Moderate Phase Of The French Revolution, Events In The French Revolution

In the previous entry, the urban poor of Paris had stormed the Bastille, the medieval prison fortress in the heart of the French capital. Around the same time, peasants in the countryside had started to seize feudal manors and arm themselves in preparation for predicted royalist reprisals. In July 1789, when news finally reached the royal court in Versailles about the extent of the rebellion, the upper classes clearly perceived that restoring order would require attacking the barricaded people of Paris as well as farmer militias in the provinces. King Louis XVI opted not to use force and went to the city hall of Paris to accept the tricolor cockade that had become a symbol of the Revolution. With this symbolic act, he ceded absolute political power in France to the National Assembly and accepted the challenge to his previously unquestioned authority. At this point, though, he had no cause to fear the dissolution of the monarchy. The Assembly at this early stage was dominated by moderate reformers from the bourgeois and noble classes. Most members hoped to keep the king as a ceremonial figurehead by turning France into a constitutional monarchy.

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The August Decrees & the Declaration of the Rights of Man

Most Assembly members acknowledged, however, that feudalism had to be dismantled to mollify the anxious peasantry. Accordingly, they issued the August Decrees that abolished feudalism in France. The Decrees did away with many of the feudal benefits enjoyed by the nobility as well as tithes collected by the Catholic Church. It should be stressed, however, that the bourgeoisie retained payments owed to them under the previous system, such as rents. Many bourgeois landowners in fact raised their rents in line with the sum previously reserved for Church tithes, so peasants in effect saved no money. Additionally, peasants had to pay higher taxes levied on them by the Assembly. Even worse, the Assembly mandated peasants to compensate the nobility for the loss of their monopolies. Most peasants refused to pay compensation, however, and ultimately it would be repealed once the bourgeois stage of the Revolution ended. The inconsistency between the abolition of noble benefits with the retention of bourgeois rents demonstrates that the National Assembly in 1789 prioritized middle class demands over working class grievances.

The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, also passed by the Assembly in August 1789, further underlines the primacy of bourgeois interests in the early Revolution. Not surprisingly, it was heavily influenced by the American Revolution and the political philosophy of Thomas Jefferson. It asserted the “natural rights” of men to “liberty, property, security and resistance to oppression.” In accordance with Enlightenment ideals, nature itself endowed men of means with the freedom to pursue wealth and prestige without forced subservience to the divine right of kings or the arbitrary rulings of a self-serving aristocracy. Men would, in theory, advance themselves by their merits rather than their bloodlines. Undoubtedly, the Declaration was a positive step for France, at least compared to what came before. It recognized that individuals had inherent value and dignity, and that they deserved more than to be servants of a state that did not afford them even basic rights. For the bourgeois class especially, it was a greatly empowering emancipation from the confining chains of feudalism.

The Declaration has a tarnished legacy, however, just as the founding documents of the U.S. do when compares their philosophy with their practice. As in the early post-revolutionary U.S., France in 1789 did not truly treat all of its citizens equally, regardless of an abundance of egalitarian rhetoric. There persisted a distinction between the “right” kind of people and those deemed inherently inferior, reflected in the Declaration’s separation of “active” and “passive” citizens. To be considered an “active citizen” able to fully participate in politics, a person had to be a property-owning adult man. Those deemed “passive citizens,” including all the women of France, could not vote or otherwise be politically engaged. This means that the political rights of the Declaration only applied to 4.3 million French citizens out of a population of almost 30 million. Rights argued to be natural, endowed in the very essence of human beings, could actually only be exercised by a minority of wealthy, well-educated men. This sort of hypocrisy in declaring all people equal, yet providing a legal basis to social inequality, would be a major source of tension both for the Revolution and for centuries of suffrage and civil rights movements in the Western world.

There were feminist voices who openly opined about the unfairness and inequality within the Declaration. Olympe de Gouges, an early feminist, campaigned mightily against the injustice of women being treated as the second sex. In 1791 she published the Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen, in which she launched a blistering attack on marriage as a form of social control and the subordination of women in society generally. She complained that France refused to educate its women, and then used their resulting ignorance as an excuse not to afford them the same rights as men. She pointed out the enormous dissonance in at once claiming the “natural rights” of all humanity while also believing that there was a “natural inequality” between the sexes. Politically, she was closer to the moderates of the Revolution, and in the end went to the guillotine with them during the Reign of Terror on the basis of being insufficiently revolutionary. She was, however, quite militant in her views on gender egalitarianism, as well as in her views of abolishing slavery, a position shared only by radical revolutionaries.

