The course of the french revolution

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Wamanga Moses Wamboga –Currently Senior ICT4E Consultant, and former Head of Political Education Department at St. Mary’s College Kisubi  (+256772580086)

We now come to the Revolution itself. We have already outlined some of the basic causes of the French Revolution as well as the general features of the Ancien regime. It seems fairly clear that the closed social structure of 18th century France, administrative inefficiency, bankruptcy and the example of the American Revolution as well as Enlightenment thought all had their effect on what would indeed occur in the last decade of the 18th century. Above all, a revolutionary mentality had been created and this alone, perhaps, is what drove the revolutionaries forward. The French revolution can generally be categorized in to three major phases/stages.

The first stage 1789 -1791 begins with the estates general meeting of 5th may 1789 and ends with the death of Mirabeau in 1791. It involved a number of events and resolutions passed by the national Assembly over the clergy, the nobility, Judicial and administrative structures and the Bourbon monarchy.

The second stage 1791 - 1794 was characterized by violence, where the peaceful revolution turned into a reign of terror, shifting to dictatorship and anarchy. It began with the death of Mirabeau in April 1791 and ended with the death of Robespierre in July 1794. The leadership of the revolution at this stage was dominated by lower class people and political parties that had sprung up.

The last stage 1795 -1799 was under the directory government ruled by five directors. It was marked by the spread of revolutionary ideas from France to the rest of Europe. It also witnessed the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte where in 1799 he staged a coup against the directory government and assumed power in France.

The Cahiers de doleances:

The government of Louis XVI had summoned the States-General to meet at Versailles. In preparation for this, it had asked for cahiers or lists of grievances. It got over 60,000 of them. From every part of France the Third Estate sent up similar demands:

-      Ending the privileged classes of the nobility and clergy;

-      Abolition of the special feudal law courts of the nobility;

-      the establishment of a system of law, which was equal for all classes;

-      the abolition of indirect and direct taxes;

-      all citizens should be able to gain promotion in the armed forces;

-      They wanted an elected assembly with the members responsible to this assembly and not to the king (democratic government);

-      There was the desire for the estates general to meet regularly, have control over taxation and not to be dissolved without its own consent;

-      the cahiers also, demanded freedom of worship (religious toleration). They were opposed to Roman Catholicism dominating the affairs of France.

-      Lastly the abolition of all feudal rights and dues. Naturally this last demand came most strongly from the rural areas. The remark of the men of one district, how happy we should be if the feudal system were destroyed, expresses perfectly the main trend of the peasants' requests.

1. Meeting of the States, May, 1789

It might have been thought that Louis and Necker would examine these grievances, draw up a programme of reforms, and present it to the assembly which was meeting after so long a time. But that was not Louis' way. Instead of placing himself at the head of the reform movement, he immediately made reform more difficult by expecting the three Estates to begin by deliberating separately, as they had done in the medieval past. The effect of this would be that reform measures, voted on by the Estates separately, would almost inevitably be defeated by two Estates to one (First and Second v. Third Estate).

On the other hand, if all met as one assembly, the fact that the Third Estate had been allowed, as a special new concession by the Crown, to have twice as many representatives as either of the other orders would mean that reform measures could be carried. It would require only a very few of the poorer clergy to support the Third Estate, and the latter would have a clear majority. It was thus essential to the cause of reform that the Estates should meet as one, and not three, assemblies. Louis had seemed to recognize this by granting the Third Estate double representation, and now, typically, he changed course. Until such time as the Estates should propose agreed schemes for joint sessions, he insisted on separate meetings

The estates general meeting of 5th May 1789 comprised of 621 representatives of the third estate, 308 clergy and 285 nobles. Louis XVI and his poor advisors thought that each estate representative would present a list of grievances (cahiers) and offer some advice which would help in solving financial crisis and other problems that France was facing. The cahiers expressed loyalty and fidelity to the king, most of them reflected the radical philosophy of the age and demanded for reforms in the government and society. Many of the cahiers demanded for the abolition of social inequalities in the society. The mood of the third estate was expressed in a pamphlet written by Abbey Sieyes which was circulated in large numbers on the eve of the French revolution.

