The Work of National Assembly (1789-91) in Europe!

The most important work of the National Assembly was the abolition of feudalism, serfdom and class privileges.

On 4 August 1789, one of the nobles, who was a relative of Lafayette, stated in the Assembly that one of the reasons of the attack of the peasants on the nobility and their property was the prevalence of inequality based on injustice.

He maintained that the remedy was not to repress the peasants but to end inequality which was the root cause of the trouble. A resolution was moved and passed that there should be equality of taxes

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(1) The most important work of the National Assembly was the abolition of feudalism, serfdom and class privileges. On 4 August 1789, one of the nobles, who was a relative of Lafayette, stated in the Assembly that one of the reasons of the attack of the peasants on the nobility and their property was the prevalence of inequality based on injustice. He maintained that the remedy was not to repress the peasants but to end inequality which was the root cause of the trouble. A resolution was moved and passed that there should be equality of taxes.

Then nobles competed with nobles and clergymen with clergymen in giving up their rights and privileges. It was in this atmosphere that the game laws were repealed, manorial courts were suppressed and serfdom was abolished. The clergymen gave up the tithes and other privileges. Sale of offices was to be discontinued. In short, all the special privileges of classes, cities and provinces were swept away.


All this happened throughout the night of 4 August 1789. All the separate measures were consolidated and thus the feudal system was abolished in the country. What could not be done by Turgot and Necker was accomplished by the National Assembly. Critics point out that the privileged classes did not show any spirit of sacrifice while giving up their privileges.

The people had already helped themselves by destroying all documents of title of the nobles. The privileged classes had already lost their privileges as a result of the action of the peasants themselves. On the suggestion of Archbishop of Paris, Louis XVI was officially proclaimed by the National Assembly as ‘Restorer of French Liberty.’

According to Kropotkin, “The night of August 4 is one of the great dates of the Revolution. Like July 14 and October 15, 1789, June21, 1791, August 10, 1792, and May 31, 1793, it marked one of the great stages in the revolutionary movement, and it determined the character of the period which follows it.” Again, “It would not be fair to try to diminish the importance of that night. Enthusiasm of this kind is needed to push on events. It will be needed again when a Social Revolution comes.

In a revolution enthusiasm must be provoked, and words which make heart vibrate must be pronounced. The fact that the nobility, the clergy and the privileged persons of every kind had recognised during that night’s sitting the progress of the Revolution, that they decided to submit to it instead of taking up arms against it—this fact by itself was already a conquest of the human mind.


It was all the greater as the renunciation was made with enthusiasm. It is true that it was done in the light of the burning chateaux, but how many times had that same light merely provoked in the privileged classes an obstinate resistance, and led to hatred and massacre! That night in August those distant flames inspired other words—words of sympathy for the rebels and other acts—acts of conciliation.

“Ever since July 14, the spirit of the Revolution, born of the ferment which was working through the whole of France, was hovering over everything that lived and felt, and this spirit, created by millions of wills, gave the inspiration that we lack in ordinary times.

“But having pointed out the effects of the enthusiasm which only a revolution could inspire, the historian must also consider calmly how far all this enthusiasm did actually go, and what was the limit it dared not pass; he must point out what it gave the people and what it refused to grant them.

Well, that limit can be indicated in very few words. The Assembly only sanctioned in principle and extended to France altogether what the people had accomplished themselves in certain localities. It went no further.”

Goodwin says, “The surrender of their feudal rights and fiscal immunities by the aristocracy and clergy on the night of 4th August was not, therefore, the product of spontaneous generosity. Fear, calculation and suspicion inspired the action of many deputies and the famous session was a parliamentary manoeuvre planned by a radical ‘cave’ in the Breton club on the previous day. The plot was that the partial surrender of feudal privileges should be proposed by members of the liberal nobility at an evening meeting, at which, it was hoped, opponents of the measure would not be present.

