Revolution and After: Tragedies and Farce


The First Revolution


The Estates General

   When Louis summoned the Estates General in 1788, he faced a difficult and insurmountable problem: the Third Estate. The last time the Estates General had been called was in 1614; the Estates General was set up in such a way that each Estate got the same number of members. In effect, this meant that the First and Second Estates, comprised almost unanimously of the nobility, could always outvote the Third Estate. Since 1614, the economic power of the Third Estate had increased dramatically; in 1788, the popular call was to double the number of representatives from the Third Estate so that they'd have equal voting power in comparison with the other two estates.

   Louis initially declined to increase the number, but he finally gave in the waning days of 1788. The question of "doubling the Third Estate" was preventing the solution of the deepening financial crisis; with Louis's compromise, the Estates General met in May of 1789.

   Louis, however, had vacillated on the question for too long. He had lost any support he had among the wealthy members of the Third Estate; in addition, the aristocracy had tried to solve the problem in its own way. The Parlement of Paris conceded the doubling question in September, but then declared that all voting would be done by individual Estates, that is, each Estate would get one vote. That meant that the Third Estate could be outvoted two to one everytime. Angry at the king and sickened by the efforts of the aristocracy to control the Assembly of the Estates General, all the members of the Third Estate walked out en masse when the Assembly met in Versailles. They were joined by some clergy, members of the First Estate, and they then declared themselves the National Assembly and the only legitimate legislative body of the country on June 17, 1789. They were fired by ideas ultimately derived from Rousseau, ideas about social contract and rights, and no person more eloquently defined the spirit of the National Assembly than the clergyman Abbé Emmanuel Sieyès, who declared that the Third Estate was everything, had been treated as nothing, and wanted only to be something. The rallying point was Rousseau's idea that the members of a nation are the nation itself; this is what legitimated the claims of the new National Assembly.

The National Assembly

   The newly-formed National Assembly was led by Abbé Sieyès and one of the Nobles of the Robe, Honoré Riqueti. They met in a local tennis court when they were locked out of their typical meeting place and, on June 20, all the members of the National Assembly swore an oath not to disband until they had drawn up a new constitution for France: this is the famous Tennis Court Oath. In an idea derived from Rousseau, they saw government as a creation of the people; when the social contract had been broken, then the people had a right to revoke that contract and set up a new government.

   On June 27, Louis XVI gave into the National Assembly and ordered the members of the Estates General to join the new National Assembly. This is the date at which the French Revolution started.

   Historians divide the Revolution into three stages. The first occurred between 1789 and 1792 and was mainly effected through the National Assembly. The main concern during this period was addressing the grievances that Louis had ordered each regional assembly to write up before the meeting of the Estates General. I simply refer to this stage as the first revolution. The second stage, beginning in the summer of 1792, saw the downfall of all the liberal, middle class leaders of the Revolution and the rise to power of radical revolutionaries. The radicals saw themselves as champions of the common person against the interests of both the aristocracy and the wealthy middle class. The radicals threw off all the vestiges of the old France when they executed Louis in September of 1792. The radicals were vicious and dictatorial; their days in power, known as the Reign of Terror, were a long, protracted effort to remake society from the ground up. The radicals were followed by a reaction in July of 1794 that threw the radicals out of power; the revolution reverted back to the moderate liberals of the middle class. The Revolution ended in November of 1799, when Abbée Sieyès championed the Counter-Revolutionary cause and invited Napolean Bonaparte to help him sieze the government.

The Capture of the Bastille

   The early days of the Revolution were punctuated by three significant popular uprisings: the taking of the Bastille on July 14, the "Great Fear" of July and August, and the march on Versailles Palace on October 5. These were all dramatic and transformative events; in every case, they brought home the seriousness of the endeavor whenever it had become stalled and consequently restarted the process.

   Events were happening quickly and few people could believe that the monarch or the aristocracy would allow the process to continue. In addition, the unrest had resulted in dire shortages of bread; most French believed that this was a deliberate attempt by the aristocracy to starve out the Revolution. By June, most everyone was convinced that the king was poised on retaking the government by force.

   Fearful of both the king and the poor, who were growing more violent with each passing day out of frustration and desperation, the electors of Paris, that is, the members of the Third Estate who could vote in the National Assembly, took matters into their own hands. These electors were modest people: tradespeople, craftsmen, small businessmen. They would eventually be called sans-culottes, because they didn't wear the breeches (culottes ) of the upper class (more on the sans-culottes when we talk about the radical revolution). They banded together and formed a new municipal government of Paris; on July 14, the marched to the Bastille. This structure was a medieval keep that served as both a prison and a warehouse for fireaarms and ammunition.

   When the crowd arrived at the Bastille, they demanded arms and ammunition from the Governor of the Bastille. At first he refused, but then he grew paniced and ordered his soldiers to fire on the crowd. Ninety-eight were killed and the crowd, fierce for revenge, stormed the fortress, released the prisoners (five criminals and two madmen), decapitated the Governor, and distributed arms to the citizenry.

   The taking of the Bastille was a transformative event; it, along with the establishement of revolutionary municipal governments across France, convinced the monarch and the aristocracy that the country fully supported the revolution. From this point onwards, there was no question in Louis's mind that the National Assembly should serve as the primary legislative body of France.