Beloved and loyal supporters, we require the assistance of our faithful subjects to overcome the difficulties in which we find ourselves concerning the current state of our finances, and to establish, as we so wish, a constant and invariable order in all branches of government that concern the happiness of our subjects and the prosperity of the realm. These great motives have induced us to summon the Assembly of the Estates of all Provinces obedient to us, as much to counsel and assist us in all things placed before it, as to inform us of the wishes an grievances of our people; so that, by means of the mutual confidence and reciprocal love between the sovereign and his subjects, an effective remedy may be brought as quickly as possible to the ills of the State, and abuses of all sorts may be averted and corrected by good and solid means which insure public happiness and restore to us in particular the calm and tranquility of which we have so long been deprived.”1

"What is the third estate" asked Sieyes (everything" "What has it been in politics up to now?"

"Nothing" "What does it desire?" "To become something",

Louis XVI expected separate deliberations from each estate than a joint assembly of the clergy, nobles and third estates representatives. He insisted on the ancient system of sitting and voting where each estate would sit and vote as one house. By this procedure, the privileged estates (clergy and Nobles) would always out vote the third estate by a ratio of 1:2 (one vote for the third estate and two votes for the first and second). This was because the 1st and 2nd estates were the privileged class and had similar interest of defending their privileges.

The third estate objected to these arrangement and wanted a single assembly of the three classes where deliberations and voting would be on the principle of one man one vote (show of hands). They were aware that a joint assembly would offer them opportunities for reforms since they had twice as many representatives as the clergy and the nobles combined.


It was the beginning of the revival of the parliament and parliamentary democracy in France. For about 175 years, the estates general had never sat and the 5th May 1789 assembly resurrected it. From 1789 on wards, the estates general met continuously and enacted a number of reforms in France.

This event triggered off the revolution. The self-conversion of the 3rd estate into the national assembly marked the beginning of the French revolution. They had taken up the responsibility of acting on behalf of the whole nation. This weakened the position of the Bourbon monarchy and Louis XVI over state affairs.

The meeting gave the third class the chance to begin fighting for their rights. Had it not been because of the hectic disagreement over the sitting arrangement, the third estate would have found it difficult if not impossible to start the revolution in 1789. This is so because they used the disagreement over the sitting order as an excuse to revolt against Louis XVI and the monarchy.

The national assembly is known as the constituent assembly because it's main responsibility was to make a constitution. This constitution later became the guarantee of people's freedom and rights.

It portrayed the unity that existed amongst the third class and disunity within the privileged class. The unity of the third class was evidenced in the tennis court oath and disunity of the privileged class was witnessed when the lesser nobles and lower clergy joined the 3rd class against the monarchy.

The event exposed the king's inconsistencies and weaknesses. His failure to settle the sitting arrangement and his order to the privileged class to join the assembly is a testimony of his wavering character. However, the higher clergy and the greater nobility refused to join the national assembly. This undermined the nationalistic outlook which the assembly was to portray.

2. The Tennis Court Oath June 20 1789

On 20th June, the third Estate members went to their usual meeting place but they found the hall closed in preparation for the Royal session. The third estate was not given prior notice and for a moment they did not know what to do. However after sometime they went to a neighboring building which served as a Tennis court and held a memorable meeting there. Under their president Bailly, they took the famous Tennis court Oath. All deputies swore

"Never to separate and to re-assemble wherever circumstances shall require, until the constitution of the kingdom shall be established"2

3. The Royal Session 23rd June 1789

On 23rd June 1789, a special royal session was held. In his speech, the king announced a number of reforms which satisfied the demands of the third estate but made some fatal mistakes. He declared the recent actions of the 3rd estate in converting itself into the national assembly illegal and unconstitutional. He also ordered that the three estates should meet separately. The king, the nobility and the clergy left the hall in the spirit of victory.

However, the third class representatives remained in the hall. The master of ceremonies reminded them of the King's orders and told them to quit the assembly hall. In response Mirabeau one of the deputies of the third estate thundered a vibrant warning

Go tell your master that we are here by the will of the people and that we -shall not leave except at the point of a bayonet3

Humiliated by the tough stand of the third estate, Louis ordered the 1st and 2nd estates to join the National Assembly. He allowed all the three estates to sit, deliberate and vote as one body. This was a triumph for the 3rd estates that had been in the backyard of French politics for centuries.

