National Constituent Assembly (France)

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National Constituent Assembly

Assemblée nationale constituante
Kingdom of France
Emblem of the French national assembly (1789-1792).svg
Established9 July 1789
Disbanded30 September 1791
Preceded by National Assembly
Succeeded by National Legislative Assembly
SeatsVariable; 1315 in total
Meeting place

The National Constituent Assembly (French : Assemblée nationale constituante) was formed from the National Assembly on 9 July 1789 during the first stages of the French Revolution. It dissolved on 30 September 1791 and was succeeded by the Legislative Assembly. [1]




The Estates General of 1789, (Etats Généraux) made up of representatives of the three estates (clergy, aristocracy, and commoners), which had not been convoked since 1614, convened on 5 May 1789. The Estates-General reached a deadlock in its deliberations by 6 May. [2] :xv The representatives of the Third Estate attempted to make the whole body more effective and so met separately from 11 May as the Communes. On 12 June, the Communes invited the other Estates to join them: some members of the First Estate did so the following day. On 17 June 1789, the Communes approved the motion made by Sieyès that declared themselves the National Assembly [3] by a vote of 490 to 90. The Third Estate now believed themselves to be a legitimate authority equal to that of the King. Elements of the First Estate, primarily parish priests who were closer in wealth to the Third Estate compared to the bishops who were closer in wealth to the Second Estate, joined the assembly from 13 June onwards and, on 19 June, the whole of the clergy voted to join the National Assembly. [2] :xvi A legislative and political agenda unfolded.

Tennis Court Oath

Le serment de Jeu de Paume. Copper plate by Pierre-Gabriel Berthault after a drawing by Jean-Louis Prieur (1789). The representatives swore not to depart until they had given France a new constitution. Berthault - Le serment de Jeu de Paume.jpg
Le serment de Jeu de Paume. Copper plate by Pierre-Gabriel Berthault after a drawing by Jean-Louis Prieur (1789). The representatives swore not to depart until they had given France a new constitution.

There were soon attempts by King Louis XVI and the Second Estate to prevent the delegates from meeting, as well as misunderstandings on both sides about each other's intentions. Locked out of its chamber, the new assembly, led by its president Jean-Sylvain Bailly, was forced to relocate to a nearby tennis court, on 20 June; [4] there, it swore the Tennis Court Oath, (Le serment de Jeu de Paume) promising "not to separate, and to reassemble wherever circumstances require, until the constitution of the kingdom is established and consolidated upon solid foundations." [5] Failing to disperse the delegates, Louis started to recognize their validity on 27 June. [6]

The Assembly renamed itself the National Constituent Assembly on 9 July and began to function as a governing body and a constitution-drafter. [6] However, it is common to refer to the body even after then as the "National Assembly" or the "Constituent Assembly".

Structure in summer 1789

Following the storming of the Bastille on 14 July, the National Constituent Assembly became the effective government of France. In the words of historian François Mignet:

The assembly had acquired the entire power; the corporations depended on it; the national guards obeyed it... the royal power, though existing of right, was in a measure suspended, since it was not obeyed, and the assembly had to supply its action by its own. [7]

The number of the Estates-General increased significantly during the election period, but many deputies took their time arriving, some of them reaching Paris as late as 1791. According to Timothy Tackett, there were a total of 1,177 deputies in the Assembly by mid-July 1789. Among them, 278 belonged to the nobility, 295 to the clergy, and 604 were representatives of the Third Estate. For the entire duration of the Assembly, a total of 1,315 deputies were certified: 330 clerics, 322 nobles, and 663 deputies of the Third Estate. Tackett noted that the majority of the Second Estate had a military background, and the Third Estate was dominated by men of legal professions. [8]

Some of the leading figures of the Assembly at this time were:

One must add the role played by the Abbé Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès, especially in regard to the proposition of legislation in this period, as the man who, for a time, managed to bridge the differences between those who wanted a constitutional monarchy and those who wished to move towards more democratic, even republican directions.


For a detailed description of the proceedings in the National Constituent Assembly and related events, see the following articles:

For a list of presidents of the National Constituent Assembly, see List of Presidents of the French National Assembly.

For a partial list of members of the National Constituent Assembly, see Alphabetical list of members of the National Constituent Assembly of 1789.

Restoration of king

In the summer of 1791, the National Constituent Assembly decided that the king needed to be restored to the throne if he accepted the constitution. The decision was made after the king's failed flight to Varennes. [9] That decision enraged many Parisians into protesting, and one major protest devolved into the Champ de Mars Massacre, with 12 to 50 people killed by the National Guard. [10]


After surviving the vicissitudes of a revolutionary two years, the National Constituent Assembly dissolved itself on 30 September 1791. The following day, the Constitution of 1791 went into effect, which granted power to the Legislative Assembly. [11]

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  1. Leo Gershoy, The French Revolution and Napoleon (1964) pp. 107–71
  2. 1 2 Paul R. Hanson (15 January 2015). Historical Dictionary of the French Revolution. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. ISBN   978-0-8108-7892-1.
  3. Gershoy, The French Revolution and Napoleon (1964) pp. 100–07
  4. Simon Schama (5 August 2004). Citizens: A Chronicle of The French Revolution. Penguin Books Limited. p. 125. ISBN   978-0-14-101727-3.
  5. Fred Morrow Fling; Helene Dresser Fling (1913). Source Problems on the French Revolution. Harper & Brothers. p. 26.
  6. 1 2 Paul R. Hanson (23 February 2007). The A to Z of the French Revolution. Scarecrow Press. p. 14. ISBN   978-1-4617-1606-8.
  7. Mignet, François (1856). History of the French Revolution from 1789 to 1814. France. p. 61.
  8. Tackett, Timothy. Becoming a Revolutionary: The Deputies of the French National Assembly and the Emergence of a Revolutionary Culture (1789–1790). Princeton University Press, 1996
  9. C. J. Mitchell (1 January 1988). The French Legislative Assembly of 1791. Brill Archive. p. 15. ISBN   978-90-04-08961-7.
  10. Woodward, W. E. Lafayette.
  11. Jeremy Bentham (2002). Rights, Representation, and Reform: Nonsense Upon Stilts and Other Writings on the French Revolution. Oxford University Press. p. 41. ISBN   978-0-19-924863-6.

This article incorporates text from the public domain History of the French Revolution from 1789 to 1814 , by François Mignet (1824), as made available by Project Gutenberg.

Further reading

Primary sources