Episode 17: Rivals for Power


Episode 17, ‘Rivals for Power’, examines how the National Assembly was challenged by a variety of revolutionary societies and institutions. It also details the Assembly’s administrative and judicial reforms of 1789 and 1790. 

National Guard Outside of Paris

After the Guard’s formation the institution gradually became more radical.  As a general rule, the only people that had both time and the money to volunteer in the National Guard were young men from the middle class. As individuals who were less than enthusiastic about the revolution stopped volunteering, and as the Assembly restricted service to active citizens, the ideological diversity within the guard decreased. 

The result of this was that over time the institution became progressively more radical and supportive of the revolution (although not necessarily supportive of the revolutionary government). The National Guard started to become more autonomous as it became more radical, and this created a range of issues for the government. Personal rivalries and religious divisions also infiltrated the guard, further fuelling insubordination. 

Throughout 1790 and early 1791, the Assembly received numerous letters from municipal governments complaining that the National Guard failed to obey its orders. 

“The National Guard was an invention of great import, for it was the army of society distinct from the army of the state, opinion in arms apart from authority.”  – Historian John Dalberg-Acton 

Historian Timothy Tackett notes that guardsmen in Brittany attacked nobles and clergymen suspected of counter-revolutionary activities. Likewise, guard units in Quercy also unilaterally attacked noble property and chateaus. In the province of Languedoc , volunteers were split along religious lines, and catholic and protestant units were known to fight each other. Historian Bertha Gardiner notes that in the countryside national guard units were known to make common cause with the rioters they were meant to suppress. The result was that municipal officers were sometimes unable or even unwilling to deploy the national guard in times of unrest. 

“I do not have the means of disciplining the national guards, nor of commanding them to follow the law, nor of opposing them with enough force to control them.” – Minister Of Justice, November 1789

National Guard in Paris

In Paris, Lafayette hired professional soldiers to fill key positions, and more proactively suppressed dissent within the guard. This only worked for a time however. By 1791, the guard in Paris was known to not only ignore, but actively disobey orders. The most famous example of insubordination came on the 18th of April 1791, when the King and his family tried to leave the Tuileries palace for the Parisian suburb of Saint-Cloud on Easter Monday. Despite direct orders from Lafayette to disperse the crowd which blocked the King’s passage, the National Guard refused to intervene. In fact, the guard actually threatened Lafayette.

Parisian Districts (Parisian Sections)

The 60 districts of Paris each had their own electoral Assembly. Summoned as part of the elections for the Estates General, these bodies never disbanded and in fact took over a  range of administrative functions in their localities during 1789. The problem for the National Assembly and the Paris Commune was that the radical districts started to vye for power and influence within the new revolutionary order. For example, multiple districts voiced official positions against the royal veto in September 1789, while others demanded that the Assembly not make a final decision until after the districts had been consulted. In October, other districts protested the martial law decree. 

“The last week, My Lord, has passed very peaceably here, but should we want bread again, which indeed is alarmingly scarce, I must fear that the Martial Law will not protect us from violence of some sort or other ; one or two of the districts protested against the Law and declared their non-compliance with it, but not being supported, judged proper to apologize awkwardly to the Assembly and to accede in appearance, altho’ it is, I fear, with foundation, believed that if the National Guard are called to act, that they will not do their duty. Altho’, as I have said above, we have been tolerably quiet of late days ; yet. My Lord, our position is by no means pleasant, the greatest jealousy still subsists between all orders of men : the sixty Districts, which are absolutely so many little Sovereignties within the Metropolis, exercise the most despotic rule over all.” – Lord Fitzgerald wrote to the Duke of Leeds, 29 October 1789.