The third estate had therefore succeeded in reforming and restricting the ancient regime in France,

4. The Storming of Bastille 14th July 1789

The Bastille, was the state prison where those arrested under the infamous lettres-de-cachet were imprisoned. After the declaration of the national assembly by the third estate, the king's diehard nobles and clergy continued to oppose it. The result of all this was an uprising of the Paris crowds, urged on by Desmoulins and others. Large numbers of citizens rushed to seek weapons. To defend themselves, if necessary, against Louis' troops, who were massing in the suburbs. Mobs raided the gunsmiths' shops and surrounded the Hotel de Ville, clamouring for arms.

On July 14, 1789 an angry mob, tired of the oppressive brutality of the French monarchy, captured the Bastille, a prison in Paris.
There the committee of electors found itself in a dilemma. To prevent mob rule, it hastily completed its scheme for a citizen militia, but at the same time it found itself forced to hand out its stock of arms to the crowd. With these, on the morning of 14th July, a mob moved on to the great military depot and hospital, Les Invalides, where they found and seized some 30,000 muskets. And from Les Invalides a group several hundred strong swept on to the great fortress-prison of Paris, the Bastille, which was known to contain large quantities of gunpowder.

It is unlikely that the crowd at first intended to storm this hated fortress, in which so many victims of lettres de cachet had been confined. Their idea seems to have been to demand the handing-over of the gunpowder, and the dismantling of the fortress's great guns, which could have been used against the Paris population. But the threatening demeanour of the mob as they forced their way into the outer courtyard, and finally their violence as they seized and lowered the draw- bridge to the inner court, caused the Governor to order his garrison to open fire.

Soon there were nearly 200 killed or wounded among the intruders, who would doubtless have been driven out had not some mutinous French troops seized cannons from Les Invalides and trained them on the main gate of the Bastille's inner citadel. This action proved decisive. The irresolute Governor gave the order to surrender and the mob poured into the inner fortress. There they found a grand total of seven prisoners; four forgers, two madmen, and a notorious rake.

Typically of the French Revolution, some of the crowd massacred several of the captive garrison, and tore out their hearts and bowels. Later the Governor too was murdered, and his head paraded round Paris on a pike. Throughout France and throughout most of Europe, this day's work was hailed as heroic. The Bastille, supreme symbol of French royal despotism, had fallen; and before long, the 14th July would become a great national French holiday.

The rebels were now in command of Paris. The committee at the Hotel de Ville became a regular town government, or Commune, with a mayor at its head. The brave and chivalrous Marquis de Lafayette, who had learned his liberal politics in America and had been elected Vice-President of the National Assembly, was installed as commander of the National Guard. Accepting these-measures, the mob was soon quieted, and those who were anxious for more disorder were suppressed by Lafayette and the Guard. It remained to secure Louis' approval of accomplished facts. He had little alternative.

He reinstated Necker, withdrew his troops from the Paris suburbs, and on 11th July he came to Paris, escorted by fifty members of the Assembly. There he had to recognise the new municipal government of Paris and the National Guard, and to wear in his hat the Guard's tricolour cockade - the emblem of the Revolution.

Its colours, suggested by Lafayette, were the old Paris municipal ones of red and blue, with the white of the monarchy between. Risings of this kind were by no means confined to Paris. In the provinces there was a rush to storm the 'forty thousand Bastille' (the feudal castles) and burn the memorial records. Everywhere towns organised committees of electors into Communes and set up self-government on the Parisian model.

The fall of Bastille was applauded in France and else where as the greatest and most significant event of the century. It signified the fall of despotism, the end of lettress de-cachet and other forms of oppressions in France. This was because the Bastille was a symbol of despotism where the victims of lettress-de-cachet were thrown.

It's fall led to the release of prisoners most of whom were innocent. However, the freed prisoners took up to revenge against those who had imprisoned them (nobles). They killed such nobles and looted their farms and homes.

