Source Problems on the French Revolution


PROBLEM II.—The Royal Session of June 23, 1789


THE royal session followed so closely upon the oath of the tennis court, separated from it by only three days, that it is necessary to add but little to what has been said in the historic setting of the first problem. The time from June 19th to June 23d was occupied by the king and his council in the discussion of the plan for the royal session. The nature and outcome of this discussion forms a part of the problem, and need not be treated here. Something, however, should be said concerning the events of Juno 22d, when the majority of the clergy joined the national assembly for the purpose of verifying credentials in common. This question had been debated in the order of the clergy from June 12th, when the summons was received from the commons to bring their credentials into the common hall, until June 19th, when the clergy voted to accept the invitation. The closing of the hall on June 20th prevented the union on that day, and the national assembly adjourned to meet after the royal session. The failure of the king and his council to arrive at any understanding on June 21st, touching the plan for the session of the next day, made it necessary to postpone the session until June 22d. Again on the morning of June 22d the voice of the herald was heard in the streets of Versailles, and again the deputies tried in vain to get access to their hall. The assembly had adjourned on the twentieth to meet on the twenty-second, and the meeting must be held; the oath required it. But where should the deputies meet? The tennis court was not seriously considered. There was a tradition that the Comte d’Artois had engaged the court for tennis to prevent the deputies from meeting there, and the tradition has been repeated, without examination, by many writers. The truth is the deputies did not wish to occupy the tennis court on the twenty-second. The court was already occupied by spectators, there were no seats, and it was understood that the clergy would unite with the commons on this day. Some other place must be found. The order of the Recollets occupied buildings in the same street with the court, and an attempt was made to secure their church for the assembly. The brothers were fearful of the royal displeasure, and declined to allow the buildings to be used. This incident may have given rise to the false tradition concerning the Comte d’Artois and the tennis court. Finally the curate of the church of Saint-Louis offered the use of his church.

The deputies gathered there, and were called to order by Bailly. He read a letter from the Marquis de Brézé including one from the king to Bailly informing him of the postponement of the royal session and stating that the hall would be open only on the next day. The letter was addressed to "Monsieur Bailly, President of the Order of the Third Estate." It was evident that the king did not recognize the existence of a national assembly. There was no chance here for the subterfuge of June 20th. Here was a letter signed by the king himself, announcing the closing of the hall, but it did not forbid the meeting of the commons. The assembly practically reaffirmed its action of June 20th. Several deputies who had been absent on that day, and some substitutes, asked to be permitted to take the oath. The oath was read again, and the deputies signed.

A contesting delegation of nobles of Guyenne entered the hall and asked permission to lay their credentials before the assembly. It was voted that the credentials should be referred to the committee on verification, who should make a report to the assembly.

At this point a delegation from the clergy was announced, and the assembly sent a delegation to meet them. The clergy had assembled in another part of the church, and were desirous of knowing how they would be received before appearing as a body. This was the natural result of the vote of June 19th, in which the rights of the order had been reserved. The Bishop of Chartres, spokesman of the delegation, announced that, "The majority of the order of the clergy has voted to unite for the common verification of credentials, and we have come to notify you of it and to ask for its place in the assembly." The president replied: "The deputies of the order of the clergy to the states general will be received with all the cordiality and respect which is due them. Their ordinary place of distinction is free to receive them." In other words, although the commons had abolished the political distinction of the orders on June 17th, it was ready to receive the clergy as the first estate, to allow them to occupy seats which indicated precedence over the other two orders, and the president even referred to the clergy as deputies to the states general, as if the states general might even yet come into existence, and the term national assembly cease to have its revolutionary significance. The delegation returned to report, and soon the entrance of the clergy was announced. The commons sent a delegation of sixteen members to receive them. As the clergy entered and passed to their seats on the right of the president they were received by vigorous applause from the commons and the spectators who crowded the church. The action of the clergy on the eve of the royal session strengthened the cause of the commons and gave presage of victory. The great assembly was deeply moved, many shedding tears. "The spectacle of this meeting," wrote Arthur Young, on the same day, "was singular—the crowd that attended in and around the church was great—and the artery and suspense in every eye, with the variety of expression that flowed from different views and different characters, gave to the countenances of all the world an expression I had never witnessed before." The Archbishop of Vienne, who acted as president of the clergy, explained the meaning of their action: "This union," he said, "which has for its object to-day only the common verification of credentials, is the signal and, I may say, the prelude of the constant union they [the clergy] desire with all the orders, and particularly with that of the deputies of the commons." Bailly, in reply, voiced the satisfaction of the assembly, but remarked that there were still wishes to be realized. "I see with regret," he explained, "that the brothers of another order are missing from this august family."

