Modern history


‘It was not the Nation who made the Revolution,’ opined physician-deputy Campmas. ‘If it had been possible to keep the machine running [the Estates General] would never have been called.’ The idea that the events of 1789 found their roots in the terminal decay of the Bourbon polity was echoed by the marquis de Ferriéres: ‘the French constitution was an ancient building. Stupidly, people tried to rebuild its foundations; the edifice collapsed.’48

The Revolutionaries bolstered their courage for the days ahead by stressing the elemental inevitability of the fall of the Bourbon regime. Yet their views do scant justice to the efforts of a variety of reforming ministers from the dark days of the Seven Years War onwards to ‘popularize’ the Bourbon polity, and to put it on a footing which harmonized with the social and cultural transformations of the century. The ‘nation’ was not the prime cause of the events of 1789, any more than those events were due to, as a Lyonnais deputy put it in July, ‘the philosophy and Enlightenment which spread among all ranks of society’.49 Yet the Bourbon polity did not fall simply because of its alleged superannuated caducity or of poorly executed repair-work but, rather, because of a quite unforeseeable fusion of financial and political crisis with social crisis. The fall of the Bourbon polity was not inevitable. It owed a great deal to the purposive action of particular groups: in particular, peasants and urban consumers mobilized by high prices, social distress and an unprecedented electoral process, and individuals within the newly expanded political elite who managed to turn the regime’s instability to their own collective advantage in ways formerly unimaginable.

The commoner deputies of the Third Estate, now conjoined with the rumps of the noble and ecclesiastical orders in the National Constituent Assembly, enjoyed enthusiastic public support as a result of the vagaries of the summer crisis of 1789. The manner in which these men had handled the summer crisis of 1789 meant that they had a golden opportunity to refashion the political system from top to bottom in ways which began to be termed ‘revolutionary’. Prior to 1789, the term ‘revolution’ had retained some traces of its classical meaning as a cyclical change or reversal of fortunes. It designated (especially when employed in the plural) significant vicissitudes which affected a political system (hence, ‘the revolutions of England’ in the 1640s, or the ‘Maupeou revolution’ of the 1770s). It was also used to evoke cultural transformation rooted in greater enlightenment and changed mores: in 1771, for example, Voltaire had written to d’Alembert that their age was witnessing ‘a greater revolution … [in] people’s minds than that of the sixteenth century’ – and, moreover, it was a ‘tranquil’ one.50 1789 gave the term the sense of a major transformation which affected all aspects of life – and which was in the process of volitional actualization. ‘Revolution’ was a political project opening up on a limitless future.

The 1200 deputies who now formed the National Constituent Assembly were aware that they had a unique and a golden opportunity for momentous political architecture. The transformation of the Estates General into the National Assembly had involved the dissolution of the binding mandates which their original electors had imposed on them, thus giving them full legislative freedom. The shipwreck of absolutism over the summer had reduced the constraints which royal power might pose. In addition, France was not at war nor in a situation of national emergency: despite occasional expressions of anxiety about foreign intervention, France’s international rivals proved unenthusiastic about getting involved in French internal politics. Partly at least, this was because the Great Nation did not seem to be much of a threat: its attempt to back Spain in a conflict over Nootka Sound off the Californian coast in 1790, for example, was highly unconvincing, and the deputies eschewed coming to the aid of anti-Austrian rebels in the Austrian Netherlands who subscribed to the patriot cause.

