Modern history


May to September 1789

The Estates-General, the Constituent Assembly at Versailles – the Tennis Court oath, the storming of the Bastille, the Great Fear, the night of 4 August, the Declaration of Rights

With all these advantages, Necker did not succeed in making a quiet reform out of a revolutionary movement. The great sickness was not to be healed with attar of roses.

– Karl Marx, ‘The Camphausen Ministry’

Even for those most reticent towards the idea of rupture in history, the summer of 1789 certainly does appear as the moment when everything collapsed, from legalism into illegality, from strict formalism into street improvisation. In short – to repeat the words of a celebrated reply that in all likelihood was never actually pronounced – from revolt to revolution.

The opening of the Estates-General

The Estates-General initially followed the model of 1614, which clearly established the Third Estate in its place, the lowest one. Already during the presentation to the king, the deputies of the clergy and nobility were received with respect while the Third Estate was herded through the royal chamber en masse and at the double. On 4 May 1789, the deputies, the king and the queen crossed Versailles in procession along with the whole court, from the church of Notre-Dame to that of Saint-Louis, to hear a Mass of the Holy Spirit celebrated by monseigneur de la Fare, the bishop of Nancy. Next morning, in the first issue of États Généraux, a newspaper founded by Mirabeau, Parisians could read how, on this occasion, ‘Every commonplace was included, from the baptism of Clovis to the sickness of Louis [XV] the Beloved at Metz, and from declarations about luxury to calumny against philosophy.’

The Estates-General opened on 5 May in the Salle des Menus-Plaisirs, which could hold up to 1,200 people, with galleries for a further 2,000 or more – indeed, the large number of spectators made no secret of their feelings throughout the sessions, a habit that would persist as a characteristic feature of successive revolutionary assemblies.1

First of all the Assembly heard a speech from the king, which began with ‘an awkward grumbling, timid and shifty, on the spirit of innovation’ (Michelet), and ended with a warning:

Minds are agitated; but an assembly of the nation’s representatives will certainly listen only to counsels of wisdom and prudence. You will have judged for yourselves, gentlemen, how these have been ignored on several recent occasions; but the ruling spirit of your deliberations will respond to the true feelings of a generous nation, whose love for its kings has always been its distinctive trait; I shall refuse any other memory.2

The speech that followed, that of Barentin, the Garde des Sceaux,3 was delivered in such a low voice that no one heard it. But what everyone was awaiting was Necker’s speech, and the disappointment this caused matched the expectations aroused. Mirabeau, in the second issue of his paper (6 May), complained of ‘insufferable longueurs, countless repetitions, pompously uttered trivialities, unintelligible remarks; not a single principle, not one unchallengeable assertion, not one statesmanlike resource, not even a major financial measure, no plan of recovery despite what had been announced.’ The following day, newspapers were banned from reporting the sessions of the Estates. Mirabeau did not waver, and three days later launched his Lettres du comte de Mirabeau à ses commettants, the first issue of which proclaimed: ‘Twenty-five million voices demand freedom of the press; the nation and the king unanimously demand the cooperation of all enlightened minds. And then we are faced with a ministerial veto; after tricking us by an illusory and treacherous tolerance, a so-called popular ministry dares blatantly to put a seal on our thoughts!’ On 8 May, the meeting of Paris electors of the Third Estate likewise protested against the newspaper ban, which ‘violates the freedom of the press that the whole of France demands’: this was the first public demonstration of the Paris electors, who would soon move to the front of the stage.4

The very day after the opening session, battle was joined on the principle of voting by head. The three orders each met in a separate hall, with the Third Estate in the Salle des Menus-Plaisirs. The nobility decided by a large majority (188 votes to 47) to constitute itself as a separate order. The clergy did the same, but by a much smaller majority (133 votes to 114). This already indicated a rift between the privileged orders, which would steadily widen until it brought about the victory of the Third Estate – or rather of the Commons, as it was called with increasing frequency, a term that ‘the Court and the great lords reject with a species of apprehension, as if it implied a design that was hard to fathom’, Arthur Young noted.5

That same evening, the members of the Commons met together province by province to discuss a collective action. The Bretons, around Lanjuinais and Le Chapelier, were the most determined.6 The decision was taken to invite the two other orders to meet with the Third Estate to verify together the powers of all the deputies. While awaiting this, the Commons rejected forming a chamber of their own: they would have neither office, nor president, nor clerical staff.

For nearly a month, the Commons sent emissaries to the privileged orders in hopes of an agreement, but it was no use. If the clergy were hesitant, the greater part of the nobility were unwilling even to listen. Mirabeau harangued them forcefully in the session of 18 May, replying to Malouet who advised conciliation: ‘Let them do it, gentlemen; they will give you a Constitution, regulate the state, settle the finances, and they will solemnly bring you an extract from their records to serve henceforth as a national code. No, gentlemen, one cannot compromise with such pride, without soon becoming a slave!’7

The Third Estate proclaims itself the National Assembly – the Tennis Court oath

Enough was enough. On 10 June, Sieyès proposed an address to the privileged orders that ended as follows:

Given the necessity for the representatives of the nation to commence their activity without further delay, the deputies of the Commons once again beseech you, gentlemen, as indeed their duty prescribes, issuing both individually and collectively a final appeal for you to come to the hall of the Estates in order to assist and cooperate in submitting together with them to a common verification of powers. We are charged at the same time to advise you that the general roll-call of all the baillages convoked will take place in an hour; that following this, verification will begin and those not appearing will be taken as being in default.8

The assembly of the Third Estate immediately got organized and set up offices; on 12 June it proceeded to the verification of powers of the deputies of the three orders. The following day, three priests from Poitou responded when their names were called, and sixteen others – including abbé Grégoire, parish priest of Embermesnil in the baillage of Nancy – joined them in the next two days: the rift was beginning to widen.

