To what extent did the reforms of the Constituent Assembly create discontent?
The National Constituent Assembly solved some of Frances short term problems, but caused significant discontent due to its inability to resolve long term problems, that had been destroying France economically, politically and socially. There were some groups of society that were quite content with the reforms of the Constituent Assembly, such as a majority of the bourgeoisie, peasants who gained from the abolition of the Feudal system, and some members of the first and second Estate. However, many other people and groups, such as King Louis XVI, Nobles who had become emigres after losing their land, clergy who had refused to swear allegiance to the new state, loyal Catholics, the Sans Culottes and a rapidly growing republican movement, that were unhappy with the Constituent Assembly. It was in these later groups that the brewing discontent lay, but none shared a common discontent, and few shared a common goal. It would be the most radical of these reactionary groups, who seized leadership of the French people, in the nation’s time of need.
The National Constituent Assembly originated from the National Assembly, and its purpose was to write a constitution that would create a new France, one that was based on equality, liberty and fraternity – a nation governed by the people, and for the people – where men are born and remain equal in rights. It was essentially dominated by members of the Bourgeoisie, as well as some Nobles and Clergymen, but it did not effectively represent the whole of France. The National Constituent Assembly set up a militia type force, called the National Guard, to protect themselves and their ideas, from those who were counter-revolutionary. It was led by Marquis De LaFayatte, a member of the second Estate, who was also an influential voice in the Constituent Assembly. The Assembly did not want to create a Republic, it wanted to create a Constitutional Monarchy. It still wanted the King as Head of State, but wanted the people’s rights and values outlined in a constitution, rather than decided by the King. In 1789 the Constituent Assembly began developing a Constitution, because it was what the French people wanted – but their moods quickly changed and the proposed constitution became a calamity.
Some reforms made by the National Constituent Assembly were significant in furthering France economically, socially and democratically – many of the reforms made in this period still exist. The financial crises of the 1780’s did not magically disappear when the feudal system was abolished. In fact, France’s financial situation was becoming worse, with prices of bread and flour at an all time high. The Constituent Assembly, eager to solve France’s economic problem, brought in a new currency, called the Assignats. Effectively, each Assignat was an ownership right to a piece of land, a kind of collateral from the government. Most of the land had previously been owned by the Church, but was forfeited to the State under the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, an act that proclaimed the Clergy had to swear allegiance to the State, rather than the Pope, and therefore all their property and wages were put under State control. It was one of the most successful reforms, as the new currency stabilised the economy for a critical period of time, and released the pressure that was on France, financially. It was also during this period that the ‘trial by jury’ system was introduced, a system that still exists today. Twelve citizens were used as a jury to decide on the guilt or innocence of their peers, in a public trial. It was a giant step towards the democratic system of government that is used in the modern world. On August 4 1789, the Declaration of the Rights of Man, was proclaimed. It was an almost radical declaration, based on freedoms and human rights, and with it came the abolition of Feudal privileges. It included freedom of conscience and freedom of opinion, as well as protection of property, equality of taxation and equality before the law. Freedom of press was also introduced, and for the first time, journalists were writing unbiased articles and pamphlets. The highest offices in public life, such as politics, law and the army, were made open to any men of ability, which encouraged a sense of patriotism. The reforms made over 1790 and 1791 were prosperous, but the Constituent Assembly should have known that you can only satisfy some of the people some of the time, never all of the people, all of the time. Most of the reforms made, seemed democratic, but were really just keeping the power in the hands of the Bourgeoisie – who had sacrificed many peoples beliefs and traditions to fulfil their own goals. Soon enough, and among many groups of society, a great cloud of discontent began to emerge. A growing discontent, along with a decreasing sense of unity, will always act as a catalyst, in a nation seeking change.
The end of feudalism brought changes to many traditions, customs and political structures that had governed France for centuries, and so as expected, it created much discontent. When the Estates system was abolished, Nobles lost their privileges and their land, those that didn’t conform fled to foreign countries and became emigres. Some plotted against France, and vowed to return and end the revolution. These accusations were thought to be only rumours, until King Louis himself, obviously unhappy with the abolishment of his absolutism, was found guilty of conspiring with Austria’s King Leopold to declare war on France and put an end to the revolution. The most significant discontent of this period, was in direct link with the King. Since the formation of the National Constituent Assembly, there had been a rising movement for a Republic. The King showed a clear lack of support towards the new Constitution, that had structured France as a Constitutional Monarchy. In 1791 he and his family tried to flee France, but were caught in Varennes and brought back to Paris. This incident is referred to as the Flight to Varennes, and after this Louis basically became a political prisoner of the revolution. Although he was still France’s Head of State, his legislating powers had been stricken, and he could do little to oppose new laws or acts. With this in mind there was a radical, yet supported, movement for a Republic, lead by the Sans Culottes, a radical group made up of the working class.
Effectively, power hungry bourgeois members’ ultimate goal was to keep the sovereignty in their own hands. At the same time as the Declaration of Man, the Constituent Assembly also abolished government workshops that had been set up to find employment for the poor. They also demolished union guilds – similar to workers unions – to make sure no organised labour force would rise up againstthem – such acts were known as Le Chapelier law. A similar system was brought in to restrict franchise of radicals who wouldn’t conform, designed to stop those ‘passive’ citizens that were not paying a large tax, from voting. It was not long before the people of France would see through the self satisfying reforms of the Bourgeoisie.
A sense of frustration and anger also lay in the Church, after the passing of the Civil Constitution of the Clergy. Many Clergymen did not want to swear allegiance to the State, and were angered that the Constituent Assembly had involved themselves in Clergy affairs. It only worsened things when the Pope announced that he was against the reform, and asked that loyal churchmen refuse to conform to the new system. With the church’s land being taken under State control, there were many reasons for discontent amongst the Clergy. Many of the peasants and workers conditions did not improve over the period of the National Constituent Assembly, and there was no mention in the Declaration of the Rights of Man, about providing for the poor or economic equality, slavery or the rights of women. Some of the changes were not as democratic as they appeared. Due to the lack of availability of bread and flour, many of the peasants were finding it impossible to keep up with the rising prices, and although recent reforms set limits on how high bread prices could go, the changes were not prospering the situation. The Assignats that the State had introduced were rapidly deflating, and some store owners would not even accept them. Despite reforms that stabilised Frances economy periodically, the Constituent Assembly had not solved the long term economic problems that still surrounded the nation. Most of these peasants were also loyal Catholics, and resented the loss of power of the Church, and were hungry for political change. By October 1791, the National Constituent Assembly believed that it had fulfilled its goal of creating a new Constitution, and dissolved itself. It set up a new Government called the Legislative Assembly, to enforce the new Constitution, which only lasted a further six months.
Hence, the National Constituent Assembly had established important reforms but it had failed to solve the economic crisis that began the original revolt of the French people. The varying discontent it had created amongst different groups of society, far overshadowed those who were satisfied with the changes. Much discontent, amongst many people, is dangerous when there is no common destination. So many demands, with so few answers, meant the revolution had to continue.
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