Chapter 27: Feudal Legislation in 1790

Submitted by GrouchoMarxist on April 28, 2012

New laws support feudal system — Sagnac's opinion of them — Attempts to collect feudal dues resisted — Insurrection spreads — Spurious decrees excite further risings — Peasants demand “Maximum” and restoration of communal lands — Revolution fixes price of bread — Middle-class suppressions — Draconian laws against peasants (June 1790) — Tithes to be paid one year longer — Summary of laws to protect property — Articles of peasants' demands

Thus it was that the National Assembly, profiting by the temporary lull in the peasant insurrections during the winter, passed in 1790, laws which in reality gave a new legal basis to the feudal system.

Lest it should be believed that this is our own interpretation of the legislation of the Assembly, it should be enough to refer the reader to the laws themselves, or to what Dalloz says about them. But here is what is said about them by a modern writer, M. PH. Sagnac, whom it is impossible to accuse of sans-culottism, since he considers the abolition without redemption of the feudal rights, accomplished later on by the Convention as an “iniquitous and useless spoliation.” Let us see, then, how M. Sagnac estimates the laws of March 1790.

“The ancient law,” he writes, weighs, with all its force, in the work of the Constituent Assembly, upon the new law that is being worked out. It is for the peasant — if he does not wish to pay a tribute of forced labour, or to carry part of his harvest to the landlord's barn, or to leave his field in order to go and work in his lord's — it is for the peasant to bring proof that his lord's demand is illegal. But if the lord possessed some right for forty years — no matter what was its origin under the old system — this right becomes legal under the law of March 15. Possession is enough. It matters little what precisely is this possession, the legality of which the tenant denies: he will have to pay all the same. And if the peasants, by their revolt in August 1789, have compelled, the lord to renounce certain of his rights, or if they have — burned his title-deeds, it will suffice for him now to produce proof of possession during, thirty years for these rights to be re-established.”[124]

It is true that the new laws allowed the cultivator to purchase the lease of the land. But “all these arrangements, undoubtedly, favourable to one who owed the payment of real dues (droits réels), were turned now against him,” says M. Sagnac; “because the important thing for him was, first of all, to pay only the legal dues, while now, if he could not show proof to the contrary, he had to acquit and redeem even the usurped rights.”[125]

In other words, nothing could be redeemed unless all the dues were redeemed: the dues for the possession of the land, retained by the law, and the personal dues which the law had abolished. Furthermore, we read what follows in the same author, otherwise so moderate in his estimations:

“The framework of the Constituent Assembly does not hold together. This Assembly of landlords and lawyers, by no means eager, despite their promises, to destroy completely the seigniorial and domanial system, after having taken care to preserve the more considerable rights [all those which had any real value], pushed their generosity so far as to permit redemption; but immediately it decrees, in fact, the impossibility of that redemption. . . . The tiller of the soil had begged for reforms and insisted upon having them, or rather upon the registration in law of a revolution already made in his mind and inscribed — so at least he thought — in deeds; but the men of law gave him only words. He felt that once more the lords had got the upper hand.[126] “Never did legislation unchain a greater indignation,” continues M. Sagnac. “On both sides people apparently decided to have no respect for it.“[127] The lords, feeling themselves supported by the National Asssembly, began, therefore, angrily to exact all the feudal dues which the peasants had believed to be dead and buried. They claimed the payment of all arrears; writs and summonses rained in thousands on the villages.

The peasants, on their side, seeing that nothing was to be got from the Assembly, continued in certain districts to carry on the war against the lords. Many chateaux were sacked or burned, while elsewhere the title-deeds were destroyed and the offices of the fiscal officials, the bailiffs and the recorders were pillaged or burnt. The insurrection spread also westward, and in Brittany thirty-seven chateaux were burnt in the course of February 1790.

