The cahiers de doléances ["lists of grievances"] drawn up by each assembly in choosing deputies to the EstatesGeneral are the best available source of the thoughts of the French population on the eve of the Revolution. This excerpt from a parish cahier in the sénéchaussée of AixenProvence demonstrates that popular unrest stemmed in large part from the privileges enjoyed by nobles and by officeholders, and that such offices were not usually open to the most qualified individuals.
Gifts, pensions, and large profits reserved to nobles only take the spirit of emulation away from both nobles and commoners. Emulation is taken away from the nobles because, by being born noble and aspiring to everything, they need credit. Emulation is also taken away from the commoners because these people cannot aspire to anything, and emulation becomes useless to them. To deprive a State of the genius that could enlighten, instruct, and defend it, is a crime toward the nation. . . .
To close off employment possibilities and respectable occupations to the most numerous and useful class is like killing genius and talents, and forcing them to run away from an ungrateful home. However, in our current constitution, only nobles enjoy all prerogatives like landed wealth, honors, dignities, graces, pensions, retirements, responsibility for government, and free schools. . . . These [privileges] constitute the favors the State lavishes exclusively on the nobility, at the expense of the Third Estate.
The nobility enjoys and owns everything, and would like to free itself from everything. However, if the nobility commands the army, the Third Estate makes it up. If nobility pours a drop of blood, the Third Estate spreads rivers of it. The nobility empties the royal treasury, the Third Estate fills it up. Finally, the Third Estate pays everything and does not enjoy anything.
Lauris (sénéchaussée Aix)
Sire, it is with the heaviest pain that we see huge pensions granted to vile and scheming courtiers. They take credit in front of Your Majesty. Significant remunerations are tied to jobs without duties.
If only you knew, Sire, how much sweat, how many tears soak the money going into your treasury. Without doubt, your kindness will be more on its guard against people's indiscreet requests who consume in one day the fruits of taxes from thousands of your poor subjects.
We cannot hide, Sire, that the nobility consumes the major part of State income. Indeed, it is this order of citizens, to whom we probably give the most merit, that furnishes the crown officers, the governors, the commanders, the quartermasters, and all the people who have honorable positions. A noble man, who knows how to dance well, ride a horse well, and handle a sword, thinks he deserves everything, and, nonetheless, he pretends that he does not owe anything to the State. If he is only greedy for glory, then he should serve Your Majesty and the nation and receive no income.
Source: Pierre Goubert and Michel Denis, 1789: Les Français ont la parole (Paris: Juillard, 1964), 7273.