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Hello and welcome to Revolutions. Episode 3.20 The Constitution of 1791 In the wake of the massacre at the Champs de Mars, it very much appeared that the Republican movement had been permanently suppressed. The radical leaders of the radical Paris districts were in hiding, and everyone else was busy putting the finishing touches on the Constitution of 1791, a constitution that would establish France permanently as a constitutional monarchy. And it nearly was permanent, which is to say, it almost lasted a whole year.
But in the late summer of 1791, it definitely looked like the revolution was winding down, especially because the triumvirate of Antoine Barnhove, Adrien Dupour, and Alexandre Lemaît had stepped forward in the wake of the flight to Varennes, seized the political initiative, and were carefully guiding both the King and the National Assembly towards the peaceful and reasonable shores of constitutional monarchy. So I want to begin today by talking a little bit about the triumvirate and the new political club they founded to defend these peaceful and reasonable shores, then pull back to take in the broader international implications of the flight to Varennes, and then circle back in to inaugurate the Constitution of 1791, and finally bid a fond farewell to the National Assembly.
So the oldest of the triumvirs was our old friend Adrien Dupour, but born in 1759, he was still only 32 years old in the summer of 1791. Now I don’t need to rehash his life too much, since we already saw him lead the old parliament in battle against the royal ministry, and then organize the liberal nobles into that influential society of 30 in the months leading up to the Estates General.
Once elected to that body, Dupour was happy to abandon his seat in the second estate and go join the National Assembly, where his eloquence, his reputation, and his keen intellect made him something of a go-to authority for all things judicial. And he guided the reorganization of the judicial system that accompanied the great departmental reorganization of France.
But though he had been ahead of the revolutionary curve for years, he was a staunch monarchist, and after the flight to Varennes he worked tirelessly to save the monarchy from destruction. More than anyone else, it was Dupour who concocted and maintained that transparent fiction that the king had been abducted. Dupour was a leading member of a committee that interviewed the king after the flight, and he skillfully deflected awkward questions and prevented anyone else from making outright accusations against the king. Then, Dupour managed to convince the National Assembly that admitting the truth publicly would lead to anarchy, and the bloody clash on the Champs de Mars seemed to support that claim. A year younger than Dupour was Alexandre Lemaître. Born in 1760 and now 31 years old, Alexandre Lemaître was actually one of three prominent Lemaître brothers. All three were career army officers, and all three would be elected to the Estates General. Both Alexandre and his brother Charles served under Rochambeau in the American War of Independence, and not surprisingly, Alexandre and Charles both wound up forward-thinking liberals, while their eldest brother, whose name I won’t trouble you with, remained a conservative.
Alexandre was a member of Dupour’s Society of Thirty, and after the Estates General were called, he was an early noble defector over to the National Assembly, and then played a prominent role in the night of August the 4th, happily stepping forward to renounce privileges he had never put much stock in anyway. He helped found the Jacobins, and remained a prominent left-wing voice right into early 1791, and was actually one of the Jacobin leaders who denounced Mirabeau for the great orator’s defense of the royal family, especially since it seemed to coincide with the sudden disappearance of all Mirabeau’s debts.
But like Dupour, and then as we’ll see in a minute with Barnoff, the sustained popular assault on the monarchy was making him nervous, and he was definitely in the revolutionary camp that feared radical mobs more than reactionary aristocrats. For Lemaît, the revolution as such was now pretty much over. It was time to inaugurate the new constitution, and enjoy the fruits of all their labor.