At the beginning of the year, Sieyès had written in What is the Third Estate?: ‘The Third Estate, it is said, cannot form the Estates-General all by itself. Very well! So much the better! It will form a National Assembly.’9 In the session of 17 June, after different formulations had been discussed, it was voted by 490 to 90 that ‘the only appropriate title is that of National Assembly’. The same day, the Assembly declared that all existing taxes were illegal but that it would grant them provisional legality ‘until the day of the first separation of this Assembly, from whatever cause it may ensue’; this was an appeal to a tax strike if the Assembly were dissolved. Two days later, following very lively debates, a majority of the clergy (149 votes to 137) adopted the principle of meeting together with the Commons.

Faced with this dismantling of the system, Louis XVI could not remain passive. In the evening of 19 June he decided to revoke the decisions of the Third Estate in a solemn session, after the fashion of the lit de justice. Meanwhile, the hall in which the sessions were held would be closed for repairs.

On the morning of 20 June, the deputies found the doors shut and guarded by soldiers. Rabaut Saint-Étienne, a Protestant pastor and deputy for Nîmes, relates what followed:

They [the deputies] asked one another what power had the right to suspend the deliberations of the representatives of the nation … Finally [Bailly, president of the Assembly] gathered the deputies in the jeu de paume [royal tennis] court of Versailles, which has become eternally famous for the courageous resistance of the first representatives of the French nation … The people besieged the gate and showered their representatives with blessings. Soldiers disobeyed their orders to come and guard the entrance of this new sanctuary of liberty.10

A voice was then raised, that of Mounier, who proposed ‘that all members of this assembly should immediately take a solemn oath never to separate but to gather wherever circumstances required until the Constitution of the kingdom was established and set on solid foundations’. All those present swore and signed, except for one.11

The deputies of the Third Estate were aware of the threat hanging over them, as Swiss and German regiments were massed around Versailles. The most active of their number met to decide on the mode of resistance. Abbé Grégoire recalled:

The previous evening [22 June] twelve or fifteen of us deputies met at the Breton club, so called because the Bretons had been its founders. Informed of what the Court was planning for the following day, each article was discussed by all and all gave their opinion on the course to take. The first resolution was that of remaining in the hall [of sessions] despite the king’s prohibition. It was agreed that before the opening of the session we would circulate among the groups of our colleagues, explaining to them what was going to happen before their eyes and how it was to be opposed.12

On the morning of the 23rd, the day of the royal session, the hall was surrounded by soldiers. The nearby streets were blocked off to prevent the mass of people who had arrived from witnessing the expected confrontation. The main doors opened to let the privileged orders enter, while the Commons waited in the rain for the back door to be opened for them. In the hall, the clergy and nobles were seated on the sides as on 5 May, and the Commons massed in the centre. The absence of Necker was noted: he did not want to jeopardize what was left of his popularity. The king arrived around eleven o’clock, surrounded by the princes of the blood, dukes and peers, and by captains of the guard. He started off reading in person, before having it read by a secretary, the lengthy and uncompromising speech prepared for him: ‘The king wishes the old distinction between the three orders of the state to be preserved in its entirety, as being fundamentally bound to the Constitution of his kingdom … As a consequence, the king has declared null and void the deliberations taken by the deputies of the order of the Third Estate on the 17th of this month, as well as any that may follow, being illegal and unconstitutional.’ And Louis XVI ended with a clear threat:

If, by a fatality far from my mind, you abandon me in such a fine undertaking, I shall act alone for the good of my peoples; I shall alone consider myself their true representative … I order you, gentlemen, to separate immediately, and to attend tomorrow morning in the rooms respectively assigned to your orders to resume your sittings. I accordingly command the grand master of ceremonies to have the halls prepared.13

The king left, followed by the nobility and part of the clergy. The members of the National Assembly, along with several parish priests, stayed in their seats. It was Mirabeau who spoke: ‘What is this insulting dictatorship? The display of arms, the violation of the national temple, to command you to be happy? Who has given you this command? Your mandatory. Who gives you these imperious laws? Your mandatory, who should receive them from you, from us, gentlemen, who are wrapped in a political and inviolable priesthood.’

The marquis de Dreux-Brézé, grand master of ceremonies, then approached the president (Bailly) and said: ‘Gentlemen, you have heard the king’s intentions.’ And Mirabeau improvised the response that did more for his fame than all the rest of his life. There are several versions of it, including that which he published himself in his Treizième lettre à ses commettants:

Yes, sir, we have heard the intentions that have been suggested to the king, and you who can by no means be his organ in the Estates-General, you who have neither place here, nor vote, nor right to speak, it is not for you to remind us of his words; if you have been instructed to expel us from here, you must ask for orders to use force, as only the power of the bayonet can drive us from our seats.

After a moment’s silence, Camus spoke, followed by Barnave, both advocating firmness. Then it was the turn of Sieyès, whose speech, greeted with applause, ended with the words: ‘Is there a power on earth who can take away your power of representing your constituents?’ ‘Gentlemen,’ he added as he left the rostrum, ‘you are today what you were yesterday!14 In a vote taken by deputies rising in their seats, the Assembly ‘unanimously declares that it will persist in its previous decisions’.

Meeting of the three orders; the Assembly becomes Constituent

This attempt at a royal coup d’état ended downright lamely. The use of force – the only possible next step – was highly risky, for two reasons. Firstly, when the royal session was announced, all the Paris banks closed their counters. Stocks on the Bourse went into free fall. The Caisse d’Escompte sent envoys to Versailles to explain to the king the dangers of the situation. In a state verging on bankruptcy, finance was no longer available. Also, and most important, the disintegration was now affecting the army. At the end of June, the ambassador of Saxony wrote to his minister:

On Thursday [25 June] the soldiers of the regiment of gardes-françaises left their barracks and scattered across Paris, bands of them going into all public places and shouting: Vive le Roi, vive le Tiers!15 Fearing a general revolt, no one dared to stop them. On Friday they disarmed several patrols of Swiss Guards that they encountered … I have just learned that the king can no longer rely on his own bodyguards … The loyalty of the foreign regiments is also becoming suspect. The bourgeois are seducing them, and the Swiss of Salis-Samade camped at Issy and Vaugirard have assured their hosts than if they were ordered to march they would disable the mechanisms of their muskets.16

