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Abolition of feudalism to the Civil Constitution

The French Revolution was a period in the history of France covering the years 1789 to 1799, in which republicans overthrew the monarchy and the Roman Catholic Church perforce underwent radical restructuring. This article covers the year following the fall of the Bastille, roughly from the abolition of feudalism (August 4, 1789) to the adoption (by the National Constituent Assembly) of the Civil Constitution of the Clergy (July 12, 1790).

August 4, 1789: Feudalism Abolished

After the events surrounding the storming of the Bastille, the next major event of the revolution occurred on August 4, 1789, when the National Constituent Assembly abolished feudalism, sweeping away both the seigneurial rights of the Second Estate (the nobility) and the tithes gathered by the First Estate (the Roman Catholic clergy).

While one can question motivations (and while many later expressed regrets and attempted retreat), historians agree that the Viscount de Noailles and the Duke d’Aiguillon proposed the redemption and consequent abolition of feudal rights and the suppression of personal servitude, as well as of the various privileges of the nobility.

Not to be outdone, the bishops of Nancy and of Chartres proposed, even demanded, the abolition of tithes. In the course of a few hours, France abolished game-laws, seigneurial courts, the purchase and sale of posts in the magistracy, of pecuniary immunities, favoritism in taxation, of surplice money, first-fruits, pluralities, and unmerited pensions.

Towns, provinces, companies, and cities also sacrificed their special privileges. A medal was struck to commemorate the day, and the Assembly declared Louis XVI the “Restorer of French Liberty.”

Of course, this “Saint Bartholomew of abuses,” as François Mignet calls it, was a bit too good to be true. As the Russian anarchist Prince Peter Kropotkin would write, “The Assembly was carried away by its enthusiasm, and in this enthusiasm nobody remarked the clause for redeeming the feudal rights and tithes, which the two nobles and the two bishops had introduced into their speeches — a clause terrible even in its vagueness, since it might mean all or nothing, and did, in fact, postpone […] the abolition of feudal rights for four years – until August 1793.

But which of us in reading the beautiful story of that night, written by its contemporaries, has not been carried away by enthusiasm in his turn? And who has not passed over those traitorous words, ‘racbat au denier 30′ (redemption at a thirty-years’ purchase), without understanding their terrible import? This is also what happened in France in 1789.”

The structures of government in summer 1789

Following the fall of the Bastille, the National Constituent Assembly became the effective government of France. In Mignet’s words, “The assembly had acquired the entire power; the corporations depended on it; the national guards obeyed it. […] The royal power, though existing of right, was in a measure suspended, since it was not obeyed, and the assembly had to supply its action by its own.”

Some of the leading figures of the Assembly at this time included:

Among the foes of the revolution, later known as the “Right”:
Jacques Antoine Marie Cazalès — a forthright spokesman for aristocracy
the abbé Jean-Sifrein Maury — a somewhat inflexible representative of the Church
The “Royalist democrats” (later known as “Constitutionals” or “Monarchicals”) allied with Necker, inclined toward arranging France along lines similar to the British constitutional model with a House of Lords and a House of Commons:

  • Jean Joseph Mounier
  • the Comte de Lally-Tollendal
  • the Comte de Clermont-Tonnerre
  • Pierre Victor Malouet, Comte de Virieu

The “National Party,” at this time still relatively united in support of revolution and democratization, representing mainly the interests of the middle classes, but strongly sympathetic to the broader range of the common people. In this early period, its most notable leaders included Mirabeau, the Marquis de Lafayette, and Jean-Sylvain Bailly (the first two coming from aristocratic backgrounds).

Mignet also points to Adrien Duport, Antoine Pierre Joseph Marie Barnave, and Alexander Lameth as leaders among the “most extreme of this party” in this period, leaders in taking “a more advanced position than that which the revolution had [at this time] attained.” Lameth’s brother Charles also belonged to this group.

To this list one must add the abbé Sieyès, foremost in proposing legislation in this period, and the man who, for a time, managed to bridge the differences between those who wanted a constitutional monarchy and those who wished to move in more democratic (or even republican) directions.

Meanwhile, turmoil continued in Paris. Amidst occasional rioting over food shortages, a hundred and eighty members, nominated by the city districts, constituted themselves as legislators and representatives of the city, but with no clear structure.

