Unit 2: The Constitution Mac's History

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22.4.1: The Constitution of 1791

The Constitution of 1791, the first written constitution of France, turned the country into a constitutional monarchy following the collapse of the absolute monarchy of the Ancien Régime.

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Learning Objective

Deconstruct the government established by the Constitution of 1791

Key Points

  • One of the stated goals of the National Assembly formed by the Third Estate on June 13, 1789, was to write a constitution. A twelve-member Constitutional Committee was convened on July 14, 1789, to draft most of the articles of the constitution. Many proposals for redefining the French state were floated.
  • The main early controversies surrounded the level of power to be granted to the king of France and the form the legislature would take. Another critical question was whether every subject of the French Crown would be given equal rights as the Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen theoretically promised.
  • A second body, the Committee of Revisions, was created in September 1790. Because the National Assembly was both a legislature and a constitutional convention, this committee was formed to sort out whether its decrees were constitutional articles or mere statutes. The committee became very important in the days after the Champs de Mars Massacre, when one of its members used his position to preserve a number of powers of the Crown.
  • A new constitution was reluctantly accepted by Louis XVI in September 1791. It abolished many institutions defined as “injurious to liberty and equality of rights.” The National Assembly was the legislative body, the king and royal ministers made up the executive branch, and the judiciary was independent of the other two branches. On a local level, previous feudal geographic divisions were formally abolished and the territory of the French state was divided into several administrative units with the principle of centralism. The king was allowed a suspensive veto to balance out the interests of the people.
  • The constitution was not egalitarian by today’s standards. It distinguished between the active citizens (male property owners of certain age) and the passive citizens. All women were deprived of rights and liberties, including the right to education and freedom to speak, write, print, and worship.
  • Following the onset of French Revolutionary Wars and the August 10 Insurrection, a National Convention declared France a republic on September 22, 1792, which meant that France needed a new constitution a year after agreeing on the 1791 Constitution.

Key Terms

National Assembly
A revolutionary assembly formed by the representatives of the Third Estate (the common people) of the Estates-General that existed from June 13 to July 9, 1789. After July 9, it was known as the National Constituent Assembly although popularly the shorter form persisted.
French Revolutionary Wars
A series of sweeping military conflicts from 1792 until 1802, resulting from the French Revolution. They pitted the French First Republic against Britain, Austria and several other monarchies. They are divided into two periods: the War of the First Coalition (1792–1797) and the War of the Second Coalition (1798–1802). Initially confined to Europe, the fighting gradually assumed a global dimension as the political ambitions of the Revolution expanded.
August 10 Insurrection
One of the defining events in the history of the French Revolution, the storming of the Tuileries Palace by the National Guard of the insurrectional Paris Commune and revolutionary fédérés from Marseilles and Brittany resulted in the fall of the French monarchy. King Louis XVI and the royal family took shelter with the Legislative Assembly, which was suspended. The formal end of the monarchy that occurred six weeks later was one of the first acts of the new National Convention.
Champs de Mars Massacre
A massacre that took place on July 17, 1791, in Paris in the midst of the French Revolution. Two days before, the National Constituent Assembly issued a decree that Louis XVI would remain king under a constitutional monarchy. This decision came after Louis XVI and his family unsuccessfully tried to flee France in the Flight to Varennes the month before. Later that day, leaders of the republicans in France rallied against this decision, eventually leading royalist Lafayette to order the massacre.
Paris Commune
During the French Revolution, the government of Paris from 1789 until 1795. Established in the Hôtel de Ville just after the storming of the Bastille, it consisted of 144 delegates elected by the 48 divisions of the city. It became insurrectionary in the summer of 1792, essentially refusing to take orders from the central French government. It took charge of routine civic functions but is best known for mobilizing extreme views. It lost much of its power in 1794 and was replaced in 1795.
Feuillants
A political group that emerged during the French Revolution and consisted of monarchists and reactionaries who sat on the right of the Legislative Assembly of 1791. It came into existence when the left-wing Jacobins split between moderates who sought to preserve the position of the king and supported the proposed plan of the National Assembly for a constitutional monarchy and radicals (Jacobins) who wished to press for a continuation of direct democratic action to overthrow Louis XVI.
March on Versaille
A march that started on the morning of October 5, 1789, among women in the marketplaces of Paris who were near rioting over the high price and scarcity of bread. Their demonstrations quickly became intertwined with the activities of revolutionaries, who were seeking liberal political reforms and a constitutional monarchy for France. The market women and their various allies grew into a crowd of thousands. Encouraged by revolutionary agitators, they ransacked the city armory for weapons and marched to the Palace of Versailles.
Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen
A fundamental document of the French Revolution and in the history of human and civil rights passed by France’s National Constituent Assembly in August 1789. It was influenced by the doctrine of natural right, stating that the rights of man are held to be universal. It became the basis for a nation of free individuals protected equally by law.

One of the stated goals of the National Assembly formed by the Third Estate on June 13, 1789, was to write a constitution. A 12-member Constitutional Committee was convened on July 14, 1789 (coincidentally the day of the Storming of the Bastille) to draft most of the articles of the constitution. It originally included two members from the First Estate, two from the Second, and four from the Third. Many proposals for redefining the French state were floated, particularly in the days after the remarkable sessions of August 4 and 5 when feudalism was abolished. For instance, the Marquis de Lafayette proposed a combination of the American and British systems, a bicameral parliament with the king having the suspensive veto power over the legislature modeled on the authority then recently vested in the President of the United States.