From then on, the king and the recalcitrant section of the privileged orders had no option but to retreat. On 24 June, ‘151 ecclesiastics who formed the majority, with the archbishops of Vienne and Bordeaux at their head along with the bishops of Coutances, Chartres and Rodez, advanced into the centre of the hall of sessions which resounded with applause and universal acclamation.’17 The following day, a delegation of forty-seven members of the nobility, led by the comte de Clermont-Tonnerre and including the duc d’Orléans, the duc d’Aiguillon, the comte de Crillon, the comte de Montmorency and the duc de La Rochefoucauld, followed their example: ‘We bring you the tribute of our zeal and our sentiments, and we have come to work with you on the great task of public regeneration.’18

On the 27th, the king gave in. He wrote to the minority of the clergy and the majority of the nobility to invite them to join in the National Assembly, which on 9 July took the name of Constituent Assembly.

The dismissal of Necker; preparations for insurrection

After the union of the three orders, the pace of events quickened. When Versailles learned of the king’s retreat, there was huge rejoicing: ‘The assembly, uniting with the people, all hurried to the château. Vive le Roi might have been heard at Marly; the king and queen appeared in the balcony, and were received with the loudest shouts of applause.’19 But the king felt humiliated and, pressed it seems by the queen and by his brother the comte d’Artois, prepared his revenge by assembling around Paris and Versailles a force of 20,000 men, largely made up of German and Swiss troops.

In Paris, the wildest rumours circulated as the concentration of troops became evident: the Assembly would be dissolved, the members of the Third Estate imprisoned or killed, the gun batteries installed on top of Montmartre would bombard the city, which would then be delivered to looters and marauders. ‘It is impossible to depict’, wrote one pamphlet from this time (Lettre au comte d’Artois), ‘the shiver that the capital experienced at the single phrase: “the king has quashed everything”. I felt a fire burning beneath my feet; only a sign was needed and civil war would break out.’20 On 30 June it was learned at the café du Foy, the heart of the agitation in Palais-Royal, that eleven soldiers of the gardes-françaises had been imprisoned in the Abbaye, accused of belonging to a secret society within the regiment. A bunch of young people headed for the Abbaye, in Saint-Germain-des-Prés. This small group expanded en route, joined first of all by some workers armed with iron bars, then by a multitude of passers-by: by the time they reached the prison, they numbered almost 4,000 men. The first gate was quickly demolished with the aid of mallets, iron bars and axes, followed by the inner gates. By eight o’clock the prisoners were free. When the Assembly learned of the event, it sent a deputation to the king led by the archbishop of Paris. Finally, the soldiers returned to the Abbaye on the 4th and were released and pardoned the next day.

On 8 July, in the Assembly, Mirabeau attacked the king’s advisers whom he held responsible for the military build-up: ‘Thirty-five thousand men are already posted between Paris and Versailles. Twenty thousand more are expected. Artillery trains will follow. Placements have been designated for gun batteries … The preparations for war, in a word, are plain to see and fill all hearts with indignation.’21 He ended by tabling a motion that demanded the withdrawal of these troops, voted through the next day.

On 10 July, the electors of Paris (those who elected the deputies) gathered in the Saint-Jean hall of the Hôtel de Ville, joining with the former municipality to constitute ‘a real and active assembly of the Paris Commons’. In permanent contact with the Assembly, they laid the foundations of a Parisian guard to maintain order and protect property.

The following day, the king, having decided to escalate matters, dismissed Necker and ordered him to leave the kingdom immediately. In his place he appointed the baron de Breteuil, with the old duc de Broglie as minister of war – both names well chosen to excite popular fury. Towards midday on Sunday 12 July the news reached Paris and triggered a tremendous movement that went well beyond the popular classes. The dealers on the Bourse met and decided to shut up shop as a sign of protest. In the Palais-Royal, Camille Desmoulins came out of the café de Foy and climbed on a table, brandishing a pistol and calling out: ‘To arms, let’s wear a cockade!’ He pulled a leaf off a lime tree and put it in his hat, followed by the crowd around him.22 It was decided that gaming and entertainment venues would be closed as a sign of mourning. One group took wax busts of Necker and the duc d’Orléans from a shop, put black crepe around them and formed a procession that would swell to several thousand men. Armed with sticks, axes and pistols, they crossed Paris by way of rue de Richelieu, the boulevards, rue Saint-Martin and rue Saint-Honoré until at place Vendôme they clashed violently with a detachment of dragoons. At the customs barriers the people set fire to the new tollbooths of the Ferme-Générale, the object of general detestation.

In the afternoon, as the unrest continued to grow, the baron de Besenval, a familiar of the queen and commander of the Paris troops, disposed a regiment of Swiss Guards and two regiments of German cavalry in battle order on the place Louis XV (now place de la Concorde). The concentration coincided with the time when the Sunday crowds were approaching the Tuileries via the ChampsÉlysées gardens. Insults and stones were hurled at the horsemen of the Royal-Allemand regiment. Their colonel, the prince de Lambesc, ordered his riders into the Tuileries and brutally repelled the crowd, who responded by lobbing stones, bottles and chairs. Shots were fired. Finally, seeing that some people were engaged in blocking the swing bridge that divided the Tuileries from the square, the prince deemed it prudent to leave the gardens. But the whole of Paris reverberated with accounts of these brutalities: how the Germans had ridden their horses at women, old men and children.

When night fell, the city was lit up by lanterns placed in windows. Detachments of soldiers of the watch, armed civilians, gardes-françaises, passed one another in the streets. Musket shots were fired, and the tocsin was heard from time to time. The tollbooths continued to burn. At the Hôtel de Ville, occupied by the crowd, the electors were obliged to open up the weapons stores of the city guards. They decided to set up a permanent committee that would sit day and night.

The whole day of the 13th was spent looking for weapons. Armouries were plundered, and ironworkers forged thousands of pikes. The people clamoured for muskets to Flesselles, the provost of merchants,23 who played for time and finally refused. But thegardes-françaises, ordered to leave Paris for Saint-Denis, refused to obey and joined the people, who thereby gained decisive reinforcements: 3,000 men with their arms, cannon, and some of their officers.