The youngest of the Triumvirs was Antoine Barnoff. Born in October 1761, he was still only 29 years old in the summer of 1791. But unlike Dupour and Lemaît, Barnoff was a commoner, and more than that, he was a Protestant. He hailed from Grenoble, and was deeply involved with Meunier’s movement to convene the Dauphiné Estates and defend the Grenoble Parliament from being sent into exile. He wrote a hugely influential pamphlet in response to the May edicts called The Spirit of the Edicts, which gave him a bit of national prominence going into the Estates General. He was a third estate delegate from Dauphiné, and though he and Meunier were personal friends and long-standing political allies, they drifted apart once the sweep of events got a hold of them. You’ll maybe remember that in the negotiations over the King’s veto that we talked about back in episode 3.13, that was when Lafayette got everyone together at Thomas Jefferson’s house, Lafayette was hoping the friendship between Barnoff and Meunier would lead to a compromise. But Meunier proved to be a stick in the mud.
Of the three Triumvirs, Barnoff’s turn towards conservatism in 1791 comes with the most compelling personal story. He was one of the three delegates appointed by the National Assembly to go escort the royal family back from Varennes. By all accounts, it was on the return trip that Barnoff would begin to feel a deep sympathy for the royal family, especially for the children, and then doubly especially for Queen Marie-Antoinette. Upon his return, Barnoff would take up a secret correspondence with the Queen, and do everything in his power during the closing weeks of the National Assembly to preserve and even extend the power of the royal family.
So the triumvirate of Barnoff, Lemaître, and Dupour represents a certain type of revolutionary. They were all educated, well-to-do liberals. They had been early leaders in the fight, passionately committed to Enlightenment rationality and the ideals enshrined in the Declaration of the Rights of Man.
For them, the Constitution of 1791 was supposed to be the crowning achievement of the whole revolution, the final settlement everything had been building towards. With its completion in sight, they dug in and fought as hard to keep France from falling into the hands of crazy radicals as they had fought to wrench it out of the hands of pig-headed conservatives. Of course, when the Constitution of 1791 turned out to be a spectacular failure, and France did fall into the hands of the crazy radicals, well, I guess we’ll just have to see what happens to the triumvirate then.
But for now, they were still riding high, and the sensible, practical, dependable delegates of the National Assembly rallied around them after the flight to Varennes, and then especially after the massacre of the Champs de Mars. The first order of business for the triumvirate was to make a clean break from the Jacobin Club. All three of our triumvirs had been founding members, and though they had not followed Lafayette out when the society of 1789 started up, they were not at all impressed with the persistent, unrelenting, and freakishly virtuous drive of Robespierre and his radical followers, and they knew for a fact that a lot of other Jacobins felt the same way.
So in the wake of the Champs de Mars, the triumvirate staged a mass walkout to go form a new political club that would better represent their beliefs. Most of the prominent and influential members of the Jacobins went with them, leaving Robespierre presiding over an inferior rump that for the moment was not completely off balance. But of course, Robespierre simply used the walkout as an opportunity to streamline Jacobin ideology and solidify his own personal influence within the club, so that when the time came, the Jacobins would come back stronger and deadlier than ever.
To replace the Jacobins, the triumvirate formed a new club called the Fouya, which hopefully I’m getting that right because it looks like Foul-ya-nce. Anyway, the Fouya were at their core a club for constitutional monarchists. Their admission rates were jacked up to reflect their more elitist leanings, and they were soon joined by old members of the society of 1789, who had grown weary of the reactionary reputation their old club had garnered. And this, by the way, basically marks the end of the line for the society of 1789.
Now in a vacuum, it looked like the Fouya would be the ascendant agenda-setting party for the foreseeable future, and as soon as they got organized, they sent out a flurry of communiques to Jacobin clubs out in the provinces, urging them to switch their affiliation to the Fouya. The triumvirate planned to occupy a new political center of constitutional monarchism, and from there control national politics.
But as it would turn out, they were just about the only ones who had any interest in the center. Though it was not apparent on the surface, the gravity of French politics was not coalescing in the center, but rather on the extreme edges of right and left. Only about 70 of the now hundreds of affiliated Jacobin clubs responded positively to Fouya overtures, and most of those eventually drifted back to the orbit of Robespierre.
