The Ancient Regime


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In this well-researched study, Fitzsimmons shows that the events of this night had momentous consequences across a wide area of revolutionary policy and played a key role in forging French national identity. This volume is a valuable addition to the historiography of the French Revolution. Thus, it has a timely double appeal and utility and, therefore, it has a place in any academic library and many private ones as well. In both important areas, Fitzsimmons has made timely and valuable contributions.

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Arnold Jr. This book will quickly have an impact on our general understanding of the Revolution. The Night the Old Regime Ended [will be] indispensable book for any student of the early part of the Revolution. Of the major turning points of the French Revolution universally recognized by day and month alone, few have a more indeterminate legacy than the night of August 4. Although the question of their relative significance might occasionally be debated, July 14, August 10, 9 Thermidor and others have a relatively unambiguous standing. The meeting of the National Assembly of the night of August 4, however, has a far more equivocal heritage.

The unsettled legacy of the night of August 4 stems in large measure from the ambiguity of both the origin and the outcome of the meeting of that evening. The calculated nature of the event, with deputies planning to renounce certain rights in return for cash compensation in an effort to appease the countryside, has opened to question the sincerity of the participants. The original plan went awry and the initial relinquishments became the catalyst for a wholly unanticipated and emotional surrender of privileges of every sort.

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Members of all three orders spent hours renouncing an extraordinary array of exemptions, prerogatives and privileges, and the relinquishments were so extensive that deputies could not recall all of them. Indeed, whereas the minutes of previous meetings had been prepared within a day or two of each session and were generally eight to twelve pages in length, those for the meeting of August 4 took two weeks to appear and comprised more than forty pages.


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The ultimate outcome of these renunciations would take two years to be realized and, in the case of a relatively large proportion of the clergy and nobility, was not what they had expected when they had agreed to the abolition of privilege. Nevertheless, the meeting of the night of August 4 provided a program and guiding principles for discussion and debate, whereas heretofore an agenda had been lacking. Just as the origins of the meeting were ambiguous, so, too, was its outcome. To deputies of the National Assembly, particularly those who had been in attendance, the meeting of the night of August 4 and the principles that it instilled were beyond reproach.

To many of those who were affected by the measures enacted by the National Assembly in the aftermath of August 4, however, the session was not above recrimination. Most elements in French society were prepared to participate in the spirit of sacrifice that the meeting represented, but the ultimate outcome produced sharp disillusionment, particularly among the First and Second Estates.

In the case of the First Estate, the Church believed that it was joining in the spirit of sacrifice by relinquishing the tithe. But the renunciation of the tithe mandated a new method of financing the Church, which ultimately led to the nationalization of Church lands. The need to convert clergymen to salaried public officials who, like all other public officials, would be elected produced the Civil Constitution of the Clergy. The fact that this document was drafted without consulting the Church, however, provoked substantial opposition, and the subsequent requirement by the Assembly of an oath of loyalty to the Civil Constitution led to a bitter schism in French society.

With respect to the nobility, the sense of fraternity that emerged from the relinquishments made during the night of August 4 led to the dissolution of orders in French society, a measure formally enacted in October, The nobility acquiesced to the dismantling of orders in the political sphere, but the abolition of nobility in June, , after the nobility had accepted political and fiscal equality, struck many of its members as gratuitous and excessive.

The meeting also deeply affected the Third Estate, both the peasantry and urban inhabitants. It had, after all, been an attempt to address rural unrest that produced the initial renunciations. Relinquishments made during the meeting utterly transformed the situation of the peasantry and began their politicization. Although somewhat less apparent, the meeting also had a major impact on urban inhabitants of France. The renunciation of venality of office led to a new structure of municipal government, and guilds, a fixture of urban life since the medieval era, were abolished.

The National Assembly sought to codify the results of the meeting of the night of August 4 in the Constitution of Indeed, the preamble to the Constitution of recapitulates, in essence, the renunciations made during the meeting of the night of August 4, highlighting the centrality of that meeting to the Revolutionary agenda. The night of August 4, , was clearly the night that the Old Regime ended, but, although it has often been characterized in general terms, it has received surprisingly little attention from historians.

Patrick Kessel produced an analysis based on a thorough compilation of sources, and Jean-Pierre Hirsch edited a documentary collection of the meeting. Both books are useful, but they consist largely of documentation of the meeting and its immediate aftermath. When the Revolution overthrew simultaneously all the institutions and all the usages which had governed society and restrained mankind within bounds, it was, perhaps, only natural to suppose that its result would be the destruction, not of one particular frame of society, but of all social order; not of this or that government, but of all public authority.

There was a degree of plausibility in assuming that it aimed essentially at anarchy; yet I will venture to say that this also was an illusion.

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A part—the greater part of the acts of the national assembly are decidedly favorable to a monarchical government. Is it nothing to have got rid of Parliament, separate states, the clerical body, the privileged classes, and the nobility? Richelieu would have liked the idea of forming but one class of citizens; so level a surface assists the exercise of power.

A series of absolute reigns would have done less for royal authority than this one year of Revolution. The French Revolution did not aim merely at a change in an old government; it designed to abolish the old form of society. Hence its singular anarchical aspect.

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But a close inspection brings to light from under the ruins an immense central power, which has gathered together and grasped all the several particles of authority and influence formerly scattered among a host of secondary powers, orders, classes, professions, families, and individuals, sown broadcast, so to speak, over the whole social body. No such power had been seen in the world since the fall of the Roman empire. This new power was created by the Revolution, or, rather, it grew spontaneously out of the ruins the Revolution made. If the governments it created were fragile, they were still far stronger than any that had preceded them, and their very fragility, as will be shown hereafter, sprang from the same cause as their strength.

It was the simple, regular, grand form of this central power which Mirabeau discerned through the dust of the crumbling institutions of olden time.