The initiative was left to the duke d’Aiguillon, whose example as one of the largest landed proprietors in the country would, it was thought, sway the attitude of the more conservative provincial nobility. In fact, d’Aiguillon’s motion was anticipated by the viscount de Noailles, who proposed that the Assembly should decree complete fiscal equality and the redemption of all feudal dues, except those involving personal servitude.

The latter, he suggested, should be abolished outright. This motion and not d’ Aiguillon’s passed the Assembly and set the tone of the unprecedented sacrifices which followed. In a mounting spirit of patriotic enthusiasm the representatives of privilege came forward to propose the admission of all citizens to public office and the abolition of feudal jurisdictions, exclusive hunting rights and the purchase of judicial and other offices.

Even more impressive and dramatic, according to Dumont, who was an eye-witness of the scene, was the surrender of all municipal, corporate and provincial privileges, proposed by the representatives from Dauphine. The proceedings closed with a loyal address to the King, conferring on him the title of ‘Restorer of French Liberty.’

“In their enthusiasm, however, the members of the National Assembly had overshot the mark, and cooler reflection on the part of the nobility prompted them later to restrict and even to contest some of these sacrifices. The result was that when the decisions of principle were cast in legislative form between 5th and 11th August, middle-class conservatism and legal caution preserved many features of the feudal regime, which had been over-hastily condemned on the night of 4th August. In this way, the ‘St. Bartholomew of privilege’ came to be a misnomer.

Though the ancien regime had been dismantled, the declaration of the Assembly that ‘the feudal regime had been entirely destroyed’ was misleading. In the final draft, ecclesiastical tithes ware abolished, but the most onerous of the feudal dues—those of a contractual nature—were made subject to redemption. Until they were redeemed, on terms which were left for settlement at a later stage, they were to be levied as before. The disillusionment of the peasants was complete and when the king refused his sanction to this limited social revolution the Assembly found itself in a quandary.”

(2) The second great work of the National Assembly was the Declaration of the Rights of Man on 27 August. This document reflected the spirit of Rousseau’s philosophy and incorporated some of the provisions from the constitutional laws of England and the U.S.A. It became the platform of the French Revolution and influenced the political thought during the 19th and 20th centuries.

It states that “the representatives of the French people, constituted as a National Assembly, believing that ignorance, forgetfulness or contempt of the rights of man are the only causes of public misfortunes and of the corruption of governments, have resolved to set forth in a solemn declaration, the natural, inalienable and sacred rights of man; in order that this declaration being constantly before all members of the social body may always recall to them their rights and their duties; in order that the acts of the legislative and executive powers being constantly capable of comparison with the objects of all political institutions may on that account be the most respected; in order that the demands of citizens being founded henceforth on simple and incontestable principles may be always directed to the maintenance of the constitution and the happiness of all.”

The following Rights of Man and the Citizen were declared by the National Assembly:

(i) Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinction can only be founded on public utility.

(ii) The aim of every political association is the reservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of man. These rights are liberty, property, security and resistance to oppression.

(iii) Liberty consists in being allowed to do whatever does not injure other people.

(iv) The free communication of thought and opinion is one of the most precious rights of man.

(v) No person shall be accused, arrested, or imprisoned except in the cases and according to the forms prescribed by law.

(vi) Since private property is an invaluable and sacred right, no one shall be deprived thereof except where public necessity, legally determined, clearly demanded, and then only on condition than the owner shall have been previously and equitably indemnified.

(vii) Law is the expression of the general will. All citizens have the right to take part personally or through their representatives in its formation.

(viii) Sovereignty resides in the nation and no body or individual can exercise authority if it does not take its origin from the nation.

(ix) The people have the right to control the finances of the country.

(x) All officials of the State are responsible to the people.

The view of Lord Acton was that the Declaration of Rights of Man was “stronger than all the armies of Napoleon.” For a quarter of a century, it was the watch-word and the charter of all the reformers and revolutionaries of Europe. While the British Parliament in its Declaration of Right enunciated simply the historic and legal rights of Englishmen against the Crown, France based her action on universal principles and in her declaration made herself the spokesman of the human race.

