Episode 16: Clubbing in Paris

Episode 16

After the revolt of the October Days, some conservative deputies quit the National Assembly. These deputies were disgusted by the actions of the crowd, and enraged that both the King and the people’s representatives had been treated in such a violent and disrespectful manner.

“Fear of the people made itself felt in the Assembly, immediately after October 5. More than two hundred deputies refused to go to Paris, and demanded passports for returning to their homes. They met with a refusal, and were treated as traitors, but a certain number of them sent in their resignations all the same: they were not thinking of going so far! There was now a new series of emigrations, as there had been after July 14. But this time it was not the Court which gave the signal, it was the Assembly.” – Historian Peter Kropotkin

One such deputy to depart was Mounier, the then President of the National Assembly, and his political allies Lally-Tollendal and Bergasse. Mounier’s departure, along with the departure of other leading moderate conservatives, helped to facilitate a realignment of political groupings and factions within the Assembly.

New Political Groupings

The Conservatives

Mounier’s departure and the recent violent unrest prompted many centre-right deputies to join the Assembly’s newly emergent conservative faction. Empowered by recent events, this conservative group was headed by, amongst others, Jean-Sifrein Maury. Comprised of the deputies of the right and most of the remnants of the centre-right, Maury’s conservatives adopted a pro-church, pro-monarch and pro-aristocrat agenda. The conservatives believed the National Assembly should exist (unlike the far-right ultra-royalists), but asserted that the Assembly should be subordinate to the King (unlike the centrist deputies). On issues such as declaring war or selecting ministers, the Conservatives believed these powers should be held by the monarch. Outside the Assembly, these conservative deputies were often members of a club named the Club Monarchique.

The Jacobins

The Jacobin Club originated from the Brenton Club and initially had three objectives. Firstly, to discuss in advance matters that would be debated in the Assembly, Secondly, to work on drafting and cementing the Constitution. Thirdly, to foster and liaise with similar Jacobin clubs throughout the country. Unlike the Conservatives deputies, which deliberately maintained more secretive and exclusive clubs, the Jacobins made it a mission to be relatively open and create a network of like minded organisations throughout France. By August 1790, there was 152 clubs in France, and a year later, there were over 400 affiliated clubs by Autumn 1791. 

Originally, many centre, left and far-left deputies gathered under the banner of the Jacobins, although that name was not officially adopted yet. More than 200 deputies of the National Assembly joined the club, and this included a wide range of individuals. With so many left-wing deputies joining the club, the Jacobin Club started to become the unofficial voice of the Assembly’s left. The problem, however, was that such a broad church of ideological inclinations was bound to split up. As the Assembly started to tackle thorny issues such as martial law, voting rights and the bankruptcy, the broad church of the Jacobins started to splinter.

The centrists believed that the Assembly and the King should sit on roughly equal footing, and this constitutional equality is what separated the centre from the left and the far left. Those on the left side of the chamber felt that the Assembly should be the predominant power in the new revolutionary order. Practically this meant not just opposing the King’s absolute veto, but advocating for things like the Assembly possessing the power to make war or controlling the royal ministry. 

The Society of 1789

After the ferocious debate over active and passive citizens (see below), a new faction emerged within the Assembly named the Society of 1789. Consisting of many of the Assembly’s leading centrist figures, the club was more exclusive than the Jacobins (which led to criticisms of elitism). Left leaning public figures comte de Volney and Marquis de Condorcet were members in addition to many of the Assembly’s leading centrists. According to Historian Johnathan Israel, the explicit goal of the club was to try to reconcile the Assembly’s liberal monarchists with the democratic republicans to create a large and stable bloc capable of leading and dominating the Assembly. That goal was never achieved, but the club contained many individuals who rose to prominence during the initial years of the Revolution. 

The debate over Martial Law

Having settled into Paris, the deputies had to attend to multiple pressing issues, including legislation enabling the declaration of martial law. The National Assembly decided that force could be used in the name of the national interest, particularly when crowds threatened to disturb the peace. Notably, Barnave, Buzot and Petion, all left leaning deputies, stayed out of the debate. The key deputies to oppose the law were in fact Maximilien Robespierre and Mirabeau.

“We ask for a martial law and for a court. These two things are necessary; but are they the first determinations to be set? I know nothing more frightening than the motions caused by scarcity. Everything is silence, everything has to be silenced, everything must succumb to a hungry people; what use would martial law be, if the people assemble and exclaim: “There is no bread at the bakery!” What monster would answer this with gunshots?” – Mirabeau

The debate over Active and Passive Citizens

The debate surrounding martial law was only an appetizer to a much larger debate surrounding legitimate political participation. This debate was sparked by Abbe Sieyes, who outraged the left by suggesting that only a fraction of France’s population should be allowed to vote. According to Sieyes, only men who were over the age of 25 and paid direct tax of three days’ worth of wages a year should be able to vote, provided they had been living in their constituency for at least a year and were not a servant, bankrupt, or insolvent. These citizens, of which there were perhaps 4 million in the country, would be considered ‘active citizens’. Everyone else in the nation of 26 million people, men who failed to meet the criteria along with women and slaves, would have no right to vote at all.  Furthermore, active citizens would vote for Electors, who would then go on to vote for deputies. Sieyes’ was proposing a two-tiered election system, further decoupling the notion of the people’s will from direct democracy. Electors had to pay 10 days’ worth of tax per year, which meant that only around 50,000 people in the entire country could vote for national representatives. 