But when the decrees of February to March 1790 became known in the country districts, the war against the lords became still more bitter, and it spread to regions which had not dared to rise the preceding summer. Thus, at the sitting of the Assembly on June 5, mention was made of risings in Bourbon-Lancy and the Charolais, where false decrees of the Assembly had been spread, and an agrarian law was demanded. At the session of June 2, reports were read about the insurrections in the Bourbonnais, the Nivernais and the province of Berry. Several municipalities had proclaimed martial law; there had been some killed and wounded. The “brigands” had spread over the Campine, and at that very time they were investing the town of Decize. Great “excesses” were also reported from the Limousin, where the peasants were asking to have the maximum price of grain fixed. “The project for recovering the lands granted the lords for the last hundred and twenty years is one of the articles of their demand,” says the report. The peasants evidently wanted to recover the communal lands of which the village communes had been robbed by the lords.

Spurious decrees of the National Assembly were seen everywhere. In March and April 1790, several were circulated in the provinces, ordering the people not to pay more than one sou for a pound of bread. The Revolution was thus getting ahead of the Convention, which did not pass the law of the “Maximum” until 1793.

In August, the popular risings were still going on. For instance, in the town of Saint -Etienne-en-Forez, the people killed one of the monopolists, and appointed a new municipality which was compelled to lower the price of bread; but thereupon the middle classes armed themselves, and arrested twenty-two rebels. This is a picture of what was happening more or less everywhere — not to mention the greater struggles at Lyons and in the South of France.

But what did the Assembly do? Did they do justice to the peasants' demands? Did they hasten to abolish without redemption those feudal rights, so hateful to those who cultivated the land, that they no longer paid them except under constraint?

Certainly not! The Assembly only voted new Draconian laws against the peasants. On June 2, 1790, “the Assembly, informed and greatly concerned about the excesses which have been committed by troops of brigands and robbers” [for which read “peasants”] in the departments of the Cher, the Nièvre and the Allier, and are spreading almost into the Corrèze, enact measures against these “promoters of disorder,” and render the communes jointly responsible for the violences committed.

“All those,” says Article I of this law, “who stir up the people of the towns and the country to accomplish acts of violence and outrages against the properties, possessions and enclosures, or the life and safety of the citizens, the collection of the taxes, the free sale and circulation of food-stuffs, are declared enemies of the Constitution, of the work of the National Assembly, of Nature, and of the King. Martial law will I be proclaimed against them.”[128]

A fortnight later, on, June 18, the Assembly adopted a decree even still harsher. It deserves quotation.

Its first article declares that all tithes, whether ecclesiastical or lay, hold good “for payment during the present year only to those to whom the right belongs and in the usual manner..... “Whereupon the peasants, no doubt, asked if a new decree was not going to be passed by-and-by for yet another year or two-and so they did not pay.

According to Article 2 those who owe payments in field and land-produce (champart, terriers), in cash. and in other and dues payable in kind, which have not been suppressed without indemnity, will be held to pay them during the present year and the years following in the usual way . . . in conformity with the decrees passed on March 3 and on May 4 last.”

Article 3 declares that no one can, under pretext of litigation, refuse to pay either the tithes or the dues on fieldproduce, &c.

Above all, it was forbidden “to give any trouble during the collecting” of the tithes and dues. In the case of disorderly assemblies being formed, the municipality, by virtue of the decree of February 20-23, must proceed to take severe measures.

This decree of February 20-23, 1790, was very characteristic. It ordained that the municipality should intervene and proclaim martial law whenever a disorderly assembly takes place. If they neglect to do this, the municipal officials were to be held responsible for all injury suffered by the owners of the property. And not only the officials, but “all the citizens being able to take part in the re-establishment of public order, the whole community shall be responsible for two-thirds of the damage done.” Each citizen shall be empowered to demand the application of martial law, and then only shall he be relieved of his responsibility;

This decree would have been still worse if its supporters had not made a tactical error. Copying an English law, they wanted to introduce a clause which empowered the calling out of the soldiers or militia, and in such case “royal dictature” had to be proclaimed in the locality. The middle classes look umbrage at this clause, and after long discussions the task of proclaiming martial law, in support of one another, was left to the municipalities, without any declaration in the Kings name. Furthermore, the village communes were to be held responsible for any damages which might accrue to the lord, if they had not shot or hanged in good time the peasants who refused to pay the feudal dues.