On November the 11th and 12th, the Cordeliers district proclaimed that its representatives in the city government, the Paris Commune, were bound by the decrees of the district, and could be recalled and replaced if necessary. These positions (which embraced direct democracy), combined with an assortment of situations where radical districts directly challenged the power of either the Assembly or the Commune, compelled the government to act in May, 1790. The 60 districts were reorganised into 48 sections. While a solution in theory, the desired effects were minimal, as the sections quickly started to meet in assemblies once more.

The Cordeliers Club

A district of particular note was the Cordeliers district.  In anticipation of the abolishment of the Parisian districts, members of the district’s leadership formed a political club named the “Society of the Friends of the Rights of Man” in April 1790. More commonly referred to as the Cordeliers Club, this club had no reason nor desire to defer to either the Assembly or the Commune. The club quickly established itself on the fringes of the progressive left, and included prominent journalists Camille Desmouslins and Jean Paul Marat.  The club also included political theorists, including Pierre-François Robert and Théophile Mandar. 

The most important man we associate with the club is Georges Danton.

 “One of the most important was the small district of the Cordeliers, south of the Seine. Here Danton, the burly friend of Desmoulins, became a leading spirit. He was a young lawyer, most practical and capable, personally genial and hearty, but soon to become a name of terrible power.” – Historian Packwood Adams

“Here presided Danton, an orator distinguished among his fellows by the zeal and energy which he flung into the contest with the municipality.” – Historian Bertha Gardiner 

Danton and his peers in the Cordeliers Club pursued an unashamedly radical agenda and sought to radicalise workers, soldiers, sailors and guardsmen. Preaching the merits of direct democracy, the club was forever a thorn in the side of both the National Assembly and the Paris Commune. 

Cercle Social 

While the Cercle Social does not carry the same weight to its name as the Corderliers, many of the clubs leading members were important players in the French Revolution, including Jacques Pierre Brissot. From this position in the municipality, Brissot regularly fought both Mayor Bailey and his centrist tendencies, as well as the likes of Danton and his advocacy for the greater empowerment of the Parisian districts. Brissot, along with Condorcet, was a leading member of the Cercle Club. Founded predominantly by members of the Paris Commune with republican sympathies, the organisation’s original objectives were two fold. Firstly, to better align the Paris Commune with the city’s districts, and secondly, to better educate the people of republican teachings and enlightenment principles. 

Free Press

Left-wing deputies within the Assembly and their ideological allies outside of it vehemently defended the unrestricted freedom of the press. Conservatives in the Assembly feared the violent rhetoric of the radical publications. On January the 22nd of 1790, the authorities finally moved on Marat. The royalist writer Montjoie recalls the events: 

” Lafayette marched against Marat an army of six thousand men, and posted them at the opening of every street ; abutting on the house were two pieces of artillery. This was so extraordinary that, had I not been a witness of it myself, I should never have believed it. Conceive indeed this ‘ hero of two worlds ‘ deploying forces so formidable against a crank whose only arm was his pen.” – Montjoie

The radical writer escaped the grasp of the authorities. The failure to arrest Marat underscored the failure of the Assembly to limit, in any practical way, the freedom of the press. Whatever the assembly tried, nothing seemed to work for any length of time. The practically unrestricted nature of the press thus helped to undermine the Assembly’s consolidation of power.

The volume of printed material flooding the public sphere was tremendous and, unfortunately for the Assembly, incredibly one-sided. While royalist, catholic and centrist publications did exist, Historian Charles Mallet notes that they existed with great difficulty:

“But again and again self-constituted critics, deputations from the Palais Royal, 

representatives of the mob, and even the agents of the local authorities, denounced, remonstrated and interfered with the writer, and plainly threatened with violence and death any one who dared to use the freedom of the Press to defend unpopular, though liberal, opinions. 

