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The Constitutional Monarchy: Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen & the Civil Constitution

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  • 0:02 A Call for a New Order
  • 1:06 A Declaration
  • 2:30 More Changes
  • 4:00 A Constitutional Monarchy
  • 5:28 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Troolin

Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will study the moderate phase of the French Revolution, focusing specifically on the Tennis Court Oath, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, and the constitutional monarchy.

A Call for a New Order

France's Estates General met in May of 1789 to try and solve the problem of the country's bankrupt government. In a little over a month, the common people of the Third Estate, disgusted by unequal treatment and lack of results, split off from the clergy and the nobles on June 17 and formed the National Assembly.

King Louis XVI ordered the new Assembly to disperse and locked the members out of the meeting hall. The delegates transferred their meeting to a nearby tennis court. On June 20, 1789, they swore the famous Tennis Court Oath, vowing that they would never disband until they received a new constitution. 'We are here according to the will of the people,' one delegate exclaimed, 'and nothing except bayonets will drive us out.' The king, unsure how to respond, tried to order the delegates to return to the Estates General. When that didn't work, he commanded the clergy and nobility to join the National Assembly. A new order was beginning.

A Declaration

The National Assembly, led by the Third Estate, thought that it was time to get a few things straight about the rights of the French people, especially the common people. On August 26, 1789, it issued the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, which proclaimed the basic rights of human beings and the limits of the government. The following are just a few of the Declaration's 17 articles:

  • 'Men are born and remain free and equal in rights.' (Article 1)
  • 'The purpose of all political association is the preservation of the natural... rights of man. These rights are liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression.' (Article 2)
  • 'Liberty consists in the ability to do whatever does not harm another.' (Article 4)
  • 'No one should be disturbed for his opinions, even in religion, provided that their manifestation does not trouble public order as established by law.' (Article 10)
  • 'The free communication of thoughts and opinions is one of the most precious of the rights of man. Every citizen may therefore speak, write, and print freely...' (Article 11)

More Changes

The Assembly did not stop there. Now that they had firmly proclaimed the rights of the people, the leading members turned their attention to limiting the powers of the king, the nobles, and the clergy. In October, the king was forcibly moved to Paris where the Assembly could keep an eye on him. He also received a new title to reflect the new system. Instead of 'Louis, by Grace of God, King of France,' he was now 'Louis, by Grace of God and the constitutional law of the State, King of the French.' The nobility lost some power when the Assembly abolished the seigneurial system, declaring that noble landlords could no longer hold their peasants in bondage.

The clergy was not exempt from new limitations either. The Civil Constitution of the Clergy, passed on July 12, 1790, made the French Catholic Church a state church under governmental control. The Assembly took charge of reorganizing parishes, controlling the clergy's salaries, and setting rules for clerical conduct. Bishops and priests, the new law maintained, were to be elected by governmental assemblies rather than appointed by the Vatican. In November, the Assembly required all clergy to swear an oath of loyalty to the Civil Constitution. Most of the higher clergy and nearly half of the lower clergy refused, setting the stage for a major conflict.

A Constitutional Monarchy

By 1791, Louis XVI realized that things were not looking good for the monarchy. In June, he tried to escape to Austria with his family, but his attempt failed. In September of 1791, the Assembly finally presented the new constitution it had been wanting for over two years.

The constitution did indeed bring major changes for the monarch. Louis was still the king, but now he faced some serious limitations to his power. No longer an absolute monarch governing by divine right, he was now a constitutional monarch, whose power came from the law and the legislature. He was required to cooperate with the new Legislative Assembly, which replaced the National Assembly and in which the sovereignty, or ruling power, resided. It was a harsh blow to Louis, but the new Assembly was positive that it was the right move for the country.

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