Modern history


The Principles of 1789 and the Reform of France

ROYAL authority had evaporated. Nobody could misread the signs of that in the days following Louis XVI’s decision to pull back his troops. Early on 17 July the Count d’Artois left Versailles for the north-east frontier, to be followed over subsequent weeks by many of the courtiers who had supported his intrigues. Their emigration clearly showed that for the moment they thought the royal cause lost. And later the same day the king made his way, escorted only by a handful of deputies, to the Hôtelde Ville of Paris to confirm that the troops were withdrawing and announce that Necker had been recalled. He also confirmed the nomination of Bailly as mayor of Paris (a new title) and Lafayette as commander of the new citizens’ militia, now being called the National Guard. It was said that 150,000 armed citizens were on the streets that day, all wearing cockades in red and blue, the colours both of the city and the Duke d’Orléans. Later in the month Lafayette would splice them with Bourbon white for the uniform of his National Guardsmen, and so the patriotic tricolour was born. The king accepted a cockade and stuck it in his hat on arrival at the Hotel de Ville; and then, for the first time, people began to cheer him. Just along the road, a contractor was already setting his workmen to demolish the Bastille.

But the excitement and tension of that week did not evaporate so easily. The price of bread remained high, supplies uncertain, and rumours of starvation plots were readily believed. Violence against those suspected of opposing the patriotic cause was all too tempting a response for a populace that on the fourteenth had hacked the governor of the Bastille to pieces and massacred the city’s chief magistrate, Flesselles, who had delayed the issue of arms. Their heads were paraded through the streets on pikes. On the twenty-second Bertier de Sauvigny, intendant of Paris, was caught trying to emigrate and brought back to the city. He and his father-in-law Foulon, who had briefly accepted office in Breteuil’s ill-fated ‘ministry of the hundred hours’, were lynched and decapitated under suspicion of trying to starve the city the previous week. A few public men, carried away by the excitement, attempted to justify these killings. Barnave, in a phrase that was to dog the rest of his career, asked what was so pure about the blood shed. But most educated onlookers were appalled by such scenes of unbridled savagery. Lafayette, feeling that the newly established National Guard should have prevented them, tried to resign his command, but was pressed from all sides to stay on. Feeble though it was, the citizens’ militia was the only public force patriots trusted, and it needed to be reliably led and organized in these formative days. News now pouring in from the provinces only reinforced this conviction.

Arthur Young, who had left Paris on 28 June convinced that the Revolution was over, was told in Nancy on 15 July that provincial towns would not stir until they knew what Paris had done. But in other places the established authorities had already been challenged for failing to deal with bread shortages. The militia set up in Marseilles in March was soon imitated in other southern towns, and in the last days of June, as the constitutional struggle at Versailles hung in the balance, many municipal authorities came under increasing pressure from electors or self-appointed notables for failing to take precautionary steps against the dual threat of popular violence and despotism’s revenge. News of Necker’s dismissal made the movement general, and in most of the kingdom’s major towns the third week of July saw the establishment of revolutionary committees which either supplanted the old authorities or worked alongside them, monitoring their every move. Usually they assumed power amid scenes of riot. In Strasbourg the town hall was sacked. In Rouen grain stores were pillaged and textile workers smashed spinning-jennies. In Rennes soldiers refused to defend the citadel and joined crowds who drove their commander out of the city. Everywhere there were calls for cheaper bread, and in some places people denounced all taxes. The self-appointed committees of this municipal revolution made it their first priority to contain the effervescence, and citizens’ militias were hurriedly set up everywhere. Subsequently they busied themselves with securing grain supplies, and not least with sending congratulatory addresses to the National Assembly on its providential escape from destruction. Prominent in these movements were the lawyers who had played such a central part in the spring elections; but all property owners were drawn together by the fear of anarchy, and in commercial and industrial centres businessmen threw themselves into political activity where they had earlier been mere tongue-tied onlookers. Nobles and clergy often proffered assistance too, but they were regarded as too close to the municipalities now being supplanted, and in any case the earlier intransigence of the noble and clerical deputies at Versailles threw suspicion on all those who had elected them. In Dijon nobles and clergy were put under precautionary house arrest. Nor was exclusion from local power the only blow the privileged orders were to suffer in these weeks. Even more serious was an attack on their authority in the countryside.

Rural unrest had been growing in many parts of the kingdom as the grain shortage worsened over the spring. Only the limitless hopes raised by the drafting of the cahiers and subsequent elections had held an anxious and hungry peasantry back from wholesale attacks on grain stores and defiance of the demands made by tax-, tithe-, and due-collectors. They clearly expected a spectacular lightening of their burdens. During the rumour-filled weeks of deadlock at Versailles the number of incidents increased, and tales of riots and tumults in Paris and other cities fanned rural impatience. News of the king’s surrender to popular resistance broke all restraints. His acquiescence in the defeat of the privileged orders was taken as a signal to all his subjects to take their own measures against public enemies. The prolonged political crisis had spawned countless wild rumours of plots to thwart the patriotic cause by starving the people. Monastic and noble granaries, reputedly bulging with the proceeds of the previous season’s rents, dues, and tithes, seemed obvious evidence of their owners’ wicked intentions. Equally suspicious were urban merchants scouring country markets far beyond their usual circuits to provide bread for hungry townsmen. Besides, the roads were thronged with unprecedented numbers of men seeking work as a result of the slump. Farmers had good reason to dread the depredations of bands of travelling vagrants, and now took little persuading that the kingdom was alive with brigands in aristocratic pay. It was just a year since the notorious storms of July 1788, and as a promising harvest began to ripen country people were particularly nervous. All this produced the ‘Great Fear’, a massive panic that swept whole provinces in the last weeks of July and left only the most peripheral regions untouched. Peasants assembled, armed themselves, and prepared to fight off the ruthless hirelings of aristocracy. Seen from a distance, such armed bands were often taken for brigands themselves, and so the panic spread.

