Chapter 17: August 4 and Its Consequences

Submitted by GrouchoMarxist on April 28, 2012

Night of August 4 — Aristocracy pretends to relinquish feudal rights-Assembly begs King to take action — D'Aiguillon and de Noailles take up cause of peasants — Their great speeches — Le Guen de Kérangall — Scene in Assembly — Extent of actual concessions — Effect of news in provinces — Middle classes take up arms against peasants.

The night of August 4 is one of the great dates of the Revolution. Like July 14 and October 15, 1789, June 21, 1791, August 10, 1792, and May 31, 1793, it marked one of the great stages in the revolutionary movement, and it determined the character of the period which follows it.

The historic legend is lovingly used to embellish this night, and the majority of historians, copying the story as it has been given by a few contemporaries, represent it as a night full of enthusiasm and saintly abnegation.

With the taking of the Bastille, the historians tell us, the Revolution had gained its first victory. The news spread to the provinces, and provoked everywhere somewhat similar insurrections. It penetrated to the villages, and, at the instigation of all kinds of vagabonds, the peasants attacked their lords and burnt the châteaux. Whereupon the clergy and nobility, filled with a patriotic impulse, seeing that they had as yet done nothing for the peasant, began to relinquish their feudal rights during this memorable night. The nobles, the clergy, the poorest parish priest and the richest of the feudal lords, all renounced upon the altar of their country their secular' prerogatives. A wave of enthusiasm passed through the Assembly; all were eager to make their sacrifice. “The sitting was a holy feast, the tribune an altar, the Assembly Hall a temple,” says one of the historians, who are usually calm enough “It was a Saint Bartholomew of property,” say the others. And when the first beams of day broke over France on the morrow the old feudal system no longer existed.” France was a country born anew, having made an auto-da-fé of all the abuses of its privileged classes.”

That is the legend. It is true that a profound enthusiasm thrilled the Assembly when two nobles, the Viscount de Noailles and the Duke d'Aiguillon, put the demand for the abolition of feudal rights, as well as of the various privileges of the nobility, and when two bishops — those of Nancy and of Chartres — spoke demanding the abolition of the tithes. It is true that the enthusiasm went on ever increasing, and that during this all-night sitting nobles and clergy followed one another to the tribune and disputed who should first give up their seignorial courts of. justice. Pleas were to be heard made by the privileged persons, for justice-free, unbought, and equal for all. Lords, lay and ecclesiastic, were seen relinquishing their game laws. The Assembly was carried away by its enthusiasm, and in this enthusiasm nobody remarked the clause for redeeming the feudal rights and tithes, which the two nobles and the two bishops had introduced into their speeches — a clause terrible even in its vagueness, since it might mean all or nothing, and did, in fact, postpone, as we shall see, the abolition of feudal rights for four years — until August 1793. But which of us in reading the beautiful story of that night, written by its contemporaries, has not been carried away by enthusiasm in his turn? And who has not passed over those traitorous words, “racbat au denier 30” (redemption at a thirty-years' purchase), without understanding their terrible import? This is also what happened in France in 1789.

The evening sitting of August 4 had at first begun with panic, not with enthusiasm.. We have just seen that a number of châteaux had been burnt or plundered during the previous fortnight. Beginning in the east, the peasant insurrection spread towards the south, the north and the centre; it threatened to become general. In a few places the peasants had acted savagely towards their masters, and the news which came in from the provinces exaggerated what had happened. The nobles ascertained with alarm that there was not any force on the spot capable of checking the riots.

The sitting opened, therefore, with the reading of a scheme for issuing a proclamation against the risings. The Assembly. was invited to pronounce an energetic condemnation of the rioters and to command most emphatically respect for property) whether feudal or not, while waiting for the Assembly to legislate on the matter.

“It appears that property, of no matter what nature, is the prey of the most culpable brigandage,” said the Committee of Inquiry. “On all sides châteaux are burnt, convents destroyed and farms given over to pillage. The taxes and seignorial dues all are done away with. The laws are powerless, the magistrates are without authority. . .” And the report demanded that the Assembly should censure severely the disturbances and declare “that the old laws (the feudal laws) were in existence until the authority of the nation had abrogated or modified' them, that all the customary dues and payments should be paid as in the past, until it should have been ordained otherwise by the Assembly.”

