The constitution of 1791, France’s very first attempt at a written constitution

The structure of 1791 to be the revolutionary government’s first attempt in ~ a created constitutional document. Motivated by knowledge ideas and the American Revolution, it to be intended to define the boundaries of power in the brand-new government. By the moment of the adoption, however, the instance in France had changed significantly and the constitution of 1791 was no longer fit for purpose.

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Desire because that a framework

The road to a constitution started on June 20th 1789, when the newly formed National Assembly gathered in a Versailles tennis court and also pledged not to disband till France had a functioning constitution.

Their desire for a constitution was a product the the Enlightenmen and also the American Revolution. The deputies the the third Estate thought that any reforms come the Ancien Régime must it is in outlined in and guaranteed by a composed framework. A structure would specify the authority, structure and also powers the the brand-new government. This would prevent or border the abuses and also injustices that the old order.

The national Assembly collection about drafting a nationwide constitution virtually immediately. The process was a lengthy and complicated one, hampered by distinctions of opinion, growing radicalism and the occasions of 1789-91.

Their deliberations eventually produced the constitution of 1791, i m sorry was ratified in September that year. This document established a constitutional monarchy and also incorporated numerous political principles from the Enlightenment. The fate of the 1791 Constitution, however, hinged on the attitude and actions of King louis XVI.

Why a composed constitution?

Fascination with constitutions and also constitutional government was a biology of the Enlightenment. Before the 18th century, monarchical and absolutist governments acted without any type of written constitution. The structures and also power of federal government were shaped and limited by interior forces and also events – if they to be limited at all.

Britain, to point out one example, had actually no written constitution. The strength of the brother monarchy had been constrained by Britain’s nobility, the parliament, the Civil battle (1642-51), the Glorious revolution (1688) and also other determinants – yet these constraints were agreed fairly than prescribed. Over time, the brothers system occurred a balance that power between monarch, parliament, aristocracy and judiciary.

But this idea that political strength would kind itself out in time was no acceptable to knowledge philosophers. Guys like john Locke, Baron de Montesquieu and Thomas Paine thought that government must be established on reasonable principles and also organised in a method that ideal serves the people. The best an equipment for ensuring this was a created constitution, a foundation law that defines the structures and also powers the government, and rules and instructions for its operation.

The American model

The French revolutionaries had before them a working version of a nationwide constitution. The United claims Constitution was drafted in 1787 and ratified by the American claims the complying with year. The American constitution embraced and codified several knowledge ideas, together as Jean-Jacques Rousseau‘s popular sovereignty and Montesquieu’s separation that powers.

There to be one far-ranging difference: the American constitution developed a republican political device with an chosen president together its cook executive. In France in 1789-90, the nationwide Constituent Assembly continued to be wedded to the idea that a constitutional monarchy. The Assembly want to retain the king yet to ensure the his executive strength was low grade to both the law and also the windy good.

This presented the Assembly through two concerns. First, they had actually to uncover a constitutional duty for the king and determine what political powers, if any, that should retain. Second, a constitution monarchy would be entirely dependent on having actually a king faithful to the constitution. In the years the followed, both would cause problems because that the national government.

Hammering out a constitution

This image shows the Three manors working together to build a constitution

The preparation and drafting the the constitution started on July 6th 1789, as soon as the nationwide Constituent Assembly appointed a preliminary constitution committee. This committee to be made permanent and also expanded to 12 guys on July 14th, the work of the Bastille raid (the two occasions were unrelated).

Among the members that the constitutional committee to be Charles de Talleyrand, Bishop the Autun; the radical Bretonist Isaac le Chapelier; the conservative lawyer Jean-Joseph Mounier; and Emmanuel Sieyès, writer of What is the third Estate?

Almost immediately, the constitution committee cleaved right into two factions. One faction favoured a bicameral (double chamber) legislature and also the retention of solid executive powers for the king, including an absolute veto. This group, which contained Mounier and also the Marquis de Lafayette, was called the Monarchiens or ‘English faction’. A 2nd group want a strong unicameral (single-chamber) legislature and a monarchy through very limited power. This group, led through Sieyès and Talleyrand, winner the work in the nationwide Constituent Assembly.

Who elects the government?

