French Constitution of 1791

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French Constitution of 1791
Constitution de 1791. Page 1 - Archives Nationales - AE-I-10-1.jpg
French Constitution of 1791.
Original title(in French) Constitution française du 3 september 1791

The short-lived French Constitution of 1791 was the first written constitution in France, created after the collapse of the absolute monarchy of the Ancien Régime. One of the basic precepts of the revolution was adopting constitutionality and establishing popular sovereignty.

Ancien Régime Monarchic, aristocratic, social and political system established in the Kingdom of France from approximately the 15th century until the later 18th century

The Ancien Régime was the political and social system of the Kingdom of France from the Late Middle Ages until 1789, when hereditary monarchy and the feudal system of French nobility were abolished by the French Revolution. The Ancien Régime was ruled by the late Valois and Bourbon dynasties. The term is occasionally used to refer to the similar feudal systems of the time elsewhere in Europe. The administrative and social structures of the Ancien Régime were the result of years of state-building, legislative acts, internal conflicts, and civil wars, but they remained and the Valois Dynasty's attempts at re-establishing control over the scattered political centres of the country were hindered by the Huguenot Wars. Much of the reigns of Henry IV and Louis XIII and the early years of Louis XIV were focused on administrative centralization. Despite, however, the notion of "absolute monarchy" and the efforts by the kings to create a centralized state, the Kingdom of France retained its irregularities: authority regularly overlapped and nobles struggled to retain autonomy.

French Revolution Revolution in France, 1789 to 1798

The French Revolution was a period of far-reaching social and political upheaval in France and its colonies beginning in 1789. The Revolution overthrew the monarchy, established a republic, catalyzed violent periods of political turmoil, and finally culminated in a dictatorship under Napoleon who brought many of its principles to areas he conquered in Western Europe and beyond. Inspired by liberal and radical ideas, the Revolution profoundly altered the course of modern history, triggering the global decline of absolute monarchies while replacing them with republics and liberal democracies. Through the Revolutionary Wars, it unleashed a wave of global conflicts that extended from the Caribbean to the Middle East. Historians widely regard the Revolution as one of the most important events in human history.

Constitutionality is the condition of acting in accordance with an applicable constitution; the status of a law, a procedure, or an act's accordance with the laws or guidelines set forth in the applicable constitution. When one of these directly violates the constitution, it is unconstitutional. All the rest are considered constitutional until challenged and declared otherwise, typically by courts through judicial review.

Contents

Drafting process

Early efforts

The National Assembly began the process of drafting a constitution. The Declaration of the Rights of Man, adopted on 26 August 1789 eventually became the preamble of the constitution adopted on 3 September 1791. [1] The Declaration offered sweeping generalizations about rights, liberty, and sovereignty. [2]

National Assembly (French Revolution) assembly during the French Revolution

During the French Revolution, the National Assembly, which existed from 4 June 1789 to 9 July 1789, was a revolutionary assembly formed by the representatives of the Third Estate of the Estates-General; thereafter it was known as the National Constituent Assembly, though popularly the shorter form persisted.

Preamble introductory statement in a document that explains its purpose and underlying philosophy

A preamble is an introductory and expressionary statement in a document that explains the document's purpose and underlying philosophy. When applied to the opening paragraphs of a statute, it may recite historical facts pertinent to the subject of the statute. It is distinct from the long title or enacting formula of a law.

A twelve-member Constitutional Committee was convened on 14 July 1789 (coincidentally the day of the Storming of the Bastille). Its task was to do much of the drafting of the articles of the constitution. It included originally two members from the First Estate (Champion de Cicé, Archbishop of Bordeaux and Talleyrand, Bishop of Autun); two from the Second (the comte de Clermont-Tonnerre and the marquis de Lally-Tollendal); and four from the Third (Jean Joseph Mounier, Abbé Sieyès, Nicholas Bergasse, and Isaac René Guy le Chapelier).

