France: Fall of Bastille to New Constitution

The 14th July 1789 saw the fall of Bastille. It is interesting to know that one day before this incident there was a Royal feast at Versailles. King and Queen were celebrating their coming victory over rebellious Paris, which was not in their fate actually.

Party on 13th July 1789
Party on 13th July 1789

Fall of Bastille to National Assembly

The news of fall of Bastille was the message to the commons that revolution started and this incident also inspired the people to take direct action against the existing political order. In the countryside rumours spread from village to village that the manor (An estate consisting of the lord’s lands and his mansion) had hired brigands who were on their way to destroy the ripe crops.

Caught in fear, peasants in several districts seized hoes and pitchforks. They attacked chateaux (Castle or stately residence belonging to a king or a nobleman). Peasants burnt down documents containing records of manorial dues. A number of nobles fled away from their homes, many of them migrating to neighbouring countries.

France: Fall of Bastille to National Assembly
France: Fall of Bastille to National Assembly

During this time Paris was the shelter and centre for the people came from other parts of the country and the political authority was not concerned with these rival camps. So people established Municipal Corporation of Paris. The main objective was to accommodate and manage the huge people came from different parts of the country to fought for the same cause. This was the beginning of modern administration in France.

Fall of Bastille
Fall of Bastille

Revolt by Military

Approximately 7000 men and women formed volunteer cops to give resistance to the foreign army. The critical moment when the King tried to force and his own soldiers refused to obey his orders. The French army allied with the rival camps. This was National Guard which proved to be an important development in French history. In which the army came under the command of National Assembly. Lafayette became the commander of this army.

Army revolted against King
Army revolted against King

Twenty days after the fall of the Bastille, on August 4, 1789, there was a dramatic scene in the Assembly. The subject before the Assembly was the abolition of feudal rights and privileges. Great nobles and leaders of the Church got up in the Assembly Chamber and vied with each other in giving up their feudal rights and special privileges.

Abbé Sieyès, as a representative of priestly class and Mirabeau as a representative of nobility voluntarily, surrendered their power and privileges this was the victory of common people in France.

It was an honest and generous gesture, though it did not have much effect for some years. National Assembly aspired for the new constitution, so this led to the coming of Constitution of 1791.

Provisions of Constitution of 1791

1. Constitutional Monarchy

Constitution of 1791 opted for constitutional monarchy which had following features:

  • The King became nominal head of state only having the right to appoint and transfer his officials.
  • Birth of legislature having 745 members all the crucial decision of state was to be taken by this legislature.
  • Voting system i.e. election of the member of the legislature it was the indirect election and citizen of France were divided into two groups: 1. Active citizens (entitled to vote. About 4 million of a population of 28 million), 2. Passive citizens (no voting rights. About 3 million men, women, children and youth below 25).
Voting System: Active and Passive citizens
Voting System: Active and Passive citizens

2. Law of Clergy

Under the law of clergy, religion was subordinated to the state. Following developments:

  • Priests were to be appointed and paid by the state.
  • Priests were expected to take the oath to the state.

3. Human and Civil Rights Declaration

The most important aspect of the constitution was to pass a Declaration of the Rights of Man. Rights such as the right to life, freedom of speech, freedom of opinion, equality before the law, were established as natural and inalienable rights, that is, they belonged to each human being by birth and could not be taken away. It was the duty of the state to protect each citizen’s natural rights.

Very brave and daring seemed this declaration of Rights of Man at that time. This declaration, indeed, protected private property. The estates of the big nobles and the Church were confiscated for other reasons relating to feudal rights and special privileges.

4. Declaration of Rights of Woman

The constitution of 1791 came with very revolutionary ideas. Many women right activists came into the scene this time. Journalist Olympé dé Gouges argued and declared that the rights of women are equal as the men. She said that all the citizens should benefit from governmental reforms.

Madame Jeanne Roland also served as a leader in the women’s rights movement and was able to heavily influence her husband, who was a government official. Though women did gain some rights during the french revolution. But these were designed for certain very specific purposes rather liberating women. The purposes were:

  1. Women could inherit property, but only because doing so weakened feudalism and reduced wealth among the upper classes.
  2. Divorce became easier but only to weaken the church authority.

5. Economic Reforms

The new constitution under economic reforms adopted mixed economy. The state introduced a new currency called assignats. The state also started nationalisation of land by snatching it away from feudal lords and the church.

People actually do not easily give up their old privileges. It takes time, patience and important the will of people to adopt the drastic changes. Same was very true in the case of the then France and Europe.

The constitution of 1791, was very progressive and advance in its flavour. But it was not suitable for the then French society. The constitution of 1791 annoyed privileged section of the society. Example:

  1. This immediate loss of power disturbed the Monarchy and nobility.
  2. Subordination of religion to the state was set back to the orthodox population of France.
  3. In spite of human and civil rights declaration, equality did not prevail as the specific section of masses were having voting rights.
  4. Nationalisation of land took away land from the feudal lords but labours were still without land.
Changes in societies
Changes in societies

Therefore constitution of 1791 instead of providing peace and stability to France created tension and trouble in France. In this scenario on June 21, 1791, an event took place which decided the fate of the revolution in the France.

King and Queen’s unsuccessful escape

On June 21, 1791, King Louis-XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette tried to escape from the France. They almost managed to reach the frontier. But some peasants recognised them at Varennes, near Verdun. They were stopped and brought back to Paris.

This act of the King and Queen completely destroyed the fate of the people in the monarchy. King was a signatory or signing authority of constitution that time. But this one more foolish act of the King and Queen sealed their fate so far as the people of Paris were concerned. This idea of Republic now grew rapidly. Political parties, representing different interests, emerged: Girondists(Liberals) and Jacobins(Extremists).

France: Escape of Royal Family at Varennes
France: Escape of Royal Family at Varennes

This event and Pillnitz Declaration were the incidents which gave impetus to the french revolution and old order was in big trouble when this new order was at its peak.

We will discuss the Pillnitz Declaration and subsequent events in next coming post.

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