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Hello, and welcome to Revolutions. Episode 3.13 The Rights of Man On the morning of August the 5th, 1789, the delegates of the National Assembly woke up with a bit of a legislative hangover. The night before had turned into a raucous orgy of bold and far-reaching declarations, denunciations, and renunciations. But now that it was morning, and whatever the Breton Club had put into the water the night before had worn off, it was time to take stock of just what they had done.
And though in general the delegates were pleased with what they had accomplished, and they were optimistic about what it would all mean for the future of France, it appeared that some of the declarations might have been a bit too sweeping, some of the denunciations too pointed, and some of the renunciations, well obviously there will have to be some qualifications and exceptions that still need to be worked out. The delegates, after all, were pretty uniformly committed to protecting private property, and all those feudal rights and privileges were very much considered a form of property. If you’ll recall from way back in episode 3.1 when we were first going through the three states, one of the reasons upwardly mobile commoners liked to buy noble titles was because they were a good investment that came with all those little automatic revenue streams. So the deconstruction of feudalism could never go on without those being stripped of their property, being compensated for the loss. It was only fair.
So on August the 11th, the National Assembly drew up a more sober version of the August 4th declarations. Though the preamble stated flatly that, quote, the National Assembly entirely destroys the feudal regime, end quote, the August 11th decree made it clear that you could only get out from under your feudal obligations if you bought your way out according to a clearly spelled out legal path that you can read as soon as we’re done writing it. And while this decree was designed to keep the process of deconstructing feudalism within reasonable bounds that respected private property and the rule of law, in practice it had to have very little effect. By the time this all filtered out to the peasantry, all they heard was the National Assembly entirely destroys the feudal regime, and so they just stopped paying their dues and obligations. It would take years of fruitless pursuit of the required buyouts to convince property holders to just give it up, and by then the revolution had taken a few more radical turns and the requirement for compensation was eventually dropped.
But the August 11th decree did have one immediately helpful effect. It really did help mollify the angry peasantry, and with the harvest now coming due, the great fear that had swept the provinces dissipated by the end of August 1789. One of the big impacts of the political tornado that had just ripped through France from the fall of the Bastille to the great fear to the night of August the 4th was that it redrew the political lines within the National Assembly. Men who had stood side-by-side in the fight for the Third Estate, and had literally stood side-by-side reciting the tennis court oath, were now beginning to break into opposing camps.
Specifically, the alliance between the more conservative delegates from Dauphine and the more radical delegates from Brittany broke down. Nothing successfully merged the orders into a single assembly, the ultimate objectives of these two factions now pointed them in opposite directions. The men from Dauphine were horrified by the sweeping unrest, the attacks on noble estates, the out-and-out rebellion in Paris.
They were after stability and order. The men from Brittany, on the other hand, along with their new friends from Paris, were perfectly willing to exploit all this mob action to ensure that the political revolution kept moving in the right direction. They weren’t in favor of mob action, mind you, just that, hey, if that’s what it takes, that’s what it takes. But after successfully engineering the events of August the 4th, the influence of the Breton Club went into a period of decline, and the influence of Meunier and the Dauphine group steadily rose.
Meunier and his associates seemed to stand for a sane and sober way forward, occupying the middle ground between the unsettling radicalism of the Bretons and the Parisians and the really unsettling reactionary position of the arch-conservatives.
Meunier’s program could best be described as constitutional royalism, and the delegates who fell into his orbit were soon dubbed the Meunarchian. Hopefully I’ve got that right. It reads in English like monarchian, to give you an idea of where the name came from. They wanted reform, and they wanted a rational constitution for France, but they still had respect for traditional order. They believed now more than ever in a strong central government, in case you haven’t noticed, the provinces are like literally on fire, but they also believed in constitutional government and the rule of law, and respect for the rights of citizens.
Meunier himself described their attitude as quote, sensible, deliberate, moderate, and cool. In the wake of the midsummer crisis, this became an enormously attractive position. The Meunarchian started to draw in adherents and drive the assembly’s business. To aid in this drive, Meunier and his allies set up a small executive committee that would decide which way to vote on a motion, or which person should be elected to a vacant office. Then they would distribute little slips of paper to their like-minded colleagues, and suddenly unified voting blocs started showing up in the national assembly for the first time. It helped by way of contrast that the Breton Club was essentially a free-wheeling debate society, with an emphasis on democratic principles and individual free thinking. So when it came time to elect a new secretary or president or whatever, the Meunarchian were unified and the Bretons were not, so the Meunarchian started to dominate the leadership positions as summer gave way to fall.
But that was not quite enough on its own to skew the assembly in a more conservative direction, and Meunier got some help from two other sources.
