ON considering the lack of knowledge they had
ON WHAT PINCIPLES DID THE NATIONAL ASSEMBLY SEEK TO RESTRUCTURE FRENCH GOVERNMENT AND SOCIETY IN THE YEARS 1789-91?
When the National Assembly established a dominant position in the running of the French state in 1789, they needed to move quickly to reform the old state around them into one that corresponded to the political views held within the new Assembly members. A principle’ or origin from which all remodelling could take form from, and that would justify the actions of the Assembly to the people as they began reconstructing the state into a uniform, decentralised, representative and humanitarian system’ was needed. The question being asked is for us to define this principle used by the Assembly to remodel French society and government, a question that can only be answered by studying the declarations of the Assembly to discover the point at which they declare the main principles of their new system openly in a bid to justify further actions.
When the newly gathered members of the National Assembly met on the royal tennis court on the 20th June 1789, they declared a vow that was to be remembered as the Tennis court oath.’ This vow was to never rest until they provided France with a constitution,’ a basses that the Assembly could remodel France around. However, constitutions were new to this time in history and the constitutional writers needed time to discover the art of preparing such a document considering the lack of knowledge they had in the field. They may have been aided by information from the recent events in America and the benefits from studying their new American Constitution, but the Assembly still needed time to insure success, and this meant they needed a temporary base of principles to work from.
The starting point in the history of the Assembly’s actions to change France can be seen in the 4th August August Decrees.’ The Assembly had drawn up this set of principles after the pressure created by the Great Fear had forced action to be taken for the safety of French society. The assembly had wanted to calm down the peasant rising in the country and at the time this meant abolishing the feudal system, a system that hung around the shoulders of the peasantry mass. This action would provide the country with a freedom from personal servitude along with the removal of the dues that restricted the peasantry from day to day. However, the consequences of such a decree were far reaching into the old society of order, institutions like the provisional estates had been swept away to pave a path for a national, uniform system of administration.
The August Decree had given the Assembly the chance to construct the constitution on fresh ground, but firstly they needed to devise a collection of principles on which the constitution could begin to be formed around. However, to come to a conclusion on what to include in such a revolutionary document would be the hardest task for the Assembly. They had once again come to a task that had not yet been attempted in their countries history, their knowledge had to be based around what they believed to be right at the time, and from the study of such documents as the list of cahiers’ and American Declaration.’ The result was the declaration of the rights of men and the citizen’ that stated that men are free and equal in their rights, those rights are more of liberty, property, security and resistance to oppression, and tax should be born equally by all citizens. A set of idealistic views that corresponded to the wants of the various members of the organisation in the view that they were heirs of the enlightenment and sought to end conflict, cruelty, superstition and poverty by the establishment of change on the principles of uniformity, decentralisation, representation and humanitarianism. Ideas that could be clearly seen to be different from the ancient regime, the fact that the King Louis xv1 refused to pass the August Decrees shows this. However they’re appeared to be no regret by the members to pass on the Ancien regime, Ferrieres (a noble deputy) stated that people were so weary of the court.’
The Assembly was making idealistic assertions that may have been different, but were to no extent radical in their objectives. They did not stress the need to remove of the king totally, but depended on him to rule under their constitutional monarchy, thus it became understandable to see why the Assembly fell under the fast feet of the revolution when it cried out for a Republic. In the end France was fundamentally changed in many ways, the new institutions and attitudes had took root from the Assembly’s principles and many would even survive longer than the assembly itself.
With the principles of decentralisation firm in the mind of the Assembly members as part of their crusade to create a better France for the people, it was obvious that the government scheme would have to be totally reconstructed. Under the current situation it still resembled the despotic monarchy they had risen against, with all aspects of local government focused on the actions of the Paris committee. The threat from this was that it provided a chance for the king to regain power, and that under the changing circumstances of the times they may be perceived as similar to the previous system. By the decrees of December 1798 and January 1790 the state of France was divided into 83 departments, and then subdivided into 547 districts. Each district was to be headed by an elected board of council, and representatives would be elected in each area to sit in the National Assembly, thus in theory giving the mass a system run by people more responsible to the electors. The process did revolutionise the French government, but it was deeply flawed. The system run on the power of money to buy you voting rights, giving the rich more of a chance to dominate areas and secure power. Also it was difficult to fill many of the positions in a mainly illiterate society, leaving the districts to fall into a state of disruption. The idea had been based on the hopes of not a political document, but an idealistic sight of the future written at a period in the revolution that kindled such unrealistic desires.