While the English Revolution appeared to foreigners simply a business-like and successful re-arrangement of the constitution, the French Revolution gave a new starting point for the hopes and efforts of all races and nations. However, it cannot be denied that several of its theoretical provisions were ignored or revised in the constitutional legislation of the National Assembly. It did not explicitly formulate all the fundamental opinions of the Deputies. It made no reference to economic theories.

A number of its provisions were more concerned with practical realities than with absolute theoretical rights. The latent promise of its basic articles enlisted innumerable recruits and adherents to the revolutionary cause from all ranks of the commoners. The declaration was the death certificate of the old regime and contained the promise of a new life for France. It represented a thorough indictment of the old order and a statement of the general principles upon which the new was to be built.

According to David Thomson, “It was, first, a Declaration—a manifesto and a statement of the general principles on which the National Assembly hoped to reform the French system of government. It was, secondly, a Declaration of Rights—not a Declaration of Duties. It was an assertion of the new claims and a statement of the political, constitutional, and social rights that its framers held to be essential for making a better regime.

It was, thirdly, a Declaration of the Rights of Man—a statement intended to have a universal application and which certainly had very far-reaching implications. It was drawn up not for France alone, but for the benefit of men everywhere who wanted to be free and to rid themselves of comparable burdens of absolutist monarchy and feudal privileges. The universalism of the original French Revolution was to be of great importance.

It was, finally and fully, a Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, and although the last three words of its title are often omitted they are among its most important. It was careful to specify those civil rights that most concretely expressed the immediate aims of the middle classes which now predominated in the Assembly; equality of all before the law, eligibility of all citizens for all public offices, personal freedom from arbitrary arrest or punishment, freedom of speech and the Press, and above all an equitable distribution of the burdens of national taxation and the inviolability of private property.

These claims it founded on the two general doctrines that ‘the principle of all sovereignty rests essentially in the nation,’ and that ‘ law is the expression of the general will.’ These doctrines—intended to be universal in application— would clearly, if accepted, destroy the very foundations of the old order of society and disrupt the State everywhere in Europe. This was the inherent challenge of events in France to every one of her neighbours, including Britain. One French historian has called the Declaration ‘the death certificate of the old regime.’ It certainly remained a charter of liberalism throughout the nineteenth century.

“Even so, the Declaration is less abstract and most realistic than it might appear at first. Its omissions, as a manifesto of liberalism, are significant. It made no mention of freedom of economic enterprise or of trade, so dear to its bourgeois makers because the older order had already in recent years suppressed the guilds and removed controls on the grain trade; it said nothing of rights of assembly and association, nor of education or social security, although many were aware of how important these were, for these matters were less relevant to the immediate tasks of destroying the old regime.

Although it tried to be universal it did not set out to be comprehensive. It deliberately omitted any Declaration of Duties, an omission not remedied until 1795. Its most liberal principles were stated cautiously. Exercise of natural rights is limited by the need to assure enjoyment of the same rights for others. ‘Law may rightfully prohibit only those actions that are injurious to society.’ Freedom of opinion is limited by the proviso that it must not trouble public order as established by law, and that it must not be abused. Even the sanctity of property is subject to an ‘obvious requirement of public necessity’.”

The Declaration has been described as “the most remarkable fact in the history of the growth of democratic and republican ideas” in France, “the gospel of modem times.”

According to Prof Salvemini, “If, by a metaphysical work we mean one wholly confined to theory and out of touch with reality, then none could be found less metaphysical than the Declaration of Rights, to which the history of France and Europe has subsequently given ever wider application.

The Rights of 1789 are certainly not ‘natural’ in a sense implying that all human society not in conformity with them must be considered ‘unnatural’: but they are ‘natural’ to us, modems in the sense that without them our own civilization could not exist, and we ourselves could not live. Every government m France from 1789 onwards has had to give fuller recognition and guarantees to the principles of the Declaration.

It was the inspiration of all those peoples who in the nineteenth century rose against despotism and set up their own constitutional governments. All our civil and penal legislation is descended from the Rights of 1789.

