The Culmination of the French Revolution and End to the Absolute Monarch

King Louis XVI Orders the Proclamation of the Revolutionary Constitution to the People of France.

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The French Revolution was a watershed moment not only for France but for Europe and the world. An absolute monarchy was toppled and a class structure many centuries in the building was leveled by a populist uprising. The relationship between King and people on the Continent would never be the same. Louis...

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The Culmination of the French Revolution and End to the Absolute Monarch

King Louis XVI Orders the Proclamation of the Revolutionary Constitution to the People of France.

The French Revolution was a watershed moment not only for France but for Europe and the world. An absolute monarchy was toppled and a class structure many centuries in the building was leveled by a populist uprising. The relationship between King and people on the Continent would never be the same. Louis XVI acceded to the throne at age 20 in 1774, an amiable but disinterested monarch with little affinity for managing the nation's business. Yet between his ascension and 1788, France faced great economic challenges. Its economy was on the brink of bankruptcy, the people lived in poverty, and the streets of Paris were overrun by the unemployed and hungry; at the same time, the economically prosperous lived well, and ostentatiously well at that. In 1788, a series of crop failures raised the level of dissatisfaction and brought matters to a head.

In France, what was known as the First Estate comprised 10,000 Catholic clergy who owned up to 10% of the lands in the country. All their property was tax exempt. The Second Estate comprised the nobility, which consisted of some 400,000 persons at the time. Since the death of Louis XIV in 1715, the nobles had enjoyed a resurgence in power. They had almost a monopoly over distinguished government service, higher church offices, army parliaments, and most other public and semipublic honors. Like the First Estate, they were not taxed. The Third Estate comprised about 25 million people: the bourgeoisie, the peasants, and everyone else in France. These people were compelled to pay taxes, so the entire heavy burden of the French government fell upon their shoulders. There was much resentment from the Third Estate towards its supposed superiors.

After an Assembly of Notables failed because the First and Second Estates would not consider starting to pay any taxes, the nobles called for an Estates General, a meeting of the three social classes; this had not happened since 1614.  Louis XVI allowed it.  In 1789 the Estates General met, but it was rigged against the Third Estate. The Third Estate delegates responded by declaring themselves a National Assembly, an assembly not of the Estates but of "the People". They invited the other orders to join them, but made it clear that they intended to conduct the nation's affairs with or without them. They were supported by some of the more liberal minded men from the other two Estates. They famously met on a tennis court, other places having been barred to them.  As would become his pattern, the King acquiesced, though he began to feel uneasy and started gathering troops.

With soldiers amassing in Paris and the food shortage worsening, Louis dismissed the popular, liberal-minded finance minister, Jacques Necker.  This outraged the people, and with liberty and the American Revolution as a precedent, they stormed and took the Bastille prison on July 14, 1789. Again the King sought to accommodate, coming to Paris and wearing the tricolor cockade, symbol of the people. He also restored Necker, and feeling obliged or threatened by the will of the people, sent his troops away.  The Paris militia became the National Guard, an armed force established to maintain order under the control of the Assembly; it was led by the Marquis de Lafayette. In October, after an attack on Versailles, Louis moved to Paris where he thought he'd be more secure; this proved, however, to be the first step toward his losing all power.  Between then and 1791, a process of power transfer occurred, and the King lost more and more.  Consistent with this, a momentous step was being considered in the Assembly, which was working toward a constitution that would end the absolute monarchy and bring about the formal government of the people.  This would be the first written constitution in France, and would separate the powers, give authority to the people, and isolate the monarchy from the legislative and judicial branches. The chief member of the Constitution Committee was Jacques Thouret, and at his behest, the Declaration of the Rights Man was added to the Constitution.
Louis now feared for his life and safety.  In June 1791, he and his family fled Paris in disguise.  They were, however, recognized and brought back to the capital.  He was now a prisoner, and there remained only a new constitution to end autocratic rule.

On September 3, 1791, the Constitution was finished, and on the 5th a deputation of sixty members of the Assembly, led by Thouret, presented it to the King. A few days later Thouret became President of the Assembly, with responsibility for communicating with the King and promulgating the Constitution. Louis disliked the document, and some of his councilors urged him not to agree. However, he felt he had little choice but to concur. On September 13, Louis's Minister of Justice presented the Assembly with a letter indicating that the King would accept the will of the people and agree to the Constitution, and Louis presented a speech to Thouret that he intended to give on the following day to the National Assembly stating that agreement himself. On September 14, he went to the National Assembly and addressed a special session. When he entered, the members rose in silence; the throne was gone and the executive would no longer be the sovereign. Louis rose, and agreeing to the Constitution, stated: "I swear fidelity to the Nation and the Law."  He also signed it in the presence of the Assembly. At this moment, he realized that the Assembly was seated though he was standing, something unheard of previously.  "May this great and memorable time be that of peace, union and happiness of the people and prosperity of the Kingdom," he said. Thouret immediately stood up and stated that the Constitution was accepted, adding that France needed the King and the monarchy. The Assembly members cried out, "Long live the King" and escorted him back to his palace. As for the King's real feelings, Louis told his wife, Marie Antoinette, "What humiliation; all is lost."

All that remained now was to officially proclaim the Constitution to the people of France. Later that day, Thouret drafted a proclamation and sent it to the King to approve. The King reviewed it and discussed it with his councilors. The next day, September 15, the signed Constitution was presented to the Assembly, and as recounted in the book "The Remaking of France: the National Assembly and the Constitution of 1791", with delegates concurring that the Constitution created a new alliance between the French and King Louis, the Assembly determined to commemorate Louis's acceptance of the Constitution with thanksgiving and festivities on September 18.
Louis made a few changes in the draft on the 15th and sent the final proclamation to Thouret, along with a letter ordering that it be published. This promulgation of the Constitution would be the final step in law, and the people would know he was on their side. The final document was headed "Proclamation of the Constitution," and announces: "The Constitutional Act has been solemnly accepted and signed by the King, the 14th day of this same month." This news caused celebrations throughout France.

This is that very letter. In it, you will see that Louis was very concerned about timing. He wanted the proclamation dated after he had discussed it with his ministers, but prior to the Assembly's voting to commemorate the act. Autograph letter signed, Paris, "the 15th [of September 1791] in the evening," clearly to Thouret.  "Monsieur, I send you the proclamation.  I have made only a few changes in style.  Order it printed this night so that it might appear tomorrow at an early hour.  You should date it yesterday the 14th when I addressed it to the Council.  It ought not be subsequent to what was said today to the Assembly. Louis." The King believed that, with this, "The revolution is completed." He had bowed to the will of the people, signed away his power, and ensured his demise. It is fascinating to note that, by making changes in style, the King of France by divine right indicated that he cared very much about public opinion. This letter was previously in the noted Thomas L. Shattuck collection, and was included in an exhibition on the French Revolution that promoted Franco-American friendship during World War II.

The French Revolution is one of the most important events of world history, transforming Europe and indeed the world. And this was its culmination. Unfortunately for Louis, his monarchy was doomed, and he would be dead in less than 2 years. France would suffer a Reign of Terror, then replace a King with an Emperor, in the person of the dominating figure of his era, Napoleon Bonaparte.  With the Napoleonic wars, an era of nationalism would rise. And in the century after him, all the monarchies of Europe would either fall, or become constitutional monarchies.

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