But for the moment, the triumvirate still controlled the levers of power, and they knew how to use them. In late July, they pushed through decrees that political clubs had to register with the municipal police, and that anyone who incited pillage, arson, or civil disobedience were subject to arrest. And then on August the 23rd came a biggie restricting freedom of the press, strengthening libel laws, and forbidding anyone from advocating disobedience or defiance to public authorities.
Now this was all in direct response to the illegal demonstration and or massacre of the Champs de Mars, but added to the already existing bans on mass petitioning and worker strikes, it is clear that the delegates of the National Assembly had had quite enough of democratic street politics, thank you very much. Then in a fairly naked bit of cynical PR, the triumvirate announced that they were dropping the minimum property requirements for delegates to the new legislative assembly. Those requirements had been an easy target for popular agitators to aim at, so removing them left those agitators with at least one less leg to stand on.
Except then you read the fine print, and you see that they were simultaneously raising property requirements for all the electors. So when elections to the new legislative assembly started up at the end of August, there were no formal restrictions on who could serve as a delegate, but good luck ever getting elected Mr. Firebrand Populist Man.
On the eve of the shuttering of the National Assembly, the Fouya also promulgated one last little decree designed to clamp down on potentially seditious political clubs, like the Jacobins or the Kortelje. The decree said that political clubs had no legal rights as such, not even the right to exist. They were no longer allowed to petition the government, or send out organized delegations, or really interact with public affairs in any coordinated way.
But this last decree would never really be enforced, and in passing at the Fouya helped sow the seeds of their own destruction. They themselves would adhere to the spirit of the law, and scrupulously turn the Fouya from a political organ into a mere social club. Robespierre and the Jacobins, meanwhile, ignored the law and organized furiously, and you can imagine who would be better prepared to dictate the course of politics in the months to come.
So pivoting away from domestic affairs to foreign affairs, one of the big reasons that political power was not concentrating in the center was because of another direct consequence of the flight to Varennes. Everyone was convinced that at any moment the European powers were going to invade and France would be at war. And with that invasion looming, this was no time to get squishy.
Everyone from the most conservative conservative to the most radical radical believed that the flight to Varennes had been about getting the royal family linked up with the Austrians so they could come storming back in to either save the day, so said the conservatives, or ruin everything, so said the radicals. And everyone was doubly eager, or nervous, because in the weeks and months after the flight to Varennes the French army was basically paralyzed.
Officers directly complicit in the flight, like General Debouillet, wasted no time beating a path out of town. But their emigration seemed to be everyone else’s cue to split too. By the end of 1791, something like 60% of the French officer corps had abandoned their posts and emigrated out of the country. And this was a catastrophe. I mean whatever you thought about the military aristocracy and where their true loyalties lay, just outright losing over half your senior officer corps overnight is an unmitigated disaster in terms of military readiness. If France was attacked, how in the world would the French army be able to fight back? It had no head. But was France about to be attacked in the summer of 1791?
Short answer? No. Not even a little bit. When last we left the major European powers, they had just gotten together and signed the Treaty of Reichenbach in July 1790 that settled a lot of tension in Western Europe. The impetus for the treaty had been the threat of yet another war between the expansionist Prussians, now led by King Frederick William II, and their old enemy Austria, led now by Holy Roman Emperor Leopold II.
The Treaty of Reichenbach swiped some territory around and successfully averted another war between the two German powers. But the big upshot of Reichenbach was to begin an estrangement between Prussia and Great Britain, who had been allies since the diplomatic revolution of 1765.
In a nutshell, Britain’s foreign policy goal was to maintain the status quo balance of power on the continent, and Prussia’s foreign policy goal was to upset that balance of power and gobble up as much territory as they possibly could. At Reichenbach, the British had worked behind the scenes to stymie the ambitions of their nominal ally, and the Prussians were forced to accept terms that did not satisfy the ambitions of their king one bit.
