1789-1791: The Revolution

Archives & Special Collections possesses a number of texts and pamphlets from the Revolutionary period (1789-1799) that outline the main events of the revolution, including the convocation of the National Assembly, the publication of the Declaration des Droits de l'Homme et du Citoyen, the Women's March on Versailles, the Constitution of 1791, and the Champs de Mars Massacre. 

The Events of 1789 & the French Revolution 

The National Assembly 

The National Assembly existed from June 13, 1789 to July 9, 1789. It was a revolutionary assembly formed by the representatives of the Third Estate of the Estates-General. This Assembly called themselves the "National Assembly" since they represented at least 96% of the nation. They took sovereign powers in respect of taxation and decided to frame a constitution restricting the powers of the king. Henceforth, sovereignty was to reside not in the person of the monarch but in the nation, which would exercize it through the representatives it elected. However, the Assembly considered itself to be acting in the king's interests and originally they declared all their laws subject to royal approval.

Despite the statements of good faith expressed by the Third Estate to the King, Louis XVI was outraged at the audacity of the Third Estate. On June 19, only two days after the National Assembly convened itself, Louis ordered the Estates to separate and the building in which the National Assembly met closed while he prepared an adequate response. However, the Assembly simply found another place to meet on a tennis court outside of the building. There, they swore that they would not dissolve until France had a written constitution. This "tennis court oath" was both a revolutionary act and an assertion that political authority derived from the people and their representatives, rather than from the monarch. After this point, the National Assembly renamed itself the National Constituent Assembly

Louis XVI unwillingly acquiesced to the demands of the National Constituent Assembly and granted a constitution of sorts, though nothing near as progressive as what the Assembly had hoped for. However, all of the representatives of the people stood firm, as they had not written a constitution themselves as their oath from the previous week had promised. After this show of defiance by the National Constituent Assembly, relations between the Assembly and the monarch broke down. Furthermore, the people of Paris took to the streets in support of the Assembly, creating a chaotic atmosphere in the capital.

Texts outlining the efforts of the National Assembly in the collection include:

Title page of the Procès-Verbal de l'Assemblee Nationale dated 1789-1791 (Call No. DC165.A1)

The Procès-Verbal de l'Assemblee Nationale (Call No. DC165.A1) includes almost nine volumes of primary documents relating to the Assembly and its members from 1789-1791. Volume two of this series also has a significant number of documents that relate to the founding of the French Constitution (see below).

Declaration de l'Homme et du Citoyen, 1789

A twelve member Constitutional Committee was convened by the National on July 14, 1789 (also the same day as the Storming ofthe Bastille). Its task was to draft the articles of the new constitution. This committee was composed of two members from the First Estate, two from the Second, and four from the Third. There were many proposals for redefining the French state—especially after feudalism was abolished in August of 1789. Abbé Sieyes, a member of the clergy elected to represent the Third Estate, was a member of this committee and he wrote a detailed preliminary rationale for what would become the Declaration des Droits de l'Homme et du Citoyen. Abbé Sieyes' Préliminaire de la Constitution, Reconnoissance et Exposition Raisonné des Droits de l'Homme et du CItoyen (Call No. DC165.A1) was published in 1789, and provides a detailed explanation of why a document protecting the rights of French citizens was so important.  

Title page of  "Préliminaire de la Constitution, Reconnoissance et Exposition Raisonné des Droits de l'Homme et du CItoyen" by Abbé Sieyes dated 1789 (Call No. DC165.A1)

The Declaration des Droits de l'Homme et du Citoyen passed in 1791 is a fundamental legal document of the French Revolution and in the history of human rights. It was written by the Marquis de Lafayette, with help from his friend and neighbor, American envoy to France, Thomas Jefferson. The Declaration was also influenced in part by the U.S. Declaration of Independence and Englightenment political philosophy. For example, the Declaration emphasizes Enlightenment principles such as individualism, the general will, the social contract (Jean Jacques Rousseau), and the separation of powers. 

The Declaration is introduced by a preamble describing the fundamental characteristics of the rights which are qualified as being "natural, unalienable and sacred" and consisting of "simple and incontestable principles" on which citizens could base their demands. Several of the articles of the Declaration also called for the end of feudalism and aristocrativ privilege, the restriction of the powers of the monarchy, a fair taxation system, freedom and equal rights for all human beings (referred to as "Men"), and access to public office based on qualifications and talent. Furthermore, this document allowed all citizens to be involved in the legislative process. The Declaration des Droits de l'Homme et du Citoyen also became the preamble of the constitution adopted on 30 September 1791. 

