Although the monarchy had always struggled against elites over the definition of royal power, virtually no one could imagine France being governed without a king. At the outset of the Revolution, only a handful of citizens had even contemplated a republic. Yet only a few years later, in August 1792, Louis XVI was deposed, and the following year, revolutionaries executed him and Marie Antoinette. In this chapter, we explore how this transformation occurred in such a short time.

The conflicts of 1787 to 1789 over the monarchy's financial problems led to a major shift in the way France was governed. In part because of the long drawn-out wars of the eighteenth century, the French government had for some time been spending much more than its annual revenue. Usually this money was borrowed. However, for reasons that historians still argue about, this source of funds dried up in the 1780s. Mounting debt and a continuing high level of expenses then forced the monarchy to seek fundamental financial change to put the state on a secure fiscal foundation.

To address this budget crisis, in 1787 the royal government proposed a series of major reforms concerning taxation and reducing expenditures. These proposals met with furious resistance both from a special Assembly of Notables and from the King's own law courts, particularly the Parlement of Paris. In their objections, these bodies stressed the need to return to the tradition by which, in times past, the French people had consented to royal decrees through a representative body known as the Estates-General. Although this body had not been convoked since 1614, many considered it the only national body with the authority to enact fiscal reforms and, if necessary, new taxes. At first, the King resisted. However, imminent bankruptcy forced Louis XVI to call the Estates-General in the fall of 1788.

Although French people across a wide social spectrum were pleased to hear of the calling of the Estates-General, there was also wide disagreement about how it should be elected and should conduct its deliberations. Traditionally, the Estates-General consisted of three estates with equal numbers of deputies—the clergy, the nobility, and the commons—each of which had a single vote. Under this arrangement, the nobility always dominated, since the clerical deputies included a majority of nobles. While leading nobles wished to retain this tradition of "voting by order," which would have ensured their continued dominance, many commoners reacted angrily (which Chapters 1 and 4 take up in greater detail).

In May 1789 the Estates-General finally met, and social divisions deepened. Although many publicly pressed for unity among the three orders, the differences between noble and commoner deputies only grew more irreconcilable. Later there would be attempts at unity, but for now the problems accelerated. Within a month, leading deputies from the Third Estate had decided that to gain a share of power, they would have to seize it. Thus, on 17 June 1789, in a truly radical departure that eclipsed past old regime conflicts, the deputies of the Third Estate declared that they alone represented the "nation." Therefore, only they had the right to constitute the body holding genuine political sovereignty (the authority to consent to the government). Although, as the documents make clear, the Third Estate was motivated by a sense of how unproductive and unfair noble privileges were, by swearing this oath they directly attacked the political basis of the monarchy. Unsure of how to respond to this declaration of national sovereignty, the King refused to recognize the Third Estate deputies as the "National Assembly." At the same time, Louis agreed to become a constitutional monarch, ruling in consultation with, rather than over, his people. Over the following year, Louis would follow this ambivalent posture with regard to the Revolution. On the one hand, after the delegates of the Third Estate reaffirmed their stance in the famous "tennis court oath," the King locked them out of their meeting space; on the other, he participated enthusiastically in a celebration marking the anniversary of the taking of the Bastille.









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