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Assembling of the States-General Motley composition of that
body-Mirabeau-Disputes between the tiers états and the nobles-Formation of the National Assembly-Vacillation of Louis xvI.-Capture of the Bastile-Outrages in the provinces-Proceedings of the assembly-Singular scene in itThe assembly issues its declaration of the natural equality of man-Reflections upon that doctrine.
The 5th of May, 1789, was fixed for the opening of the States-General, at Versailles, in the neighbourhood of Paris. On the preceding day its members, before commencing their important labours, took part in a great religious ceremony. They walked in procession to the church of Notre Dame, where mass was performed by a dignitary of the Romish church. The scene was an imposing one, for it was aided by all those external splendours, with which popery knows how to impress the senses. A sermon was preached by a bishop, on religion, as the only source of national happiness. The theme was an appropriate one for the occasion, but the event proved how little it
influenced those who heard him. Composed, as the assemblage chiefly was, of men holding sceptical opinions, the whole service was little better than a theatric exhibition. No national contrition for sins was witnessed by the Most High. The organ pealed, indeed, its most majestic strains, the choir chanted with sweetest melody, and the censer diffused its most fragrant incense; but was the humble and devout worshipper there 2. It is, therefore, not to be wondered at, that with his hand unacknowledged, and the rebukes of his providence disregarded, the blessing of God was withheld, and that confusion was allowed to prevail in the national councils of France. Crowds of spectators watched, with lively interest, the procession of the deputies upon this occasion. First came the representatives of the people, six hundred in number, dressed in plain black cloaks, with white cravats and slouched hats. 'Next followed the nobility, with decorations of lace and gold, and hats plumed with feathers. The clergy succeeded, and were followed in turn by the king and queen; the latter, pale, depressed, and unhappy, her hair already turned prematurely gray with anxiety. The daughter of Neckar
(afterwards the celebrated Madame de Stael) beheld, with enthusiasm, the procession pass by, and exulted at the scene as the harbinger of inexhaustible happiness for France. “You do wrong to rejoice,” said Madame Montmorin, a lady beside her; "this event forebodes much misery to France and ourselves.” Too truly was the prediction verified in the experience of her who uttered it; she and all her family perished in the course of the revolution.
The assembly met in a large and magnificent apartment in the palace of Versailles, to listen to an address from the throne. The speech of the king abounded in professions (undoubtedly sincere) of his desire to promote the happiness of his people. So highly wrought and fantastic, however, were the expectations of the public at this time, that many persons were extremely disappointed that the king had not voluntarily abdicated his throne, in order to receive it back again as the gift of the people. When the king had seated himself, the whole assembly put on their hats in his presence a slight but significant circumstance, indicating that the days of feudal reverence for the crown were gone.
Amidst the general enthusiasm which preVailed, acute observers did not fail to remark, with uneasiness, the heterogeneous elements of which the tiers états, or representatives of the people, were composed. “Youths," says Alison, “hardly escaped from school ; lawyers, unable to earn their livelihood in their villages ; curates, barely elevated, either in income or knowledge, above their humble flock; physicians, destitute of patients ; barristers, without briefs ; the ardent, the needy, the profligate, the ambitious, were at once vomited forth from all quarters, to co-operate in the reconstruction of the monarchy.” Amongst the most distinguished of the popular representatives was Mirabeau, a man who exhibited the melancholy spectacle of the union of the highest talent with the most relaxed principle and abandoned licentiousness. He was selected, however, as the leader of the tiers états. His external appearance was as remarkable almost as his mental disposition. A quantity of thick matted hair hung around his strongly-marked features. Describing his countenance to a lady, he said, “Figure to yourself a tiger that has had the small-pox." Yet, in spite of these unprepossessing features, he possessed the rare gift of swaying popular assemblies. “Ï will show them the boar's head," was his favourite ex
pression, when about to silence his opponents; and the sound of his stentorian voice would seldom fail to calm the wildest tumult of the assembly. Scarcely had the States-General been convened, before it became the active arena of political intrigue. The first question brought before it was the mode in which it should vote, a point by no means of trivial importance, as upon it, as it afterwards turned out, depended, in a great measure, the future course of the revolution. The moderate party were anxious that, in imitation of the British constitution, the nobility and clergy should compose an upper house, and the representatives of the people a lower one. The democratic party, on the contrary, were desirous that all should sit in one house; an arrangement by which the nobility, from the superior number of their opponents, were certain of being outvoted on every important question. As the sequel will show, the tiers átats gained the object which they sought, but ruined their country by their success. The whole legislative body being united in one chamber, there remained no breakwater between the commons and the throne. There was no check upon crude and