A copy of the Declaration des Droits de l'Homme et du Citoyen can be found in Portraits des personnages célèbres de la révolution, avec tableau historique et notices by P. Quenard (Call No. DC145 .Q42 1796).

The following engraving from Revolution de France (No. XIII), dediees a la Nation (Call No. DC140. R55. v.1) depicts acocarde personifying the French National Constitution holding a tablet featuring the laws and the Declaration des Droits de l'Homme et du Citoyen. 

engraving from Revolution de France (No. XIII), dediees a la Nation (Call No. DC140. R55. v.1) depicts a cocarde personifying the French National Constitution holding a tablet featuring the laws and the Declaration des Droits de l'Homme et du Citoyen.

The Women's March on Versailles, October 5, 1789

Also outlined in revolutionary pamphlets in Archives & Special Collections' holdings is the Women's March on Versailles on October 5, 1789. This event was one of the earliest and most significant and violent events of the French Revolution. The March on Versailles was staged in an effort to obtain bread and force the high prices of bread down by a group of outraged Frenchwomen who gathered in the Parisian marketplaces. Despite being provided with more bread by the Hôtel de Ville, the original crowd of women (numbering almost 6000) and others that had joined them continued to march upon Versailles to ensure that enough bread would be available in the future at reasonable prices. Famine was a real and ever-present dread for the lower strata of the Third Estate, and rumors of an "aristocratic' plot" to starve the poor were rampant and readily believed. 

Those who marched on Versailles carried weapons including muskets, pitchforks and scythes, and they also dragged along several canons from the Hôtel de Ville along with them. During the march, there were many protesters who called for the death of Queen Marie-Antoinette, who was inextricably associated with excessive luxury and spending. When they arrived at Versailles, they overtook the National Constituent Assembly and its deputies. Maximilien Robespierre, who was a relatively obscure political figure at the time, assisted with calming the crowd through words of support for the women and their plight. A delegate of women were taken before Louis XVI, they explained their situation to him, and he responded by providing them with more bread and a promise that more would be given to them soon. This placated some of the women and some of the others who had joined them, and they returned to Paris.

However, there were some who demanded the Queen's death and the King's removal from Versailles to Paris, and attacked the palace killing several guards in their attempt to find Marie-Antoinette. General Lafayette intervened with a group of his soldiers and the king's bodyguards and cleared the palace. Afterwards, in an attempt to appease the crowd, the King appeared before the crowd from a balcony and conveyed to them that he would return to Paris with them. The following engravings from the revolutionary pamphlet Revolution de France (No. XIII), dediees a la Nation (Call No. DC140 .R55provide an idea of the sheer number of people involved in the March on Versailles and how they forcibly brought the King back to the Tuileries Palace in Paris. This pamphlet also contains a contemporary account of the March on Versailles in 1789. The reasoning behind this forced departure from Versailles was the opinion the king would be more accountable to the people if he lived among them in Paris.

Engravings of "The Women's March on Versailles" in the Revolution de France (No. XIII) (Call No. DC140 .R55)

The Constitution of 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. This document, unwillingly signed by King Louis XVI, created a constitutional monarchy in France. 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. 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. 

The first page of the Constitution Francaise de 1791

The Champs de Mars Massacre, June 17, 1791

On July 17, 1791, the National Constituent Assembly issued a decree that the king, Louis XVI, would remain king under a constitutional monarchy. However, the leaders of the republicans in France decided to rally against this decision. A large group of citizens met in the Champs de Mars to sign a petition demanding the removal of the monarchy; however they were disbanded by the Marquis de Lafayette and the National Guard. A larger crowd returned later in the day, and when the National Guard attempted to disperse them and violence erupted. The crowd began throwing stones, and the National Guard were eventually forced to begin firing on the crowd. It is estimated that 50 people (at most) lost their lives that day. 

According to the revolutionary pamphlet Revolution de Paris (No. 106) (Call No. DC140 .R55)public perception of the massacre was mixed: "Le masscacre du 17 juillet est-il un bien? le massacre du 17 juillet est-il un mal? voilà la seule question qui divise la France."[1] The National Assembly and many other government officials believed that the French Capital was overrun by brigands that compromised the safety of all the citizens of Paris; while others believed that the massacre of peaceful citizens and their families was the result of the execution of martial law and a formidable desire to hinder the progress of the revolution. 

An engraving of The Champs de Mars Massacre, June 17, 1791 from Revolution de Paris (No. 106) (Call No. DC140 .R55)

The National Constituent Assembly dissolved itself on September 30, 1791. The Legislative Assembly would hold power in Revolutionary France until the National Convention was convened on September 21, 1792. 


[1]"Malheureuse journee du 17 juillet 1791" in La Revolution de Paris. No. 106. (Paris:1791), 54.