Towards a Constitutional Monarchy

The period 1789-1791 was a time of uncertainty in France. This tile covers the attempts to establish a constitutional monarchy – and their disastrous failure.

Abolished the system of privileges in France

May-June 1789: from the Etats Generaux to the National Assembly

The États Généraux, or Estates General, was a meeting of representatives from the three estates of French society: the clergy (the first estate), the nobility (the second estate) and commoners (the third estate). It had not been convened since 1614 and its purpose in 1789 was to address France’s financial crisis.


On May 5th, the Third Estate seized their moment. The representatives of the Third Estate broke away from the États Généraux, declaring themselves a National Assembly, with the intention of creating a new constitution for France. The king, determined to seize back control, used maintenance works as a pretext to close the halls where the Third Estate met.

Uncertain about the king’s intention and feeling threatened, the National Assembly regrouped on an early tennis court on June 20th and swore not to disband until the Constitution was enacted, in what was known as the ‘Tennis Court Oath.’

This declared that they would not stop until a written constitution, setting out the rights and civil liberties of all French citizens, was established for France.

July 14th 1789: the Bastille falls

Away from Versailles, Paris was undergoing unrest prompted by the economic conditions and the political events in the capital. On July 14th, Parisians stormed the Bastille to grab the weapons stored there and then destroyed the building – not one brick remains today.


**The Bastille was a prison** which, by then, was mostly empty, but had come to symbolize the arbitrary nature of royal power. Kings could send men to the Bastille with no legal recourse (at times, mothers and fathers had asked for one to send an unruly son away).

Beyond this symbolic charge, this event represented the first moment of violence in the Revolution, with the governor of the fort and its guards, who had all surrendered, massacred by the crowd.

August 1789: the abolishing of privileges

On the night of August 4th, the new National Assembly voted to end privileges. This meant a declaration that the feudal system was entirely abolished. No longer was the Second Estate – the nobility – entitled to special legal privileges.

**On August 26th, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen was enacted.**​​

This document was a fundamental cornerstone of the French Revolution establishing the equality of all men before the law, as well as freedom of religion, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, and freedom of association.

The abolition of privilege also extended to taxation; progressive taxes were introduced which meant those with higher incomes paid more than those with lower ones.

October 1789: the king is taken back to Paris.

In October 1789, a cohort of women walked from Paris to Versailles to protest about the price of bread, and ended up bringing back the king and his family. The people still professed unconditional love for their king, whose faults were always blamed on bad advisors and greedy ministers, but at the same time it was made clear he was coming back to his Paris palace of Tuileries as a hostage.

Forcefully moving the royal family (and, therefore, the country’s capital) from Versailles to Paris symbolized Louis’s change of status from ‘King of France’ to ‘King of the French’ – in Paris he was among the French people, and was felt to be representing them. In Versailles he had been a distant and removed figure, who felt no real responsibility to his people.

This is the start of two important trends. Firstly, it was the **first instance of mass emigration**, the flight abroad of aristocrats worried for their safety. Secondly, it demonstrated the **inability of the National Assembly to control popular movements**, and their tendency to follow them rather than lead.

July 14th 1790: the Revolution’s one happy moment?

July 14th, France’s national holiday is known by English speakers as ‘Bastille day,’ but that is incorrect. It is meant to celebrate both the fall of the Bastille, a violent event that saw people who laid down arms gunned down and dismembered, and the Festival of the Federation, a peaceful event exactly a year later.

The Festival saw joyous civil events organized throughout France to celebrate the new monarchy which many hoped would mark the rise of a liberal regime similar to England’s.

July 1790 The civil constitution: a religious revolution

The National Assembly tried to sever the links between the Catholic religion in France and the Pope’s power in Rome: priests were to swear allegiance to the Civil Constitution of the Clergy. All privileges enjoyed by the Catholic clergy – who had been exempt from most French law – were abolished. Church property was to be nationalized, and all religious orders expelled from the country.

The Civil Constitution was met with fierce opposition from both within France and abroad; Pope Pius VI condemned it as “a schismatic act” that threatened “the unity of faith”.

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