Commonwealth Books, LLC
What Happened?
La prise de la Bastille le 14 juillet 1789 by Jean-Baptiste Lallemand (c. 1789)
Courtesy of the Musée Carnavalet, Paris

“The revolution of this country has advanced thus far, without encountering anything which deserves to be called a difficulty”
TJ to John Jay 9 May 1789          
The Estates-General convened on 5 May 1789. Its delegates entered and were seated by their traditional orders: the Clergy, the Nobility and the Third Estate, which was seated at the end of the hall away from His Royal Majesty. In a cosmetic gesture of good will, the King had doubled the number of delegates for the Third Estate. The king’s representative, after greeting the assembly, announced that orders would separately and vote separately and that their votes would be tallied by order. Since this negated the added weight of the Third Estate’s numbers, it precipitated an immediate crisis. 

Matters remained in this contentious state on 28 May when Abbé Sieyès moved that the representatives of the Third Estate invite the members of the other two orders to join their vote on how the congress should be ordered. On 17 June, the members of the third estate, having completed their preparations, declared themselves an assembly not of a social order, but of the French people. 

Three days later, the members of the new National Assembly found that the doors to their meeting hall locked and guarded. Interpreting this as part of a royal plan to prevent them from continuing their deliberations, they convened in a nearby tennis court where they swore an oath of allegiance to one another. In this passionate moment, they vowed not to separate until they had competed a new national constitution. Two days later, a majority of the clergy joined them.

The King convened a séance royale on 23 June. In this tense gathering, the King presented a proposal akin to the scheme Jefferson had suggested to Lafayette and to Rabout de St. Etienne on 5 June. The King surprised the assembled delegations by offering to grant a Charte octroyée, a constitution granted from the royal favor. In it he affirmed, subject to the traditional limitations, the right of separate deliberation for the three orders, which constitutionally formed three chambers. When members of the National Assembly rejected this offer, at the King’s request, the deputies of the nobles who still stood apart joined the National Assembly and the Estates-General ceased to exist. Now attention turned to the business of construction a new national constitution now began in earnest. The first issue was to define the people’s rights