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French Revolution
French Revolution

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2.4 Enlightened reformism – dismantling the Old Regime

The National Assembly, the self-proclaimed and now de facto supreme representative and legislative organ of state, set to work on the constitution which it had sworn to introduce. Calling itself the Constituent Assembly (to stress both its representative credentials and its constitutional mission), it consisted of 745 deputies elected for two years with virtually unlimited power to pass laws. The king, by interposing his veto, might delay but could not override laws passed by it.

Between 1789 and 1791 the Assembly implemented a transformation of French institutions, marking a clear break with the Old Regime by its sweeping application of the principle of equality. In a series of revolutionary decrees between 4 and 11 August 1789, it removed at one fell swoop the social and administrative foundations of the Old Regime. The Assembly decreed the abolition of ‘the feudal system in its entirety’ and with it the removal of privilege in France: the abolition of church tithes (in addition to drawing revenues from its ownership of a tenth of the land, the Church drew a tithe equivalent to one-tenth of the yield of the remaining land) and all rents, taxes and services due from peasants to noble landowners (notably rents paid in kind and the corvée, or forced labour on road repairs); abolition of seigneurial law courts; abolition of the sale of offices and an end to the exemption from direct taxation enjoyed by church and nobility. It proclaimed the comprehensive principle of equality: social equality, equality before the law, equal liability to taxation, and equality of opportunity. ‘All citizens,’ it decreed, ‘without distinction of birth, are eligible for all offices, whether ecclesiastical, civil or military’ (Hardman, 1999, p. 113). The nobility thus lost its automatic monopoly of the higher offices of state.