From Absolute Monarchy to Democratic Absolutism: The French Revolution




(1)
Legal History, Rey Juan Carlos University, Madrid, Spain

 






Because you are a great gentleman, you believe yourself a great genius! … Nobility, fortune, a rank, charges, it all turns one so arrogant! What you have done for (to deserve) so many things? You made the effort upon your birth, and nothing else. In every other way you are quite an ordinary man; whereas I, by God, lost in the anonymous mass, have had to draw upon greater wisdom and wiles just to survive than those necessary to govern the entire Spanish Empire in the last hundred years.—Pierre-Augustin de Beaumarchais (1732–1799)1

Whoever makes peaceful revolution impossible, makes violent revolution inevitable.—John Fitzgerald Kennedy (1917–1963)2

All revolutions fail that do not become part of customs and ideas.3—François René de Chateaubriand (1768–1848)


13.1 A Turning Point in European Constitutional History


If there is an event that traditionally marks the transition to modern times in the history of the West, is without a doubt the French Revolution, to such an extent that it is a common convention in European culture to consider 1789 the foremost turning point in the continent’s history.4

The French Revolution was not, of course, the first bourgeois revolution, as 13 years before it the American Revolution had begun. It had, however, a much greater impact on western public opinion5 because of the simple fact that it did not occur far off in the New World, but in Old Europe, and, what is more, in one of its premier states: France, a kingdom that had been the Continent’s leading power in the seventeenth century during the reign of Louis XIV, and which in the eighteenth, was still Europe’s greatest cultural juggernaut. All the great enlightened sovereigns spoke French, as it was considered the language of culture, while the philosophers wrote in French and Paris was the capital of Enlightenment (Roche 1998, 659–661). France was, in short, the model to be followed.

The truly impressive thing is that the French colossus, with one of Europe’s most powerful and well-established monarchies, crumbled to the ground like a house of cards in a question of just weeks,6 along the way shaking the foundations of the European monarchies, who continued to uphold the traditional order of estate-based society. The French Revolution quickly transcended its status as an internal affair to become a process of change aimed at taking on and overturning the social, political and legal order of all of Europe. When in the spring of 1792, France’s revolutionaries declared war on Austria and Prussia, the conflict acquired a European dimension. When Louis XVI was executed (January 21, 1793), the other European monarchies, including Spain, declared war upon the French Convention. From this point forward, all Europe would ally to save the Old Order.

While the American Revolution was contained in North America, the French Revolution and its momentous Napoleonic spillover, in contrast, definitively transformed the very nature of European politics. In the brief space of 25 years, between 1789 and 1815, the bases of western public law were irreversibly altered.


13.2 The Monarchy as the Historical Basis of the French State


France would not have become one of the great European states if it had not had a great monarchy. As we have already seen in previous chapters, it was France’s early kings who shaped what is even today the world’s most centralized and homogeneous state. Since then, France has demonstrated an impressive institutional continuity, which explains, in part, it is still today one of Europe’s most singular and powerful countries. Let us reexamine some of the most notable features of this remarkable history.


13.2.1 From Clovis I to Charlemagne


When we look all the way back to the era of the Germanic invasions, just a short time after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the Merovingian King Clovis I (481–511), already stands out as a notable historical figure. After the collapse of the Visigoth kingdom of Tolosa, when Clovis defeated Alaric II in 507 at Vouillé, in just a few years he would become the most powerful Germanic leader of his time.

However, Clovis would also write the first institutional chapter in the history of the French monarchy, thanks to his being baptized by St. Remigius (Shanzer 1998, 29–57).7 During the sixth and seventh centuries, Clovis’ descendants were so disastrous that they would go down in history as the “do-nothing kings” (rois fainéants). At the beginning of the eighth century, however, one of the court’s high-ranking officials, Charles Martel, brought prestige back to the Frankish kings after scoring a decisive victory near Poitiers in the year 732, against Muslim invaders who had hitherto seemed unstoppable.

Charles Martel was remembered and celebrated as the savior of Christianity, while his son Pepin the Short (751–768), capitalized upon his father’s name to overthrow Childeric III, the last of the Merovingian sovereigns. Accessing the throne of the “Carolingian” kings (the term proceeding from the Latinized name of Charles Martel: Carolus) was possible because Pepin was savvy enough to forge an alliance with the papacy, which ever since Gregory I (590–604), had established itself as the maximum religious authority in what was essentially an entirely Catholic Christendom. Pepin the Short was anointed as the legitimate king of the Franks with papal authorization, in exchange for which his troops intervened militarily in Italy to defend the papacy against its enemies. After him his successors, all the way down until 1830, were made legitimate sovereigns by means of the ceremony of anointment. The idea, then, that France’s kings ruled by divine right was deeply rooted in its history. Thus, it was no great surprise that France should become the Church’s “eldest daughter” (Fille ainée de lÉglise) and the king of France its “very Christian Majesty” (Sa Majesté Très Chrétienne).8

The alliance between the papacy and the Frankish kings would reach its zenith with the coronation on December 24, 800 of Pepin the Short’s son, Charlemagne, as the new Emperor of the West. This empire, however, would prove fleeting, as it was shattered in year 843, when Charlemagne’s three grandsons split his empire up at Verdun. The imperial title thus drifted from the Frankish Dynasty, in the year 962, falling into the hands of a German nobleman, Otto I, Duke of Saxony, founder of the (Sacred German) Holy Roman Empire.


