Not to be confused with the National Assembly of France, the lower legislative house under the French Fifth Republic.
During the French Revolution, the National Assembly (French: Assemblée nationale), which existed from June 13, 1789 to July 9, 1789, was a revolutionary assembly formed by the representatives of the Third Estate (the common people) of the Estates-General; thereafter (until replaced by the Legislative Assembly on Sept. 30, 1791) it was known as the National Constituent Assembly (French: Assemblée nationale constituante), though popularly the shorter form persisted.
Main article: Estates-General of 1789
The Estates-General had been called on May 4, 1789 to deal with France's financial crisis, but promptly fell to squabbling over its own structure. Its members had been elected to represent the estates of the realm: the 1st Estate (the clergy), the 2nd Estate (the nobility) and the 3rd Estate (which, in theory, represented all of the commoners and, in practice, represented the bourgeoisie). The Third Estate had been granted "double representation"—that is, twice as many delegates as each of the other estates—but at the opening session on May 5, 1789 they were informed that all voting would be "by power" not "by head", so their double representation was to be meaningless in terms of power. They refused this and proceeded to meet separately.
Shuttle diplomacy among the estates continued without success until May 27; on May 28, the representatives of the 3rd Estate began to meet on their own, calling themselves the Communes ("Commons") and proceeding with their "verification of powers" independently of the other bodies; from June 13 to June 17 they were gradually joined by some of the nobles and the majority of the clergy and other people such as the peasants. On June 13, this group began to call itself the National Assembly.
The Assembly convenes
This newly created assembly immediately attached itself onto the capitalists — the sources of the credit needed to fund the national debt — and to the common people. They consolidated the public debt and declared all existing taxes to have been illegally imposed, but voted in these same taxes provisionally, only as long as the Assembly continued to sit. This restored the confidence of the capitalists and gave them a strong interest in keeping the Assembly in session. As for the common people, the Assembly established a committee of subsistence to deal with food shortages.
The King resists
Jacques Necker, finance minister to Louis XVI, had earlier proposed that the king hold a Séance Royale (Royal Session) in an attempt to reconcile the divided Estates. The king agreed; but none of the three orders were formally notified of the decision to hold a Royal Session. All debates were to be put on hold until the séance royale took place.
Events soon overtook Necker's complex scheme of giving in to the Communes on some points while holding firm on others. No longer interested in Necker's advice, Louis XVI, under the influence of the courtiers of his privy council, resolved to go in state to the Assembly, annul its decrees, command the separation of the orders, and dictate the reforms to be effected by the restored Estates-General. On June 19, he ordered the Salle des États, the hall where the National Assembly met, closed, and remained at Marly for several days while he prepared his address.
Confrontation and recognition
Two days later, deprived of use of the tennis court as well, the National Assembly met in the Church of Saint Louis, where the majority of the representatives of the clergy joined them: efforts to restore the old order had served only to accelerate events. When, on June 23, in accord with his plan, the king finally addressed the representatives of all three estates, he encountered a stony silence. He concluded by ordering all to disperse. The nobles and clergy obeyed; the deputies of the common people remained seated in a silence finally broken by Mirabeau, whose short speech culminated, "A military force surrounds the assembly! Where are the enemies of the nation? Is Catiline at our gates? I demand, investing yourselves with your dignity, with your legislative power, you inclose yourselves within the religion of your oath. It does not permit you to separate till you have formed a constitution." The deputies stood firm.
Necker, conspicuous by his absence from the royal party on that day, found himself in disgrace with Louis, but back in the good graces of the National Assembly. Those of the clergy who had joined the Assembly at the church of Saint Louis remained in the Assembly; forty-seven members of the nobility, including the Duke of Orléans, soon joined them; by June 27, the royal party had overtly given in, although the likelihood of a military counter-coup remained in the air. The French military began to arrive in large numbers around Paris and Versailles.
