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Lecture 12

The French Revolution: The Moderate Stage, 1789-1792


Beloved and loyal supporters, we require the assistance of our faithful subjects to overcome the difficulties in which we find ourselves concerning the current state of our finances, and to establish, as we so wish, a constant and invariable order in all branches of government that concern the happiness of our subjects and the prosperity of the realm. These great motives have induced us to summon the Assembly of the Estates of all Provinces obedient to us, as much to counsel and assist us in all things placed before it, as to inform us of the wishes an grievances of our people; so that, by means of the mutual confidence and reciprocal love between the sovereign and his subjects, an effective remedy may be brought as quickly as possible to the ills of the State, and abuses of all sorts may be averted and corrected by good and solid means which insure public happiness and restore to us in particular the calm and tranquility of which we have so long been deprived.

Louis XVI's letter regarding the convocation of the Estates General at Versailles (January 24, 1789)

The aim of every political association is the preservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of man. These rights are liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression.

Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen (August 26, 1789)

After all these facts and the impossibility the king found himself in to do good and prevent the evil which his committed, is it surprising that the king sought to recover his liberty and to get himself and his family to safety?

"Declaration of the King Addressed to All the French About His Flight from Paris" (June 21, 1791)

It is time to teach kings that the silence of the laws about their crimes is the ill consequence of their power, and not the will of reason or equity. . . .

Speech of Marquis de Condorcet (December 3, 1792)

We now come to the Revolution itself. We have already outlined some of the basic causes of the French Revolution as well as the general features of the ancien regime. It seems fairly clear that the closed social structure of 18th century France, administrative inefficiency, bankruptcy and the example of the American Revolution as well as Enlightenment thought all had their effect on what would indeed occur in the last decade of the 18th century. Above all, a revolutionary mentality had been created and this alone, perhaps, is what drove the revolutionaries forward. Our discussion will suggest that there were actually two revolutions, or two distinct stages within the Revolution: the moderate stage of 1789-1792, followed by the radical stage of 1792-1794 (see Lecture 13).

For centuries, Frenchmen had met in local electoral assemblies in order to elect deputies for the Estates General. This was, in theory, a representative institution. However, the Estates General had not been called into session since 1614. In July 1788, and because of its unresolved and mounting financial crisis, Louis XVI called for a meeting of the Estates General. After electing deputies, the full body was to meet in June the following year. For the next twelve months following Louis’ request, each Estate drew up a list of grievances, the Cahiers de doléances. Among the lists drawn up by the deputies of the Third Estate were expressed loyalty to Louis, loyalty to the Church and the sanctity of private property. Several lists called for a written constitution as well as an elected Assembly. 

As the Estates General prepared to meet, there was a general consensus of high hope amongst all concerned Frenchmen. As yet, no one was talking about revolution. The Estates General met at Versailles on May 5, 1789 and there ensued an immediate stalemate over procedure. The nobility argued that the three Estates meet separately and vote as individual bodies. Since the First and Second Estates were the privileged orders, they would stand together against the Third Estate, 2 votes to 1. The Third Estate recognized this and instead proposed to the nobility and clergy that all members of the Three Estates would meet as one body and vote by head. This is an important consideration. The First and Second Estates were composed of 300 delegates each. But the Third Estate consisted of more than 600 solidly middle class deputies from the ranks of government officials, lawyers, merchants, property owners and other professionals. Since the Third Estate had the support of liberal minded priests and members of the nobility, they were almost assured of a majority.

Text of the "Oath of the Tennis Court" (June 1789)On June 10, 1789, the Third Estate broke the stalemate. They invited the First and Second Estates to join them. Some of the more liberal-minded members of the nobility and clergy did in fact come over, but the stalemate continued. On June 17, 1789, the Third Estate began the French Revolution by declaring itself a National Assembly. This was a profoundly revolutionary act indeed. Days later, now locked out of their meeting hall, the Third Estate moved to a tennis court and took the OATH OF THE TENNIS COURT, which stated that they would not disband until a constitution had been drafted.

Louis ordered the National Assembly to disband immediately. A Declaration sent to the Third Estate from Louis on June 23 expressed the following demand:

The King wishes that the ancient distinction of the three Orders of the State be preserved in its entirety, as essentially linked to the constitution of his Kingdom; that the deputies, freely elected by each of the three Orders, forming three chambers, deliberating by Order . . . can alone be considered as forming the body of the representatives of the Nation. As a result, the King has declared null the resolutions passed by the deputies of the Order of the Third Estate, the 17th of this month, as well as those which have followed them, as illegal and unconstitutional . . . .