13.2.2 A Hereditary, Sovereign and Territorial Monarchy



13.2.2.1 The Establishment of the Hereditary Principle


The “Germanization” of the medieval Christian Empire led to the breaking off of the Frankish kingdom under Hugh Capet (987–996), the first king who managed to bestow his throne upon his descendants via inheritance in what was an essential step in the institutional consolidation of the monarchy.9


13.2.2.2 Sovereignty vs. Feudal Bonds


Hugh Capet’s descendants, however, saw their power undercut by the profound “feudalization” of Frankish society, at least until Abbot Suger (1080–1151), championed the idea that the king occupied the apex of the feudal pyramid.10 The next step would be taken by the jurists of France’s Louis IX in the thirteenth century, when they developed the concept of royal “sovereignty”, which posited that the king stood above and beyond any vassal ties.


13.2.2.3 “France” Appears


Hugh Capet and his descendants bore the title “King of the Franks” until Philip II Augustus (1179–1223), the seventh king of the Capet Dynasty, replaced this title with that of “King of France”. No longer was the king to rule over a specific people, but rather a territory and all its inhabitants, a crucial initial step in the development of the identification between monarch and kingdom.


13.2.2.4 Rex Est Imperator in Regno Suo


The kings of France, however, would still need to gain their independence from the papacy, a feat achieved by Philip IV the Fair (1285–1314), who successfully secured a series of powers in his confrontation with Pope Boniface VIII. To achieve this, the king had to summon representatives of his kingdom, convoking the first assembly of the estates in French history: the Estates General of 1302. With the political support of the three estates (nobility, clergy and the third state, the citizens) and the technical-legal counsel of the jurists, the king of France became an emperor in his kingdom. By basing his authority upon the ceremony of “anointment” he, at the same time, reaffirmed before the Pope the principle of his divine right and the implication that his legitimacy proceeded directly from God and did not require papal intervention.


13.2.3 The Hundred Years’ War and the Bolstering of Monarchical Prestige and Power


The prestige and power of the French kings was considerably eroded as a result of the Hundred Years War. There were periods over the course of this interminable conflict when most French territory was actually held by the king of England, specifically during two the darkest and most dramatic reigns of Philip VI (1328–1350) and Charles VI, the Mad (1380–1422).

The failed military efforts of the French nobility were buoyed by the appearance of Joan of Arc (1412–1431), who, in a surprising development, received the control of an army and managed to take Orleans, allowing Charles VII to be crowned at Reims.11 This monarch, who until then the English had contemptuously dubbed the “King of Bourges”, initiated a remarkable comeback in which, in just a few years, he scored a definitive military victory against England in this protracted clash.

The end of the One Hundred Years’ War had important constitutional consequences for the kings of both England and France. In the former the defeat would finally allow Parliament to trump regal prerogative, while in France the effect was the opposite, the kings seeing their institutional prestige augmented by the victory. In fact, the power of the king of France was consolidated in the mid fifteenth century by the crucial reform measures introduced by Charles VII (1422–1461), such as the establishment of permanent taxes12 that allowed him, among other things, to maintain a stable professional army at the service of the monarchy for the first time.


13.2.4 The Era of Absolutism: Louis XIV’s Monarchy as a Landmark Reign


The kings of France managed to forge one of Europe’s most powerful states during the Modern Age thanks to monarchs like Louis XI (1461–1483) and Francis I (1515–1547), of the House of Valois. After the grim period marked by the Wars of Religion (1562–1598), the monarchy grew more stable and strong with the first monarch of the House of Bourbon, Henry IV (1589–1610), who would be succeeded by charismatic kings such as Louis XIII (1610–1643)—especially during the period in which the government was in the hands of Cardinal Richelieu (1630–1642)—and, above all, Louis XIV (1643–1715). The latter’s prolonged reign (72 years, with Louis personally ruling for 54 of them, beginning in 1661) marks without any doubt the zenith of French prestige and power in the Europe of the Ancien Regime.

During the reign of Louis XIV, France superseded Spain as the premier European power upon the signing of the Treaty of the Pyrenees (1659). This historic pact, coming 2 years before the king was even of legal age, established France as Europe’s hegemonic power. Louis XIV would go on to exercise his powers an absolute monarch, assisted by strong advisors whose counsel he heeded, though all final decisions rested with him. In addition, his plans were generally well executed because he almost invariably managed to surround himself with very competent aides (Swann 2001, 139–168).

