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The First Act: "The Rights of Man"

The "Estates," or Parliament, met at Versailles (May 1789). Jefferson, the American patriot, advised French patriots to accept at once all reforms that seemed practicable. But soon the third Estate, or the "Commons," inspired by Roussean's idea of Equality, declared itself the National Assembly of France (June). Later on, the noble and clerical deputies joined it.

There was much misery in France at this time; poor harvests and dear bread strengthened the elements of disorder. The mob attacked and destroyed the ancient state prison called the Bastille (July). French nobles began to emigrate across the borders. There was panic in the provinces -- "the brigands are coming;" castles were attacked; title-deeds destroyed.

Then, in one long, enthusiastic sitting (August 4, 1789), the Assembly abolished the feudal system, all tithes, and all dues to the Pope. After long debates it issued the famous Declaration of the Rights of Man, which stated that all men are born Equal as regards their rights; Sovereignty rests in the People; all are equal under the Law; free exchange of Thought and Opinion, even in Religion, is one of the most precious Rights of Man.

Meantime a new public life was springing up in France, with numerous newspapers, political clubs and parties, and ladies' salons, which were often the centres of the new life. Just before the storm broke over France in 1789, there was published one of the most effective pamphlets ever written. Its subject was: "What is the Third Estate? Everything. What has it been in politics until now? Nothing. What does it ask? To become something."

Once again the harvest was poor. The women of Paris wanted bread. They marched to Versailles, and insisted on escorting the royal family -- "the baker, the baker's wife, and the baker's boy" -- back with them to Paris (October 1789), with the hope that something would be done at the capital to relieve their pressing necessities. The royal family was in a painful position.