Empire of Liberty: Vive Le Révolucion

Excerpt from Konijeti Beevti’s “Years of Revolution: Boston to Bhārata”, Vij Publishing House, 1962 (translation by Earl Henderson).

Historians have debated ad nauseum about the causes of the French Revolution and such a wide-ranging debate is beyond the scope of this summative work. However, some degree of thorough examination is warranted.

In short, causes of the revolution varied. Increased public action and participation in political debate (as part of the larger enlightenment period) could be a factor. So could economic pressures. Failed harvests, a stagnating economy, wartime disaster during the French and Indian War and massive, unpayable, debts all hit France over a roughly 20-year period. Minor factors such as radicalization of masonic lodges, hatred of the Austrian-born Queen Marie Antoinette, and lingering hopes for freedom of religion for long standing (and often oppressed) non-Catholic minorities combined to play significant roles in their own right. During all of this, the starving and destitute French people became increasingly aware that the court at Versailles was detached from reality. Louis XVI was viewed with contempt and as a weak ruler. He repeatedly backed down from his reform attempts and soon an amazingly regressive system of taxes propped up France’s treasury.  To counter the fiscal crisis, the king convened the Estates-General for the first time since 1614, when it was convened to meet the problems following the death of Henry IV.

The Estates-General was hardly a representative democratic entity. Three estates comprised the whole of the body: the clergy, the nobility and everyone else (the Third Estate). There were 303 clergy representatives in the First Estate, representing 100,000 Catholic clergymen, ten percent of the land and massive tithes. There were 291 nobles representing the 400,000 members of the Second Estate who owned 25 percent of the land and their own powerful feudal duties and interests. The remaining 610 representatives represented everyone else and all other industries, trades, faiths, associations and interests in France. Most of the Third Estate’s representatives were lawyers or wealthy tradesmen and landowners. The lead up to the meeting of the Estates-General at Versailles in 1789 was one of excitement and hope. Numerous pamphlets and written works, often reflecting enlightenment ideals, circulated as the representatives arrived from across the kingdom. Everyone expected the work to be finished relatively quickly, to result in a new scheme of taxation and that the kingdom would head into the 19th century on a firm footing.

Instead, almost immediately, the nobility and the clergy began stonewalling the Third Estate. The meeting accomplished little and resentment began to boil over. The Third Estate began meeting on its own and invited the two other estates to join them in actual negotiations and work, but made it known they would not wait on them. When the nobles and clergy refused to take part in this legislative rebellion, the Third Estate passed a truly radical measure that sent France down the path to revolution. They declared their separation from the estates system, established the “National Assembly” and deemed it an assembly of the people (not the estates). Louis XVI panicked and ordered the assembly building closed to prevent a meeting of this new assembly [1]. Fearing further royal retaliation, the Assembly convened at a nearby tennis court and took the infamous Tennis Court Oath, swearing they would not separate until France had adopted a constitution. By late June of 1789, the clergy had joined the Assembly, outpourings of support came in across France and the king had given his consent to a constitution. In the meantime, royal military forces increasingly made their way towards Paris and Versailles. On July 9, the Assembly reorganized itself as the National Constituent Assembly, which began acting as a governing body and a constitutional convention simultaneously.

On July 11, Louis XVI fired his finance minister. This action, combined with the increasing arrival of royal troops (mostly foreign mercenaries), to spark a panicked rebellion on July 12. Widespread riots and panic gripped Paris while several miles away the Assembly convened in a nonstop session to prevent royal interference. Not a few soldiers began joining the mobs in Paris during the confusion. The rioting hit a crescendo on July 14 when the mobs in Paris stormed the Bastille, an old castle that, in 1789, acted as a prison and an armory. The warden of the castle was beheaded, its seven prisoners freed and the mob then murdered the mayor of Paris. A royal attempt to stem the violence had some initial success. The king traveled to Paris where he was met with shouts of “Vive le Roi” (Long live the king), the president of the National Constituent Assembly was made the new mayor of Paris and the popular Marquis de Lafayette took command of the National Guard in Paris.

However, stabilization in Paris did not mean stabilization across France. Violence, rioting, theft and murder crept across the countryside and many nobles fled to neighboring countries. To make matters worse, these nobles began funding and planning counteractions against the people turning an internal crisis into an international one. These actions made sense to the nobility in the region who viewed the conflict as one of law and order and tradition against lawlessness and revolution. To the common folk though, the nobles appeared to be traitors who would rather side with Germans, Italians, Dutch and Spaniards against their countrymen. A popular agrarian revolt spread across the countryside known as “la Grand Peur” (the Great Fear). In this revolt, militias were organized, noble estates ransacked and unrest ruled the day.

Back in Paris, the National Constituent Assembly abolished feudalism and the traditional rights of the nobility in early August. The First Estate’s mandatory tithe was also abolished to the horror of the clergy and the Roman Catholic Church. That November, the 13 regional parlements that comprised the old judiciary were suspended. They would be abolished altogether the next year. The radical transition from traditional feudal systems to a modern system that stressed individualism progressed rapidly. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen swept away the ancient rights and privileges of the nobility and clergy in late August. Influenced by Lafayette and Jefferson (the acting American diplomat to France at the time), this document rivals the Bill of Rights in its historic importance. Indeed, several provisions from both the Bill of Rights and the Declaration are reflected in each other. This is because Jean Pierre Rochambeau of Québec, a delegate to the Philadelphia Convention and early American statesman, had been working with Lafayette and several others on some of the concepts for nearly a year. Many provisions found in the Declaration were adopted earlier that very month by the Convention de Ratification de la Constitution du Québec. Those provisions, the Québec Amendments, combined with James Madison’s proposals to create the bulk of the Bill of Rights, which were crafted in late 1790.