The Great Fear

   Popular uprisings soon travelled the length and breadth of the nation; all throughout France, the people feared a counter-revolution by either the monarch or the aristocracy. This fear reached total panic at the end of June, and the peasantry all over the nation began to set fire to aristocratic houses, monasteries, and public records houses. These two months of panic in the countryside, called "The Great Fear," inspired the National Assembly beginning on August 4 to completely disassemble the manorial system in which peasants were tied to landlords through an elaborate system of fees. It also inspired the Assembly to abolish the corvée and all tithing to the church. These days of reformative action in the Assembly, called the "August Days," abolished serfdom, aristocratic exemption from taxation, and effectively eliminated all class in France. By the end of August, all members of French society were equal under the law.

Declaration of the Rights of Man

   Like Rousseau, the members of the National Assembly believed that the social contract underlying European government was fundamentally flawed since it was based on principles that protected only the wealthy and the aristocracy at the price of the rest of the nation. The new government, they insisted, would be founded on the correct principles of authority. These principles were drafted in a document called The Declaration of the Rights of Man in August of 1789. This document was produced to provide the basic blueprint or ground rules of the new constitution.

   The Declaration is based on principles derived from Rousseau, from the English Bill of Rights of 1688, and the Virginia Bill of Rights drafted in 1776. The fundamental argument of the Declaration is that all men are born with natural rights, such as liberty and property; government and authority were instituted by humans only to protect those rights. The new constitution, then, should be based entirely on this idea of protecting individual rights and equality.

   Louis, however, refused to sanction the document, particularly since it seriously destroyed aristocratic privilege. However, a third popular uprising in October forced his hand. Faced with increasing shortages of bread, the women of Paris marched to Versailles on October 5 and demanded bread. When the crowd stayed he night, Louis agreed to ratify the Declaration. This was not good enough. The crowd stormed the palace and demanded that Louis return to Paris so that he could be more closely watched by the citizenry. On October 6, Louis and his family were escorted by the crowd back to Paris.

The Civil Constitution of the Clergy

   In July of 1790, the Assembly passed the Civil Constitution of the Clergy. The effect of this legislation was to bring the constitution of ecclesiastical authority under the same principles governing the restructuring of government: authority is given by the people to protect their rights and property. The Civil Constitution legislated that all ecclesiastical offices would be elected offices and all people within those offices would be directly under the control of the civil government. The Church would only barely be subject to Rome; instead, it would become a French institution whose policy and direction would be subject to French, not Roman, interests.

   In many ways, the Catholic Church was the source of pent-up hatred throughout France. There's no question that the upper officials of the church were hopelessly corrupt; they were all nobility, most held several offices at once, few cared about the regions under their charge, and they bled the peasantry dry in order to support their extravagant lifestyles. However, the secularization of the church in the Civil Constitution was perhaps one of the most powerful weapons that the Assembly could hand to the counter-revolutionary forces in France. Breaking off from Rome and demanding that clergy be subject to the people went against centuries of culture and world view in France; while the radical revolutionaries of 1792 believed that such habits of thought could be disposed of overnight, the respect for the church and its authorities was deeply ingrained in the character of the country and proved impossible to overcome.

The Constitution of 1791

   In June of 1789, the National Assembly took a collective oath to draft a new civil constitution for France; they completed this task in 1791. The new constitution declared France to be a constitutional monarchy. Within this new government, all legislative powers would fall to a single Legislative Assembly, which alone had the power to declare war and raise taxes.

   The Legislative Assembly would be made up of representatives elected by Electors, who themselves were elected by "active" citizens (an active citizen was a male citizen who paid annual taxes equal to the local wages paid for three days of labor). This meant that only half the citizens of France could vote and, in a country of 25 million people or so, only fifty thousand qualified to serve as either electors or members of the Legislative Assembly.

   The monarch was allowed very few powers. He could temporarily stall legislation through a suspensive veto, but he could not veto any legislation permanently. The control of the army was taken out of his hands, and he had no authority over local governments. In addition, he could send no representatives to serve in the Legislative Assembly.

Economic Reforms

   The activities of the National Assembly were nothing short of heroic, perhaps one of the greatest chapters in the history of collective creativity. The Assembly, however, was also faced with the daunting task of reforming the finances and economy of the country. Many of its measures, such as selling off confiscated church lands, did not cause much problems. Other measures, such as enclosing lands to encourage industrial sized agriculture, produced tremendous hardship on the peasantry. In addition, the revoking of guild laws—which protected various craftsmen by giving them a virtual monopoly over their trade—helped to spur industrial development and economic growth, but it also deprived many middle-class tradespeople of their livelihoods.

   These were heady days. Government had been successfully decentralized and the country (partially) democratized. It was a revolution inspired by, led by, and ruled by the middle class; it was no wonder, then, that the Constitution and the economic reforms were, in the end, great windfalls for the middle class. For when Abbé Sieyès declared the Third Estate to be everything, he didn't necessarily mean that the whole of the Third Estate was everything. This oversight would drive a second, more radical stage in the Revolution.

Next
The Counter-Revolution


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1997, Richard Hooker
Updated 2-2-97