It happened today - May 5, 2016
There’s a wise saying that it’s never a bad time to do the right thing. But it’s sometimes awfully late to get around to it. For instance on May 5 1789, when French King Louis the Doomed summoned the Estates-General, their partial equivalent of Britain’s Parliament. For the first time in 175 years. And the last.
Louis XVI was a hapless man sitting atop a volcano. And that scenario never ends well. But to his limited credit, he didn’t create the volcano. And he didn’t get a lot of good advice about getting off it.
Had I been there… well, I wouldn’t have been me. That’s the problem with that sort of counterfactual. I’d have been an 18th-century French noble and unlikely to give wise counsel based on the record. But someone should have told him to convene the Estates-General earlier. A lot earlier. Well before he was born, in fact.
OK, you see the problem. Although allowing a Parliament to meet and limit the actions of the executive is the right thing to do, and better late than never, sometimes it’s so late it’s very hard to make it work. France didn’t just need a meeting of Parliament. It needed a Parliamentary tradition. And it had nothing of the sort.
To take one trivial example, the Estates-General met, when it did meet, as three separate estates not two. Secular nobility, church prelates and wretched commoners each had their own chamber. And the commoners were definitely outnumbered and disdained. Part of the magic of the British system is that somehow they locked all the muckymucks in one House and the regular Joes in the other and, from the very early 15th century, the regular Joes without even a regular meeting place managed to assert their primacy on money bills since you know who always ends up paying. So it’s not a trivial example after all.
Especially as the final meeting of the Estates-General disintegrated over the critical issue of whether to vote by estates or as one body, basically the same surly confrontation between commons and their supposed betters that had paralyzed the last meeting in 1614. And it’s not as though it had been vibrant before that; no Estates General had met, for instance, between 1484 and 1560. But in 1789 instead of just going away mad, the Third Estate declared itself the political nation, in the form of the National Assembly, and took over without institutional restraints, leading to the Reign of Terror and then Napoleon and much else that you wouldn’t want including chronic instability lasting almost two centuries.
The reason they didn’t know how to vote, apart from not having done it in 175 years, is that their votes never mattered anyway. Writing in the 16th century the distinguished French jurist Jean Bodin had written, sadly correctly, that “When edicts are ratified by Estates or Parlements, it is for the purpose of securing obedience to them, and not because otherwise a sovereign prince could not validly make law”. It wasn’t better elsewhere in the government; in 1527 the president of the highest French court assured King François I “we do not wish to dispute or minimize your power; that would be sacrilege, and we know very well that you are above the laws”
The funny thing is, at the time the king was probably mightily pleased. No checks on his power seemed to mean he could accomplish great things. But instead it meant French kings could do any fool thing they liked and nobody could stop them or even tell them it was a mistake. And so the mistakes piled up and piled up and every institution that might have blocked the reign of error was treated as a problem instead of a solution.
By the time Louis XVI was finally forced to summon the non-functioning semi-Parliament known as the Estates-General, and see if he could somehow enlist the French nation in governing, of all things, the French nation, it was probably too late. Given the alternatives, which didn’t include time travel, it was the right thing. But it would have been much better if he’d done it sooner. Say 350 years sooner.