In the séance royale of June 23, the King granted a Charte octroyée, a constitution granted of the royal favour, which affirmed, subject to the traditional limitations, the right of separate deliberation for the three orders, which constitutionally formed three chambers. This move failed; soon that part of the deputies of the nobles who still stood apart joined the National Assembly at the request of the king. The Estates-General had ceased to exist, having become the National Assembly (and after July 9, 1789, the National Constituent Assembly), though these bodies consisted of the same deputies elected by the separate orders.
Messages of support poured into the Assembly from Paris and other French cities. On July 9, 1789, the Assembly, reconstituting itself as the National Constituent Assembly, addressed the king in polite but firm terms, requesting the removal of the troops (which now included foreign regiments, who showed far greater obedience to the king than did his French troops), but Louis declared that he alone could judge the need for troops, and assured them that the troops had deployed strictly as a precautionary measure. offered" to move the assembly to Noyon or Soissons: that is to say, to place it between two armies and deprive it of the support of the Parisian people. Public outrage over this troop presence precipitated the Storming of the Bastille, beginning the Revolution.
The Legislative Assembly was the governing body of France between October 1791 and September 1792. The Legislative Assembly replaced the National Constituent Assembly, which by September 1791 had completed most of the work for which it was convened. Its deputies had drafted a constitution they believed reflected the aims of the revolution. Feudalism, noble titles and the Ancien Régime’s other institutional inequalities had been abolished. The idealistic Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen was adopted as a preamble to the new constitution. Royal absolutism was dead and the king stripped of most of his executive powers. In late September 1791, Louis XVI gave his assent to the new constitution, pledging to “maintain it at home, defend it abroad and cause its execution by all the means at my disposal”. Its mission complete, the National Constituent Assembly voted for its own dissolution and handed national government to the Legislative Assembly.
To an outsider unaware of earlier events, this moment may have appeared the end of the French Revolution. France’s transition from absolutist monarchy to constitutional government seemed complete. Some idealistic politicians viewed the handing of power to the Legislative Assembly with optimism, allowing the nation a fresh start from the rising tensions and violence of 1791. They believed the king had finally accepted constitutional change and hoped his earlier intransigence would be forgotten. Writing at the time, the Marquis de Ferrieres suggested that “the king and queen appear entirely in favour of the constitution, and they are wise to do so… The people are delirious. The king and queen are acclaimed the moment they appear. So, you see, everything points to a solid new order of affairs.” Other Monarchiens (constitutional monarchists) expressed sentiments that were equally as hopeful.
Republicans and political realists had a dimmer view of the situation. The constitution had been enacted but its head of state was a prisoner of the state, following his failed attempt to flee Paris in June 1791. France was now a constitutional monarchy but its monarch was reluctant, untrustworthy and unpopular. The king, who was shiftless, uncertain and difficult to pin down on political questions, expressed little personal faith in the constitution. In a conversation with the royalist politician Bertrand de Molleville, Louis XVI described the constitution as “far from a masterpiece”. “I think it has some great defects,” he told Molleville, “but I have sworn to maintain it, warts and all… Executing the Constitution in its literal terms is the best way of making the nation see the alterations that it needs.” This passage suggests the Legislative Assembly faced a king who was bent on constitutional sabotage.
To compound the problem of executive leadership, the new Legislative Assembly was itself neither representative nor experienced. It was elected by ‘active citizens’: those affluent enough to pay a sizeable amount in taxation. Most working class citizens were not entitled to cast a vote for the new legislature. This exclusion outraged the radical sections and democrats in the Jacobin club, many of who favoured universal suffrage. The Legislative Assembly was also hampered by the self-denying ordinance, a regulation proposed by Maximilien Robespierre and passed by the National Constituent Assembly on May 16th 1791. The self-denying ordinance forbade all sitting members of the National Constituent Assembly from standing as candidates for the Legislative Assembly. Robespierre’s ordinance was intended as an act of political self-sacrifice, to renew government and prevent an entrenchment of power in the new assembly. A small number of deputies opposed it, arguing that replacing the entire legislature jeopardised the stability of the government.