Under such conditions, and having regard to the disorganisation and unwisdom of the royalists, and to the energy and enthusiasm which pervaded the popular party, it is not surprising that the power of the Press came to be enlisted almost entirely upon the democratic side, and helped to render irresistible the victorious advocates of the Revolution.” – Historian Charles Mallet

Municipal Governments, Provinces and Administrative Reforms

After the Fall of the Bastille and the onset of the Great Fear, a municipal revolution occurred throughout France. The new municipalities quickly established themselves as the only semblance of authority in the countryside. The problem for the National Assembly, however, was that many were operating like autonomous states in their own right. Furthermore, it was feared by some that the 32 provinces, some of which were quite large, could be used as a framework to ferment civil war against the revolutionary government.

As a result of the autonomy of the municipalities and the threat the provinces presented, the National Assembly introduced sweeping administrative reforms throughout 1789 and 1790.  Under the proposed plan, this hodgepodge of Old Regime administrative jurisdictions would all be rationalised into 83 departments of roughly equal size. 

To further weaken the power of the departments, the deputies deliberately empowered the levels of government below that of the department level. This further reduced the ability of the departments to resist the will of Paris. 

“Under this system all existing divisions and provincial distinctions were swept away, and the country was as nearly as possible symmetrically divided into 83 departments. These 

departments were further subdivided into 574 districts, into 4,730 cantons, and lastly into 44,000 communes or municipalities. Of these four divisions the cantons possessed no administrative importance, being only invented for purposes of symmetry and to facilitate the electoral operations. But each of the others, each department, district, and municipality, had its own little constitution, based upon popular election, but with many varieties and complexities of form. Every department, district, and municipality had its own council or deliberative body, and its own executive officers too.” – Historian Charles Mallet

The result of dividing the country into some 83 departments, nearly 600 districts and some 44,000 municipalities was that France became incredibly decentralised. Historian Charles Hazen notes the difference between the centralising tendencies of Old Regime France, and the decentralised revolutionary administration which initially replaced it.

“France, from being a highly centralized state, became one highly decentralized. Whereas formerly the central government was represented in each province by its own agents or office-holders, the intendants and their subordinates, in the departments of the future the central government was to have no representatives. The electors were to choose the local departmental officials. It would be the business of these officials to carry out the decrees of the central government — but what if they should disobey? The central government would have no control over them, as it would not appoint them and could neither re- move nor discipline them.” – Historian Charles Hazen

Historian Ganteo Salevmini claims that the deputies deliberately decided it was better to empower the municipalities than the departments, because the municipalities threatened the power of Paris less than the departments. As a result, the revolutionaries gave the municipal authorities, “not only control of local services (administration of communal revenues, public works, police, etc.), but also of others hitherto appertaining to the central administration: most important of which was the levying and collection of taxes.” 

This decentralisation was too successful according to Historian Louis Madelin. In the future, regions would struggle to resist the tyranny of Paris. 

“On the other hand, thanks to the suspicion with which provincial opinion was regarded, even after the  provinces had been cut up, very little power was conferred on the departments. 

This institution of the departments, by decrees passed on November 11 and 12, 1789, and February 15 and 26, 1790, was, from the standpoint of the Assembly, that of the triumph of the Revolution, a stroke of genius. By this dismemberment of the country all resistance on the part of the provinces to the law imposed on them by Paris was rendered impossible. 

The process weakened France, indeed, in every bone. The country was to suffer, and certain of its limbs were to be permanently crippled ; the consequent anaemia was to become chronic ; the head was to grow out of all proportion.” – Historian Louis Madelin

Judicial Reforms

Not content with completely overhauling the administrative system of France, the deputies soon overhauled the judicial system as well. The Parlements were cast aside, and new tribunals were created at the department and district level to replace the judicial system of the Old Regime. Letters de cachet were abolished, as well as venal offices and feudal courts. Juries were introduced for criminal cases, and it decreed that every citizen had the right to defend their case in person, either through written or oral arguments.

The judicial reforms were met with resistance, including by the Parlements of Rennes, Toulouse, Bordeaux, and Metz. However, the Parlements received only a fraction of the public support which had protected them in 1788 from Brienne’s suppression.

Grey History