European History Pt. 38 — French Revolution ’89-’91

Last time I did some of the history leading up to the rights of man. This was mainly the history of the Summer of 1789.

Now we’ve established the national assembly and heard about the rights of man, we can see what the national assembly actually did. For two years, this assembly went about drafting stuff. They wrote scores and scores of new laws, changing the relationship of the French government to regional autonomy, to the church,and to economic policy. Their finished product was the Constitution of 1791, because it went into effect on that date and brought this period to a close.

I realize that my bullet pointing has been bad, so I’m going to try to be more synoptic today.


France was divided in 83 departments. The departments had large amounts of power and this became important once war began. These departments did whatever they wanted.

Louis Abandons the Revolution

In 1791, Louis tried to escape the country, but was caught at Varennes. This alienated him from the revolution and radicalized those who still trusted him. he later used refractory priests, further pushing him away from the revolutionary spirit. It’s a shame because there was a large window where his leadership would have been well received.


During the revolution, the debt of the old regime was never repudiated. This is significant, why not? The answer is that the debt was mainly owed to the ascendant bourgeois. One way the debt was paid is that church lands were confiscated and assignats were issued against that land. Owners of assignats could use them to buy church lands and many peasants  did. Without this property, public education in France, which was run by the Catholics, suffered.


The constituent (national) assembly also issued the civil constitution of the clergy which went very far to nationalize the french church, making some clergy positions elected and levying taxes for the maintenance of church functions. Bishops could not acknowledge papal supremacy — they were to be tools of the new government (as was the fashion of the time, enlightened despots were using religion to support their rule and property, leading to Marx’s invective against it). The refractory (non official) clergy were forced to turn to the pope, which greatly elevated the importance of the Vatican in French affairs. The civil constitution of the clergy, but creating a counter revolutionary sector of elites, has been called “the greatest tactical plunder of the Revolution.”

Next time is the much more violent “second revolution of 1792.


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