Episode 20: Death of the Aristocracy


Episode 20, “Death of the Aristocracy”, explores the abolition of nobility, noble emigration, the secret dealings of Mirabeau, and the contentious Dom Gerle Affair. 

Comte Artois and the first noble emigration

The King’s youngest brother, the Comte Artois, departed Paris on the night of the 16th of July 1789 after the crown’s failed coup against the National Assembly (which he strongly supported). From the safety of friendly European states, the ultra-royalists schemed the downfall of the revolution. While Artois and his counter-revolutionary companions frightened many revolutionaries, and while it is reasonable that they did, in reality it was quite some time before this potential threat actually had teeth. Although impossible to know at the time, Artois and his associates were originally far more akin to a comical circus than a counter-revolutionary cabal.

The Dom Gerle Affair

Unlike Artois and his companions, many nobles initially tried to work with the new regime. 

However, the cooperative attitude of the Assembly’s aristocratic deputies began to shift by April 1790. 

By April, the conservative faction of the legislature was infuriated by the Assembly’s proposal to nationalise all church property (rather than just the property belonging to the regular clergy). Dom Gerle, a carthusian monk, proposed on the 12th of April that catholicism be proclaimed the sole religion of the state. Most Historians see Dom Gerle’s proposal as a symbolic gesture which sought to alleviate concerns amongst conservative deputies that the Assembly was becoming increasingly anti-clerical. Far from creating unity, however, the debate which followed threatened the public peace.

 The American William Short detailed the situation to John Jay in a letter on the 23rd of April:

“Dom Gerle, a Carthusian monk, a member of the assembly, remarkable for his probity of character and still more for the zeal with which he has uniformly supported the principles of the revolution, moved that previous to the sale of the ecclesiastical property the assembly should declare the Roman Catholic religion, the religion of the nation. This motion was immediately supported and amended by the members of the clergy and noblesse. Many desired to pass it over in silence as a subject which it was dangerous to touch, but a large number were for meeting in front and finally deciding it. The heat and tumult which immediately took place in the assembly and the advanced hour of the day induced an adjournment till the next morning.—A rumour was immediately spread among the people of Paris that the Aristocrats were making a final effort to prevent the sale of ecclesiastical property. Many false reports were added perhaps designedly, so that in a few hours the different districts assembled and all Paris seemed at the moment of a general explosion. The members of the Clergy and Noblesse of the assembly held a meeting at the same time in the convent of Capucins, whilst those of the most popular part of the assembly met as usual in the convent of Jacobins. In the former it was agreed that they should all go early the next day to the assembly in full dress, and if they lost the question to proceed immediately to the palace, protest against the proceedings of the assembly and throw themselves on the King’s protection. Some of the more zealous and more enthusiastic proposed that from thence they should disperse themselves in the streets and public places of Paris crying out to the people that the Roman-Catholic religion was attacked and that the Protestants had a majority in the assembly.”

Far from uniting the Assembly, Dom Gerle’s proposal merely caused more friction between the legislature’s factions. In their outrage against the decree’s failure, 300 conservatives met in a nearby convent to draw up a formal protest against the Assembly’s heretical decision. Further enraging progressive deputies, the conservatives then distributed thousands of pamphlets throughout the nation which denounced the Assembly’s decision. The result was blood in the streets. 

On 20 April 1790, a crowd of Nîmois, drew up a petition demanding Catholicism be proclaimed the sole religion of the state. Five thousand people signed the petition, and violent clashes broke out on the 2nd and 3rd of May 1790. Nîmois would be the site of more than 300 deaths a month later, while the towns of Montauban and Uzès would also experience noteworthy unrest.

The actions of the conservative deputies, and the unrest they fomented, confirmed the suspicions of patriot deputies that the power of the Catholic Church was a threat to the revolution (and that it must be dealt with).

“Thus, the Dom Gerle affair and the great debates of April 1790 played a critical role in the evolving psychology of the Assembly and helped lay the groundwork for a sweeping reorganisation of the French church that would have been quite inconceivable for the great majority of the deputies only a few months earlier.” – Historian Timothy Tackett

The Abolition of Nobility on 19 June 1790

On the 19th of June 1790, Lambel, a deputy from Villefranche de Rouergue, suggested a radical proposal. Lambel proposed to the National Assembly that noble titles be suppressed. He was supported by leading aristocrats. 

“This day we dig the grave of vanity; I move that all persons be prohibited from taking the titles of peer, duke, count, marquis, etcetera, and that nobility be no longer hereditary”
– Lambel

“ Hereditary nobility shocks reason, and is repugnant to true liberty. There is no political equality, no emulation left for virtue, where citizens have any other dignity but that which is annexed to the offices they fill, any other glory but that which they owe to their actions.” – Charles de Lameth

“This motion is so necessary that I do not believe it needs any support; but if it does, I declare that I am for it with all my heart” – Lafayette

Unsurprisingly, this unanticipated aggression against their noble rank shocked and subsequently enraged many conservative aristocrats. The principal argument used by the nobility in defence of their status was that nobility and monarchy were inter-linked. 

