Six Questions on the French Revolution
Question One: Which document of 1776 is in part the inspiration for The Declaration of the Rights of Man?
The 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man was heavily influenced by The American Declaration of Independence, which had been drawn up just thirteen years earlier. By examining the two documents closely, it is possible to find many similarities within the various subsections. In the opening paragraph of the French document, for example, the Assembly declares that “Men are born free and remain free and equal in rights”, whilst the authors of The American Declaration “hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are treated equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
References to the vast importance of the general will of the people can also be found in both documents, providing evidence of the emerging spirit of democracy. The French were keen to stress that the law was “the expression of the general will” and that “all citizens have the right, personally or by their representatives, to agree in its establishment.” The Americans had used a similar turn of phrase in 1776, when it was explained that in order to secure the rights of the people “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed”. Also, to safeguard against the possible corruption of the representatives of the people, The American Declaration accepted that “it is the Right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute new Government”, with the French stating quite categorically that “No group or individual may exercise authority not derived expressly from it.”
The question that arises from each of the two documents, and which American and French sources fail to explain, is just how they planned to deal with the problem of majoritarianism. In other words, whilst on the surface it seemed praiseworthy to create an outlet for the general will of the people, the documents imply that the will of the people must be implemented at all times; regardless of the moral implications of such a policy. So whilst the context of the two documents are very similar, they are also rather alike in that they lack any reference to a genuinely practical application of the ideas expressed therein.
1. The Declaration of the Rights of Man, 26th August 1789.
2. The American Declaration of Independence, 1776.
3. The Declaration of the Rights of Man, op. cit.
5. The American Declaration of Independence, op. cit.
7. The Declaration of the Rights of Man, op. cit.
Question Two: What evidence is there to support the fact that Jean-Jacques Rousseau provided some of the ideas contained in The Declaration of the Rights of Man?
Rousseau’s influence on The Declaration of the Rights of Man stemmed from his 1758 work, The Social Contract. In particular, Rousseau had laid the foundations for the French Declaration by defining what he perceived to be the general will of the people. For after all, this very will was exactly what the revolutionaries were claiming to represent.
In Rousseau’s opinion, “The body politic is a moral being, possessed of a will, and this general will, which tends always to the preservation and welfare of the whole and of every part, and is the source for the laws, constitutes for all the members of the State, in their relations to one another and to it, the rule of what is just or unjust”. In plain and simple English, Rousseau was willing to trust the judgement of the French people and took it for granted that they were capable of making decisions that would benefit the nation as a whole. As already explained in Question One, such a notion is potentially dangerous if attempted on a national scale and the reason The Declaration of the Rights of Man was so impractical was due to the fact that Rousseau believed the French people embodied “the voice of God.” Without possessing even the slightest semblance of a moral or spiritual framework within which the people could truly express themselves in accordance with Natural Law and Objective Truth, Rousseau’s Social Contract had been the contradiction in terms that had made The Declaration of the Rights of Man so open to abuse thirty-one years later. In the words of Hilaire Belloc, the argument against such a form of democracy is “that man being prone to evil, something external to him and indifferent to his passions must be put up to govern him; or the people will corrupt themselves”. I cannot agree that people must be governed in this manner, but Rousseau’s ideas certainly do ignore the fact that rampant majoritarianism – when devoid of a more transcendental vision – is capable of leading us to ruin.
1. Jean-Jacques Rousseau; The Social Contract and Discourses (Trans. G. D. H. Cole, Everyman Edition, 1938), pp. 253-4.
3. Hilaire Belloc; The French Revolution (Thornton Butterworth, 1929), p. 33.
Question Three: Which enlightened thinker provided the most ideas for The Constitution?
In 1748, over forty years before the events of the French Revolution, Montesquieu had written his work on The Separation of Powers, unwittingly shaping the very structure of The Constitution of 3rd September 1791. Montesquieu based his work on a wide study of various national governments and arrived at the conclusion that there were “three sorts of powers: the legislative power, the executive power of things which concern the rights of the people and the legislative power of that which concerns civil rights (the relations of the citizens with each other).” He went on to explain that “all will be lost” if only one man or group of people gained control of all three areas of power. Montesquieu was just one of many enlightened thinkers emerging from eighteenth-century France, and his revolutionary opinions on religion and the monarchy were well known. On one occasion he had even mocked the memory of Louis XIV in the pages of his Lettres persanes.
