The Society of 1789

Hello, and welcome to Revolutions.

So we left off last time with the National Constituent Assembly moving forward with its plans to nationalize the French Catholic Church. Today, that process will take another huge step forward. But the Church was not the only thing on the table in the spring and early summer of 1790. The delegates of the Assembly worked extraordinarily long hours, seven days a week, to try to work out a new constitution for France. But every issue they took up seemed tangled up with every other issue. And then, as they tried to untangle the knot, they were forced to take up issues they had not meant to take up at all. But that’s how it goes when you try to rewrite the fundamental laws of an ancient Kingdom from scratch. Today we will see them dive into questions about the judicial system, the making of war and peace, the future of hereditary rights, and then, of course, once again back to the Church. During the course of these debates, we will also see the center of political gravity shift again, this time in the direction of the Marquis de Lafayette and his liberal noble friends. 

Now, as we discussed last week, the conservatives were already in decline. The move to Paris had simultaneously weakened the right wing of the National Assembly while immeasurably strengthening the left. But the left was such a broad coalition that it started to fracture the moment it triumphed. A key turning point in both the fading of the right and the splintering of the left was the King’s speech to the National Assembly in early February. 

I mentioned it very briefly last week. But just to rehash it, the King came down on February 4, dressed in plain clothes, without retinue or ceremony, and pledged to uphold the constitution, whatever it turned out to be. If we trace the loop-de-loops of the King’s endless political vacillation, this is one of those moments where he seems to be genuinely accepting what has happened and reconciling himself to the new order. He could be a citizen King. He would be a citizen King. 

Thus, the conservative position was deeply undercut by the King’s new patriotic attitude. If the monarchy was prepared to accept constitutional government, the lynchpin of any conservative reaction was gone. Conservative morale went into the toilet. 

But the King’s reconciliation also splintered the Left for two basic reasons. First, many of the delegates on the Left had been held together by the mutual fear of a counterrevolutionary attack. With the King saying, I am ready to accept the new order, well, that pretty much eliminated the possibility of counterrevolutionary attack. I mean, there might be dead-ender Marquis out there still fantasizing about going back to the good old days, but the King has given up on that fantasy for himself. So where does that leave our dead-ended Marquis? With no leg to stand on, that’s where. 

But the other reason the Left splintered was that a bunch of the moderate delegates on the Left had always wanted to work with the King. They’d been dying to work with the King, but his waffling intransigence had made it almost impossible. So with the King now reaching out his hand, they absolutely wanted to take it. Meanwhile, the radical delegates still didn’t trust the King. They didn’t want to work with Louis, they wanted to tell Louis what to do

So just as the newly founded Jacobin Club was coming into its own, it fractured. And for the rest of 1790, it looked to many like the Jacobins were not the future of the Revolution, but rather a collection of men as dead-ended as our fantasizing Marquis. 

So if the far right and the far left were boxed out by the King’s new attitude, who was left in the box? I’ll tell you: the liberal nobles who formed a new political club called the Society of 1789. As a kernel, the Society of 1789 came to life shortly after the move to Paris when a few liberal nobles began to meet up informally. Most had joined the new Jacobin Club, and initially, the Society of 1789 was more social than political. Prominent at these early gatherings was the Abbé Sieyès and Condorcet, and a few other like minded fellows, most of whom had been members of Adrian Duport’s loosely organized Society of Thirty back during the lead up to the Estates General. Though, interestingly enough, Adrian Duport himself, the man who had been at the center of the Society of Thirty, did not join the Society of 1789. 

After the King’s speech in February seemed to remove the threat of counterrevolution, the liberal nobles started to see in the radical Jacobins the next threat to the new enlightened order. The first big split came in March over the issue of who could be a member of the Jacobin Club. The central committee, run by Ropespierre, Duport, Barnave and Lameth, were happy to open membership to anyone who could pay the dues

But the liberal nobles thought that it ought to be restricted to men who were delegates of the National Assembly. After all, if the club planned to hand down instructions to its delegate members on how to vote, inviting in just anyone off the street to have their say, that made no sense. With the open membership policy adopted, though, the Comte de Crillon and a group of associates walked out in March 1790 to set up their own little club. 

Then, just a few weeks later, Lafayette himself stopped attending Jacobin Club meetings for the same basic reasons, though his withdrawal was also driven by a running feud with Alexandre Lameth. Though they had fought together during the American Revolution, Lameth never liked or trusted Lafayette, who he found exhaustingly vainglorious. Lafayette, meanwhile, suspected, with good reason, that Lameth was aiming to supplant Lafayette as the head of the National Guard. 