In many areas villagers did not wait for the marauders to arrive. Then it would be too late. They were determined to make sure of aristocratic defeat by striking pre-emptively. After all, they would only be anticipating what the Assembly was bound to decree. As one country priest explained, ‘When the inhabitants heard that everything was going to be different they began to refuse to pay both tithes and dues, considering themselves so permitted, they said, by the new law to come.’1 In other places they raided barns to repossess what had already been paid, and in certain regions, such as western Normandy, Burgundy, Hainault, Alsace, Franche Comté, and Dauphiné, there were mass attacks on manor houses and castles. Even so there was little indiscriminate destruction or looting, except where lords offered resistance. The attackers made for the symbols of feudalism—dovecotes, seigneurial ovens and wine-presses, weather-vanes. Above all they made for muniment rooms, where terriers and other records of feudal obligations were held. The rooms were ransacked, their contents burned, and distantly glimpsed smoke palls from bonfires of legal papers made their own contributions to the general panic. When lords were in residence, they were often compelled to make formal renunciations of their rights. If they refused, or if their records were not found, whole buildings might be burned down. On 19 July intruders at the manor house of a particularly unpopular Franche Comté landlord at Quincey, near Vesoul, were blown up in a huge explosion which destroyed the building. Nobody blamed the intruders—it was assumed that this was the revenge any lord would take given the chance. News of the incident soon spread over all eastern France, constantly embroidered, and led to a new wave of sacking castles and rich abbeys which went on well into August.

Townsmen were appalled. Urban upheavals taking place simultaneously had done much to inflame the peasantry, but they were over fairly quickly, and citizens’ militias seemed to have the situation in most towns under reasonable control. In some places they even felt safe enough to send their forces out into the surrounding countryside to restore order. But as yet they had little training or experience, nobody trusted regular troops, and remoter rural districts seemed completely out of control. From Paris and Versailles, with reports of riot, pillage, and arson pouring in from all points of the compass, the situation looked even worse. ‘By letters from every province’, declared the spokesman of the National Assembly’s reports committee on 3 August,2 ‘it appears that properties of whatever sort are falling prey to the most disgraceful brigandage; on all sides castles are being burned, monasteries destroyed, farms given up to pillage. Taxes, payments to lords, all are destroyed; the law is powerless, magistrates without authority, and justice is a mere phantom sought from the courts in vain.’ He moved a motion urging citizens to keep calm, and continue paying their taxes, tithes, and dues until the Assembly decreed a new order of things. But more radical members thought such an appeal unlikely to work without more tangible incentives. Deputies from Brittany, whose regular meetings to concert a common approach were winning them notice as the ‘Breton Club’, decided that a more spectacular act, ‘a kind of magic’ as one of them termed it, was required if public effervescence was to be calmed. The whole of feudalism, they thought, should be abolished in one grand gesture. It was going to happen anyway: cahiers, which another committee of the Assembly was now busily analysing, had demanded it. They persuaded the Duke d’Aiguillon, a rich young courtier of liberal views who had been active in the Committee of Thirty, to propose abolition as an amendment to the original motion. They timed his intervention for the evening of Tuesday 4 August when they expected a thin attendance in the chamber, but when the radical Breton Le Chapelier would be in the chair. It proved to be the most sweeping and radical legislative session of the whole French Revolution.

It began as chaotically as it was to continue. Before d’Aiguillon could speak another nobleman, the Viscount de Noailles, doubtless aware of what was afoot, came forward and moved his own version of abolition. D’Aiguillon could only support him, but the effect of two similar proposals coming in quick succession was to start an auction. Both had called for redemption of dues and abolition of serfdom and labour services; but others saw that feudalism did not end there. Hunting rights were soon being denounced, then private courts, then tolls. The original motion, and its purpose of calming the countryside, was soon lost sight of in a torrent of denunciations and renunciations, each carried by acclaim. The all-night session would be remembered as a display of boundless altruism and, as one nobleman carried away by emotion termed it, a ‘moment of patriotic intoxication’.3 But old scores were also settled amid the enthusiasm, Country nobles made sure that the courtiers who had deprived them of their manorial prerogatives did not escape with their pensions and sinecures. A bishop, it was noted, had been the first to denounce hunting rights, and this led an angry duke to call for an end to tithes. Vestry fees and pluralism soon went the same way, and by the time dawn broke the parish clergy had been stripped of much of their income. In the small hours the session developed into a general assault on privileges of all sorts. Representatives of corporate towns and whole provinces came forward to renounce liberties and exemptions accumulated over half a millennium. Magistrates abandoned the privileges of their offices, declared for free justice, and raised no demur when venality of office, the basis of their tenure, was thrown on to the bon fire in turn. Every public employment, the consensus was, would now be open to all according to their talents. Frenchmen would henceforth enjoy complete civil and fiscal equality. It was past two in the morning when the sitting came to a close with the deputies ordering a Te Deum to be sung throughout the kingdom, and the striking of a commemorative medal depicting themselves abandoning all privileges on one side, and Louis XVI, now proclaimed ‘Restorer of French Liberty’, on the other.

Nobody who was not there, Rabaut de Saint-Étienne later recalled, could know what this extraordinary session had been like. Even those who had been there had conflicting memories. Only scanty minutes had been kept; it took a week to draft all the decisions taken into a formal decree, and a further six months before all the technical details were settled. In cold legal language it all sounded, and was, less generous and expansive than it had seemed in the emotional candlelight of a summer night. The decree of 11 August began with a ringing declaration that ‘The National Assembly entirely destroys the feudal regime’. What it actually did was lay down that most feudal dues were redeemable, and should continue to be collected until compensation was paid. They were, after all, property, just like the venal offices for which compensation was also laid down. Tithe, on the other hand, was abolished outright, despite protests from the clergy. Some deputies were heard to declare ominously that all ecclesiastical property ought to be at the disposal of the nation. Yet in the event it proved irrelevant whether compensation had been decreed or not. By 11 August peasants all over France had stopped paying both dues and tithes (not to mention taxes), and they took the decree as a vindication of their stand. They did not now intend to start paying again, on however limited a basis, and few of them did. It was they, rather than the National Assembly, who really destroyed the feudal regime by refusing to co-operate even in its orderly winding up. So the decree’s most important effect, along with the need to get back into the fields to gather in the harvest, was simply to calm the countryside down; and by the end of the month the worst of the rural unrest and panic had died away.