First were all those sulking arch-conservatives who were opposed to everything that had happened since the convening of the Estates General. Now sitting in the national assembly pretty much against their will, they had so far been bowled over by the rush of events. But with the help of our old friend and ex-parliament leader, de Premenil, they too had taken to meeting after hours, plotting strategy and building a unified voting bloc. These reactionary conservatives, though, quickly determined that they did not have the juice on their own to just bend the assembly to their will, so they had to form a working alliance with the more moderate Meunarchian, and de Premenil got himself a seat on Meunier’s decision-making committee.
Then there was the clergy. As you’ll recall, the first Estate delegations were mostly full of ordinary parish priests sympathetic to the grievances of the Third Estate. These priests had been the first to cross the line that divided up the Estates General, and thus they had helped found the new National Assembly. But after everything that had just happened, they began to follow Meunier into moderate conservatism. They hadn’t been too keen on the explosive violence in Paris—the destruction of the Abbey Saint-Lazare was particularly galling—but it was the night of August the 4th that really started to divorce them from the radicals. The abolition of tithes had pretty much come out of nowhere. The basic position of the parish priest was that tithes ought to be collected more equitably and distributed more evenly, not that they be abolished. It didn’t help that in the initial negotiations with the Third Estate, the clergy had been given every assurance that should they come over and join them, that church property would not be touched. And then, adding insult to injury, when on August the 11th, the National Assembly walked back some of what had happened on August the 4th, the abolition of tithes remained. The clergy was not very happy about it.
With the Munartian, the arch-conservatives, and the clergy aligning somewhere to the right of wherever the new middle was, the more radical delegates found themselves in a distinct minority, and after August the 11th, they had a very difficult time directing the Assembly’s business. But remember, the National Assembly has close to a thousand guys in it, and at least a third of those delegates couldn’t be said to have any real allegiance at all. So though the radicals and the conservatives were themselves polarizing into these mutually exclusive little parties, the middle was still very fluid, and votes still went back and forth because it was almost impossible for any one faction to completely control the Assembly, which is something that is often pointed to as a reason the course of the French Revolution keeps slipping from any one group’s grasp.
The issue that really started to crystallize the growing divide within the National Assembly was the matter of what France’s new political constitution would look like.
Now I haven’t talked about this a lot because there were far more pressing events to cover, but from the beginning, it had been taken for granted by almost all the delegates, well not the third of state delegates anyway, that one of the central purposes of the National Assembly would be to produce a written constitution for France. When they took the tennis court oath, the key provision had been that they would not disband until France had a new constitution. This writing of a new constitution became so central to the National Assembly’s identity that back on July the 7th, they had voted to rename themselves the National Constituent Assembly. So to keep things simple, I’m just going to keep calling them the National Assembly, or just the Assembly, since it’s still the same body, and a lot of people even at the time just kept referring to it as such. But if you read around about the French Revolution, the Assembly will as often as not be referred to from here on out as the Constituent Assembly. It’s all the same thing, just different names.
A few days after this little name change, the Marquis de Lafayette came forward, a move that the new constitution they would soon be drafting ought to be prefaced by a formal Declaration of Rights.
But he introduced this motion on July the 11th. And of course, the next day, Jacques Necker was dismissed from office, and all hell broke loose in Paris. It was not until weeks later that the Assembly returned to the question of whether to draft a written Declaration of Rights. Meunier and his allies objected, believing that a specific list of rights would create too many unrealizable expectations in the public at large. But over these objections, the delegates approved the motion on the afternoon of… August the 4th. That is, just hours before the night of August the 4th. And with all the fallout from that fateful night, the Declaration of Rights was once again put on the back burner.
But since this was Lafayette’s little pet project, he kept pushing it forward, believing that the resulting statement of principles would elevate the dignity of the burgeoning revolution, and would help justify all the fighting, both verbal and physical, that had consumed France over the last few months.
So Lafayette spent the first weeks of August working on a rough draft, drawing from the general principles of the Enlightenment, the specific writings of Montesquieu and Rousseau, and then various examples coming from the American colonies. And he sought guidance from the American ambassador to France, Thomas Jefferson, who was only too happy to help the excitable Lafayette get his thoughts down in language befitting the moment. Lafayette’s draft then passed under the pen of master orator and propagandist, the Comte de Mirabeau, who I have criminally neglected thus far, and who I may as well shoehorn into the story right now before he gets too far away from me.