In their epochal political task, the deputies also had freed themselves from the exigencies of history. We have seen how in the electoral campaign of 1788–9 the publicists supporting the Third Estate had shifted the grounds of political legitimacy from historical precedent, on which most anti-absolutist political action had been based hitherto, to rationally stated and universalizable precepts grounded in natural law. ‘History is not our code,’ claimed Languedocian Protestant pastor and deputy, Rabaut de Saint-Étienne.51Individuals rather than corporative groupings were invested with rights, and sovereignty was located not in the body of the dynast, but in the body of a nation of rights-bearing citizens. In Year One of Liberty, as 1789 came to be called, the tendency was to lump the past together in a single bloc, called variously ‘the preceding regime’, the ‘old regime’, and then, most durably, the ‘former (ancien) regime’. The palimpsest of a rather undifferentiated but massively unjust past thus came to stand as a polar opposite to everything the Revolutionaries thought about the task they had in hand. This approach tended to erase consciousness of historical change prior to 1789. The Ancien Régime was ‘the time of the seigneurs’ (a phrase which remained in the popular memory until the twentieth century), unchanging, coercive and hierarchical, in contrast to the more dynamic, energetic and contractual age of the rights of men and citizens – which was the time of present and future. On 11 August 1789, the Assembly had, it is true, granted the king the title ‘Restorer of French Liberties’. Yet this kind of historical quotation became increasingly rare. The Revolution would be about new beginnings, going forward rather than going back. In a new mythic present, France would be ‘regenerated’ from the torpid state of stagnancy and debility to which absolute monarchy had reduced it.52

The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, passed on 26 August and sanctioned by the king on 6 October, provided, in the opinion of Rabaut de Saint-Étienne, ‘the political alphabet’ of this ‘new world’.53 The lineaments of that alphabet had been assembled over the previous half century as a result of processes which had impacted heavily on the consciousness of the deputies: a major shift in mentalités; the emergence of commercial capitalism, and the development of a strong tertiary and service sector; the growth of a bourgeois public sphere grounded in new forms of sociability and exchange; and a political and administrative system increasingly efficient at getting things done. The Declaration itself bore the imprint of its immediate context – the wish to restrict the powers of the monarch and to check backward steps towards ‘despotism’. Yet it also transcended the circumstances of its drafting to provide an audacious boost to the emergence of a new political culture grounded in the ahistorical precepts of the philosophy of rights. ‘Men’, it opened, ‘are born and remain free and equal in rights’ – a lapidary Rousseauian statement which of itself implied the dissolution of the privilege-ridden corporatism of the absolutist polity. Sovereignty now rested not with the king, but with the nation (art. iii), and pre-1789 royal practices were specifically targeted in clauses which stipulated that arbitrary arrests and punishments were illegal (arts, vii, viii); that individuals were presumed innocent until proven guilty (art. ix); that made consent to taxation and accountability of public officials essential rights (arts, xiv, xv); that insisted on freedom of speech and the press (art. xi); and that predicated constitutionality on the separation rather than the conflation of powers (art. xvi). The pre-1789 church was the target for the proclamation of freedom of religious opinion (art. x). The purpose of government was stated to be the preservation of ‘the natural and imprescriptible rights of man’, itemized as ‘liberty, property, security and resistance to oppression’ (art. ii). All citizens had the right to participate in the legislative process and to have access to public office, and law was viewed as ‘the expression of the general will’ (art. vi).

The task of framing the new constitution around this political blueprint would take longer than was originally anticipated – it was only in September 1791 that it was complete and the deputies could hand on the torch to a newly elected legislature. Yet throughout these two years, their public pronouncements and private correspondence sang their collective enchantment with their epochal doing and making: ‘the political system we have established’, self-panegyrized Le Mans deputy Ménard de la Groye, ‘ … is founded on the wisest, truest and most incontestable principles, and has as its only objective the common good’.54 To achieve this end, the Revolutionaries spoke the language of creation and erasure, of regeneration and destruction. This was seen particularly clearly in one of their most lasting reforms, the replacement of the accreted patchwork of historic provinces by a rationally constructed ensemble of eighty-three departments. Though national unity was one of the watchwords of the new regime, the deputies were determined to cut back the centralization which they regarded as characteristic of the Ancien Régime. The abolition of the Intendants in December 1789 raised almost as loud a cheer as the final dissolution of the parlements a year later: election rather than royal appointment or purchase of office was to characterize the framework of local government. The carving-up of national territory gave rise to some lively debates: ‘geometrists’ wanting each region to be rectangular combated ‘historicists’, who advised observing wherever possible the frontiers of the ancient provinces. In the end a compromise was effected: there were to be eighty-three departments of roughly the same size – just large enough, it was claimed, for an individual to reach the departmental capital (or chef-lieu) in a day’s travel. If the provincial boundaries were given measured respect, this was based on the assumption that the old provinces had tended to observe natural frontiers – and the Revolutionaries were especially keen to ground their new administrative map in nature. Hence the nomenclature of the departments was based on mountains, rivers and other natural features. ‘Provence’ vanished from the map, for example, but the area it covered was now filled, grosso modo, by the departments of the Bouches-du-Rhône, Basses-Alpes and Var.