In pre-Revolutionary France, the Sovereign Courts had based their powers on historic rights and claimed to be the guardians of the fundamental laws of the kingdom. However, once imbued with the ideas of Montesquieu they adopted the role of ‘corps intermediarires’ and saw themselves as the link between the King and his subjects. This change is demonstrative of the way the King and his absolutist regime was slowly beginning to relinquish total power, and the views of the people were considered to be far more representative of those of the nation as a whole.
According to Alfred Cobban, Montesquieu was trying to strike a balance between what he saw as the three main powers in France, and not at all proposing that there should be a complete separation. By the time The Constitution was finally drawn up in 1791, the ideas of Montesquieu had been grossly taken out of context. Montesquieu had wanted power to pass smoothly from the absolutist court to an assembly dominated by the financial and judicial nobility, rather than threaten the established order itself. Indeed, Montesquieu was heavily criticised for his reluctance to upset the applecart; not least by a young radical known as Grouvelle who, in 1788, accused him of “demonstrating the advantages of a government in which you occupied an advantageous place.”
Finally, although Montesquieu’s ideas had provided the basis of The Constitution in the first place, those who believed themselves to be implementing such ideas were in fact going much further than Montesquieu himself would have wanted. In the words of Camille Desmoulins, “there has been such a confusion of plans, and so many people have worked at it in contrary directions, that it is a veritable Tower of Babel.”
1. Baron de Montesquieu; L’Espirit des Lois, Liv XI, Chap. VI (Bayet & Albert, 1926), pp. 34-5.
3. Alfred Cobban; A History of Modern France – Volume 1: 1715-1799 (Penguin, 1981), p. 29.
4. Ibid., p. 129.
6. Ibid., p. 166.
7. Simon Schama; Citizens (Viking, 1989), p. 289.
8. Ibid., p. 121.
9. ‘Discours sur la Situation politique de la Nation du 21 Octobre 1791’ in Aulard’s Seances des Jacobins, iii, 208.
Question Four: Why was the King reluctant to accept The Constitution?
The very fabric of The Constitution represented a direct attack on the absolutism of the French monarchy. It was quite inevitable that there would be a confrontation between the National Assembly and Louis XVI. When the King was presented with The Constitution in 1791, he was already a prisoner, having been brought to Paris from his palace at Versailles.
Although the individuals behind the document were still prepared to accept that the King was “inviolable and sacred” and that the “Monarchy is delegated hereditarily to the reigning family”, Louis XVI was seen as “King of the French” rather than as King of France. At first glance this change seems rather trivial and unimportant, but on closer inspection we see that The Constitution was declaring that Louis XVI retain his position as King but relinquish his power over the nation. “The Constitution”, wrote Nesta Webster, “was a mass of contradictions; it was neither democratic nor autocratic, neither republican nor monarchic, and consequently satisfied neither Royalists nor revolutionaries.”
The King had no choice but to submit to the demands for a constitutional monarchy, and whilst he could give his opinion on any article of legislature, any refusal to accept the demands of the National Assembly “may only be suspensive” and he could be over-ruled at any time. However, the King was still allowed to remain at the head of the Army and Navy, as well as “conduct negotiations [and] make preparations for war.”
Louis XVI was vigorously opposed to The Constitution and, although he finally agreed to make a formal acceptance of it on 18th September 1791, some believed that it was immoral to force a King to adhere to a document under duress. Louis XVI was forced to concede on the basis that he was afraid of provoking further revolutionary outbreaks of public disorder, which, for a King who was politically naïve but still genuinely concerned for the welfare of his people, had caused him a great deal of sadness and dismay. Another reason for his eventual acceptance of the document was the fear of war. In his own words: “war presents no other advantages but horror and a continuance of discord . . . the obstacles I would have put in the way [by refusing to accept The Constitution] would have brought about the war I sought to avoid and would have prevented the people from properly assessing The Constitution because it would have only seen my constant opposition.” Quite simply, the King failed to understand the root cause of that which – to him – represented a God-given right to rule over the French nation.
