A Disorderly Revolution

The French Revolution did not begin as a bloodthirsty enterprise. When a financial crisis deepened, King Louis XVI saw the need to convoke the Estates-General to help solve it.  When the Estates-General convened, a problem arose.  France had always used a vote by estate to decide a course of action.  There were three estates: the nobles, the clergy, and everyone else.  The nobles and the clergy often agreed with one other, so they were virtually guaranteed to get what they wanted, despite constituting only five percent of the population.  If the Estates-General voted by estate, the nobles would retain their privileges and ignore the concerns of the Third Estate.  The Third Estate wanted to vote by head, which would, as of December 1788, make the number of representatives in the Third Estate equal to that of the first and second combined.

When they finally met, the Third Estate declared themselves the legitimate representative body of France and equal in power to the king.  The king did not recognize this new body until he was politically forced to do so. By the time he made concessions, it was too late.  An angry mob stormed the Bastille, an unpopular symbol of the old regime, on July 14, 1789.  They freed the seven prisoners and killed the governor of the fortress.  A great amount of rioting occurred until the National Assembly threw out the last remnants of the old establishment.  Soon, the Declaration of the Rights of Man was issued, proclaiming first and foremost that “Men are born and remain free and equal in rights.”

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