The French Revolution: The Estates General and The National Assembly

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: Turning Points in Modern History

By Vejas Liulevicius, Ph.D., University of Tennessee, Knoxville

The French Revolution, which began in 1789, was the result of a crisis that had been fermenting for a long time. This crisis was partly a result of internal discontent in France, exacerbated by outside effects. But what were the reasons for this discontent, and what were the immediate effects of the Revolution?

Detail from a painting of the storming of the Bastille, showing the arrest of the governor of the prison.
The storming of the Bastille is one of the best known incidents of the French Revolution of 1789. (Image: L’Histoire par l’image / Public domain)

A Systemic Crisis of the French State

France was increasingly caught in a systemic crisis of the state. That state was headed by a monarch, King Louis XVI, who in theory was absolute, but who was actually ruling over a state that was in the process of seizing up, and a society that was seething. France had been almost constantly at war for over a century, and military expenses consumed three-quarters of the budget.

French support for the American Revolution had added to France’s war expenses. The royal debt had doubled in the reign of Louis XVI. Yet, in this old regime, the aristocracy paid no taxes and the burden fell on the classes below them.

Anger at the Royal Family

Thus, society was in an intense ferment, with traditional authority subjected to ever more corrosive criticism. A popular underground press was producing a whole torrent of pamphlets that denounced the king, his court, and what they judged to be its profligacy at a time of economic crisis.

This anger was especially focused on the queen, Marie Antoinette, who was denounced as a foreigner as she was actually an Austrian Hapsburg. In the pamphlets of the time, she was judged to be a luxurious and lustful hypocrite, and she was depicted in the most pornographic terms.

Summoning the Estates General

Illustration showing the members of Estates General gathered inside a huge hall.
The opening of the Estates General on May 5, 1789. The Estates General, an assembly of representatives that had not met in 175 years, was summoned by King Louis XVI to approve new taxes to pay off the war debt. (Image: Isidore-Stanislaus Helman (1743-1806) and Charles Monnet (1732-1808)/Bibliothèque nationale de France/Pubic domain)

In desperation at the financial crisis, King Louis XVI summoned a so-called Estates General in 1789 to approve new taxation. This was a representative body that had not met since 1614, but once it had been called, it developed a momentum of its own.

Representatives of the common orders gained new confidence politically and started making new demands. Soon, the non-aristocratic representatives of the Estates General declared themselves to be representatives not just of their class but of the people at large and resolved to write a constitution. Their slogan was “liberty, equality, and fraternity”.

Learn more about how French absolutism crafts a king as a virtual god on Earth.

The Tennis Court Oath

King Louis XVI resorted to a half measure, ordering that the hall in the Versailles palace complex where the meeting of Estates General was in progress should simply be locked. When the delegates turned up and discovered that their meeting hall was locked, they simply went next door to a nearby indoor tennis court, and there—angry at the clumsy royal gesture—they took what came to be called the Tennis Court Oath.

The representatives vowed that they would remain together until they had written a new constitution, whether the king approved or not. This was a pivotal moment in the larger turning point of the French Revolution.

Detail of an illustration of the Tennis Court Oath. The center of the image has a man standing on a table, with hundreds of people around him all pointing upward as if joining in an oath.
The members of the National Assembly took an oath that they would not leave or disperse until they had created a constitution. (Image: Jacques-Louis David/Public domain)

It turned out that the king’s weakness was provocative. Now that the National Assembly had challenged traditional royal authority outright, the king gave in. The National Assembly was joined by some like-minded aristocrats, including Marquis de Lafayette, who had returned from America years before, and now would be hailed as the hero of two revolutions.

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The Storming of the Bastille

These days of revolutionary change were also haunted by a strain of fear that would run throughout these events. When rumors spread that the king was massing troops to put down the Revolution, the Paris mob intervened by storming the Bastille fortress on July 14, 1789, bringing royal authority down.

The commander of the Bastille, Marquis de Launay, tried to surrender, but now passions ran high. When the fortress was overrun by the Paris mob, de Launay and his surviving men were disarmed and taken prisoner. Then they were paraded through the streets of Paris and hacked to pieces with swords, knives, and bayonets before being shot.

Much worse would follow, in the so-called Reign of Terror, as the revolutionary dynamic deepened. In the countryside, manor houses and mansions were burned as peasants laid claim to the land.

The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen

Representation of the "Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen" in 1789, with the "Eye of Providence" symbol in the triangle at the top.
The French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen enshrined the idea that the law expresses what people want. (Image: Jean-Jacques-François Le Barbier/Public domain)

On August 4, 1789, the National Assembly abolished feudalism and the privileges of the old regime. On August 26, it issued the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. It was to a large extent modeled on the American Declaration of Independence and Bills of Rights of American states.

The Enlightenment inspiration which informed the French Revolution came mostly from the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In his 1762 book, The Social Contract, Rousseau argued for popular sovereignty, embodied in what he called the general will, in which individuals find their highest fulfillment and are subsumed.

So, the French Declaration of Rights announced, “Law is the expression of the general will.” The new state was being established.

Learn more about the rule of Napoleon Bonaparte.

The Nationalization of the State

Just two months later, the Paris mob marched to nearby Versailles, where the royal palace lay, and surrounded the royal family. The mob marched the king, queen, and their children to Paris—at one and the same time the king was a head of state and also a hostage of the revolutionaries.

The revolutionaries also turned on the Church. In France, at a stroke, all Church property and land was taken away by the government, and priests were also subordinated to the state, turned into civil servants.

The effects of this nationalization were explosive. Because most clerics refused this new measure, a civil war was in the offing. The state was centralizing its authority, perhaps unconsciously imitating the royal absolutism that it had replaced.

Common Questions About The French Revolution and the National Assembly

Q. Why was the Estates General of 1789 assembled?

The Estates General of 1789 was summoned by the French king to approve new taxes to enable the state to pay its debts.

Q. What was the Tennis Court Oath?

The Tennis Court Oath was taken by the National Assembly. The representatives vowed that they would remain together until they had written a new constitution, whether the king approved or not.

Q. What happened at the storming of the Bastille?

During the storming of the Bastille fortress by the Paris mob, the commander of the Bastille, Marquis de Launay, and his surviving men were disarmed and taken prisoner. Then they were paraded through the streets of Paris and hacked to pieces with swords, knives, and bayonets before being shot.

Q. How was the French Declaration of Rights based on the tenets of the Enlightenment?

The French Declaration of Rights said that the “law is the expression of the general will”. This was based on the Enlightenment ideas of Rousseau who championed popular sovereignty embodied in the general will.

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