Functions of the Constituent Assembly

Functions of the Constituent Assembly:

The key function of the National Assembly was to draw up a constitution. Therefore, the National Assembly came to be known as the Constituent Assembly. In Versailles, it had started drafting the constitution. The initial result of the National Assembly’s work was the declaration of human rights. It contained the declaration of the natural rights of human beings. The inspiration for the Declaration of Human Rights was drawn from the American example. Lafayette, who had participated in the American Revolution, presented the draft of the declaration in the Assembly prior to the incident of Bastille. He thought that his draft would help the public understand the principle of freedom and the Assembly would have a guideline for drafting a constitution. On August 27, 1789, the Constituent Assembly translated its ideals and objectives into the form of the Declaration of Human Rights. In the declaration, the following points were given special emphasis:

(1) Man is invested with some natural rights which he acquires by birth such as the right of individual security, the right of property, etc.

(2) Law is the expression of common will. State originates from the combined efforts of people. Therefore, an individual has the right to participate himself or through his representatives in running the administration and making laws.

(3) Nobody should be arrested unlawfully.

(4) The security of public rights is the duty of the state.

(5) Sovereignty was accepted in the nation instead of state or parliament.

(6) All people have the right to acquire government ranks according to their merits.

(7) Private property is an inviolate and unbreachable right. Nobody will be deprived of it.

(8) All are free to diffuse religion and thoughts provided they do not violate the limits prescribed by law.

(9) Freedom lies in those activities which do not harm others.

(10) All officers of the state are accountable to the public.

The Declaration of Rights was very significant. It is stated about it that “the declaration is the most remarkable event in the history of the development of democratic and republican thoughts” in France. Some people call it the Bible of the modern age; but it has many flaws, such as:

(1) The Declaration contained the details of rights only but not of duties. It was a serious flaw that accounted for anarchy.

(2) It protected the interests of the middle class only.

(3) The common class (proletariat) was not given assurance of livelihood.

(4) It had declared the rights but their enforcement was not guaranteed.

(5) It was silent about freedom in the choice of business or occupation.

In spite of the above drawbacks, the Declaration was very important. As a matter of fact, the Declaration was the bright side of the French Revolution and without it, the Revolution could not reckoned as a remarkable event.

The Declaration “was a death-warrant for the old system and had a gleam of hope for the new French life”. It highlighted those principles on the basis of which the National Assembly wanted to improve the overall administrative system. It was a support of new promises and a statement of political, social, and constitutional rights which seemed to its makers essential for good administration. It was a declaration for man. It could be enforced anywhere in the world. It could be used effectively to get redemption from the absolute monarchy or feudal prerogative prevalent in any country. It incorporated public rights also. By means of the Declaration, France posed a great challenge to the absolute rule which existed in its neighboring state. Throughout the 19th century, it was treated as a “Charter of liberalism”. The charter influenced not only France but the people of the entire world. It introduced the gradual development of public rights and popularized the Revolution. The Declaration of the fundamental rights of citizens occupies the same importance in French history as the Magna Carta in England and the Declaration of American Independence in America. “This piece of paper proved more powerful than the army of Napoleon”.

In the history of France, the constituent assembly drafted the constitution for the first time in 1791. Actually, the framing of the Constitution had started in 1789, and the regulations passed between 1790 and 1791, were part of the Constitution. After compiling those regulations and making certain additions and alterations to them, they were presented as the constitution in 1791, It was also approved by the King. The first written constitution in the history of France put emphasis on two key elements.

(1) The supreme power of the state rests in the public.

(2) The centralization of power is in the interest of the state and the public, that is, the organization of the legislature, the executive, and the judiciary should entail separation of powers.