“The Romans had Orders of Knighthood, and yet were free. In France the Nobility is Constitutional; to destroy it is to destroy the Monarchy” – Abbe Maury

“[It is] not wise to destroy without discussion an institution which is as ancient as the monarchy” – Abbe Maury

Some aristocrats argued that the Declaration of the Rights of Man protected property rights, and therefore their prerogatives. Others proclaimed that their noble status was ordained by God himself, and that no institution of men could take it from them.

“There is no power on earth that can prevent me from leaving my title of nobility to my descendants, a title that was given only by God.” – Count d’Escars 

On the evening of the 19th of June 1790, the Assembly voted to abolish nobility. Many aristocrats who had tried to engage with the revolution now rejected it.

Historiography of the Abolition of Nobility

An interesting opinion of note is that of Historian Franocois Mignet. Mignet argues that the revolutionaries didn’t so much cause conflict with the nobility, but rather, merely provided hostile nobles with an excuse for finally declaring their long-held opposition.

“This sitting established equality everywhere, and made things agree with words, by destroying all the pompous paraphernalia of other times. Formerly titles had designated functions; armorial bearings had distinguished powerful families; liveries had been worn by whole armies of vassals; orders of knighthood had defended the state against foreign foes, Europe against Islamism; but now, nothing of this remained. Titles had lost their truth and their fitness; nobility, after ceasing to be a magistracy, had even ceased to be an ornament; and power, like glory, was henceforth to spring from plebeian ranks. But whether the aristocracy set more value on their titles than on their privileges, or whether they only awaited a pretext for openly declaring themselves, this last measure, more than any other, decided the emigration and its attacks. It was for the nobility what the civil constitution had been for the clergy, an occasion, rather than a cause of hostility.” – Historian Francois Mignet

Historian William Smyth does not embrace Historian Mignet’s belief that this controversial law merely provided the pretence for the aristocracy to declare their opposition. Instead, Smyth declares the decree unwise and needlessly provocative. 

“The decree was considered by the Marquis de Ferrieres as but impolitic ; it set the feeling of honour in opposition to the national interest, amid a numerous body of men, who possessed a large part of the wealth of France at the time. Hitherto the nobles had suffered patiently enough the hostile measures of the Assembly, but they now became irreconcilable enemies to the Revolution, and a league was formed between the nobility, clergy, and the parliaments ; and they laboured with equal spirit and activity against a new order of things, which they could no longer tolerate for a moment, as it left them without name or place, the mere images and spectres of their former greatness.  Indeed, on every account the decree was impolitic. The nobility had in reality been already put down when they were refused their separate constitutional existence at the opening the States, and had been mingled among the Third Estate in the National Assembly ; and again, when on the night of the 4th of August their feudal prerogatives, distinctions, and property were, without the slightest discrimination or reservation, all swept away and abolished ; lastly, when they were to like other citizens of the Electoral Assemblies. The influence, therefore, of their mere titles would have been gradually lost; and there was no need of outraging them in the tenderest point by depriving them of this last illusion of their feelings, and the sole surviving pride and treasure of their hearts.” – Historian William Smyth

A bourgeois revolution?

A separate noteworthy observation regarding the abolition of the nobility comes from Historian Simon Schama. Much is made about the French Revolution being a bourgeois revolution. However, as Historian Simon Schama notes, the attack against nobility in June 1790 was not led by the bourgeoisie.

“The most remarkable thing about these transformations was that they were, once again overwhelmingly, the work of aristocrats, ci-devant nobles. Though, numerically, aristocrats did not dominate the Assembly, the working committees that drafted the constitution and provided France with the shape of its new institutions were monopolized by a relatively small intellectual elite, many of whom had known each other before the Revolution and a striking number of whom had been officers of the old monarchy in either the army, judiciary, government or church. The one thing the Constituent Assembly was manifestly not was bourgeois.” – Historian Simon Schama

Consequences of the Abolition of Nobility
Trauma & Despair 

The first consequence of note is that the decree permanently crystalised the divide between the nation and the nobility. In a period of 18 months, the aristocracy had gone from privileged people to orcratised others. Through the suppression of aristocracy, the greatest indignity had been bestowed upon the nobility. Having been robbed of power, of property, of prestige, of privilege, they had now been robbed of their identity. 

Historian Hippolyte Taine recounts multiple letters from distressed nobles lamenting their position in the new regime.

One letter from the Franche-Comte reads, “It is absolutely in opposition to the rights of man to find one’s self in perpetual fear of having one’s throat cut by scoundrels who are daily confounding liberty with license.”

A second letter from Champagne, “I never knew anything so wearying as this anxiety about property and security.  Never was there a better reason for it. A moment suffices to let loose an intractable population which thinks that it may do what it pleases, and which is carefully sustained in that error”

Another letter foreshadows the future, “We are not so base as to endure it.  Our right to resist oppression is not due to a decree of the National Assembly, but to natural law.  We are going to leave, and to die if necessary. But to live under such a revolting anarchy ! Should it not be broken up we shall never set foot in France again!”