By April, the Society of 1789 had solidified into an organized political club with dues and rules of order and a basic agenda. And from their name, it’s not hard to guess what their agenda was: ensure the survival of a constitutional monarchy built on principles outlined in the Declaration of the Rights of Man. As I said, these guys were mostly liberal nobles, and soon joining their ranks were Mirabeau, Talleyrand, Bailly and, making his very first peek into the history books, a writer and man of business for the Duke d’Orléan, Jacques Pierre Brissot, who would a few more factional splinterings down the road find himself at the center of the Girondins so that will make him kind of a big deal. 

For the moment, most of the members of the Society of 1789 continued to hold dual membership in the Jacobin Club, but it wouldn’t be long before they were forced to pick a side. With tensions on the left rising, the National Assembly took up two matters in May 1790 which ruptured the binds that so tenuously held them together. First, the matter of judicial reform, and second, the matter of who would be allowed to declare war in the new constitutional order. 

One of those things the National Assembly had done over the winter of 1789 and 1790 that I said I would go back and pluck out as needed was to suspend the functions of the Parlement. With everything that had gone on over the last year, having some little backwater of hereditary privilege running the judicial system was unacceptable. The rule of law was of paramount importance, so having these judges who bought or inherited their offices rather than earning them by merit, just wasn’t going to fly

In early November 1789, the Parlement were suspended. And as I said a while back, no one came to their defense this time around. But that left a very obvious question: well, what do we replace it with? In May 1790, the National Assembly finally took up the question. 

From his central position within the Jacobin Club and the National Assembly, Adrien Duport, long at the forefront of battles over the judiciary, obviously took the lead. He drew up a plan that called for the democratization of the legal system. He wanted judges to be elected, juries to hear civil cases, and all laws applicable to everyone, regardless of wealth or social status. But when this program was taken to the National Assembly, the delegates balked at its sweepingly democratic nature. Even Jacobin delegates shrugged off party discipline to vote against the package

On the critical question of whether the King would have a veto over judicial appointments, the Jacobin left just barely held it together enough to squeak through a narrow no vote. It was obvious where the Jacobin defections were coming from, it was the liberal nobles of that Society of 1789 who were now clearly running away from the radicals and toward the King

This was confirmed just a few days later when the National Assembly got word that England and Spain were on the brink of war. If war did break out, France might have to make good on its longstanding alliance with Spain, the so-called family pact between the two branches of the Bourbon royal dynasty. With the war clouds brewing, Louis did what Kings of France had done for time immemorial: he issued orders to prepare warships for possible engagement. War and peace, after all, were the King’s business. That much at least we can agree on. The members of the Society of 1789 were certainly willing to entertain that idea. And so, in response to the King’s orders, they pushed through the National Assembly a retroactive ratification of Louis’ actions. 

But their erstwhile allies on the far left wanted no part of this. They saw the National Assembly now more than ever as the sovereign political body, and thus the only body that could legitimately declare war or negotiate peace. From May 15 until the 22nd, the National Assembly raged over this question. Even the rapidly declining conservatives got in on the action, putting forward a proposal for the King to have sole discretion over war and peace. The radical Jacobins rejoined that, no, the National Assembly will have sole discretion over war and peace, which left the center wide open for the members of the Society of 1789 to come in and say it should be a decision reached jointly.

In a somewhat stunning turn, this was the moment when the Comte de Mirabeau showed which side he was really on by supporting this mixed system. And that was the formula that carried the day. Luckily for everyone, England and Spain did not go to war at that moment, so none of this was put to the immediate test. But the debate did prove that the liberal nobles who always considered themselves to be the natural leaders of the Revolution were finally in the driver’s seat, right where they had always thought they belonged. 

Shortly after this victory, the Society of 1789 then backed Abbé Sieyès for the President’s chair, which I haven’t mentioned but you may have realized was an office in the National Assembly elected on a monthly basis. Anyway, the 1789-ers backed Sieyès over the radical Jacobin candidate and Sieyès won. In the wake of this battle, Mirabeau and Talleyrand both walked out of the Jacobin Club, never to return. And when they departed, others quickly followed. 