The archbishop had taken a seat by the side of the president, and, speaking in the name of the clergy, had asked that the minutes of the verification of the credentials of the commons be submitted to them. The clergy were requested to name sixteen of their number to serve as members of the committee on verification. The significance of all this should not be overlooked. The clergy had not declared in favor of a single assembly and vote by head; they had not abandoned their independence as an order. "One should be careful not to believe," wrote Duquesnoy, "that the majority of the clergy are in favor of voting by head; they are for verifying credentials in common, and nothing more."

At the close of the session the members of the nobility from Dauphiné entered and were received with great applause. "The majority of the clergy," said the spokesman, the Marquis de Blaçons, "having put an end to all the difficulties contained in our instructions, we come to commit to you the verification of our credentials, and to ask to be permitted to examine the record of your verification." The delegation laid their credentials on the table, and they were referred to the committee on verification. The assembly was then adjourned "until the next morning at nine o’clock, in the usual meeting place." Thus, on the evening of the royal session it was clear that the commons had the support of the majority of the clergy in the matter of common verification, and that it was the intention of the commons, acting as the national assembly, to hold a meeting after the royal session, whatever might be the nature of that session. They were a national assembly, elected to make a constitution, and no one, not even the king himself, had the right to dissolve the assembly.


1. Necker. (a) Sur l’administration de M. Necker par lui-même. Paris, 1791. Necker was born in Geneva in 1732, and died at Coppet, Switzerland, in 1804. Early in life he entered a Paris banking house as clerk. In time he built up a large banking business of his own, made his fortune, and acquired a great reputation as a financier. In 1776 he was made minister of finance by Louis XVI., and held office until 1781. After his retirement matters went from bad to worse, and in 1788, when France was on the verge of bankruptcy, and the states general had been promised for 1789, Necker was recalled to office. He was, however, only a banker, and a statesman was needed to guide France through the great crisis of revolution. After a pitiful display of his inability to master the situation, in September, 1790, Necker resigned and left France, a disappointed man, his reputation wrecked and his popularity so completely gone that his departure was scarcely noticed. The following year he published an account of his two ministries. It was the statement of a man who tried to justify his acts and to throw the responsibility for his failure upon others. In previous writings he had spoken with great respect of public opinion. "I do not quite understand," he remarked, naïvely, in this volume, "why public opinion no longer occupies in my eyes the place that it did."

(b) De la révolution française. 4 vols. Paris, 1797. This work was completed in October, 1795. In a note in the first volume (p. xii.) Necker writes: "It will be noted that this work was finished at the end of 1795. Indecision on my part and some difficulty with the publishers retarded its appearance." This work, like the one published in 1791, was an apology for Necker’s administration. The treatment of the royal session is fuller than in the first work, but the point of view is quite different.

(c) Letter of Necker to Louis XVI., Archives nationales, Paris, K, 162. Published by Loménie, Les Mirabeau, v, 411.

2. Barentin, Mémoire autographe de M. de Barentin. Paris, 1844. Barentin was born in 1738. He was guard of the seals and Necker’s chief opponent in the ministry. After the appearance of Necker’s work, De la révolution française, Barentin wrote his volume to correct the incorrect statements concerning the royal session. It was not his intention to publish the work at the time of writing, but he wished to leave to the historian of the revolution material which would enable him to refute Necker’s account. He charges that Necker knowingly falsified the facts. Necker and Barentin are the two principal, practically the only witnesses concerning what took place in the council meetings preceding the royal session. On many points they flatly contradict each other.