The main early controversies surrounded the level of power that should be granted to the king of France and the form the legislature would take (i.e.: unicameral or bicameral). The Constitutional Committee proposed a bicameral legislature, but the motion was defeated in favor of one house. They also proposed an absolute veto, but were again defeated in favor of a suspensive veto, which could be overridden by three consecutive legislatures.

Unit 2: The Constitution Mac's History Declaration Of Independence

A second Constitutional Committee quickly replaced the first one. It included three members from the original group as well as five new members, all of the Third Estate. The greatest controversy faced by the new committee surrounded citizenship. The critical question was whether every subject of the French Crown would be given equal rights, or would there be some restrictions? The March on Versailles (October 5-6), led by women from marketplaces around Paris, rendered the question even more complicated. In the end, a distinction between active citizens who held political rights (males over the age of 25 who paid direct taxes equal to three days’ labor) and passive citizens, who had only civil rights, was drawn. Some radical deputies, such as Maximilien Robespierre, could not accept the distinction.

A second body, the Committee of Revisions, was created in September 1790. Because the National Assembly was both a legislature and a constitutional convention, the Committee of Revisions was required to sort out whether its decrees were constitutional articles or mere statutes. It was the task of the Committee of Revisions to sort it out. The committee became very important in the days after the Champs de Mars Massacre (July 17, 1791), when a wave of opposition against popular movements swept France and resulted in a renewed effort to preserve powers of the Crown. The result was the rise of the Feuillants, a new political faction led by Antoine Barnave, one of the Committee’s members who used his position to preserve a number of powers of the Crown, including the nomination of ambassadors, military leaders, and ministers.

Declaration

After very long negotiations, a new constitution was reluctantly accepted by Louis XVI in September 1791. Redefining the organization of the French government, citizenship, and the limits to the powers of government, the National Assembly set out to represent the interests of the public. It abolished many institutions defined as “injurious to liberty and equality of rights.” The National Assembly asserted its legal presence as part of the French government by establishing its permanence in the Constitution and forming a system of recurring elections. The National Assembly was the legislative body, the king and royal ministers made up the executive branch, and the judiciary was independent of the other two branches. On a local level, previous feudal geographic divisions were formally abolished and the territory of the French state was divided into several administrative units (Départements), but with the principle of centralism.

As framers of the constitution, the Assembly was concerned that if only representatives governed France, they were likely to be motivated by their own self-interests. Therefore, the king was allowed a suspensive veto to balance out the interests of the people. By the same token, representative democracy weakened the king’s executive authority. However, the constitution was not egalitarian by today’s standards. It distinguished between the active citizens (male property owners of certain age) and the passive citizens. All women were deprived of rights and liberties, including the right to education, freedom to speak, write, print, and worship.

The first page of the French Constitution of 1791, Archives Nationales.

The short-lived French Constitution of 1791 was the first written constitution in France, created after the collapse of the absolute monarchy of the Ancien Régime. One of the basic precepts of the revolution was adopting constitutionality and establishing popular sovereignty.

Unit 2: The Constitution Mac

Unit 2: The Constitution Mac's History Quizlet

History

With the onset of French Revolutionary Wars and the involvement of foreign powers in the conflict, radical Jacobin and ultimately republican conceptions grew enormously in popularity, increasing the influence of Robespierre, Danton, Marat and the Paris Commune. When the King used his veto powers to protect non-juring priests and refused to raise militias in defense of the revolutionary government, the constitutional monarchy proved unacceptable to radical revolutionaries and was effectively ended by the August 10 Insurrection. A National Convention was called, electing Robespierre as its first deputy. It was the first assembly in France elected by universal male suffrage. The convention declared France a republic on September 22, 1792, which meant that France needed a new constitution.

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Attributions

Unit 2: The Constitution Mac's History Summary

    • The Constitution of 1791
      • “National Assembly (French Revolution).” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Assembly_(French_Revolution). WikipediaCC BY-SA 3.0.
      • “Feuillant (political group).” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Feuillant_(political_group). WikipediaCC BY-SA 3.0.
      • “Champ de Mars Massacre.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Champ_de_Mars_Massacre. WikipediaCC BY-SA 3.0.
      • “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Declaration_of_the_Rights_of_Man_and_of_the_Citizen. WikipediaCC BY-SA 3.0.
      • “Women’s March on Versailles.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Women%27s_March_on_Versailles. WikipediaCC BY-SA 3.0.
      • “Paris Commune (French Revolution).” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paris_Commune_(French_Revolution). WikipediaCC BY-SA 3.0.
      • “10 August (French Revolution).” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/10_August_(French_Revolution). WikipediaCC BY-SA 3.0.
      • “French Revolutionary Wars.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/French_Revolutionary_Wars. WikipediaCC BY-SA 3.0.
      • “French Constitution of 1791.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/French_Constitution_of_1791. WikipediaCC BY-SA 3.0.
      • “Constitution_de_1791._Page_1_-_Archives_Nationales_-_AE-I-10-1.jpg.” https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Constitution_de_1791._Page_1_-_Archives_Nationales_-_AE-I-10-1.jpg. Wikimedia CommonsPublic domain.