Hello, and welcome to Revolutions.
Last week, we saw the Royal Ministry and the Paris Parlement battle over the big financial reform package that had been cooked up to save the Kingdom’s bacon. After accepting a few of the initial offerings, the Parlement’s then rejected the main pieces of the puzzle, leading to a series of showdowns between the summer of 1787 and the spring of 1788.
To many an outside observer, it looked like the Parlement was gaining the upper hand. They had forced the King to withdraw the stamp tax and stop pursuing the land tax and were riding high on a wave of public acclaim. But the King’s ministers were not yet ready to just give up completely. And this week, we will see them make one last push to assert the King’s will in the face of Parlement’s obstructionism. Their solution? Destroy the Parlement.
But before we get into that, I want to backtrack a little and briefly cover the reaction of the Provincial Parlement to Brienne’s reforms. Because though Paris was the center of the action, there was lots of noise being made out on the periphery that will have a huge impact on what will happen in today’s episode. So let’s wind back the clock to June 1787, when Brienne first started bringing in the reforms to the Paris Parlement.
Now, as you will maybe recall, Brienne started with what I called the easy stuff, turning the corvée into a money tax that seemed fine, lifting regulations on the grain trade, which will, I can promise you, be hated by the lower classes but remember, we’re still talking about the uber elites here. They saw a more rational and more profitable system and said, “yeah, let’s do it”. Then, finally, the magistrates accepted the creation of provincial assemblies to assess and collect taxes. Now, this breezed through the Paris Parlement, who had little to fear and much to gain from these new assemblies. In most of the areas under the jurisdiction of the Paris Parlement, tax collection was all handled by the royally appointed intendants and the much despised tax farmers so injecting a new institution composed of the wealthiest taxpayers like, you know, us was a welcome devolution of power.
But in the outer provinces, where the Parlement already enjoyed a great deal of autonomy, these new assemblies did not look to the local magistrates like more power was being given to them, but rather that power was being taken away. They were further incensed when they saw the specifics of the plan, specifically that there were no specifics.
The edict they were presented with was vague about both the jurisdiction and the scope of the new assemblies. Plus the order came with a really suspicious kicker. Because the assemblies needed to get to work right away and it would take too long to set up the whole tiered process of lesser taxpayers electing greater taxpayers to go represent them, the first members of the assemblies would be – wait for it, appointed by the King. In this, the provincial parlement smelled a big fat, hairy rat.
Complaints about the provincial assemblies were drawn up by the several regional Parlement with varying degrees of intensity, usually arguing that the Ministry was doing an end run around the long established political constitution of France. But more than that, they were also just kind of opposed to the whole idea of tax reform in the first place.
Up until now we’ve been talking about the Royal Ministry, the Assembly of Notables and the Paris Parlement. And in each of those three places we’ve seen men either resign to or openly pushing for a new tax system. So for the first time now, we’re actually hitting on some nobles who were flat out against giving up their tax privileges.
These provincial nobles were not the super nobles living in Versailles and Paris. They actually relied on their land to make up the bulk of their often meager income, rather than enjoying rich, diversified portfolios, to say nothing of the fact that if this kept up, there would be very little to mark them out as special. Those tax privileges were a social calling card that they were not prepared to give up.
Of the Parlement that resisted the creation of the provincial assemblies, the one that needs to be highlighted right now is the Parlement of Bordeaux, Montesquieu’s old stomping ground. They were the political and judicial hub of a fairly prosperous port city that had long enjoyed a great deal of autonomy. In July 1787, they issued a remonstrance back to the King, saying that they refused to register the edict establishing the new provincial assemblies until the jurisdiction and scope of those assemblies was clearly laid out, which for the moment really wasn’t.
They were stiff enough in their resistance that when the Paris Parlement was exiled in August 1787, the Bordeaux Parlement was given the boot too. Lettres de Cachet exiled them from the regional capital to the small town of Libourne.
But unlike their brother magistrates in Paris, the exile did not make them amenable to a compromise, it only made them madder. So when the Paris Parlement was recalled in September, the Bordeaux Parlement stayed in exile. They would not be allowed to return home until just before the May edicts were issued, which were designed to make them irrelevant.
Despite the resistance, the Provincial Assemblies began to convene in November 1787, just as the King was going off script in the middle of that royal session we talked about last time. As I mentioned, this first batch of assemblies were indeed appointed by the Royal Ministry so the entire apparatus was obviously suspect. But just how suspect came down to how strongly the members actually favored the King because not everyone in the assembly was a staunch Royal ally. There just weren’t enough of those guys to go around. Some of the members were there to do the King’s bidding, for sure, but others wound up full of guys like, for example, the Marquis de Lafayette, who were eager to steer the assemblies in the direction of independent mindedness, and most especially, serving as yet another stage to advocate for the calling of the Estates General.