So in the aftermath of the British betrayal at Reichenbach, the Prussians started pitching the Austrians on the benefits of cooperation rather than competition. Both were now being bombarded by pleas from the French emigres to do something about the damned revolutionary dogs, and Prussia wondered aloud if maybe they shouldn’t do something.
But Leopold and his advisers saw no great upside to getting involved in French affairs, especially since Prussia was clearly only in it for the possibility of gobbling up French territory. Plus, as it turns out, Leopold was actually something of an enlightened constitutionalist himself. Far from being horrified by events in France, he was in fact quite in agreement with the basic aims of the revolutionaries. He had some sympathy for his sister, Marie Antoinette, though he had not seen her in twenty-five years. His big takeaway from the fall of the Bastille was, well, that’s what you get when you refuse to listen to your people decade in and decade out.
Leopold himself was following in the footsteps of his late older brother Joseph II, and was trying to bring the Holy Roman Empire into the modern age from the top down rather than letting it boil from the bottom up. So Austria basically ignored the pleas of the emigres and told the Prussians they would take no action against the French.
Now that’s not to say there wasn’t some troubling stuff coming out of France, as the case was in October 1790 when the National Assembly announced that treaties negotiated between princes did not bind nations, which was basically a unilateral repudiation of all French treaties, just that for the moment the French were in no position to enforce their universal visions. And already bogged down fighting the Turks and the Balkans, the Austrians had no interest opening up a whole new military front.
But Prussia couldn’t take action against France alone. So King Frederick William II decided to brush aside the emigres with a small loan, and then he turned his lust for territorial expansion eastward toward Poland, which also had the benefit of being a project the British would likely support. Because in the East, Prussian and British interests seemed to align. The Russians were in the process of whipping the Turks, which upset the British desire for everyone to please just stay in their assigned seats. Working in concert with a reformist government in Poland that wanted out from under Russian hegemony, Britain and Prussia began to devise an operation to dislodge Poland from the Russian orbit.
Prussia, eyeing liberated Poland as a new protectorate it could dominate, Britain just happy to check the advancing power of Catherine the Great. So as everyone moved into 1791, there was indeed a war looming in Europe, but it was probably going to be fought by the British and Prussians against the Russians. But just as Prussia was mobilizing for an Eastern campaign in March 1791, their allies in Britain once again left them hanging out to dry. For a variety of reasons – military reality, domestic politics, and apparently some of the greatest Russian diplomacy of all time – the British backed out of the campaign at the last minute.
This left Prussia absolutely furious and desperate to move in any diplomatic direction that would get them out from under the untrustworthy British. So the alliance system that had been built in 1765 was now officially falling apart. Absolutely livid with the British, the Prussians then went back to courting the Austrians. Now the Austrians had already declined to join the campaign in Poland, as there was no earthly reason for them to upset their alliance with Russia. But then came a little break. In May 1791, the reformers in Poland promulgated their own Enlightenment-influenced constitution, and attempted to assert independence from Russia.
Now I am not versed enough in domestic Polish politics to explain this little revolution, but on an international level, it helped put the Austrians on the same side as the Prussians. Austria liked the idea of an independent Poland, serving as a buffer between them and Russia. But they didn’t want to upset their alliance with the Russians, and still bogged down in the Balkans, they didn’t have the resources to support the Poles militarily. But the Prussians did. And it was the question of how to handle the situation in Poland, not how to handle the situation in France, that led Frederick William and Leopold to meet in Pilnitz in August 1791.
So here we are now, a good two years into the French Revolution, and not only is France not a central concern of any of the European powers, it’s barely on anyone’s radar. Aside from the irritating matter about what to do with the French émigrés, and whether or not to comment on the struggle between France and the Vatican over papal lands inside the French frontier, Revolutionary France was something worth observing from afar with a certain amount of satisfying schadenfreude, not something you actually wanted to get involved in. And that’s when the flight to Varennes came along and finally put France on the radar screen of the great powers.