The storming of the Bastille

On the morning of 14 July, the cry ‘To the Invalides!’ was heard outside the Hôtel de Ville. Éthis de Corny, the city procureur, set out at the head of a procession in that direction. The ambassador of Saxony recalls:

The Hôtel des Invalides, in full view of the troops camped on the Champ-de-Mars, was taken by seven or eight thousand unarmed townsmen who emerged furiously from three adjacent streets, and hurled themselves into a ditch twelve feet wide and eight feet deep, which they rapidly crossed by standing on each other’s shoulders. Arriving pell-mell on the esplanade, before the veterans knew what was happening, they seized twelve pieces of cannon and a mortar. They then presented the governor with an order from the city to hand over all weapons, and no longer seeing any way to defend his building, the governor opened its doors. They seized 40,000 muskets and a powder magazine.

After witnessing this incredibly speedy operation, I crossed to the adjacent camp, where the spectacle of sad, dull and defeated troops, who had spent two weeks shut up in quite a narrow space, struck me as different from that of the enterprising and courageous men I had just left.24

At the same time, deputations from the districts and the electors arrived at the Bastille and urged the governor, De Launay, to hand over the fortress’s arms and withdraw the cannon that were threatening the faubourg Saint-Antoine. The discussions dragged on as the people massed around the fortress, and finally, after the garrison had fired on the representatives, the assault began. What followed has been repeatedly described: the first drawbridge taken, the crowd in the courtyard under fire from the towers, the artisans from the faubourg reinforced by the gardes-françaises bringing up their cannon to break down the gates, and at last, around five in the afternoon, the surrender of the Swiss Guards and the veterans of the garrison. The battle cost a hundred lives on the side of the attackers and a single death on the other side. De Launay, who was (wrongly) held responsible for the order to fire on the negotiators, and Flesselles, who was (rightly) condemned for having deceived the people about the arms stores, were killed on the place de Grève, and their heads paraded on pikes.

To wage a street battle and retake Paris, Louis XVI would have needed an army such as he did not have. And Paris was not the only cause for alarm: news arriving from far and wide indicated that the whole country was rising up. The king accordingly had to retreat. On 15 July, he came to the Assembly and announced that he had ordered the troops to leave both Paris and Versailles. The next day, after a new representation on the part of the Assembly, he reinstated Necker and the ministers who had been sacked along with him. In Paris, the archbishop had a Te Deum celebrated in Notre-Dame. Bailly was appointed mayor of the city, and Lafayette commander of the force that would soon become the National Guard. On 17 July, the king agreed to come to Paris. His presence on the balcony of the Hôtel de Ville, where Bailly handed him the new tricolour cockade, sealed the victory of the Paris insurrection. The king, after fixing the cockade to his hat, said only: ‘You may always count on my love.’

The storming of the Bastille is the most famous event in the French Revolution, and has moreover become its symbol throughout the world. But this glory rather distorts its historical significance. It was neither a moment of miracle, nor a conclusion, nor a culminating point of the ‘good’ revolution before the start of the ‘bad’, that of 1793 and the Terror; the storming of the Bastille was one shining point on the trajectory of the Paris insurrection, which continued its upward curve on 10 August 1792 and 31 May–2 June 1793, before falling tragically back again after Thermidor, with the hunger riots of Prairial in year III.

The municipal revolution

In three or four days, news of the capture of the Bastille spread across the country and gave a lively impulse to the movements that had been bubbling almost everywhere for several weeks with greater or lesser vigour. During the second half of July, an exceptional fortnight, it was the very scaffolding of the monarchy that collapsed: the centralized administration, the Parlements, the municipalities or ‘city bodies’, the collection of taxes, even the army – everything disintegrated with amazing speed.

In the provincial capitals, the majority of the intendants – representatives of central government – abandoned their posts. Everywhere the storm blew away the ‘city bodies’, whose members owed their power to heredity, the purchase of office or direct appointment by the royal authority. They were everywhere replaced by permanent committees, which were in fact new municipalities. These were either composed of the electors who had appointed the deputies to the Estates-General, or were themselves elected by general assemblies of citizens. This municipal revolution, a decisive step in the Revolution as a whole, was largely though not invariably peaceful. On 21 July, Arthur Young on his way through Strasbourg witnessed the sacking of the Hôtel de Ville:

Passing through the square of the hôtel de ville, the mob were breaking the windows with stones, notwithstanding an officer and a detachment of horse was in the square … Perceiving that the troops would not attack them, except in words and menaces, they grew more violent, and furiously attempted to beat the door in pieces with iron crows; placing ladders to the windows. In about a quarter of an hour, which gave time for the assembled magistrates to escape by a back door, they burst all open, and entered like a torrent with a universal shout of the spectators.25

The first act of the new municipalities was to establish urban militias to maintain order and ensure respect for property. It was the shortage and high price of bread that fuelled the rebellions rumbling everywhere; urban populations were demanding the abolition of duties and taxation on wheat and bread.

In Poissy there was a riot against a man suspected of hoarding. In Saint-Germain-en-Laye, a miller by the name of Sauvage had his head cut off. In Pointoise an insurrection for grain was stopped by the presence of a regiment returning from Paris. In Le Havre, when the inhabitants learned that 400 hussars had been embarked at Honfleur to reinforce the city garrison, they attacked the naval arsenal, broke down the doors, pointed cannon at the jetty and forced the ships carrying the hussars to turn back.26

In Paris, on 20 July, each of the sixty districts sent two representatives to the Hôtel de Ville to form the new municipality: advocates (the largest group), notaries, businessmen, doctors, rentiers, two bankers, a few nobles … There was also a baker and a builder, but these were entrepreneurs rather than workers.27 At the first session, Bailly was elected mayor of the city and Lafayette commander-in-chief of the National Guard.