Under Louis XIV, as we know, for the first time, the French monarchy combined the old medieval conception of the king-judge (roi justicier) with the idea that the sovereign ought also be a legislator to reform the traditional order (roi législateur) (Gouron 1991, 101–114). To achieve this, he called upon excellent ministers, including the notable Jean Baptiste Colbert, who became the main figure shaping the French state between 1661 and his death in 1683. As Minister of Finance, he not only reconstructed the government and reformed the royal tax administration, but also promoted commerce and imposed an economic doctrine in which the state gave direction to and nurtured economic activity. His policies, thus, served to shore up French prestige and influence throughout Europe, allowing the country to enjoy its grand siècle in the eighteenth century—a crucial development from the point of view of constitutional history, as the French monarchy provided the model which most European sovereigns would come to emulate.


13.3 From the Ancien Régime to the Revolution



13.3.1 Louis XV and the Decline of the French Monarchy


Louis XIV’s power was clearly on the wane during the final years of his reign, which had undeniably entered into crisis during the War of the Spanish Succession (1701–1713). In the end, however, through the negotiations carried out at the Peace of Utrecht, the “Sun King” managed to reach a favorable settlement for his kingdom which allowed him to conclude his reign still widely held to be a great king. Just the opposite would happen to his successor, Louis XV.


13.3.1.1 Louis XV: From “Beloved” to Loathed


Louis XV was the Sun King’s great-grandson, taking the throne at the age of five, and remaining on it for a reign spanning 59 years (1715–1774). Unlike his great-grandfather, however, the new king took no interested in affairs of state. When reading accounts of his time on the throne one has the impression that France was adrift, as the quality of its government depended entirely upon the minister to whom the reins of power had been entrusted. France’s policies were erratic, causing Europe’s most powerful kingdom to falter and enter into a spiral of rapid decay.13 Among other setbacks, the French monarchy lost virtually all of its colonial possessions in North America (Canada) and India to England, while Louis XV also failed to score any significant victories in the endless wars France was waging against England, Prussia and the Austrian Empire. The nation which capitalized most upon French decline was England, which over the course of the eighteenth century rose to supersede France as Europe’s primary power. Worst of all for France was that at the end of Louis XV’s reign, its political decline triggered a serious economic crisis which decimated the king’s prestige in the eyes of his people. So ultimately maligned was the monarch that when he died had to be buried at night in a clandestine ceremony.


13.3.1.2 Louis XVI: An Intelligent and Educated King, but One Poorly Prepared for Politics


When Louis XVI’s reign began, France was suffering a serious economic crisis and the state was still bogged down by the sluggishness characterizing the Ancien Regime. Consequently, it was incapable of confronting the changes and transformations spawned by new economic realities and the ideas and trends ushered in by the Enlightenment.14

Louis XVI (May 10, 1774–October 10, 1789) was intelligent, cultured and a man of goodwill who earnestly endeavored to govern to promote his subjects’ best interests. He was, however, a terrible politician. He was weak of will and utterly lacked experience, which was no fault of his own, for he simply had not been educated to reign, since he initially was not the crown prince, having been preceded in the line of succession by his father Louis of France (1729–1765), and his older brother Louis Joseph Xavier de Bourbon (1751–1761). Defying all expectations, their premature deaths placed him upon the throne in spite of himself. There is an anecdote that when he was told that his grandfather had died and he had become the new king of France (“The king is dead! Long live the king!”) he replied, desperate: “It seems that the whole universe is going to fall upon me! My God! What a burden has beset me, at my age (he was 20) I have not been taught anything!”15

Louis XVI was fully conscious of the fact that it was necessary to undertake major reform measures, and actually made efforts to address the situation. During the first years of his reign, he strove to rouse France from its lethargy. The new king, with the best of intentions, successively placed the government in the hands of reformist ministers such as Turgot, Necker, Calonne and Loménie de Brienne (Vardi 2012, 241–242). In fact, the monarch was able to introduce some reform by abolishing in 1781 and 1788 torture in criminal procedure (Johnson 2013, 20), suppressing feudal servitude on royal lands in 1779 (Kropotkin 2009, 20), and eliminating the personal tax levied on the Jews of Alsace in 1784 (Johnson 1998, 306). In 1787 he also promulgated an edict of tolerance to protect Protestants and those who did not profess the Catholic religion (Zagorin 2003, 299), although his most important reform effort was his attempt to introduce an egalitarian direct tax.16

All of this impetus for innovation, however, would be met by opposition amongst the privileged classes who, clinging to the estate-based structure inherited from the Middle Ages, did all they could to foil the king’s policies.17