With Brienne having dropped the land tax as a part of his compromise with the Paris Parlement, the one order of business the assemblies really had to haggle over was the extension and collection of the veigntième, which was supposed to once again help bridge the Royal deficit.
But where lax collection had long been the order of the day, the veigntième was now supposed to be pursued with an unprecedented vigor. So over the winter of 1780 to 1788, the Royal Ministry, the Provincial Parlement, the intendants, and the provincial assemblies all waged a running battle with each other over who owed what and for how long. And of course, the big question: who now outranked whom?
The Parlement still wanted assurances that the taxes would have to be duly registered before the assemblies could set to work collecting them. The assemblies generally ignored this and just went to work. But more than a few got to work simply so they could drag their feet and force the King to call the Estates General.
Meanwhile, Brienne threatened to go back to arbitrarily assessing and collecting the veigntième if the assemblies didn’t get in gear. And then another flood of angry remonstrances from the Parlement would come pouring in. The spring of 1788 approached and this mess needed to be simplified. so Brienne’s Ministry decided to cut at least one tangle out of a knot by just taking the Parlement out of the equation. It was as audacious a move as Chancellor Maupeou had made back in the early 1770s, if not more audacious. For Brienne and his colleagues, the hope was that when they were done, the Parlement, the self proclaimed defenders of French liberty, would be turned into an insignificant social club.
The setup for this came at the end of last week’s episode when rumors started flying around in April 1788 that the Ministry was about to make a really serious move. This resulted in even more heated rhetoric coming out of the Paris Parlement and then the arrest of d’Epremesnil and that other guy.
Then, on May 8, the wild rumors were confirmed by a sweeping series of decrees that basically gutted the power of the Parlement. Known as the May Edicts, these decrees set up a new plenary court that would be staffed by high ranking nobles. This new plenary court would become the institution where all future taxes and legislation would be registered and become the Court of Final Appeal for almost all criminal and civil cases. All that was left to the Parlement were cases involving sums over 20,000 livre and a few other estate and contract issues that affected only the richest men in the Kingdom. In one bold stroke, the Ministry was trying to reduce the Parlement to little more than an arbitration council for the super rich. All real power and authority would be transferred to the plenary court.
And as if this wasn’t shocking enough, Brienne further planned to create lesser courts over the next few years to replace the existing hodgepodge of weirdly overlapping jurisdictions. If all went according to plan, France would shortly have an entirely new judicial system and the Parlement would become relics of a bygone age.
Now, Brienne was, of course, expecting some resistance, but it seems pretty clear that he underestimated just how widespread that resistance would be. The King’s principal minister was no doubt thinking about the Parlement as they truly were, little enclaves of aristocratic privilege cared little about the general welfare.
But by now, the Parlement had morphed into something far greater in the public imagination. It would appear that all their bloviating about protecting the ancient liberties of France was actually being taken seriously. The Parlement were, for the moment, the one institution in the kingdom who could resist the King’s will and then send him remonstrances explaining why. So, when the King tried to abolish the Parlement, well, as we’ll see in a minute, everyone from the highest noble to the lowliest fishmonger had something to say about it. Although, as we will also see, when the magistrates of the Parlement noticed that the unwashed masses were jumping into the fight, they will get really super uncomfortable, because “when we said we were the defenders of liberty, we meant our liberty, you dummies, not yours. Oh, crap. That one’s got a brick. Let’s run for it.”
So what this led to in the summer of 1788 was a series of protests, demonstrations, and riots that knocked the Ministry back on its heels. And it all got started almost immediately after the May Edicts were announced.
First of all, the Parlement were collectively put on vacation, whereupon almost the entire legal profession went on strike in protest. The wheels of justice ground to a halt. Unlike last time, when Maupeou was able to entice ambitious young attorneys into the new system though, Brienne found almost no takers. The solidarity of the legal community was, for the moment, unbreakable.
But though they had been ordered to disperse, not all the Parlement were willing to just go away without a fight. Some dispersed quietly after a token remonstrance or two. But once again, those on the periphery of the kingdom elected the path of stiff resistance. When, for example, the local intendant came to prevent the Parlement of Rennes from meeting, he was met by an angry mob of such size and force that he was forced to flee. And whatever authority the monarchy had in Brittany was basically lost for a good two months.
But the most famous incident happened down in the city of Grenoble, the traditional capital of the province of Dauphiné, down on the edge of the Alps. When the authorities there attempted to disperse the Grenoble Parlement, what they got was the Day of the Tiles.
