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1789-1791 - National or Constituent Assembly

The Parliament, shortly after it had met in May 1789, began to show, in the Commons part of it, the working of that great theory which had leavened all France for a generation. The Commons said, "We are the people; at once the symbols of the people, the direct mandatory servants of the people, and (though this was a fiction) we are of the people in our birth and origin. We are therefore the true sovereign; and the prince, the head of the Executive, is no more than an organ of government, morally less in authority than ourselves, who are the true source of government." This attitude, which was at the back of all men's minds, and which was concentrated, of course, in the Commons, clashed with legality. It could not express itself in the terms of law, it could not act save in a fashion which should be, in the strictest sense of the word, revolutionary.

On the 19th of June, the "National Assembly," still only self-styled and possessing only the powers which it had ascribed to itself beyond all forms of law, set to work, nominated its committees, and assumed the sovereignty thus claimed. The Nobles protested (notably the Bishops), and the King, on the advice of Barentin, keeper of the Seals, determined upon immediate resistance. The excuse was taken that the Royal Session, as it was called, in which the King would declare his will, needed the preparation of the hall, and when the Commons presented themselves at the door of that hall on the next day, the 20th, they found it shut against them. They adjourned to a neighbouring tennis court, and took a solemn oath that they would not separate without giving France a Constitution. They continued to meet using a church for that purpose, but on the 23rd the Royal Session was opened and the King declared his will. The King yielded, and on the 27th, two days later, ordered the three Houses to meet together.

The National Assembly was now legally constituted, and set out upon its career. The Crown, the old center of authority, had abandoned its position, and had confirmed the Revolution, but in doing so it had acted as it were in contradiction with itself. No armed force of the size and quality which the Crown then disposed of, could achieve its object or hold down the capital. The attempt at an armed counter-revolution failed.

It was that moment of the Revolution, from 17 July 1789 to 06 October 1789, in which ideas had the freest play, in which least had been done to test their application, and most scope remained for pure enthusiasm. In the midst of that short phase came the spontaneous abandonment of the feudal rights by the nobility. And that is why the violent uprisings all over France continued. It is the period in which the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, a document which may fittingly stand side by side with the Declaration of Independence (for together they form the noblest monuments of our modern origins), was promulgated.

The failure of the harvest to relieve the scarcity of bread in Paris, the permanent state of alarm in which Paris had remained, and of suspicion for the safety of the Parliament which it continually entertained since the early part of the summer, needed no more to provoke an outbreak. Great masses of women (in whom the movement originated), and after them a whole flood of the populace, marched upon Versailles. There was no direct attack upon the palace, though the palace feared such an attack at any moment. The royal family were compelled to abandon Versailles and to take up their place in the Tuileries; the Parliament followed them to Paris, and neither King nor Parliament returned again to the suburban palace. From these early days of October 1789 to the last week of June 1791. Throughout that period of twentyone months the King is letting the Revolution take its course, with the fixed idea of thwarting it at last by flying from it, and perhaps conquering it by foreign aid. But even this policy is not consecutively followed. The increasing repugnance of the Court and of the King himself to the revolutionary development forbids a consecutive and purely hypocritical acceptation of the National Assembly's decrees.

Mirabeau had more and more dominated the Assembly; he had been conspicuous from its first opening days; he had been its very voice in the resistance to the King at Versailles; it was he who had replied to the Master of Ceremonies on June 23, that the Commons would not disperse; it was he who had moved that the persons of the Commons were privileged against arrest. He was of a family noble in station and conspicuous before the people by the wealth and eccentricities of its head, Mirabeau's father. He himself was not unknown even before the Revolution broke out, for his violence, his amours, his intelligence and his debts.

These eighteen months were, again, filled with the movement of the "Emigration." That movement was, of course, the departure of many of the more prominent of the privileged orders and of a crowd of humbler nobles, as also of a few ecclesiastics, from France. The King's brothers (one fled at the beginning of the emigration, the younger, the Comte d'Artois; the other, the elder, at its close, and coincidently with the flight of the King) must especially be noted in this connection; they formed in company with the more notable of the other emigrants a regular political body, which intrigued continually beyond the frontiers, in Germany and Italy, against the Revolution.

Shortly after Mirabeau's death a tumult, which excessively frightened the royal family, prevented the King and Queen from leaving the palace and passing Easter at St. Cloud, in the suburbs. Though further postponements of their flight followed, the evasion actually took place in the night of the 20th to 21st of June. It very nearly succeeded, but by a series of small accidents, the last of which, the famous ride of Drouet to intercept the fugitives, is among the best-known episodes in history, the King and Queen and their children were discovered and arrested at Varennes, within a few hundred yards of safety, and were brought back to Paris, surrounded by enormous and hostile crowds. With the failure of this attempt at flight in the end of June 1791, ende the first phase of the Revolution.

The unwisdom of the flight it would be difficult to exaggerate: it is impossible to exaggerate the moral revolution caused by its failure. It was regarded as virtually an abdication. The strong body of provincial, silent, and moderate opinion, which still centred on the King and regarded it as his function to lead and to govern, was bewildered, and in the main divorced, in the future, from the Crown.

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Page last modified: 07-08-2018 23:39:50 ZULU