“They are not brigands who do that exclaimed the Duke d'Aiguillon;” in several provinces the whole of the people have entered into a. league to destroy the châteaux to ravage the lands, and above all to get possession of the record-rooms where the title-deeds of the feudal properties are deposited.” It is certainly not enthusiasm that speaks here: it is more like fear.[71]

The Assembly proceeded in consequence to beg the King to take stringent measures against the rebellious peasants. This had already been spoken of the day before, August 3. But for some days past a certain number of the nobility — a few more advanced in their ideas than the rest of their class, and who saw more clearly all that was happening: the Viscount de Noailles, the Duke d'Aiguillon, the Duke de La Rochefoucauld, Alexandre de Lamotte and some others were secretly consulting together as to the attitude to be taken towards the jacquerie. They had understood that the only means of saving the feudal rights was to sacrifice the honorary rights and prerogatives of little value, and to demand the redemption by the peasants of the feudal dues attached to the land and having a real value. They commissioned the Duke d'Aiguillon with the development of these ideas, and this is how it was done by the Viscount de Noailles and the Duke d'Aiguillon.

Ever since the Revolution began the country folk had demanded the abolition of the feudal rights.[72] At the present time, said the two spokesmen of the liberal nobility, the rural districts, dissatisfied that nothing has been done for them during these three months, are in a state of revolt; they are no longer under control, and the choice now lies “between the destruction of society and certain concessions.” These concessions were formulated by the Viscount de Noailles thus: Equality of all persons under taxation, which should be paid in proportion to the income; ail public expenses to be contributed to by all; “all the feudal rights to be redeemed by the (village) communes by means of a yearly rent”; and lastly, “the abolition without redemption of the seignorial statutelabours, of mortmain and other kinds of personal servitude.”[73] It must also be said that for some time past the personal services had been no longer paid by the peasants. We have very clear evidence on that head from the governors of the provinces. After the revolt of July it was plain that they would never be paid again, whether the lord renounced them or not.

These concessions, proposed by the Viscount de Noailles, were, however, cut down, both by the nobles and by the middle class deputies, of whom a great number possessed landed property comprising feudal rights. The Duke d'Aiguillon, who followed de Noailles in the tribune, and whom the above, mentioned nobles had chosen as their spokesman, spoke of the peasants with sympathy; he excused their insurrection, but his conclusion was that “the barbarous remnants of the feudal laws which still exist in France are — there is no need for dissimulation — a species of property, and all property is sacred.”, “Equity,” said he, “forbids us to exact the renunciation of any property without granting a just indemnity to the owner.” He also softened down the Viscount de Noailles' phrase about the taxes, by saying that all citizens should contribute “in proportion tion to their means.” And as to the feudal rights, he demanded that all these rights — the personal rights as well as the others might be redeemed by the vassals “if they so desired,” the compensation being “au denier 30” — that is, thirty times the annual payment. This was to make redemption a sham, because for land rents it was heavy enough at twenty-five years, and in business transactions rent is generally reckoned at twenty, or even seventeen.

These two speeches were received by the gentlemen of the Third Estate with enthusiasm, and they have come down to posterity as sublime acts of abnegation on the part of the nobility, while in realitv the National Assembly, which followed the programme laid down by the Duke d'Aiguillon, created thereby the very conditions of the terrible struggle which later on steeped the Revolution in blood. The few peasants who were in this Assembly did not speak, and nobody called attention to the small value of the “renunciations” of the nobles. As to the mass of the deputies of the Third Estate, who were city men for the most part, and therefore probably had only a very vague idea about the feudal rights as a whole, as well as about the significance of the peasant rising, in their eyes, to renounce the feudal rights, even on terms of redemption, was to make a sublime sacrifice to the Revolution.

Le Guen de Kérangall, a Breton deputy, “dressed as a peasant,” then uttered some beautiful and moving words. These words, when he spoke of the “infamous parchments” `which registered the obligations of personal servitude, survivals of serfdom, made, and still make, hearts throb. But he, too, ,did not speak against a redemption of all the feudal rights, including those same “infamous” services, imposed” in times of darkness and ignorance,” the injustice of which he so eloquently denounced.