Difficulties soon arose. When Foulon, who had been appointed controller-general on 12 July, was arrested along with his son-in-law Berthier, all the efforts of the Hôtel de Ville to have them taken to the Abbaye prison and tried according to due process were in vain. The crowd hanged Foulon from a lamppost and cut off his head, which was paraded through Paris at the end of a pike. Berthier, arrested in Compiègne and brought into Paris through the porte Saint-Martin, was preceded by posters bearing the slogans: ‘He stole from the king and from France – He devoured the people’s subsistence – He was the slave of the rich and the tyrant of the poor – He drank the blood of widows and orphans.’ On reaching the Maubuée fountain, close to the Saint-Merry church, he was shown Foulon’s head, the mouth stuffed with hay. Questioned at the Hôtel de Ville, taken to the Abbaye on Bailly’s orders but swallowed up by the crowd on the way, Berthier was cut down by a sabre in the rue de la Vannerie. The fear inspired by these events hastened the first wave of emigration, which began as early as 17 July with the departure of the comte d’Artois, the king’s brother, along with the Condés, Contis and Polignacs, the duc de Broglie, the prince de Lambesc and other grandees.

The Great Fear

Throughout this period, the countryside was in the grip of the Great Fear – which had actually begun at the beginning of July. There was first of all the fear of an aristocrats’ and foreigners’ plot. ‘It is imagined,’ so a noble deputy explained to the marquise de Créquy, ‘that the princes cannot see themselves exiled from a kingdom that is their homeland and their inheritance without meditating projects of revenge, to which we may suppose them capable of sacrificing all they have. They are believed capable of bringing in foreign troops, caballing with the nobility to exterminate Paris and everything connected with the Estates-General.’28 We thus see the emergence, in July 1789, of the suspicion of collusion between aristocracy and foreign powers that would have such consequences in the future.29

This fear of a plot was combined with another, already well rooted in the peasant imaginary: the fear of brigands, partly aroused by the mass of itinerants on all the country’s roads – beggars, drifters in search of employment, seasonal migrants in the harvest season, not to mention the ‘professional’ itinerants such as pedlars, bear-trainers, tinkers and silverers. ‘These wanderers might go further if hunger pressed them. When their numbers grew, they began to gather in groups, and emboldened in this way, slipped into brigandage. A farmer from Aumale wrote on 30 July: “We do not go to bed unafraid, we are much troubled by the night-time beggars, not to mention those who come in the daytime in great numbers.” ’30

Georges Lefebvre has described in detail the spread of the Great Fear from 20 July on. Radiating out from six centres that had already been in revolt since the start of the month – Franche-Comté, Champagne, Beauvaisis, Maine, and around Nantes and Ruffec – it struck almost the whole of France, with the exception of Brittany, Alsace and Languedoc.31 But after a week or so, it became clear that there were no brigands around at all. On 27 July, the third number of Révolutions de Paris reported:

It is said that several thousand armed brigands coming from the Montmorency plains are causing considerable damage, cutting the green wheat, pillaging people’s houses, even murdering anyone who opposes their designs. Women and children who fled the bloodshed arrive in tears from these places: orders are already given and the civic militia hasten to these places, along with cannon; after a forced march they finally arrive; there is general alarm, and the tocsin can be heard in every parish. And then, who would believe it? There are no enemies and no brigands, and it is hard to know how the alarm could have started.

But if the Great Fear was based on chimera, it prepared people’s minds – and weapons – for a movement that was highly serious. Impoverished peasants, taking advantage of the general disorder, made for the châteaux and aggressively demanded the old archival documents in which feudal rights were laid down, which they then tossed on bonfires. If a lord refused to hand over his parchments, they set fire to his château.

The nobles (and those commoners who had acquired land in the course of the century) felt threatened and, seeing the disorganization of the public forces, took the defence of their properties into their own hands. Having a majority in the new municipalities, as befitted their privileges, they organized the repulsion of this fourth estate that was rising from the depths of the countryside. In the Mâconnais, in what was one of the greatest peasant rebellions of the century, more than seventy châteaux were burned down. The backlash was violent. On 29 July, near the château de Cormatin, a band of peasants lost twenty men in battle, and sixty more were taken prisoner. Near Cluny, another band lost a hundred men, and 170 were captured. In Mâcon, an improvised tribunal had twenty-six rioters hanged.

The night of 4 August

The Assembly was frightened by this insurrection in the countryside, where more than eight out of ten of the population lived. Its first reaction was a call for repression. On 3 August, with Le Chapelier in the chair, Salomon, a deputy for the Orléans baillage, proposed a decree that began with the following statement: ‘It appears from letters from every province that properties are prey to the most reprehensible brigandage; châteaux are being burned everywhere, monasteries destroyed, farms abandoned to pillage. Taxes and seigniorial dues are all destroyed, the laws without force, the magistrates without authority; justice is now no more than a phantom that is uselessly sought in the courts.’ One member (whose name is not given) proposed a decree expressing ‘that it is necessary to hasten to remedy the present ills, that France will be in the greatest disorder, that it is a war of the poor against the rich’, before enjoining bailiffs, seneschals and provosts to pursue ‘all those who attack the liberty and property of any individual’.32

But the enlightened fraction of the nobility realized that the moment had come to make concessions. The session of 4 August, prepared for at the Breton club, opened in the evening with Le Chapelier presiding,33 and a declaration by the vicomte de Noailles, Lafayette’s brother-in-law (nicknamed, as a younger son with no lands, Jean sans Terres34). Noailles proposed a series of measures that amounted to a real upheaval: that tax should be paid in future ‘by all persons in the kingdom in proportion to their income’; that ‘all feudal rights should be redeemable by communities’; and that ‘seigniorial corvées, mortmains and other personal servitudes should be abolished without compensation’. The feudal system was thereby divided in two: that bearing on individuals would be suppressed, and that bearing on properties would be redeemable.