The law of June 18, 1790, confirmed all this. All that had any real value in the feudal rights, all that could be represented by any kind of legal chicanery as attached to the possession of the land, was to be paid as before. And every one who refused was compelled by the musket or the gallows to accept these obligations. To speak against the payment of the feudal dues was held to be a crime, which called forth the death penalty, if martial law was proclaimed.[129]

Such was the bequest of the Constituent Assembly, of which we have been told so many fine things; for everything remained in that state until 1792. The feudal laws were only touched to make clear certain rules for the redemption of the feudal dues, or to complain that the peasants were not willing to redeem anything,[130] or else to reiterate the threats against the peasants who were not paying.[131]

The decrees of February 1790 were all that the Constituent Assembly did for the abolition of the odious feudal system, and it was not until June 1793, after the insurrection of May 31, that the people of Paris compelled the Convention, in its “purified” form, to pronounce the actual abolition of the feudal rights.

Let us, therefore, bear these dates well in mind.

On August 4, 1789. — Abolition in principle of the feudal system; abolition of personal mortmain, the game laws, and patrimonial justice.

From August 5 to I I. — Partial reconstruction of this system by acts which imposed redemption for all the feudal dues of any value whatsoever.

End of 1789 and 1790 — Expeditions of the urban municipalities against the insurgent peasantry, and hangings of the same.

February 1790. — Report of the Feudal Committee, stating that the peasant revolt was spreading.

March and June 1790 — Draconian laws against the peasants who were not paying their feudal dues, or were preaching their abolition. The insurrections still spreading.

June 1791. — These laws were confirmed once more. Reaction all along the line. The peasant insurrections continuing.

Only in July 1792, as we shall see, on the very eve of the invasion of the Tuileries by the people, and in August 1792, after the downfall of royalty, did the Assembly take the first decisive steps against the feudal rights.

Lastly, it was only in August 1793, after the expulsion of the Girondins, that the definite abolition, without redemption, of the feudal rights was enacted. This is the true picture of the Revolution.

One other question, of immense importance for the peasants, was clearly that of the communal lands.

Everywhere, in the east, north-east and south-east of France, wherever the peasants felt themselves strong enough to do it, they tried to regain possession of the communal lands, of which the greater part had been taken away from them by fraud, or under the pretext of debt, with the help of the State, chiefly since the reign of Louis XIV.[132] Lords, clergy, monks and the middle-class men of both towns and villages — all had had their share of them.

There remained, however, a good deal of these lands still in communal possession, and the middle classes looked on them with greedy eyes. So the Legislative Assembly hastened to make a law, on August 1, 1791, which authorized the sale of communal lands to private persons. This was to give a free hand for pilfering these lands.

The Assemblies of the village communes were at that time, in virtue of the municipal law passed by the National Assembly in December 1789, composed exclusively of the middle-class men of the village — of active citizens — that is, of the wealthier peasants, to the exclusion of the poor householders. All these village assemblies were evidently eager to put up the communal lands for sale, of which a large part acquired at a low price by the better-off peasants and farmers.

As to the mass of the poor peasants, they opposed with all their might the destruction of the collective possession of the land, as they are to-day opposing it in Russia.

On the other hand, the peasants, both the rich and poor, did all they could to regain possession of the communal lands for the villages; the wealthier ones in the hope of securing some part for themselves, and the poor in the hope of keeping these lands for the commune. All this, let it be well understood, offering an infinite variety of detail in different parts of France.

It was, however, this re-taking by the communes of the communal lands of which they had been robbed in the course of two centuries, that the Constituent and the Legislative Assemblies, and even the National Convention, opposed up to June 1793. The King had to be imprisoned and executed, and the Girondin leaders had to be driven out of the Convention before it could be accomplished.