Oppressed nations, in gaining independence, have found in them moral justification for their efforts. Today the masses still invoke the same principles of equality and freedom, which, having served as weapons in the struggle that put an end to feudalism, have passed now into other hands and have become an installment of yet wider change.

“It must not be thought that the social conflicts of today have been produced by the Declaration of 1789. Many other factors have contributed to them the great factories and workshops where the proletariat learns, through the close contacts of common work, to be aware of its own social function and its numerical strength; the complexity and delicacy of our modem economic structure, which causes a crisis at one point to dislocate all the rest; education and the press, both of which spread the ferment of thought into ever wider fields; and the franchise, through which the un-propertied classes can control their governments—all these have created a lack of equilibrium in modem life, prompting men to react against the traditional system of private ownership. But the proletariat is assisted in its struggle today by the same principles that upheld the bourgeoisie of 1789 and which they asserted to be primitive, absolute and common to all men; and the bourgeoisie can never now set them aside unless it wishes to bring the functioning of the social order to a standstill; unless, in fear of death, it wants to commit suicide.

The class war, as Faguet rightly observes, had existed even before the Revolution; but at that time the commons had not had, at their service, ‘a general ideal, a kind of dogma, that justified and consecrated the struggle, which was one of strength against strength, of attempts on the part of the weak to support one another against the strong.’ Today this is no longer. ‘The Revolution’ by proclaiming the dogma of equality, has given the class struggle not so much a reason for existing, as a reason for proclaiming that it exists by right, and a reason for appearing to have right on its side.”

“The same may be said of all the other great national, constitutional and legislative achievements of the nineteenth century; they have not sprung directly from the Declaration of Rights, for they are a necessary product of the modem social order. But in the Rights of 1789 they have found their theoretic justification; they have found a time-honoured system of ideas within which they themselves could be incorporated. If this is metaphysics, then all history is metaphysics.”

(3) The National Assembly set up a uniform system of administration all over the country. The old provinces, governments, intendancies, pays d’etat, pays d’election, parliaments and bailliages were abolished. The country was divided afresh into 83 departments. These departments were uniform in size and population and were named after natural features such as rivers or mountains. Each department was divided into cantons and communes.

The heads of the local divisions were to be elected by the people and not nominated by the executive. Provision was made for local councils which were to be elected by the people. A new system of courts was provided for the country. The judges of these courts were to be elected by the people. Attempts were also made to simplify and unify the legal system of the country but the work could not be accomplished till the time of Napoleon as first Consul.

(4) The National Assembly also tried to tackle the problem of finance. The State treasury was practically empty and no wonder the Assembly resorted to extreme measures to meet the situation. In November 1789, the Church property in France was confiscated. That property was valued at many hundred million dollars. With Church property as security the National Assembly issued paper currency known as Assignats. Paper money works well so long as too much use of the printing press is not permitted.

The paper currency must be kept within reasonable limits. However, the natural temptation of printing more paper currency and thereby adding to the revenue of the State could not be checked by the National Assembly and consequently by 1791, inflation was already well under way. This process was continued in the succeeding years and consequently the whole of the paper currency had to be cancelled during the Directory.

It is true that the issuing of Assignats tackled the financial problem for the time being, but otherwise the issuing of Assignats was one of the sorriest chapters of the French Revolution. Prof. Salvemini says, “Of all the Assembly measures; the issue of the assignats was one that most contributed towards consolidating the new regime and preventing any form of counter-revolution. The assignats were, in fact, a paper currency based not on gold but on the security of Church lands.

Should a counter-revolution enable the clergy to recover their possession, the assignats would lose their guarantee, therefore their fate depended upon that of the Revolution. Whoever accepted an assignat—and everyone had to accept them, since they were legal tender—was committed to the revolutionary cause, if he did not want his money to become worthless through a return to feudal and ecclesiastical rule.”

