Chapter 18: The Feudal Rights Remain

Submitted by GrouchoMarxist on April 28, 2012

When the Assembly met again on August 5 to draw up, under the form of resolutions, the list of renunciations which had en made during the historic night of the 4th, one could see up to what point the Assembly was on the side of property, and how it was going to defend every one of the pecuniary advantages attached to those same feudal privileges, which had made a show of abandoning a few hours before.

There were still in France, under the name of mainmortes banalitis,[78] &c., a few survivals of the ancient serfdom. There still peasants subject to mortmain in the Franche-Comté, Nivernais and the Bourbonnais. They were serfs in the true sense of the word; they could not sell their goods, nor transmit them by inheritance, except to those of their children 0 lived with them. They remained therefore attached to the soil.[79] How many they were we do not exactly know, but it is thought that the number given by Boncerf as three hundred thousand mainmortables is the most probable.[80]

Besides these mainmortables there were a very large number of peasants and also of free townsmen, who were, nevertheless, still held under personal obligations either to their former lords or else to the lord of the lands they had bought or held on lease.

It is estimated that as a rule the privileged classes — the nobility and clergy — held half the lands of every village, but that besides these lands, which were their property, they still retained various feudal rights over the lands owned by the peasants. Small proprietors were even then very numerous in France, but there were very few of them, adds M. Sagnac, who “held by right of freehold, who did not owe at least a quit-rent, or some other due, in recognition of the seigniory.” Nearly all lands paid something, either in money or in a portion of the crops, to some or other lord.

These obligations varied very much, but they may be divided into five classes: (1) The personal obligations, often humiliating-relics of serfdom;[81] (2) payments of all sorts in money, in kind or in work, which were due for a real or supposed concession of land; these were the mortmain and the real statute-labours,[82] the quit-rent, the field-rent, the land-tax, the fines on sales and on inheritance; (3) various payments resulting from the lords' monopolies; that is to say, the lords levied certain customs-revenues, certain town-dues, or certain rents from those who used their markets or their measures, mills, wine-presses, common ovens and the rest; (4) the feet of justice levied by the lord wherever the court belonged to him, the taxes, fines and so on; and (5) the lord possessed the exclusive right of hunting over his land and those of the neighbouring peasantry, as well as the right of keeping pigeon houses and rabbit-warrens, which conferred a much-coveted honour with the privilege.

All these rights were vexatious to the last degree, and they cost the peasant dear, even when they mattered little or nothing to the lord. And it is a fact, upon which Boncerf lays stress in his remarkable work, Les inconvénients des droits féodaux[83] that ever since 1776 the impoverished lords, and especially their stewards, began to squeeze the farmers, the tenants and the peasants generally, in order to get out of them as much as Possible. In 1786 there was even a pretty wide revision of the land-registers for the purpose of augmenting the feudal dues.

The Assembly, therefore, after pronouncing the abolition of all the survivals of the feudal system, halted when it became a question of wording these renunciations and putting them into the written law.

Thus it seemed as if the lords having sacrificed their mainmortes, there was nothing more to be said about it; they had only to put their renunciation into the form of a decree. But even on this question they raised discussions. They tried to establish a distinction between the personal mortmainable serfdom, a condition which should be abolished without indemnity, and the real mortmainable serfdom attached to the land and transmitted with the leasing or purchase of it: serfs of the latter class might redeem themselves. And if the Assembly decided in the end to abolish without indemnity all the rights and dues, feudal as well as manorial, “which pertained to mortmain, real or personal, and to personal services)” they managed so as to cast a doubt even on this — especially in every case where it was difficult to separate the rights of mortmain from feudal rights in general.

There was the same shuffling over the question of the Church tithes. It is known that the tithes very often amounted to a fifth or even a quarter of all harvests, and that the clergy claimed a share of the very grasses and nuts which the peasants gathered. These tithes weighed very heavily upon the peasants, especially upon the poorer ones. But then, on August 4, the clergy had declared their renunciation of all tithes in kind, on condition that these tithes should be redeemed by those who paid them. But as they did not indicate the conditions of redemption, nor the rules of procedure under which the redemption should be made, the renunciation in reality was reduced to a simple declaration of principle. The clergy accepted the redemption; they permitted the peasants to redeem the tithes if they wished to do so, and to debate the price with the holders of the tithes. But, on August 6, when it was proposed to draw up the resolutions concerning the tithes, a difficulty presented itself.