The fall of Bastille ushered in violence not only in Paris and other surrounding provinces but also in other French cities. The revolutionaries acquired more arms, which they used against the hated nobles and clergy.

The violent destruction of the Bastille and the violent events that followed forced the emigres in to exile (under the leadership of Comte-de-Artois). This is yet significant because the emigres later re-mobilised against the revolutionaries which contributed to the reign of terror and war with other powers in Europe.

It also led to the dissolution of the Royal guard which was replaced by the National Guard. The National Guard was to protect the revolution and all what it stood for i.e. its achievements. It was under the command of Lafayette, the hero of American war of independence and Trour, the vice president of the national assembly. Foreign troops were withdrawn immediately and to avoid chaos, Necker was reinstated.

The National flag of France was changed from the white colour to the current tri-colour of red, white and blue. This symbolized a change from the Bourbon monarchy to the revolution where the rule by birth had ended.

The storming of Bastille was quickly followed by an almost complete decentralization of government. A new government was formed to govern Paris only while the king was in charge of Versailles. The appointed Royal intendants in the local government were replaced by elected council leaders signifying the rise of democracy in France.

The success of the revolutionaries bonded the 3rd estate together and gave them courage to fight for more reforms. It became a day for liberty not only in France but the whole world. Indeed this event is so important that 14th July has remained a day of national celebrations in France.

However, the event of the fall of Bastille was very unfortunate. Several captives of the garrisons were murdered. Even the governor, De-Launay who ordered his troops to surrender was beheaded and his head was paraded around Paris on a pike. This was despotism and violence of the highest order.

5. The Decrees of 4th August 1789 (Abolition of feudal privileges)

After the storming of Bastille, Peasants went on rampage attacking the residences and property of the clergy and Nobles. Consequently by August, the remaining nobles who had not given up their privileges had seen the sense in sacrificing their privileges to save their lives. On 4th August when the national assembly was in a night session, it abolished feudalism and all it's forms throughout France. The nobles and clergy denounced their privileges and the ancient system of taxation was scrapped off. Thus, the long-term grievances, which had made the revolution inevitable, were removed. This was a total destruction of the foundation of the ancient regime and a relief to the peasants.

The event is memorable because it guaranteed equality of all men before the law and other forms of taxation, thus burying social class discrimination in France.

The way feudalism was destroyed makes it significant. It was very peaceful where the nobles and clergy just denounced their privileges hence compromising with the third estate in the spirit of brotherhood. It guaranteed admission and promotion into public offices on merit than birth. This gave way to competent and talented men of ability to rise to power irrespective of birth rite. This event became a social revolution that laid a firm foundation of fraternity between the three classes compared to their position prior to 1789.

However, this event forced most nobles and clergy to flee to exile from where they regrouped in Austria and started planning a counter-revolution. This took France to war with foreign powers and contributed to the reign of terror in the course of the revolution. In short, the destruction of feudalism was a landmark that modernized France in Europe compared to Austria, Germany, Italy, Russia and Poland. It was a stepping-stone for the declaration of the rights of man and citizens.

6. Declaration of the Rights of Man -August 27, 1789

The Assembly next concentrated on approving a suitable preface to the Constitution it was devising to replace the royal despotism. Lafayette was mainly responsible for the drawing up of this preface, which was called 'The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen'.

At all events, the document that was produced seemed designed not for the France of 1789 alone but for all times and all peoples. Men were by nature equal; the people were sovereign, and must share in the making of law, which was the expression of the General Will; liberty of person and speech were sacred rights; rebellion against injustice a holy duty.

A statement of democratic principles so complete naturally led to great expectations which in the nature of facts at the time it was simply impossible to fulfill. As one person remarked: 'It was not wise to lead men up to the top of the mountain and show them a promised land which was afterwards to be refused them.'

Also, as became clearer later, the framers of the Declaration were interested only in political, not economic, equality: property was another one of their 'sacred rights'. Nevertheless their document, in effect, 'sounded the death knell of the old Regime in Europe'.