The committees, the mayor, the assembly of representatives, and the individual districts each claimed authority independent of the others. The increasingly middle-class National Guard under Lafayette also slowly emerged as a power in its own right. Other self-generated assemblies arose, soldiers debated at the Oratoire, journeymen tailors at the Colonnade, hairdressers in the Champs-Élysées, servants at the Louvre, and a particularly radical ad hoc assembly seated itself at the Palais-Royal.

None of these limited their competence to local issues: they felt free to debate the same issues as the National Assembly, to take positions more radically revolutionary than that Assembly, and to try (individually and sometimes jointly) to influence its decisions.

The Declaration of the Rights of Man

Looking to the United States Declaration of Independence for a model, on August 26, 1789 the Assembly published the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. Like the U.S. Declaration, it comprised a statement of principles rather than a constitution with legal effect. This statement of principles contained the kernel of a much more radical re-ordering of society than had yet taken place. The Declaration put forward a doctrine of popular sovereignty and equal opportunity:

“Article III – The principle of any sovereignty resides essentially in the Nation. No body, no individual can exert authority which does not emanate expressly from it.”
(From Article VI) – “All the citizens, being equal in [the eyes of the law], are equally admissible to all public dignities, places, and employments, according to their capacity and without distinction other than that of their virtues and of their talents.”

Where the U.S. Declaration had singled out “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” as inalienable rights, the French document opted for “liberty, property, safety, and resistance against oppression.” It argued that the need for law derives from the fact that “… the exercise of the natural rights of each man has only those borders which assure other members of the society the enjoyment of these same rights”.

Thus, the declaration saw law as an “expression of the general will”, intended to promote this equality of rights and to forbid “only actions harmful to the society.”

The Declaration also put forward several provisions similar to the United States Constitution and Bill of Rights. Like the U.S. Constitution, it discusses the need to provide for the common defense and states some broad principles about taxation. It also specifies a public right to an accounting from public agents as to how they have discharged the public trust.

Like the U.S. Bill of Rights, it provides against ex post facto application of criminal law and puts forward such principles as presumption of innocence, freedom of speech and of the press, and a slightly weaker guarantee of freedom of religion — “provided that [… the] manifestation [… of their religious opinions] does not trouble the public order established by the law”. It asserts the rights of property, while reserving a public right of eminent domain:

“Article XVII – Property being an inviolable and sacred right, no one can be deprived of private usage, if it is not when the public necessity, legally noted, evidently requires it, and under the condition of a just and prior indemnity [i.e., compensation].”

Towards a constitution

The Declaration stated broad principles, but did little or nothing to establish a form of government. For the time, the National Constituent Assembly, its membership drawn from the States General, functioned as a legislature, but that provided no model as to how to select a future government. Would it have a unicameral or a bicameral legislature? What powers should remain to the king? How often should elections take place (and precisely which offices should be elective)?

In the event, the Assembly invested all significant powers in itself, with only a “suspensive veto” left to the king (able to delay the implementation of a law, but not to block it absolutely).

The assembly would sit continuously, so as not to give a king or other ambitious individual the opportunity (in Mignet’s words) “to profit by the intervals in which he would be left alone.” Necker, Mounier, Lally-Tollendal, and others argued unsuccessfully for a senate, with members to be appointed by the king on the nomination of the people. The bulk of the nobles argued for an aristocratic upper house, elected by the nobles.

The popular party opposed any upper house and, given the division between the other two groups, carried the day: France would have a single, unicameral assembly.

The stalwarts of the ancien régime, of course, regarded all this as anathema. While the Assembly moved in the direction of a constitution, the King continued to attempt to resist the Declaration. On the pretext of protecting itself against the Parisian mob, the Court summoned troops to Versailles, doubled the household guards, and sent for the dragoons and the Flanders regiment.

Word of this spread to Paris, along with rumors that the king stood ready dissolve the assembly, or to flee to an area where his troops held control. The behaviour of the court confirmed these suspicions. At a banquet on October 1, 1789, guests drank the health of the royal family with swords drawn, while omitting or rejecting the health of the nation.

Royalist black cockades were distributed; some present also allegedly trampled on the tricolore cockade. Similar events took place two nights later.

Mignet writes that, “This assembling of the troops, so far from preventing aggression in Paris, provoked it… To protect itself there was no necessity for so much ardour, nor for flight was there needful so much preparation.” By October 5, the people of Paris were once again in full insurrection and stood ready to march on Versailles.