The Grenoble Parlement had outright called the May Edicts illegal, and so Brienne ordered them exiled from the city. Lettres de Cachet were issued and due to be delivered in June 1788. Now, the problem delivering the exile orders on June 7 was that it was a Saturday, aka market day. That meant that Grenoble was full to the brim with people who were already a bit agitated over rising bread prices and lack of work. The closure of the Parlement would mean that Grenoble would take yet another economic hit. So all morning, speakers railed against the injustice of it all. And around 10:00 a.m. everyone shut up their stalls to get down for a little direct action.
One group went to the Palais Royale to prevent the magistrates from leaving. A second group went to the city gates to ensure the same. And then a third group convened at the governor’s house and basically laid siege to it. The authorities had on hand two regiments of soldiers to try to quell the unrest. But torn between the twin evils of attacking unarmed civilians and letting anarchy reign, they opted for a halfway measure that just made everything worse.
Soldiers were dispatched in small groups to establish a presence, but told not to fire on the demonstrators. The effect of this was to make it look like the protesters were about to be attacked, while leaving the soldiers totally outnumbered and without any means of protecting themselves if the people started to get out of hand. Now, most of the troops managed to hang tough and not fire into the unruly crowds. But one group near the Jesuit college building found itself pelted by debris from all sides, then pelted with roof tiles from the building above.
When they actually started getting hit, it was much too much and they started firing into the crowd. This, of course, only confirmed to everyone in the city that they were indeed under attack and they rang the tocsin bells, which drew in even more men and women from the countryside. The authorities then tried to cut a deal with the magistrates of the Parlement and say “look, we’ll pull back if you just leave the city”. The magistrates of the Parlement said “yeah, well, that sounds awesome, but unfortunately we’re not really in control anymore. We’re frankly as freaked out by all of this as you are. But the mob, as you can see, has unbridled all the carriages and is now manning the gate”.
But after peaking with a good old fashioned ransacking of an official’s house, the demonstrators/rioters started to naturally disperse at sunset. At which point almost all the magistrates of the Paris Parlement rebridled their carriages and got the heck out of town.
The Day of the Tiles represents the first major incursion of the mob into our story and served as a rather stark wake up call to the Parlement that they were toying with Pandora’s box here. Remember, for the most part, what they wanted was to keep things the same, but they found themselves now seized on as a vehicle for those who wanted change. And now, all of a sudden, these lower class yabos, who had no business being anything but anonymous plebs, were violently getting in on the action. For the moment, these anonymous plebs were defending the Parlement as the people’s champion. But how long could that possibly last? Spoiler alert: it will last until about September.
But though most of the magistrates of the Grenoble Parlement were disturbed by the Day of the Tiles, one guy saw it all as an opportunity to capitalize on the exposed weakness of the royal authorities to demand more than just the continued existence of the Parlement. That man was 30 year old Jean Joseph Mounier. Mounier was a wildly successful young judge, ennobled at the age of 25 after buying himself a place in the Grenoble Parlement.
But despite his success, he was a forward thinker and clearly wanted more than to just rise up the old judicial hierarchy, both for his own sake and for the sake of France. So he was the mastermind behind a movement to get the Dauphiné Estates Provincial recalled – a necessary first step in what would hopefully become a wider movement to establish a sound constitutional monarchy for France.
Though he was out in front of events for the moment, Mounier would remain committed to the dream of a constitutional monarchy, even as events swept by him. As we’ll see, he’ll enter the Estates General as one of the most influential and genuinely recognizable members and then resigned from that body less than a year later. Unable to reconcile himself to the pace and direction of events. Then branded as a reactionary, he will be forced to slip away to Switzerland in 1790. The French Revolution moves fast, but that is all still in the future.
For now, Mounier was in his prime. On June 14, a week after the Day of the Tiles, he organized a meeting of about 100 prominent men representing each of the three Estates. At Mounier’s urging, the group endorsed a call for the restoration of both the Parlement and for the convening of Dauphiné’s Estate Provincial. But by far the most critical aspect of this meeting is that it gave the first formal expression to an idea that would soon sweep the country that when the Estates met, as they surely must, the number of the Third Estate’s representatives should be double that of the other orders so the composition would wind up being 50% clergy in nobility and 50% Third Estate. And then, critically, that voting should be by head rather than by order.
This maximum of double the Third and vote by head would become a major rallying cry in the leadup to the Estates General. And when the issue still hadn’t been resolved, when Estates finally meet in May 1789, well, you’ll see what happens when we get there.
While he waited for word from the Ministry about whether the Dauphiné Estate would be allowed to meet, Mounier simply plunged ahead as if they were going to say yes. Word went round Dauphiné for everyone to prepare for the calling of the Estate’s Provincial and to convene a preliminary assembly at a chateau in Vizille.