The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen became the preamble to the French Constitution of 1791. The National Constituent Assembly spent much of the fall of 1790 designing the new, written, constitution. Debates over the structure of the new constitution ranged from a British style parliament which combined royal authority, an upper house of nobles and a lower house of commons to an American style representative system with the king acting in a similar capacity to the American president. At this point, popular will was steamrolling compromises that might have prevented later radicalism. A bicameral legislature was defeated in favor of a single chamber and the delegates voted to reduce the king’s absolute veto power to a suspensive veto (one that could delay legislative implementation but not destroy legislation in its entirety). Debates over citizenship occurred in October and the new constitution borrowed the concept of active and passive citizenship from the American constitution [2]. The decision to grant active (political) citizenship rights to the few (males over 25 who paid taxes) while everyone else received passive civil rights insulted many radical assemblymen such as Maximillien Robespierre who would, from then on, oppose the 1791 Constitution as a farce.

That summer in 1790, the elected terms of the representatives to the National Constituent Assembly neared expiration. This threatened the Assembly, which still had considerable work to do and threatened the oaths the representatives had made on the tennis court to not stop meeting until a constitution had been enacted. The issue of an election divided the Assembly with some arguing a new election was necessary while others determined the status of the Assembly had fundamentally changed and no new elections could occur before the constitution was complete.

That same October a mob of women, responding to poverty and bread shortages, marched from Paris to Versailles and demanded the royal family move to Paris as “an act of good faith”. Rather than fire on thousands of women, Lafayette persuaded the king to acquiesce to the demands of the mob. On October 6, Louis XVI moved to Paris, ending a near-century of French royalty living in Versailles that had begun under the illustrious Louis XIV, “the Sun King”.

On November 2, to address the ongoing (and still mostly unaddressed) economic crisis, the Assembly decreed that the “property of the church was at the disposal of the nation”. Legislation abolished monastic vows and the Assembly began selling church lands by the end of the year. In Feburary of 1790, the Assembly abolished all religious orders. In a short amount of time, the church went from the most powerful entity in the state, to the state directly taking on the responsibilities of the church including paying clergy and providing care for the poor.  By July of 1790, the clergy were official employees of the state and the Assembly democratized the election of religious officials. Catholics across France objected as the state continued to remove the traditional powers and control of the pope. By the end of the year, loyalty oaths to the constitution were required and internal schisms occurred between “constitutional priests” (those who took the oaths) and “refractory priests” (those who refused the oath). To complicate matters, the schism began turning the conservative populations of Normandy, Brittany and Vendée against the revolution.

That fall the military began to fray. Officers, traditionally from the nobility, found their soldiers increasingly difficult to control. Solider rebellions became a common occurrence and when noble officers attempted to instill discipline, the officers found themselves punished for violating the spirit of the revolution. As the months pressed on, more and more officers fled France altogether further stressing the military and creating a distinct lack of leadership. In turn, those officers brought their skills to the very countries and armies that would soon oppose France.

Party politics also began to reorganize in these months. The revolution swept away the traditional intrigues of the court and the dynamics of the estates forever. In their place, a conservative monarchist party sought to reorganize French politics on British lines while a Nationalist Party sought a more American approach. Radicals like Robespierre were still few and far between but their force was growing. Jacobin Clubs began organizing in August of 1790 and only grew in membership from there.

As 1790 turned to 1791, the pace of events calmed a bit and hope returned that the constitution would create some workable system that year.

Then, on June 20, 1791, the king made the fateful decision to flee Paris. Disguised as servants, the royal family fled the city for the camp of the royalist Marquis de Bouille on the border of France and the Austrian Netherlands [3]. On June 21, the king was recognized at Varennes, arrested, and the royal family returned to Paris. The Assembly placed the King and Queen under guard and suspended the king’s power. The flight to Varennes dealt the monarchy a public relations blow from which it would never recover.

—————Author’s Notes——————

[1]: The official excuse in our timeline and in this one was that carpenters were working on the hall in preparation of a royal speech.

[2]: Remember, while not specifically mentioned in this timeline’s U.S. Constitution, the Quebecoise delegates led by Rochambeau introduced passive and active citizenry concepts which led to the decision to apportion representation by total population (passive and active citizens) instead of by just counting active citizens. Here we can see that while in the U.S., the active versus passive debate will pertain to voting rights and slavery, in France it becomes more a liberal versus traditionalist argument. Radicals like Robespierre want everyone to have full rights while conservatives still want some limitations to political activity (being in favor of things like slavery, denying the vote to women, etc.).

[3]: In 1791 the low lands of the Rhine River were owned by Austria as Belgium did not yet exist. Austria received these lands from Spain following the War of the Spanish Succession which finally ended the long standing, and long contested, control Spain had in this region.

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