Episode 14: Decrees and Declarations


Episode 14, “Decrees and Declarations”, examines the great legislative acts of the summer of 1789. These include the Abolition of Privileges, the Declaration of the Rights of Man, and debates surrounding the King’s veto and bicameralism.

Bloody Paris

Bertier de Sauvigny, the intendant of Paris, and his father in law, Foulon, a minister, were captured by the Parisian mob on the 22nd of July. They were brutally murdered, and the actions of the mob repulsed many in the Assembly. The disgust of moderate and conservative deputies aside, others in the Assembly came to the defence of the hungry and downtrodden. Antoine Barnave exclaimed, “What, then, is there blood so pure”, while radical papers defended the rage of a people who had been made to live like slaves for too long.

By the start of August it was clear something had to be done to contain the disorder gripping the country.

Abolition of Privileges

On the night of the 4th of August 1789, multiple progressive deputies argued that for France to avoid complete anarchy, radical reforms must be introduced. The reforms proposed by members of the Brenton Club included introducing equality in taxation, the annulment of feudal dues subject to their redemption, and the abolishment of remnants of personal servitude like the corvée.

“[France] floated between the alternatives of a complete destruction of society and a government which would be admired and followed throughout Europe.” – Vicomte de Noailles

“The people are seeking at last to shake off a yoke that has weighed on them for centuries, and, it must be admitted, this insurrection, despite being blameworthy , can find its excuse in the vexations of which they are victim”. – Duc d’Aigullion

“Bring us these titles that outrage humanity itself, requiring men to be tied to a plough like draft animals. Bring us these titles that oblige men to spend the whole night beating swamps to prevent the frogs from disturbing the sleep of their pleasure-loving lords. Which of us, gentlemen, in this century of enlightenment would not make an expiatory bonfire of these wretched parchments?” – Leguen de Kerangal

With these passionate cries the Brenton club unleashed the domino effect they were hoping for. A patriotic zealotry captured the hearts and minds of the deputies present, and bishops, dukes, lords, rushed to renounce their privileges.

The next day however, the euphoria ended. In the days and weeks that followed, many deputies were keen to draw a line between cruel travesties and rightfully possessed property. The former could be abolished, the latter would have to be redeemed. The National Assembly’s principal lawyers, Philippe Auguste Merlin de Douai and François-Denis Tronchet presided over the committees implementing the decrees and made purposeful effort to ensure that abolition without compensation occurred as infrequently as possible.

“They imagined that the distinction was founded on principle; but nobody ever ascertained the dividing line between that which was property and that which was abuse. The want of definiteness enabled the landlords afterwards to attempt the recovery of much debatable ground, and involved, after long contention, the ultimate loss of all. The programme was excessively complicated, and required years to be carried out. The nobles won the day with their demand to be compensated; but Duport already spoke the menacing words: “Injustice has no right to subsist, and the price of injustice has no right to subsist.” The immensity of the revolution, which these changes implied, was at once apparent. For it signified that liberty, which had been known only in the form of privilege, was henceforward identified with equality.” – Historian John Dalberg-Acton

Historiography of the Abolition of Nobility

Historian Robert Johnson criticises the impracticality of the reforms, and states that contrary to its goal of controlling chaos in the countryside, the decree merely fuelled it.

“Now all this was generous and admirable, —it forms one of the most generous and admirable pages in history. It was even more. It was the emphatic and right declaration that privilege and class distinction was the root of all the evils of the old system and had been condemned by the French nation. But it had none of the qualities of practical statesmanship. It did not tend to decrease disorder but the contrary; and for the moment, with reform advancing so prosperously, order was the first consideration. The effects of the decrees were disastrous and intensified the bad conditions of the country. The woodlands were immediately invaded by armies of timber and fuel cutters. Game was killed off. The poor country priest found his salary gone. The gabelle itself was disregarded. Local justice came to an end. And so the Government, with all its extra load, found the already failing revenue almost entirely cut off. The peasants and people of France interpreted the decrees after their fashion, refused to pay taxes and abused the surrendered privileges.” – Historian Robert Johnson

The reforms, especially after the classification of many privileges as property, were indeed dysfunctional. However, despite the problems of the decrees of August the 4th, one should not downplay the importance of the abolition of privileges. According to Historian Shalier Matthews, this milestone not only signals the end of the first stage of this grand revolution, but the abolition of privileges was the only enduring legacy of the revolution.

“To understand the significance of the night of the 4th of August it is necessary to remember that the Revolution is marked by a series of stages. The first period was not so much political as economic and social. The only attack was upon the relics of feudalism, not upon the state. The National Assembly aimed not at destroying the monarchy, but the unjust privileges under which France had so long suffered. And this first period culminated in the voluntary renunciations made on the 4th of August. It is true hysterical legislation is always inexpedient. No small part of the confusion which beset the Assembly was due to the difficulty of administering these unforced renunciations. Sober thought, elementary parliamentary rules, would have prevented some of the decrees of that night. But even when all allowance is made, this much stands true: that hostility to privilege for which Turgot and Necker had stood unavailingly was converted into laws within a few hours. From that day to this France has never known a revival of the accursed condition that existed under the Old Regime. This was the real work of the Revolution. It was to make almost no permanent advance beyond the establishment of this civic equality which expressed the new social mind. Thereafter it sought to protect the new rights. It makes little difference whether we say that the 4th of August destroyed privileges or simply declared them destroyed; in either case it outlawed them. And with them the Old Regime as a whole was outlawed.” – Historian Shailer Mathews

The Declaration of the Rights of Man

Following the abolition of privileges, progressive deputies pushed for further reforms, particularly a declaration of rights. According to Historian Charles Hazen, Lafayette “urged two chief reasons for its adoption: first, it would present the people with a clear conception of the elements of liberty which, once understanding, they would insist upon possessing; and, secondly, it would be an invaluable guide for the Assembly in its work of elaborating the constitution.”