But far more than feudalism had been cast aside on the night of 4 August. Privilege, that fundamental principle of social and institutional life since time immemorial, had been renounced. With it went the whole structure of provincial, local, and municipal government. For three centuries French social mobility had largely been channelled through the sale of offices, but that too now stood condemned. So did the system by which the pastoral clergy had always been supported, although the estates of the Church (minus feudal rights) remained for the moment intact. Nothing so sweeping had been in the minds of most French people when 1789 began. Many deputies, indeed, had had positive mandates from their electors not to support measures like the destruction of local and provincial privileges; and there had been overwhelming support for paying the parish clergy more, rather than destroying their income altogether. But by now the deputies at Versailles had gone far beyond their mandates on a wide range of issues. The merger of the orders itself could not have taken place if mandates had been strictly respected by nobles and clergy; and one of the National Assembly’s first formal acts was to vote, on 8 July, for the abrogation of all binding mandates. This left the representatives of the sovereign nation free, without referring back, to decree the destruction of whatever they saw fit. It also left them at liberty to reconstruct their country on entirely new lines.

All the deputies assembled at Versailles in May 1789 believed that they had been elected to endow France with a constitution. As early as 7 July they had voted to call themselves the National Constituent Assembly. And there was remarkable agreement across all three orders, and in the cahiers, about what the constitution should contain. Most deputies believed (although some deplored giving such hostages to fortune) that it should be prefaced by a declaration of rights along the lines pioneered in the 1780s by certain American states. Between 9 and 28 July a score of drafts were submitted by various deputies, and on 4 August, the afternoon before the famous all-night session, the Assembly agreed to promulgate a declaration as a matter of urgency. On 26 August, after a week of discussion spun out by clerical reluctance to concede total freedom of thought and worship, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen was finally voted. The Assembly reserved the right to add to or alter it when the constitution itself was finally promulgated, but when that moment came two years later nobody dared. The declaration had become the founding document of the Revolution and, as such, sacrosanct.

The keynote of the declaration was the rule of law. It is specifically referred to in nine of the seventeen articles. Article VI defines law as the expression of the general will, made by the direct or indirect participation of all citizens; an implicit condemnation of the legislative sovereignty claimed by kings under the old order. Sovereignty in any case, article III declares, ‘rests essentially in the nation’. No body and no individual (which meant no king) might exercise any authority not expressly emanating from the nation. In the eyes of the law all citizens are equal, for, states the very first article, men are born and remain free and equal in rights. The aim of all political associations (art. II) is the preservation of the natural rights of liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression. Hitherto, the inference was, these rights had been ignored in France. That was why it was necessary for the declaration to condemn arbitrary arrest and imprisonment (art. VII), presumption of guilt before judgement (art. IX), public officials who were not accountable (art. XV), and insecurity of property (art. XVII). ‘Any society’, article XVI specifies, ‘in which the guarantee of rights is not assured or the separation of powers not determined has no constitution.’ And equality before the law meant the end of privilege. Taxation henceforth would be ‘apportioned equally among all citizens according to their capacity to pay’ (art. XIII), and appointment to public positions would be open to all citizens ‘according to their capacity, and with no other distinction than that of their virtues and talents’ (art. VI). Only on freedom of thought is the declaration somewhat equivocal. Although free communication of thought and opinion is singled out as ‘one of the most precious of the rights of man’ (art. XI) it is noted that it can be abused, in ways the law will define. And although no one may be disturbed for his opinions, even (in a rebuff to clerical arguments for a continued Catholic monopoly of public worship) religious ones, a limit may be set if their manifestation threatens public order (art. X). This was one of the few hints in the declaration that men and citizens had duties as well as rights, although some early drafts had sought to list duties, too. To have done so would certainly have made the whole document less memorable. As it was, it long outlived the constitution to which it was a preamble; and has been looked to ever since by all who derive inspiration from the French Revolution as the movement’s first great manifesto, enshrining the fundamental principles of 1789.

Its drafters could not have hoped for more; but from the start they realized that something else was required to endow the declaration with the full solemnity they intended. It needed the assent of the king. So did the decree of 11 August. If the monarch did not openly and freely associate himself in this way with the destruction of the ancien régime, the whole work of the Assembly would be vitiated. Yet could the king really be free without the right to refuse? The issue plunged the deputies at once into the intricacies of constitution-making.

Admirers of the checks and balances of the British constitution dominated the Assembly’s constitutional committee, and they believed that the king should have the same powers of veto as the British monarch. They also believed that the democratic element of an elective National Assembly should be balanced by a second chamber or senate whose members sat for life. Led by Mounier, Malouet, and a handful of rich and eloquent metropolitan nobles like Lally-Tollendal and Clermont-Tonnerre, and energetically supported by Mirabeau, these monarchiens (as their opponents dubbed them) spent the first two weeks of September trying to hustle the Assembly into accepting their programme. But the alliance of patriotic heroes of July like Mounier and Mirabeau with notorious conservatives like Malouet provoked widespread surprise and suspicion; provincial noble deputies mistrusted rich former courtiers when they advocated what looked like a House of Lords which only the great would enter; while ordinary third-estate deputies saw no point in dividing a legislature that had been unified after a tremendous struggle only a few months beforehand. On 10 September a second chamber was decisively rejected by 490 votes to 89, and the monarchien-dominated constitutional committee dissolved. The veto question was even more hotly contested. The king seemed in no hurry to sanction the August decrees, and that seemed evidence of the danger of allowing him an unlimited veto. But only a handful of deputies, such as Sieyes and the prolix but still un influential Robespierre, believed that once the National Assembly had pronounced the monarch should have no veto at all. Most, including patriotic leaders like Barnave, Duport, and the noble Lameth brothers, were attracted to the idea of a temporary or ‘suspensive’ veto; and when Necker let it be known that this was also the king’s preference, they detected a hint that the August decrees would be sanctioned if it was carried. Consequently the suspensive veto passed overwhelmingly (673 votes to 352) on 15 September.

