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As Konstituante, French Assemblée nationale constituante (Constituent National Assembly), the French National Assembly is called, which met from July 9, 1789 to September 2, 1791 with the aim of giving France a first constitution. In the course of a preliminary consolidation phase of the French Revolution , the Constituent Assembly carried out far-reaching reforms and finally presented the so-called constitution of 1791 , with which France was transformed into a constitutional monarchy . The Constituent Assembly was followed by the National Legislative Assembly (French: Assemblée nationale législative ), to which no constituent members were allowed to belong.

The Constituent Assembly, 1789–1791

The Road to the Constituent Assembly

Le serment du Jeu de Paume ( German  The Ballhaus Oath ). Engraving by Pierre-Gabriel Berthault after a drawing by Jean-Louis Prieur (1789). MEPs swear not to part until they have given France a constitution.

In the decades before the outbreak of the revolution, the financial crisis of absolutist France had worsened. To avert national bankruptcy , the French King Louis XVI. the Estates General convened on May 5, 1789 . In the debate as to whether voting should be done by class or by head, there was a break between the representatives of the Third Estate and those of the nobility and clergy ; However, there were also conflicts and differing views within the representatives of the first two estates. One and a half months after the meeting of the Estates General, the political revolution began when the members of the Third Estate - together with several representatives of the first two Estates - on June 17, 1789 , at the proposal of the Abbé Sieyès, declared themselves to be the sole representative of the people's interests, i.e. the National Assembly ( French Assemblée nationale ) declared. The famous Ballhaus oath followed three days later , with which the MPs pledged not to part until they had given France a constitution. Finally, on June 23, the Third Estate, under the leadership of the Comte de Mirabeau , opposed the order of Louis XVI to meet again according to the estates and not together. With that the absolute monarchy in France ceased to exist. On July 7th, a committee was set up to draft a constitution. On July 9, 1789, the National Assembly called itself the "Constituent Assembly".

Composition, venue and groupings

Honoré-Gabriel Riqueti, comte de Mirabeau . Oil painting by Philippe Auguste Jeanron, first half of the 19th century. Mirabeau sought an alliance of royalty and the third estate.

The total of 1,315 deputies were made up as follows: 25% of them were members of the clergy, 18% belonged to the military (primarily aristocrats), 40% were lawyers or holders of public office, 7% of the deputies were entrepreneurs; The deputies from the country were underrepresented; the simple people of the cities were entirely absent.

The first meeting took place in Versailles , where the Estates General had met in May 1789. When Louis XVI. In the course of the second Paris popular uprising on October 6, 1789, under pressure from the masses, he agreed to move to Paris , and the deputies followed him there. They initially set up in the palace of the Archbishop of Paris and from November 1789 met in the narrow, poorly lit and ventilated “ Salle du Manège ” in the immediate vicinity of the king's residence, the Palais des Tuileries .

There were no parties in the modern sense. On August 28, 1789, the MPs split into two separate groups. This seating arrangement was based on the British House of Commons , where the ruling party sat to the speaker's right and the opposition to his left. Accordingly, the proponents of an absolute right of veto for the French king, the so-called "aristocrats" (French aristocrates ) settled on the right of the president, while the most ardent supporters of the revolution and proponents of a monarchy limited by the will of the people, the so-called "patriots" ( French patriotes ), grouped to the left of him. The “patriots” soon divided into the “moderates” (French: modérés ), who advocated a constitutional monarchy with a bicameral parliament based on the English model, and the “progressive” (French: avancés ) or “constitutional” (French: constitutionnels ) who advocated only one chamber.

The main speakers were Jacques Antoine Marie de Cazalès and the Abbé Jean-Siffrein Maury for the right, Stanislas de Clermont-Tonnerre , Pierre-Victor Malouet and Jean-Joseph Mounier right of the center, Jean-Sylvain Bailly , Marie-Joseph Motier, Marquis de La Fayette , Gabriel de Riqueti, comte de Mirabeau and Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès for the center, the so-called "triumvirate" Antoine Barnave , Adrien Duport and Charles de Lameth to the left of the center, as well as François-Nicolas-Léonard Buzot , Jérôme Pétion de Villeneuve and Maximilien de Robespierre on the far left, but at the time still relatively unknown and without much influence.