The Third Estate, stood by their solemn oath and refused to yield to Louis’ demands.

In an effort to reach some kind of compromise, on June 27, Louis ordered the clergy and nobility to join the Third Estate. Of course, some members of both Estates had already done so but the vast majority refused. I suppose Louis figured that he could control the Third Estate if it were simply a part of a larger body, but his plan clearly back-fired. The Third Estate would not compromise and the First and Second Estate would not conceive of lowering themselves to the same collective body as the Third Estate. Instead, the nobility joined with Louis against the National Assembly. Louis went on to order the army to station themselves near Paris and Versailles, just in case. Although not one shot had yet been fired, the French Revolution had begun.

Brief discussion of symbols created by the French revolutionariesBy the beginning of July, Paris had reached a high level of tension. After all, the convocation of the Estates General had aroused hope for much-needed reform. But meanwhile, the price of bread was soaring. For example, in August 1788, 50%of a peasant or urban worker’s income went toward the purchase of bread. By July 1789, this figure had risen to 80%. To compound the situation, there was a growing fear of an aristocratic plot against the National Assembly. On July 14th, between eight and nine hundred Parisians, mostly women, gathered in front of that medieval fortress, the Bastille. They were looking for weapons and gunpowder. They stormed the prison – 98 were killed and 73 wounded. Although the Bastille contained no hoped-for weapons, the FALL OF THE BASTILLE served, and has always served, as a great symbol of the Revolution itself. To many, it seemed there was now no turning back.

As a result of this journee, the aristocrats fled the country and Louis decided to withdraw his troops from Paris. Keep in mind, the events that we have been discussing thus far, occurred in Paris alone. Something very different took place in the countryside. The peasants believed that the Estates General would solve some of their more pressing problems. After all, they had already sent their list of grievances to Versailles. If Louis only knew their plight, then he would take care of them. But by June 1789, the peasants had become restless and violent. As the price of bread continued to soar and its supply decreased, the peasants began to attack food convoys on their way to Paris. The peasants also refused to pay taxes, tithes and manorial dues to their landlords, whom they held responsible for their economic plight. By the end of July, the peasants began to burn down the houses of their landlords and with them, the records of their obligations to their lords. The ancien regime was being destroyed by the will of the people. But why did the peasants turn violent? A rumor began to spread that the aristocrats had organized an army to kill the peasants. This was only a rumor, but the Great Fear, as this episode is known, led the peasants to take arms against an imaginary foe. The Great Fear worked to the advantage of the Parisian reformers and provided the National Assembly with the opportunity to criticize aristocratic privilege. So, on AUGUST 4, 1789, French aristocrats surrendered their special privileges by decree (ratified August 11, 1789). This journee marks of destruction of the remnants of feudalism.

Full text of the "Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen"On the night of August 4, several members of the Assembly drew up a key document of the French Revolution – this was the DECLARATION OF THE RIGHTS OF MAN AND THE CITIZEN. On August 26, the Declaration was formally adopted by the National Assembly. A moral document through and through, the Declaration outlined man’s natural rights. The purpose of such a Declaration was to rally the country and to add support to the National Assembly.

The representatives of the French people, organized as a National Assembly, believing that the ignorance, neglect, or contempt of the rights of man are the sole cause of public calamities and of the corruption of governments, have determined to set forth in a solemn declaration the natural, unalienable, and sacred rights of man, in order that this declaration, being constantly before all the members of the Social body, shall remind them continually of their rights and duties; in order that the acts of the legislative power, as well as those of the executive power, may be compared at any moment with the objects and purposes of all political institutions and may thus be more respected, and, lastly, in order that the grievances of the citizens, based hereafter upon simple and incontestable principles, shall tend to the maintenance of the constitution and redound to the happiness of all.

Barely 300 words in length, it could be printed cheaply on one side of a single sheet of paper. The Declaration appeared all over France and was subsequently translated into every major European language. As a symbol, it became the gospel of the new French social order.

Louis accepted neither the decrees of August 4 nor the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. However, on October 5, 1789, several hundred Parisian men and women marched the twelve miles to Versailles in order to protest the lack of bread to Louis and the National Assembly. At the same time, 20,000 Paris Guards loyal to the Revolution set out to join the mob gathered at Versailles. Louis had no choice but to promise bread and return to Paris with the protesters. Louis was now the captive of the people. He promised bread. He approved the decrees of August 4 including the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen.