13.3.2 Reactionary Forces Prevail in French Society


Unlike what happened in England, where as of the sixteenth century the bourgeoisie, both merchant and industrial, came to form part of the country’s powerful gentry, sharing power with the old nobility, in France, the old military nobility, along with the clergy, would fight tooth and nail to retain their ancient, anachronistic privileges.18 This reaction meant that the bourgeoisie, or “Third Estate”, failed to exert influence on the kingdom’s government. Firstly, this was because of the ineffectiveness of the French Estates-General, which should have been the institutional channel through which the estate, representing the immense majority of the king of France’s subjects, was to participate in the government. Secondly, the only institution in Ancien Regime France that could offer significant opposition to the monarchy, the parlements, did not promote the general welfare, but rather defended the established order and sought to protect their own privileges.


13.3.2.1 The Ineffectiveness of the Estates-General


As we already know, in France the Estates-General had never been well established as an estate-based assembly because it did not meet regularly. The kings of France only resorted to convoking the Estates during periods of crisis (a confrontation with the pope, the Hundred Years War, Wars of Religion), giving the body an ad hoc character. Moreover, we already saw in Chap. 8 how the Estates General were rendered dormant by Richelieu (1630–1642), as he was of the opinion that they were not compatible with royal sovereignty, which spurred him to begin abolishing the Provincial States as well. One fact suffices to indicate the situation in this regard: when Louis XVI summoned the Estates-General to Versailles in May of 1789, it had not met since 1614. The kings, then, had governed France without consulting the kingdom’s representatives for over 165 years.

This situation had been possible, to a great extent, because the kings did not require the Estates-General’s financial support. As of the mid fifteenth century they had been levying permanent taxes assuring them regular revenues.19 The result was that the Estates-General did not play in France a role moderating royal authority by any means, as occurred with the Parliament in England, or the cortes of the kingdoms of the Crown of Aragon in Spain. In fact, they never managed to check or control the king.


13.3.2.2 The Singular Opposition of the “Parlements”


The function of curtailing royal authority which might have lay with the Estates General in the France of the Ancien Regime fell upon another institution: the “parlements”, which were not estate-based assemblies, but rather high courts of Justice. The most important of them was the Parlement of Paris, but there were regional parlements as well. These bodies were very important because at the close of the eighteenth century the French king, institutionally, continued to be more of a supreme judge than a reformer.

The clout of the parlements essentially stemmed from the fact that they were the guarantors of the application of the old local customs, which in France still constituted, even in the last third of the eighteenth century, the essential nucleus of private law. Thus to legislate in this area, they had to have the approval of a set of parlements which had the right “to register” (formally record) royal laws, a step without which they could not be applied. The members of the parlements developed the practice (Daubresse 2005, 28) of taking advantage of this privilege to present “complaints” (droit of rémontrance) to the king, whenever the monarch requested the registration of a law, making its registration (and enactment) contingent upon the satisfaction of their pleas. This right turned the parlements into the only bodies capable of institutional opposition to the monarchy in France under the Ancien Regime.

The parlements eventually became renegade institutions, backing a military revolt against the king in the War of the Fronde (1648–1653), during the regency of Louis XIV. The ensuing chaos led the king to resolve to rule in an authoritarian manner once he was old enough to assume the throne. 20

The problem was that the parlements did not use their power to promote the general welfare, but rather to defend the established order and protect their own privileges. They did not function, by any means, as an institutional channel transmitting the people’s concerns to the king. The members of the parlements were jurists (Fitzsimmons 1987, 1–32). Educated at schools of law, they purchased their posts as judges, prosecutors, barristers, solicitors and notaries, charges which they passed down to their sons, paying the crown the corresponding tax. This system turned the legal class from which they proceeded into a closed social group, a kind of caste (“Nobles of the Robe”), predominantly concerned with defending their privileged positions (Stone 1986, 75–124).

Louis XV, weary of the parlements’ constant hindrances and hampering, chose to subjugate them by means of force through the reform measures advanced by his Chancellor, René Nicolas Charles Augustin de Maupeou, in 1771. In response to the systematic resistance which the Parlement of Paris put up the chancellor dismissed the defiant body and prohibited judicial offices from being purchased or inherited (Baker 1992, 1–16). With one stroke of the legislative pen, the judges lost their traditional prerogatives and were reduced to simple civil servants. In this way, the monarchy took a major step towards the forging of a new France in which the privileged classes were to be required to serve the general interest (Echeverria 1985).