Storming of the Bastille Major event of the French Revolution

The Storming of the Bastille occurred in Paris, France, on the afternoon of 14 July 1789.

Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord French diplomat

Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, 1st Prince of Benevento, then 1st Duke of Talleyrand, was a French politician and diplomat. After theology studies, he became in 1780 Agent-General of the Clergy and represented the Catholic Church to the French Crown. He worked at the highest levels of successive French governments, most commonly as foreign minister or in some other diplomatic capacity. His career spanned the regimes of Louis XVI, the years of the French Revolution, Napoleon, Louis XVIII, and Louis-Philippe. Those he served often distrusted Talleyrand but, like Napoleon, found him extremely useful. The name "Talleyrand" has become a byword for crafty, cynical diplomacy.

Gérard de Lally-Tollendal French politician

Trophime-Gérard, marquis de Lally-Tollendal was a French politician.

Many proposals for redefining the French state were floated, particularly in the days after the remarkable sessions of 4–5 August 1789 and the abolition of feudalism. For instance, the Marquis de Lafayette proposed a combination of the American and British systems, introducing a bicameral parliament, with the king having the suspensive veto power over the legislature, modeled to the authority then recently vested in the President of the United States.

A bicameral legislature has legislators in two separate assemblies, chambers, or houses. Bicameralism is distinguished from unicameralism, in which all members deliberate and vote as a single group, and from some legislatures that have three or more separate assemblies, chambers, or houses. As of 2015, fewer than half the world's national legislatures are bicameral.

Parliament legislature whose power and function are similar to those dictated by the Westminster system of the United Kingdom

In modern politics and history, a parliament is a legislative body of government. Generally, a modern parliament has three functions: representing the electorate, making laws, and overseeing the government via hearings and inquiries.The term is similar to the idea of a senate, synod or congress, and is commonly used in countries that are current or former monarchies, a form of government with a monarch as the head. Some contexts restrict the use of the word parliament to parliamentary systems, although it is also used to describe the legislature in some presidential systems, even where it is not in the official name.

Veto legal power to unilaterally stop an official action, especially the enactment of legislation

A veto is the power to unilaterally stop an official action, especially the enactment of legislation. A veto can be absolute, as for instance in the United Nations Security Council, whose permanent members can block any resolution, or it can be limited, as in the legislative process of the United States, where a two-thirds vote in both the House and Senate will override a Presidential veto of legislation. A veto may give power only to stop changes, like the US legislative veto, or to also adopt them, like the legislative veto of the Indian President, which allows him to propose amendments to bills returned to the Parliament for reconsideration.

The main controversies early on surrounded the issues of what level of power to be granted to the king of France (i.e.: veto, suspensive or absolute) and what form would the legislature take (i.e.: unicameral or bicameral). The Constitutional Committee proposed a bicameral legislature, but the motion was defeated 10 September 1789 (849–89) in favor of one house; the next day, they proposed an absolute veto, but were again defeated (673–325) in favor of a suspensive veto, which could be over-ridden by three consecutive legislatures.

New Constitutional Committee

A second Constitutional Committee quickly replaced it, and included Talleyrand, Abbé Sieyès, and Le Chapelier from the original group, as well as new members Gui-Jean-Baptiste Target, Jacques Guillaume Thouret, Jean-Nicolas Démeunier, François Denis Tronchet, and Jean-Paul Rabaut Saint-Étienne, all of the Third Estate.

Gui-Jean-Baptiste Target French lawyer and politician

Gui-Jean-Baptiste Target was a French lawyer and politician.

Jacques Guillaume Thouret French revolutionary

Jacques Guillaume Thouret was a French Girondin revolutionary, lawyer, president of the National Constituent Assembly and victim of the guillotine.

Jean-Nicolas Démeunier French politician

Jean-Nicolas Démeunier was a French author and politician.