It was the first time the Assembly had flouted popular sentiment, for in Paris and many of the provinces it was clear that any form of veto aroused deep mistrust. As soon as the issue arose there was uproar at the Palais Royal, and on 30 August a renegade nobleman who spent his time there, the Marquis de Saint-Huruge, attempted to drum up a protest march to Versailles. The king and Assembly, the marchers declared, should be brought to Paris where they would be under constant scrutiny. There were only a few hundred of them, and they were stopped by the National Guard; but nobody was in a position to stop anti-veto agitation in pamphlets and the periodical press which had established itself as a permanent feature of political life in the capital since July. A whole new paper, in fact, was launched on 12 September with denunciations of the Assembly’s equivocations over the veto. It was called Le Publiciste Parisien, but soon changed its name to L’Ami du Peuple. With it, the charlatan adventurer Jean-Paul Marat at last found his vocation after years of failure and rejection. Marat throve on an atmosphere of plots and suspicion, and called for the Assembly to be purged of unreliable members. The lesson of the previous July was that the people should never shrink from direct action in the public interest. Nor was Marat alone in this view. The constant talk in Paris, noted an apprehensive bookseller, was of lynching, or ‘the lamppost; everyone called an aristocrat is threatened with it; and aristocrat is a name for anybody you don’t like. Imagine the alarm in certain circles, people of wealth, title or ability, everybody in fact whom the populace and others once feared or envied. Fear of the lamp-post stops the plotting of a few mischief-makers, but it also terrifies many honest folk who pass for enemies of the new order of things but really are not.’4 Such paranoid attitudes were compounded by persistent economic difficulties in the capital. After falling somewhat in late July and August, the price of bread began to climb again and supplies became irregular, just at the time of year when a good harvest should have banished all food worries for a twelvemonth, But the fine, still weather that had ripened the grain had also dried up rivers and immobilized mills. Grain riots began to be reported from markets in outlying districts around the capital, and by mid-September rowdy groups of women were stopping grain convoys within the city and petitioning the municipal authorities to bring prices and supplies under closer control. Guards were placed on bakers’ shops, and Lafayette and his militia found themselves hard pressed to contain all the incidents that occurred.

Parallels with the situation early in July escaped no one. All that was needed to reproduce it exactly was a military threat; and that, too, soon materialized. Alarmed at persistent rumours of being taken by force to Paris, on 14 September the king summoned the notoriously well-disciplined Flanders Regiment from the north-east frontier to Versailles. It arrived a week later, and at the palace was rapturously received. Encouraged by the security it seemed to promise, the king broke silence on the August decrees. On 18 September, in a long letter drafted by Necker, he explained that he was prepared to accept some parts of the 11 August decree but not others. The deputies felt betrayed. They petitioned the king to promulgate the decree at once, without amendments. He said he would ‘publish’ it but not promulgate it. Then on 4 October he voiced reservations about the Declaration of Rights. By now, however, Paris was alive with rumours about a reception given by the King’s bodyguard on 1 October to welcome the Flanders Regiment. After many noisy toasts had been drunk, and none to the nation, the national cockade was said to have been trampled as the air rang with unpatriotic slogans. Banquets themselves seemed unpatriotic when bread was so scarce, and by 4 October all Paris believed that counter-revolutionary orgies at Versailles were the prelude to a new attempt to starve the capital. The next morning, several districts of the city were awakened by the ringing of the tocsin from church bell towers, recognized ever since the days of July as a call to arms. Crowds of women began to assemble at markets, from where they marched to the Hotel de Ville. After surging through the building to impress the city authorities with their determination, late in the morning they set off for Versailles dragging cannon and brandishing whatever makeshift weapons they could lay hands on, recruiting newcomers as they went along. Perhaps 7,000 of them reached Versailles early in the evening and invaded the National Assembly, calling for bread and punishment for those who had insulted the national cockade. The unprotected deputies had no alternative but to welcome them with mollifying speeches. They were visibly relieved when a deputation went on to confront the king. Many of them recognized, however, that popular intervention had probably been the only way to make the king assent unambiguously to their decrees; and he was quick to do so once the crowds of women appeared. The problem was how to disperse the demonstration and restore calm once this object had been achieved. The forces of order, in the shape of Lafayette and 20,000 National Guardsmen, arrived in Versailles later that night after a forced march through an autumnal downpour. Lafayette had been reluctant to come at all, leaving Paris un policed and thereby risking accusations that he was in complicity with the demonstrators. But his men insisted, and crowds outside the Hotel de Ville were muttering about stringing him and Bailly up if they continued to temporize. When he arrived all he could do was try to ensure that what the populace wanted was brought about without disorder, and he formally requested the king, in the name of Paris, to return to the capital with him and take up residence in the Tuileries palace. The king made no promises that night, but early the next morning a number of Parisians found their way into the palace precincts and were fired on by royal bodyguards. Thereupon an enraged mob poured into the palace, massacred two guardsmen, and almost broke into the queen’s apartments. Only prompt action by unco-ordinated units of the National Guard contained them, and Lafayette bundled the royal family onto the palace balcony to stand under his personal protection. The impact on the volatile crowd milling below was favourable, but constant shouts of ‘To Paris!’ made clear that only one thing would really satisfy them. Late in the morning of 6 October the king announced that he would go.

A procession 60,000 strong accompanied Louis XVI and his queen on their nine-hour journey back to his capital that afternoon. As a gesture of goodwill, they brought wagonloads of flour from the palace stores, and the crowds as they marched sang the praises of ‘the baker, the baker’s wife, and the baker’s boy’—a reference to the dauphin, who travelled in his parents’ coach. In fact there was little the king could do to remedy a bread shortage caused by natural accidents and administrative upheavals. It was November before cheaper and more regular supplies were available, and market-day riots came to an end. Nevertheless in the history of the Revolution the ‘October Days’ were decisive. Louis XVI never returned to Versailles. Henceforth he and his family would be confined to Paris, as a British observer put it,5 ‘more like prisoners than Princes’. A few days later the National Assembly followed him there, and by November was established in a converted riding-school a stone’s throw from the Tuileries. The central authorities of the regenerate French State were now at the mercy of Paris, and time and time again over the next five years Parisians would intervene in national politics in the role of self-appointed watchdogs of the Revolution.