Even Lafayette could not ultimately prevent his National Guards from joining them. The Parisians, with the women in front, arrived in Versailles ahead of any warning of their approach.

Over the next two days various scuffles and incidents occurred, but eventually the king and the Royal Family kept the peace by allowing themselves to be brought back from Versailles to Paris. This reduced room for royal maneuver, placing the king amid the tumultuous populace and in a position where he had less scope to rally loyal troops around him.

In the wake of these events a new round of émigrés departed, including key royalist democrats from within the Assembly. Lally-Tollendal renounced his French citizenship and returned to England, the land of his ancestors. Mounier returned to his native Dauphiné, where he soon became the leader of an internal revolt.

Work on a constitution resumed. The Assembly divided France into eighty-three départements, uniformly administered and nearly equal to one another in extent and population, replacing the historic provinces. Similar arrangements were made down to the canton level, with multi-round elections providing a broad electoral franchise in the first round, but a franchise limited by property requirements in the subsequent round or rounds.

This effectively abolished the local parlaments, and angered many of the nobility and the bishops.

The royal government had originally summoned the Estates-General in order to deal with a financial crisis, but to date the Assembly had focused on other matters. In fact, they had reduced taxes, had incurred financial obligations in the proposed redemption of feudal privileges, and had continued to borrow money. Mirabeau now led the move to address this matter, with the Assembly giving Necker complete financial dictatorship.

Toward the Civil Constitution of the Clergy

The revolution assailed not only the power of the nobility but, equally, the power of the Church.

On August 4, 1789 the tithes were declared “redeemable.” One week later (August 11), tithes were suppressed without providing any equivalent. The clergy were generally not pleased, but were in no position to resist.

Further, if feudalism was to be abolished, the enormous land holdings of the Gallican Church (the Roman Catholic Church in France) could not remain.

Given the financial needs of the State, it was perhaps inevitable that these lands, worth several thousand millions of francs, would be confiscated by the State and (to some degree) monetized. Talleyrand, bishop of Autun, proposed the clergy renounce their land holdings: the nation would take over the resources of the Church and, in return, take on its expenses.

In approving this solution, the Assembly was no doubt also motivated by the opportunity to turn the Church into a dependent entity.

Talleyrand and other supporters of this measure argued that the church lands were of sufficient value to pay off the national debt, providing for the expenses of the church (including hospitals), and to reimburse the money paid for judicial offices. The clergy, it was said, were not proprietors, but simple depositaries of the wealth that the piety of kings and of the faithful had devoted to religion. If the expenses of the Church were to met by the State, the pious intent would still be fulfilled.

The confiscation of Church lands occurred through the law of December 2, 1789. In order to rapidly monetize such an enormous amount of property, a new paper currency was introduced, assignats backed by the confiscated church lands.

This provided an adequate (if inflationary) currency, but made it clear that the church lands were not merely to be mortgaged, but ultimately to be sold, and turned much of the clergy against the revolution. The sales were deemed sacrilegious; Catholics were discouraged from accepting assignats or otherwise purchasing former church lands.

Further legislation on February 13, 1790 abolished monastic vows.

The Civil Constitution of the Clergy, passed on July 12, 1790 (although not signed by the king until December 26, 1790), turned the remaining clergy into employees of the State and required that they take an oath of loyalty to the constitution.

In another atmosphere, it might have been a plausible arrangement — in Mignet’s words, “it was not the work of philosophers, but of austere Christians, who wished to support religion by the state, and to make them concur mutually in promoting its happiness” — but with much of the clergy already opposed to the revolution it became a trigger for schism.

Among the provisions of the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, bishoprics were to correspond to départements and bishops were to be elected, vicars would replace canons, and all of the orders of monks and nuns that did not directly support such public functions as teaching or running hospitals were to be abolished; in theory, though, dogma and worship were not to be affected.

In response to this legislation, the archbishop of Aix and the bishop of Clermont led a walkout of clergy from the National Constituent Assembly. The pope never accepted the new arrangement, and it led to a schism in the Church, between those clergy who swore the required oath and accepted the new arrangement (“jurors” or “constitutional clergy”) and the “non-jurors” or “refractory priests” who refused to do so.

Credits : This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article “French Revolution From the Abolition of Feudalism to the to the Civil Constitution of the Clergy”. 

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