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The masses did not see it, great as it was. Time gradually disclosed it to all; and now, princes can see nothing else. Admiration and envy of its work fill the mind, not only of the sovereigns it created, but of those who were strangers or inimical to its progress. All are busy destroying immunities, abolishing privileges throughout their dominions; mingling ranks, leveling, substituting hired officials in the room of an aristocracy, a uniform set of laws in the place of local franchises, a single strong government instead of a system of diversified authorities. Their industry in this revolutionary work is unceasing; when they meet an obstacle, they Edition: current; Page: [ 23 ] will sometimes even borrow a hint or a maxim from the Revolution.

They have been noticed inciting the poor against the rich, the commoner against the noble, the peasant against his lord. The French Revolution was both their scourge and their tutor. ALL political and civil revolutions have been confined to a single country. The French Revolution had no country; one of its leading effects appeared to be to efface national boundaries from the map.

It united and divided men, in spite of law, traditions, characters, language; converted enemies into fellow-countrymen, and brothers into foes; or, rather, to speak more precisely, it created, far above particular nationalities, an intellectual country that was common to all, and in which every human creature could obtain rights of citizenship.

No similar feature can be discovered in any other political revolution recorded in history. But it occurs in certain religious revolutions.

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Therefore those who wish to examine the French Revolution by the light of analogy must compare it with religious revolutions. Frenchmen were seen, for instance, fighting against Frenchmen, with Englishmen in their ranks. Men born on distant Baltic shores marched down into Edition: current; Page: [ 25 ] the heart of Germany to protect Germans of whom they had never heard before. All the foreign wars of the time partook of the nature of civil wars; in all the civil wars foreigners bore arms. Old interests were forgotten in the clash of new ones; questions of territory gave way to questions of principle.

All the old rules of politics and diplomacy were at fault, to the great surprise and grief of the politicians of the day. Precisely similar were the events which followed in Europe. The French Revolution, though political, assumed the guise and tactics of a religious revolution. Some further points of resemblance between the two may be noticed.


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The former not only spread beyond the limits of France, but, like religious revolutions, spread by preaching and propagandism. A political revolution, which inspired proselytism, and whose doctrines were preached abroad with as much warmth as they were practiced at home, was certainly a new spectacle, the most strikingly original of all the novelties which were presented to the world by the French Revolution.

But we must not stop here. Let us go further, and try to discover whether these parallel results did not flow from parallel causes. Religions commonly affect mankind in the abstract, without allowance for additions or changes effected by laws, customs, or national traditions.

Their chief aim is to regulate the concerns of man with God, and the reciprocal duties of men toward each other, independently of social institutions. They deal, not with men of any particular nation or any particular age, but with men as sons, fathers, servants, masters, neighbors. Edition: current; Page: [ 26 ] Based on principles essential to human nature, they are applicable and suited to all races of men.

Hence it is that religious revolutions have swept over such extensive areas, and have rarely been confined, as political revolutions have, to the territory of one people, or even one race; and the more abstract their character, the wider they have spread, in spite of differences of laws, climate, and race. The old forms of paganism, which were all more or less interwoven with political and social systems, and whose dogmas wore a national and sometimes a sort of municipal aspect, rarely traveled beyond the frontiers of a single country.

They gave rise to occasional outbursts of intolerance and persecution, but never to proselytism. Hence, the first religious revolution felt in Western Europe was caused by the establishment of Christianity. That faith easily overstepped the boundaries which had checked the outgrowth of pagan systems, and rapidly conquered a large portion of the human race. I hope I shall exhibit no disrespect for that holy faith if I suggest that it owed its successes, in some degree, to its unusual disentanglement from all national peculiarities, forms of government, social institutions, and local or temporary considerations.

The French Revolution acted, with regard to things of this world, precisely as religious revolutions have acted with regard to things of the other. It dealt with the citizen in the abstract, independent of particular social organizations, just as religions deal with mankind in general, independent of time and place. It inquired, not what were the particular rights of French Edition: current; Page: [ 27 ] citizens, but what were the general rights and duties of mankind in reference to political concerns. It was by thus divesting itself of all that was peculiar to one race or time, and by reverting to natural principles of social order and government, that it became intelligible to all, and susceptible of simultaneous imitation in a hundred different places.

By seeming to tend rather to the regeneration of the human race than to the reform of France alone, it roused passions such as the most violent political revolutions had been incapable of awakening.

It inspired proselytism, and gave birth to propagandism; and hence assumed that quasi religious character which so terrified those who saw it, or, rather, became a sort of new religion, imperfect, it is true, without God, worship, or future life, but still able, like Islamism, to cover the earth with its soldiers, its apostles, and its martyrs. It must not be supposed that all its methods were unprecedented, or all the ideas it brought forward absolutely original. On many former occasions, even in the heart of the Middle Ages, agitators had invoked the general principles on which human societies rest for the purpose of overthrowing particular customs, and had assailed the constitution of their country with arguments drawn from the natural rights of man; but all these experiments had been failures.

The torch which set Europe on fire in the eighteenth century was easily extinguished in the fifteenth. Arguments of this kind can not succeed till certain changes in the condition, customs, and minds of men have prepared a way for their reception. There are times when men differ so widely that the Edition: current; Page: [ 28 ] bare idea of a common law for all appears unintelligible.

There are others, again, when they will recognize at a glance the least approach toward such a law, and embrace it eagerly. The great wonder is not that the French Revolution employed the methods it did, and conceived the ideas it brought forth; what is wonderful and startling is that mankind had reached a point at which these methods could be usefully employed, and these ideas readily admitted. THE tribes which overthrew the Roman empire, and eventually constituted modern nations, differed in race, origin, and language; they were alike in barbarism only.

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