When Leopold II briefly believed that the escape attempt had succeeded, he indicated in a letter that he was now willing to support the royal family with men, money, and guns. But then when he learned that the escape had in fact failed, he returned to his policy of scrupulous inaction. Though he did now kind of feel like he should at least say something about the plight of the royal family, if only to satisfy his sister’s honor. So he issued a document called the Padua Circular in early July 1791, which called on his fellow monarchs to work in concert to restore the liberty of the royal family.
But as expected, only Prussia signaled any interest in such a project, desperate as they were to secure an alliance with Austria that would a.) get them out from under the British and b.) point them in the direction of some new territory. So in August 1791, when Frederick William and Leopold met at Pillnitz to discuss the situation in Poland, a situation that was about to get interesting as the war between Russia and Turkey was winding down and Catherine was about to turn her attention back to her rebellious satellite, the two leaders carved out some time to draft the now-famous Declaration of Pillnitz.
On the surface, the Declaration could not have been more blunt. It said that if the revolutionaries further threatened the safety of the royal family, that Austria and Prussia would declare war and invade. I mean, what could be clearer? But Leopold inserted a really important clause that put lie to the surface meaning. That clause said only if all the other European powers cooperated in the operation would Austria and Prussia invade France. And of course, the other European powers hadn’t cooperated on anything in their lives.
The Declaration of Pillnitz was a meaningless piece of paper. I mean, at that very moment, Leopold was taking the opportunity presented by the end of the war with the Turks to demobilize something like 25,000 men. And that’s just not something you do if you’re serious about invading France. To put it bluntly, Austria had no intention of ever going to war with revolutionary France.
But less than a year later, they were at war with revolutionary France. And we’ll get into all the particulars in the episodes to come. But I want to end this survey of the international scene by pointing out one fatal misunderstanding shared by both the Prussians and the Austrians. Having issued the Padua Circular and the Declaration of Pillnitz, they turned to observe the effects these threats had on French domestic politics. And the effects, to them, couldn’t be more clear.
Obviously afraid of being invaded, the French political classes elevated the moderate fouya to power, suppressed radical republicans, and inaugurated the Constitution of 1791. Which promised to leave France stable enough to not collapse into anarchy, but not strong enough to threaten the other powers. Which is exactly what the other European powers wanted. But the Austrian and Prussian threats of war had nothing whatsoever to do with the rise of the fouya. And in point of fact, Austrian saber rattling would help topple the fouya, and lead directly to the war they never wanted any part of, and a war that would then proceed to last for a generation.
So I want to end today by circling back around to French domestic politics, and finally close the books on the National Assembly. It had begun its life as the Estates General in May 1789, and was supposed to meet for a few months and then go home. Instead, it quickly morphed into the National Assembly, and then morphed again into the National Constituent Assembly. Their objective morphed along with it, from finding a solution to the immediate financial crisis, to crafting from scratch a written constitution for France.
But events had forced them to become both a legislative body and a constitutional convention at the same time, and so their work was slow, and the results tangled. The National Assembly had decreed all kinds of stuff, but it was hard to tell which decrees were meant to be embedded in the constitution, and which were simply run-of-the-mill laws.
A committee of revisions had been set up back in September 1790 to help sift through the piles, and wouldn’t you know it, Barnab, Dupour, and Charles Lemet were all on it. And so, when the National Assembly started winding down a year later, the ascendant triumvirate were positioned perfectly to decide what was in and what was out of the new constitution. So much so that the Lemets actually tried to revive Meunier’s old program with its two-chambered legislative body, an absolute veto for the king, and delegates allowed to serve as royal ministers. But the momentum of what had already been settled was too strong to overcome.
Barnab worked tirelessly to ensure that the king would maintain as many prerogatives as possible, that he would be able to appoint his own ministers and ambassadors and high-level army officers, and that the annual royal stipend would be enough to befit the dignity of the royal family.