Honore Gabrielle Riccati, the Comte de Mirabeau, was born in 1749, the fifth child and second son of a noble family. At the age of three, he survived a bout with smallpox that left his face permanently disfigured. This, along with his soon growing to be a great hulk of a man, meant that he stood out in every crowd he was ever in. The young Mirabeau then made himself even harder to ignore by embarking on a scandalous path of black sheepery that included numerous high-profile affairs, the accrual of massive gambling debts, and the blackmailing of a wealthy widow into marrying him.
He was a frequent target of lettres de cachet, and found himself in various states of imprisonment or exile all through his early years, often bouncing back and forth between France, where there were always charges hovering around him, and the United Provinces, where he would get by hiring his pen to anyone who would pay him to say whatever they wanted him to say. In the early 1780s, while enduring another round of imprisonment, Mirabeau penetrated the popular consciousness by writing a fierce denunciation of lettres de cachet, gee I wonder why, but also by publishing a series of pretty dirty love letters between himself and a girl named Sophie, which became a bestseller.
After being released, he returned to the United Provinces and quickly made himself a ton of enemies by publishing an attack on financial speculators. So he hopped over to Berlin for a while, where he gathered material for his best-selling takedown of the entire Prussian monarchy, the Secret History of the Court of Berlin. The work was vicious enough, and popular enough, that it actually became something of a diplomatic incident, right as the Prussians were deciding whether or not to invade the United Provinces in 1787, and the French Royal Ministry promised to suppress the book.
With the political situation deteriorating by the end of the 1780s, Mirabeau joined Adrien Dupour’s group of liberal nobles, the Society of Thirty, and when the Estates-General finally did get called, Mirabeau went out looking for a constituency, and wound up getting elected by the good people of X. He was, along with Meunier and Bailly, one of the few delegates from the Third Estate with a national name, and in his case, face, recognition. He stood out in the crowd, he wore ostentatious clothes, and he started positioning himself as a key leader in the Third Estate. He was the one who had dared the king to send troops, when the Third Estate delegates refused to break up after that failed royal session back in June.
With the chaos of the midsummer crisis swirling, though, he came down squarely on the side of the more moderate Munartian, and he probably helped moderate some of the more fanciful language in Lafayette’s original drafts for the Declaration of Rights.
Okay, so getting back to it, by the last week of August, the final rough drafts of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen was ready for the Assembly to take up. Now I’ve gone ahead and recorded a little supplemental of the verbatim text, so I won’t go through it all point by point. But in general, what the Declaration of Rights did was enshrine for all time the so-called principles of 1789, the capstone of enlightened 18th century political philosophy. Individuals had natural rights that had to be respected, including liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression. Political sovereignty lay with the whole nation, rather than some divinely appointed king. Protection by citizens in their own government was a prerequisite for any law or tax to be considered legal. The rule of law was essential to a just society, and that law was to be considered the expression of the general will. A rather nebulous concept developed by Rousseau that, as we will see, will wind up being surprisingly easy to divorce from something so pedestrian as the majority will, leading to tiny little cliques with their own hyper-specific agendas being able to justify practically anything because they were the true representatives of the general will. But we’ll get to all that down the road.
Now though what came out of this debate over the exact wording was substantially what had been fed into it, the Declaration of Rights was tempered in a few key places by the increasingly conservative voters. For example, Article I begins, Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. But this wound up qualified by, Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions may be founded only upon the general good. So the principle of equality was established, but so too was the principle of social hierarchy, though this hierarchy did have to be founded on the general good, whatever that meant.
A few articles later, the dream of complete freedom of thought and worship ran into stiff resistance from the clerical delegates, and would be modified to say that freedom of thought was fine so long as it did not threaten public order. And it didn’t take too much of an imagination to picture a place down the road where any challenge to the Catholic Church would in and of itself be considered a threat to public order, and the ode to free thinking and the Declaration of Rights would simply be gutted.
And this gets at something inherent about the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. It was a statement of aspiration, rather than a set of legal guidelines, sort of like the American Bill of Rights. Between the vague language and the total impracticality of putting it into effect overnight, the Declaration stood for what these delegates thought France ought to be aiming for, not codifying what it had already accomplished. It was finally passed on August the 26th, 1789, and immediately became the holy scripture of the French Revolution.
So the last thing we should probably talk about before we move on is who this all actually applies to, because that and of the citizen business is important. Though it wouldn’t be worked out formally for a few months, the National Assembly would soon divide the French population into two types of people, active citizens and passive citizens. Active citizens in a nutshell meant property-holding males over the age of 25 who could not be classified as a servant. This was perfectly in keeping with enlightened political philosophy that assumed you couldn’t possibly have a say in government unless you had an ownership stake in the nation. So of the nearly 30 million people living in France, active citizenship could only be claimed by about 4 million people, and as the years passed and the revolution just kept trucking along, this distinction between active and passive citizens would become a major problem, especially once the Saint-Qulottes, that is the poor workers in Paris, started flexing their political muscle, clearly determined to prove that there was absolutely nothing passive about their citizenship.
