Girondins oppose abolition of feudal rights — Decree of July 17 — Feudal laws abolished en masse — Reaction unable to prevent effect of decree — Triumph of Revolution
As soon as royalty was abolished, the Convention had to discuss in its first sittings the question of the feudal rights. However, as the Girondins were opposed to the abolition of these rights without indemnity, and yet proposed no scheme of redemption which would be binding on the lords, the whole matter remained in suspense. But this was the main, the all-absorbing question for much more than one-half of the population of France, who asked themselves with anxiety: “Is it possible that the peasant shall have to set his neck again under the feudal yoke, and again endure the horrors of famine — as soon as the revolutionary period is over?”
We have just seen that immediately after the Girondist leaders had been expelled from the Convention, the decree which restored the communal lands to the communes was passed; but the Convention still hesitated to legislate about the feudal rights. It was only on July 17, 1793, that at last it decided to strike the great blow which was to set a seal upon the Revolution by legalising the attainment of one of its two chief objectives — the complete abolition of the feudal rights.
Royalty ceased to exist on January 24, 1793, and now, on July 17, 1793, the law of France ceased to recognise the rights of the feudal lords — the servitude of one man to another.
The decree of July 17 was quite explicit. The distinctions established by the two preceding Assemblies between the different feudal rights, in the hope of maintaining part of them, were annulled. Every right based upon the feudal law simply ceased to exist.
“All dues formerly seigniorial, feudal rights, both fixed and casual, even those reserved by the decree of August 25 last, are suppressed without indemnity,” so ran the decree. There was no exception; there remained only those rents and labour dues that were paid purely for the land, and were not of feudal origin.
Thus the assimilation of feudal rents to ground rents, which had been established in 1789 and 1790, was completely blotted out. If any rent or obligation had a feudal origin, it was abolished irrevocably and without indemnity. The law of 1790 had declared that if any one leased a piece of land, he could purchase it by paying a sum equivalent to twenty or twenty-five times the annual rent; and this condition was accepted by the peasants. But, added the law, if besides the ground rent the owner had imposed any due of a feudal character — a fine, for instance, on all sales and inheritances, any kind of pledge or tax which represented a personal obligation on the farmer to the landlord, such as the obligation to use the mill or wine-press belonging to the lord, or a limitation on the right of sale of produce, or a tribute out of the crops, or even a payment to be made at the time of breaking the lease, or when the land changed owners — all dues, such as these, had to be redeemed at the same time as the ground rent.
But this time the Convention struck a really revolutionary blow. It would have none of these subtleties. Does your farmer hold his land under an obligation of a feudal character? If so, whatever you call this obligation, it is suppressed without indemnity. Or it may be the farmer pays a ground rent which has nothing feudal about it, but beside this rent you have imposed on him a pledge or a tax or some kind of feudal due. In that case, he becomes the owner of the land without owing you anything whatsoever.
But the owner might reply, the obligation was merely nominal. So much the worse. You intended to make a vassal of your farmer; he is therefore free and in full possession of the land to which the feudal obligation was attached, without owing you anything. Ordinary individuals, M. Sagnac says, “either through vanity or by force of custom employed this proscribed form, and in the leases they granted stipulated for some trifling fine or small tax on sales and purchases” — they wanted merely to play the lord.
So much the worse for them. The Convention did not inquire whether they wanted to play the lord or to become one. It knew that all the feudal dues had been trifling and customary at first, only to grow very oppressive in the course of time. Such a contract was as much tinged with feudalism as those that had served in centuries past to enslave the peasants; the Convention saw in it the mark of feudalism, and therefore it gave the land to the peasant who rented it, without asking any indemnity for it.
More than this: it ordered that “all the title-deeds which acknowledged the now abolished dues should he destroyed.” Lords, notaries, land-commissioners, had all, within three months, to bring those title-deeds and charters which gave one class power over another to the record office of their municipality, there to be thrown in a heap and burned. What the peasants had done during their revolt in 1789, at the risk of being hanged, was now to be done by law. “Five years in irons for every depository convicted of having concealed, subtracted or kept back the originals or copies of such deeds.” Many deeds of that sort proved the right of feudal State-ownership over certain lands, for the State, too, had formerly its serfs, and later its vassals. But that did not matter. The feudal rights must and shall disappear. `What the Constituent Assembly had done with the feudal titles — prince, count, marquis — the Convention was now doing with the pecuniary rights of feudalism.
Six months later, on the 8th Pluviose, Year II. (January 27, 1794), in response to numerous protests, chiefly on the part of the notaries who had recorded in the same books, and often on the same page, the dues attaching merely to the land and the feudal dues, the Convention consented to suspend the working of Article 6, and the municipalities were permitted to keep the mixed title-deeds in their archives. But the law Of July 17 remained intact, and once more, on the 29th Floreal, Year 11. (May 18, 1794), the Convention confirmed the decree that all rents “tinged with the slightest trace of feudalism “were to be suppressed without indemnity.
It is most remarkable that the reaction which took the upper hand since 1794 was quite unable to abolish the effect of this revolutionary measure. It is a long way, as we have already said, from the written law to its carrying into actual effect. Consequently, wherever the peasants had not risen against their lords, wherever they had turned against the sans-culottes, as in La Vendée, under the leadership of the lords and the priests, wherever their village municipalities remained in the hands of the priests and the rich — there the decrees of June 11 and July 17 were not applied In these regions the peasants did not regain possession of their communal lands. They did not become the owners of the lands they held on feudal lease from their ex-feudal lords. They did not burn the feudal title-deeds; and they did not even buy the nationalised lands for fear of the Church's curse.
But in many places — in a good half of the departments — the peasants did buy the national lands; here and there they even compelled the administration to sell them in small lots. They took possession of the lands they leased from their former lords, and, after planting a May-tree, they danced round it and burned all the feudal documents. They retook, in fact, their communal lands from the monks, the local bourgeoisie and the lords — and where this was done, the returning tide of reaction had no power over the economic revolution that was accomplished in deeds.
Reaction set in on the 9th Thermidor, and with it began the “blue” terror of the enriched middle classes. Later on came the Directory, the Consulat, the Empire, the Restoration, whch swept away the greater part of the democratic institutions of the Revolution. But this part of the work accomplished by the Revolution remained: it resisted all attacks. The reaction was able to destroy, up to a certain point, the political work of the Revolution; but its economic work survived. And the new, transfigured nation, which had been formed during the revolutionary turmoil, also remained and set itself hard to work.
Another thing. When we study the economic results of the Great Revolution, as it was accomplished in France, we comprehend the vast difference there is between the abolition .of feudalism accomplished bureaucratically by the feudal State itself, as was done in Prussia in 1848, or in Russia in 1861, and the abolition accomplished by a popular revolution. In Prussia and Russia the peasants were freed from feudal dues and compulsory labour only by losing a considerable part of the lands they possessed and by consenting to pay a heavy indemnity which ruined them. To become free property-owners, they impoverished themselves; while the lords, who at first resisted the reform, drew from it, at least in the fertile regions, unhoped for advantages. Nearly everywhere in Europe the reform that abolished the feudal servitude increased the power of the lords.
In France alone, where the abolition of the feudal system was carried out by a revolution, the change has acted against the lords, as an economic and political caste, to the advantage of the great mass of the peasants.