Many within the bourgeoisie had stakes in French colonies and opposed the elimination of the source of their free labor: slaves. Like other imperialist nations, France relied heavily on its overseas possessions and the ruthless extraction of raw materials to feed its economy. There were early abolitionists, much as there was in the United States. These anti-slavery campaigners could not, however, prevent moneyed interests from swaying the Assembly to keep its colonial possessions in 1789. When more radical revolutionaries took over the Revolution in 1794, slavery would be abolished, albeit temporarily. Napoleon would restore it in 1802, feeling it necessary for his ambitions of creating a powerful French empire. By that time, however, the democratic values of the French Revolution and the intrinsic savagery of slavery had already inspired revolution in the colonies. Most famously, the Republic of Haiti was founded in 1804 after a successful slave uprising in Saint-Domingue. Toussaint Louverture, the most famous leader of the Haitian slave revolt, drew direct inspiration from the political philosophy advocated by the French revolutionaries, even if most revolutionaries themselves did not intend for their ideals to be extended to people outside their race and class.

Leaders of the Bourgeois Revolution

One of the main authors of the Declaration was Honoré Mirabeau, a nobleman who had never been completely accepted by his class. An adventurer and Lothario, he became mired in scandal for running afoul of the law with numerous seductions and enormous debts that left him estranged from his father. A gifted writer and orator, he opposed absolute monarchy and favored representative government. When the crown summoned the Estates-General, he had to represent the Third Estate because the nobility, the Second Estate, would not endorse him. Mirabeau and other moderate reformers sought to compromise with the king and induce him to accept a much more limited role in the government. Those revolutionaries who wanted a true republic, with the monarchy abolished and power firmly in the hands of the peoples’ representatives, remained in the minority. Due to his extensive debts, however, Mirabeau was primed for venality after his rapid political ascendancy. He conspired with the Queen, the Austrian Marie Antoinette, to return more power to the king. Most controversially, he fought for and won power for King Louis to suspend legislation passed by the Assembly for up to four years. He even went as far as to take money directly from Holy Roman Emperor Leopold II, Marie Antoinette’s brother. It is impossible to know how much of his deeds in the early Revolution were motivated out of seeking compromise with the royal court and to what degree he was actually acting as a covert agent of counterrevolution. Mirabeau died in 1791, well before the Revolution had ended. A few years later, his backroom deals with the French and Austrian courts came to light and forever tarnished his legacy, turning him from a revolutionary hero to a villain.

Abbe Sieyès, whose pamphlet “What is the Third Estate?” inspired the bourgeois class to embrace the Revolution, hoped to use political change to create a culture “devoted to the peaceful pursuit of material comfort.” Like Mirabeau, he did not come from the bourgeois, but as an abbot was technically part of the First Estate. Unlike Mirabeau, however, he did not distance himself from the interests of his social rank. He fought against the abolition of tithes to the Church and wanted to preserve some of the clergy’s special rights under feudalism. These positions put him at odds with the liberal current of the early Revolution and rendered him virtually irrelevant in the latter stages of the Revolution. He managed to survive the Reign of Terror, primarily by opportunistically renouncing his faith. He remained a dedicated supporter of the monarchy throughout the Revolution and, like most moderates, would have settled for a constitution giving greater power to the bourgeoisie. Without his pamphlet, there could not have been a Revolution, but he soon lost any means by which he could direct the Revolution as it evolved.