In conformity with the new constitution, the structure of the French government remained monarchic but the rights of the King were curbed. The king was vested with veto. The King now lost his power of legislation but he could stop the implementation of any law passed by the legislature. But he could do so for a period of two consecutive tenures (for four years) of the legislatures. The law rejected by the King came into force when the legislature elected for the third time approved of it. Such a law did not require the consent of the King. Foreign policy was handled by the King but the executive enjoyed the right of taking a final decision in the matter of war and peace. The early declaration about human rights was given constitutional sanction. A few more rights like the right of immigration, the right of compensation for property, and the right to lodge a complaint were added. The state was reorganized. For efficient administration, the state was divided into various departments, districts, and communes. The smallest unit of administration was a commune. According to the new constitutional law, the legislative assembly was formed properly for the first time. It consisted of 745 members and its tenure was two years. An electoral college was organized for the formation of legislatures. For election purposes, citizens were put into two categories. The first category comprised active citizens and the second of passive citizens. Such discrimination was made on the basis of voting and non-voting citizens. The monetary status of the voters became the base of the election. In the category of active voters, were those citizens who had attained the age of 25 years, paid income-tax equivalent to their three-day salary, and got their names enrolled in the National Guards and the register of municipality. The active citizens enjoyed an indirect right of voting. The active citizens used to elect an Elector for every hundred citizens. Only such a person was an elector who possessed his own estate and paid income tax every year equivalent to his ten-day salary. The electoral college was empowered to elect a Deputy. Any active member could be elected a Deputy if he owned an estate and paid 54 Francs against tax. The legislative assembly was invested with the power of making laws. The King was not empowered to dissolve the legislative assembly. War and peace could not be declared without seeking approval from the legislative assembly. Several changes were carried out in the field of judiciary. The practice of buying and selling the offices of judges was abolished. The appointment of judges was made through election. The practice of deciding criminal cases through a jury was put into force. Earlier, a judge used to pronounce his judgment in all cases. It was a new practice for France. The use of stamp papers was stopped. All people were held equal in the eyes of justice.

The economic condition of France deteriorated day by day. The pitiable economic plight was an uphill task before the National Assembly. In the meantime, a bishop named Taleran proposed in the National Assembly that the property of the Church should be abolished. One-fifth land of France was held by the Church. If the state had taken away the Church property, the economic condition of the state might have improved for a while and it could have helped in paying off the debt to some extent. Mirabeau seconded Taleran’s proposal. A wild debate took place in the National Assembly. At last, the proposal was passed by a margin of 22 votes. On November 3, 1789, the Constituent Assembly nationalized the Church property. In proportion to the money gained from the sale of Church-property Assignats or treasury bonds were issued. These Assignats came into use not as currency but as bills of exchange. An assignat was a treasury bond that carried interest at the rate of five percent. In the beginning, the assignats were issued against the Church property but they were converted into regular paper currency. An assignats were printed on a large scale, they got devalued. On the whole, economic conditions deteriorated rather than showing any sign of improvement and the Church stood against the revolution. It was the bright side of the issue of assignats that the persons who had purchased the Church land became the admirers of the Revolution. After some time, those people defended the cause of the Revolution when the fear of anti-revolution factors gripped the nation.

The National Assembly introduced many reforms in the affairs of the Church. The freedom of religion was announced by the National Assembly. At the time of the session called on November 3, 1789, the Church property was attached and declared national property. A new constitution was drafted for the priests and it became known as “The Civil Constituion of the Clergy”. This constitution for the clergy incorporated certain remarkable decisions, such as:

(1) Only one Bishop could be appointed in a department (province).

(ii) The State was made responsible for disbursing salaries to all religious dignitaries.

(iii) Bishops will not live under the Pope. They will work under the guidance of the state.

(iv) Priests and Bishops will be elected by the public.

(v) In addition to the Roman Catholics, the Protestants and the Jews could also take part in the election. Thus, the French Church became dependent on the State.

