National estates — Previously benefited only middle classes — Discontent among peasants — Convention orders land to be subdivided — Decree concerning heirs — Effect of redistribution of land — Changed aspect of France
The movement of May 31 had the same salutary effect upon the sale of the national estates. Until then these sales had been profitable mainly to the middle classes. Now the Montagnards took measures for rendering the purchase of national estates accessible to the poor who wished to cultivate the land themselves.
When the estates of the clergy, and later on those of the émigrés, had been confiscated by the Revolution and put up for sale, a certain part of these estates was divided at the outset into small lots, and the buyers were allowed twelve years to pay the purchase-money by instalments. But in proportion as reaction grew stronger and stronger in 1790 and 1791, and the middle classes consolidated their power, less and less facilities were offered to the poorer classes for buying the confiscated lands. Moreover, the State, being short of funds, was in need of ready money. Consequently, it was found preferable not to break up the large estates and farms, but to sell them as they were to those who bought them for speculation. True, in certain regions the peasants combined into syndicates for buying the larger estates, but the legislators did not favour such combinations, and an immense quantity of land went into the hands of speculators. The small farmers, the farm labourers, the artisans who lived in the villages, and the poor in generalcomplained, of course, but the Legislative Assembly paid no attention to their complaints.
Already, in 1789, the wish was expressed in several cahiers, that the Crown lands and the mortmain estates should be divided into small farms of from four to five acres each. The people of Artois would even have no farms larger than “three hundred measures of land.” But, as Avenel had already pointed out, “neither in the speeches pronounced on this subject, nor in the decrees that were passed, do we find one single word in favour of those poorer peasants who owned no land. . . . Nobody advocated in the Assembly the organisation of popular credit for enabling these famishing peasants to buy on easy terms small lots of land. . . . Nor was any attention paid to the desire expressed by certain papers, such as the Moniteur, which asked that one-half of the lands offered for sale should be divided into lots, worth about 5000 francs each, so as to create a number of small peasant proprietors.”
The result was that the lands that were put up for sale by the nation were chiefly bought by such peasants who had already some property, or else by middle-class town-people — the last circumstance producing a great deal of discontent in the villages of Brittany and La Vendée.
Thereupon came August 10. Under the menaces of the revolted poor, the Legislative Assembly tried to appease discontent by ordering that the lands confiscated from the émigrés should be sold in small lots of from two to four acres, to be paid for by a perpetual rent in money. However, those buyers who could pay ready money had still the preference.
On June 3, 1793, immediately after the expulsion of the Girondist leaders from the Convention, the promise was made by the National Representation, now under Montagnard influence, to give one acre of freehold land to each proletarian family in the villages; and some commissioners of the Convention actually did that, distributing small allotments to the poorest peasants. But it was only on the 2nd Frimaire, Year II. (November 22, 1793), that the Convention issued orders to subdivide as much as possible the national estates that were put up for sale. Besides, especially favourable conditions of payment were introduced for the buyers of the estates of the émigrés, and these conditions were maintained until 1796, when the reactionaries, returning to power, abolished them.
It must, however, be remembered that the finances of the Republic remained all the time in a deplorable state. The taxes were coming in very irregularly, and the war absorbed thousands and thousands of million francs. The paper currency lost in value, and in such conditions the essential thing was to get ready money as quickly as possible, through the sale of the national estates, so as to be able to destroy a corresponding amount of paper-money from the previous issues. This is why the Montagnards as well as the Girondins cared less for the small agriculturist than for the means of realising as rapidly as possible the largest amounts of ready money. Whoever paid in cash continued to have preference.
And yet, notwithstanding all that, and notwithstanding all prevarications and speculations, considerable quantities of land were sold in small lots. While there were many middleclass people who suddenly made scandalous fortunes by the accumulation of national property, considerable quantities of land, in certain portions of France, and especially in the East (as has been shown by Professor Luchitzky of Kieff), passed in small lots into the hands of the poorer peasants. In this region, a real revolution was accomplished in the distribution of landed property.
At the same time, the idea of the Revolution was to strike a blow at the whole class of great landed proprietors, and completely to break up all large fortunes. For this purpose the right of primogeniture in inheritance was abolished by the revolutionary legislature. Already, on March 15, 1790, the Legislative Assembly had abolished the feudal form of inheritance, according to which the landlord transmitted his estates to one single heir — generally his eldest son. Next year (law of April 8 to 15, 1791) all legal inequalities among the different heirs were done away with. “All the inheritants of equal degree shall inherit, in equal parts, the properties which are assigned to them by law,” said this decree. Next, the number of heirs was increased — collateral heirs and illegitimate children being put on the same footing as the direct heirs; and finally, on March 7, 1793, the Convention abolished all rights “of disposing of one's property, whether in case of death, or whilst still alive, by means of agreed donation in a direct line.” “All descendants will have an equal part of the properties of their deceased relatives (ascendants).”
The parcelling out of the estates was thus rendered obligatory in all inheritances.
What was the effect of these three great measures — the abolition of the feudal rights without compensation, the return of the communal lands to the communes, and the sale of the estates sequestrated from the clergy and the émigrés? How did they affect the distribution of landed property? This question continues to be discussed till now, and the opinions still remain contradictory. It may even be said that they vary according to the portions of France which have been the main object of study by this or that investigator.
With all that, one fact dominates the others. Landed property was subdivided. In all those parts of France where the peasants joined the Revolution, considerable amounts of land passed into the hands of the peasants. And everywhere black misery — the gloomy misery of the old régime began to disappear. Chronic famine which formerly used to brood over nearly one-third of France every year, was known no more in the nineteenth century.
Previous to the Revolution some parts of France suffered every year from famine. The agricultural conditions were exactly what they are now in Russia. The peasant might work himself to death, but he could never have enough even of bread from one crop to the next. His ploughing was bad, his seeds were bad, and his meagre cattle could not give him the necessary manure. From one year to another the crops grew worse and worse. “Just as it is now in Russia!” one is bound to exclaim continually, while studying the documents and the works that deal with the conditions of the French peasants under the old régime.
But then comes the Revolution. The storm is terrible. The sufferings inflicted by the Revolution and especially by the war are unparalleled; they are truly tragical. At certain moments one sees the abyss opening that will swallow France. After that comes the Directory, followed by the wars of the Napoleonic Empire. And finally comes the reaction of the Bourbons, who are replaced upon the throne of France in 1814, by the coalition of Kings and Emperors; and with them comes the White Terror, even more terrible than the Red Terror of the Revolution. Whereupon superficial people triumphantly say: “You see, revolutions are of no use!”
There are, however, two legacies of the Great Revolution which no reaction could wipe out. France was democratised by the Revolution to such an extent that those who know France cannot stay for a while in any other country of Europe without saying to themselves: “One sees here at every step that the Great Revolution has not passed over this country. The peasant, in France, has become a man. He is no longer “the wild animal” of whom La Bruyère spoke in his Caractères. He is a thinking being. And the very aspect of France has been changed by the Revolution. France has become a country of relatively wealthy peasants. Even the White Terror itself was not capable of thrusting back the French peasant under the old yoke of misery. Of course there still remains too much poverty in the villages, in France as elsewhere. But this poverty is wealth in comparison with what France was a hundred and fifty years ago, and with what we still see wherever the Revolution has not yet carried its torch.