Ancient history

The Estates General, May 4-5, 1789

The Estates General are an extraordinary Assembly which only meets, convened by the King, in the event of a crisis. Founded by Philippe le Bel in 1302, they bring together the three orders in force, the clergy, the nobility and the third estate, from all over the kingdom of France. In May 1789, France in the midst of chaos experienced an unprecedented insurrectionary movement... King Louis XVI had no choice but to convene the States General.

May 4-5, 1789


Jacques Necker

Bishop of Nancy, Monseigneur de la Fare

Louis XIV


Thus, on May 4, the procession of the Estates General strolls to Saint-Louis Cathedral in Versailles, bringing together no less than 1,139 deputies, from all over the kingdom and bringing with them their notebooks of grievances. On these are noted the complaints, demands or wishes of the people. Dissatisfied with the postponement of the Estates General which were to be held on April 27, the deputies also received, from the master of ceremonies the Marquis de Dreux-Brézé, the instructions for their official dress which do not satisfy them. If the cardinals are in red cope, the bishops in purple cassock, the third estate is seen forbidden to wear the short sword and obliged to be dressed in black, just like the lower clergy. The king is acclaimed, unlike the queen. In the church, the Bishop of Nancy, Monsignor de la Fare makes a speech against the Court.

On May 5, the Estates General solemnly opened, which had not met since 1614. The deputies demanded a constitution recognizing in particular the sovereignty of the people, the equality of the rights of man and of the citizen, the refusal of the privileges feudalism, individual freedom, etc. But quickly, dissensions arise between the king and the third estate. Indeed, Necker, then Minister of Finance, explains that a new tax will be enough to fill the purses of the State, indebted by several tens of millions. The deputies are furious. So Louis XVI had the Salle des Menus Plaisirs in Versailles closed to prevent a new meeting of the three orders.


In view of the failure of the Estates General, the Third Estate proclaimed itself the National Assembly on June 17, 1789, since it represented more than 90% of the French people. Defying the ban on not meeting, they meet in the Jeu de Paume room and take an oath not to part until they have drafted the constitution:this is the famous Jeu de Paume Oath (June 20, 1789 ). In the general enthusiasm, the abolition of feudal rights and privileges was decreed on August 4, 1789. In this boiling political context, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen was drafted. It will be ratified willy-nilly by Louis XVI on October 5, 1789. The Estates General left behind them the foundations of a new society based on the rights and equality of each man, thus abolishing the Absolute Monarchy. The Old Regime, whose principles were based on the privilege of birth, is no more.