The attack on the ChurchSee here for a useful account of the French Revolution and the Catholic Church.
In 1789 the Catholic Church’s revenue was estimated at 150 million livres. It owned about six per cent of the land and through its abbeys, convents and schools it dominated the religious and educational life of France. Although even some philosophes respected its charitable work, its wealth and its exaction of tithes from the population were much resented.
The decree for the nationalisation of Church property of 2 November 1789 had been inspired by two motives. The first was to gain money to help stabilise the nation’s finances. The second was a general hostility to the religious orders. On 29 October the Assembly had heard that two women in a nearby convent were being forced to enter the religious life. This story fitted in well with Diderot's popular novel, La Religieuse. Abolishing convents was seen as a way of liberating such women.
On 13 February 1790 monastic vows were prohibited and all religious orders, except those dedicated to educational and charitable work, were suppressed. New religious vows were forbidden. However the announcement inspired thousands of letters of protest, showing that many French people retained a deep love of Catholicism and its institutions.
In 1790 sectarian tensions broke out in Nîmes, a town with a large and prosperous Protestant population. In four days of street battles 300 Catholics and twenty Protestants were killed. To many Catholics this seemed like the end of the world.
The Civil Constitution of the ClergyOn 12 July the Assembly approved the Civil Constitution of the Clergy. Dioceses were redrawn in line with secular administrative divisions, clergy were to be paid by the state (the salaries being relatively generous), and the number of bishops was to be reduced to one per department. This was relatively uncontroversial and there were precedents for measures taken in other Catholic countries. However the Constitution also stipulated that priests and bishops were to be elected by citizens just like other public officials. The Pope was simply to be informed of the elections once they had taken place. The Church thus became a department of state and the clergy civil servants with no allegiance to any body outside the state. On 27 August the king formally ratified the Civil Constitution.
In October and November the first departmental bishops were elected. The Aisne departmental authorities dismissed the bishop of Soissons for denouncing the Civil Constitution. All the 104 priests of Nantes also denounced the Constitution and their salaries were stopped. On 27 November the Assembly decreed after two days of bitter debate that all clergy must take an oath of public loyalty to the Constitution or be dismissed.
As William Doyle writes:
‘The French Revolution had many turning-points but the oath of the clergy was …unquestionably one of them. It was certainly the Constituent Assembly’s most serious mistake. For the first time the revolutionaries forced fellow citizens to choose: to declare themselves publicly for or against the new order….In seeking to identify dissent, in a sense the revolutionaries legitimized it.’
|A plate to commemorate the oath-taking.|
'Je jure de maintenir la constitution'
The king sanctioned the new decree on 26 December, but in January 1791 only 109 clergy in the Assembly took the oath and only two bishops, one of whom was Talleyrand. In the country at large resistance focussed on the west of France where the priests, guided by their conservative parishioners, became ‘refractories’. Eventually about 54 per cent of the parish clergy took the oath
|"Pompeo Batoni, 'Pius VI'|
National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin.
On 4 May 1791 the pope's private criticisms of the oath became known, leading many ‘constitutionals’ to withdraw their oaths. In Paris the pope was burned in effigy and the Assembly debated annexing the papal territory of Avignon.
The JacobinsWhile the conservative opponents of the Revolution were gathering force, the radicals were also gaining strength. In both Paris and the provinces revolutionary clubs sprang up to discuss and co-ordinate policies.
The Cordeliers Club had been founded in mid-1790, with the formal title of the 'Society of the Friends of the Rights of Man'. It attacked the Assembly's division of the population into 'active' and 'passive' citizens. Its most eminent early member was Georges-Jacques Danton.
From mid-October 1789 a group previously known as the Breton Club (because its founder-members came from Brittany) changed its name to the Revolution Club. In January 1790 it renamed itself the ‘Society of the Friends of the Constitution’ and because it met in a Jacobin convent near the Assembly it came to be known as the Jacobin Club. Its discussions were open to the public, and one of the most active debaters was the
|The door of the Jacobin Club|
Paris révolutionnaire, Paris,
On 7 April Robespierre moved a successful motion in the Assembly that no deputy should be eligible for executive office until four years after the Constituent Assembly ended. On 16 May he successfully moved a motion that excluded members of the Constituent Assembly from the subsequent Legislative Assembly that was to replace it.