Meeting on July 21, this assembly was composed of 50 clergymen, 165 nobles and 276 representatives of the Third Estates. Mounier got himself appointed secretary and then guided the debate into unprecedented territory. Though he was not a great orator, his arguments carried enormous weight. Instead of making the case for Parlement and the Estates on the basis of the old constitution, he went back even further than that, into the primordial ooze and started bringing up points about natural law, the rights of man, and the necessity of true liberty. These were concepts that had been floating around for years among the philosophes, but they were now being mainlined directly into the body politic.
Then he went further and said that no convening of the Estates Provincial or the Estates General could be considered legitimate if it was not convened on the basis of double the Third and vote by head and anyone who opposed that idea was a traitor to France. And now we’re talking revolutionary language, because, man, once these guys grab hold of the notion that political opponents are actually guilty of treason, boy, watch out.
Meanwhile, back up in Paris, King Louis was, of course, vacillating like crazy. He had come down hard with the arrest of d’Epremesnil and the May Edicts, but the size and scope of the pushback shocked him. For a minute, he tried to keep up the tough guy act. A group of Bretton nobles were thrown in jail for meeting under vaguely seditious circumstances, and then a delegation on the way from Rennes to ask for their own Estates Provincial was arrested.
But a week later, he backed down and suddenly agreed to let the Bretton estates meet. Then, on August 2, he more or less accepted the legitimacy of all Mounier’s activities by allowing the Dauphiné Estates to meet as well.
Now, if you will recall from way back when, the big problem with King Charles I was that he wouldn’t listen to anyone. He was so insanely inflexible that he basically forced Cromwell to cut off his head. In this respect, Louis was the opposite. He was so flexible that he just couldn’t stick with any one policy. He was one of those guys who will just go with whatever the last person who talked said. This was starting to become a problem for the monarchy, and Marie Antoinette and the King’s brothers started talking amongst themselves about how they were worried Louis might not be up for this.
The Queen then started taking a more forward role in policy to protect the interests of the Royal family. But unfortunately, all of this Royalist entrenchment did was create an even more extreme position for Louis to jump back and forth from when the Estates General finally met.
The bottom finally fell out of the Ancien Régime on August 8, 1788. That was when Brienne was informed that there was only 400,000 livres left in the Royal Treasury, barely enough to keep the lights on for a single day, and no one would lend them any more money. The Ministry was forced to admit defeat. Scrapping the plan to replace the Parlement with the plenary court, Brienne announced that the meeting of the Estates General would no longer be at some vague point in the future. He announced that on May 1, 1789, the Estates General would convene at Versailles for the first time in 175 years.
This announcement was met by wild euphoria throughout the Kingdom, as everyone had come to believe that basically all their hearts desired would be granted by this now almost mythical assembly. In a move that looked shrewd to Brienne at the time, but wound up really sowing the seeds of true revolution, the King then invited public debate on the form the Estates should take. This was supposed to drive a wedge between the nobility, who would insist on going by the old three equal estates, vote by order, and the commoners, who were already on record opposing anything but doubling the Third and voting by head.
Now, it did indeed drive a wedge between them, but the resulting rupture did not lead to the King regaining his political footing. It opened up instead an unbridgeable chasm that would eventually cost the King his head.
But though the call to convene the Estates General was for sure necessary to satisfy the King’s creditors, it was not sufficient. The regime needed loans to get them through until May 1789. But as had happened with Calonne, Brienne was now personally becoming a sticking point.
On August 16, with credit exhausted, Brienne cut off repayment of loans and started issuing pieces of paper for the amounts due, plus 5% interest collectible at some point in the future. This was not a satisfactory response and Brienne knew it. But there was little he could do. Beaten, tired, and now well aware that the regime’s bankers were opposed to him personally, he resigned on August 25. He had spent 16 months trying to get somewhere, anywhere, and instead got himself nowhere and the kingdom officially on the road to revolution.
With Brienne out of the picture, there was only one man the bankers would accept if the monarchy expected to see even a single livre and that was, of course, the Swiss wonder boy, Jacques Necker. As much as the King hated it, he was forced to choose between Necker and Necker because there was no other choice. The news that the now hated Brienne was gone and the people’s banker Necker was being recalled set off yet another wave of jubilant celebration across the Kingdom. This is all going fantastically, don’t you think? And now we get to have a great debate over how our Estates should be composed. I mean, this really is the dawning of a new era.
And next week, we will dive into the dawning of that new era with freedom of the press all but declared, France would be flooded with newspapers and pamphlets and diatribes, all trying to influence public opinion and sway the future of France. It was exhilarating, intoxicating, and ultimately would prove totally uncontrollable.
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