The New World and the Old: An American at the Opening of the Estates–General (May 1789)

On 5 May 1789, the deputies of all three orders convened before the King as the Estates–General. In attendance, among other visiting foreign dignitaries, was the American Gouverneur Morris, who recorded his observations in a diary. In the excerpt below, Morris describes first the royal procession through Versailles and then the opening of the Estates–General itself. His description of the King reflects the broad popularity Louis enjoyed at this moment. By contrast, Morris’s sympathy for the Queen is evidently not shared by the French people present.


May 5th:

Go to Versailles and a little after eight get into the Hall. Sit there in a cramped Situation till after 12, during which Time the different Deputies are brought in and seated, one after the other. When M. Necker comes in he is loudly and repeatedly clapped and so is the Duke of Orléans. . . . The King at length arrives and takes his Seat, the Queen on his left, two Steps lower than him. He makes a short Speech, very proper and well spoken, or rather read. The Tone and Manner have all the pride which can be desired or expected from the Blood of the Bourbons. He is interrupted in the Reading by Acclamations so warm and of such lively Affection that the Tears start from my Eyes in Spite of myself. The Queen weeps or seems to weep but not one Voice is heard to wish her well. I would certainly raise mine if I were a Frenchman, but I have no Right to express a Sentiment and in vain solicit those who are near me to do it. After the King has spoken he takes off his Hat and when he puts it on again his Nobles imitate his Example. Some of the Tiers do the same, but by Degrees they one after the other take them off again. The King then takes off his Hat. The Queen seems to think it wrong and a Conversation seems to pass in which the King tells her he chuses [sic] to do it, whether consistent or not consistent with the Ceremonial; but I would not swear to this, being too far distant to see very distinctly, much less to hear. The Nobles uncover by Degrees, so that if the Ceremonial requires these Manoeuvres the Troops are not yet properly drilled. After the King's Speech and the coverings and uncoverings, the Garde des Sceaux makes one much longer but it is delivered in a very ungraceful Manner and so indistinctly that nothing can be judged of it by me untill it is in Print. When he has done, M. Necker rises. He tries to play the Orator but he plays it very ill. The Audience salute him with a long and loud Plaudit. . . . This will convince the King and Queen of the National Sentiment and tend to prevent the Effects of the Intrigue against the present Administration, at least for a while.

After this Speech is over the King rises to depart and receives a long and affecting Vive le Roi! The Queen rises, and to my great Satisfaction she hears for the first Time in several Months the Sound of Vive la Reine! She makes a low Curtesy and this produces a louder Acclamation, and that a lower Curtesy.

Source: B. C. Davenport, ed., A Diary of the French Revolution by Gouverneur Morris (1752–1816) Minister to France during the Terror, 2 vols. (London: 0. Harrap, 1939), 1:66–71, 140–43.