Louis XVI, undeniably with the best of intentions, though in an utterly imprudent step, abolished Maupeou’s reforms, which had made it possible to control the institution that had most effectively stymied royal authority in France.21 This had serious consequences, as it was the members of the Parlement of Paris, those who most staunchly opposed the reform efforts which the king endorsed, and who led the ideological debate (Baker 1978, 279–303), who initiated the first act of the French Revolution in what came to be called, significantly, the Revolt of the Nobles.22


13.4 The French Revolution



13.4.1 From the Revolt of the Privileged to the Estates General



13.4.1.1 The Révolte Des Privilégiés


Louis XVI’s successive ministers were aware that to resolve the economic crisis, it was essential that they thoroughly reform the French tax system, which had been passed down intact since the fifteenth century. The old nobility, however, the clergy, and the members of the parlements (Nobles of the Robe) insisted that the status quo tax code (which granted them major advantages) could not be modified without convoking the Estates General (Goldstone 2011, 67).

Technically, the privileged classes were right. However, given the desperate plight faced by most of the French during the last third of the eighteenth century, they were playing with fire—especially considering the dangerous precedent set by the American Revolution (which, paradoxically, had been made possible to a great extent by the support France’s Louis XVI had lent the rebels). The oligarchy recklessly and stubbornly opposed the fiscal reform proposed by the king (Sonenscher 1997, 64–103) in a movement which historians have called the “Revolt of the Privileged”.

Resurrecting a mechanism as complex as the Estates General after 165 years of inactivity, was an undertaking fraught with risks. Thus, Louis XVI, who was much more conscious of the situation than the members of the parlements, fiercely opposed what they requested. An acrimonious and fruitless exchange thus began during which the tone of the parlements’ protests became increasingly insolent. Unfortunately for the king, the parlements’ attitude began to win over public opinion (Lucas 2006, 33–50), and the people began to organize protests against the monarchy. There came a point at which even the army expressed its willingness to collaborate with the Nobles of the Robe to stem the increasing anarchy, worsened by the general malaise born of the economic crisis.


13.4.1.2 The Provincial Estates of Vizille and the Prelude to the Revolution (June 1788)


As we already know, the Provincial States had almost disappeared by 1700, because Richelieu and Louis XIV tried to abolish them all. Thus, most provinces had forfeited all right to administrative independence by the eighteenth century, with the exception of four regions: Languedoc, Brittany, Burgundy and Provence. When Louis XVI took the throne, one of his reforming minister’s priorities was to establish an institutional way by which the country could share power with the king (Jones 1995, 139). Calonne (1783–1786), in an attempt to reinstate the nobility’s political power, summoned an Assembly of Notables to approve some reform measures, including a universal land tax, and in 1787, Loménie de Brienne had the idea of revitalizing these Provincial States to provide the stimulus that would lead to repairing the worn-out fabric of absolute monarchy (Jones 1995, 139). 23

The political crisis came to a head when Louis XVI, poorly advised by his Justice Minister, Guillaume-Chrétien de Lamoignon de Malesherbes, decided to abolish the parlements’ right to enact royal legislation. The announcement was ill timed and only ended up fueling the conflict and tensions, exacerbating the rebellion of an entire region, Dauphiné (Dauphiny) where the people, rallied by the Parlement of Grenoble, decided in June of 1788, to unilaterally organize (without the governor’s convocation on behalf of the king, as was the legal practice) a meeting of the three estates in the Palace of Vizille. This constituted a clear challenge to the king’s authority, as Dauphiné’s old provincial estates had been eliminated in the first half of the seventeenth century by Richelieu. 24

In addition, the meeting in Vizille ended up taking on a revolutionary tone, as the voting was not conducted in accord with tradition, with each estate meeting separately and voting in blocks, with internal, majority polling determining each of the three’s votes. Rather, all the representatives met in one chamber, with each man voting individually. This approach gave a clear advantage to the “Third Estate”, which had the same number of representatives as the nobles and clergy combined. Finally, the representatives of the three estates decided to jointly demand that the king urgently convoke the Estates General. To force him to accede to their demand they called for the French people to refuse to pay any taxes until the monarch had consented (Chianéa 1988, 33–49).25


13.4.2 The Estates General



13.4.2.1 The Convocation


In August of 1788, in light of the state’s virtual bankruptcy and the government’s manifest inability to restore order, the king yielded. After calling for the Estates General to convene on May 1, 1789, he replaced Loménie de Brienne as his Finance Minister with the more popular Jacques Necker.


13.4.2.2 The Patriots vs. the Privileged


The king’s decision did not pacify everyone. Though nearly all agreed that absolute monarchy had to be overturned, there was no unanimity about just how to do this. On the one hand the privileged wanted to restore an oligarchical regime in which they wielded authority. The bourgeoisie and the middle-class, meanwhile, whose representatives began to be called “patriots”, aspired to play a new role in the regime in line with their actual social importance, both quantitative and qualitative.

The result was that during the months preceding the meeting of the Estates General, a great debate was held on the way in which this event should be organized and administrated. The privileged wanted the meeting to proceed in accordance with the model of its last summoning, which went all the way back to 1614 and the regency of Louis XIII’s mother, Marie de Médicis.26 At previous meetings of the Estates General, the three classes (nobility, clergy and the Third Estate) had met separately and had voted by estate, each class assigned one vote. However, the “patriots” argued that the model should be followed employed at the provincial estates held in Dauphiné 1 year prior. There, at the Palace of Vizille, every man’s vote was counted individually.