It had the following declarations amongst others; One, people had the rights to rule themselves and that men were by nature equal and therefore entitled to equal rights and privileges from the state. This includes equality before the Law and taxation. Two, it granted freedom of press, speech, worship. Association, ownership of property, security and resistance to oppression. Three, all government officials are public servants and are responsible to the people. It continues that sovereignty is vested in the people who have the final voice to determine their leadership.

Four, imprisonment was not allowed except by laws decided only by the people. No one was to be arrested without a proof of his or her guilt.

Significance and Evaluation of the Declaration

It's on record that the "declaration of the rights of man and citizens" was the noblest side of the 1789 French revolution, without which it might not have been a great event in European History.4 The human rights that were declared became the foundation for people's rights and freedom not only in France but the entire world. These have been adopted by USA and the present UNO. The UNO charter has a special article (16) on the rights of man and citizens, which was Xeroxed from that of France. Although the political liberties were short-lived with the reign of terror in France, they were resurrected and have survived up to now.

The declaration destroyed the remains of segregative social system that had characterized the French society prior to 1789 i.e. between the nobles and the clergy against the third class. It asserted equality of all men by nature irrespective of social status or birth.

The declared rights of man abolished feudalism and feudal dues in the history of France. However the abolition of feudal dues worsened the financial crisis in France.

David Thomson describes the declaration of the rights of man, as the most important event in the development of democratic and republican ideas. This is justifiable because every citizen had the right to influence state policies through elected representatives. This was through national elections (direct or indirect), a parliamentary debate in framing national laws as against royal decrees. These were drastic measures that challenged and reformed

The declared rights especially political liberties inspired the oppressed masses outside France to struggle for their freedom. This was witnessed in the future revolutions of Germany, Italy, Belgium, Poland, and Russia. These revolutions were caused by the violation of human rights, which were declared in France.

Although the declaration of the rights of man and citizens corrected the wrongs in the French society, it had several loopholes. It accorded Louis XVI a legal status on the forefront of French politics. He was allowed to have power to choose, discipline, demote, promote and even dismiss ministers. He was also given power to Veto the decision of the national assembly.

It was this that he used to refuse to sign the declaration of the rights of man and citizens and the decrees of 4th August.

The document made people aware of their rights but did not tell them about their duties yet the politically charged atmosphere of France required people to know more about their duties instead of their rights. This raised a lot of expectations by the people from the government which was impossible considering the financial situation of the country. Moreover most of the taxes had been abolished yet the government had no other sources of revenue to meet people's needs. Thus as "Ketlebey " puts it;

In the declaration of human rights the assembly lifted the curtains, which veiled an impossible liberty only to drop it again. The declaration of the rights of man ignored the rights of women not until 1954 when it was adopted- Madam Olympe-de-Gouges pleaded for the rights of women and citizen in vain. When she submitted it to the national assembly in 1791, she was condemned as outrageous and scandalous and consequently she was guillotine. This was against the principle of equality and gender balance.

Lastly, the freedom granted by the declaration of rights of man and citizens made the Frenchmen crazy under emotional excitement of freedom. They resorted to violence as a means of achieving whatever they wanted. This is justified by the fact that; " was useless to take people on top of a mountain and show them wonderful plains that could not be given to them",

The document made the Frenchmen knowledgeable about their rights and it became a yardstick for measuring the worth of army government in France. This is why the Frenchmen resorted to violence against the government when it failed to grant them such declared rights.

7. March of the Women October 1789

At all events, the decision was taken - for such an event can hardly have been accidental - to stage a women's march to Versailles to press the people's grievances. Women were chosen rather than men because the effect would be greater, and their hunger-cries shriller, but in the event a number of men, some painted and petticoated, swelled the throng.

Hearing of the March, thousands of citizens, including many members of the National Guard, gathered outside the Hotel de Ville in Paris. Eventually the Commune ordered Lafayette to set off after the marchers with several thousand of the National Guard. His task was to prevent disorder and if possible bring the King from Versailles to the capital.

Meanwhile at Versailles, Louis was recalled from his usual pastime of hunting, and he agreed to see a deputation of the women. He promised special food supplies, for Paris; and later he also decided to meet the renewed request of the Assembly that he should accept the decrees of 4th August and the Declaration of the Rights of Man.