There were tithes which the clergy had sold in the course of the centuries to private individuals, and these tithes were called lay or enfeoffed. For such as these redemption was considered absolutely necessary, in order to maintain the right of property for the last purchaser. Worse than that the tithes paid by the peasants to the clergy themselves were represented to the Assembly by certain speakers, as a tax which the nation paid in support of its clergy; and by degrees, during the discussion, the opinion prevailed that there might be a question of redeeming the tithes if the nation undertook to give a regular salary to the clergy. This discussion lasted five days, until the 11th, and then several priests, backed by the archbishops, declared that they relinquished the tithes to the country, and left themselves to the justice and generosity of the nation.

It was decided, therefore, that the tithes paid to the clergy should be abolished; but while means were being found for providing from some other source the expenses for religion, the tithes should be paid as formerly. As to the enfeoffed tithes, they were to be paid until they were redeemed.

It can be imagined what a terrible disappointment this was for the rural populations, and what a cause of disturbance. In theory the tithes were suppressed, but in reality they were to be collected as usual. “Until when?” asked the peasants;and the answer was, “Until we find some other means of paying the clergy. And as the finances of the kingdom — were going from bad to worse, the peasant was justified in asking if the tithes would ever be abolished. The stoppage of work and the revolutionary agitation manifestly prevented: the collection of the taxes, whilst the cost of the new law and the new administration tended necessarily to increase thedifficulty. Democratic reforms are expensive and it is only with time that a nation in revolution is able to pay the cost of its reforms. Meanwhile the peasant had to pay the tithes, and up to 1791 they were exacted from him in a very harsh way, and as he did not want to pay, law upon law and penalty upon penalty were decreed by the Assembly against the defaulters.

The same remark applies to the game laws. On the night of August 4 the nobles had renounced their hunting rights. But when it came to the formulation of what had been said, it was perceived that this would give the right of hunting to every one. Whereupon the Assembly retracted, and only extended the right of hunting to all proprietors, or rather to the owners of real estate upon their own lands. But here again they left rather vague the formula at which they finally stopped. The Assembly abolished the exclusive right of hunting and that of the unenclosed warrens, but they said that every proprietor had the right to destroy and to cause to be destroyed, only upon his inherited land, all kinds of game. Did this authorisation apply to the farmers? It is doubtful. The peasants, however, did not wait for, nor require, the permission of tricky lawyers. Immediately after August 4 they began everywhere to destroy the game belonging to the lords. After having seen for many years their crops devoured by the game, they themselves destroyed the depredators without waiting for any authorisation.

Finally as to what concerned the essential thing, the great question which so deeply interested more than twenty millions of Frenchmen — the feudal rights — the Assembly, when it was formulating in resolutions the renunciations of the night of August 4, confined itself simply to the enunciation of a principle

“The National Assembly destroys entirely the feudal system,” said the first article of the resolutions of August 5. But the following articles of August 5 to 11 explain that only the personal servitude degrading to honour should disappear entirely. All the other dues, whatsoever their origin or nature, remained. They might be redeemed one day, but there was nothing in the resolutions of August to indicate either when or under what conditions that could be done. No limit was imposed. Not the slightest suggestion was made as to the legal procedure by means of which the redemption would be made. Nothing — nothing but the principle, the desideratum. And, meanwhile, the peasant had to pay everything, as before.

There was something worse in these resolutions of August 1789. They opened the door to a measure by which redemption would be made impossible, and this was passed by the Assembly seven months later. In February 1790 they made redemption absolutely impossible for the peasant to accept, by imposing the joint redemption of all land rents, personal and real. M. Sagnac has remarked, on page 90 of his excellent work that Demeunier had already proposed on August 6 or 7 a measure of this kind. And the Assembly, as we shall see, made a law in February 1790, after which it became impossible to redeem the dues upon the land without redeeming at the same time, in the same lot, the personal services, abolished though they were since August 5, 1789.

Carried away by the enthusiasm with which Paris and France received the news of that allnight sitting of August 4, the historians have not given sufficient prominence to the extent of the restrictions which the Assembly put against the first clause of its decree by means of clauses voted in the sitings from August 5 to 11. Even Louis Blanc, who furnishes, however, in his chapter, La propriété devant la Révolution[84], the ideas necessary for the appreciation of the tenor of the resolutions passed in August, seems to hesitate at destroying the beautiful legend, and he glosses over the restrictions, or else tries even to excuse them in saying that “the logical sequence of facts in history is not so rapid, indeed far from it, as that of the ideas in the head of a thinker.” But the fact remains that this vagueness, these doubts, these hesitations which the Assembly flung to the peasants when they asked for measures, clear and precise, to abolish the old abuses, became the cause of the terrible struggles which were evolved, during the four following years. It was not until after the expulsion of the Girondins that the question of the feudal rights came up again boldly and in its entirety, in the sense of Article 1 of the resolution of August 4.[85]