Few foresaw the extent of this danger in 1789. It seemed as if the August decrees could not have secured royal assent by any other means. Only some of the monarchiens thought all was already lost—although they included Mounier, who, though president of the National Assembly during the October Days, now slipped away home to Dauphine to preach the dangers of metropolitan popular despotism. A new wave of emigration among great nobles and army officers certainly followed the October Days; but these were people who had been appalled at the course of the Revolution almost from the start, and took the abandonment of Versailles and the end of royal resistance to the Assembly’s work as a sign that the movement was now irreversible. They were right, too. All open attempts on the king’s part to resist the reform of France now came to an end. Twenty-one months later he too would try to emigrate. But between October 1789 and that moment the Assembly would have transformed the country out of all recognition.

The essence of the constitution of 1791, as the work the Constituent Assembly was now embarked on would be called, was to keep the executive weak. Despotism must have no opportunity ever to revive in France. And so the King of the French (a new title, intended to make clear that he did not own the kingdom) was to enjoy hardly any powers not subject to review by the legislature. He could propose no laws, and could only use his suspensive veto to block legislation he did not like for the length of two legislative sittings, a maximum of three years. His income, the civil list, would be determined by legislative vote; and although he alone appointed ministers, they were open to legislative impeachment. Nor was his choice of ministers entirely free: they could not be chosen from, or sit in, the legislature. This was entirely in accord with the separation of powers principle derived from Montesquieu and set out in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen as one of the criteria of a true constitution. But it might not have been so firmly embedded in the 1791 constitution without an ill-timed intervention by Mirabeau in one of the earliest debates after the Assembly moved to Paris. On 6 November he moved that the king should choose ministers from the Assembly, on the British model. His earlier support for the monarchiens, however, had rekindled old suspicions, and it was widely rumoured that he was himself hoping to enter the ministry. Nobody believed his protestations to the contrary, and the debate ended with a decision that no deputy might become a minister or join the government until three years after leaving the Assembly.

Future Legislative Assemblies, as the successors to the Constituent were to be called, were to contain 745 seats and sit for two years. They were to be elected indirectly, and by far from universal suffrage. The deputies certainly did not intend to allow any say in political power under constitutional government to the sort of people who had come to their aid, but whom they had barely been able to control, in July and the first weeks of October. And so by the decree of 29 October 1789 they introduced the famous category of active citizens. Only active citizens might vote, and they were defined as men (almost nobody put the case for women) over 25 paying the equivalent of three days’ unskilled labour in taxes. This gave the vote, it was estimated in 1790, to almost 4.3 million Frenchmen. But all active citizens did in the electoral process was choose one in a hundred of their number as electors, and those eligible for this next level had to be paying taxes to the value of ten days’ labour. The result was an effective electorate of around 45,000, although perhaps half the number of active citizens were fiscally qualified. Electors, in turn, met in departmental assemblies to choose the deputies themselves, who had to be landowners paying at least a ‘silver mark’ in taxes, the equivalent of 54 days’ labour. Barely one in ten active citizens met this requirement; and although under the new system around 60 per cent of men were given some say in political life, the franchise was considerably more restrictive than that for the elections to the Estates-General, and it appeared profoundly at odds with the principles of civil equality proclaimed in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. From the start it was extremely controversial, the silver-mark provision in particular being denounced by the popular press. ‘There is only one voice in the capital,’ complained Camille Desmoulins in one of the first issues of his Révolutions de France et de Brabant, destined to be one of the most widely read radical papers,6 ‘and soon there will be but one in the provinces against the silver mark. It has turned France into an aristocratic government … But what is this much repeated word active citizen supposed to mean? The active citizens are the ones who took the Bastille.’

But active citizens had more to do than choose assemblies of electors. Under the new regime all public officers, except ministers of the Crown, were to be elective. That meant local administrators, judges, and magistrates, and even parish priests. Power was to emanate, if not from the bottom, then at least from below, and the only entitlement of eligible citizens to positions of authority would be election by their fellow citizens. All this doomed the old judicial system, already condemned in principle by the abolition of venality and judicial fees. As early as 5 August the suppression of the parlements had been suggested, and on the seventeenth of the same month it became a formal recommendation of the constitutional committee. The political prerogatives of the old sovereign courts violated the principle of the separation of powers, and in any case patriots suspected them of being nests of obstructive aristocrats. In November they were put into perpetual vacation, and ten months later abolished outright. The whole structure of lower courts disappeared with them, to be replaced with a system of local justices of the peace, district civil and departmental criminal courts, and a single court of appeal (tribunal de cassation) to review the conduct, but not the substance, of cases. No administrative authority was vested in the new courts, and although the deputies committed themselves to an eventual total recodification of the civil and criminal law, and as a start introduced trial by jury, they made no provision for any sort of police to enforce it. Public order was the responsibility of local administrative, not judicial, authorities, and the sole instrument of coercion at their disposal was the National Guard.

Uniformity and decentralization were the keynotes of the administrative organization undertaken by the Constituent Assembly. All the old provinces, generalities, principalities, and municipalities, in all their rich and limitless variety, were swept away. They were replaced by eighty-three departments, roughly equal in size, population, and wealth. These in turn were subdivided into districts and communes, all run by elected councils and officials. Nobody was appointed from the centre: the intendants, those instruments of despotism, were still too fresh in everybody’s memory. Central government under the new system was to be completely dependent on the zeal and energy of thousands of underpaid (and, at the humblest level, unpaid) local officials, of very variable levels of ability, understanding, or indeed political sympathy, for the implementation throughout France of its entire range of reforms. Most were completely inexperienced. In the earliest elections, it is true, considerable numbers of old regime office-holders and lawyers were returned, but even their experience offered little guidance for the unprecedented duties that revolutionary legislation was to heap upon them. And as time went by they largely disappeared from district and communal office, which became the preserve of merchants, petty tradesmen, and artisans: at this level to be an active citizen was enough. The first local government elections, which took place between May and July 1790, marked, in fact, not only a break with the old order, but in towns at least the end of the interim order that had established it self in the municipal revolutions of July 1789. The latter had produced arrangements almost as diverse as those of the old order itself; but now every commune elected a mayor, a procurator, and a general council. Communes with over 25,000 inhabitants, the great cities in effect, were divided into sections for electoral purposes. Thus Lyons and Marseilles had 32 each, Bordeaux 28, Toulouse 15. Paris had 48, and in thus redividing the capital the deputies congratulated them selves on decimating certain of the 60 electoral districts which had begun to function as centres of popular radicalism. The Cordeliers district, just south of the Pont Neuf, had been among the most prominent, under its ambitious and opportunistic president Georges Jacques Danton. Desmoulins’s newspaper was published from there, as was its older-established rival, Loustalot’s Révolutions de Paris, and several others. Together they led a vigorous campaign over the spring of 1790 to preserve the Paris districts, but in vain. Yet the legislators underestimated the ingenuity and organization of the political machine Danton had built up. It soon dominated the new section (Théâtre-Français) as it had the old district, and by its activity was to show the other sections the way to continued influence in national as well as purely Parisian affairs.