The constitution that emerged in September 1791, then, was mostly composed of all those little pieces we’ve already talked about. A legislative branch composed of a single house, to be called the Legislative Assembly. An executive branch composed of the king and his ministry, with a suspenseive veto and the right to conduct day-to-day foreign policy and day-to-day military operations, but without the right to unilaterally declare war and peace. And then a streamlined and rationalized judicial branch housed within the new departmental administrative system.
The Declaration of the Rights of Man served as a preamble, to be followed by 210 separate articles outlining in detail the new constitutional monarchy that would hopefully govern France in perpetuity. In a move to help bolster support for the new constitution, the Triumvirate ensured that the extraordinarily controversial civil constitution of the clergy was not inserted directly into the text of the constitution. It would remain a thing apart. Mostly, this was to ensure that conservative Catholics could swear to uphold the constitution without sacrificing their religious principles.
On September 3, 1791, the National Assembly presented the constitution to Louis, and ten days later, over the vehement protests of his émigré brothers, he signaled his assent. On September 30, the National Assembly met for the final time.
It had been in session for thirty remarkable months. In a rush of events so fast they could barely catch their breath, they had completely upended the Ancien Régime. They had begun – most of them, anyway – as political neophytes, and emerged seasoned, if not utterly exhausted, politicians. They had unilaterally declared themselves the sovereign representative body of the nation, abolished feudalism – with a few caveats – completely reorganized the administration of the entire country, and along the way sent into the dustbin of history institutions and abuses that had plagued France for centuries. No more venal offices, no more lechres d’écaché, no more hated salt tax, no more forced labor, no more feudal dues or internal customs, or seventy-eight different special courts, none of which seemed interested in justice.
And after years of work, they had finally crafted the first written constitution in the history of France. Sure, there had been an explosive crisis or two along the way, but they had weathered the storm, and France was now a better place than they had found it, and it was time for them to lay down their burden, all of them, at the same time. Which, in retrospect, was a really bad idea.
What am I talking about? Well, back in May 1791, Ropes-Pierre wound up making his first really great contribution to the course of the Revolution. It seemed a minor point at the time, one that would simply signal that the delegates of the National Assembly were virtuous citizens interested in the welfare of France, not the permanent acquisition of power. So the incorruptible Ropes-Pierre had gotten up and convinced his fellow delegates to sign off on a self-denying decree. That is, delegates in the National Assembly would be barred from sitting in the first session of the new Legislative Assembly.
The effect of this little declaration of disinterested statesmanship was to ensure that not one single man who had had a hand in crafting the new constitution would be there to defend it when it came under attack. It also meant that every man who had been prominent enough, respected enough, educated enough, wealthy enough, to get elected to the first sitting of the Estates General in 175 years – I mean, we’re talking about the cream of the crop – these guys were all now on the sideline.
And who would replace them? Well, a lot of guys who had not been prominent or wealthy or respected enough to get elected to the Estates General, but who had learned in the streets and in the political clubs a whole new brand of revolutionary politics. And next week, we will see what happens when those guys get into power, and you better believe that the French Revolution is about to take a giant lurch to the left.
I’ll close out today with two brief announcements. First, just so you’re prepared for it, I’ll be back with an episode next week, but after that, Saturnalia is upon us once again, and family obligations are going to keep me away from the show for two weeks. If I can carve out some time, I hope to have a little present for you, but no promises.
Second, in case you haven’t noticed, accompanying the release of this episode is the announcement of my big fundraiser, and you should all go listen to it immediately. And then, go to revolutionspodcastfundraiser.com, and at a minimum, buy the five-sided cross.
- Leopold II of Belgium
- Marie Antoinette
- Antoine Barnave
- Thomas Jefferson
- Frederick William II of Prussia
- Joseph II, Holy Roman Emperor
- Georges Joseph Dufour
As the National Assembly drew to a close, the Triumvirate rose to power.
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