Reform work of the Constituent Assembly

From the autumn of 1789 to the autumn of 1791, the Constituent Assembly carried out a long series of reform projects that led to profound social, economic and structural upheavals.

On the night of August 4th to 5th, 1789, during a discussion about ways to suppress the peasant revolts (French: Grande Peur ), on the proposal of the Vicomte de Noailles, the abolition of manorial rights (manorial jurisdiction, hunting rights, ban rights) was decided. In the meeting, which was borne by revolutionary enthusiasm, the ability to buy offices, the church tithe, the guilds and guilds as well as the privileges of provinces and individuals were abolished. Even if the later decree of August 11th relativized the resolutions of August 4th, this was the final break with the Ancien Régime .

As the first result of the deliberations on the later constitution, the deputies decided as its preamble the declaration of human and civil rights , which was published on August 26, 1789. The text, based on the model of the American Declaration of Independence by La Fayette, guaranteed the right of all people to personal freedom, protection of property and equality before the law. However, some questions were not taken into account. For example, the burning question of the abolition of slavery on the Antilles island of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti ) due to the unrest there since the beginning of the revolution was not discussed in the context of the debate on the declaration of human and civil rights. In this point, economic interests initially prevailed; slavery was not abolished until September 28, 1791.

The paper money of the revolution: here an assignat worth 15 sols .

Since the national bankruptcy was certain and two new government bonds initiated by Necker did not bring the desired success, there was an urgent need for action in the area of ​​finance. Following an idea by Talleyrand , the members of the National Assembly decided on November 2, 1789 to completely expropriate the church property. Since the sale of these huge estates could only be completed in the course of several years and the state urgently needed money, a decree of 19/21. December 1789 so-called assignats issued as state bonds. Their value was covered by the expected sales proceeds from the church's land, which was henceforth called " national goods " (French: biens nationaux ). However, the issue of assignats did not lead France out of the financial crisis for the long term. The more the government deficit grew, the more assignats were issued. By the beginning of 1791 at the latest, confidence in the new means of payment waned to the extent that new issues fueled the decline in the value of paper money. The reorganization of the tax system brought about by the cancellation of a large part of the previously levied indirect taxes and the levying of new taxes (property tax on land and buildings, taxes on people and movable property as well as taxes on trade and commercial income) did not represent a solution in the short term, as a civil servant apparatus to collect these taxes was lacking and the government expenditures were not matched by sufficient income.

Since the French provinces of the ancien régime, which were of different sizes and with different privileges , were viewed as incompatible with the equality of all citizens, the deputies decided on November 11, 1789 to redistribute the French national territory. After a three-month planning phase, on February 26, 1790, the Constituent Assembly approved the creation of 83 administrative units of roughly the same size, the so-called " Départements ". These were divided into districts, cantons and communes and were led by elected, permanently meeting directorates.

On February 13, 1790, the Constituent Assembly dissolved the religious orders with the exception of the communities active in nursing and education. Subsequently, a church committee, made up of a majority of lay people, dealt with the reorganization of world spirituality. As a result of these deliberations, the civil constitution of the clergy (French Constitution civile du clergé ) was adopted on July 12, 1790 , which made the clergy into officials elected by the people and paid by the state. The number of dioceses was reduced from 135 to 83 according to the number of départements and the parishes were redistributed. Since the state took over the cost of maintaining the clergy after the expropriation of the church, the deputies stipulated that all priests had to take the oath to the new constitution. This led to a deep split in the church, as numerous clergymen - a saying from Pope Pius VI. following - refused to take the oath on the constitution and resisted an eviction of their pastorate or chose the path into exile.