Elections for the Legislative Assembly were held in September 1791. Most of the 745 deputies elected to the Legislative Assembly had a record in provincial or municipal government or the public service. Many were members of the Cercle Social and the Jacobin Club who had not won seats in the National Constituent Assembly. Among those to take a seat in the Legislative Assembly were Jacques Brissot, the Marquis de Condorcet, the Republican lawyer Pierre Vergniaud, the Jacobin merchant Pierre Cambon and Georges Couthon, an ally of Robespierre. Because the constitution kept ‘passive voters’ at arm’s length, the vast majority of deputies came from the middle classes. Almost half of them (330 deputies) were Republicans, while around one quarter (165) were Feuillant constitutional monarchists and the rest (250) were politically unaligned.
In the first weeks of the Assembly, deputies gravitated around prominent leaders and developed into factions. The largest of these factions was led by the imposing figure of Jacques Brissot. A lawyer turned political journalist, Brissot had acquired a reputation as a man of letters dedicated to the revolution. Before his election to the Legislative Assembly Brissot sat in the Paris Commune and delivered several powerful speeches to the Jacobin club. He was also well travelled and had many contacts abroad, skills that prompted Brissot’s appointment to the Assembly’s diplomatic committee. Brissot was considered a radical in 1789 but he occupied the centre-left of the Legislative Assembly. He was a moderate Republican who wanted to abolish the monarchy and the 1791 constitution. He was also in favour of war with France’s European neighbours: to bring about the collapse of the French monarchy, to export revolutionary ideals and to threaten monarchies elsewhere. Brissot’s followers were variously known as the Brissotins, the Girondins (many hailed from the Gironde département) or the Rolandists (their leaders frequented the salon of Madame Roland).
During its short life, the Legislative Assembly was confronted with many problems and challenges. One of these was the constitutional authority of the recalcitrant king. Louis XVI retained two significant powers that affected the functioning of the assembly: the power to appoint ministers and the power of suspensive veto. Louis appointed most of his ministers from the Feulliants or the centre-right – and many of his appointments were of dubious quality. The king also created controversy and division by willingly using his veto to block the Assembly’s laws. In its first weeks, the Legislative Assembly drafted legislation to take action against émigrés and non-juring priests. It passed these laws on November 8th and November 29th respectively – but both were vetoed by the king. More royal vetoes followed in 1792 and each veto triggered a wave of public protest against the monarch.
The Legislative Assembly’s most significant measure was its declaration of war against Austria (April 20th 1792). This decision was orchestrated by Brissot and the Girondins, who believed that war would refocus the revolution, inflame French nationalism and consolidate their own power. But France’s revolutionary armies fared poorly in the first months of the war and by summer 1792 an Austro-Prussian invasion seemed imminent. War shaped the mood in Paris, particularly after the Duke of Brunswick’s July manifesto that threatened to decimate the city. Parisians were not intimidated and did not bow to his threats, however the fear of foreign invasion and counter-revolution shaped events in the city in July and August 1792. On August 10th the people of Paris rose in insurrection, replacing the city’s Commune and invading the king’s apartments at the Tuileries. The end result was the suspension of the king and the Constitution of 1791. By instigating a war, the Legislative Assembly contributed to its own demise.
1. The Legislative Assembly was the governing body of France between October 1791 and September 1792. It replaced the National Constituent Assembly.
2. The Legislative Assembly was formed under the Constitution of 1791, which created a constitutional monarchy with Louis XVI as the head of state.
3. The Assembly contained 745 deputies. Almost half were Jacobin republicans while the rest were Feuillants (constitutional monarchists) and political moderates.
4. The dominant faction in the Assembly was the Girondins, headed by Jacques Brissot. This faction led the push for war with Austria, which was eventually declared in April 1792.
5. The Revolutionary War and its impact created radicalism that eventually toppled the monarchy and rendered the Legislative Assembly redundant. In September 1792 it was replaced by the National Convention.
This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn and S. Thompson, “The Legislative Assembly”, Alpha History, accessed [today’s date], http://alphahistory.com/frenchrevolution/legislative-assembly/.