assembly of Notables in 1787 in a failed attempt to get the nobility to allow themselves to be taxed, the French government was forced to call the Estates-General, an assembly made up of the clergy, the nobility and a representative body of the people of France. The Estates-General had not been called since 1614, and its assemblage in May 1789 had the opposite effect of what the French government had hoped.

Though the Third Estate, which represented the people, had twice as many members as either the nobility or the clergy, its members were informed at the opening session that the Estates-General would be voting by Estate rather than by individual member, rendering the voice of the people meaningless if faced with opposition from both the clergy and the nobility.

The members of the Third Estate declared this situation unacceptable, and despite some initial attempts at coming to terms with the other two estates, on May 28 the Third Estate began meeting without the consultation of the other two, functioning on their own rules and independently determining the legitimacy of French government officials.

The National Assembly

On June 17, emboldened by the joining of some of the nobility and the clergy, the Third Estate declared itself the National Assembly of France, imploring the remainder of the Estates-General to join the Assembly but also vowing to do the business of France with or without them.

While the National Assembly formed without the king's permission, the Assembly considered itself to be acting in the king's interests and originally they declared all their laws subject to royal approval. Among the laws the Assembly enacted in these first days were acts claiming the prior taxation laws to be illegal and making promises to institute new, fairer legislation, though in order to pay French debt they kept the old tax laws in place until something better could be devised.

Closure and Tennis Court Oath

Despite the statements of good faith to the king made by the National Assembly, King Louis XVI was outraged at the audacity of the Third Estate. On June 19, only two days after the National Assembly convened itself, Louis ordered the Estates to separate and the building in which the National Assembly met closed while he prepared an adequate response.

What Louis did not expect, is that the members of the National Assembly would simply find somewhere else to meet. The next morning, finding their entry barred, the members of the National Assembly met across the street in one of the king's indoor tennis courts. They then created and pledged the Tennis Court Oath to remain sitting until the National Assembly had written a French constitution.

Days later, on June 23, the king appeared before the Assembly. He ordered the Three Estates that had formed the Assembly to return to their respective chambers at once, and the king granted a constitution of sorts, though nothing near as progressive as what the Assembly had hoped for. Though some of the nobility which had joined the Assembly complied, all of the representatives of the people stood firm, as they had not written a constitution themselves as their oath from the previous week promised.

End of Authority

This was a major blow to Louis' power. After this show of defiance by the National Assembly, relations between the Assembly and the monarch broke down. In addition, the people of Paris took to the streets in support of the Assembly, creating a chaotic atmosphere in the capital. For example, Louis tried simultaneously to heed some the demands of the National Assembly while also undermining it: On July 27, he granted the National Assembly his approval as the governing body of the people of France while simultaneously surrounding the building the Assembly met in with French troops. When the Assembly asked the troops to be removed, Louis offered to move the Assembly outside of Paris, a move which would likely have ruined the Assembly's bid for power.

This is because the National Assembly was supported by large mobs of Parisians popularly called the sans-culottes - literally meaning those without pants. The sans-culottes were largely the working poor of the city, upset at skyrocketing food prices and the opulence and frivolity of their rulers. The sans-culottes supported the National Assembly, and their collective action played key roles in the breakdown of royal authority.

For example, on July 14, 1789, the sans-culottes broke into a royal armory, seized as many weapons as they could and stormed the royal prison in Paris, the Bastille, releasing the prisoners. Many historians consider this moment to be the point at which Louis lost total control over the events in Paris. Later, in October 1789, a group of women, outraged that bread could not be had in the city for a reasonable price, marched to the Palace at Versailles, demanded bread and then escorted the royal family from Versailles to Paris to be among the people.

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