The French Revolution – The First Constitution

The Estates General, which declared itself the National Assembly began work on a Constitution for France while still in Versailles and before its move to the Tuileries which occurred only days after the King and Queen were “invited to live in Paris among their subjects.”

The first fruits of its labor was “the Declaration of the  Rights of Man and of the Citizen.”  It was a statement of the rights which belong to men because they are human beings, which are not the gift of any government.  The Declaration was drawn up in imitation of the Americans,

The Marquis de Lafayette, a hero of the American Revolution brought forward a draft just before the storming of the Bastille.  He urged two chief reasons for its adoption: It would provide the people with a clear conception of the elements of liberty which, once understood, they would insist on possessing.  Secondly it would be an invaluable guide to the Assembly in drafting the Constitution, testing all propositions against its carefully defined principles.

Some feared is would lead to endless hair-splitting and debate but the Assembly took the side of Lafayette and composed the notable document in August 1789.  The King was forced to eventually accept it after the fall of the Bastille.

The final work was not that of an individual; there were many collaborators.  The political discussions of the 18th century counted for much as did the English and American examples.  While critics denounced it as “abstractions of doubtful philosophical theories, topics for everlasting discussion,” there was in reality a definitive link between the Declaration and a Constitution.

France was a country with no  historic principles of freedom.  It could not evolve from precedent to precedent as it had in England.  It had to begin abruptly for France had never known freedom.

The Declaration laid down the principles of modern government and the men who drew up this document believed these principles to be true and applicable everywhere.  They did not establish rights – they merely declared them.  They had a profound faith in truth and reason.  They believed in the power of ideas and that the truth was invincible.  They believed these dogmas to be so obvious that by declaring them it would become so for the people would adopt them and never give them up.

The seventeen articles asserted that all men are free and equal, that the people are sovereign, that law is the expression of the popular will, and in making law the people shall participate directly or indirectly.  All officials possess only that authority given to them by law.  Liberties of the person, of assembly, of free speech of justice administered by one’s peers, all of which had been worked out in England and America were asserted.

It was the direct opposite of the Old Regime.

And it changed the world.  When those unfree anywhere in the world wish to recall the rights of men it is this French document that they have in mind. The Declaration long ago passed by the frontiers of France for it has been said “five or six formulas as trenchant as mathematical propositions, true as the truth itself, intoxicating as a vision of  the absolute.”

With the Declaration in hand the Assembly began the work of writing France’s first constitution.How far would they go toward making the law of the land what they had proclaimed?

The constitution was drafted between 1789 and 1791 and codified into a single document.  Like the American constitution, it was a product of compromise.  It was permeated with two principles; the sovereignty of the people, all governmental powers issuing from them and by their will and secondly, the strict separation of powers sharply from eachother.

The form of government was monarchial.   Louis XVI would remain a constitutional monarch which was in conformity with the wishes of the people.  He was no longer to be an absolute monarch.  His former title “King of France was now amended  – he was King of the French.  And he was put on a salary and a budget. He could appoint his Ministers but not any member of the Assembly; nor could his Ministers appear before the Assembly.

The King was granted a veto power; he could delay any measure for no more than four years or two terms of the Assembly members.  If afterwards it was approved a third time it would have the effect of law.  Some wanted the King to have an absolute veto; some wanted no veto at all.  The result was a compromise.

The King could conduct foreign affairs and was to be head of the army and navy.  He could propose peace or war but the Assembly would make the final decision.  He could no longer declare war or peace on his own.

The Assembly would consist of 745 members elected for two years.  It was unicameral in nature;  the Assembly saw no need for a House of Lords since there no longer were any.  And the American Senate was considered a compromise involving states rights and France was to be a unified nation.  Thus a single legislative body..

Ah, but how was the legislature to be chosen?  If all men are equal should there not be universal suffrage?

It was here that the Assembly temporarily put away the Declaration of rights.  Universal suffrage was not to be the opinion of the Assembly which now made a distinction between “active” and “passive” citizens.  Active citizens had to be at  least 25 years old and paid the equivalent of three days wages in tax.  This excluded the poor; as many as 3 million were not qualified to vote.  Active citizens alone had the right to vote but even they did not vote directly for members of the Assembly.  They chose electors, who had to meet a much higher property qualification.  Perhaps as few as 43,000 out of a population of 25 million qualified.  These electors chose the members of the Assembly as well as judges.

The Assembly, so zealous in abolishing old privileges was, in defiance of its own principles, establishing new ones.  The political class would consist of men of property.  While members of the Assembly had no property qualifications, the electors would most likely choose members of their own class.

The Assembly made several more serious mistakes.  It abolished the old 32 provinces and France was divided into 83 departments of uniform size within which local government was to be elected.  No representative of the central government would be appointed to ensure that law passed by the Assembly would be enforced.  The Assembly could not relieve the local administration, did not appoint it and left it strictly to the locals.  It had an anarchic effect – too decentralized for a united nation to develop.

Finally there was the seizure of church property.  The church held approximately one quarter of all the land in France.  Recall that the Estates General had been originally called to address the country’s financial problems.  Little had been done solve the problem.

The Assembly voted to seize the church’s property, arguing it had always  belonged to the nation in the person of the King and merely been “loaned” to the church so it could minister to the people.  The church merely “administered” the property.

Further, the Assembly decided it would appoint a Bishop for each parish/department without the approval of the Pope.   It passed the Constitution of the Clergy reducing the number of dioceses from 134 to 83 – one for each Department.  Bishops would be appointed and simply announced to the Pope.  Clergy would receive salaries from the state, in effect becoming state officials.

While it would not go as far as establishing a Church of France (the country being predominantly Catholic) the Assembly voted that all clergymen must take an oath to support the Civil Constitution of the Clergy.  Only 4 out of the 134 Bishops consented and perhaps a third of the parish priests.  Those who consented were called juring; those who refused non-juring.

France would witness the spectacle of two bodies of priests introducing religious discord into every village and hamlet.

And it put Louis XVI in a very difficult position; a sincere Catholic, he could not and did not approve of the measure.  It put him in the position of being an “enemy of the revolution.”  Civil war broke out in the Vendee and multitudes of priests who had supported the revolution now turned against it.  The poor who again found themselves without a voice in their government became restless.

Suffice to say no greater mistakes were made my the Assembly.  A small counter-revolutionary party was reinforced by millions of recruits.

King Louis signed the decree with a closing comment – “This will end soon.”

He was now through with his scruples and was resolved to call the monarchs of Europe to his aid and to escape the Tuileries.

About toritto

I was born during year four of the reign of Emperor Tiberius Claudius on the outskirts of the empire in Brooklyn. I married my high school sweetheart, the girl I took to the prom and we were together for forty years until her passing in 2004. We had four kids together and buried two together. I had a successful career in Corporate America (never got rich but made a living) and traveled the world. I am currently retired in the Tampa Bay metro area and live alone. One of my daughters is close by and one within a morning’s drive. They call their pops everyday. I try to write poetry (not very well), and about family. Occasionally I will try a historical piece relating to politics. :-)
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1 Response to The French Revolution – The First Constitution

  1. beetleypete says:

    I have read about this since my schooldays, but I am enjoying revisiting the period through your ‘version’, Frank. 🙂
    Best wishes, Pete.

    Liked by 1 person

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