It is certain that the spectacle presented by the Assembly' during that night must have been fine representatives of the nobility and clergy coming forward to relinquish the privileges they had exercised without question for centuries. The action and the word were magnificent when the nobles rose to renounce their privileges in the matter of taxes, and the priests to renounce their tithes, the poorest curates among them giving up the casuel, the greatest lords giving up their courts of manorial the hunting rights, asking justice, and all of them relinquishing for the suppression of the pigeon-houses, which had been such a plague to the peasants. It was fine to see, also, whole provinces renouncing privileges which had created for them an exceptional position in the kingdom. The category of pays d'états endowed with special rights was thus suppressed, and the privileges of the towns, several of which held feudal rights over the neighbouring country, were abolished. The representatives of the Dauphiné (where, as we have seen, the rising had been strong and widespread) having led the way for the abolition of provincial distinctions, the others followed them.

All the eye-witnesses of this memorable sitting have given glowing descriptions of it. When the nobility accepted in principle the redemption of the feudal rights, the clergy were called upon to declare themselves. They accepted fully the redemption of the ecclesiastical feudalities on the condition that the price of redemption should not create personal fortunes amongst the clergy, but that the whole should be employed in works of general utility. A bishop then spoke about the injuries done in the peasants, fields by the packs of hounds kept by the lords, and demanded the abolition of the hunting privileges, an immediately the nobility gave their assent by a loud and impassioned shout. The enthusiasm reached a very high pitch during the sitting., and when the Assembly separated at two o'clock in the morning, every one felt that the foundations of a new society had been laid.

It would not be fair to try to diminish the importance of that night. Enthusiasm of this kind is needed to push on events.. It will be needed again when a Social Revolution comes. In a revolution enthusiasm must be provoked, and words which make hearts vibrate must be pronounced. The fact that the nobility, the clergy and the privileged persons of every kind had recognised during that night's sitting the progress of the Revolution, that they decided to submit to it instead of taking up arms against it — this fact by itself was already a conquest of the human mind. It was all the greater as the renunciation was made with enthusiasm. It is true that it was done in the light of the burning châteaux, but how many times had that same light merely provoked in the privileged classes an obstinate in, resistance, and led to hatred and massacre! That night in August those distant flames inspired other words — words of sympathy for the rebels; and other acts — acts of conciliation.

Ever since July 14, the spirit of the Revolution, born of the ferment which was working through the whole of France, was hovering over everything that lived and felt, and this spirit, created by millions of wills, gave the inspiration that we lack in ordinary times.

But having pointed out the effects of the enthusiasm which only a revolution could inspire, the historian must also consider calmly how far all this enthusiasm did actually go, and what was the limit it dared not pass; he must point out what it gave the people and what it refused to grant them.

Well, that limit can be indicated in very few words. The Assembly only sanctioned in principle and extended to France altogether what the people had accomplished themselves in certain localities. It went no further.

We have seen what the people had already done in Strasbourg and in so many other towns. They had compelled all the citizens, noble and middle-class, to share the taxation, and had proclaimed the necessity of an income tax — and the National Assembly accepted that. The people had abolished all honorary offices, and the nobility agreed to renounce those offices on `August 4; by so doing, they again accepted a revolutionary act. The people had also abolished the manorial courts of justice and appointed judges by election; the Assembly accepted this in its turn. Finally, the people had abolished the privileges of the towns and the provincial toll-gates — it was actually done in the eastern provinces — and now the Assembly made a general principle of a fact already accomplished in a part of the kingdom.

For the rural districts the clergy admitted in principle that the tithes should be redeemable; but in how many Places were the people paying them! And when the Assembly tried afterwards to exact payment up to 1791, it had to resort to threats of execution to compel the peasants to obey. Let us rejoice, certainly, that the clergy yielded to the abolition of the tithes — under the condition that they should be redeemed — but let us also say that the clergy would have done infinitely better had `they not insisted on redemption. What struggles., what hatreds, what bloodshed had been spared if they had given up the tithes and had left the payment of their salaries to the nation or their parishioners. As to the feudal rights, how much strife would have been avoided if the Assembly, instead of accepting the motion of the Duke d'Aiguillon, had simply adopted on August 4, 1789 that of the Viscount de Noailles, which after all was a very modest proposal: the abolition without indemnity of the personal dues, and redemption for the rents attaching to land. But, to arrive at this latter measure, in 1792, how much blood had to flow during three years, not to mention the savage struggles which had to be gone through to attain in 1793 the total abolition of feud rights without redemption?