Perhaps the most famous of the prominent moderate leaders of the French Revolution had already made a name for himself fighting in the American Revolution in the previous decade. Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, had fought on the side of the U.S. insurgents in their war with Britain, and for his part in that successful uprising came to be seen as a war hero for defeating the British and as a darling of liberal intellectuals who admired the U.S. republic. An anti-absolutist aristocrat like Mirabeau, Lafayette was prepared to protect the king as long as he agreed to accept democratic reforms. He became the commander of the National Guard, the popular militia based in Paris, and worked with his old friend Jefferson in the crafting of the Constitution. He never forged a lasting alliance with Mirabeau, despite their similar roots, possibly because Lafayette appeared (initially) as an incorruptible general, whereas Mirabeau was a sly, cunning politician stained by his excesses. Paradoxically, while Lafayette’s popularity cut across class lines, no class fully trusted him. To the upper classes, he was a traitor, siding with the “mob” against his own social order. Simultaneously, the working classes viewed him as an outsider, a member of the military — that institution the old repressive regime had used without remorse to stamp out any dissent.

The bourgeois leaders of the early Revolution uniformly favored a peaceful transition to a constitutional monarchy but failed to accomplish this goal. This failure did not result from any one personality but from an overall inability to address one of the core causes for the Revolution: the lack of affordable food. Riots in major cities over bread became common, with more radical revolutionaries organizing demonstrations about food insecurity. In October, the king exacerbated conditions by changing his mind about accepting reform. He rejected the abolition of feudalism and most elements of the Declaration. This incensed the revolutionaries, who directed the working poor to march on the royal court in Versailles. Popular mobilization became the main tool by which the revolutionaries could put pressure on the crown. The nucleus of the march were the women from the urban poor, whose duties included purchasing bread for their families in the marketplaces. They became the symbols of the march, now known as the Women’s March on Versailles. Lafayette and his National Guardsmen accompanied the women, much to the chagrin of Lafayette, who as a man of law and order disapproved of such disorderly protest. When the marchers reached Versailles and demanded to see the king, Lafayette intervened personally to defend Louis and the even more unpopular foreign-born Marie Antoinette. Ever fearing actual conflict, Louis backed down on his stance against the Assembly’s measures. The revolutionaries also demanded, however, that he leave Versailles and return to the royal palace in Paris, the Tuileries. The revolutionaries feared (with some justification) that from his Versailles palace, the king could better orchestrate a royalist mutiny in one of his strongholds than in the national capitol. Again, Louis acquiesced and returned to Paris. Just as with the seizure of the Bastille, the working class had, through a show of popular action and force, exposed the hollowness of the monarchy as a political power. The bourgeoisie, represented by Lafayette, only cautiously went along with it all. His intervention spared the royal couple this time, but he could not save them forever.

Calm Before the Storm

In 1790, the French Revolution appeared to be winding down. King Louis had accepted all measures passed by the Assembly, and the Assembly was working on the new constitution. In July, the Assembly passed the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, which effectively turned Catholic priests and bishops into state employees. The Pope and the Catholic Church resisted this, as it would make the church in France part of the state, rather than under the control of Rome. In the eyes of many, the church was a corrupt institution divorced from its original holy mission, serving only to prop up tyrants and keep its followers docile. Many more French people, however, remained faithful to the traditional role of the church, even if they disliked its excesses. King Louis especially disapproved of the church losing its ability to extract tithes from the population, and the Revolution’s “war on religion” would become a driving force when some of the peasantry did eventually rise up against the revolutionary government. The French clergy mostly refused to take an oath swearing loyalty to the state, the vast majority becoming “non-jurors” more loyal to the Pope than France. This would create a schism in France that would not be mended until 1801, when Napoleon made peace with the church.

July 1790 also witnessed the Fête de la Fédération, a massive celebration of the previous year and all the progress made since the Revolution started. Although the constitution had not yet been finished, public figures — including the royal family — took public oaths pledging themselves to the powers and limitations granted to them by the coming legal framework for what was still widely expected to be a constitutional monarchy. Ordinary people attended mass and then got lost in drinking and dancing. It was to be a fleeting moment of seeming reconciliation in deeply divided France. It would soon be shown that King Louis had no intention of accepting constitutional checks on his power. Many moderate political figures would meet their downfall attempting to keep the peace between scheming royalists and the working class, most of whom were skeptical of the king’s motives and worried the National Assembly would also betray their support.