The National Assembly was also determined to rationalize the various citizens’ militias established in the course of the municipal revolution, and it finally did so at the time of the first municipal elections. In August 1789 it had brought them all under the umbrella of the National Guard and placed them at the disposal of local authorities, but left their organization to local initiative. Only in Paris, where a professional soldier like Lafayette was in command, and many of the old French Guards had been drafted in at the initial stage, was it well organized and fully armed and uniformed by the end of the summer. Even then its discipline was uncertain, as Lafayette learned on 4 October when his own men forced him to march to Versailles. Yet the Guard were the only armed force patriots felt they could rely on. The army was officered by nobles known for their unquestioning loyalty to the king; and although the discipline of the ranks had begun to crumble and desertions to soar over the summer, with even the dreaded Flanders Regiment joining Lafayette’s force on 4 October, the very idea of calling on the army to maintain public order remained far too dangerous for all but the most conservative of deputies to contemplate. Instead they made their intention to depend on the National Guard crystal clear immediately after the October Days by the passage, on 21 October, of the Martial Law against Tumults. It permitted municipal authorities to proclaim martial law, indicating their decision by deploying red flags. They were then empowered to call out the National Guard and order it to fire on crowds or demonstrators who refused to disperse. Clearly it was essential that this force, at least, should be completely reliable, and over subsequent months uncertain elements were slowly weeded out. A national uniform was introduced, which members had to buy for them selves at a price poorer citizens could not afford. Membership was also confined to active citizens, and repeated oaths of loyalty to the nation, the law, and the constitution were demanded. And although National Guard officers were barred from municipal office, they were positively encouraged to make contact with their counterparts in neighbouring places to develop a common spirit and outlook. Over the spring of 1790 regional rallies of National Guards, or ‘federations’, began to be held. They culminated on 14 July, the first anniversary of the fall of the Bastille, in a gigantic ‘Feast of the Federation’ held in the Champ de Mars on the western outskirts of Paris. Here the National Guards from all over France converged, under the eye of their general and the king himself, to renew their oaths and celebrate a year of achievements. The king led the oath-taking in front of an assembly some estimated at 350,000. It rained, but still proved an occasion of genuine enthusiasm, marking perhaps the high-point of national consensus about what the Revolution had achieved, and was achieving. Those who had built the arena expressed their optimism in a new popular song which was to sweep the country in subsequent months: ‘Ça ira’, things will work out.


MAP 2. The departments of revolutionary France

And yet by July 1790 there were plenty of signs that things were not always working out. For every patriotic noble like Lafayette, Mirabeau, Duport, the Lameth brothers, or Talleyr and, who as bishop of Autun celebrated mass at the Feast of the Federation, there were many more who deplored the turn of events. More noble deputies followed Mounier’s example of abandoning their seats in the Assembly than did clerical or non-noble ones, and emigration became a steady stream. Not a day passed, noted a soldier stationed in Alsace in May 1790, without the passage of a noble carriage en route for Switzerland. Few nobles stood for office in the new elections, and even fewer were elected. They were simply opting out of the new order. Gratuitous gestures like the abolition of nobility itself, together with all its trappings like titles, orders, ribbons, and coats of arms (19 June 1790), did nothing to reconcile them. Nor did general popular suspicion, epitomized in the second line soon added to ‘Ça ira—‘Let’s hang the aristocrats from the lanterns’. Worst of all in the eyes of many nobles was continuing disorder in the countryside, much of it directed against lords who, as the decree of 11 August explicitly authorized, attempted to continue exercising their rights and collecting their dues until redemption. There were endless intrusions into seigneurial woods and game parks, constant refusals to pay dues, and repeated attacks on remaining symbols of lordly power untouched during July and August. Bonfires of seigneurial pews in churchyards were the fashion that autumn. All over the western Massif Central the next spring peasants planted liberty trees on seigneurial land. They called them Mays, from a much older tradition, festooned them with symbols of seigneurialism, and claimed that if they stood for a year and a day their lord’s rights would be extinguished. For good measure, however, the planting ceremonies often developed into deputations requesting lords to abandon their remaining rights. January 1790 witnessed a new outbreak of chateau-burning in northern Brittany: twenty-two were destroyed, along with the title-deeds stored in many others. ‘In Auvergne’, wrote a despairing aristocratic lady towards the end of 1789,7 ‘we suffer a thousand horrors at the hand of our peasants. A whole village refuses to pay unless we produce our title-deeds; others wait the event and do not pay. If we do not show them, they will not pay; if we do, they may burn them.’ Further west, in Perigord and Quercy, there were scenes of spectacular violence a few months later when departmental authorities decreed the destruction of newly planted liberty trees. Bands of peasants hundreds strong gathered to protect them, and once assembled sometimes turned to attacking manor houses. Many districts, certainly, escaped such upheavals; but it was the incidents that made news, were reported to the National Assembly, and filled all landlords with dread. And although the National Guard, and occasionally regular troops, were often called out to restore order, they usually arrived too late. Riotous crowds, indeed, often included peasants in National Guard uniform. It was true that, as in July and August, their depredations were seldom indiscriminate; but that did not make them any the less illegal, and the lawyers and men of property in the National Assembly did not distinguish between types of lawlessness. The elaboration over the spring of 1790 of the precise terms for due-redemption only stiffened their determination not to yield to rural direct action. But all too often the authorities on the spot simply lacked the means, and endemic resistance to lords’ demands, along with persistent attempts to destroy the titles that legitimized them, continued into 1791.