It is no use now, and at a distance of a hundred years, to declaim against the National Assembly. Indeed, the Assembly did all that could have been hoped for from an assembly of property owners and well-to-do middle-class men; perhaps it did even more. It gave forth a principle, and by so doing it invited, so to say, a further step. But it is very important to take into account these restrictions, for if the article which declared the total destruction of the feudal system is taken literally, we cannot fail to understand completely the four years of the Revolution which follow, and still more the struggles which broke out in the very midst of the Convention in 1793

The resistance to these resolutions was immense. If they could not satisfy the peasants and if they became the signal for a powerful recrudescence of the peasant risings, to the nobles, the higher clergy and the King these resolutions signified the spoliation of Church and nobility. From that day began”, the hidden agitation, which was fomented unceasingly and with an ever-growing ardour against the Revolution. The Assembly believed it could safeguard the rights of landed property, and in ordinary times a law of that kind might have attained this end. But in the villages people understood that the night of August 4 had dealt a tremendous blow at all feudal rights, and that the resolutions of August 5 to 11 had stripped the landlords of them, even though redemption of these rights was imposed upon the peasants. The general spirit of these resolutions, which included the abolition of the tithes, the rights of hunting and other privileges, clearly indicated to the people that the interests of the people are superior to the rights which property-owners may have acquired in the course of history. They contained the condemnation, in the name of justice, of all the hereditary privileges of feudalism. And henceforth nothing could rehabilitate those rights in the mind of the peasant.

The peasants understood that those rights were condemned and they rightlv declined to buy them out. They just simply ceased to pay. But the Assembly, having neither the courage to abolish the feudal rights altogether, nor the inclination to work out a method of redemption that would be acceptable to the peasants, created in that way the equivocal conditions which were to bring forth civil war throughout France. On the one hand, the peasants understood that they need not buy anything, nor pay anything; that the Revolution had only to go on in order to abolish the feudal rights without redemption. On the other hand, the rich people understood that the resolutions of August had as yet abolished nothing except the mortmain and the sacrificed hunting rights; so that, by rallying themselves to the counter-revolution, and to the King as its representative, they would perhaps succeed in maintaining their feudal rights and in keeping the land that they and their ancestors had, under various pretexts, robbed from tile village communes.

The King, probably by the advice of his counsellors, had thoroughly understood the part assigned to him in the counter revoution as a rallying-point for the defence of feudal privileges, and he hastened to write to the Archbishop of Arles to tell him that he would never give, except under compulsion, his sanction to the resolutions of August. “The sacrifice of the two first orders of the State is fine,” he said; “but I can only admire it; I will never consent to the spoliation of my clergy and my nobility. I will not give my sanction to decrees which would despoil them.”

And he continued to refuse his assent until he was led a prisoner to Paris by the people. And even when he gave it, he did everything, in conjunction with the property-owning clergy, nobles and middle classes, to couch his sanction in such a form as to render the resolutions of the Assembly dead letters.

My friend, James Guillaume, who has been so kind as to read my manuscript, has made a note on the question of the sanction of the resolutions (arrêtés) of August 4, which I here reproduce in entirety:

The Assembly at the time exercised both constituent and legislative power: and it had several times declared that its enactments, as a constituent power, were independent of the royal authority; only the laws had need of the King's sanction (they were called decree before the sanction, law after it).

The acts of August 4 were of a constituent nature: the Assembly had worded them as resolutions (arrêtés), but it did not think for a moment that it was necessary to obtain a permission from the King to state that the privileged persons had renounced their privileges. The character of these resolutions — or of this resolution, for sometimes they speak of it in the plural and sometimes in the singular — is indicated in the 19th and last Article, which says: “The National Assembly will occupy itself, immediately after the constitution, with drawing up the laws necessary for the development of the principles which it has determined by the present resolutian, which will be forthwith sent by Messieurs the Deputies into all the provinces,” &c. It was on August 11 that the publication of the resolutions was definitely adopted; at the same time the Assembly accorded to the King the title of “Restorer of French Liberty,” and ordered that a Te Deum should be sung in the chapel of the palace.

On the 12th the president (Le Chapelier) went to ask the King when. he would receive the Assembly for the Te Deum; the King replied that it would be on the 13th at noon. On the 13th the whole of the Assembly went to the palace; the president made a speech; he did not in the least ask for sanction; he explained to the King what the Assembly had done, and announced to him the title that had been accorded to him: Louis XVI. replied that he accepted the title with gratitude; he congratulated the Assembly and expressed his confidence in it. Then the Te Deum was sung in the chapel.