Since the Revolution started, many aristocrats had emigrated to neighboring countries in Europe, and even the United States. These émigrés included the aunts of King Louis, and many suspected that Louis, his wife and children would also go abroad, where other European monarchs would join him in his desire to regain absolute power. This was a key reason in why the French people had demanded that Louis and his family live in Paris. Many royalists, however, resented the king being a prisoner in his own palace, and in February 1791, royalists went to the Tuileries Palace with concealed weapons after Lafayette had led the National Guard out of the city to put down riots. The royalists said they feared for the safety of the king, while the Guardsmen at the palace who confronted them worried the royalists had come to lead a counterrevolution. Lafayette returned to Paris and induced the king to order the royalists disarmed and sent away. This event, known as the “Day of Daggers,” further damaged the monarchy among its supporters and its critics. Supporters believed Louis had spurned a chance to retake power, while those hostile to the crown claimed it proved counterrevolutionary forces were stirring.

The Flight of Varennes & the Champ de Mars Massacre

In June 1791 Louis made a mistake that would cost him his life. In disguise, the royal family set off for the fortress town of Montmédy in the east, where they hoped to start a counterrevolution. They were recognized in their travels, however, and in the town of Varennes, the local postmaster had them arrested. As in October 1789, the royal family returned to Paris, but this time the public would not forgive them. Louis had been given multiple chances to recognize and respect the Revolution, but had shown himself to be unreliable in this regard. Those politicians who wanted a republic rather than a constitutional monarchy gained credibility. Most of these politicians belonged to a political organization informally known as the Cordeliers Club (the Jacobin Club would become much more famous and powerful later on, but at this time they were fairly moderate). The Cordeliers petitioned for Louis to be removed from the throne, or at least that there be a public referendum on whether to keep the monarchy at all. In July, a group of protestors gathered in the Champ de Mars to demonstrate against the king. Lafayette and his National Guard arrived and found stones and insults hurtling in their direction. The National Guard opened fire, killing dozens of people. Lafayette, his reputation already tarnished by his permitting the king to flee Paris, never recovered from the Champ de Mars massacre. The Revolution lost one of its foremost moderating figures.

In the aftermath of the slaughter, the revolutionary government sought to mitigate the damage by suppressing radical politicians and publications as seditious. Two prominent members of the Cordeliers Club, Georges Danton and Camille Desmoulins, had been present at the Champ de Mars protest and now went underground. So did a physician-turned-revolutionary named Jean-Paul Marat. Marat had started his own newspaper, L’Ami du peuple (“The People’s friend”), in which he praised the urban poor (the sans-culottes) and launched increasingly blistering polemics against the monarchists and moderates in the Assembly. He suffered from a painful skin condition, and his decision to flee into the Paris sewers whenever he upset the authorities did him no dermatological favors. Another newspaper, Le Père Duchesne, appealed to the masses because it was written from a first person point of view, that of the titular Old Man Duchesne, a grumpy working class man with a pipe. The rants of Duchesne were laden with profanity to help give them the common touch. The man behind Duchesne was Jacques Hébert, who like many revolutionaries initially endorsed the idea of a constitutional monarchy, but then sharply turned his ire against the monarchy following the flight to Varennes.

In September 1791 the new constitution finally went into effect. Most power remained with the representative Assembly members, but the king retained veto power over legislation and could appoint and remove ministers. After the constitution’s passage, the National Constituent Assembly was dissolved and a new Legislative Assembly formed (in the interests of hindering careerism, members of the former could not be members of the latter). The new Assembly soon ran into trouble after its first meeting in October. From the outset, the king did not shy away from using his veto power to protect noble émigrés plotting counterrevolution abroad as well as clergy members who continued to refuse to take a loyalty oath to the government. Still, the Assembly mostly remained loyal to the king. Members of the monarchist Feuillant Club held the reigns of government and considered the Revolution completed. The second-largest group, the Jacobin Club, remained a broad tent that favored an overall centrist position.

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As we shall see in the next entry, the Revolution was not over. The ordinary hard-working people of France, especially the sans-culottes in the cities, continued to demand reasonable prices and chafed at the huge property inequality between themselves and the “big bourgeoisie.” Also, even with the king in Paris, the possibility of counterrevolution continued to grow, with foreign kings and domestic royalists threatening to put the Revolution under siege. War was imminent, and naturally the people took on a more patriotic and radical mentality. The moderate bourgeois stage of the Revolution was ending, soon to be replaced by the more halcyon days of the radical period.


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