For Sieyes, the centrists who backed him, as well as the Conservatives, the merits for such a system were clear. The people had proved during the October Days that they could be wild and unpredictable. Democracy, in the modern sense of the world, was feared. The rule of the mob, of the common people, was ill-advised in the eyes of many deputies. By limiting franchise to those who paid 3 days’ worth of labour in tax, the Assembly hoped it was limiting franchise to those who had proved themselves to be productive citizens (that is to say, responsible citizens who would be capable of making informed decisions at the ballot box).

The proposal triggered bitter debate within the Assembly and helped to split up the broad church of the Jacobins. Many leading Jacobins, whether they be closet republicans like Jerome Pétion, populists like Maximilien Robespierre, or liberal-monarchists like Duport, saw the principal threat to the revolution resting with counter-revolutionary conspiracy. To them, empowering the people was a way to safeguard the revolution from the sinister plots lurking in the shadows. For the centrists who would come to lead the Society of 1789, people like Mirabeau, Sieyes, Lafayette, and Talleyrand, it was chaos, anarchy, bankruptcy and disorder which were the real threats. In order to safeguard from these threats, the centre sided with Maury’s conservative bloc in attempting to minimise chaos by minimising the electorate.

“All citizens, whoever they are, have right to aspire to all the degrees of representation. Nothing is more in accordance with your declaration of rights, in front of which any privilege, any distinction, any exception has to disappear. The Constitution establishes that the sovereignty lies in the people, in all the individuals of the people. Every individual is thus entitled to contribute to the law by which he is obliged, and to the administration of the public, which he is. Otherwise, it is not true that all the people are equal in rights, that every man is public-spirited. If the one who pays only an equivalent taxation of a working day has less rights than the one who pays the value of three working days, the one who pays ten days has more rights than the one the taxation of which amounts only to the value of three; From then on the one who has 100,000 livres of pension has a hundred times as much rights as the one who has only 1,000 livres of income. It results from all your decrees that every citizen has the right to contribute to the law, and thus to be an elector or eligible, without the distinction of fortune.” – Maximilien Robespierre

Opinion of Historians on the distinction between Active and Passive Citizens 

Most Historians point out that this law disenfranchises not only large portions of the population, but the same portions of the population that had been politically active. As Desmoulins proclaimed in his publications, the Bastille was actively taken by passive citizens. In a sense, the Assembly was trying to put the genie back in the bottle, a feat that was going to be nearly impossible.

Historian Hippolyte Taine doesn’t shed a tear for the social constituencies that are generally considered to have been ostracised however. Instead, Taine laments for another social constituency which he feels to have been the one truly wronged.

“The class of active citizens, indeed, comprises about all the men who labor with their hands or with their heads. The law exempts only domestics devoted to personal service or common laborers who, possessing no property or income, earn less than twenty-one sous a day.  Every journeyman-miller, the smallest farmer, every village proprietor of a cottage or of a vegetable- garden, any ordinary workman, votes at the primary meetings, and may become a municipal officer.  Again, if he pays ten francs a year direct tax, if he is a farmer or yeomen on any property which brings him in four hundred francs, if his rent is one hundred and fifty francs, he may become an elected elector and an administrator of the district or department.  According to this standard the eligible are innumerable; in Doubs, in 1790, they form two-thirds of the active citizens.  Thus, the way to office is open to all, or almost all, and the law has taken no precaution whatever to reserve or provide places for the elite, who could best fill them.  On the contrary, the nobles, the ecclesiastical dignitaries, the members of the parliaments, the grand functionaries of the ancient regime, the upper class of the bourgeoisie, almost all the rich who possess leisure, are practically excluded from the elections by violence, and from the various offices by public opinion: they soon retire into private life, and, through discouragement or disgust, through monarchical or religious scruples, abandon entirely a public career.” – Historian Hippolyte Taine

Historian Donald Sutherland backs up Taine’s claims that a significant number of french men would be included in the electorate. Sutherland points out that if the estimate of 4.3 million active citizens was true, this would represent two thirds of adult males, and result in a proportionally larger electorate than the one which existed in England and many American states at the time.

“In the country as a whole, perhaps 60 to 70 percent of the adult males who met the age and residency qualifications were active citizens. The system was much more inclusive than the rhetoric at the time alleged” – Historian Donald Sutherland 

Whether the system was truly much more inclusive than the rhetoric at the time alleged depends a lot on the figures one is using to make one’s analysis. Historian John Boscher claims that only 80,000 men qualified in Paris, out of some 650,000 people. Historian Simon Schama also refutes the notion that the law was anything but restrictive.

 “These limits disenfranchised large sections of the population: all rural day labourers and hired hands, domestic servants, many journeyman artisans – all social constituencies which had been crucially engaged in the revolutionary agitations of 1788-89 and who had come to expect great things from their political deliverance.” – Historian Simon Schama