Besides all these factors, the priests were hedged in a new bond. Every priest was ordered to take an oath of allegiance to the constitution of the clergy. The majority of priests (about two-thirds of the total number) refused to take such an oath. The priests who refused to take an oath were considered enemies of public peace and order. They were dismissed from their posts. Many priests immigrated to other countries and began to hatch a plot against the Revolution. Pope Pious VI who was silent till then became a severe critic of the Revolution because of the civil constitution of the clergy. In this way, such activities of the National Assembly caused dissatisfaction among most of the priests. The Priests joined their hands with the feudal barons who also opposed the Revolution. Therefore, the civil constitution of the clergy brought the French Revolutionaries face-to-face with their opponents.

Above all, the National Assembly granted religious freedom to the public and abolished the annual tax paid to the Church. The monopoly of the Church diminished. The Church did not remain the property of any one privileged class but became accessible to the common people. In this way, the Church became completely public.

As far as an appraisal of the achievements of the National Assembly is concerned, it may be said that it built a new setup on the old system. The new setup chalked out by the National Assembly was remarkable and placed France on the threshold of a new epoch of social development. The National Assembly cleaned the debris of the old system. It eliminated the old disgusting feudal setup and established the unity of France. It established public sovereignty by means of adopting a new written constitution for the first time. It raised a memorial for democracy in the new political organization. The National Assembly kindled enthusiasm in the public and endeavored that there should be one law for all and the burden of taxation should be equal on all. “It originated a social and public revolution and based the public policy on the will of the public. Even more, for the entire world, it had proclaimed a novel message- a message which emphasized the importance of the individuality of the common people”.

In spite of all its great achievements, the National Assembly is still criticized. The demerits in the working pattern of the National Assembly were as under:

(1) Through the declaration of rights, the National Assembly aroused such hopes among the people as could not be fulfilled by it in the Constitution.

(2) The Assembly violated human rights by splintering the public into active and passive categories. Thousands of people were deprived of the right to vote as the franchise was based on property. In this way, the citizens were not only divested of their rights of equality but old privileges were replaced by the new ones.

(3) The government lost its control over the local officers as it followed the policy of excessive decentralization. It resulted in the slackness in administration.

(4) The Legislative Assembly was separated from the Executive. The ministers attached to the King could not become members of the Legislative Assembly and the members of the Legislative Assembly could not become ministers of the King. The King was not empowered to dissolve the Legislative Assembly. Thus, instead of cooperating with each other the Legislative Assembly and the Executive Assembly confronted each other.

(5) The appointment of judges through election was impracticable. The elected judges could not settle cases boldly.

(6) On the question of the State control the civil constitution of the clergy created great tension among the persons who had serious concerns with religion.

(7) The person who was once elected a member of the legislature was not eligible for re-election. In this way, the experience of a person was not utilized.

(8) It promoted the interests of the middle class immensely but flouted the concerns of farmers and workers.

It seems easy to criticize the activities of the National Assembly but to oposse the old tyrannical system was not a child’s play. The National Assembly resisted the old system on the strength of great daring and indefatigable zeal. At the time of evaluating the achievements of the National Assembly, we must not ignore those adverse circumstances which affected the line of action of the Assembly. Above all, its members lacked legal and administrative experience. The noted historian H. G. Wells maintains that certain acts of the Assembly appeared to be constructive and everlasting but its major acts proved to be experimental and temporary. Consequently, it may be affirmed that the National Constituent Assembly established the ideals of revolution by means of proclaiming public sovereignty, social equality, human rights, and elimination of feudalism; but it failed to implement the constitution permanently. The Constituent Assembly failed to solve political and economic problems and this caused great disturbance and disorder.

Important Links:

Intellectual Enlightenment
Political Causes of the French Revolution
Economic Causes of the French Revolution
Beginning of the French Revolution
Phases of the French Revolution
Role of Philosophers in the French Revolution
Nature of the French Revolution
Correlation Between the Objectives and Achievements of the French Revolution
Do you agree that the French Revolution achieved far less than what it intended to achieve?