Necessity of avoiding bankruptcy — Assembly determine to seize Church property — Value of Church revenue — Its unequal distribution — Proposals of Bishop of Autun — Alarm of wealthy clergy — Delight of middle classes — Expropriation voted — Suppression of monastic orders — Paper currency — Administration of Church property transferred to municipalities — Clergy henceforward deadly enemies of Revolution — Organisation of French Church — Effects of new organisation — Constituent Assembly works essentially for middle class — Need of “wind from the street”
The greatest difficulty for the Revolution was that it had to make its way in the midst of frightful economic circumstances. State bankruptcy was still hanging threateningly over the heads of those who had undertaken to govern France, and if this bankruptcy came indeed, it would bring with it the revolt of the whole of the upper middle classes against the Revolution. If the deficit had been one of the causes which forced royalty to make the first constitutional concessions, and gave the middle classes courage to demand seriously their share in the Government, this same deficit weighed, like a nightmare, all through the Revolution upon those who were successively pushed into power.
It is true that, as the State loans were not international In those times, France had not the fear of foreign nations coming down upon her in the guise of creditors, to seize upon her provinces, as would be done to-day if a European State in revolution was declared bankrupt. But there were the home money-lenders to be considered, and if France had suspended payment, it would have been the ruin of so many middle-class fortunes that the Revolution would have had against it all the middle class, both upper and lower — in fact every one except the workers and the poorest of the peasantry. So it was that the Constituent Assembly, the Legislative Assembly, the Convention, and, later on, the Directory, had to make unheard — of efforts during a succession of years to avoid bankruptcy.
The solution arrived at by the Assembly at the close of 1789 was that of seizing the property of the Church, putting it up for sale, and in return paying the clergy by fixed salaries. The Church revenues were valued in 1789 at a hundred and twenty million livres for the tithes, eighty millions in other revenues brought in by various properties (houses and landed property, of which the value was estimated at a little more than two thousand millions), and thirty millions or thereabout from the subsidy that was added every year by the State; a total, let us say, of about two hundred and thirty millions a year. These revenues were evidently shared in a most unjust way among the different members of the clergy. The bishops lived in the most refined luxury, and rivalled in their expenditure the richest lords and princes, whilst the priests in the towns and villages “reduced to a suitable portion,” lived in poverty. It was proposed, therefore, by Talleyrand, Bishop of Autun, after October 10, to take possession of all Church property in the name of the State, to sell it, to endow the clergy adequately, by giving 1200 livres a year to each priest, plus his lodging, and with the rest to cover part of the public debt, which had mounted to fifty millions in life-interests, and to sixty millions in rents for ever. This measure enabled the deficit to be filled in, the remainder of the salt tax (gabelle) to be abolished, and a stop put to the selling of the charges or posts of officials and functionaries, which used to be sold to contractors by the State.
This scheme, of course, did not fail to evoke great alarm on the part of those who were landed proprietors. “You are leading us on to an agrarian law!” they told the Assembly. “Every time you go back to the origin of property, the nation will go back with you!” — which meant recognising that the foundation of all landed property lay in injustice, usury, fraud or theft.
But the middle classes who did not own land were delighted with this scheme. Bankruptcy was avoided by it, and the bourgeois would be enabled to buy property. But as the word “expropriation” frightened the pious souls of the landowners, means were found to avoid it. It was said that the Church property was “put at the disposal of the nation,” and it was decided to put it up for public sale to the value of four hundred millions. November 2, 1789, was the memorable date when this immense expropriation was voted in the Assembly by five hundred and sixty-eight voices against three hundred and forty-six. Three hundred and forty-six were against it. And these opposers became, henceforth, the bitter enemies of the Revolution, always agitating to do the greatest possible and imaginable harm to the constitutional régime and later on to the Republic.
But the middle classes, taught by the Encyclopedists on the one hand, and haunted on the other hand by the ineluctability of the bankruptcy, did not allow themselves to be daunted. When the enormous majority of the clergy and especially of the monastic orders began to intrigue against the expropriation of the Church property, the Assembly voted, on February 12, 1790, for the suppression of perpetual vows and of the monastic orders of both sexes. Only it did not dare to touch for the time being the religious bodies entrusted with public education and the care of the sick. These were not abolished until August 18, 1792, after the taking of the Tuileries.