When Lafayette appeared, the harassed King also agreed that the National Guard, instead of the Flanders regiment, should be entrusted with the defense of Versailles. While Lafayette was asleep that night, however, some of the mob broke into the palace. They calmed down only when Louis agreed to return with them to Paris.

The journey took nine hours, and then for two hours more Louis had to listen to speeches at the Hotel de Ville, before he and his family at length reached the royal palace of the Tuilleries. And there they were as good as prisoners.

Ten days later the Assembly decreed that it would follow the King to Paris. The whole episode was thus very important. As on 14th July, mob action had proved decisive. Neither the Paris Commune nor Lafayette, it was now clear, could control the forces they had helped to set in motion.

In Paris, both King and Assembly would soon be at the mercy of mob forces. Already the transactions of the Assembly were public, and outside speakers were even permitted to address the deputies. Soon it would become a mob fashion to attend the debates, to cheer the most revolutionary speakers and boo and hiss and jeer at the rest - even to waylay them afterwards. The whole effect would eventually be to make moderate deputies stay away, and to leave matters more and more in the hands of the extremists.


The role of women in the demonstration shows the concern of everybody in the revolution. Since the beginning of the revolution women had not been very active and their participation in the marching shows the national outlook of the French revolution.

It upheld the revolutionary principle of equality since women had actively joined men in the revolution.

It acted as a preamble for the transfer of the national assembly from Versailles (a monarchical stronghold) to Paris (a revolutionary center). From then onwards, French politics and the revolution was championed from Paris by the Paris commune.

The king was forced to accept some reforms which went a long way in meeting the demands of the revolutionaries. He promised special food for Paris and to reduce the price of bread. He agreed to sign the declarations of the rights of man and citizens and he also accepted the National Guard to be entrusted with the defense of Versailles. However, the mistreatment of Louis to the extent of being kept in the Tuilleries provoked internal uprisings from the royalists and foreign condemnation by foreign powers. This contributed to the reign of terror and war between France and her neighbours.

8. Civil Constitution of the Clergy, July 1790

If the State confiscated the Church's land, it obviously had to take on most of the Church's financial obligations, including the payment of the clergy. In July 1790 the Assembly passed the radical Civil Constitution of the Clergy. By this the State undertook, among other things, responsibility for paying the clergy, who were thus turned into state officials, with bishops and parish priests appointed by a form of election. Though the Pope was still recognised as the head of the Church, he was allowed no power at all in France by this scheme.

Louis, a good Catholic, accepted it only with the utmost reluctance; but when, as he had feared, the Pope in April 1791 solemnly condemned the whole measure, his remorse knew no bounds. From this point must be dated two important developments. From then on, the Revolution was rejected by most of the Church leaders, and by some of the strongly religious regions in the west. And from then on, Louis was resolved to halt the Revolution by seeking aid from abroad.

Before the revolution, the pope and the Catholic Church had a lot of influence on the political, economic, social and religious affairs of France. The Catholic Church and the clergy were the most privileged in France. It's on this account that the revolutionaries targeted the vast resources and influence of the church. So in July 1790, the national assembly passed a law, which incorporated the church in to state and the clergy in to civil service. This became known as the civil constitution of the clergy. It had the following implications/effects on France and Europe.

First, it abolished the church tithe since it was a sign of feudalism and a source of exploitation. This was a relief to the peasants who were able to save part of their meager/little incomes.

Second, the Catholic Church monopoly over land was terminated. The church land was nationalized and sold to the French citizens at a fair price. Such a resolution availed land to the majority peasants and increased their productivity and socio-economic welfare,

Third, for the first time, the clergy were to be elected by the general public and their salaries were to be paid by the government. The salaries of the lower clergy were increased while those of the upper clergy were reduced. These measures turned the clergy into paid civil servants of France.

Fourth, the pope's influence and interference on the politics of France and the Catholics in France were nullified. He was not to have any power on altering elections and payments of the clergy and any policy in France.

Fifth, it abolished old dioceses and established new ones, which corresponded with the newly established districts. This decentralised the church administration and increased its efficiency. Beside the title of Arch Bishop was abolished but each of the 83 Districts of France were to have a Bishop.