The flight to VarennesTowards the end of 1790 Louis XVI was contemplating flight. He was urged to this course by his brother, the Count of Artois, who was already in Turin. Though he had sanctioned the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, he had done so with misgivings. On the Sunday before Easter 1791 he publicly received communion from a refractory priest. On the following Sunday crowds surged round the Tuileries, blocking his intended journey to Saint-Cloud where he intended to take communion. This convinced Louis that he was a prisoner.
The arrangements for the escape of the royal family were made by the queen’s admirer the Swedish Count Axel von Fersen. On the night of 20 June the royal family slipped out of the Tuileries and headed for the north-east frontier. But on the evening of the following day the king was recognized at Sainte-Ménéhould and the whole party was stopped at Varennes, the next town on the route.
|'Arrivé de Louis Seize a Paris'|
by Jean Duplessis-Bertaux (1750-1818),
Reproduction par P. G. Berthault dans
Tableaux historiques de la Révolution française. -
William Doyle writes (The Oxford History of the French Revolution, 1989), p. 152)
‘The flight to Varennes was the Revolution’s second great turning-point. …It forced Frenchmen to make choices that most would have preferred not to face…The monarch had renounced the Revolution and had explained why at great length in the proclamation he had left behind…How could such a man be head of State?’
On 25 June the king was formally suspended from the exercise of power. But was this to be a permanent arrangement? The majority of deputies wished to retain the monarchy and on 16 July voted (against all the evidence!) that, far from attempting to flee the country, the king had been kidnapped.
The ‘Massacre of the Champ de Mars’This resolution caused outrage among the more radical members of the political clubs. A new club of moderates, known as the Feuillants split off from the Jacobins
The Jacobin club was now in the hands of the radicals: Robespierre, Camille Desmoulins, Jean-Paul Marat, Georges-Jacques Danton and Jacques-Pierre Brissot, the editor of Le Patriote Français.
On 17 July about 50,000 people gathered on the Champ de Mars and by late afternoon about 6,000 had signed a petition against the king’s reinstatement. But before that two men found hiding beneath the patriotic altar were lynched by an outraged crowd. In response, the mayor of Paris, Jean Bailly, a member of the Feuillants, declared martial law. When the largely unarmed crowd began to throw stones at the National Guard they opened fire, killing perhaps fifty people. Danton escaped to England and Desmoulins and Marat went into hiding.
The end of the Constituent AssemblyBy the late summer the Constituent Assembly was winding down. It was showing itself an increasingly conservative body, harassing popular clubs and political militants, passing laws against riots and seditious meetings, and reorganizing the National Guard so that it was limited to ‘active citizens’. At the same time the Assembly adopted a hard-line stance against émigrés. Emigration had depleted the ranks of officers and discipline throughout the army had collapsed. On 17 August the émigrés were ordered to return to France within a month.
The Declaration of PillnitzThe plight of Louis XVI and his family was causing increasing concern to his brother monarchs. On 27 August the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold II (Marie Antoinette’s brother) and King Frederick William II of Prussia met at Pillnitz Castle near Dresden. They issued a statement declaring that the situation of the king of France was an object of common interest to all the sovereigns of Europe and invited the other powers to join in the employment of
‘the most effectual means…to put the king of France in a state to strengthen, in the most perfect liberty, the bases of a monarchical government equally becoming to the rights of sovereigns and to the wellbeing of the French nation’.
If other powers agreed, the two monarchs were prepared to ‘act promptly’.
The Constituent Assembly therefore came to an end in edgy circumstances – rumours of an émigré invasion backed by the foreign powers. It responded with a final act of defiance, a vote on 14 September to annexe Avignon, a gesture that was designed to provoke the pope.
The coming of the Legislative AssemblyBetween 29 August and 5 September elections were held to the Legislative Assembly. On 13 September the king accepted the new constitution amid scenes of rejoicing, and on the following day he swore the oath of allegiance in the Assembly. But only those who were wilfully deluding themselves could believe that he was sincere.
The final meeting of the Constituent Assembly was held on 30 September. To quote Doyle again (p. 157)
‘Its achievements had been enormous. In twenty-six months it had dismantled the ancient regime, the produce of centuries of slow evolution. At the same time it had laid down the principles of a new order and established structures whose outlines were to endure down to our own day…Yet the seeds of …later extremes had already been sown, and the Constituent Assembly was responsible for them too…The religious schism made it impossible for millions to give the new order their wholehearted support - beginning with the king himself.'