We can understand the hatred these decrees excited in the breasts of the clergy, as well as of those — and in the provinces they were very numerous — upon whom the clergy had a hold. So much, however, did the clergy and the religious orders hope to retain the administration of their enormous properties, which would be considered in such case merely as guarantees for the State loans, that they did not at first display all their hostility. But this state of affairs could not last. The Treasury was empty, the taxes were not coming in. A loan of thirty millions, voted on August 9, 1789, was not successful; another, of eighty millions, voted on the 27th of the same month, had brought in even much less. Finally, an extraordinary tax of a fourth of the revenue had been voted on September 26 after one of Mirabeau's famous speeches. But this tax was immediately swallowed up in the gulf of interests on old loans, and then followed the idea of a forced paper currency, of which the value would be guaranteed by the national property confiscated from the clergy, and which should be redeemed according as the sale of the lands brought in money.
One can imagine the colossal speculations to which these measures for the sale of the national property upon a large scale gave rise. One can easily guess the element which they introduced into the Revolution. Nevertheless, even now the economists and the historians ask whether there was any other method for meeting the pressing demands of the State. The crimes, the extravagance, the thefts and the wars of the old régime weighed heavily upon the Revolution; and starting with this enormous burden of debt, bequeathed to it by the old régime, it had to bear the consequences. Under menace of a civil war, still more terrible than that which was already breaking out, under the threat of the middle classes turning their backs upon it — the classes which, although pursuing their own ends, were nevertheless allowing the people to free themselves from their lords, but would have turned against all attempts at enfranchisement if the capital they had invested in the loans was endangered, set between these two dangers, the Revolution adopted the scheme for a paper currency (les assignats), guaranteed by the national property.
On December 21, 1789, on the proposition of the districts of Paris, the administration of the Church property was transferred to the municipalities, which were commissioned to put up for sale four hundred millions' worth of this property. The great blow was struck. And henceforth the clergy, with the exception of some village priests who were real friends of the people, vowed a deadly hatred to the Revolution — a clerical hatred, which the abolition of monastic vows helped further to envenom. Henceforward all over France we see the clergy becoming the centres of conspiracies made to restore the old régime and feudalism. They were the heart and soul of the reaction, which we shall see bursting forth in 1790 and in 1791, threatening to put an end to the Revolution before it had realised anything substantial.
But the middle classes resisted it, and did not allow themselves to be disarmed. In June and July 1790 the Assembly opened the discussion upon a great question — the internal organisation of the Church of France. The clergy being now paid by the State, the legislators conceived the idea of freeing them from Rome, and putting them altogether under the Constitution, The bishoprics were identified with the new departments: their number was thus reduced, and the two boundaries, that of the diocese and that of the department, became identical. This might have been allowed to pass; but the election of the bishops was by the new law entrusted to the Assemblies of electors — to those same Assemblies which were electing the deputies, the judges and the officers of the State.
This was to despoil the bishop of his sacerdotal character and to make a State functionary of him. It is true that in the Early Churches the bishops and priests were nominated by the people; but the electoral Assemblies which met for the elections of political representatives and officials were not the ancient assemblies of the people — of the believers. Consequently the believers saw in it an attempt made upon the ancient dogmas of the Church, and the priests took every possible advantage of this discontent. The clergy divided into two great parties: the constitutional clergy who submitted, at least for form's sake, to the new laws and took the oath to the Constitution, and the unsworn clergy who refused the oath and openly placed themselves at the head of a counter-revolutionary movement. So it came about that in every province, in each town, village and hamlet, the question put to the inhabitants was — whether they were for the Revolution or against it? The most terrible struggles sprang, therefore, into existence in every locality, to decide which of the two parties should get the upper hand. The Revolution was transported from Paris into every village: from being parliamentary it became popular.
The work done by the Constituent Assembly was undoubtedly middle-class work. But to introduce into the customs of the nation the principle of political equality, to abolish the relics of the rights of one man over the person of another, to awaken the sentiment of equality and the spirit of revolt against inequalities, was nevertheless an immense work. Only it must be remembered, as Louis Blanc has remarked, that to maintain and to kindle that fiery spirit in the Assembly, “the that was blowing from the street was necessary.” “Even rioting,” he adds, “in those unparalleled days, produced from its tumult many wise inspirations! Every rising was so full of thoughts!” In other words, it was the street, the man in the street, that each time forced the Assembly to go forward with its work of reconstruction. Even a revolutionary Assembly, or one at least that forced itself upon monarchy in a revolutionary way, as the Constituent Assembly did, would have done nothing if the masses of the people had not impelled it to march forward, and if they had not crushed, by their insurrections, the anti-revolutionary resistance.