On June 17th, 1789, The Third estate of the States-General proclaimed itself the French National Assembly (1789 – 1791) and decided to undertake the work of national reconstruction including the framing up of a constitution for France. It worked under a revolutionary situation. There was constant pressure from a Parisian mob. The event of the Fall of Bastille and March of Hungry Women, the virtual imprisonment of the king and queen in the Palace in Tulliers at Paris had completely altered the situation.

The National Assembly also shifted to Paris and had its sessions from October 1789 to September 1791. During this period from 1789 to 1791, it carried out some revolutionary reforms under popular pressure. As pointed out by Prof. C.J.H. Hayes, “Indeed, the work of the National constituent Assembly was by far the most constructive and enduring of the whole revolutionary era.”

Major Works of French National Assembly (1789 – 1791)

The first great achievement of the Assembly was the legal destruction of feudalism and abolition of privileges. It passed a resolution abolishing serfdom and the special privileges of nobility and clergy. This liberated the peasants from the bondage of the lords. The tithes to the church were done away with, also the practice of the sale of officers was discontinued.

Further, the second great work of the French National Assembly (1789 – 1791) was the proclamation of individual rights and liberties. It issued the famous “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the citizen”. This document was influenced by Rousseau’s social contract and incorporated some of the British and American provisions. It granted individual freedom and also equality. It declared “Man are born and remain free and equal in rights”. Also, it affirmed religious toleration, freedom of speech, and liberty of the press. One French historical has called this Declaration “The death certificate of the Old Regime”.

Another achievement of the National constituent Assembly was the establishment of a new and uniform administrative system in France. France was divided into 83 departments approximately uniform in size and population, each department was subdivided into districts and communes. The crown will no longer appoint the heads of local government, instead, the people have to elect. Provisions were made for a new system of law courts and the judges, like administrative officials, were to be elected by popular vote.

The French National Assembly (1789 – 1791) also tried to solve the financial crisis by a bold measure. In order to save the state from complete bankruptcy, it confiscated all church property and lands in France and utilized them as security for the issue of paper currency called the Assignats.

As partial compensation for such wholesale confiscation, it declared that henceforth the clergy would get fixed salaries from the state. Thus by a single stroke, the financial pressure was relieved and the clergy were made dependent on the state.

But the measure which made the National Assembly and the Revolution most unpopular in Europe was its dealing with the Catholic church of France. After the confiscation of church property, the Monasteries were suppressed. Further, in July 1790, the Assembly passed a law called the civil constitution of the clergy. By this enactment, the bishops and priests were reduced in number and they were made a civil body. They were to be elected by the people, paid by the state, and to have nominal relations with the pope of Rome.

The Assembly also forced the king to sign a decree requiring all the catholic clergy in France to take an Oath of allegiance to the “Civil constitution”. This religious measure of the Assembly created enemies for the Revolution both inside France and in Europe. The Pope was disgusted. He asked the French clergy not to take such an Oath. The lower clergy, who so long supported the Revolutions now turned against it. It divided the clergy into two sections. Those who took the Oath were called “Juring clergy” and those who refused to take the Oath were called “Non-Juring clergy”.

The last important work of the National Assembly was to frame a written constitution. The constitution of 1791, signed by the king, gave France a limited monarchy or constitutional monarchy. The king was made just a constitutional head. A single chamber body consisting of 745 elected members was formed. It was called Legislative Assembly. All legislative powers were vested in it.

The judiciary was made separate from judges elected by the people. The constitution of 1791 was drafted on the basis of the principle of separation of power advocated by Montesquieu. But this constitution was short-lived as it could not function properly owing to many defects.

B.A. History
Paper III
History of Modern World
(15th Century to World War II)

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