1. The Constitution, 3rd September 1791.
4. Nesta Webster; The French Revolution (Noontide Press, 1989), p. 186.
5. The Constitution, op. cit.
7. Simon Schama; Citizens (Viking, 1989), p. 573.
8. Feuillet de Conches; Louis XVI, II (John Hardman, undated), p. 138.
Question Five: What is meant by the phrases ‘active citizen’, ‘direct tax’; and ‘National Guard’?
i] The phrase ‘active citizen’ in Section 2(a) of The Constitution refers to an individual that may participate in the French electoral process. In other words, citizens who did not meet the specified criteria were deemed irrelevant in the eyes of their so-called liberators. These recommendations stated that one must have “been born or become a Frenchman – to be fully 25 years of age – to be resident in the city or canton … to pay a direct tax equal to at least three days labour. Not to be a servant for wages. To be inscribed upon the roll of the National Guard [see below]” and “to have taken the Civic Oath”. In addition to meeting the requirements of The Constitution, all prospective ‘active citizens’ in large cities had to own “property equal to the local value of 200 days’ labour; in rural districts (…) 150 days labour.” So it was perfectly clear that the poor underclass – which, in eighteenth-century France was fairly sizeable – was completely excluded from representing the nation in any way, shape or form.
ii] In order to secure his position as an active citizen, every individual was required to “pay a direct tax equal to at least three days labour”. Such an expression was used to indicate the difference between paying taxes as a general means of sustenance on the one hand, and paying a separate tax to enable one to engage in the electoral process on the other. In order to partake of the system of representative democracy – and note that like today’s electoral system it was far from being genuinely participatory – it was necessary to pay for the privilege of doing so.
iii] The ‘National Guard’ was a standing militia, constantly available in the event of any sudden public disorder. During the violent events of the French Revolution, a citizen’s guard was formed with the intention of protecting property belonging to ordinary men and women who had suffered from indiscriminate pillage at the hands of the mob. It was also considered necessary to protect the Third Estate from either real or imagined plots which had been organised by the aristocracy, and, with the gradual disintegration of Royalist forces, La Fayette was put in charge of the National Guard in Paris, making him the most powerful man in France.
1. The Constitution, 3rd September 1791.
5. Alfred Cobban; A History of Modern France – Volume 1: 1715-1799 (Penguin, 1981), p. 153.
Question Six: How democratic was The Constitution?
In order to answer this question it is necessary to know exactly what democracy is. The Ancient Greek philosophers used the term to refer to their ideal of ‘government for the people, by the people’, whilst the more established definition tells us that democracy is “government by the people, direct or representative; [a] form of society ignoring hereditary class distinctions and tolerating minority views”. It is upon this basis that I shall now judge The Constitution of 1791.
Firstly, although the French revolutionaries had previously made reference to the fact that “Hereditary nobility [was to be] abolished forever” and that “titles of prince, duke, count, marquee . . . shall neither be accepted nor bestowed” by 1791, The Constitution still had the King as the figurehead of the French nation. By representing a hereditary system, Louis XVI thus made the term ‘democracy’ both null and void. As far as “tolerating minority views” was concerned, it soon became apparent that – in classic Orwellian terms – some people were more equal than others. Apart from the obvious requirements of Article 2(a) of The Constitution listed above, the Deputies from the French Antilles refused to grant any privileges to their Black colonial slaves.
The Jews were also denied the ‘rights of man’ and were considered to be “struck by a political and religious malediction.” To conclude, therefore, it seems that The Constitution was far from democratic. Indeed, unless the ‘rights of man’ are offered to all people, regardless of social distinction or circumstantial qualification, the very notions of ‘Liberty, Equality and Fraternity’ are reduced to a complete sham. Not, of course, that the pseudo-egalitarianism of the French Revolution was ever going to be workable anyway.
1. J. B. Sykes (ed.); The Concise Oxford Dictionary (Oxford University Press, 1982), p. 254.
2. Decree, 19th June 1790.
4. J. B. Sykes (ed.), op. cit.
5. George Orwell; Animal Farm (Penguin, 1982), p. 114.
6. Simon Schama; Citizens (Viking, 1989), p. 498.