The duc d’Aiguillon, the largest fortune in France after the king and one of the first nobles to join with the Third Estate in May, then took the floor to support these proposals, starting by justifying the insurrection: ‘The people are seeking at last to shake off a yoke that has weighed on them for centuries, and, it must be admitted, this insurrection, despite being blameworthy (as is every violent aggression), can find its excuse in the vexations of which they are victim.’ He went on to emphasize the necessity of redemption: ‘These [seigniorial] rights are property. Equity prohibits demanding that any property be relinquished without granting a fair indemnity to its owner.’ It was then the turn of an obscure Breton deputy, Leguen de Kerangal:

Bring us these titles that outrage humanity itself, requiring men to be tethered to a plough like draft animals. Bring us these titles that oblige men to spend nights beating ponds to prevent the frogs from troubling the sleep of their pleasure-loving lords. Which of us, gentlemen, in this century of enlightenment, would not make an expiatory bonfire of these wretched parchments?

The idea of redemption reassured the deputies. They understood that the sacrifice would be more symbolic than real, and in a rush of enthusiasm that doubtless was not altogether insincere, they resolved to destroy the most visible foundations of the Ancien Régime. All the privileges of the orders would be abolished: the franchises of provinces and towns, seigniorial rights – hunting, garenne, colombier,35 seigniorial justice, etc. The clergy would renounce the tithe, the bourgeois the purchase of offices. This grandiose abjuration took the whole night.

These sacrifices were clearly intended to restore order in the provinces.36 But a week later, when the moment came to give legal shape to what had been proclaimed in the heady night of 4 August, the Assembly sought to narrow its scope, despite the first sentence of the text adopted: ‘The National Assembly destroys the feudal system in its entirety.’37

In Paris, news of the session of 4 August was greeted with general enthusiasm: ‘The intoxication of joy spread into every heart; people congratulated one another … Fraternity, sweet fraternity, reigned on all sides’, wrote Loustalot in no. 3 of Les Révolutions de Paris. At the same moment, however, a newcomer to journalism was searching in vain for a printer who would produce his article, which stated: ‘Let us beware; they are seeking to lull us to sleep, to deceive us. The truth is that the faction of aristocrats has always dominated the National Assembly, and the deputies of the people have always blindly followed the directions it has given them.’ This man’s name was Jean-Paul Marat, and this article, written on 6 August, would appear in the 21 September issue of his new paper,L’Ami du peuple.

The peasants also rejoiced to see the disappearance of tithe and seigniorial burdens. Soon, however, they perceived that their demands had been ignored, since the final decrees stipulated the payment of rent until redemption was completed. The visits of bailiffs showed them that nothing had changed: they had to go on paying champarts, terrages, cens, lods, and even the feudalized tithes.38 And not only did the obligation of redemption maintain the feudal yoke on all poor peasants, the conditions of this redemption were impractical even for those who possessed certain resources: all tenants of the same fief were declared jointly responsible for payment of the sum due to the lord.39 Trouble flared up again. In many places, the peasants came together and collectively refused to pay taxes and dues. On 2 September, the king sent the archbishops and bishops of the kingdom a letter of distress:

You know the disturbances that are ravaging my kingdom. You know how in many provinces, brigands and disloyal people are rife, and that not content with abandoning themselves to every excess, they have succeeded in inflaming the minds of the inhabitants of the countryside … Exhort all my subjects accordingly to await in peace the success of these patriotic measures, dissuade and prevent them from disturbing their course with insurrections apt to discourage men of goodwill. Let the people trust in my protection and my love; if the whole world abandon them, I shall watch over them.40

A single chamber; the right of royal veto

Concurrently, the Assembly had begun debating the Declaration of Rights and the Constitution. The patriotic party divided for the first time on the very principle of such a declaration, with the Moderates deeming it pointless and dangerous.41 Under pressure from Barnave, the principle was adopted, but by a small majority of 140 votes. The Declaration itself – voted on 26 August – was the preamble to the Constitution, on which debate was far more impassioned. There were two crucial points at issue: should there be one chamber or two, and should the king be granted the right of veto?

The rapporteurs of the constitution committee, Mounier and Lally-Tollendal, advocated a system on the English model: two chambers, one elected by the people and the other hereditary, like the House of Lords. They proposed giving the king an absolute right of veto over the decisions of the two chambers. The monarchists, as they were now called, had the support of Necker and Archbishop Champion de Cicé, the Garde des Sceaux. Under their influence the king refused to sign the decrees adopted by the Assembly after 4 August, and published a message that criticized these point by point. Finally, on 10 September, after a highly chaotic session, the question was clearly posed by Camus: ‘Shall there be one chamber or two?’ On a roll call, the single chamber was adopted by 490 votes to 89, with 122 votes being ‘missing or not expressed’.42 The provincial nobility, who knew they had no chance of sitting in an upper chamber, had voted with the Third Estate.

There remained the question of the veto, which Sieyès had called a ‘lettre de cachet launched against the general will’. Barnave had been in negotiations with Necker: the Assembly would grant the king a suspending veto for two legislatures (i.e. four years) in exchange for his signing the decrees of 4 August. This was a fool’s bargain: once the veto was passed, the king prevaricated and still did not sign. Against a background of increasing agitation in Paris, the monarchist party asked the king to move the government and Assembly to Compiègne, so as to shelter them from pressure from the Palais-Royal. The king declined, but decided to concentrate troops once again around Versailles, including the Flanders regiment that would soon become notorious.

The Declaration of Rights

The 1789 Declaration of Rights was not written in the silence of a study or the seclusion of an office. In the Assembly’s final session on 26 August, amendments of every kind were made against a hubbub of individual conversation, and even the published proceedings convey a rare sense of disorder. This is why the Declaration was incomplete, its seventeen articles omitting such important points as the right to education, the right of petition, the right of association … It was drafted at a troubled moment when the link between the Moderates and the advanced party in the Assembly was not yet broken, which explains the caution and contradictions of a text which has to be read as a snapshot, the reflection of a moment, and not as a coherent whole to be engraved in stone. It was agreed, in any case, that it would be reviewed and completed once the Constitution was finalized.

