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Essay: The Estates-General

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  • The Estates-General
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The Estates-General was only summoned in times of extreme national crisis. This assembly was composed of three estates – the clergy, nobility, and commoners – who had power to decide on the levying of new taxes and to undertake reform in the country. Prior to the 1789 meeting of the Estates-General, there was a separate meeting in 1614 because of long-term causal factors like the impact of the Enlightenment and the desperate state of royal finances. However, King Louis XIV called this meeting of the Estates-General, in Versailles, on 5 May 1789 for advisement on how to tackle the French government’s problems of financial, economic crisis, and foreign policy. This marked the start of Revolution in France as many of these factors affected the calling of this meeting.
The refusal of the Assembly of Notables to support King Louis XIV’s program of tax reform forced the king to call a meeting of the Estates-General. Prior to this factor, there was a huge deficit that the government was building up. On 20 August 1786, Calonne, the Controller-General, told Louis XIV that the government was on the verge of bankruptcy (Rees, 14). The deficit was severely low at 112 million because of France’s involvement with the War of Austrian Succession, the Seven Years War, and the American War of Independence costed the country a lot of money and further weakened the Crown’s condition. Another reason for their financial crisis was the Crown not receiving much of the money collected in taxes until it controlled its finances. These wars and the policies set by Louis’s predecessors put him in a complicated situation where he had no choice but to take action. Therefore, Louis XIV wanted to raise taxes, and this can only be done through the Estate-General’s consent.
The French Crown was effectively bankrupt on 16 August 1788. At the beginning of August 1788, the royal treasury was empty. It was not until this occurrence that Brienne, with Louis’ approval, decided to summon the Estates-General for 1 May 1789. King Louis XIV recalled Jacques Necker because he believed in his ability to restore government credit and raise new loans. However, Necker would not raise any new loans until the Estates-General met. This typical political crisis shows the many limitations of royal power because Louis was the absolute leader, yet he failed in imposing his government’s reform on the state. When the French monarchy declared itself bankrupt and the Assembly of Notables refused to approve the reforms proposed by the King’s ministers, the way was paved for the summoning of the Estates-General (Rees, 18).
In 1789, the Estates-General was also convened because of the economic crises. The bad harvest of 1787-8 was a causal factor in calling the meeting. Horrible weather, heavy rain, harsh winters and hot summers led to a horrible harvest. France had faced a number of economic crises because of failures in agricultural prosperity – peasants having smaller incomes and inflated prices on food, like bread. Many rural and urban residents believed that the economic crises were the nobility’s fault and by increasing disturbances against the nobility, many others were encouraged to take political action (Rees, 18).
Moreover, many causal factors led to the Estates-General convening, including Louis XVI’S failure to secure reform and being forced to recall Necker, demonstrating to the opposition the weakness of royal power, and the events of the bad harvest.

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