In the countryside, peasants began to attack the manor houses of nobles.

Failure of Reform

The heirs of Louis XIV were not the right men to solve the economic crisis that afflicted France. Louis XV, who ruled from 1715 to 1774, pursued pleasure before serious business and ran up more debts.

The next king, Louis XVI, was well-meaning but weak and indecisive. He did wisely choose Jacques Necker, a financial expert, as an advisor. Necker urged the king to reduce extravagant court spending, reform government, and abolish burdensome tariffs on internal trade. When Necker proposed taxing the First and Second Estates, however, the nobles and high clergy forced the king to dismiss him.

As the crisis deepened, the pressure for reform mounted. The wealthy and powerful classes demanded, however, that the king summon the Estates-General, the legislative body consisting of representatives of the three estates, before making any changes. No French king had called the Estates-General for 175 years. They feared that nobles would try to recover the feudal powers they had lost under absolute rule.

To reform-minded nobles, the Estates-General seemed to offer a chance of carrying out changes like the ones the English had achieved through the Glorious Revolution. They hoped to bring the absolute monarch under the control of nobles and guarantee their own privileges.

Louis XVI Calls the Estates-General

As 1788 came to a close, France tottered on the verge of bankruptcy. Bread riots were spreading, and nobles, fearful of taxes, were denouncing royal tyranny. A baffled Louis XVI finally summoned the Estates-General to meet at Versailles the following year.

The Cahiers

In preparation, Louis had all three estates prepare cahiers (kah YAYZ), or notebooks, listing their grievances. Many cahiers called for reforms such as fairer taxes, freedom of the press, or regular meetings of the Estates-General. In one town, shoemakers denounced regulations that made leather so expensive they could not afford to make shoes. Servant girls in the city of Toulouse demanded the right to leave service when they wanted and insisted that “after a girl has served her master for many years, she receive some reward for her service.”

Painting of a large wagon filled with sacks of flour being ransacked by a mob of civilians.

The poor made up the majority of the Third Estate. Here, they are shown rioting during the “Flour War,” a brief 1775 uprising brought on by higher bread prices.

The cahiers testified to boiling class resentments. One called tax collectors “bloodsuckers of the nation who drink the tears of the unfortunate from goblets of gold.” Another one of the cahiers condemned the courts of nobles as “vampires pumping the last drop of blood” from the people. Yet another complained that “20 million must live on half the wealth of France while the clergy … devour the other half.”

The Tennis Court Oath

Delegates to the Estates-General from the Third Estate were elected, though only propertied men could vote. Thus, the delegates were mostly lawyers, middle-class officials, and writers. They were familiar with the writings of Voltaire, Rousseau, and other philosophes, as well as with the complaints in the cahiers. They went to Versailles not only to solve the financial crisis but also to insist on reform.

The Estates-General convened in May 1789. From the start, the delegates were deadlocked over the issue of voting. Traditionally, each estate had met and voted separately. Each group had one vote.

Under this system, the First and Second Estates always outvoted the Third Estate two to one. This time, the Third Estate wanted all three estates to meet in a single body, with votes counted “by head.”


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Table of Contents

World History Topic 1 Origins of Civilization (Prehistory–300 B.C.) Topic 2 The Ancient Middle East and Egypt (3200 B.C.–500 B.C.) Topic 3 Ancient India and China (2600 B.C.–A.D. 550) Topic 4 The Americas (Prehistory–A.D. 1570) Topic 5 Ancient Greece (1750 B.C.–133 B.C.) Topic 6 Ancient Rome and the Origins of Christianity (509 B.C.-A.D. 476) Topic 7 Medieval Christian Europe (330–1450) Topic 8 The Muslim World and Africa (730 B.C.-A.D. 1500) Topic 9 Civilizations of Asia (500–1650) Topic 10 The Renaissance and Reformation (1300–1650) Topic 11 New Global Connections (1415–1796) Topic 12 Absolutism and Revolution Topic 13 The Industrial Revolution Topic 14 Nationalism and the Spread of Democracy (1790–1914) Topic 15 The Age of Imperialism (1800–1914) Topic 16 World War I and the Russian Revolution (1914–1924) Topic 17 The World Between the Wars (1910–1939) Topic 18 World War II (1930–1945) Topic 19 The Cold War Era (1945–1991) Topic 20 New Nations Emerge (1945–Present) Topic 21 The World Today (1980-Present) United States Constitution Primary Sources 21st Century Skills Atlas Glossary Index Acknowledgments