But let us for the moment do as the men of 1789 did. Eve one was filled with joy after that sitting. Every one congratulated themselves upon that Saint Bartholomew of feudal abuses' which proves how important it is during a revolution to recognise , or at least to proclaim, a new principle. Couriers were despatched from Paris, carrying the great news to every corner of France: “All the feudal rights are abolished!” For was so that the decisions of the Assembly were understood the people, and it was so stated in the first article of the resolution of August 5. All the feudal rights are abolished! No more tithes! No more quit-rents! No more dues on the sales of inheritance, no more payments in kind, nor statute — labours, nor subsidies! The game laws are gone! Done with the pigeon-houses: all game is henceforth free to everybody! There were to be no more nobles, no privileged persons of any sort: every one was equal before the judge elected by all!

At least this was how the night of August 4 was understood in the provinces. And before the resolutions of August 5 and' II had been published, before the line of demarcation between what should be redeemed and what should disappear since that day had been marked out-long before those acts and renunciations had been formulated into paragraphs of law, messengers had already brought the good news to the peasant. Henceforth, whether he was shot down or not, he would no longer pay anything.

The peasant insurrection took, therefore, a new force. It spread through the provinces, such as Brittany, which until then had remained quiet. And if the landowners demanded payment of any kind of dues, the peasants went to their chateaux and burnt all the records and land-registers. They did not care to submit to the decrees of August and distinguish between redeemable rights and abolished rights, says Du Châtellier.[74] Everywhere , all over France, the pigeon-houses and game were destroyed. Id the villages the peasants ate their fill therefore, and they also took possession of those lands which, though formerly belonging to the village communities, had been seized by the lords.

It was then that in the east of France one could see what has happened later on more or less all over France — namely, the middle classes interposing against the peasants in favour of the landlords. Liberal historians have passed this by in silence, but it is a fact of the highest importance for the comprehension of the history of the next few years.

We have seen that the peasant-rising attained its greatest vigour in the Dauphiné and in eastern France generally. The rich people and the lords fled, Necker complaining that he had to furnish six thousand passports to the richest inhabitants in a fortnight. Switzerland was inundated with them. But the middle-class people who remained armed themselves and organised their militia, and the National Assembly soon voted a draconian measure against the peasants (August 10).[75] Under the pretext that the insurrection was the work of brigands, it authorised the municipalities to call out the troops, to disarm all men without profession and without domicile, to disperse the bands and to deal with them summarily. The middle classes of the Dauphiné profited largely by these laws. When bands of peasants in revolt passed through Burgundy, burning the châteaux, the middle-class men in the towns and villages leagued themselves against them. One of these bands, says the Deux amis de la liberté, was defeated at Cormatin on July 27, when twenty were killed and sixty taken prisoners. At Cluny there were a hundred killed and one hundred and sixty prisoners. The municipality of Macon made war in due form upon the peasants, who refused to pay the tithe, and they hanged twenty of them. Twelve peasants were hanged at Douai; at Lyons the middle classes, while fighting the peasants, killed eighty of them and took sixty prisoners. In the Dauphiné the ProvostMarshal went all over the country hanging the rebellious peasants.[76] In the Rouergue, the town of Milhaud appealed to the neighbouring towns, inviting them to arm themselves, against the brigands and those who refused to pay the taxes. [77]

In short, we see by these several acts, of which it would be easy to increase the list, that wherever the rising of the peasants was the most violent, there the middle classes undertook to crush it; and they would have undoubtedly helped considerably to do it if the news which came from Paris after the night of August 4 had not given a new impetus to the insurrection.

The peasant rising apparently slackened only in September, or October, perhaps on account of the ploughing; but in January 1790 we learn, from the account of the Feudalism Committee, that the peasant insurrection had begun again with renewed vigour, probably because of the claims for payment The peasants were unwilling to submit to the distinction ml by the Assembly between the dues attached to the land and personal services, and they rose in order that they should pay nothing at all.

We shall return to this very important subject in one of succeeding chapters.