Contemporary testimonies of the October Days, 1789With the conclusion of the OCTOBER DAYS the King and the National Assembly left Versailles for Paris. By the end of 1789, Louis had made several concessions to the National Assembly, none of which he sincerely intended to keep. The people of Paris and the French countryside loved their king as a child loves his father. Louis was not to blame for the misfortunes of France, instead, his evil ministers were held responsible. So, by bringing Louis to Paris, it was hoped he would be less influenced by his evil and corrupt ministers. But on June 20, 1791, Louis XVI did something which earned him the general distrust of most French subjects. He planned to raise an army and crush the revolution. He appealed to Leopold II, the brother of Marie Antoinette, who promised Louis Austrian troops if Louis could reach Montmédy and mobilize a sizable French force. Louis did not intend to leave France except as a last resort. 

At ten o'clock on the night of June 20, a berline, or heavy coach, drawn by four horses, pulled up at the south end of the Tuileries. At intervals untilLouis XVI reflects on his "Flight to Varennes" 11:30, the coach picked up members of the royal family, all of whom were dressed in disguise -- Louis as a valet, Marie Antoinette as a children's governess. It had been planned that as Louis passed through major cities and towns that his troops would be nearby. If he kept on schedule, Louis ought to arrived at Montmédy the following day. But it was not to be. Louis began to treat this serious occasion as an excursion -- he ordered extra stops so that he could sup on his favorite meals and on one occasion he was recognized at Ste.-Ménéhould by an old soldier, Jean-Baptiste Drouet.

Drouet rode ahead to the small village of Varennes and with the help of the locals, blocked the bridge across the Meuse River. At midnight, Louis' berline was stopped at the bridge and Louis immediately admitted who he was. The royal party was treated to dinner and treated with utmost respect. Of course, all the church bells began to ring and by morning, 10,000 peasants were in the streets of Varennes. Finally, at 6 A.M. on June 22, representatives of the National Assembly arrived on the scene, escorted by the National Guardsmen. Three day later, the royal family was back at the Tuileries. Louis was now a prisoner of the Revolution and an enemy of the Revolution. With the FLIGHT TO VARENNES, the National Assembly began to wonder just how possible a limited monarchy really was, or if indeed it was now even necessary.

Regardless, between the October Days of 1789 and September 1791, the National Assembly busied itself with reforms meant to dismantle the ancien regime. They accomplished this with six basic reforms

  1. the abolition of special privileges of the nobility through the legalization of equality (August 4, 1789)
  2. they made their statement of human rights with the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen (August 4, 1789)
  3. they subordinated Church to State. In November 1789, the National Assembly confiscated all Church property. And in early 1790, they passed the CIVIL CONSTITUTION OF THE CLERGY which reduced the power of the bishops. The clergy was now selected and paid by the State
  4. in September 1791, the National Assembly drew up a constitution, something it had been trying to do since June 1789. The constitution of 1791 specified such liberal ideas as a limited monarchy and full equality before the law
  5. the National Assembly also made every effort to replace the inefficient and uncoordinated provinces with 83 new administrative units nearly equal in size. A standardized system of courts was introduced, the sale of judicial offices was abolished, citizen-filled juries were introduced and torture was abolished
  6. in terms of economic reforms, the National Assembly adopted a uniform system of weights and measures, guild restrictions were abolished and customs on goods transported within the country were eliminated

By the end of September 1791, the National Assembly announced that its work was done. In many ways, the Constitution of 1791 seemed to fulfill the promises of reform which had been first uttered by the men of 1789. All Frenchmen could now be proud that the following rights had been secured: equality before the law, careers open to talent, a written constitution, and parliamentary government

With this in mind, there was a sizeable faction within the National Assembly who were so satisfied that they claimed the Revolution to be at an end, since its primary aims had been achieved. But, revolutionary times are unpredictable. By 1792, the Revolution moved in a more radical and violent direction. This radical direction was neither desired nor anticipated by the men of 1789. Why the Revolution became radical is interesting and there are basically two reasons why it did so. First, a counter-revolution, loyal to Church and King, was led by the noble and the clergy and supported by staunch Catholic peasants. Because this counter-revolution threatened the changes of the revolutionaries, the revolutionaries had to resort to more drastic measures than hitherto imagined. Second, the economic, social, and political discontent of the urban working classes also propelled the Revolution in the direction of radicalism. These were the small shop-keepers, artisans and wage earners. These were the sans-culottes (see Lecture 13), men who defined themselves not only by their trade but also by the clothes they wore. They wore trousers or pants as opposed to the knee-britches of their social superiors. The sans-culottes had played a role in revolutionary events since 1789, but they had, as a class, received few gains. As one historian has written:

The sans-culottes saw that a privilege of wealth was taking the place of a privilege of birth. They foresaw that the bourgeoisie would succeed the fallen aristocracy as the ruling class.

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