Monday, 1 February 2016

The period of reform

The Oath of Lafayette at the
Fête de la Fédération

The consequences of the night of 4 August when feudal privileges were abolished were momentous. Probably the nobles had not appreciated the knock-on effect of their actions. With the renunciation of privilege went the abolition of the whole structure of provincial, local and municipal government.  From the end of 1789 the Assembly dismantled the ancien régime. Ancient privilege was replaced by election.

The king’s power was dramatically lessened. He was now King of the French; he could propose no new laws; he had the power to veto legislation but only for two years.

When it had done its work the Constituent Assembly was to be replaced by a Legislative Assembly. On 29 October 1789 it was agreed that this Assembly was to be indirectly elected - and not by all men but by those who qualified as ‘active citizens’, defined as men over 25 paying the equivalent of three days unskilled labour in tax (almost 4.3 million Frenchmen).  This decree was passed under protest. Camille Desmoulins wrote: ‘The active citizens are the ones who took the Bastille.’ But there was still a widespread feeling that only men of property should be able to vote.

France was organised into eighty-three departments, roughly equal in size and wealth, in place of the old provinces (26 February). The departments were to be subdivided into districts and communes all run by elected councils and officials.

Lettres de cachet were abolished (16 March).

The gabelle was suppressed (21 March).

Paris was reorganised into 48 sections in place of the old electoral districts that had begun to function as centres of radicalism (21 May).
Sections of revolutionary Paris
after George Rudé, The Crowd in the French Revolution (Oxford 1959)

The nobility was abolished along with its trappings, titles and coats of arms.

Internal customs barriers were abolished, making France an internally unified customs area ((31 October-5 November). 

On 14 July the first Fête de la Féderation was held on the Champ de Mars on the western outskirts of Paris. The Revolution was developing its own symbol and rituals. Under the eyes of the king and a crowd of 350,000, National Guards from all over France renewed their oaths and celebrated a year of achievements.  
The Fête de la fédération.


But already there were signs of approaching trouble. 

  1. The abolition of noble titles and the continued despoliation of noble estates led many nobles to leave the country.  One of the first to leave was the king's brother, the Count of Artois. 
  2. There was widespread tax evasion, and officials who tried to collect taxes were physically threatened.  

In attempting to deal with the deficit, the deputies of the Constituent Assembly had decided on a very radical measure. On 2 November 1789 they had voted 568/346 on a motion originally proposed by Mirabeau to nationalise Church property (much to Necker’s disapproval). One of the supporters, Talleyrand, the bishop of Autun, argued that Church property rightly belonged to the nation. 

In December the sale of church lands began and a new bond, bearing an interest of 5 per cent, the assignat, was issued. By the spring assignats had become paper currency, with inflationary consequences for the future.

Assigned from 1792

During 1790 the Assembly voted to increase the number of notes in circulation. 

On 3 September Necker resigned and returned to his native Switzerland.

By the time of the Fête de la Fédération the Revolution was still largely popular in France.  However future events were to overturn the consensus.

In November 1790 the British politician, Edmund Burke, published

his Reflections on the Revolution in France in which he predicted that it would all end in tears. His book sparked a vigorous pamphlet war, but most commentators thought Burke was a little crazy for his apocalyptic denunciation of events in France. Time would tell!

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