Much has been written about its sources, which were many: the Declaration of Independence and the constitutions of the American states, as we have seen, the remonstrations of the Parlements, Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws. But this Declaration is above all imbued with the doctrine of natural right, as indicated by its preamble: ‘The representatives of the French People … have resolved to set forth in a solemn Declaration the natural, unalienable and sacred rights of man …’ Article 2 lays down that ‘The aim of every political association is the preservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of man. These rights are Liberty, Property, Safety and Resistance to Oppression.’ And in defining liberty, article 4 indicates that ‘the exercise of the natural rights of every man has no bounds other than those that ensure to the other members of society the enjoyment of these same rights.’

Florence Gauthier has shown that there is a contradiction in the Declaration between the natural right to liberty and the natural right to property. While the right to property is seen as natural and hence inalienable, the production and distribution of the most important means of subsistence (especially grain) are entrusted to those whose aim is to enrich themselves, with no possible control. From this point, the liberty of the poor becomes an empty word, as they can no longer secure their own existence. Three years later, Robespierre would say: ‘All that is indispensable to preserve life is the common property of the whole society; it is only the surplus that is an individual quality to be left to the work of merchants.’ In the meantime, ‘in the Declaration of Natural Rights of 1789, the universal property of liberty stands in contradiction with the private property of material goods.’43

Yet the significance of this Declaration was immense: it signalled the end of the Ancien Régime. To write that ‘the principle of all sovereignty lies essentially in the Nation’, that ‘the law is the expression of the general will’, and that ‘all citizens are equally admissible to all public dignities, positions and employments’, was to tear down the whole edifice of kingship by divine right. These sentences that sound self-evident today – even if their true consequences are not always drawn out – were the death-knell of the old order, and they set out the programme of the Revolution. This is the reason why the revolutionaries always clung to the ‘rock of the rights of man’, and why Chaumette would term the Declaration the ‘French people’s Sinaï’.44


This question has divided historians quite passionately. Champions of the ‘bourgeois revolution’ position are particularly found among ‘Marxists’. Jaurès first of all, who took up the theses developed by the German Social-Democrats and wrote in the opening lines of his introduction: ‘The French Revolution realized the two essential conditions for socialism: democracy and capitalism. But at bottom it represented the political advent of the bourgeois class.’45 In his wake, historians working in the orbit of the French Communist Party and backed up by their colleagues in the Soviet Union did much for the thesis of the bourgeois revolution, which fitted neatly with the teachings of barracks Marxism, or ‘proletarian science’: the bourgeoisie, a rising class during the Revolution, destroyed feudalism and established capitalism; it was a progressive element inasmuch as it gave rise to the proletariat, destined to construct a classless society and carry out the great revolution of October 1917.46

Besides the fact that Marx wrote nothing that might relate to such a schema – notes on the French Revolution are few and far between in his work, and sometimes contradictory – this reading is highly debatable, for at least three reasons. The first is that it was not ‘the bourgeoisie’ that destroyed feudalism; Louis XIV dealt the decisive blows. On this point, we can agree with Tocqueville and Furet: the night of 4 August simply swept away the debris of an already moribund feudalism. Secondly, by making the bourgeoisie the driving force of the Revolution, its progressive element, ‘Marxist’ historians are led to an untenable dilemma: in their struggle against the bourgeoisie, the revolutionary peasants and sans-culottes were working against the grain of history as they opposed the establishment of capitalism, an indispensable stage in the Stalinist pattern.47 The people were thus objectively reactionary in their struggle for survival – like the Ukrainian peasants of the 1920s.48

The third reason is semantic, but not merely. During the Revolution the words ‘bourgeois’ and ‘bourgeoisie’ are highly uncommon in speeches, debates and newspapers. I have sought for them in Robespierre, in Brissot, in Loustalot, in Marat and in Hébert: I have found ‘the rich’, ‘hoarders’, ‘aristocrats’, ‘plotters’, ‘monopolists’, ‘rogues’, ‘rentiers’, but scarcely a single ‘bourgeois’.49 This rarity of the word, to my mind, means something very clear, expressing the absence of the thing. The bourgeoisie did not exist as a class. There were certainly rich and poor, haves and have-nots, but this does not amount to a bourgeoisie and a proletariat. Was the Revolution bourgeois or not? That is a question I refuse to ask, as it basically has no meaning.

1Arthur Young was scandalized: ‘The spectators in the galleries are allowed to interfere in the debates by clapping their hands, and other noisy expressions of approbation: this is grossly indecent: it is also dangerous; for, if they are permitted to express approbation, they are, by parity of reason, allowed expressions of dissent; and they may hiss as well as clap; which it is said, they have sometimes done: – this would be, to overrule the debate and influence the deliberations’ (Arthur Young’s Travels in France, p. 165).

2P. J. B. Buchez and P. C. Roux, Histoire parlementaire de la Révolution française, Paris: Paulin, 1834, vol. 1, p. 355.

3[The Garde des Sceaux, literally ‘keeper of the seals’, remains a title of the French minister of justice today. – Translator]

4These were the 407 second-level electors, those who chose the deputies. They continued to meet after the electoral process was concluded, first of all in the Salle du Musée, rue Dauphine, then at the Hôtel de Ville.

5Arthur Young’s Travels in France, p. 151.

6They soon adopted the custom of meeting at a café on the avenue de Saint-Cloud; when the Assembly was transferred to Paris, the Breton club became the Société des Amis de la Constitution and met at the Couvent des Jacobins.

7Archives parlementaires de 1787 à 1860. Recueil complet des débats législatifs et politiques des chambres françaises, 1re série: de 1787 à 1799, Paris: Paul Dupont, vol. 8, p. 42. (Henceforth abbreviated to A. P.)

8Reprint of Le Moniteur, Paris: Plon, 1858, vol. 1, p. 55.

9Sieyès, Political Writings, pp. 147–8.

10Rabaut de Saint-Étienne, Précis d’histoire de la Révolution française [1807], 1819 reprint, pp. 56–7. Cited in Mathiez, Les Grandes Journées de la Constituante, Paris: Les Éditions de la Passion, 1989, p. 10.

11Martin-Dauch, deputy for Castelnaudary.