(5) The National Assembly dealt with the Church in France. Church property was confiscated in November 1789. In February 1790, the monasteries and other religious communities were suppressed. In April 1790, absolute religious toleration was proclaimed. In July 1790, the Civil Constitution of the Clergy was enacted. The number of bishops and priests was reduced and they were made a civil body.

They were to be elected by the people and paid by the State. Their association with the Pope was to be merely nominal. In December 1790, a decree was passed by which all Catholic clergymen were required to take a solemn oath of allegiance to the Civil Constitution. As was to be expected, the Pope condemned the Civil Constitution and asked the clergymen in France not to take the oath to the Civil Constitution. The result was that the clergymen in France were divided into two groups.

Those who took the oath were called the juring clergy and those who did not take necessary oath were called the non-juring clergy. Up to that time, a large number of clergymen belonging to the lower strata had sympathized with the course of the French Revolution, but after that they became opposed to it. It was only a small minority of clergymen who took the oath of allegiance to the Civil Constitution.

The seeds of division were sown throughout the country and they produced an actual civil war before long. The king who had accepted the revolution with hesitation now found himself m a decided opposition to it. The religious fibre in his nature was very strong. He gave his signatures, to the church laws on account of the fear of the storm of opposition which his veto might have created, but the denunciation by the Pope made him profoundly uneasy.

He wrote thus, “I ask God to accept my profound repentance for having affixed my name, though against my will, to acts which are m conflict with the discipline and the belief of the Catholic Church”. The church legislation was one of the important causes which impelled the king to run away from Paris with all the disastrous consequences.

(6) The National Assembly framed a new constitution for France and that is why it is also known as the Constituent Assembly. This constitution was completed in 1791 and after the signatures of the king became the law of the country. It was the first written constitution of France. It was based on the principle of separation of powers which was propounded by Montesquieu and embodied m the American Constitution of 1787. The legislature, judiciary and executive were separated from one another and separate departments were set up for each one of them.

The legislative authority was vested in one Chamber called the Legislative Assembly. Its members numbering 745 were to be chosen by a system of indirect election for 2 years. The right of voting was to be exercised only by “active” citizens, i.e., those citizens who paid taxes. Only those persons were to be elected as members of the Legislative Assembly who had a certain amount of property. The prescribing of the property qualification showed that the National Assembly was dominated by the bourgeoisie or the middle-class.

Nominally, the executive authority in the State was to vest in the king whose office was to be hereditary. The king was given the power of suspensive veto by which he could postpone the execution of an Act of the legislature. However, he was deprived of all the control over local government, the clergy, the navy and the army. His ministers were not to sit in the Legislative Assembly.

The judicial system was completely revolutionized. Formerly, the judges used to buy their positions which carried with them titles and privileges. They had also the right to pass on those positions to their sons. All that was abolished. In future, all judges were to be elected. Their terms of office were to vary from 2 to 4 years. July system was introduced in criminal cases.

Prof Hazen says, “The Constitution of 1791 represented an improvement in French government; yet it did not work well and did not last long. As a first experiment in the art of self-government it had its value, but it revealed inexperience and poor judgment in several points which prepared trouble for the future. The executive and the legislature were so sharply separated that communication between them was difficult and suspension was consequently easily fostered.

The king might not select his ministers from the legislature; he might not, in case of a difference of opinion with the legislature, dissolve the latter, as the English king could do, thus allowing the voters to decide between them. The king’s veto was not a weapon strong enough to protect him from the attacks of the legislature yet it was enough to irritate the legislature, if used. The distinction between active and passive citizens was in plain and flagrant defiance of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and inevitably created a discontented class.

The administrative decentralization was so complete that the efficiency of the national government was gone. France was split up into eighty-three fragments and the co-ordination of all these units, their direction towards great national ends in response to the will of the nation as a whole, was rendered extremely difficult, and in certain cases impossible.”

Estimate of its Work:

A survey of the work of the National Assembly shows that it destroyed the pillars of the Ancien Regime. It destroyed feudalism. It destroyed the old forms of government. It destroyed the old financial system. It destroyed the old judicial system. It made revolutionary changes in the Church of the country. However, in addition to all this destruction, attempts were made to give France a simple system of administration in which the people had a hand.

