States-General

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States-General

States-General or Estates-General, diet or national assembly in which the chief estates (see estate) of a nation—usually clergy, nobles, and towns (or commons)—were represented as separate bodies. The name survives in the Netherlands, where the two houses of parliament are known as States-General; however, only the name has been preserved there, for the lower house represents the entire nation by direct election, and the upper house represents the provincial estates, which are also elected democratically. Like the English Parliament, the States-General of France and other European assemblies had their origin in the king's council, or curia regis. The Cortes of the Spanish kingdoms, the diet of the Holy Roman Empire, and the diets of Bohemia, Hungary, Poland, and the Scandinavian countries all originated as royal councils and all represented, in varying degrees, the principal estates of the realm. They are generally said to have grown out of the earlier Germanic assemblies. Whatever their origin, they developed along entirely different lines in the various countries, and by the 16th cent. there was little or no resemblance between the English Parliament, the States-General of France, and the States-General of the United Provinces of the Netherlands.

The States-General of France

Origins

The French States-General owes its fame less to its importance than to the mode of its creation and the manner of its demise. The first French assembly known by that name was summoned in 1302 at Paris, by King Philip IV, in order to obtain national approval for his anticlerical policy. Philip may be said to have created the body only in the sense that he assembled a larger and more regular council than had before been assembled. From 1302 to 1789 its constitution retained the same division into the first, second, and third estates, i.e., the clergy, nobles, and commons. Its powers, never clearly defined, tended to vary inversely with those of the royal authority. The States-General of 1302 and 1308 dutifully approved, respectively, Philip's measures against Pope Boniface VIII and those against the Knights Templars; that of 1314 granted the king subsidies, but the grant was more or less nominal, with the king dictating his orders.

An Ineffective Counterweight to Royal Power

The French States-General never obtained the financial control that made the English Parliament a powerful institution. It did not always meet as a single body, but often convened separately as the States-General of Langue d'Oïl (N France) and the States-General of Langue d'Oc (S France). The more important of these, the States-General of Langue d'Oïl, made a strong bid for power in 1355–57, during the captivity of King John II in England. Under the leadership of Étienne Marcel it forced the dauphin (later King Charles V) to promulgate the Grande Ordonnance, which would have greatly expanded its financial and administrative powers and made it the virtual legislature of France. The dauphin, however, revoked his concessions almost as soon as he had made them and called a rival assembly at Compiègne. Although later States-General often opposed the king and even won temporary concessions, the continuous consolidation of the royal power prevented the emergence of a truly parliamentary body.

The States-General regained some importance in the chaotic period of the Wars of Religion (16th cent.). However, the opposing factions used it merely as an instrument for their own aims. The States-General of Paris of 1614 accomplished nothing, and the estates were not convoked again until 1789. Under the guidance of the chief ministers of state, Cardinals Richelieu and Mazarin, and under the firm hand of King Louis XIV, royal absolutism reached its apex in the 17th cent. The only serious check to the royal power was the Parlement of Paris (see parlement), which was a judicial rather than a representative body. Provincial estates, however, continued to function in the so-called pays d'états, i.e., the provinces of Brittany, Flanders, Artois, Lorraine, Alsace, Burgundy, Franche-Comté, Dauphiné, Provence, Languedoc, Béarn and Navarre, and several others. The major part of France, however, was more directly subject to the central administration.

The French Revolution

When in 1788 the Assembly of Notables (a meeting of the chief nobles, clerics, and magistrates) failed to solve the financial crisis of the French government, King Louis XVI ordered elections for the States-General as his last resort. Although no official pronouncement indicated that the assembly was to act as a truly deliberative body, its convocation was thus interpreted by the third estate and by the liberals among the nobility and clergy, who hoped to introduce English parliamentary government into France. At the same time, the government ordered the compilation of lists of grievances in the various provinces; these were to serve as a basis for discussing the necessary reforms. The preparation of the lists contributed to the impression that a general reform was impending and that the States-General was to act as a national assembly representing the sovereign will of the people.

On May 5, 1789, the States-General assembled at Versailles. Almost immediately the crucial issue of voting procedure came under debate. If the three estates adhered to tradition and voted as separate bodies, the third estate was bound to be continually outvoted. If voting was by head, the third estate (whose deputies equaled in number those of the combined clergy and nobility) was bound to win on most points, for many clerics and nobles sympathized with its aspirations. In June, 1789, the third estate, joined by a number of deputies from the clergy, forced the issue and declared itself the National Assembly. With this act of defiance the French Revolution may be said to have begun; and with Louis XVI's recognition of the fait accompli, the States-General ceased to exist.

Bibliography

See G. M. Picot, Histoire des États Généraux (5 vol., 2d ed. 1888, repr. 1969).

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References in periodicals archive ?
Whereas the general reader is more likely to be familiar with the Second Assembly, summoned by the Crown to deliberate on matters of voting and representation in the Estates-General, which was set to open in May 1789, Gruder instead places greater emphasis on the First Assembly in part one of the book.
Within three months of the opening of the Estates-General, the French nobility had lost its separate status, its tax exemptions, its job monopolies and its seigneurial rights in the countryside and primogeniture had been outlawed.
A brief description of the Estates-General of Paris in 1595 is followed by the ekphrasis of the rugs that decorated the main room where the meeting was taking place; next, the speeches ascribed to the representatives at the meeting.
Sometimes the unkind thought arose that Andress was basing his narrative on movies--Jefferson in Paris, The Madness of King George and Mutiny on the Bounty come to mind--but he has shrewdly seen that a long and comprehensive rehearsal of the arcana of the Estates-General and the Third Estate would probably bore the readership he is aiming for.
Michael Fitzsimmons is one of a handful of anglophone historians who have reoriented our approach to the political history of the Estates-General and National Assembly during the last two decades.
L'Estoile describes vividly the meeting of the Estates-General at Blois at which Henri III was coerced by a deputation led by the cardinal de Guise, who seems to have been even more militant than his brother, the duke.
Richardson does not identify the new style of kingship with the revival of Roman law, the creation of a standing royal army, the transfer of power from the nobility to the king or the decline of the Estates-General and other consultative assemblies.
To try to sort out his finances, Louis agreed to call the Estates-General into session in 1788.
Lawyers, experienced at appealing to the public in the name of personal freedom and rule by universal law, naturally saw the call for the Estates-General as an opportunity to disband all corps and replace them with a democratic regime.
In an especially interesting essay on noble display, Michael Kwass considers how conspicuous expenditure was a central part of what was expected in noble dress when the Estates-General met at Versailles in 1789.
These Old Regime tensions between the center and periphery deepened as the delegates of the Estates-General, reconstituted as the National Assembly in 1789, took to the task of drafting a new constitution for France, especially following the provincial uprisings of the Great Fear and the Parisian revolt directed against the Bastille.