3. Saint-Priest. Letter to Louis XVI., Archives na-tionales, Paris, Musée, No. 1072. Published by Flam-mermont, Revue historique, XLVI, Mai-Juin, 1891. Saint-Priest was one of the ministers favorable to Necker.

4. Montmorin. Letter to Louis XVI., Archives na-tionales, Paris, Musée, No. 1088. Montmorin was minister of foreign affairs and belonged to Necker’s party. He had been in office since the death of Vergennes in 1786. Published by Flammermont, Revue historique, XLVI.

5. Procès-verbal, No. 5. The official record of the meeting of the national assembly held after the royal session on June 23d.

6. Séance tenue par le roi aux états généraux, le 23 Juin, 1789. The official text of the speeches and declarations of the king delivered at the royal session. It was printed at the time by Baudoin, printer to the national assembly, and forms a pamphlet of sixteen pages.

7. Point du jour. See same title in the bibliography of Problem I.

8. Assemblée nationale. See same title in the bibliography of Problem I.

9. Courrier de Provence. This newspaper was for a few numbers edited by Mirabeau. This is the title by which it is generally known. It had two others; the first two numbers were called États-généraux, but when this paper had been suppressed by the government, the new paper, which began to appear the latter part of May, bore the title, Lettres de M. le comte de Mirabeau à ses commettants. At the end of July the title changed to Courrivr de Provence. The paper appeared twice a week. Early in the history of the enterprise Mirabeau employed two men of ability, Swiss exiles from Geneva. They were Dumont and Duroveray. Dumont states (Souvenirs sur Mirabeau, 102) that, "beginning with the eleventh letter of Mirabeau to his constituents, it was always Duroveray or myself who edited them." The letter containing the account of the royal session is the thirteenth, but neither Dumont nor Duroveray could have supplied the material for it, as they were not members of the assembly, and no spectators were allowed to enter the hall on June 23d. The Comte de Mirabeau, representative of the third estate of Aix en Provence, was born in 1749. He was the most distinguished statesman and orator of the national assembly.

10. Biauzat, Vie et correspondance. See bibliography of Problem I.

11. Bailly, Mémoires. See bibliography of Problem I.

12. Duquesnoy, Adrien, Journal. See bibliography of Problem I.

13. Jallet, Journal inédit. Fontenay-le-comte, 1871. Jallet was a representative of the clergy of Poitou, and one of the curés who joined the third estate in response to the summons of June 10th. He wrote his journal from day to day, as shown by the expressions, "At the conference of yesterday" (p. 79) and "all that will be printed" (speaking of the declarations of the royal session). Jallet died in August, 1791. Another member of the clergy, Grégoire, had made a copy of the journal, and it was from a copy of this copy—the property of M. Carnot—that the text was printed from which this translation was made.

14. Staël-Holstein, Baron de, Correspondance diplo-matique. Paris, 1881. Staël-Holstein was the Swedish ambassador at the French court in 1789. He was the son-in-law of Necker, his wife being the famous Madame de Staël. On account of his wife, he was naturally a partisan of Necker’s and not in sympathy with the court intrigues against him. The extract is from a letter written by the ambassador to the king of Sweden. The original of the letter is in the archives in Stockholm.

15. Bailli de Virieu, Correspondance. See bibliography of Problem I.

16. Jefferson, Thomas, Memoirs, Correspondence, and Miscellanies from the Papers of Thomas Jefferson. Edited by Thomas Jefferson Randolph. Second edition, Boston, 1830. Jefferson was the minister of the United States of America to the French court in 1789. He was in touch with the leading members of the assembly and in position to secure reliable information.

17. Barante, Lettres et instructions de Louis XVIII. au Comte de Saint-Priest, précédées d’une notice par M. de Barante. Paris, 1845. Concerning the material upon which this notice was based, Barante wrote: "In the last years of his life M. de Saint-Priest (died 1821) began to write his Mémoires. He was not able to finish them nor to revise what he had written. His family did not consider these fragments in form for publication; we have them before us and cannot do better than utilize them in writing this notice." Nothing in Barante’s notice indicates that the particular passage which we quote was taken from the notes of Saint-Priest; it is, however, a natural inference.