Noble Emigration 

Having cemented the division between nation and nobility, the abolition of aristocracy’s immediate effect was to trigger another great wave of emigration throughout France. While the number of emigres was perhaps little more than 10,000 by the end of 1791, the idea of thousands of nobles crossing the border sparked dred amongst the revolutionaries.  This was, afterall, the military elite of France, and they took with them knowledge and wealth which they openly proclaimed they intended to use to overturn the new regime.

On December the 17th, the British Ambassador wrote, “’The aristocratic party express openly in public their hopes of a speedy counter-revolution. It is certain that the capital is regarded with a jealous eye by the provinces ; which jealousy is industriously fomented by all those, a considerable number indeed, who are dissatisfied with the present Government. Three people have been lately taken up and sent to the prison of Pierre Encise near Lyons on account of the discovery of a treasonable plot ; and between hope and fear many people attached to the former system are daily quitting Paris.”

February 1791 Debate on Emigration Decree

Proponents of the laws restricting emigration argued that allowing nobles to leave France was the equivalent of endangering the state, since the emigres openly declared their intention to wage war on the revolutionary regime. Opponents of the proposed decree argued that personal liberty could not be constrained, and that any restrictions on emigration violated the principles of liberty enshrined in the Declaration of the Rights of Man.

“You say that a law against emigrants is contrary to the constitution; I say that, without such a law, we shall have no constitution” – Jean-François Rewbell

 “The horror expressed on the reading of this project proves that this is a law worthy of being placed in the code of Draco, and cannot find place among the decrees of the national assembly of France. I proclaim that I shall consider myself released from every oath of fidelity I have made towards those who may be infamous enough to nominate a dictatorial commission. The popularity I covet, and which I have the honour to enjoy, is not a feeble reed; I wish it to take root in the soil, based on justice and liberty.” – Mirabeau

Mirabeau and his secret dealings with the court

Through his unexpectedly successful and noteworthy Presidency, and through the defeat of the controversial emigration bill, by March 1790, Mirabeau was at the height of his power. 

The British Ambassador wrote on the 4th of March,  “…the Government of the kingdom seems to be going fast into [the hands] of Mr de Mirabeau, whose conduct since his presidency and his election as one of the administrators of the department of Paris has been much and deservedly applauded.”

It was not only publicly that Mirabeau held power, privately he did too, or at least, so he thought. Since May 1790, Mirabeau had been secretly working for the court. Advising the King and Queen behind closed doors, the people’s champion was actually championing the interests of royalty. Thus, with the power he held publicly, and the power he thought he held privately, Mirabeau was eager to exert his influence to consolidate the revolution, to tame the increasingly radical Jacobin club, and to cement the new constitutional monarchy.

Historiography of Mirabeau’s Secret Dealings

Some Historians, such as Georges Lefebvre, conclude that Mirabeau was a corrupt, self-interested politician who was deficient in both morals and principles. For the right price, Mirabeau could always be bought, and his self-interested schemes were motivated not by patriotism but by personal enrichment.

Not all historians are so critical. Historian Francois Mignet notes that many revolutionaries colluded with the court, and rejects the notion that Mirabeau was a man without principles.  The Count’s mistake, according to Mignet, was accepting payment for his actions.

“After having been one of the chief authors of reform, he sought to give it stability by enchaining faction. His object was to convert the court to the revolution, not to give up the revolution to the court. The support he offered was constitutional; he could not offer any other; for his power depended on his popularity, and his popularity on his principles. But he was wrong in suffering it to be bought. Had not his immense necessities obliged him to accept money and sell his counsels, he would not have been more blameable than the unalterable Lafayette, the Lameths and the Girondins, who successively negotiated with it.” – Historian Francois Mignet

Historian Bertha Gardiner takes a different view. Rejecting the notion that Mirabeau was a man without principles, Gardiner nevertheless notes that Mirabeau’s council often benefited his personal aspirations.

“It is wrong to regard Mirabeau as having been false to his principles because he entered into a pecuniary transaction with the King. He was a monarchist before 1789, and he died one in 1791. But the low moral elevation of his character vitiated his judgment, and increased the difficulties in his path. By taking money of the King he was precluded from the 

possibility of obtaining his confidence. Louis and Marie Antoinette never regarded him otherwise than as a dangerous demagogue bought over. The distrust in which his fellow deputies held him was not without justification. He was quite unscrupulous as to what means he employed to gain his ends, and did not hesitate to speak words in direct opposition to his real opinion, nor to support measures which he deemed injurious, in order to lower the Assembly in the opinion of the country, and increase the possibility of bringing about a reaction in the royal favour. It is difficult to doubt that his intense mortification at being excluded from the ministry made him more ready to countenance the idea of civil war.” – Historian Bertha Gardiner

Mirabeau’s Death

By March 1790, Mirabeau was at the height of his power. Unfortunately for Mirabeau, he would not get the chance to use it. On the 2nd of April, 1791, at the age of 42, the champion of people was dead. 

On his deathbed he told his friend Talleyrand, “I carry away with me the last shreds of the monarchy.” Within 18 months of his death, France was a republic.

Grey History