Although not agreeing with Lafayette’s proposed declaration of rights, Mirabeau and Sieyes were supportive of creating such a document. The Assembly wasn’t necessarily behind them. Many questioned why a declaration could not be drafted at the time as the constitution to prevent contradictions, while others detested the abstract ideas of equality and liberty being considered natural rights. Mounier was an influential leader of this opposition.

On the 19th of August, Mirabeau’s draft carried the day with 620 votes. Sieyes’ draft received 220, while Lafayette’s far less metaphysical draft only acquired 45.

Historiography of the Declaration of the Rights of Man

With only 17 articles, the declaration failed to guarantee the right to petition, the right of association, or even the right to education. This has led some historians to criticise the decree as incomplete. Others criticize its inherent contradictions, such as Historian Florence Gautheir.

However, to describe the document as so flawed that its authors should be ashamed would be an exaggeration. It was a truly groundbreaking document. Historian Edward Lowell’s opinion is that the declaration may fittingly stand side by side with America’s Declaration of Independence.

“For the first time in history, equality, individual liberty, the right to equal protection by the state, and freedom of thought and expression were enshrined as basic principles declared inherent in all just and rational societies. The bedrock of democratic modernity was in place. The rights the French adopted for themselves were proclaimed universal rights belonging equally to all of whatever nation, station, faith, or ethnicity.” – Historian Jonathan Israel


The great legislative debates of the summer of 1789 can be boiled down to two key questions: How should the legislature be constituted, and what sort of veto should the King possess?

The constitutional monarchists advocated for a legislature consisting of two separate chambers, an upper and lower house. By dividing the legislature into two chambers, and by giving the King a complete and absolute veto, power would be dispersed enough to protect the country from anything in between an incompetent government and a tyrannical one.

For individuals pursuing the adoption of a much more democratic society based on equality, the idea of a House of Lord’s like that across the channel was abhorrent. Sieyes believed that since the legislature was elected by the people, and since it thus embodied the general will, it could not do anything other than behave in a legitimate way. Thus, the legislature should be one singular-chamber, to ensure it was not impeded by unnecessary oversight. Furthermore, since sovereignty laid with the nation and not the King, at least according to the Rights of Man, Louis XVI and his successors should have no veto at all.

On September the 10th, the Assembly voted 849 to 89 in favour of a single chamber, 122 deputies abstaining. The English Block’s efforts to bring bicameralism to France had failed. It failed because the moderates and conservatives allowed disunity to sink their cause. Originally Mounier wanted a hereditary House of Lords like that in England, but the idea was a non-starter with many members of the Assembly from the Third Estate. When Mounier tried to moderate his proposal for an upper chamber, the nobles of Versailles refused to endorse the idea. According to the British observer and future Prime Minister Robert Jenkinson, Necker’s idea of a House of Peers to be made up of honourable and noteworthy citizens of all backgrounds was greeted with disgust by the Versailles nobility.

“The greater part of the Noblesse could not bear the idea, that persons of no rank or consideration in the Country should be raised to a dignity so important as this, and should be put upon a level with themselves.” – Robert Jenkinson

It was disunity amongst moderates and conservatives which sunk Mounier’s vision of bicameralism.

Royal Veto

While the Democrats pushed for no veto at all, it was clear a majority of the Assembly did want to empower the King to some degree. As Historian Nesta Webster notes, the cahiers (list of grievances) made it clear that the people of France trusted their King and wanted him to be involved in government.

As deadlock over the issue gripped the Assembly, the radical press rallied against the idea of any veto at all. A young, capable deputy by the name of Maximilien Robespierre voiced the view of many pamphleteers in Paris.

“He who says that one man has a right to oppose himself to the law, says that the will of one man is above the will of all, he says that the nation is nothing, and that one man is everything. If he adds that this right belongs to him who is endowed with the executive power, he says that the man chosen by the nation to execute the will of the nation, has the right to contradict and enchain the will of that nation.” – Maximilien Robespierre

On the 11th of September the Assembly voted 673 in favour of the suspensive veto, with 325 in favour of an absolute one. Sieyes led a sizable minority of 143 voting for no veto at all.

Impact of the Enlightenment

The position of Sieyes and other radical democrats, one of royal emasculation and legislature empowerment, leads Historian Jonathan Israel to state that years before France became a republic, the French legislature was already being led by closet republicans:

“As the prolonged veto debates shows, all the philosophe-revolutionnaries were more or less solid republicans from the outset, insisting that the National Assembly possess all the power, authority, responsibility, and prestige of government.” – Historian Jonathan Israel

Everywhere the fingerprints of a republican or at least crypto-republican vanguard can be found in the opening days of the revolution. This vanguard was driven by enlightenment ideas, and this casts doubt on the claims of some historians that the impact of the Enlightenment on the revolution was neglible. Historian John Boscher is appropriate in saying that one should avoid assuming that the French revolution must somehow be thought out in the Enlightenment merely because it immediately preceded it. But Historian William Doyle goes further in questioning the impact of the philosophes.

“The French Revolution had not been made by revolutionaries. It would be truer to say that the revolutionaries had been created by the revolution.” – Historian William Doyle

Grey History