All this was achieved not only by the efforts of the National Assembly but also by the efforts of all those peasants who revolted on the country-side, destroyed the villas and documents of title of the nobles, killed the nobles and clergymen and thereby struck terror into the hearts of the privileged classes and completely demoralised them.

Critics point out that the National Assembly opened the way to mob rule. It put forward dangerous theories. It created a division in the country on the question of religion. It made the mistake of separating the legislature from the executive. It foolishly passed a law by which the members of the National Assembly were debarred from election to the new legislature under the new constitution. No wonder, much of its work was undone later on. However, some of it remained permanent and became the source of inspiration for the people of the Europe and the world.

The Constituent Assembly secured the unity of France. It set up a new political structure. It let loose the energy of the people and made an honest attempt to inaugurate a common system of laws and an equitable division of burdens. It created a civil and social revolution. It established in the will of the people a new criterion of public policy. It proclaimed a new gospel of the personal dignity of the common man for the whole world.

Kropotkin says, “The work done by the Constituent Assembly was undoubtedly middle-class work. But to introduce into the customs of the nation the principle of political equality, to abolish the relics of the rights of one man over the person of another, to awaken the sentiment of equality and the spirit of revolt against inequalities, was nevertheless an immense work. Only it must be remembered, as Louis Blanc has remarked, that to maintain and to kindle that fiery spirit in the Assembly, ‘the wind that was blowing from the street was necessary.’ ‘Even rioting,’ he adds, ‘in those unparalleled days, produced from its tumult many wise inspirations! Every rising was so full of thoughts!’ In other words, it was the street, the man in the street that each time forced the Assembly to go forward with its work of reconstruction. Even a revolutionary Assembly, or one at least that forced itself upon monarchy in a revolutionary way, as the Constituent Assembly did, would have done nothing if the masses of the people had not impelled it to march forward, and if they had not crushed, by their insurrections, the anti-revolutionary resistance.”

It is interesting to note that although the laws passed by the Constituent Assembly appear to be purely domestic in character, they actually affected the foreign relations of France. The abolition of feudalism took away the feudal dues from the German subjects who possessed landed properties within the French frontiers.

The religious legislation of the Assembly deprived the Bishops of Cologne and Mainz of tithes which they had hitherto received from French subjects. The reorganisation of the Bishoprics of France took from their obedience parishes and districts which had long been theirs. These questions created friction between France and her German subjects and the Empire championed the claims of the Germans who considered themselves to be aggrieved.

Flight of the King (September 1791):

Before the National Assembly finished its work on 30 September, 1791, a very important event had taken place in France and that was the attempted flight of the king from the country. Louis XVI had been dragged from Versailles to Paris by the mob. He was living in the Tuileries in retirement and it was only on certain occasions that he was asked to appear by the National Assembly.

The king felt that he was practically a prisoner in the hands of the Parisian mob. After the death of Mirabeau, he lost all support. The new constitution framed by the National assembly deprived him practically of all powers. He felt that it was impossible for him to continue m that unbearable position.

He is stated to have remarked “I would rather be king of Metz than remain King of France in such a position, but this will end soon.” A plan was made for running away from France to Austria. The members of the royal family disguised themselves and left their residence in secret. If the royal party had been cautious and also made a determined effort to reach the frontier as quickly as possible unmindful of the inconvenience, there was every possibility of their escape.

However, the royal party was captured when it was still 20 miles away from the frontier. It was brought back to Paris under very humiliating circumstances. The unsuccessful flight of the king had very serious consequences. It clearly showed that the king did not approve of the revolution from his heart and was also an enemy of the constitution. Men like Robespierre and Danton demanded that kingship should be abolished and a republic established in its place.

However, the constitutional monarchists still had their majority in the National Assembly and consequently no action was taken against the king. The king took an oath to support the constitution and the matter rested there. It was under these circumstances that the National Assembly dissolved itself on 30 September, 1791.

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