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/.
June 20, 1789 National Assembly members take Tennis Court Oath, pledging to create new constitution
July 14 Mob of Parisian citizens storms Bastille prison and confiscates weapons
July 20 Rural violence of Great Fear breaks out; peasants lash out at feudal landlords for several weeks
August 4 August Decrees release peasants and farmers from feudal contracts
August 26 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen issued
October 5 Parisian women march to Versailles in response to food crisis
February 1790 Government confiscates church property
July 12 Civil Constitution of the Clergy issued
Louis XVI - French king; was forced to accept August Decrees and Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen when angry mob of women stormed Versailles in 1789
Jacques Necker - Director general of finance sacked by Louis XVI in 1789; public outrage prompted his reinstatement
Marquis de Lafayette - Nobleman who sided with National Assembly and created French National Guard
The Tennis Court Oath
Three days after splitting from the Estates-General, the delegates from the Third Estate (now the National Assembly) found themselves locked out of the usual meeting hall and convened on a nearby tennis court instead. There, all but one of the members took the Tennis Court Oath, which stated simply that the group would remain indissoluble until it had succeeded in creating a new national constitution.
Upon hearing of the National Assembly’s formation, King Louis XVI held a general gathering in which the government attempted to intimidate the Third Estate into submission. The assembly, however, had grown too strong, and the king was forced to recognize the group. Parisians had received word of the upheaval, and revolutionary energy coursed through the city. Inspired by the National Assembly, commoners rioted in protest of rising prices. Fearing violence, the king had troops surround his palace at Versailles.
Blaming him for the failure of the Estates-General, Louis XVI once again dismissed Director General of Finance Jacques Necker. Necker was a very popular figure, and when word of the dismissal reached the public, hostilities spiked yet again. In light of the rising tension, a scramble for arms broke out, and on July 13, 1789, revolutionaries raided the Paris town hall in pursuit of arms. There they found few weapons but plenty of gunpowder. The next day, upon realizing that it contained a large armory, citizens on the side of the National Assembly stormed the Bastille, a medieval fortress and prison in Paris.
Although the weapons were useful, the storming of the Bastille was more symbolic than it was necessary for the revolutionary cause. The revolutionaries faced little immediate threat and had such intimidating numbers that they were capable of nonviolent coercion. By storming one of Paris’s most notorious state prisons and hoarding weapons, however, the revolutionaries gained a symbolic victory over the Old Regime and conveyed the message that they were not to be trifled with.
Lafayette and the National Guard
As the assembly secured control over the capital, it seemed as if peace might still prevail: the previous governmental council was exiled, and Necker was reinstated. Assembly members assumed top government positions in Paris, and even the king himself traveled to Paris in revolutionary garb to voice his support. To bolster the defense of the assembly, the Marquis de Lafayette, a noble, assembled a collection of citizens into the French National Guard. Although some blood had already been shed, the Revolution seemed to be subsiding and safely in the hands of the people.
The Great Fear
For all the developments that were taking place in Paris, the majority of the conflicts erupted in the struggling countryside. Peasants and farmers alike, who had been suffering under high prices and unfair feudal contracts, began to wreak havoc in rural France. After hearing word of the Third Estate’s mistreatment by the Estates-General, and feeding off of the infectious revolutionary spirit that permeated France, the peasants amplified their attacks in the countryside over the span of a few weeks, sparking a hysteria dubbed the Great Fear. Starting around July 20, 1789, and continuing through the first days of August, the Great Fear spread through sporadic pockets of the French countryside. Peasants attacked country manors and estates, in some cases burning them down in an attempt to escape their feudal obligations.