The departments were the bricks from which the edifice of the nation was to be constructed. They constituted a unitary form of administration, replacing the hodge-podge of different boundaries for indirect and direct taxes, military affairs, religion, justice and the rest which had characterized the Bourbon polity. Each department was endowed with the same internal framework: there were around half a dozen or so districts, which grouped the communes, which also had their own administrative structures. Tasks were shared out amongst the different levels – the departments, for example, had wide-ranging powers as regards schools, prisons, church maintenance, highways and canals and poor-relief.

The new structures were Janus-faced. On one hand, they were regarded as crucial expressions of local interests, and could be viewed as an agent of the decentralization of French political life. On the other, they owed their existence to the Revolution, formed a single chain of communication from the centre and had as their mission the regeneration of national spirit. Unlike the local particularism which had clung to many of the old provinces, the new public spirit was to be a fusion of energy: there was to be impulsion from on high, from the government, plus a supply of local vitality from below. It was significant that when the National Assembly sought to celebrate and commemorate the new spirit of national unity they chose to do so through the departmental framework: in the Fête de la Fédération, timed to be held in Paris on 14 July 1790, the first anniversary of the taking of the Bastille, the stars of the show were the delegations of National Guardsmen sent up by every department in France which proudly marched past the king under their local banners.

The best guarantee of transparency in all aspects of public life, and a means of protecting against departments becoming mouthpieces of sectional interests, was the electoral principle, which was present at every level. The right to participate in the electoral process was a badge of a new, patriotic citizenship which the Assembly gave out freely – but not without discrimination. Henceforward, it was property rather than birth or historical precedent which determined social and political entitlement – a point underlined by the abolition of noble titles in June 1790. From autumn 1789, the deputies introduced a tiered property franchise into electoral regulations which, as for the Estates General, were indirect. Although all French men enjoyed the civic rights enshrined in the Declaration of the Rights of Man, only those with fixed property-ownership were allowed to vote. Of maybe 7 million adult males, around 60 per cent (c. 4 million) had voting rights – a colossal figure when set against electoral practice elsewhere in Europe at the time, but still falling some way short of what universalist Revolutionary rhetoric seemed to imply. This distinction between so-called ‘active’ and ‘passive’ citizens marked a more general orientation of representation around property, which was marked by a stratified system of qualification for political responsibility. Thus, one needed to be wealthier than a simple active citizen to qualify for election as a municipal official or to serve in department-level administration, while to become a deputy one needed to pay in annual taxes the equivalent of a ‘silver mark’ (marc d’argent) – a considerable sum.55

The way in which the Assembly gave the universalism which it espoused a sectional spin was evidenced in other aspects of its laws on citizenship. An impressive openness was shown towards the inclusion of Protestants: they were given full electoral rights and in December 1789 were empowered to stand for public office too. Yet there was little generosity shown towards France’s 40,000 Jews, nor much thought given to the idea of extending political rights either to women or to slaves. An abolitionist movement existed – the Amis des noirs (‘Friends of the Blacks’), founded in 1788 and including Lafayette, abbé Grégoire, Siéyès, Lavoisier and Brissot among its patrons – but abolitionists were massively outnumbered in the Assembly: most deputies viewed the maintenance of France’s colonial wealth through plantation slavery as an essential ingredient of national prosperity. The decision, late in September 1791, to end slavery in France was little more than a moral figleaf: the practice was maintained in the colonies. Earlier debates between Barnave, representing the Assembly’s Colonial Committee, and the abolitionist lobby marshalled by Brissot over whether domestic freedom was compatible with imperial projects overseas which included enslavement of fellow humans was complicated by the question of whether free blacks from the Caribbean colonies should have the right to be represented in the new legislature. Debates were interwoven with violent clashes over the issue in the colonies themselves, and on 24 September 1791 the Assembly, adhering to the principle of order, deprived all blacks of any civic rights.