The 1791 Constitution

The French Constitution of 1791

The constitution, adopted on September 3, 1791, contained the principles of the separation of powers: the king, together with the ministers and the administration, formed the executive, while the national assembly acted as the legislative. The judiciary was divided into the High Court for charges against state officials, the Court of Appeal as the highest court, and various lower-level courts, whose judges, as well as the civil servants and the members of the National Assembly, were elected by the active citizens. All men over 25 years of age were active citizens with a certain amount of tax revenue, all others were excluded from voting ( census voting rights ).




  • February 13: Dissolution of the religious orders
  • February 17th: The assignats are declared as paper money
  • February 26th: France is divided into 83 départements of roughly the same size
  • June 19: Abolition of the nobility
  • July 12: Adoption of the clergy's civil constitution
  • September 29th: Assignats for 800 million livres are issued
  • November 27th: The clergy have to take the oath on the constitution


  • May 15: the decree of May 15, 1791 grants people of color civil rights
  • September 3: the constitution of 1791 enters into force
  • September 14: Louis XVI's oath on the constitution
  • September 28: Abolition of slavery
  • September 30th: Dissolution of the Constituent Assembly




  • Dictionnaire des Constituants: 1789-1791 . Edna Hindie Lemay (ed.) Avec la collaboration de Christine Favre-Lejeune, 2 volumes, Paris 1991, ISBN 2-7400-0003-0 (The short portraits contained in the two volumes are supplemented by a detailed time table, a thematically structured directory of the Debates and the main speakers who have appeared in them as well as a list of the individual committees and their members).

Sources The central sources are the minutes of the National Assembly from 1789 to 1791, which are available in print and in digital form:

  • Archives parlementaires de 1787 à 1860: recueil complet des débats législatifs & politiques des Chambres françaises , imprimé par ordre du Corps législatifs sous la direction de J. Mavidal et É. Laurent, Série 1 (1787–1799), volumes 8 to 31 (covered period: May 5, 1789 to September 30, 1791), Paris 1969. The volumes are digitally available online in PDF format via Gallica , the French national library 's digitization project .

General representations

  • François Furet , Ran Halévi: La monarchie républicaine: la constitution de 1791 . Paris 1996, ISBN 2-213-02790-0 (the volume contains numerous source texts in a 300-page appendix).
  • Edna Hindie Lemay, Alison Patrick: Revolutionaries at work: the Constituent Assembly, 1789-1791 . Oxford 1996, ISBN 0-7294-0520-6 .
  • Michael P. Fitzsimmons: The remaking of France: the National Assembly and the Constitution of 1791 . Cambridge [u. a.] 1996, ISBN 0-521-45407-7 (reprint of the 1994 edition).
  • Timothy Tackett: Becoming a revolutionary: the deputies of the French National Assembly and the emergence of a revolutionary culture (1789-1790) . Princeton, NJ 1996, ISBN 0-691-04384-1 (on this the review by James Livesey in H-France, available online via H-Net).

Investigations on individual aspects

  • Torsten Kelp: The financial and economic policy of the Constituent Assembly (1789-1791) . Hamburg 2004, ISBN 3-8300-1567-4 .
  • Karl Dietrich Erdmann: popular sovereignty and church. Studies on the relationship between state and religion in France before the meeting of the Estates General up to the schism, May 5, 1789 - April 13, 1791 . Cologne 1949.

Web links

  • Collection Baudouin (Resolutions of the Constituent Assembly) [1] (French)
  • Sabine Büttner: The French Revolution - an online introduction: Course of the Revolution , in: - History and Art Studies on the Internet (Chapter “ Consolidation and Constitutionalization (Autumn 1789 to Autumn 1791) ”)
  • Chronological table of the most distinguished decrees and most remarkable events during the time of the constituent national assembly. [2] (From the Bastille to Waterloo. Wiki)


  1. Dominique Godineau: Constituante ou Assemblée nationale constituante, in: Jean-François Sirinelli / Daniel Couty (eds.): Dictionnaire de l'Histoire de France, Volume 1: A - J, Paris 1999, ISBN 2-03-505085-5 , P. 381 f., Here: p. 381.