With the soon-to-be-hallowed Declaration of Rights now completed, the National Assembly was forced to turn to what would come after the visionary preamble, that is, the nuts and bolts of the written constitution itself. To begin the process, an eight-man committee was established to hopefully pick through some of the thornier issues before the full assembly was asked to start voting on things.
Meunier, of course, got himself appointed along with a few of his Meunarchian associates, but so too did the Abbe CS and a few of his more radical friends. So the committee was deadlocked over most of the key issues. Would there be one legislative chamber or two? How big would those chambers be? How often would they be elected? Who would be electing them? What would the scope of their powers be? On almost every point, the two sides disagreed, with Meunier constantly pushing for a British-style system with a lower house and an upper house and lots of prerogatives left to the king, so a truly mixed monarchy. The radicals, on the other hand, wanted a more democratic single chamber that would essentially be the government of France, with the king there to execute their decrees and maybe host a fancy party now and again.
But the really big sticking point, and the one that truly flung them in opposite directions, was the matter of the royal veto. The Meunarchians said the king should have an absolute and unlimited veto. The radicals said he should have no veto at all. And this was a fantastically important question because it would define the power relationship between the king and the assembly. Would he become their puppet, or would they be reduced to his window dressing? In short, who was going to wear the pants in the new order? Or I guess more specifically, who would wear the culottes?
For the radicals, this debate over the constitution was deadly serious, because it was becoming clear to them that they were being outmaneuvered routinely by the Meunarchian. If that kept up, and the king got ahold of an unlimited veto, everything that had been accomplished would soon be chucked out in the trash. So on the night of August the 30th, very possibly at the instigation of radical delegates within the assembly, a mob started gathering in Paris, intending to march on Versailles. But as it turned out, Paris wasn’t quite ready to follow up on the mid-July mob actions, and only a few hundred turned out, and they were easily contained by Lafayette’s National Guardsmen. It would, however, not be too long before Paris was ready to follow up on the mid-July mob actions, and Lafayette’s National Guardsmen wouldn’t even come close to containing them.
By early September 1789, stubborn anger within the constitutional committee prevented the two sides from agreeing on anything, and the Marquis de Lafayette started to despair a little bit. He was an idealistic guy, and not a little bit dreamy, and he didn’t like that the grand pronouncements of the Declaration of Rights was being sucked down by factional bickering among former friends and allies. So he picked some neutral ground — Thomas Jefferson’s house in Paris, as it turned out — and he invited a few key players to come parlay. Representing the Meunarchian was Meunier and two of his colleagues from Dauphine. Representing the Radicals were three leaders who had recently started working very closely and very well together, and who will soon rise up to a dominant position within the assembly — Adrien Dupour, Alexandre de la Mette, and Antoine Barnouve.
This trio would soon be dubbed the Triumvirate, and we’ll be talking much more about them as the revolution races on. But just to give you a little thumbnail to work with, Adrien Dupour was, remember, that young liberal noble magistrate who helped lead the Paris parlement in their fight with the ministry. Alexandre de la Mette had served as an officer in the American Revolution along with Lafayette, and upon his return had become a vocal leader for liberal progress. And then Antoine Barnouve, who was himself a member of the Dauphine delegation, and who had been on the front lines during all that Day of the Tiles stuff.
Meunier and Barnouve were friends. But where Meunier had reacted to the events of the last few months by locking into a more conservative worldview, Barnouve had become more radicalized. That said, the Triumvirate of Dupour, de la Mette, and Barnouve came to the meeting at Jefferson’s house willing to make some kind of compromise. Meunier, though, dug in his heels, believing this now to be a matter of principle. He stuck his flag on a full and unlimited veto for the king, and he refused to talk any more about it.
With this attempt at compromise failed, the deadlocked constitutional committee then kicked the question to the full assembly and planned to let the chips fall where they may. When this debate hit the floor, it became clear that though Meunier’s Meunarchian were better organized, and that the great mass of uncommitted delegates were probably inclined to support his brand of constitutional royalism, those uncommitted delegates were as nervous as the radicals about giving the king an unlimited veto.
So it was into this mix that Jacques Necker made his only real contribution to the political situation after his recall following the storming of the Bastille. His trip back from the frontier had been a rolling party, and he had been cheered through every town he passed. But when he got back to Versailles, it turned out that he really didn’t have a master plan to save France, the king now hated him with a passion, and the national assembly was gaining enough self-confidence to not really need the controller general dictating policy anymore. Though for all the fighting over the fate of Jacques Necker, he’s basically going to leave the stage of history not with a bang but a whimper, because the next time he gets tossed out of the ministry, no one is even going to lift a finger in protest. He was already old news.