So the initiative was now with the Society of 1789, and they strengthened their own position by offering associate member status to delegates who couldn’t afford the fairly steep dues expected of full members. Soon they had about 160 delegates on their rolls, including most of the guys who had walked out of the Jacobins back in March. Meanwhile, the Jacobin Club itself was left with almost the same number because the walkouts were hitting them hard. 

But though the left had now split into two camps, that did not mean they disagreed on everything. And so, after the divisive debates of May, they came together in June to tackle the fates of those men who formerly comprised the First Estate and those men who formerly comprised the Second Estate. 

After closing the debate on declarations of war, the National Assembly returned to the question of the Catholic Church. Its lands had been taken by the nation, its monastic orders had been suppressed, its tithes had been abolished. So now that everything was stripped away, it was time to decide what would be built up to replace it. This issue was debated for just over a month, and with the Society of 1789 and the Jacobins more in agreement than disagreement, this debate was not nearly as contentious as the resulting total reorganization of the French Catholic Church might suggest. 

But since the resulting civil constitution of the clergy wouldn’t be formally adopted until July 12, I want to set that aside for a minute so I can talk about the big thing that happened in the interim: the complete suppression of hereditary nobility privileges, emblems and offices. 

As with the night of August 4, the suppression of hereditary privilege kind of came out of nowhere during an evening session of the National Assembly. On the night of June 19, the Jacobins decided to stage a weird little piece of theater where a group of about 30 foreigners, each decked out in their native garb, came in to laud the assembly for the universal rights they had proclaimed for men of all nationalities. This was all a very odd and very transparent little bit of stagecraft, and it was fairly well known that these guys, whoever they were, had rented their “native garb” from the Paris Opera. But after this stage disruption was over, a real disruption burst forth. A delegate, apparently on his own initiative, stepped up and moved that in keeping with the universal equality of man, they had all just applauded, that hereditary titles should be abolished

With the door thus opened, the waters came flooding in. More delegates, mainly our liberal noble friends, rushed in to denounce all marks of noble status: they renounced their coats of arms, their special liveries, their inherited titles and any social distinction that they enjoyed strictly on the basis of their “nobility”

The few conservatives in the hall tried to halt this flood, pointing out quite rightly that the routine of the National Assembly had become major national issues during the day and more provincial or limited issues in the evening. 

The suppression of hereditary rights had no place being debated in an evening session. But of course, the ever present audience was ever present. The booze and cat calls rained down on the conservatives, the cheers embraced every liberal who stepped up to suggest some other odious mark of nobility that could be ditched. When the vote came in, it wasn’t even close and soon enough the member roles of the National Assembly no longer contained any mention of the Marquis de Lafayette. Instead, you have some guy named Monsieur Mortier. No more Comte de Mirabeau, now he was styling himself simply Gabriel Riqueti. 

Conservative nobles were aghast. They had already given up all their feudal rights and now they were barred from the few remaining social trinkets they had to show that they were still better than the commoners. You’re stripping me of both my honor and my identity. This would mark the beginning of a steady wave of emigration, as these nobles simply couldn’t live in a Kingdom they no longer recognized and which no longer recognized them

Years later a few leftist delegates looked back on the night of June 19 with some regret, believing that the whole exercise had turned sullen nobles reluctantly giving way to the new order into implacable enemies ready to fight the Revolution to the death. 

With that sudden business out of the way, we can now turn our attention back to an item that will be even more fatal to the continued unity of the French nation: the civil constitution of the clergy. When last we left the clergy, they had been getting pretty well kicked around by the National Assembly, which was clearly driving to make the Church subservient to the French nation. As to this kicking around listener, Joseph, asks a very simple question “just out of curiosity, what’s the reaction of the Pope to all this?” 

It’s a good question and the answer is the Pope did not like it one bit. In March, he condemned both the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the steady assault on the autonomy of the French Church, both of which were incompatible with Catholicism. Adding to the Pope’s heartburn was the fact that citizens of the little enclave of Avignon, well within the French frontier but long controlled by the papacy, started making noises about reuniting with their French brothers. And pretty soon, riots would break out, with the local pro French annexationists winning control of the city. 

But the National Assembly, aware that they were already pushing the Pope to the limits of toleration, weren’t in much hurry to annex Avignon just yet, lest the Pope declare some kind of holy war. Now, until this point, relations between France and the Vatican had been governed by the Concordat of Bologna, agreed to back in 1516. 

