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The Jeffersonian cyclopedia;

a comprehensive collection of the views of Thomas Jefferson classified and arranged in alphabetical order under nine thousand titles relating to government, politics, law, education, political economy, finance, science, art, literature, religious freedom, morals, etc.;

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7545. REVOLUTION (French), States General.—
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7545. REVOLUTION (French), States General.—

The States General were opened on the 5th of May, 1789, by speeches from the
King, the Gardé des Sceaux, Lamoignon, and
M. Necker. The last was thought to trip too
lightly over the constitutional reformations
which were expected. His notices of them in
this speech were not as full as in his previous
“Rapport au Roi”. This was observed to his
disadvantage; but much allowance should have
been made for the situation in which he was
placed, between his own counsels, and those of
the ministers and party of the Court. Overruled
in his own opinions, compelled to deliver,
and to gloss over those of his opponents, and
even to keep their secrets, he could not come
forward in his own attitude. The composition
of the Assemblée, although equivalent on the
whole to what had been expected, was something
different in its elements. It had been
supposed, that a superior education would carry
into the scale of the Commons a respectable
portion of the Noblesse. It did so as to those
of Paris, of its vicinity and of the other considerable
cities, whose greater intercourse with
enlightened society had liberalized their minds,
and prepared them to advance up to the measure
of the times. But the Noblesse of the country,
which constituted two-thirds of that body, were
far in their rear. Residing constantly on their
patrimonial feuds, and familiarized, by daily
habit, with seigneurial powers and practices, they
had not yet learned to suspect their inconsistence
with reason and right. They were willing
to submit to equality of taxation, but not to
descend from their rank and prerogatives to be
incorporated in session with the Tiers Etat. Among the Clergy, on the other hand, it had


Page 776
been apprehended that the higher orders of the
hierarchy, by their wealth and connections,
would have carried the elections generally; but
it proved that in most cases the lower clergy
had obtained the popular majorities. These
consisted of the curés, sons of the peasantry,
who had been employed to do all the drudgery
of parochial services for ten, twenty, or thirty
Louis a year; while their superiors were consuming
their princely revenues in palaces of
luxury and indolence. The objects for which
this body was convened, being of the first order
of importance, I felt it very interesting to understand
the views of the parties of which it
was composed, and especially the ideas prevalent
as to the organization contemplated for
their government. I went, therefore, daily
from Paris to Versailles, and attended their
debates, generally till the hour of adjournment.
Those of the Noblesse were impassioned and
tempestuous. They had some able men on
both sides, and actuated by equal zeal. The
debates of The Commons were temperate, rational,
and inflexibly firm. As preliminary to
all other business, the awful questions came
on, Shall the States sit in one, or in distinct
apartments? And shall they vote by heads or
houses? The opposition was soon found to
consist of the Episcopal order among the clergy,
and two-thirds of the Noblesse; while the Tiers
were to a man united and determined.
After various propositions of compromise had
failed, the Commons undertook to cut the
Gordian Knot. The Abbé Sieyés, the most
logical head of the nation (author of the pamphlet
“Qu'est ce que le Tiers Etat”? which had
electrified that country, as Paine's “Common
Sense” did us), after an impressive speech on
the 10th of June, moved that a last invitation
should be sent to the Noblesse and Clergy, to
attend in the hall of the States, collectively or
individually, for the verification of powers, to
which the Commons would proceed immediately,
either in their presence or absence. This verification
being finished, a motion was made, on
the 15th, that they should constitute themselves
a National Assembly; which was decided on the
17th, by a majority of four-fifths. During the
debates on this question, about twenty of the
curés had joined them, and a proposition was
made in the chamber of the Clergy that their
whole body should join them. This was rejected
at first by a small majority only; but,
being afterwards somewhat modified, it was decided
affirmatively, by a majority of eleven.
While this was under debate and unknown to
the court, to wit, on the 19th, a council was held
in the afternoon at Marly, wherein it was proposed
that the King should interpose by a
declaration of his sentiments, in a seance royale. A form of declaration was proposed by Necker,
which, while it censured in general the proceedings
both of the Nobles and Commons,
announced the King's views, such as substantially
to coincide with the Commons. It was
agreed to in Council, the seance was fixed for
the 22d, the meetings of the States were till
then to be suspended, and everything, in the
meantime, kept secret. The members, the next
morning (20th), repairing to their house, as
usual, found the doors shut and guarded, a
proclamation posted up for a seance royale on
the 22d, and a suspension of their meetings in
the meantime. Concluding that their dissolution
was now to take place, they repaired to a
building called the “Jeu de paume” (or Tennis,
court) and there bound themselves by oath to
each other, never to separate of their own accord,
till they had settled a constitution for the
nation, on a solid basis, and, if separated by
force, that they would reassemble in some other
place. The next day they met in the church of
St. Louis, and were joined by a majority of the
Autobiography. Washington ed. i, 90. Ford ed., i, 125.