So his last little contribution was suggesting that the king be given a Suspensive Veto. That is, the king could delay legislation but not stop it permanently if the people willed it, whatever that meant.
The Suspensive Veto was greeted pretty enthusiastically by the uncommitted delegates as a nice compromise. But even the Suspensive Veto was fraught with danger for everyone because the devil would be in the details. How long would the suspension last? Weeks? Months? Years? And what could override it? A simple majority vote? A supermajority? Something more? A popular referendum? Would the sitting session be allowed to take up the question or would it have to wait until after the next election? So on the one extreme, this could all be as easy as pie. The king issues a veto, a week later the assembly overrides it, and that’s it. The king is powerless.
On the other extreme, it could be set up where you had to wait through multiple elections to be held and even then require a supermajority vote, meaning that unless the king was insanely out of touch with public opinion, his temporary veto would, in practice, be permanent.
So Meunier fought hard against the Suspensive Veto, but he was finally undone by the very man he was trying to give the unlimited veto to because the king let it be known that he himself would now be in favor of a Suspensive Veto, and that if he were allowed to have a say in the override formula, that he would further sign his name to the August 11 Declaration and the Declaration of the Rights of Man, giving both an ironclad aura of legality that they had so far been lacking.
But before the vote on the veto was taken up, the assembly sidetracked onto another issue dear to Meunier’s heart. Whether France’s new legislative body would have an upper and a lower house, or whether it would just be one unified chamber. By an overwhelming majority of 849 to 211, the single house was approved. This vote, though, is a little bit misleading. The radicals wanted it because they thought it would be more democratic and representative of the general will. They were joined by poor nobles, who were afraid simply that courtier super nobles would come to dominate the upper house and then punt the poor nobles right back out of power.
The single house formula was also cynically supported by most of the arch conservatives, who believed that it would be highly unstable and thus hasten the demise of this disgusting little revolution. With that settled, the assembly debated the question of the veto on September the 12th. An initial roll call showed no clear consensus. No veto got 220 votes, full veto got 325, and the suspenseive veto got 450, including votes from the coming triumvirate of Dupour, Lamette, and Barnoff.
On the next vote, the radicals switched sides and threw their support to the suspenseive veto, because some veto is better than no veto. And so it finally won 673 to 325. With two of his most cherished ideas now defeated, Meunier resigned the constitutional committee. But this dramatic gesture was a signal of nothing more than Meunier’s injured pride. Because as I said, the devil was going to be in the details on all this.
With Louis’ input, the Meunarshian quickly organized and pushed through the motion defining the terms of the suspenseive veto that had just won. And what they got was this. Three legislative sessions had to pass before the king’s veto could be addressed by the assembly, and no appeal to the people would ever be a part of it. Depending on the intervals between sessions, this meant that something like four to six years might very well pass before a veto could be overwritten. So just like that, in all ordinary times and under all ordinary circumstances, the king had his permanent veto.
The shocked radicals, riding high on what they just thought was a nice little victory, were completely devastated. Then at the end of September, another slate of vacancies in the assembly leadership needed to be filled, and the Meunarshian all but ran the table. Meunier himself was elected president. The disenchanted radicals now talked openly of just quitting the national assembly completely. Whatever the revolution had been promising, it was sure starting to look like it would never be fulfilled.
But next week, the tide will suddenly turn, and as happens so often, events will start to take on a life of their own. And what will begin in early October, as a protest among Paris housewives over the continuing bread shortages, will turn into a dramatic march on Versailles that would change the course of the revolution.
- Thomas Jefferson
- Honor%C3%A9 Gabriel Riqueti, comte de Mirabeau
- Thomas-Alexandre Dumas
- Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette
- Jacques Necker
- Alexandre-Théodore-Victor, comte de Lameth
- Antoine Barnave
- Secret History of the Court of Berlin by Honoré-Gabriel De Riquetti Co Mirabeau: https://amzn.to/3jKvhJN
After the Night of August 4th, the National Assembly divided into new political factions.
If you enjoyed this podcast, please consider buying Mike Duncan's books:
- Hero of Two Worlds: The Marquis de Lafayette in the Age of Revolution: https://amzn.to/3VNqViT
- The Storm Before the Storm: The Beginning of the End of the Roman Republic: https://amzn.to/3h26YpW
- The History of Rome: The Republic: https://amzn.to/3UAvImK
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