The debate soon spread to all France thanks to the publication of innumerable pamphlets in which both sides presented their arguments (Margerison 1998). Of all of these one of them soon stood out: “What is the Third Estate?” written by a priest, Abbé Sieyès.27 The work would prove pivotal not only for its content, but because it made clear that the “patriots” enjoyed the support of the low clergy, and even of some members of the nobility, such as the Marquis of Lafayette, the hero of the American war; the Count of Mirabeau, one of France’s finest orators who, because of his unconventional lifestyle—gambling debts, scandalous love affairs, quarrels (Zorgbibe 2008)—had been marginalized by the members of his estate; and even Talleyrand, a great nobleman who lost his title because of a lifelong infirmity.28


13.4.2.3 The Defeat of the Privileged


The debate seemed to come to a head in December of 1788, when Necker managed to convince Louis XVI to make a series of concessions,29 among them to double the number of representatives assigned to the Third Estate. To do so he employed the argument that it could be dangerous for the monarchy to stand squarely against majority public opinion. This measure constituted a clear defeat for the privileged classes inasmuch as it opened the door to the patriots playing an effective and decisive role in the Estates General.


13.4.2.4 All of France Mobilizes: The Election of Representatives and “Books of Grievances”


The meeting of the first Estates General since 1614 sparked great excitement and expectation, with all of France mobilizing to prepare for the event. In the first months of 1789, the representatives of the three estates began to meet everywhere, especially those from the Third Estate, to elect representatives and draft “books of grievances” (cahiers of doléances) to be presented to the king on behalf of those they represented. The meeting was to commence in Versailles in early May 1789.

The representatives of all three estates agreed unanimously in their attribution of the nation’s ills to the king’s arbitrary power, and considered it indispensable that it be “confined to its just limits”. All coincided in advocating that the meeting of the Estates General ought to serve to draft a constitution clearly setting down “the rights of the king and of the nation”, as well as a supreme law serving to guarantee “individual freedom”, reduce the powers of the intendants, and establish regular meetings of the provincial estates throughout the kingdom (Shapiro 1998, 257–258).

They were, however, far from being in agreement in regards to a whole series of other questions. For example, the representatives of the nobility and the third state, unlike those from the clergy, generally favored lifting censorship and guaranteeing the freedom of the press. The representatives of the Third Estate, meanwhile, clashed with the nobles and the clergy by defending the principle of equality, while the nobles and clergy only agreed to renounce their fiscal privileges if it did not mean giving up the feudal rights, both honorary and financial, which they enjoyed vis-à-vis the peasants (Markoff 1998, 298–300).


13.4.3 From the Estates General to the Rebellion of the Third Estate (May 5–June 27, 1789)



13.4.3.1 The Great Disappointment


All the high hopes which the representatives had harbored for the Estates General were shattered at the opening ceremony held on May 5, 1789, at which neither Louis XVI nor Necker made any reference whatsoever to the possibility of writing up a constitution, leading the representatives to conclude that the monarch was unwilling to give up his divine right to rule and would not allow constitutional limits to be placed upon his authority.


13.4.3.2 From Voting by Estate to One Man, One Vote


To bend the will of the sovereign and his minister it was necessary for the three estates to unite and act in unison. This would prove to be very difficult, as was evident the following day (May 6), when the nobility and the clergy refused to accede to the patriots’ proposal that the traditional ceremony confirming the powers given to each representative and the legality of their election be held in one chamber, in the presence of the representatives of the three classes. One must keep in mind that traditionally in France, the Estates-General featured a tripartite structure, unlike the British Parliament. That is, in the French body each estate voted as a block, leaving the Third Estate at the mercy of the privileged classes.

The nobles were determined to defend the perpetuation of the traditional practice in which the three classes deliberated separately and voted in blocks as estates.30 The clergy was less adamant on this point, with some of its members clearly in favor of accepting the Third Estate’s proposal.31 Their flexibility led to what would be a prolonged debate on the issue. As discussions dragged on for more than a month without any agreement being reached, the “patriots”, encouraged by Abbé Sieyes, decided to act unilaterally to secure what they had proposed.