1. How many of the witnesses quoted in this study had firsthand information touching the council meetings which preceded the royal session? Concerning the events of June 23d?

2. How many independent witnesses have we upon the council meetings? Upon the royal session of June 23d?

3. Compare Necker’s account of 1791 with that of 1795, and show how they differ. Which account should be given the preference, and why?

4. What was the date (day of the month) of Necker’s letter to the king? Of Saint-Priest’s letter to the king?

5. Compare Necker’s account of the councils with Barentin, and show how they differ. Which is the more reliable, and why?

6. How does the contents of Necker’s letter to the king harmonize with the account of the council meetings found in the work written in 1795? With that written in 1791?

7. What is the relation of Bailly’s Mémoires to the other sources? What is its value?

8. If Barante used nothing besides the notes of Saint-Priest in writing his notice upon Saint-Priest, how valuable would the notice be?

9. Is the Courrier de Provence dependent upon any of the other sources?

10. Are the accounts of Necker and Barentin independent of each other?

11. When did Necker make up his mind to propose a royal session to the king?

12. Were there any committee meetings before the council meetings?

13. How many council meetings were there, when and where were they held, who was present, and what was done?

14. What was the nature of Necker’s original plan?

15. Who supported it and who opposed it?

16. What do you know of the state of Versailles on the morning of June 23d—that is, of the external setting of the royal session?

17. At what time did the session open, and how long did it last?

18. What were some of the significant things that happened at the hall before the arrival of the king?

19. How was the king received on his arrival?

20. Make an analysis of the speeches and declarations showing the attitude of the king toward the action of the commons, on June 17th, toward the old constitution, toward the privileges of the clergy and nobility, toward the control of the government by the estates general, toward the right of the estates to make laws, toward the annual or periodical meeting of the estates, toward publicity of debate, freedom of the press and of the individual.

21. What parts of the speeches and declarations would be acceptable to the conservatives, and why?

22. What parts would not be acceptable to the commons, and why?

23. What parts would be acceptable to all progressive men?

24. Upon what important matter are the declarations silent?

25. What was the criticism of the members of the commons on the session?

26. After the retirement of the king, who remained in the hall, and why?

27. why did not the delegates in the hall at once open their session?

28. Determine, if you can, the truth about the workmen in the hall.

29. Describe the De Brézé incident: (a) when he entered; (b) to whom he spoke; (c) what he said; (d) what Bailly said to him; (e) whether Bailly or De Brézé or both spoke to the assembly; (f) what they said; (g) when Mirabeau spoke; (h) what he said; (j) what De Brézé finally did.

30. When the assembly finally went into session: (a) what motions were made; (b) by whom; (c) in what order; (d) what was said in debate, and by whom; and (e) what was the final action of the assembly?

31. Work out carefully the incident of Necker’s resignation: (a) did he resign; (b) did he intend to be present at the royal session; (c) what effect had the report of his resignation; (d) what did the king do; (e) what advantage did Necker draw from the action of the king; (f) how was the action received by the crowd and the deputies?

32. Was the royal session a success?

33. Make an outline and write a narrative on the royal session.


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Chicago: "Problem II. The Royal Session of June 23, 1789," Source Problems on the French Revolution in Source Problems on the French Revolution, ed. Fred Morrow Fling and Helene Dresser Fling (New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1913), 65–78. Original Sources, accessed February 21, 2024,

MLA: . "Problem II. The Royal Session of June 23, 1789." Source Problems on the French Revolution, in Source Problems on the French Revolution, edited by Fred Morrow Fling and Helene Dresser Fling, New York, Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1913, pp. 65–78. Original Sources. 21 Feb. 2024.

Harvard: , 'Problem II. The Royal Session of June 23, 1789' in Source Problems on the French Revolution. cited in 1913, Source Problems on the French Revolution, ed. , Harper & Brothers Publishers, New York, pp.65–78. Original Sources, retrieved 21 February 2024, from