The Concordat of Bologna said many things, but among the most important was that the French King would henceforth appoint all candidates for high office in the French church, and the Pope would merely confirm those appointments. And that’s how it worked for the last 275 years, the Pope wielding a theoretical veto, but one that was little used in practice. 

But as the new civil constitution of the clergy was debated in the National Assembly, the delegates told the King that he needed to prepare to bring the Concordat to an end, because in all likelihood, we’re about to vote to end the Pope having any role whatsoever in the selection of French clergy. And indeed, the formula that the committee produced said that the Pope is still obviously the visible head of the universal Church, and his spiritual authority is unchallenged, but henceforth he would be merely notified of appointments, which is a fairly momentous challenge to the Pope’s authority. Gee, I wonder if they’ll accept it without a fight?

Now, the interesting thing about the civil constitution of the clergy is that though in time it would help kill any lingering goodwill between the revolutionaries and the Church, most of its specific tenets were actually welcomed by the French clergy. Indeed, many of these tenants were drawn directly from the original grievance list of the First Estate delegates. So clergymen would now be paid a state salary instead of living off of tithes. But regular priests would see their pay go up, while bishops would see their pay dramatically go down. Less wealth disparity within the Church had been a major complaint, and now it was all squared away. 

On top of that, the civil constitution imposed residency requirements on clergymen. So no more of this absentee bishop stuff, where guys like Talleyrand can be the Bishop of Autun without ever stepping foot in Autun. There would also now be service requirements for promotion. So no more courtier sons who can barely get through a mass suddenly being appointed bishop. And then any part of the Church not directly involved in the cure of souls that is actually ministering to the spiritual health of a flock, those were just abolished. Reaffirming, among other things, the suppression of all those monastic orders. 

All of this was right in line with what the majority of the First Estate delegates had been asking for. The only thing that was really controversial was that the clerics would now stand for election like any other public office, from the simplest Paris priest to the mightiest bishop. But though the priests and bishops wouldn’t be subjected to the same electoral bodies, they would both be subjected to electoral bodies that might include Protestants, atheists, and even Jews. The idea that those heathen dogs would have any say at all in who could and could not be a Catholic priest was enough to make the stomach of any devout Catholic turn. 

But it was in keeping with the spirit of the times. The Church’s new role in the constitutional order would be to support the moral and spiritual well being of the nation, the whole nation, nothing more and nothing less

All of this was debated, worked through, and revised through June, and the Civil Constitution of the Clergy was finally approved on July 12, 1790. But though it appears that the majority of the clergy were prepared to accept it, the sad sac Ancien Régime bishops notwithstanding, there was still one enormous question left on the table: What if the Pope came out and said to the French clergy, you must not accept this? That would leave them and the French nation in quite a bind. 

And indeed, when he did, it did. But we will leave that confrontation for an episode or two down the road, because I want to wrap up today with the big mega party that France celebrated two days later on the anniversary of the Fall of the Bastille. 

So, just to back up a little bit, after the Women’s March on Versailles, which represented a triumph of popular will over absolute monarchy, the institution that best represented that triumph was the National Guard. And the National Guard soon came to represent a very specific form of popular will, because after the active/passive citizen distinction was established, it was further decreed that only active citizens could volunteer for the National Guard. And over that winter, they did in patriotic droves. The true citizens of France, joining the militia that would defend the nation from its enemies, both internal and external

Alongside the patriotic rise of the active citizens National Guard were spontaneous feasts celebrating the federation of the nation, the unity of the French people, and the universal values proclaimed in the Declaration of the Rights of Man. With these improvised parties cropping up all across France, the Paris Commune got together in May and said, hey, we should do one of these too and it should be the biggest one yet. We’ll call it the Fête de la Federation, the Feast of the Federation, and we’ll hold it on the anniversary of the Storming of the Bastille. 

Now, since Lafayette was the head of the National Guard and Bailly was the mayor of Paris, both were leading members of the Society of 1789, so obviously, what the Society of 1789 had to say about all this was pretty critical. And after some hesitation, they decided to back the plan. They were definitely coming to the conclusion that the Revolution was winding down and it was time to start thinking about how they were going to perpetuate the new order. And big commemorative ceremonies are a handy way to celebrate everything that’s happened while also implying that those days are now in the past. 

