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The Abolition of Feudalism

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The Abolition of Feudalism

The French Revolution was a period in the history of France covering the years 1789 to 1799, in which republicans overthrew the Bourbon monarchy and the Roman Catholic Church perforce underwent radical restructuring. This article covers the year following the storming of the Bastille, from the abolition of feudalism (4 August 1789) to National Constituent Assembly's adoption of the Civil Constitution of the Clergy (12 July 1790).

The tangible consequences of the abolition of feudalism, the Declaration of the Rights of Man, the Civil Constitution of the Clergy and the movements toward a constitution are highly disputable but what was plain to see was the change in mindset of those across social and political boundaries. French people across the land began to see a future of democratic nationalism, irrevocably changing ancient traditions of society, government and religion.


The Estates-General of 1789, which convened on 5 May had reached a deadlock in its deliberations by 6 May. The representatives of the Third Estate therefore attempted to make the whole body more effective; they met separately from 11 May as the Communes. On 17 June the Communes, together with some members of the First Estate, declared themselves the National Assembly by a vote of 490 to 90; they were later joined by the rest of the First Estate and some members of the Second. King Louis XVI and the Second Estate tried to prevent the delegates from meeting, which led to the Tennis Court Oath of 20 June, wherein the assembly swore that it would draft a new constitution for France. Failing to disperse the delegates, Louis started to recognise their validity; subsequently, the Assembly renamed itself the National Constituent Assembly on 9 July and began to function as a governing body and a constitution-drafter. On 11 July 1789 the king dismissed his financial minister, Jacques Necker, who had been sympathetic to the Third Estate. Many viewed this as the beginning of a coup by conservative elements. Open hostility flared in the streets, and on 14 July a Parisian mob stormed the Bastille. However, this crowd was incited largely due to rumor that Louis was leading his army with a force of 15–20,000 soldiers to surround Paris and quell the National Assembly.

Paris was in turmoil. Amidst occasional rioting over food shortages, a hundred and eighty members, nominated by the city districts, constituted themselves as legislators and representatives of the city, but with no clear structure. The committees, the mayor, the assembly of representatives, and the individual districts each claimed authority independent of the others. The increasingly middle-class National Guard under Lafayette also slowly emerged as a power in its own right. Other self-generated assemblies arose, soldiers debated at the Oratoire, journeymen tailors at the Colonnade, hairdressers in the Champs-Élysées, servants at the Louvre, and a particularly radical ad hoc assembly seated itself at the Palais Royal. None of these limited their competence to local issues: they felt free to debate the same issues as the National Assembly, to take positions more radically revolutionary than that Assembly, and to try (individually and sometimes jointly) to influence its decisions in law making.

The abolition of feudalism

The next major event of the revolution occurred on 4 August 1789, when the National Constituent Assembly abolished feudalism, sweeping away both the seigneurial rights of the Second Estate (the nobility) and the tithes gathered by the First Estate (the Roman Catholic clergy).

While one can question motivations (and while many later expressed regrets and attempted retreat), historians agree that the Viscount de Noailles and the Duke d'Aiguillon proposed the redemption and consequent abolition of feudal rights and the suppression of personal servitude, as well as the various privileges of the nobility. Members of the First Estate were at first reluctant to enter into the patriotic fervour of the night but eventually the Bishops of Nancy and Chartres sacrificed their tithes. In the course of a few hours, France abolished game-laws, seigneurial courts, the purchase and sale of posts in the magistracy, of pecuniary immunities, favoritism in taxation, of surplice money, first-fruits, pluralities, and unmerited pensions. Towns, provinces, companies, and cities also sacrificed their special privileges. A medal was struck to commemorate the day, and the Assembly declared Louis XVI the "Restorer of French Liberty."

