(Originally posted on Wednesday, July 29, 2009)
“Freedom had been hunted round the globe; reason was considered as rebellion; and the slavery of fear had made men afraid to think. But such is the irresistible nature of truth, that all it asks, and all it wants, is the liberty of appearing.”
— Thomas Paine, Rights of Man, 1791
This installment of our examination of the events, people, and groups involved with the French Revolution will focus upon the evolution of the legislative bodies that were associated with the different stages discussed previously. We will use these stages, or ‘Acts’, as in previous posting to organize our presentation. Different deliberative bodies met to move through these stages. The current presentation will focus on the formal legislative structures in effect during each of these stages.
At this point in our exploration, you should have a reasonable understanding of the stages of the French Revolution, the factions within it, and a basic understanding of what form the government should become. So, let’s get started…
Act One… The Absolute Monarchy
Before the revolution, King Louis XVI was the sole government of France. This is termed the ‘ancien régime’ and the king was the absolute ruler, accountable to no other group, including the Church. He was descended of the line of Bourbon Kings. The only deliberative body during this period was the ‘Assembly of Notables’ which met to advise the King; it met during two periods before the Revolution: from February to May, 1787 and again during November and December, 1788. This group was convened to circumvent the decisions of the Supreme Court, the ‘parlement.’ This Assembly was composed of the highest-ranking nobles, clergy, and some public officials. The failure of this Assembly to bring order to the people reacting to the imposition of overwhelming taxes led to the convening of the ‘Estates-General’ in the Spring of 1789.
Act Two… The Transition from Absolute Monarchy to a Constitutional Monarchy
This period saw the end to the Absolute Monarchy of Louis XVI and the establishment of a series of assemblies that represented the various classes of the population. These assemblies were not purely advisory; they could act independently of the wishes of the King. Therefore, the representative assemblies imposed limits upon the rule of the King and his prerogatives.
The Estates-General (May through June, 1789)… This was a transition from the ‘ancien régime’; it descended from a group that last met in 1614. It was composed of representatives of the three classes, or ‘Estates,’ that formed French society of the time. These groups were: the ‘First Estate’ representing the Clergy, the ‘Second Estate’ representing the Nobility, and the ‘Third Estate’ representing the rest of the people including the merchants and tradesmen as well as the rural population who were basically feudal serfs. In this structure, both the ‘First Estate’ and ‘Second Estate’ were exempted from taxes; the ‘First Estate’ was also the largest landowner in France and extracted a ‘tithe’ tax from the people as well. Since the major problem in 1789 was the depletion of the treasury, the tax burden fell upon the ‘Third Estate.’
The major conflict during this session of the ‘Estates-General’ was how to vote on measures considered. The traditional view was to vote by ‘Estate’ which would always allow the Clergy and Nobility to impose their views upon the ‘Third Estate.’ The latter group sought to have the voting conducted ‘by head,’ meaning that each delegate would have a vote; this would give the people a fair chance to see some of its proposals approved. This debate was settled when the King dictated that the voting would be ‘by Estate.’ While this debate continued, no deliberations were held on substantive issues. Finally, the King’s ruling led the members of the ‘Third Estate’ to declare them as the ‘National Assembly.’ They invited the more liberal members of the Clergy and the Nobility to join them.
The National [Constituent] Assembly (June, 1789 – September, 1791)… This newly formed group continued to meet at the Palace of Versailles until the King locked them out from their meeting chambers. The ‘Assembly’ declared themselves independent of the sovereignty of the King. The people of Paris marched upon Versailles to protest the lockout, led by Olympe de Gouges; the King declined to remove the ‘Assembly’ by force and the ‘Assembly’ removed themselves to a public tennis court in Paris. At this time, each member swore the ‘Tennis Court Oath’ to support the aims of the ‘Assembly.’ Following this, the populace of Paris took to the streets to protest the arbitrary actions of the King and ended up storming and taking the Bastille Fortress in Paris.
What was the task of this ‘Assembly’? Well, it was two-fold. The first task was to deal with the fiscal crisis of the country more equitably than the King’s advisors had suggested. This included removing the tax exemption of the Clergy and the Nobility. The major difficulty was to manage a country that did not have an effective bureaucracy. This task fell to Comte de Mirabeau and a group of republicans called the ‘Girondists.’ Thus, a ‘Constitutional Monarchy’ was created.
The second task was to draft a Constitution to guide the new government. During this process, the ‘Assembly’ created “The Rights of Man and the Citizen” which was based heavily on the thinking of Thomas Paine, who had also helped to promote the American Revolution with his pamphlet “Common Sense”. The constitution for a Constitutional Monarchy was ready in September, 1791.
Act Three… The Constitutional Monarchy
The Legislative Assembly (October, 1791 – September, 1792)… Following the completion of the Constitution the new government took over. They were still faced by the severe fiscal crisis that had precipitated.
King Louis XVI was still the executive and was still capricious. He would appoint his favorites to ministerial positions and frequently cast a ‘suspensive veto,’ a veto that could delay but not negate the implementation of a law. This led to the formation of factions within the ‘Legislative Assembly’ and the formation of the ‘clubs’; the most powerful club was the ‘Jacobin Club’ of which both ‘Girondists’ and ‘Montagnards’ were members. In the face of this loss of power, Louis XVI hoped that other European Monarchs would come to his rescue and restore him to his former status and destroy the revolutionaries.
Another obstacle was the poor fiscal situation of the country along with the general unrest among the poor. In Paris, the poor people, the ‘sans-culottes,’ and the merchants and tradesmen formed the ‘Commune of Paris’ under the oversight of the ‘Girondists,’ but the poor in the countryside were still treated as serfs even though feudalism was banned by the new constitution.