Sixth, through the sale of the church Land and abolition of its privileges, the national assembly temporarily raised some money for the administration of the country. A paper form of money called Assignats was printed according to the value of Land. However, by 1796 the value of Assignat was undermined by inflation due to over printing.

Seventh, the civil constitution of the clergy delivered a deathblow to religious intolerance that was dominant in France by 1789. It asserted freedom of worship by legalizing other religions besides Catholicism.

Eight, in December 1790, a decree was passed by which all the clergy/church officials were to take an oath of allegiance to the civil constitution. This divided the clergy in to two i.e. those who took the oath who were called Juring priests and those who refused who were known as Non-Juring priests. This produced civil strife where the Non- Juring priests staged revolts against the revolutionary government and the Juring priests (at Lavandee District of western France). This contributed to the reign of terror in France.

Ninth, the civil constitution of the clergy brought hostility and war between France and the rest of the Catholic states in Europe. The pope condemned it and sought support from all catholic states against the revolutionary government in France. Besides, it forced the clergy into exile from where they organised counter revolutionary forces with assistance from catholic states like Austria, Prussia and Russia.

In addition to the above, the civil constitution of the clergy made Louis to attempt the abortive flight to exile i.e. Austria. He had hesitantly signed it out of the fear that his veto might bring him more troubles with the revolutionaries. However, when the Pope denounced it, Louis XVI regretted signing it. He confessed; “l ask God to accept my profound repentance for having affixed my name, though against my will to acts which are in conflict with the discipline and belief of the Catholic Church".

Furthermore, it was this that made him attempt to escape from Paris and join the emigres in Austria. This had disastrous consequences because he was arrested and brought back as an enemy of France and the revolution.

At last Louis decided to flee to eastern France, where he would be well placed to find loyal French troops and to receive help from his Austrian brother-in-law, the Emperor Leopold. From this area, at the head of an army including foreigners and emigre French nobles, he could return to dictate terms to the Assembly. It was a fatal plan, however, to rely on forces from outside, and it was one from which Mirabeau, who had come to better terms with the court and was doing his best to keep the Revolution within reasonable hounds, would certainly have dissuaded him.

9. The King's flight to Varennes 22nd June 1791

It ought to be the recalled that Louis XVI was forced to accept reforms from the national assembly against his free will. He felt the condition under which he was kept at the Tuilleries were unbearable. He said; “I would rather be a king of Metz, than remain king of France in such a position but this will end soon.” Eventually, he decided to join the émigrés in Austria for a counter-revolution. So Louis and the royal family stealthily left the Tuilleries at night and headed for Austria. However, he was detected and arrested by peasants at Varennes, a few miles from the boarder of Austria and France. They were brought back to Paris amidst great humiliation. The significance of this abortive flight is as follows. First, it depicted King Louis and his family as traitors and conspirators against the revolution. This event made the revolutionaries to loose the little trust that was left in the king. Second, it revealed further the king's inconsistent nature and his wavering character. This is because he succumbed to ill advice of the queen and the aristocrats to flee abroad and fight against the reforms he had endorsed. Third, the event was a serious humiliation to the king amongst his subject. He was arrested by peasants and escorted back to Paris as an enemy of France and the revolution. The king and his family were kept as prisoners in the Tuilleries, which was a disgraceful event. Fourth, it strengthened the spirit of republicanism in France.

Men like Robespierre and Danton demanded for the replacement of the monarchy with a republican form of government. However the National assembly was still dominated by constitutional monarchists and no action was taken against the monarchy. The king took an oath of allegiance to the constitution and the matter rested there. Nevertheless, the spirit of republicanism spread fast and that's why the monarchy was replaced by a republic the next year (1792). One historian correctly observed that; At Varennes, the monarchy had died, all that Paris had to do a year later was to burry it".

While the Jacobins were agitating for a republican government, a number of people wanted a constitutional monarchy. This marked the diversion of opinion and the development of political parties in France. Henceforth, France entered into an era of multi party politics although it was short lived-

The humiliation of the royal family provoked internal protests from the aristocrats and external war that contributed to the reign of terror.

