VI. THE REVOLUTIONARY CONSTITUTION: 1790

Freed from royal resistance, but uncomfortably aware of the surveillant city, the Assembly proceeded to write the constitution that would specify and legalize the achievements of the Revolution.

First, should it retain the kingship? It did, and allowed it to be hereditary, for it feared that until the sentiments of legitimacy and loyalty could be transferred from the monarch to the nation, the mesmerizing aura of royalty would be necessary to social order; and the right of transmission would be a guard against wars of succession and such schemes as were then brewing in the Palais-Royal. But the powers of the king were to be strictly limited. The Assembly would vote him annually a “civil list” for his expenses; any further outlay would require application to the legislature. If he left the kingdom without the Assembly’s permission he could be deposed, as he would shortly see. He could choose and dismiss his ministers, but each minister would be required to submit a monthly statement of his disposal of the funds allotted to him, and he could at any time be arraigned before a high court. The king was to command the Army and the Navy, but he could not declare war, or sign a treaty, without the legislature’s prior consent. He should have the right to veto any legislation submitted to him; but if three successive legislatures passed the vetoed bill it was to become law.

Should the legislature, so supreme, have two chambers, as in England and America? An upper chamber could be a check to hasty action, but it could also become a bastion of aristocracy or old age. The Assembly rejected it, and, as a further guard, declared an end to all hereditary privileges and titles except the king’s. The legislature was to be elected by “active citizens” only—male adult property holders paying in direct taxes an amount equal to the value of three days’ work; this included prosperous peasants but excluded hired labor, actors, and proletaires; these were classed as “passive citizens,” for they could easily be manipulated by their masters or their journalists to become tools of reaction or violence. On this arrangement 4,298,360 men (in a population of 25 million souls) enjoyed the franchise in the France of 1791; 3 million adult males were voteless. The bourgeois Assembly, fearful of the city populace, was certifying the bourgeois Revolution.

For electoral and administrative purposes the constitution divided France into eighty-three départements, each of these into communes (43,360). For the first time France was to become a unified nation, without privileged provinces or internal tolls, and all with one system of measurements and laws. Penalties were fixed by law, and were no longer at the discretion of a judge. Torture, the pillory, and branding were abolished, but the death penalty was retained, to Robespierre’s present discontent and future convenience. Persons accused of crime could choose to be tried by a jury of “active citizens” chosen by lot; a minority of three votes out of twelve would suffice for acquittal. Civil cases were decided by judges. The old parlements, which had begotten a second aristocracy, were replaced by a new judiciary appointed by the electoral assemblies. A high court was chosen by lot from lower-court justices, two to a département.

Two immense and related problems remained: how to avoid bankruptcy, and how to regulate the relations between Church and state. Taxes were failing to finance the government, and the Church held enviable wealth untaxed. It took the recently appointed bishop of Autun, Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, to propose (October 11, 1789) the solution: let the property of the Church be used for the payment of the national debt.

Talleyrand is one of the doubly intriguing characters in history. He came of an old family distinguished for its military services, and he would probably have followed a similar career had he not permanently dislocated his foot by a fall at the age of four; he had to limp his way through life, but managed to surmount every obstacle. His parents resigned him to the Church. In the seminary he read Voltaire and Montesquieu, and maintained a mistress nearby. Apparently he was expelled (1775), but in that year (his twenty-first) he received from Louis XVI the Abbey of St.-Denis in Reims. He was ordained a priest in 1779, and on the next day became vicar general to his uncle the Archbishop of Reims. He continued to please highborn ladies; by one of them he had a son, who became an officer under Napoleon. In 1788 Talleyrand was appointed bishop of Autun over the protests of his pious mother, who knew that he was a man of little faith. Nevertheless he drew up for presentation to the States-General a program of reforms which so impressed his clergy that they made him their deputy.40

Despite desperate opposition by its clerical members, the Assembly (November 2, 1789) voted, 508 to 346, to nationalize ecclesiastical property, then valued at three billion francs.41 It pledged the government to “provide in a fitting manner for the expenses of public worship, the maintenance of the ministers, and the relief of the poor.” On December 19 it empowered a Caisse de l’Extraordinaire to sell 400 million francs’ worth of “assignats”—notes assigning to the holder a right to a stated amount of ecclesiastical property, and bearing interest at five percent until a sale could be effected. With proceeds from these assignats the government paid off its more urgent debts, so assuring the support of the financial community for the new regime. But the buyers of the assignats found it difficult to make satisfactory purchases; they used them as currency; and as the state issued more and more of them, and inflation continued, they lost value except in the payment of taxes, where the Treasury was compelled to receive them at their face worth. So the Treasury again found itself with losses exceeding its income year after year.