The failure of finance for the king had caused, partly, the downfall of his monarchy, the Assembly did not want to follow in his footsteps. They needed a means to secure the finance to run the country without creating upraise amongst the peasantry, this therefore removed the ability to tax the people as before as it would create such a volatile situation and stood against their equality principles. The only solution foreseeable to them was agreed upon in November 1789, that the church property was at the nations disposal.’ The scheme would sell the churches land in the knowledge that the clergy would now receive a payment from the state , thus insuring a vested interest in the revolution amongst the new land owners and temporarily solving the states financial problems. When the new direct tax system on the land was developed by January 1791, it was greeted with a hail of discontent as many saw it as simple a new version of the old system. Indeed the tax system was to appear to once again go against the promised idealistic principles of citizen rights about equality of taxation, as many poor benefited from low taxation while others handed out vast sums of cash. However, with hindsight this was to be expected from such an unrealistic, idealistic document, but the fact was that the new system was to outlive the Assembly itself well into the next century, they may not have created the utopia tax system they had preached about, but they had brought a system of stable finance to the state.
The new judicial system was to be one of the most successful and lasting reforms of the Assembly. Justice had become cheap, accessible and impartial and therefore popular for the first time. A system that had once been one of the most brutal and corrupt in Europe, had now become enlightened by the Assembly’s principles. The Assembly had moved away from the old system of different law systems in the north and south, and in accordance with their principles of uniformity, aimed to create the same laws and courts across France under the new government system. Influenced by the English law system the Assembly aimed to set up justice of the peace’ officers in each area, and use the idea of a jury to insure impartial trials. District courts and courts of appeal were set up at various cities, and in addition laws passed to insure judges had at least five years training as lawyers before being elected by active citizens. In the justice system the Assembly had saw its dreams of a decentralised, uniformed system come into reality, their principles had to an extent succeeded in this case.
As the Assembly struggled on reconstructing the state under their new principles, it became apparent that the status of the church would have to be curbed inline with the new government system. They did not intend to destroy or attack the religion of the church, but simple wanted to link it closer to the new government, rather than the old government and outside elements such as the pope, in a bid to strengthen the revolution. The first steps were taken in August 1789 removing the tithe, annates and pluralism’ followed by the 1790 decree suppressing the monastic orders. These two assertions upon the church met with no real retaliation, however that was to be short lived. In July 1790 the Assembly decided to release a document that would bring the church into a more uniformed relationship with the new government system. The Civil Constitution of the Clergy’ was to strip the number of priests down to fit into the departments of the local government; priests were to be appointed by the people and the Pope lost the ability to elect bishops. The entire system of the church was to be constructed around the revolution and the Assembly’s principles and although many clergy were willing to debate the terms, the Assembly simple saw this as returning to the old way of separate systems. Forced by time and lack of results the assembly declared a decree in November 1790 calling all clergy to take oath to the constitution, the result was a serious blow to the authority of the assembly. Only seven bishops and 55 percent of the clergy excepted the oath,’ the result split the church in France into constitutional and non-juring spoiling the assembly’s hope of a uniformed church, and providing one of the largest boosts to the counter-revolution yet seen. Ideals had got in the way of th political reality surrounding the church, they could not change a religion to fit their principles.
By the time the Constitution had been completed by the Constituent assembly in September 1791 attitudes and events had changed to such an extent that the assembly was now in the position that it was losing way to the pace of the revolution. The growth of revolutionary clubs and popular discontent and placed the assembly in an awkward situation. Clubs such as the Jacobin and San Culottes had begun to form powerful opposing to the assembly’s policies concerning the king, especially after the flight to Varennes’ had removed all credibility of him as a leader in the constitutional monarchy. Popular discontent had been sparked of by the light punishment placed on the treasonous king by the Assembly, they were beginning to lose the peoples confidence. The events at the Camp de Mars’ only helped highlight the feelings of anger towards the assembly, 50 unarmed citizens shot by the National Guard in an event much like that of the Winter palace incident.’ With the constitution completed the Assembly believed it could put into action the new constitutional monarchy, but with the string of events pre-dating the occasion, the role of the king in the constitution undermined it to a dangerous extent. Even when they did get the king himself to agree to the terms of the Constitution, it was through force, a clear sign that the assembly was depending on a character that didn’t even agree personally to head their new monarchy. The fat pig’ had, through his own actions, undermined his need to the assembly and the credibility of the Constitution in the eyes of the public, the assembly was left with a pointless Constitutional document and a wanted criminal to the revolution.
In the end the idealistic principles of the National Assembly for uniformity, decentralisation and humanitarianism’ that had been created by a collective body of deputies influenced by the atmosphere of excitement in the unknown at the time, had been smashed by the reality of the revolution and the speed that it was travelling through the History of France in comparison with the actions of the Assembly. They may have succeeded in the remodelling of the justice system, but countless failure to met the unrealistic high principles set down in the rights of man and the citizen’ and actions outside their reign of power, such as the kings flexing, had crushed the credibility of the Assembly to succeed in fulfilling their desired level of remodelling on their principles for a new French society and government.