Tag Archives: Constitution of 1791

  • “The view of the nation, Sire, is that the Constitution be respected:” Support for the French Constitution of 1791 on the Eve of the Republican Revolution

    Written by guest blogger, William S. Cormack.

    This article is part of a larger project on the French Legislative Assembly and the demise of the Constitution of 1791. I have always been interested in the French Revolution’s shift from its original moderate phase to its more radical phase. The period of the Legislative Assembly, from September 1791 to August 1792, has been relatively neglected by scholars. Yet these were months of great political significance, of high drama, of fear and uncertainty.

    One of the most dramatic episodes occurred on 20 June 1792 when crowds invaded the Tuileries palace in Paris. While Louis XVI made no concession to the popular militants, who demanded he sanction the Legislative Assembly’s decrees against émigrés and refractory priests, this journée is usually seen as step toward the insurrection of 10 August that overthrew the monarchy. The events of 20 June, however, provoked an outpouring of protest from across provincial France: departmental directories, district councils, municipalities, political clubs, and groups of ordinary citizens sent addresses and petitions to the Legislative Assembly denouncing the events in Paris. The address presented by a delegation from the Seine-et-Oise echoed the sentiments expressed in many other petitions: “We come in the name of the citizens of our department to foil the factious who dare to present to Your Majesty the shocking view of a few misled individuals as the view of the nation. The view of the nation, Sire, is that the Constitution be respected.”

    In examining this period, historians have emphasized the importance of the king’s attempted flight in June 1791 to undermining the early revolutionary consensus. Scholars have also explored the emergence of the popular movement in Paris, the rise of the Jacobin Club and its provincial network of popular societies, and the fateful consequences of France’s declaration of war against Austria in April 1792. All of these factors help to explain the fall of the constitutional monarchy on 10 August 1792, but their examination often reveals little about those who opposed the coming of a second revolution. My interest in that question was stimulated by Michael P. Fitzsimmons’ The remaking of France: The National Assembly and the Constitution of 1791, which argues that the importance of the constitution has too often been minimized or neglected. The same could be said for those who supported the Constitution of 1791 on the eve of its collapse. With regard to the provincial denunciations of the events of 20 June 1792 in Paris, historians have tended to characterize such protests as “royalist.”

    Yet reading these documents in the Archives Nationales, I found it striking that their statements of loyalty to Louis XVI are overshadowed by expressions of commitment to the principles of 1789. The petitions’ authors feared that the crowd’s intimidation of the king, incited or encouraged by the Jacobin Club, threatened the rule of law, individual liberty, the independence of the national legislature, and, above all, the survival of constitutional government. Thus provincial reactions to the journée of 20 June 1792 suggest evidence of a more subtle political division in France between radicals and defenders of the liberal revolution. The failed efforts to defend the Constitution of 1791 perhaps have relevance to our contemporary world where political moderation is out of fashion and rising populism threatens the ideal of written constitutions upholding individual rights and the rule of law.

    Photo of William S. Cormack

    William S. Cormack received his Ph.D. from Queen’s University at Kingston, Ontario, in 1992. In 1995 Cambridge University Press published his first book, Revolution and Political Conflict in the French Navy 1789-1794. Since 1998 he has been a member of the Department of History at the University of Guelph in Ontario, where he teaches modern European history. His new book, Patriots, Royalists, and Terrorists in the West Indies: The French Revolution in Martinique and Guadeloupe, 1789-1802, comes out with the University of Toronto Press in November 2018. His current research concerns the French Legislative Assembly and the demise of the Constitution of 1791. His article in the CJH/ACH is entitled “Defending the Liberal Revolution in France: Provincial Reactions to the Parisian journée of 20 June 1792,” and is available for FREE for a limited time at UTP Journals Online.

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