13.4.4 The Rebellion of the Third Estate



13.4.4.1 The “National Assembly” Emerges (June 17)


On June 17, 1789, Sieyès declared that the members of the Third Estate were the true representatives of the nation and not simply a sectional interest, and that, as the nobility claimed prerogatives above the nation, they were not capable of being part of it (Mulholland 2012, 35). The Third Estate concluded that, as they represented 96 % of the nation (Boroumand 1990, 322–3), they alone sufficed to constitute the National Assembly and claim total sovereignty concerning fiscal affairs.32 This act had immediate consequences because once the clergy heard of this development they unanimously voted to join the Third Estate, leaving the nobles isolated.33


13.4.4.2 The Tennis Court Oath (June 20)


The attitude of the Third Estate infuriated Louis XVI, who summoned a new session of the Estates General for the sole and express purpose of voiding that agreed to on June 17. To prevent such spontaneous meetings in the future, the monarch also ordered the closing of the chamber in which the sessions had hitherto been held. On the following day the representatives of the Third Estate found the door locked. Rather than abandoning Versailles, however, they chose to occupy a neighboring jeu de paume (a predecessor of tennis) court (Baker 2006, 68–69). Once gathered all those present (except one), presided over by the astronomer Jean-Sylvain Bailly, took an oath in response to a suggestion by Jean Joseph Mounier, not to separate until a constitution had been approved for the kingdom.34

Determined to ignore the unilateral actions of the Third Estate’s representatives, on June 23, the king presided over a new session of the Estates General in which, after announcing some reform measures, he decreed that the June 17 resolution was nullified, and expressed his commitment to fully maintaining “the traditional distinction of the state’s three classes”. When the monarch ordered the representatives to depart, however, only those from the clergy and the nobility obeyed him, as those from the Third Estate refused to abandon the chamber. Its spokesman, Bailly, spat at the Marquis of Dreux Brezé: “It seems to me that the Nation when assembled cannot be given orders”. The Count of Mirabeau, the only nobleman who had crossed over to the Third Estate, then pronounced -according the most popular version, his famous phrase: “Go tell your lord that we are here by the will of the people and we will not leave except by force of bayonets.35


13.4.4.3 The Constituent Assembly Is Formed (June 27)


The unflinching stand taken by the representatives of the Third Estate bent Louis XVI’s will. On June 27, he agreed to yield and ordered the representatives of the nobility and the clergy to unite with the representatives of the people to form a single assembly in which all individual votes would be counted. The king’s decision was “revolutionary” as it marked the end of the system employed by the Estates General ever since 1302, when it had arisen from a thoroughly feudal society. As this was a development which the representatives wished to make perfectly clear, on that very day they established themselves as a Constituent Assembly and began to discuss the task of drafting a constitution.

The Constituent Assembly held its sessions between June 27, 1789 and September 30, 1791. This period spanning 2 years and 3 months was, without any doubt, the most crucial of the entire Revolutionary era, as during it were adopted the legislative measures36 which most contributed to altering France and, with it, the entire western constitutional tradition, forever. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen was approved on August 26, 1789.37 From the point of view of public order, the years of the Constituent Assembly and those of the Legislative Assembly (1791–1792) were relatively calm (at least compared to the following period, from 1792 to 1794) as, despite the popular rebellions of July 14 and October 6, 1789 the Constituent Assembly managed to maintain public order.


13.4.5 The Two Revolutions


Compared to the American Revolution, the French Revolution was absolutely chaotic. Firstly, this was because of the irresolute king, who constantly vacillated and changed his positions. First, he declared himself to be in favor of the revolutionaries, only to later embrace absolutism. His unpredictable announcements were almost invariably ill-timed, which only served to exacerbate the resentments they caused. Secondly, because along with the “bourgeois revolution” of June 1789, that of the “patriots” of the Third Estate, there arose another revolutionary movement led by “popular” elements: the sans culottes.38 The Revolution’s social dimension would be transformed by three decisive events taking place on July 14 and October 6, 1789, and August 10, 1792.39

This “new revolution” began on July 14, 1789 with the Storming of the Bastille, the state prison which constituted a symbol of royal tyranny, for in it were confined political prisoners. When it was overrun by the people, however, it was virtually empty, though this did not keep its attackers from beheading its defenders and flaunting their heads, nailed on pikes, throughout Paris. As time went by the event would be idealized until it became a “National Act of Faith”, becoming in the French consciousness a genuine collective event carried out by la Nation (Lüsebrink and Reichardt 1997, 212 and 243).

The people took action again on the following 6th of October, when a group of Parisian women forced the royal family to flee from Versailles to Paris, leaving it at the mercy of the mobs. Finally, on August 10, 1792, wild crowds invaded the Tuileries Palace and took the royal family prisoner after massacring the Swiss guard protecting it.40 This brutal assault on the royal palace marked the beginning of the revolution’s most radical phase, the “Terror”, during which the revolutionaries decided to abolish monarchy and call for new elections to choose a second constituent assembly: the Convention in what has been called the “Second Revolution” (Whaley 1993, 205–224).