Their greatest controversy faced by this new committee surrounded the issue of citizenship. Would every subject of the French Crown be given equal rights, as the Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen seemed to promise, or would there be some restrictions? The October Days (5–6 October) intervened and rendered the question much more complicated. In the end, a distinction was held between active citizens (over the age of 25, paid direct taxes equal to three days' labor) which had political rights, and passive citizens, who had only civil rights. This conclusion was intolerable to such radical deputies as Maximilien Robespierre, and thereafter they never could be reconciled to the Constitution of 1791.

Committee of Revisions

A second body, the Committee of Revisions, was struck September 1790, and included Antoine Barnave, Adrien Duport, and Charles de Lameth. Because the National Assembly was both a legislature and a constitutional convention, it was not always clear when its decrees were constitutional articles or mere statutes. It was the job of this committee to sort it out. The committee became very important in the days after the Champs de Mars Massacre, when a wave of revulsion against popular movements swept France and resulted in a renewed effort to preserve powers for the Crown. The result is the rise of the Feuillants, a new political faction led by Barnave, who used his position on the committee to preserve a number of powers for the Crown, such as the nomination of ambassadors, military leaders, and ministers.

Results

Proclamation of the Constitution on the place du marche des Innocents on September 14, 1791, by Jean-Louis Prieur, (Musee de la Revolution francaise). Proclamation Constitution 1791, Musee de la Revolution francaise - Vizille.jpg
Proclamation of the Constitution on the place du marché des Innocents on September 14, 1791, by Jean-Louis Prieur, (Musée de la Révolution française).

After very long negotiations, the constitution was reluctantly accepted by King Louis XVI in September 1791. Redefining the organization of the French government, citizenship and the limits to the powers of government, the National Assembly set out to represent the interests of the general will. It abolished many “institutions which were injurious to liberty and equality of rights”. The National Assembly asserted its legal presence in French government by establishing its permanence in the Constitution and forming a system for recurring elections. The Assembly's belief in a sovereign nation and in equal representation can be seen in the constitutional separation of powers. The National Assembly was the legislative body, the king and royal ministers made up the executive branch and the judiciary was independent of the other two branches. On a local level, the previous feudal geographic divisions were formally abolished, and the territory of the French state was divided into several administrative units, Departments (Départements), but with the principle of centralism.

Evaluation

The Assembly, as constitution-framers, were afraid that if only representatives governed France, it was likely to be ruled by the representatives' self-interest; therefore, the king was allowed a suspensive veto to balance out the interests of the people. By the same token, representative democracy weakened the king’s executive authority.

The constitution was not egalitarian by today's standards. It distinguished between the propertied active citizens and the poorer passive citizens. Women lacked rights to liberties such as education, freedom to speak, write, print and worship.

Keith M. Baker writes in his essay “Constitution” that the National Assembly threaded between two options when drafting the Constitution: they could modify the existing, unwritten constitution centered on the three estates of the Estates General or they could start over and rewrite it completely. The National Assembly wanted to reorganize social structure and legalize itself: while born of the Estates General of 1789, it had abolished the tricameral structure of that body.

With the onset of war and the threat of the revolution's collapse, radical Jacobin and ultimately republican conceptions grew enormously in popularity, increasing the influence of Robespierre, Danton, Marat and the Paris Commune. When the King used his veto powers to protect non-juring priests and refused to raise militias in defense of the revolutionary government, the constitutional monarchy proved unworkable and was effectively ended by the 10 August insurrection. A National Convention was called, electing Robespierre as its first deputy; it was the first assembly in France elected by universal male suffrage. The convention declared France a republic on 22 September 1792. [3]

See also

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References

  1. The Constitution of 1791
  2. Popiel, Jennifer; Carnes, Mark; Kates, Gary (2015). Rousseau, Burke, and Revolution in France, 1791 (Second ed.). W. W. Norton & Company. p. 29. ISBN   978-0-393-93888-3.
  3. Pertue, M. "Constitution de 1791," in Soboul, Ed., "Dictionnaire historique de la Revolution francaise," pp. 282–83. Quadrige/PUF, Paris: 2005.