The extension of rights of citizenship and the quasi-fetishization of the electoral principle in the new system within France at least guaranteed public accountability and transparency. Two further freedoms expounded in the Declaration of the Rights of Man underpinned those ideals, namely, freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. Political issues were debated not only in the chamber and committees of the National Assembly but also in a wide variety of venues throughout the length and breadth of the land. Although there were property, race and gender limitations on Revolutionary inclusiveness, at least opinion was free – indeed had never been freer. If the Declaration of the Rights of Man clearly drew its inspiration from the philosophy of the Enlightenment, the political culture of the early years of the Revolution was a striking exemplification of the values of the Enlightenment public sphere. The measure of press freedom enjoyed since 1787–8 was extended enormously in 1789, and in the period down to 1791 the press enjoyed greater freedom than at any stage in French history, before or since. The vitality of the newspaper press was a useful proxy measure of transparency in public debate, a key Revolutionary value. Paris alone saw the appearance of 300 new titles in 1790, and a further 300 down to the end of the Constituent Assembly in September 1791, while the provinces provided some 200 additional titles over the same period. Marseille had had two newspapers in 1789; by 1791 it had fourteen. The comparable figures for Bordeaux were one and sixteen. The buoyant newspaper press made politics everybody’s business, and schooled citizens in Revolutionary political culture.

The impact of the press was accentuated by greater freedom afforded political associations. Certain of the institutions of the pre-Revolutionary public sphere were, it is true, now frowned on: academies, for example, were increasingly viewed as hyper-exclusive nests of aristocrats, and they were eventually abolished in 1793; while salons and, to some degree, masonic lodges, whose semi-private status had in the past preserved them from the full force of state censorship, were seen as too secretive for the transparent and democratic atmosphere of the new regime. The characteristic institution of the Revolutionary public sphere was the political club. The archetype in some measure was the Assembly’s own ‘Breton Club’, which, after the move to Paris in October, took the title ‘Society of Friends of the Constitution’. It was better known as the Jacobin Club, after the Jacobin monastery in which it held its sessions. The Jacobins acted as a left-of-centre parliamentary pressure group, spending much of their time in coordinating the following day’s business in the Assembly. They also drew non-deputies into their activities. From 1790, they opened their meetings to the general public, and they also acted as the centre for a vast correspondence and affiliation network of clubs similarly devoted to the success of the new political regime. The provincial clubs which affiliated to the Paris Club were meeting-places for local patriots, drawing in a largely middle-class clientele which they kept abreast of public affairs. They served as a training ground for budding politicians, but beyond that were also schools of political morality, sporting busts of Cato and Brutus, Voltaire, Rousseau and Ben Franklin on their walls, alongside framed copies of the Declaration of the Rights of Man. Their exact form varied according to locality and background: some sprang out of pre-existent literary societies; others had a strong admixture of freemasons; and most developed into political debating clubs like the Paris prototype. In early 1790, only a score or so of such clubs were linked to Paris; but by the summer over 100 had joined, and a year later the figure was close to 1,000. By then different types of club – radical and conservative, aristocratic and plebeian – were also emerging.56

Press and clubs worked most effectively when they worked together. They provided a continuous interactive commentary on and critique of the National Assembly’s work of political architecture. They influenced as well as reflecting and recounting events. For deputies read the newspapers and were members of political clubs and also received a heavy post-bag. The Arras lawyer Robespierre won a national reputation for himself through speeches in both the Paris Jacobin Club and the National Assembly, speeches which he made sure were carried in newspapers. A good number of deputies would owe their election to their journalistic fame: Cérutti, editor of the specialist rural journal La Feuille villageoise, for example, and Brissot, of the Patriote Français, were elected to the Legislative Assembly in the summer of 1791, and there were numerous examples (Marat, Carra, Mercier, Gorsas, etc.) later in the decade.