Conservatives, of course, were appalled by the whole notion of a giant party celebrating the demise of everything they held dear. But as it turned out, the radicals weren’t too keen on the idea either. There were some pretty deep suspicions that Lafayette and his cronies were planning some kind of political coup backed by the active citizen-filled National Guard. But though this was emphatically not Lafayette’s plan, the great Fête de la Federation was going to invite representatives from every National Guard company in France to come march in a great procession. 

With tens of thousands of guardsmen expected to attend, was it really a stretch to wonder what use Lafayette might put them to? Sure, the Parisian units had stood up to him during the Women’s March on Versailles, but all the passive citizens had now been weeded out, so who knows where their loyalties now lay? 

But despite the misgivings of both the conservatives and the radicals, preparations for the party moved forward. With something like 400,000 people expected to attend, the Champs de Mars was selected as the only suitable site. If you’ve ever been to Paris, it’s now the big park where the Eiffel Tower is. The plan was to transform the field into a very Romanesque space with triumphal arches and a great altar to the fatherland as the centerpiece of the show. 

But with only a few weeks to get everything done, it turned out that there was too much to do and not enough workers to do it. So in a scene almost as moving as the celebration itself, Parisians of every social stripe came out to help finish the job. Nobles worked alongside commoners, artisans with lawyers, men with women. Even the Royal Family came down to oversee the project and lend a hand. All driven, it seemed, by simple patriotic solidarity. 

In the days leading up to the feast, representatives from the provincial National Guard units began to arrive and they were offered space to camp in the Tuileries Garden where the King would come down and greet them and mingle with them. It really was starting to look like the Revolution was over. 

On the morning of July 14 itself, it started to rain and rain heavily, but the crappy weather could dampen no spirits. The assembled National Guardsmen marched down the streets of Paris towards the Champs de Mars. Along the way they were joined by all the National Assembly delegates and when they all reached the Champs de Mars, they paraded through the hundreds of thousands of onlookers, miserable in the driving rain, but otherwise pretty buoyant. 

The King and delegates of the National Assembly sat together on a stage off to one side of the great altar, signaling the unity of the new constitutional order. And then at about 3:30pm, Bishop Talleyrand, I think the only Bishop willing to do the job, proceeded with an opening mass in Benediction. And if he screwed it up, as he was very nervous, he would do not being much for religious ceremonies by nature, it helped that no one could really hear him. 

Then Lafayette came forward and he took center stage. It was undoubtedly the high point of his life and career. As a young man, he had fought for the cause of liberty with the noble Americans, and then he had come home and fought for the same liberties for his fellow countrymen. He was the commander of the National Guard. He was a key leader in the ascendant political club of the day. His own personal values had become enshrined in the Declaration of the Rights of Man. 

Now he stood in front of hundreds of thousands of his fellow citizens as the most popular, well known, and distinguished leader probably in the whole nation. It was all as he had no doubt seen in his head a thousand times before. He was fulfilling his destiny as the hero of two worlds. At just about 5:00pm, Lafayette climbed up on a great white horse and rode over to ask the King and President of the Assembly permission to administer the great oath to his National Guardsmen. 

Then he returned to the altar and he pledged:

We swear forever to be faithful to the nation, to the law and to the King, to uphold with all our might the Constitution as decided by the National Assembly and accepted by the King, and to protect, according to the laws, the safety of people and properties, transit of grains and food within the Kingdom, the public contributions under whatever forms they might exist, and to stay united with all the French with the indestructible bounds of brotherhood

The Guardsmen then followed this oath. Fireworks cracked, lit and thundered. Then the King stood to take an oath of his own to defend the Constitution. And critically, he referred to himself not as the King of France and Navarre, but as King of the French. He was now a leader of men, not a ruler of some abstract land. The Queen then held up their young son, dressed in National Guardsman’s uniform and proclaimed that the boy would be raised on the values of constitutional government. With these momentous declarations declared, the ceremony proper broke up and everyone retired back to the city to party, which they did pretty much uninterrupted for the next week straight. 

But of course, we all now know that the Fête de la Federation was nowhere near the end of the French Revolution. Not by a long shot. Next week, the fissures that have been artfully papered over for the celebration will rip back open. The emigrate conservatives will plot their revenge, radical political agitators will demand even more revolutionary reforms, and Lafayette and the liberal nobles will try desperately to hold the center. And King Louis will change his mind and then re-change his mind about what he thought about all of this. And then, of course, in the capitals of Europe, the statesmen of the great powers talked amongst themselves about how best to exploit the situation in France.

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