MAP 3. Revolutionary Paris: the sections and main places and streets mentioned in the text
Source: G. Rudé, The Crowd in the French Revolution (Oxford, 1959).

Paris sections:

1 Tuileries

2 Champs-Élysées

3 Roule

4 Palais Royal

5 Place Vendôme

6 Bibliothèque

7 Grange Batelière

8 Louvre

9 Oratoire

10 Halle au Blé

11 Postes

12 Place Louis XIV

13 Fontaine Montmorency

14 Bonne Nouvelle

15 Ponceau

16 Mauconseil

17 Marché des Innocents

18 Lombards

19 Arcis

20 Faub. Monmartre

21 Poissonnière

22 Bondy

23 Temple

24 Popincourt

25 Montreuil

26 Quinze Vingts

27 Gravillieres

28 Faub. Saint-Denis

29 Beaubourg

30 Enfants Rouges

31 Roi de Sicile

32 Hôtel de Ville

33 Place Royale

34 Arsenal

35 Île Saint-Louis

36 Notre-Dame

37 Henri IV

38 Invalides

39 Fontaine de Grenelle

40 Quatre Nations

41 Théâtre-Français

42 Croix Rouge

43 Luxembourg

44 Thermes de Julien

45 Sainte-Geneviève

46 Observatoire

47 Jardin des Plantes

48 Gobelins

Even more alarming for legislators trying to keep the State going while they recast its constitution was that popular resistance was not confined to seigneurial burdens. The first year of the Revolution also witnessed massive tax-evasion. The toll-gates and tax-offices sacked during the disturbances of July and August were not rebuilt, and clerks and collectors were reluctant to brave popular fury by trying to reactivate them, even if their superiors were still there urging them to do so. People simply stopped paying, and once the habit was broken it was hard to restore. Officials who tried to collect taxes were physically threatened or had their homes sacked, especially in small places where everybody knew where they lived. In Picardy, where such activities were responsible for an 80 per cent drop in the yield of indirect taxes, resistance was organized in the spring of 1790 into a self-conscious petitioning movement against indirect taxes in general by a land agent thrown out of work by the abolition of feudalism, François-Noël (soon to call himself Gracchus) Babeuf. He was arrested, not for the first or last time; but the irony was that the deputies now reorganizing France shared his distaste for indirect levies. They knew very well how unanimously the cahiers had condemned them, and they believed, with the Physiocrats, that only direct taxation of net surplus revenues was not economically harmful. And so, in the course of 1790 and 1791, all the aides, traites, octrois, the salt and tobacco monopolies, and countless other local taxes on trade and consumption were abolished, along with the labyrinth of fiscal jurisdictions which supervised them, and the tax-farms through which private businessmen managed them. The old direct taxes—taille, capitation, vingtièmes—disappeared too. In place of the old system the Assembly established three direct taxes: a land tax (contribution foncière), a tax on movables (contribution mobilière), and a commercial profits tax (patente). There were no privileges or special exemptions. Citizens would pay according to their capacities; and since all this was patently in accord with the equitable demands of 1789, it was expected that they would pay more than willingly. Accordingly, no machinery of constraint was established. The deputies failed to foresee what every bureaucrat instinctively knows: that direct taxes would be far harder to recover than indirect ones; especially when taxpaying rhythms had been disrupted by years of resistance and administrative upheaval going back to the refusal of the parlements to register the fiscal reforms of 1787 and 1788.

Nor had the financial crisis those far-distant plans had been prepared to deal with gone away. The deputies did not forget that what had forced the convocation of the future National Assembly was the scale of the State’s debts. The debt was, as Mirabeau put it, a ‘national treasure’, and it must be honoured. The nation’s representatives did not intend to begin their work by declaring France bankrupt, even if, with more important things on their minds, they had ignored Necker’s urgings to address the problem at once at the opening of the Estates-General. But even Necker could not stave off disaster for ever, and in fact by the autumn of 1789 his prestige was on the wane. The peak of his popularity was his triumphant return from his second exile on 29 July, when he stood in tears before an ecstatic Assembly. But his attempt the next day to secure the release of the imprisoned commander of troops on 14 July, Besenval, soured a popular reception organized for him in Paris: and by September his seeming connivance in the king’s evasive attitude to the August decrees was attracting widespread censure. Even his old financial wizardry was in doubt: two loans floated in August failed miserably after savage criticism in the Assembly. Late in September he proposed an unprecedented nonrecurring ‘Patriotic contribution’ of a quarter of every citizen’s income, payable in cash or valuables. The Assembly glumly accepted the idea, but initially provided no means of checking declarations. Necker launched it with a personal contribution of 100,000 L.; but its yield, over the three years it was supposed to run, came nowhere near its target. Nor did the immediate financial situation allow time to wait. The short-term debt alone was estimated at over 707 millions in November 1789, and by the following summer it was believed to be not far short of two billions as the Assembly continued to decree compensation for one form or another of office or property it had abolished. In these circumstances the deputies turned to a measure far beyond anything ever contemplated by Necker. They decided to nationalize the lands of the Church.

The first threats of such action came with ominous assertions that ecclesiastical property belonged to the Nation during the framing of the 11 August decree. Throughout the financial debates of September, the idea of using church lands in some way to alleviate the burden of the national debt kept recurring. Finally on 10 October Talleyrand lent his authority as a bishop to a formal proposal that the state should take over all clerical property. Two-thirds of it, he argued, should be used to pay the clergy, in place of the tithes lost on 4 August; the remainder should help restore the national finances. Mirabeau, however, moved that the state should have free disposal of the whole, simply recognizing an obligation to maintain the Church out of general national resources. A long and bitter debate on these questions took up much of October. To secular arguments that the Church was merely a trustee administering its lands on behalf of the whole body of the faithful in France, and that since the clergy as an order no longer existed, it could not own property, outraged churchmen, and some laity, replied that clerical entitlement to land was ancient and well attested; that individual institutions, and not the order as a whole, were the true proprietors; and that such a massive expropriation ran clean counter to the property rights guaranteed in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. There was also much disagreement about the likely consequences of selling off so much land once it had been taken over. Some thought it would saturate the market, and so be counterproductive. Others predicted that buyers would constitute a natural and permanent body of supporters for the Revolution. The Parisian press joined vigorously in the discussion on both sides. But few minds seem to have been changed by argument. Most deputies had arrived in Versailles that spring convinced that the Church needed root and branch reform, and they tended to see any clerical opposition to change as self-interested special pleading. The noisy anti-clericalism of the public galleries, which greeted any spirited intervention by a deputy from the clergy with cries of ‘Down with skullcaps!’, showed that the people shared these suspicions. And besides, no realistic alternative way of honouring the debt was proposed. Consequently on 3 November Mirabeau’s original motion was in all essentials accepted. 568 deputies outvoted 346 to place the property of the clergy ‘at the disposal of the Nation’.