The regeneration of national spirit infused liberty and equality into every domain of French life. Equality before the law implied that the law required more respect than it had mustered prior to 1789. The slow work began of national codification of laws (which would see its apotheosis in the Napoleonic Code of 1804). The penal code was simplified and humanized: degrading and cruel sentences, including torture, were abolished, and a tiered system of prisons introduced for punishing the persistent wrong-doer. This was complemented by the invention of a new and, it was said, highly humane form of capital punishment, which, its progenitor, the physician deputy Guillotin, assured his fellows would separate the head from the body ‘in the twinkling of an eye’ – ‘one feels no more than a slight sensation of coolness at the back of the neck’.57 (How Damiens would have cheered!) A functionally stratified system of courts was instituted too, with election of judges and (imported from England) the jury system and justices of the peace as means of making justice fairer, more transparent, and more oriented towards prevention and conciliation.

With the Ancien Régime yoke triumphantly lifted, and with public spirit regenerated through elections and the individual freedoms, deputies confidently expected a new era of prosperity and happiness to begin. The Rights of Man implied (though they did not make explicit) the freeing-up of the production, retailing and distribution of goods. The spirit of laisser-faire had been a hallmark of the bailliage cahiers of the Third Estate, and it dominated the Assembly’s thinking on economic policy. The reforms of the night of 4 August entailed the removal of agricultural land from feudal constraints, and a similar spirit of freedom was evident in reforms in other areas of the economy. Freedom of trade now covered all goods: down to 1791, in piecemeal fashion, all indirect taxes, including the hated gabelle, were ended, and seigneurial and municipal tolls made illegal. (The unified internal market was, however, protected by a tariff wall against foreign competition, and as a sign of market caution, the export of grain was prohibited in 1790.) The attack on corporative privilege on 4 August had seemed to imply the abolition of trade guilds and corporations, though in the event these continued to subsist. Only on 2 March 1791 were they suppressed and state privileges formerly granted to manufacturers removed; while on 17 June 1791, the Le Chapelier law (named after the Breton deputy who introduced it, and actually aimed against political rather than workers’ associations) had the effect of prohibiting workers and employers from forming associations – a law which made strike action illegal down to 1864.

The Constituent Assembly also began the work of reconstructing national finances, whose disastrous state had triggered the whole Revolutionary crisis. The privileged orders of the Ancien Régime could now be expected to pay their full tax allocation. If all individuals were now equal before the law, all were equally naked before the tax-man. When it came, the property tax which was the basis of the new fiscal regime was a unitary tax, payable by all, on lines which Calonne and Loménie de Brienne had preached. Measures aiming to centralize and bureaucratize the state’s central finances on lines yearned for by reformist Controllers-General were also introduced, bringing greater economy and rationality to the Treasury. At the other end of the process, the removal of fiscal privilege brought transparency to the assessment and levying of taxation by democratically accountable local committees.

Such a system took time to introduce. The summer crisis of 1789, however, had caused tax revenue to plummet, while the removal of Ancien Régime taxes and agreement to new outgoings, such as compensation for venal offices, helped cause a real problem of short-term liquidity. The new Assembly just about held the line. Necker’s return as Finance Minister after the fall of the Bastille helped, as did the Assembly’s eschewing the road of state bankruptcy: it recognized the national debt and promised root and branch fiscal reform. On 6 October 1789, deputies called for a contribution patriotique (the associative word ‘contribution’ was thought to measure more accurately tax-payers’ attitudes towards state demands than the more coercive-sounding Ancien Régime term, ‘impost’ or impôt): citizens were requested to make a one-off payment of a quarter of their income to help the new regime over the difficult circumstances of its birth, and there was indeed an emulative wave of conspicuous patriotic donation.

What provided most confidence in state credit in autumn 1789, however, was the decision to nationalize church property. By abolishing the tithe, the reforms of 4 August made the recasting of ecclesiastical finances inevitable. On 2 November, the state took over church land. Historians reckon this constituted between 6 and 10 per cent of the total cultivable land surface, though contemporaries thought it was even more. This was pending the state’s reorganization of the funding of the church – which followed in the so-called Civil Constitution of the Clergy of 12 July 1790, which effectively made the church a sector of government administration. In the interim, from December 1790, state bonds known as assignats, interest-bearing treasury bills secured (or ‘assigned’) on church lands were issued. A start was also made at selling off the ‘national lands’ (biens nationaux) to the highest bidders. The Civil Constitution of the Clergy was perhaps the most ambitious piece of political architecture which the Constituent Assembly attempted. It was also the measure which caused the biggest headaches for it and its successors.

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