Having crossed the Rubicon, the Assembly (February 13, 1790) suppressed monasteries, allowing pensions to the dispossessed monks;42 nuns were left untouched, as performing valued services in education and charity. On July 12 a “Civil Constitution of the Clergy” was promulgated, regulating the priests as paid employees of the state, and recognizing Catholicism as the national religion. Protestants and Jews might worship freely in their private conventicles, but without support from the government. Catholic bishops were to be chosen by the electoral assemblies of the departments; and in this voting non-Catholic electors—Protestant, Jew, or agnostic—were free to participate.43 All priests, before receiving any stipend from the state, were required to pledge full obedience to the new constitution. Of the 134 bishops in France, 130 refused to take this oath; of the 70,000 parish priests, 46,000 refused.44 The great majority of the population sided with the nonjurors, and boycotted the services of the jurant priests. The rising conflict between the conservative Church, supported by the people, and the predominantly agnostic assemblies, supported by the upper middle class, became a main factor in the waning of the Revolution. Chiefly because of this unpopular legislation the King long refused to sign the new constitution.

Others had reasons for rejecting it. Robespierre led a strong minority in protesting that the restriction of the franchise to property owners violated the Declaration of the Rights of Man, and was a provocative insult to the Parisian proletaires who had repeatedly saved the Assembly from the armies of the King. The peasantry agreed with townspeople in resenting the abandonment of the governmental regulations that had in some measure protected producers and consumers from a “free market” manipulated by distributors.

Nevertheless the Assembly felt, with some justice, that the constitution was a remarkable document, giving legal and definitive form to the triumphant Revolution. The middle-class deputies, now supreme, considered that the commonalty—of whom the majority were still illiterate—was not ready to share, in proportion to its numbers, in the deliberations and decisions of the government. Besides, now that the nobility had fled, was it not the turn of the bourgeoisie to direct a state increasingly dependent upon a wisely managed and energetically advancing economy? So the Assembly, regardless of the King’s hesitations, declared France a constitutional monarchy; and, on June 5, 1790, it invited the eighty-three departments to send their federated National Guards to join the people of Paris and the government of France on the Champ-de-Mars in celebrating—on the first anniversary of the taking of the Bastille—the fulfillment of the Revolution. As the invitation and the enthusiasm spread, thirty foreigners, led by a rich Dutchman known to history as “Anacharsis Cloots,”*entered the Assembly on June 19, and asked for the honor of French citizenship, and for admission to the Feast of the Federation as an “embassy of the human race.” It was so ordered.

But the hilly Field of Mars had to be sculptured for the occasion: an area three thousand by one thousand feet had to be leveled and terraced to hold 300,000 men, women, and children; and a central mound was to be raised for an altar at which King, princes, prelates, deputies, and commoners would mount and pledge their loyalty to the nation now legally reborn. And yet only fifteen days were left for the sculpturing. Who now can rival the fourteen pages45 in which Carlyle told how the people of Paris, male and female, young and old, came with picks and spades and wheelbarrows and song—“Ça ira!” (It Will Go!)—reshaped that vast terrain, and reared those terraces and that Autel de la Patrie? Which of us today would dare write with such brave blowing of rhetorical trumpets and prophetic ecstasy—especially if nearly half our manuscript had been burned by a hasty maid, and we had to gather and polish our scattered gems again? What a fire must have smoldered in that dour Scot to survive such a holocaust!

So, in the week before the new holyday, soldiers from all of France traveled to Paris, and sometimes the Parisian National Guard marched out many miles to meet and escort them. On July 14, 1790, they all entered the Field of Mars in proud procession, fifty thousand strong,46 their banners waving, their bands playing, their throats hoarse with their lusty songs, and 300,000 exalted Parisians joining in. Bishop Talleyrand-Périgord, not yet excommunicate, said Mass; two hundred prelates and priests mounted the altar and took the oath; the King pledged himself to obey the new laws to the best of his ability, and all the assemblage cried out, “Vive le Roil” When the cannon sounded a salute, thousands of Parisians who had not been able to attend raised a hand toward the Champ-de-Mars, and made their pledge. In nearly every town similar festivities were held, with wine and food shared in common, and Catholic and Protestant pastors embracing as if they were Christians. How could any Frenchman doubt that a glorious new age had dawned?

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