It mattered little that the King had written secretly to the archbishop to express a different sentiment: just then only public actions mattered.

Therefore there was not the least public opposition from the King during the early days, against the resolutions of August 4.

But on Saturday, September 12, concerned at the disturbances which were agitating all France, the party of the “patriots” judged that, put an end to them, it was necessary to make a solemn proclamation of the resolutions of August 4, and to this end the majority decided that the resolutions should he presented for the King's sanction, in spite of the opposition made to this decision by the counter-revolutionists, who would have preferred not to mention them further.

However, on Monday the 14th the patriots perceived that there might be some misunderstanding over this word “sanction.” just at that point the Assembly discussed the “suspensive veto” of the King, and Barnave remarked that the veto could not be applied to the resolutions of August 4 Mirabeau spoke to the same effect. “The resolutions of August 4,” he said, were enacted by the constituent power, since when they cannot be subjected to sanction. The resolutions of August 4 are not laws, but principles and constitutional bases. Consequently, when you sent for sanction the acts of August 4, it was for promulgation only that you should have forwarded them.” Le Chapelier, indeed, proposed to replace the word “sanction” in all concerning these resolutions by the word “promulgation,” and added: “I maintain that it is useless to receive royal sanction for what his Majesty has already given authentic approbation to, as much by the letter, which he sent me when I had the honour to be the spokesman of the Assembly. (when president), as by the Solemn acts of grace and the Te Deum sung in the King's Chapel.”

It was proposed, therefore, to decree that the Assembly should suspend its order of the day (the question of the veto) until the promulgation of the resolutions of August 4 had been made by the King. (Great noise and disorder.) The sitting was ended without arriving at any decision.

On the 15th there was a fresh discussion, without results. On the 16th and 17th other things were discussed, the succession to the Throne occupying attention.

At last, on the 18th, the King's reply arrived. He approved the general spirit of the articles of August 4, but there were some of them to which he could only give a conditional assent; and he concluded in these terms: “Therefore, I approve the greater number of these articles, and I will sanction them when they shall be worded as laws.” This dilatory reply produced great discontent; it was repeated that the King had been asked only to promulgate, which he could not refuse to do. It was decided that the president should go to the King to beg him to order the promulgation at once. Confronted by the threatening language of the speakers in the Assembly, Louis XVI. knew that he must yield; but while yielding he cavilled over the words: he sent back to the president (Clermont Tonnerre) on the evening of September 20 2 reply saying: “You have asked me to invest with my sanction the resolutions of August 4 . . . I have communicated to you the criticisms to which they seem to me to be susceptible . . . You ask me now to promulgate these same decrees; promulgation belongs to laws. . . . But I have already said that I approved of the general spirit of these resolutions . . . . I am going to order their publication throughout the kingdom . . . . I do not doubt but that I shall be able to invest with my sanction all the laws which you will decree upon the various matters contained in these resolutions.”

If the resolutions of August 4 contained only principles, or theories, if we seek in them vainly for practicable measures, &c., it is so, because such must be the character of these resolutions, so clearly marked by the Assembly in Article 19. On August 4 the Assembly had proclaimed, in principle, the destruction of the feudal system; and it was added that the Assembly would make the laws, for the application of the principle, and that they would make these laws when the Constitution should be completed. We may reproach the Assembly for this method if we wish; but we must acknowledge that it deceived no one, and in no way broke its word by not making the laws immediately, since it had promised to make them after the Constitution. But, once the Constitution was completed, the Assembly had to dissolve and bequeath its work to the Legislative Assembly.

This note by James Guillaume throws a new light upon the tactics of the Constituent Assembly. When the war against the chateaux had raised the question of feudal rights the Assembly had two courses before it. Either it could elaborate some scheme of laws upon feudal rights, schemes which would have taken months, or rather years, to discuss, and, seeing the diversity of opinions held by the representatives on this subject would have ended only in dividing the Assembly. 0r else, the Assembly might have confined itself to proposing only some principles, which should serve as bases for the enactment of future laws.

It was this second alternative which was ordained by the Assembly. It hastened to compile in several sittings the resolutions which the King was finally obliged to publish. And in the provinces these declarations of the Assembly had the effect of so shaking the feudal system that, four years after, the Convention was able to vote for the complete abolition of the feudal rights without redemption. Whether this foreseen or not we do not know, but this alternative was, after all, preferable to the first.