Louis XVI take away an oath to uphold and also respect the structure of 1791

By October 1789, the committee to be wrestling through the inquiry of specifically who would certainly elect the government. They made decision to different the populace into two classes: ‘active citizens’ (those entitled to vote and stand for office) and ‘passive citizens’ (those who were not). ‘Active citizens’ were males over the age of 25 that paid annual taxes indistinguishable to at least three days’ wages. It was, in effect, a property qualification on poll rights.

In today’s world, where universal suffrage is the norm, this appears grossly unfair – however property limitations on voting were quite usual in 18th century Europe. Voting was not a natural right conferred top top all: it to be a privilege available to those who owned property and also paid tax. By means of comparison, England in 1780 to be a nation of around eight million people, yet only 214,000 people were eligible to vote.

The national Constituent Assembly’s residential property qualifications were considerably much more generous than that. They would certainly have extended voting rights to roughly 4.3 million Frenchmen. Despite this, radicals in the political clubs and also sections demanded that voting civil liberties be granted to all men, regardless of revenue or property.

Royal prerogatives

The other feature of the structure of 1791 was the revised function of the king.

The constitution amended louis XVI’s title from “King the France” come “King that the French”. This implied the the king’s strength emanated native the people and also the law, not from magnificent right or national sovereignty. The king was granted a civil list that 25 million livres, a reduction of about 20 million livres on his spending prior to the revolution.

In regards to executive power, the king retained the ideal to kind a cabinet, come select and also appoint ministers. A more pressing inquiry was whether he would have actually the strength to block regulations passed by the legislature. Again, this was resolved with debate and compromise. The Monarchiens, most notably Honore Mirabeau, said for the king to be granted an absolute veto, the executive best to block any legislation. Democratic deputies argued for a more restricted veto and some because that no veto at all.

It to be eventually made decision to provide the king a suspensive veto. He could refuse assent to bills and also withhold this assent for up to 5 years. After ~ this time, if assent had not to be granted by the king, the Assembly could enact the bill without his approval.

The structure sabotaged

‘King Janus, the guy with two faces’, a relenten of Louis’ split loyalties

Even as the constitution was being finalised, it to be being overtaken by the events of the revolution. In June 1791, the king and his family stole away from the Tuileries and also fled Paris; they were detained at Varennes the following morning.

The king attempt come escape Paris and the revolution brought anti-royalist and republican emotion to the boil. The nationwide Constituent Assembly tried riding out the storm by explain the royal family had been abducted and also reinstating the king – however the Cordeliers, the radical Jacobins and also the sans culottes of Paris were not buying it.

The constitution of 1791 to be passed in September however it had been fatally compromised by the king’s betrayal. France now had a constitutional monarchy but the monarch, through his actions, had presented no confidence in the constitution. In a conversation with the conservative politician Bertrand de Molleville, louis XVI argued that he would bring around change by do the new constitution unworkable:

“I am much from concerning the constitution as a masterpiece. I think it has actually a good many defects. If I had actually been allowed to make part observations, some beneficial changes might have to be made. But it is also late for the now. I have actually sworn to keep the constitution, wars and also all, and I am determined to save my oath. It is my opinion that that execution that the constitution is the best method of making the world see the changes that space necessary.”

A historian’s view:“When the structure of 1791 was ultimately adopted, the embodied a fundamental contradiction and a recipe because that constitutional impasse. To safeguard nationwide sovereignty indigenous the dangers of representation it permitted the king to veto legislative decrees – and hence paralyse the Assembly… as a result of the veto the structure of 1791, as Brissot remarked, can only function under a ‘revolutionary king’… as soon as it appeared, in the spring of 1792, that Louis XVI’s exercise of the veto was frustrating quite than upholding the will certainly of the nation, the monarch and also the constitution itself were under siege.”Gary Kates


1. The structure of 1791 was drafted through the national Constituent Assembly and passed in September 1791. It was France’s very first attempt at a written national constitution.

2. The Assembly delegated the task of drafting the constitution to a distinct constitutional committee. It began in July 1789 through debating the structure the new political system should have.

3. The Assembly ultimately concluded the France must be a constitutional monarchy through a unicameral (one house) legislature. Voting civil liberties were limited to ‘active citizens’, i.e. Those that paid a minimum lot of taxation.

4. The constitution retitled louis XVI as “King of the French”, granted the a diminished civil list, allowed him to select and also appoint ministers and gave that suspensive veto power.

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5. The king’s trip to Varennes in June 1791 rendered the structure of 1791, and also thus the constitution monarchy, unworkable. It additionally fuelled a spike in Republican emotion in Paris.