This "Saint Bartholomew of abuses," as François Mignet calls it, has often been the subject of hyperbole in the analyses of contemporaries and historians. The atmosphere inside the Assembly was so heady that confusion reigned in the provinces for months afterwards as to the true meaning of the laws. The real product of the night was not formalised until the Feudal Committee reported back on 5 March 1790. The Committee reintroduced the mainmorte (explicitly outlawed by the original decrees) and set a rate of redemption for real rights (those connected to the land) that was impossible for the majority of peasants to pay. As the Russian anarchist Prince Peter Kropotkin would write, "The Assembly was carried away by its enthusiasm, and in this enthusiasm nobody remarked the clause for redeeming the feudal rights and tithes, which the two nobles and the two bishops had introduced into their speeches – a clause terrible even in its vagueness, since it might mean all or nothing, and did, in fact, postpone… the abolition of feudal rights for five years – until August 1793.[1]

The Declaration of the Rights of Man

Looking to the United States Declaration of Independence for a model, on 26 August 1789 the Assembly published the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. Like the U.S. Declaration of Independence, it comprised a statement of principles rather than a constitution with legal effect. This statement of principles contained the kernel of a much more radical re-ordering of society than had yet taken place. The Declaration put forward a doctrine of popular sovereignty and equal opportunity:

"Article III – The principle of any sovereignty resides essentially in the Nation. No body, no individual can exert authority that does not emanate expressly from it."
(From Article VI) – "All the citizens, being equal in [the eyes of the law], are equally admissible to all public dignities, places, and employments, according to their capacity and without distinction other than that of their virtues and of their talents."

Where the U.S. Declaration had singled out "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" as inalienable rights, the French document opted for "liberty, property, safety, and resistance against oppression." It argued that the need for law derives from the fact that "... the exercise of the natural rights of each man has only those borders that assure other members of the society the enjoyment of these same rights." Thus, the declaration saw law as an "expression of the general will," intended to promote this equality of rights and to forbid "only actions harmful to the society."

The Declaration also put forward several provisions similar to the United States Constitution and Bill of Rights. Like the U.S. Constitution, it discusses the need to provide for the common defense and states some broad principles about taxation without representation. It also specifies a public right to an accounting from public agents as to how they have discharged the public trust. Like the U.S. Bill of Rights, it provides against ex post facto application of criminal law and puts forward such principles as presumption of innocence, freedom of speech and of the press, and a slightly weaker guarantee of freedom of religion – "provided that [… the] manifestation [… of their religious opinions] does not trouble the public order established by the law". It asserts the rights of property, while reserving a public right of eminent domain:

"Article XVII – Property being an inviolable and sacred right, no one can be deprived of private usage, if it is not when the public necessity, legally noted, evidently requires it, and under the condition of a just and prior indemnity [that is, compensation]."

Over more than a decade, French legislatures contended over whether the Declaration outlawed slavery, before Napoleon would firmly decide that it did not. The Declaration also failed to address the rights of women, which was brought to public attention by the Women's Petition to the National Assembly and Olympe de Gouges' 1791 Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen.

Towards a constitution

The Declaration stated broad principles, but did little or nothing to establish a form of government. For the time, the National Constituent Assembly, its membership drawn from the Estates-General, functioned as a legislature, but that provided no model as to how to select a future government. Would it have a unicameral or a bicameral legislature? What powers should remain to the king? How often should elections take place (and precisely which offices should be elective)?

In the event, the Assembly invested all significant powers in itself, with only a "suspensive veto" left to the king (able to delay the implementation of a law, but not to block it absolutely). The assembly would sit continuously, so as not to give a king or other ambitious individual the opportunity (in Mignet's words) "to profit by the intervals in which he would be left alone." Necker, Mounier, Lally-Tollendal, and others argued unsuccessfully for a senate, with members to be appointed by the king on the nomination of the people. The bulk of the nobles argued for an aristocratic upper house, elected by the nobles. The popular party opposed any upper house and, given the division between the other two groups, carried the day: France would have a single, unicameral assembly.

The stalwarts of the ancien régime, of course, regarded all this as anathema. While the Assembly moved in the direction of a constitution, the King continued to attempt to resist the Declaration. On the pretext of protecting itself against the Parisian mob, the Court summoned troops to Versailles, doubled the household guards, and sent for the dragoons and the Flanders regiment. Word of this spread to Paris, along with rumors that the king stood ready to dissolve the assembly, or to flee to an area where his troops held control. The behaviour of the court confirmed these suspicions. At a banquet on 1 October 1789, guests drank the health of the royal family with swords drawn, while omitting or rejecting the health of the nation. Royalist black cockades were distributed; some present also allegedly trampled on the tricolore cockade. Similar events took place two nights later.

Mignet writes that, "This assembling of the troops, so far from preventing aggression in Paris, provoked it... To protect itself there was no necessity for so much ardour, nor for flight was there needful so much preparation." By 5 October, the people of Paris were once again in full insurrection and thousands left the city for a march on Versailles. Even Lafayette could not ultimately prevent his National Guards from joining them. The Parisians, with the women in front, arrived in Versailles ahead of any warning of their approach.

