With the passing of the August Decrees, the French feudal system was swept away. A new, egalitarian society was inaugurated. These changes opened the way for the adoption of the much longed-for Constitution.
The declaration of the rights of man and of the citizen condemned the practices of the Old Regime. At the same time, it expressed agreement with the requests of all the social classes, noted in the books of grievances.
Shortly after the beginning of the revolution, King Louis the 16th changed his mind concerning his support for the National Assembly and its decisions, since he had lost a large part of his power. The king’s change of heart was due to the cessation of divine right. Because of this, the king became answerable first to the people, in conformity with the principle of national sovereignty, then to the Assembly, and only after that, to God.
At the request of the crowds, the king and queen appeared on a balcony and were met by shouts of “To Paris!” In the same afternoon, the royal family left Versailles for Tuileries.
After October 1789, many French citizens thought that the revolution was over. During the next year, there was widespread consense between the different groups of the Assembly, who began completely reorganizing France.
By restructuring regional administration, the deputies wanted to ensure that power would be decentralized. Power was passed from the central government in Paris to the regional authorities. This reduced the possibility of the king regaining the power he had previously held.
Most citizens participated in elections. However, voters were split into different categories according to their income. Suffrage was not universal but conditional, based upon relatively small contributions. Many more were able to vote in this system than previously.
Few taxes were collected after the collapse of the royal administration. The assembly needed money, especially after it decided that those who had obtained their jobs by paying a bribe should be recompensed for the loss of those jobs. A new system of taxation was not immediately established. It was decided that the existing system of direct and indirect taxation should continue. However, people demanded that the books of grievances be addressed. As a consequence, new violent outbreaks appeared in Picardia, and the government felt forced to give in.
In order to obtain the money needed for the new financial system to work, the Assembly voted to place the Church properties at the nation’s disposal. The church’s lands would be sold, with money going to the state, which would take over the payment of the clergy. Thus, the Church lost the majority of its income, including the tithe.
The Constituent Assembly wanted to create a Church free from Papal influence and from abuse. They wanted a democratic Church connected to the new system of local administration. The deputies were not against religion or Catholicism, but wanted to apply to religion the principles they were applying in other areas. They wanted to connect the French Catholic Church to the state, closer than it was during the Old Regime, strengthening the revolution even more.
Most clerics opposed the principle of election. Most bishops however wanted to find a way of ratifying the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, the newly adopted document which brought these changes. However, they requested that the reforms be submitted to a national synod of the French Church. The Constituent Assembly did not accept this, since they considered that the Church would again become a privileged corporation and a separate order in the state, a state of affairs which had just been done away with.
Commerce and industry needed to be free from all government interference. Free commerce in grain was instituted. Price control was suppressed. These measures spread to other products too. Prices and the distribution of all basic foodstuffs were controlled, in order to prevent food shortages, high prices and starvation.
The Constituent Assembly applied the same principle of uniformization to the justice system as it did to local governance. The different laws in the north and south and the different types of courts were replaced by uniform laws and courts applied in the whole of France. Les lettres de cachet were considered illegal according to the Declaration of the rights of man.
After the convocation of the Estates-General, a series of revolutionary political clubs were formed. The most important of these were the Jacobin Club and the Cordeliers Club.
The Jacobin club was formed by like-minded acquaintances of the radical Breton deputies. After the events of October, the Assembly moved to Paris. The Club re-formed under the name ‘The Society of the Friends of the Constitution’, a name which made it famous. Its meeting place was a building rented from Dominicans, also called Jacobites.
The Cordeliers Club was more radical than the Jacobin Club, but membership was open. The members of the club did not agree with the distinction between active and passive citizens. They supported the measures upheld by the sans-culottes: direct democracy, recalling the deputies to give account of their actions, and the right to insurrection.
The peasants and sans-culottes were not satisfied with what they obtained from the revolution. They were still the poorest social class. This remained so even after the changes in French society brought about by the activity of the National Assembly.
The conflict between the king and the Assembly was not over, since most deputies suspected him of treason. The king was also suspected of trying to reinstate royal despotism with the aid of his supporters, especially deputy Mirabeau.
The radicals were concerned that the king had not been deposed and sent for judgement. Their anger turned against the Assembly, with claims that it no longer represented the people. The Cordeliers, a nickname given to Franciscan monks, convinced the Jacobins to join them in supporting a petition for the removal of the king.
The Constituent Assembly drew up a Constitution replacing the absolute monarchy with a limited monarchy. The real power would be transferred to an elected assembly. A large part of the Constitution treated the limited attributes of the king and his right to suspensive veto. The Constitution was approved in its entirety two years later.
Once the king accepted the Constitution, the Constituent Assembly’s mandate was over and it was dissolved. Its place was taken by the National Legislative Assembly. Due to Robespierre’s proposal, not a single deputy of the Constituent Assembly could be part of the new Assembly. This decision was made in fear of the counter-revolutionaries.
Prussia and Austria formed an alliance in the hope of intimidating the French. Prussia had occupied the United Provinces with a small army, and Austria occupied Belgium in less than two weeks. Both considered France, now bankrupt, a weak country due to the civil war and the rebellion in the army.