12Mémoires de Grégoire, ancien évêque de Blois, Paris: Ambroise Dupont, 1837, vol. 1, p. 380. Cited in Mathiez, Les Grandes Journées.

13A. P., vol. 8, pp. 143–7.

14Ibid., p. 147.

15The gardes-françaises regiment had around 4,000 men and was responsible for guarding the royal palaces together with the Swiss Guards. Many of them came from Paris and had ties to the population. ‘The French Guards, residents in Paris, and mostly married, had seen the depot in which the children of the soldiers were educated, free of expense, shortly before suppressed by M. du Châtelet, their hard-hearted colonel. The only change made in the military institutions, was made against them’ (Jules Michelet, Histoire de la Révolution Française, p. 128).

16Dispatch from Salmour, minister plenipotentiary of Saxony, 28 June 1789, in Flammermont, Rapport sur les correspondances des agents diplomatiques étrangers en France avant la Révolution, Nouvelles archives des missions, vol. 8, p. 231. Cited in Mathiez, Les Grandes Journées, p. 20.

17Le Moniteur, vol. 1, p. 96.

18Ibid., p. 98.

19Arthur Young’s Travels in France, p. 183.

20Quoted in Buchez and Roux, Histoire parlementaire, vol. 1, p. 343.

21A. P., vol. 8, p. 208.

22This is reported by several sources, even if Desmoulins undoubtedly exaggerated his own role.

23This function was comparable to that of mayor of Paris.

24Dispatch from Salmour, minister of Saxony, 14 July 1789. Cited in Mathiez, Les Grandes Journées, p. 238.

25Arthur Young’s Travels in France, p. 208.

26Quoted in Buchez and Roux, Histoire parlementaire, vol. 1, p. 421.

27This list contains few who would later play any significant role. These include Quatremère de Quincy and Moreau de Saint-Méry, who, despite representing the slave-owning colonists of Saint-Domingue, was named vice-president of the new municipality, as well as Brissot, who represented the district of Les Filles-Saint-Thomas.

28Lefebvre, The Great Fear, p. 62.

29For Timothy Tackett (‘La Grande Peur et le complot aristocratique sous la Révolution française’, AHRF no. 335, Jan–Mar 2004, pp. 1–17), the fear of such a plot was strongest in Paris and the surrounding region. Elsewhere his explanation is rather post hoc: ‘It was after the event that a certain number of individuals came to suspect the nobility of having triggered the panic’ (p. 9).

30Lefevbre, The Great Fear, p. 17.

31A sample of this meticulous description: ‘The panic passed through Bonnétable moving northwards and crossed the Perche via Bellême, Mortagne, Moulins-La-Marche and Laigle. By the 23rd, it was well installed in Évreux. Mostly it moved westwards. On the 22nd, it began to move towards the Sarthe: it appeared in Mamers and Ballon about nine in the evening and at some time later in the day in Le Mans. During the night of 22nd–23rd, a messenger carried it from the latter town to La Flèche and at the same time the current crossed the Bas-Maine from the Sarthe to the Mayenne; the entire area was affected – Lassay, Mayenne, Laval and, by the end of the day, Château-Gontier’ (ibid., p. 173).

32A. P., vol. 8, pp. 336–7. My emphasis.

33Ibid., pp. 343–50.

34[‘Jean sans Terres’ was the French appellation of England’s King John, ‘John Lackland’. – Translator]

35[Garenne was the right to capture small game, especially rabbits, on common land, which had been steadily whittled away by noble enclosures. The right to keep a dovecote (colombier) had been likewise restricted to the nobility, whose pigeons were also entitled to feed with impunity on peasant crops. – Translator]

36Mirabeau, in no. 26 of Le Courrier de Provence (10 August): ‘Eighteen articles drafted and decreed with such haste have the object of restoring in the kingdom the authority of the laws, giving the people a deposit on their happiness and moderating their discontent by a prompt enjoyment of the first benefits of liberty.’

37A. P., vol. 8, pp. 397–8.

38[Nobles drew champart or terrage as a share of peasant crops, most generally one-eighth. The cens was a form of feudal rent, and lods was charged on transfer or inheritance of land. – Translator] The feudalized tithes, which could be drawn by secular landowners, had not been suppressed on 4 August, as distinct from ecclesiastical tithes.

39Mathiez, The French Revolution, p. 56.

40Document from the Bibliothèque historique de la ville de Paris (BHVP), classification mark 136159.

41Malouet’s line of argument against the principle of the Declaration was a subtle one: ‘There is no natural right that has not been modified by positive law. Now, if you have both the principle and the exception, where is the law? If you do not indicate any restrictions, why present men in all their plenitude with rights that they can only exert within just limits?’ (A. P., vol. 8, pp. 322–3).

42A. P., vol. 8, pp. 487–9.

43Florence Gauthier, Triomphe et mort du droit naturel en Révolution, Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1992, p. 48.

44Journal de la Montagne, 6–7 September 1793.

45Jaurès, Histoire socialiste, vol. 1, p. 61.

46The thesis of a ‘bourgeois revolution’ also finds support from François Furet and his disciples; here it is put to a different use, as a revolution of the elites, erasing the people from the history of the Revolution.

47See on these points the Introduction to the new edition of Mathiez’s La Réaction thermidorienne, by Yannick Bosc and Florence Gauthier (Paris: La Fabrique, 2010); and Florence Gauthier, ‘Critique du concept de “révolution bourgeoise” ’, Raison Présente, no. 123, 1997, pp. 57–72 (online at révolution-franç

48‘Our peasants thought only of arresting the advances of capitalism; they wanted to keep to their old routine … These men were turned towards the past. In their state of mind, there was undoubtedly more conservatism and routine than innovative ardour’ (Lefebvre, ‘La révolution française et les paysans’, p. 349).

49To be fair, I did not conduct a systematic computerized search. It is true that the word appears here and there, but not with the meaning it has today. It certainly features in the Histoire parlementaire of Buchez and Roux, but in their own commentary – written in the 1830s – rather than in the contemporary reports they published.

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