A selection from Thomas Carlyle's, The History of the French Revolution

WHEREWITH Lomenie departs; flimsier mortal was seldom fated to do as weighty a mischief. The archbishop is thrown out and M. Necker is recalled. States-General will meet, if not in January, at least in May. But how to form it? On the model of the last States-General in 1614, says the Parliament, which means that the Tiers Etat will be of no account, if the noblesse and the clergy agree. Wherewith terminates the popularity of the Parliament. As for the 'thinkers,' it is a sheer snowing of pamphlets. And the Abbe Sieyes has come to Paris to ask three questions, and answer them: What is the Third Estate? All. What has it hitherto been in our form of government? Nothing. What does it want? To become something.

The grand questions are: Shall the States-General sit and vote in three separate bodies, or in one body, wherein the Tiers Etat shall have double representation? The notables are again summoned to decide, but vanish without decision. With those questions still unsettled, the election begins. And presently the national deputies are in Paris. Also there is a sputter; drudgery and rascality rising in St. Antoine, finally repressed by Gardes Suisses and grapeshot.

On Monday, May 4, is the baptism day of democracy, the extreme unction day of feudalism. Behold the procession of processions advancing towards Notre Dame--our commons, noblesse, clergy, the king himself. Which of these six hundred individuals in white cravat might one guess would become their king? He with the thick black locks, shaggy beetle-brows and rough-hewn face? Gabriel Honore Riqueti de Mirabeau, the world-compeller, the type Frenchman of this epoch, as Voltaire of the last. And if Mirabeau is the greatest, who of these six hundred may be the meanest? Shall we say that anxious, slight, ineffectual-looking man, under thirty, in spectacles; complexion of an atrabiliar shade of pale sea-green, whose name is Maximilien Robespierre?

Coming into their hall on the morrow, the commons deputies perceive that they have it to themselves. The noblesse and the clergy are sitting separately, which the noblesse maintain to be right; no agreement is possible. After six weeks of inertia the commons deputies, on their own strength, are getting under way; declare themselves not Third Estate, but National Assembly. On June 20, shut out of their hall 'for repairs,' the deputies find refuge in the tennis court; take solemn oath that they will continue to meet till they have made the constitution. And to these are joined 149 of the clergy A royal session is held; the king propounds thirty-five articles, which if the estates do not confirm he will himself enforce. The commons remain immovable, joined now by the rest of the clergy and forty-eight noblesse. So triumphs the Third Estate.

War-god Broglie is at work, but grape-shot is good on one condition! The Gardes Francaises, it seems, will not fire; nor they only. Other troops, then? Rumour declares, and is verified, that Necker, people's minister, is dismissed. "To arms!" cried Camille Desmoulins, and innumerable voices yell responsive. Chaos comes. The Electoral Club, however, declares itself a provisional municipality, sends out parties to keep order in the streets that night, enrol a militia, with arms collected where one may. Better to name it National Guard! And while the crisis is going on Mirabeau is away, sad at heart for his dying, crabbed old father. Muskets are got from the Invalides; 28,000 National Guards are provided with matchlocks. And now to the Bastille! But to describe this siege perhaps transcends the talent of mortals. After four hours of world-Bedlam, it surrenders. The Bastille is down. "Why," said poor Louis, "that is a revolt." "Sire," answered Liancourt, "it is not a revolt; it is a revolution."

On the morrow, Louis paternally announces to the National Assembly reconciliation. Amid enthusiasm, President Bailly is proclaimed Maire of Paris, Lafayette general of the National Guard. And the first emigration of aristocrat irreconcilables takes place. The revolution is sanctioned. Nevertheless, see Saint Antoine, not to be curbed, dragging old Foulon and Berthier to the lanterne, after which the cloud disappears, as thunderclouds do.

Return to Outline of Great Books Volume I