As the 18th century drew to a close, France’s costly involvement in the American Revolution, and extravagant spending by King Louis XVI and his predecessor, had left the country on the brink of bankruptcy.
Not only were the royal coffers depleted, but two decades of poor harvests, drought, cattle disease and skyrocketing bread prices had kindled unrest among peasants and the urban poor. Many expressed their desperation and resentment toward a regime that imposed heavy taxes – yet failed to provide any relief – by rioting, looting and striking.
In the fall of 1786, Louis XVI’s controller general, Charles Alexandre de Calonne, proposed a financial reform package that included a universal land tax from which the privileged classes would no longer be exempt.
To garner support for these measures and forestall a growing aristocratic revolt, the king summoned the Estates-General (les états généraux) – an assembly representing France’s clergy, nobility and middle class – for the first time since 1614.
The meeting was scheduled for May 5, 1789; in the meantime, delegates of the three estates from each locality would compile lists of grievances (cahiers de doléances) to present to the king.