The Constituent Assembly

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The National Assembly became the Constituent Assembly on July 9th 1789 as a result of the Tennis Court Oath. Formed from the representatives sent to the Estates General the Constituent sat from July 1789 to September 1791. It's self-proclaimed raison d'etre was to draft a just and 'democratic' constitution for the kingdom of France. Key figures were Sieyès, Mirabeau, Bailly, Mounier. The 'triumvirate' of influential revolutionary figures in this first assembly Barnave, Duport and Lameth. Among the moderate conservative ranks Lafayette, Mounier, Clermont-Tonnerre, and Noailles. And the more extreme but relatively obscure figures of Pétion, Buzot and Robespierre.

The Fall of the Bastille

Meanwhile, back in Paris...

News of the king's dismissal of the popular minister Necker had been badly received among the already discontented people of Paris, and radical orators were daily to be heard inciting the people to rise up against the nobles and claim their rights. There was fear among the population of brigands and also of troops that the king had stationed near the capital to suppress any revolt. The defiant attitude of the Third Estate and their claiming the title of National Assembly inspired many to increase their demands for reforms from the king. On the 13th a committee had been formed from members of the Third Estate to draw up plans for the creation of a city militia. The next day a crowd entered Les Invalides military hospital and armed themselves with 3,000 rifles and a few cannon. From there they made for the looming Bastille tower to the east (an approximate equivalent to The Tower of London in the UK) where they hoped to aquire more arms.

The officer in command of the small garrison in the Bastille was a noble, the Marquis de Launay. While attempting to negotiate with the parisians he unwisely allowed them into the outer courtyard. A shot was fired and in the confusion several of the defending cannoniers changed sides and opened fire on the keep. After four hours of fighting Launay surrendered on condition he would not be killed. He was promptly dragged to the Hotel de Ville and executed along with some of his officers and an unpopular state official called Flesselles. Their heads were paraded through the streets on pikes.

A small but resounding victory

Although many people tend to think of it as the key event of the French revolution, the Bastille was not a significant strategic victory in itself. The 'political prisoners' released that day comprised 'two madmen, a débauché and four forgers'. When the king received the news he agreed to dismiss the nearby troops, recalled Necker and publicly accepted the 'patriotic' symbol of the tricolour cockade at the Hotel de Ville. The next day the parisian insurgents were organised into a National Guard and placed under the command of Lafayette, the hero of the American Revolution.

As news of the fall of the Bastille spread across the country, peasants in many areas panicked and attacked local noblemen's chateaux, often burning tax records. This is sometimes called the 'agrarian revolution'. Although these violent eruptions of peasant anger and frustration must have contributed to the political tension of the times, it is not true to say that they *are* the French Revolution; not an uncommon misconception. In 1789, it was a political revolution that was taking place.

The Assembly takes control

The Constituent Assembly may have been formed with the sole aim of creating a constitution from which the new regime could be established, but in reality it effectively ran the country for over two years. One of the key issues was whether the representatives of the nation should sit together in a single chamber or, like the British 'commons' and 'lords', be divided into two. On August 4th 1789, in a night of enthusiastic and rash legislation, almost all aristocratic privileges were abolished. In the days that followed it became clear that some of the radical changes they had voted would be difficult to put into practice. None-the-less, the resulting decree signed on August 11th constituted a great step towards the end of the feudal system and a new regime. On August 26th, after considerable debate, the Assembly adopted the 'Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen'.

Declaration info

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