Those who had acquired the church Land and some revolutionaries began to fear that they would be killed if the king got military assistance from outside, this also contributed to the reign of terror in France.

Lastly, the event increased the hostility between revolutionary France and her neighbours. European monarchs condemned the French revolutionary mistreatment and humiliation of Louis XVI. Prussia and Russia issued the Pilnitz declaration of August 1791 in which they threatened war against France incase the king was hurt. This was responsible for war between France and her neighbours with all its disastrous consequences.

The New Constitution September 1791

With all this work behind it, the Assembly was now anxious to complete the constitution, secure its acceptance by the King, and then make way for the new body to be elected under the fresh scheme of government. At last, in September 1791, the complete constitution was duly accepted by the helpless Louis, and Paris again celebrated 'the end of the Revolution'. Unfortunately, however, the constitution was far from perfect. The new assembly, usually known as the Legislative Assembly, was to be the dominant partner, but on paper at least the King was still to have considerable powers. This was quite unacceptable to the republicans, even though the King's wishes could be thwarted by the financial hold of the Assembly.

The constitution stated that:-

        A new Assembly was to be elected and was to be called the legislative assembly and was to be the dominant partner in government i.e. to protect and champion revolutionary ideas.

        The members to the new Assembly were to be 745 who were to be chosen by a system of indirect election for 2 years.

        The right of voting was to be exercised only by active citizens i.e. those citizens who paid taxes.

        Only property owners would qualify for elections to the legislative assembly. The assembly was therefore to be dominated by the Bourgeoisie or middleclass.

        The monarchy was maintained and the king was to serve as the executive but he lacked real political power.

        The constitution regulated the establishment of communes (about 40,000) from villages to large towns. These communes were to be almost self-governing leaving the central government with very little power over them. It is because of this that the Ambassador of the United States lamented of the new constitution:

"The Almighty Himself could not have made it work unless he created a new species of man”5

In, addition the constitution became unpopular to the poor and extremists who were denied the voting right. Leading extremists like Marat Robespierre and Camille Desmoulins loudly protested and carried out a violent campaign against the constitution. The New constitution however set up a new political structure and cultivated the spirit of constitutionalism in France.

Achievements of the National Assembly 1789 -1791

By 1792, the National assembly had accomplished much work of the revolution. Within a short period of its existence, it had established the following framework of the revolution:- First, in two years of ceaseless activity, it had swept away the old tradition of having separate estates in the French society as a basis for representation in government and protection of peoples' rights. Second, it had framed and passed the declaration of the rights of man, which acted as the guiding principles of the revolution. Third, it had abolished the tithes and all feudal dues and laid foundation for fair taxation. Fourth, it had ended the tax privileges of the nobles and clergy. Fifth, it had reduced church influence in the political affairs of France i.e. Nationalisation of church estates and civil constitution of the clergy. Most of the religious orders of the church were banished.

It also had revolutionarised local government by doing away with the old units of royal administration, provinces and officials and had instead organised France into eighty three new departments. Each of these was divided into six or seven districts and each district was sub-divided into eight or nine cantons. In every department and district arrangements locally elected councils and executive officers were established. The local administrative councils were allowed a considerable amount of power and independence from the central government. This work of the National Assembly survived all changes of government in France until our own times. Framed a new constitution for France, which was the first of its kind in the history of France. It was based on the principle of separation of powers in government i.e. executive, Legislature and judiciary, reflecting Montesquieu's ideas. This constitution enabled the middle class to dominate the political scene in France. The National assembly abolished feudalism and serfdom and established fair and democratic governance. Lastly, the National Assembly improved the finances of France through the confiscation of church property and introduction of the assignats.


1 Louis XVI's letter regarding the convocation of the Estates General at Versailles (January 24, 1789)

2 D. Mahajan: History of modern Europe since 1789, New Delhi 1997 PP 381.

3 HL Peacock: A History of modern Europe 1789-1981 Heinemann Educational Publishers Kampala 1982 pp24.

4 Grant and Temperly, 1952.P24

5 Denis Richards: An illustrated History of Modern Europe, Longman page 26

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