13.4.6 From Monarchy to Republic


The confluence of the two revolutions, the bourgeois movement and that driven by the common people, makes the chronology of the “French Revolution” extremely confusing. There were two stages with two different regimes: the first was that of the constitutional monarchy which, in turn, featured two bodies: the Constituent Assembly (1789–1791) and the Legislative Assembly, that ended with the insurrection of August 10, 1792 (Mitchell 1988). The second stage was that of the First Republic, which began when the king was jailed, tried and guillotined. This second stage was, in turn, also composed of two parts. During the first of these the Constituent Assembly returned, dubbed the “Convention”, lasting from September of 1792 until 1795, followed by a phase known as the “Directory” (1795–1799), during which the Republic was once again controlled by a bourgeois oligarchy.

The fear sown by the violence of the mobs dissuaded most from participating in the elections, which gave rise to the Convention. Since most citizens were frightened only the most ardent and extreme revolutionaries ended up voting, yielding a set of representatives more radical than the people (Lucas 1994, 57–79). In addition, this came at a time when two thirds of France was occupied by Prussian and Austrian armies, and only the most radical citizens turned out to vote. The second Constituent Assembly, thus, represented a minority of the French people. Nonetheless, following a fierce confrontation between political factions (Patrick 1972), the Convention would impose a dictatorship by seizing upon the state of emergency declared because of the war France had been fighting against Austria and Prussia as of April 1792.

Radicalism prevailed between September of 1792 and July of 1794 (Bouloiseau 1983). This was the era of sweeping and ambitious attacks against Christianity, with the civil constitution of the clergy, the revolutionary calendar, the worship of the Supreme Being (Tallet 1991, 1–28),41 the mass executions of the Terror, and the dictatorship of the Committee of Public Safety.42 In reality, the second Constitution of Revolutionary France, that of 1793, was not at all representative of French society at the time, which explains why the Revolution degenerated into civil war during the Terror (Andress 2005) with the uprising of the royalists in Vendée and the harsh repression of the Republican army, in what it became a “total war”,43 leading to the ultimate failure of revolutionary radicalism.

For all these reasons, from 1789 to 1799, France was sunk in chaos, seeing a Constituent Assembly, followed by a constitutional monarchy, a republic, a radical dictatorship and, finally, a bourgeois republic simultaneously threatened by right-wing “realists” (monarchists) and left-wing Jacobins. Three formal constitutions were adopted, in 1791, 1793 and 1795, none of which endured. They either proved unviable, as was the case with that from 1791; were suspended because of a state of emergency, as occurred in 1793; or the regime needed the support of the army to stay in power, and suffered a series of annual coup détats. Such was the case with the 1795 constitution and the “Directory”, attacked on the left by radical republican Jacobins, and on the right by those in favor of a return to monarchy as the new regime suffered from a crisis of republican legitimacy (Brown 2006, 23–46).44


13.5 What Lasting Effects Did the French Revolution Have?


At first glance it would seem that the chaos which broke out during the revolutionary decade (1789–1799), did not have a lasting impact on French institutions, as monarchy was ultimately reinstated. First there was a new monarchy, that of Napoleon, between 1804 and 1814, followed by the old monarchy, restored by a brother of Louis XVI, Louis XVIII (1814–1830). A closer look, however, reveals that the Revolution did, in fact, introduce essential changes, not just in France, but throughout Europe, by precipitating the end of the Ancien Regime.


13.5.1 The Appearance of “National Sovereignty”


The first momentous effect of the French Revolution was that it transformed the very meaning of sovereignty, as the right to legitimately exercise power was wrested from the king and given to the nation. In the case of Britain’s Parliamentary system this transformation was the result, as we know, of a progressive transfer of royal prerogatives and powers to the Parliament. In France, this shift was sudden and violent. With the Tennis Court Oath the idea was imposed in France, overnight, that sovereignty was not held by the monarch, but rather the people, whose representatives exercised power via the National Assembly.45 While this principle had already been adopted by the United States in 1776, the latter was but a small, nascent and untried state far from Old Europe. France, in contrast was the oldest and most prestigious monarchy on the entire Continent, a country whose social organization and public law had remained virtually intact since the Middle Ages. Thus, the French Revolution had a greater impact in the Old World.


13.5.2 The Origins of “National” Patriotism


Another important consequence of the French Revolution was the reemergence of the former meaning of the “nation”, now understood to refer to all the citizens of France. This essential shift was marked by the crucial Celebration of the Federation (Fête de la Fédération), held for the first time on July 14, 1790. The event was repeated every year on the same date, with delegations from all over France meeting in Paris to celebrate their “national” brotherhood. This union of all the French in a single and indivisible nation was reflected in the thorough centralization imposed by the Jacobins, who abolished the traditional provinces and established a set of departments which continue to constitute the basis for the territorial organization of the French state. Thus, it was the origin of French “nationalism”, an ideological movement aimed at attaining and maintaining autonomy, unity and identity on behalf of a population, an active movement inspired by an ideology and symbolism of the nation rather than simply a shared sentiment or consciousness (Smith 2009, 61).