In 1792, the King and his family basically changed the dynamics of the situation and sealed their fates. They attempted to flee the Tuileries Palace in Paris for Belgium, but were caught in Varennes. They were taken back to Paris and placed under house arrest. In August, 1792, the royal family was attacked in the Tuileries Palace and the Monarchy was terminated. Louis XVI was executed on the guillotine in January, 1793 and Marie Antoinette met the same fate in September of the same year.
Thus, the setup of a Constitutional Monarchy was successfully, but ended with the execution of the King for his non-cooperation. This event also marked the end of the bureaucratic dominance of the ‘Girondists’ in the Assembly. The stage was set for anarchy…
Act Four… The National Convention and the ‘Reign of Terror’
Once the King was removed and executed, a republican form of government was instituted. After the execution of the Queen, the crowds of the ‘Commune of Paris’ and the extremely poor, the ‘sans-culottes,’ took to the streets to demand immediate changes to their status. The new National Convention, more commonly referred to as the ‘Convention,’ was formed to draw up a republican constitution to guide the country. Robespierre and his ‘Montagnards’ rose to prominence.
The National Convention (October, 1792 – September, 1794)… The delegates for this Convention were elected by the people, but under a more restricted set of voters. Only those who paid taxes were allowed to vote. The other half of the male population was disenfranchised as were the poor throughout the country.
After the ‘Montagnards,’ under Robespierre rose to power, the other groups in the ‘Convention’ were expelled from the ‘Jacobin Club’. The royalists retreated to the ‘Monarchist Club,’ the older leaders retreated and formed the ‘Club des Feuillants’ and the ‘Girondists’ were removed from their positions of leadership and persecuted. These changes brought on a more radical phase of the Revolution — the ‘Reign of Terror.’ This radicalism was triggered by the rise of militancy within the ‘Commune of Paris,’ the threat of insurrection in the countryside, and the approach of the Austrian coalition army that was approaching Paris.
The Committee of Public Safety (1793-1794)… In light of this unrest, the Constitution was suspended and martial law was imposed upon the country. The ‘Reign of Terror’ began; those accused of treason, disloyalty, subversion, etc. were tried without a defense and promptly executed on the guillotine. Any threats of public disorder were dealt with swiftly and without mercy. Approximately 50,000 people were executed during this period of anarchy, including most of the ‘Girondists’ and ‘Hébertists’. The primary goal was to eliminate the internal threats to the Convention rather than waging war against the Austrian coalition. This was not the reign of law, but the raw imposition of personal power in the person of Robespierre.
By the middle of 1794, the tolerance of the people had reached its limit. The radical ‘Montagnards,’ including Robespierre, were now considered the targets of the more moderate delegates of the Convention; these radicals were executed on the guillotine. The republicans worked to finish the Constitution and control the fractional fighting. When the Constitution was passed, the Revolution was once again put on a path to a stable republic.
Act Five… The First Republic
The new Constitution called for a republican form of government on the model defined by Montesquieu. There was to be a separation of executive from legislative powers and the representatives were to be elected by popular vote. This form of government was entirely new to not only the French, but all Europeans. It was a model similar to that of the new American nation in the United States Constitution of 1787.
The Directory (October, 1794 – 1799)… This new form of government had separate legislative and executive branches, based more like the model of the United Kingdom rather the United States.
◊ The Legislature… The new constitution defined a bicameral (two house) legislature made up of a lower house, the ‘Council of Five-Hundred,’ 500 representatives that were elected by the people and the upper house, the ‘Council of Elders,’ 250 representatives indirectly appointed by the ‘departements’ (‘states’). These representatives were elected for three year terms.
◊ The Executive… There were five ‘Directors’ named for one year terms that provided the administrative needs of the new republic. These ‘Directors’ were selected by the ‘Council of Elders’ from a list drawn up by the ‘Council of Five-Hundred.’ In theory, this should have worked, but in practice these ‘Directors’ tended to become corrupted by their power and remained in office beyond the one year term specified by the Constitution.
This process was successful in directing the French army in their battles against the Austrian coalition, but it was only partially successful in the internal governance of France. In 1797, the remnants of the nobility attempted to return the Monarchy, but failed. In 1798, the remaining ‘Girondists’ reasserted their power and employed their administrative skills to bring order from the chaos. This only lasted a year before there would be another change in government…
Napoleon and his armies were successful in obtaining a truce after their successful conquest of Italy. As a result, most of Italy came under the control of France and the Austrian coalition gained Venice. Another crisis was in store when the armies returned to France and wanted to receive their pay; the country was still in a fiscal crisis and could not make the payment… This whole incident led to the creation of the Empire and naming a military leader, Napoleon, as its head.
We will stop here, but the adventure does continue. The Empire continued, but stability was hard to come by in France. In the 1820’s, the Monarchy was restored only to be followed by the Revolution of 1848 and again in 1872. But that is a study for another series.
Summary and Conclusions
In a period of only ten years, from 1789 to 1799, France had progressed from an Absolute Monarchy to a Republic. The nobility and the clerics no longer were exempt from taxes. The people had learned that they could exercise the power of their numbers. This was not a linear progression, however. The country had to survive the ‘Reign of Terror’ and the anarchy of the people out of control. Many lives were lost to the guillotine. But in the end, they emerged from this process as a Republic, the first in Europe.
Was this the end of tyranny? Not be any means! But it started Europe on a journey towards liberty from oppression. The French Revolution was an example of many nations, but was seen especially in its effects on the Russian Revolution of the twentieth century.
Next Time: We will wrap up our study of the French Revolution by looking at some of the changes that occurred during this period of upheaval. Join us for that continuing adventure…