Over the next two days various scuffles and incidents occurred, but eventually the king and the Royal Family kept the peace by allowing themselves to be brought back from Versailles to Paris. This reduced room for royal maneuver, placing the king amid the tumultuous populace and in a position where he had less scope to rally loyal troops around him.

In the wake of these events a new round of émigrés departed, including key royalist democrats from within the Assembly. Lally-Tollendal renounced his French citizenship and returned to England, the land of his ancestors. Mounier returned to his native Dauphiné, where he soon became the leader of an internal revolt.

Work on a constitution resumed. The Assembly divided France into eighty-three départements, uniformly administered and nearly equal to one another in extent and population, replacing the historic provinces. Similar arrangements were made down to the canton level, with multi-round elections providing a broad electoral franchise in the first round, but a franchise limited by property requirements in the subsequent round or rounds. This effectively abolished the local parlements, and angered many of the nobility and the bishops.

The royal government had originally summoned the Estates-General to deal with a financial crisis, but to date the Assembly had focused on other matters. In fact, they had reduced taxes, had incurred financial obligations in the proposed redemption of feudal privileges, and had continued to borrow money. Mirabeau now led the move to address this matter, with the Assembly giving Necker complete financial dictatorship.

Toward the Civil Constitution of the Clergy

For a more detailed discussion, please see Civil Constitution of the Clergy.

The revolution assailed not only the power of the nobility but, equally, the power of the Church.

On 4 August 1789 the tithes were declared "redeemable". One week later (11 August), tithes were suppressed without providing any equivalent. The clergy were generally not pleased, but were in no position to resist.

Further, if feudalism was to be abolished, the enormous land holdings of the Gallican Church (the Roman Catholic Church in France) could not remain. Talleyrand, bishop of Autun, proposed that the clergy renounce their land holdings: the nation would take over the resources of the Church and, in return, take on its expenses. In approving this solution, the Assembly was no doubt also motivated by the opportunity to turn the Church into a dependent entity.

Talleyrand and other supporters of this measure argued that the church lands were of sufficient value to pay off the national debt, providing for the expenses of the church (including hospitals), and to reimburse the money paid for judicial offices. The clergy, it was said, were not proprietors, but simple depositaries of the wealth that the piety of kings and of the faithful had devoted to religion. If the expenses of the Church were to met by the State, the pious intent would still be fulfilled.

The confiscation of Church lands occurred through the law of 2 November 1789. To rapidly monetize such an enormous amount of property, a new paper currency was introduced, assignats backed by the confiscated church lands. This provided an adequate (if inflationary) currency, but made it clear that the church lands were not merely to be mortgaged, but ultimately to be sold, and turned much of the clergy against the revolution. The sales were deemed sacrilegious; Catholics were discouraged from accepting assignats or otherwise purchasing former church lands.

Further legislation on 13 February 1790, abolished monastic vows.

The Civil Constitution of the Clergy, passed on 12 July 1790 (although not signed by the king until 26 December 1790), turned the remaining clergy into employees of the State and required that they take an oath of loyalty to the constitution. In another atmosphere, it might have been a plausible arrangement—in Mignet's words, "it was not the work of philosophers, but of austere Christians, who wished to support religion by the state, and to make them concur mutually in promoting its happiness" – but with much of the clergy already opposed to the revolution it became a trigger for schism.

Among the provisions of the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, bishoprics were to correspond to départements and bishops were to be elected, vicars would replace canons, and all of the orders of monks and nuns that did not directly support such public functions as teaching or running hospitals were to be abolished; in theory, though, dogma and worship were not to be affected. These changes placed the clergy in a genuine dilemma, placing the authority of the State ahead of the Pope, and thus, in Catholic minds, turning the French Catholic Church into a Protestant church.

In response to this legislation, the archbishop of Aix and François de Bonal, bishop of Clermont, led a walkout of clergy from the National Constituent Assembly. The pope could not accept the new arrangement, and it led to a religious schism in France, between those clergy who swore the required oath and accepted the new arrangement ("jurors" or "constitutional clergy") and the "non-jurors" or "refractory priests" who remained loyal to the Pope and the Catholic faith.


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