How the Nation would use this newly acquired facility remained to be decided. At first action looked like being postponed on the initiative, of all people, of the Protestant Necker, who disapproved of the confiscation. He proposed that the first step towards liquidating the short-term debt should be through a limited issue of paper money by a National Bank. The latter would be a nationalized form of the Discount Bank founded in 1776 by a financial consortium, and much used as a source of credit by governments since. But France’s previous experience of paper money had not been a happy one. In 1720 the Scottish adventurer John Law had attempted to set up a state bank on the promise of overseas trading profits, and had paid the king’s debts in banknotes. After initial runaway success, the whole scheme had collapsed, leaving thousands of families with assets reduced to worthless paper. Subsequent generations were haunted by the memory of this disaster, and there were plenty of deputies prepared to remind their colleagues of it. Nor was there much liking for the ‘capitalists’ who ran the Discount Bank and who would still be needed after nationalization to make it work. Too many people obscurely believed that in some way they were responsible for the State’s financial problems in the first place. And the financial world itself was divided. Catholic financiers, deprived of a livelihood made in manipulating public funds by the abolition of the venal offices through which they did it, did not wish to see their role taken over by a nexus of Protestant and Swiss bankers. Mirabeau made himself the spokesman of all these suspicions, fears, and jealousies when he proposed, against Necker, that the only paper the State should issue should be bonds secured on the value of assets visible to all—the national lands. Surely the credit of the State itself, guaranteed by the National Assembly, was superior to that of any bank? In the course of the debate a name was invented for such bonds: as signals. Eventually this idea won the day. On 19 and 21 December a series of decrees set up an ‘Extraordinary Fund’ (Caisse de l’Extraordinaire) to receive the proceeds of the Patriotic Contribution and the sale of 400 million livres’ worth of national lands. On the strength of these prospects, assignats to the same total value would be issued in 1,000-livre notes bearing interest at 5 per cent. The State would pay its creditors in them; and they in turn could be used to acquire national lands.

Assignats were, then, not strictly paper money at all at the start. But within months that was what they became. The initial amount had been decided on the expectation of a minimum deficit for 1790, as calculated by Necker, of 80 millions. But by March the fall in tax-revenue forced him to revise the figure to 294 millions. The miscalculation was understandable enough, but it destroyed what was left of Necker’s credibility. The Assembly now brushed aside all his warnings about relying too exclusively on issues of paper to meet mounting debts. On 17 April they voted that the assignats should become legal tender, available in denominations of 300 and 200 livres, and attract only 3 per cent interest to encourage their conversion into land. But still the deficit mounted, and between April and September no less than six supplementary issues of assignats were authorized to cover it. On the twenty-ninth of the latter month the Assembly formally decided to triple the number in circulation to 1,200 millions to cover the huge estimated cost of compensating dispossessed office-holders. By then, support for the assignats had become a test of commitment to the whole Revolution, irrespective of what the consequences of an immense multiplication of paper might be. The first to fail this test of patriotism was Necker himself. Hounded ever since October 1789 by radical journalists like Marat, spurned and despised by leading deputies like Mirabeau, and forced by the Assembly to carry out policies he had no faith in, on 3 September 1790 he resigned. Twice on his way back to Switzerland he was arrested on suspicion of trying to emigrate, like some disgruntled nobleman. The national hero of the spring of 1789, and the methods and policies he stood for, were now as superseded as the whole ancien régimethat he had done more than any other man to bring down.

Everyone, in the spring of 1789, had expected France to emerge from the meeting of the Estates-General profoundly changed. Very few foresaw, if the cahiers are any guide, quite how profound the changes would be. The deputies claimed to be following thecahiers in their reforming work. In the sense that they sought to endow France with a constitutional monarchy, decentralized and representative institutions, civil and fiscal equality, and guarantees for individual liberty, they were broadly true to the instructions of the general cahiers, at least. But even these refined and sophisticated documents, from which popular concerns had largely been strained out, contained no mandate for the abolition of provinces, municipalities, nobility, or titles, and only uncertain or ambiguous instructions regarding feudalism, venality, the parlements, or ecclesiastical property. Almost none called for a declaration of rights, and none at all for a national guard or paper money. Most of the reforms carried out or sanctioned by the Constituent Assembly, in other words, were the product of there volutionary process itself. They were responses to events and situations without any historical precedent, rather than the known desires of the French nation. And yet, once made, the far-reaching changes of the Revolution’s first year were mostly well received. Their implementation may have been chaotic and disorganized, but they were carried through with remarkable goodwill and even enthusiasm considering the multitude of vested interests they threatened or damaged. Ex-courtiers might emigrate, and disillusioned deputies abandon their seats; prelates might complain of political plunder, lords of damage to their property, and dispossessed office-holders of under compensation; but every one of these categories also produced warm partisans of the Revolution. Nobles, clerics, and office-holders all played parts quite disproportionate to their numbers in the Assembly’s legislative activity. And in the country at large millions welcomed the end of feudalism and indirect taxes, while hundreds of thousands of bourgeois eagerly seized the opportunity offered by the new regime to participate in public affairs. The work of the Revolution’s first twelve months, in fact, had the support of a broad national consensus. The Feast of the Federation which was observed in every commune as well as in Paris, was a celebration of that consensus. But by the time the second anniversary of the overthrow of the Bastille came around, it was rapidly falling apart.

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