Committee formed to frame new Constitution — Plans of Girondins — Struggle between Girondins and Montagnards — Girondins try to strengthen power of Directoires — Girondist scheme rejected — Constitution of Montagnards — It is accepted by Convention — Dictatorship of Committees of Public Welfare and Public Safety
It has been necessary to narrate at some length the counterrevolutionary risings in France and the varied events of the frontier wars before returning to the legislative activity of the Convention and the events which subsequently unfolded themselves in Paris. Without some knowledge of the former, the latter would be incomprehensible. The truth is, the war dominated everything; it was absorbing the best forces of the nation, and was paralysing every effort to render the Revolution more advantageous to the masses of the people.
The chief aim with which the Convention had been convoked was the elaboration of a new republican Constitution. The monarchist Constitution of 1791, that had divided the country into two classes, one of which was deprived of all political rights, could not be maintained any longer: in fact, it had ceased to exist. Consequently, as soon as the Convention assembled (September 21, 1792), it set to work on a new Constitution, and on October 11 a special committee was elected for this purpose. It was composed, as might have been expected, chiefly of Girondins (Sieyès, the Englishman, Thomas Paine, Brissot, Pétion, Vergniaud, Gensonné, Condorcet, Barère, and Danton). The Girondin Condorect, a celebrated mathematician and philosopher, who as far back as 1774 had been working with Turgot at political and social reforms, and who was one of the first, after the flight of Varennes, to declare himself a republican, was the chief author of the constitutional scheme placed by the committee before the Convention, and of a Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen which accompanied this scheme.
It is obvious that in a legislative body of deputies, the first question to arise, as soon as there was any mention of a new Constitution, was the question as to which of the two parties struggling for power would profit by this new law. The Girondins wished to turn it into a tool which would enable them to put a brake on the Revolution, so that it should not go further than it went on August 10; to shatter the power of the revolutionary Commune of Paris, and of the revolutionary communes in the country, and to crush the Montagnards. And the Montagnards, who did not consider the work of the Revolution accomplished, naturally had to prevent the Girondins from turning the Constitution into an instrument for opposing the further development of the Revolution.
Even before the condemnation of Louis XVI. the Girondins had pressed the Convention to accept their Constitution, in the hope of saving the King. And later on, in March and in April 1793, when they saw communistic efforts budding amongst the people and directed against the rich, they pressed the Convention all the more to accept Condorcet's scheme; whilst the Montagnards did all they could to postpone the final discussion, until they had succeeded in paralysing the Girondins and the royalists. It must also be said that the Constitution, which had roused so much enthusiasm in 1789, had already lost much of its interest for the revolutionists, especially since the decrees of August 10 and 11 had abolished the distinction between passive and active citizens. If the Girondins did attach any importance to it, it was “to restore order,” to diminish the influence that the revolutionists exercised in the provinces through the medium of the municipal councils, and, in Paris, through the Commune.
The municipal law of December 1789 had given the municipalities considerable power — the greater because the provincial representatives of the central power had been abolished. And we have seen how the sections of Paris, which acted as independent municipalities, succeeded in conquering extensive administrative rights, when it became necessary to repel in invasion, to enlist volunteers, to provision the armies, and to keep a watch on the royalist plots.
In the municipalities and the sections, the Revolution of 1793 had found its best support, and it is easy to understand that the Montagnards did their utmost to retain this powerful, instrument of their influence.
But this is also why the Girondins, in their scheme for a Constitution, which the rising of May 31 alone prevented them from imposing on France, had taken care to destroy the communes, to abolish their independence, and to strengthen the power of the Directoires of the departments and the districts, which were the organs of the landlord and the middle classes. To achieve this, the Girondins demanded the abolition of the large communes and the communal municipalities, and the creation of a third and new series of bureaucratic bodies — the directoires du canton, which they described as “cantonal municipalities.”
If this scheme had been adopted, the communes, which represented not mere wheels of the administration, but bodies possessing lands, buildings, schools, &c., in common, would have disappeared. Their place would have been taken by purely administrative bodies. As the village municipalities very often took the side of the peasants, and the municipalities of the large towns, as also their sections, often stood for the interests of the poor citizen, the Girondins intended to hand over the local government to the middle classes, and they hoped to achieve their end by creating the cantonal municipalities, which would depend much more upon the eminently bureaucratic and reactionary Directories of the departments than upon the poorer classes of the people.
On this extremely important point the Girondist and the Montagnard schemes of Constitution were thus entirely opposed to each other.
Another alteration, and a very important one, which the Girondins endeavoured to introduce and the Constitutional Committee rejected, was the introduction of two houses of parliament, or, in default of this, the division of the legislative body into two sections, as was done later in the Constitution of the Year III. (1795), after the reaction of Thermidor had set in and the Girondins had returned to power.
It is true that the Girondist scheme for a Constitution seemed in some ways very democratic, in the sense that it left to the primary assemblies of electors, not only the choice of their representatives, but also the choice of functionaries of the Treasury, of the Courts of Justice, including the high Court, and also the ministers, and that it introduced the referendum, or direct legislation. But the nomination of ministers by the electoral bodies (admitting that it would be possible in practice) would only have succeeded in creating two rival authorities, the Chamber and the Ministry, both nominees of the universal suffrage, whilst the referendum was hemmed in by most complicated rules that made it illusory.
And finally this scheme of a constitution, and the Declaration of Rights which had to precede it, established, in a more concrete way than the Constitution of 1791, the rights of the citizens — i.e., his liberty of religious belief and worship, freedom of the press, and all other ways of spreading his thoughts. As to the communist tendencies which were coming to the front among the masses, the Declaration of Rights limited itself to acknowledging that “aid to the poor is a sacred debt owed to them by society, and that society owes education to all its members equally.”
One can well understand the apprehension that this project raised when it was laid before the Convention on February 15, 1793. The Convention, influenced by the Montagnards, sought to withhold its decision as long as possible, and asked that other projects should be sent in. It also nominated a new commission — the Commission of the Six — to analyse the various projects which might be submitted, and on April 17, the report having been made by the new commission, the discussion began in the Convention. Robespierre pronounced a long discourse which was, as has been remarked by M. Aulard, certainly slightly tinged with what we call “socialism.” “We should,” said Robespierre, “declare that the right of property is limited, as all others, by the obligation of respecting the rights of the others; that the right of property must not be injurious, either to the security or to the liberty, or to the existence, or to the property of other men; and that every trade which violates this principle is essentially illicit and immoral.” He demanded also that the right to work be proclaimed, though in a very modest form. “Society,” he said, “is bound to provide for the subsistence of all its members, either in procuring work for them, or in guaranteeing the means of existence to those who are unable to work.”
But where the ideas of the Montagnards differed entirely from those of the Girondins was when it came to discussing, on May 22, the abolition of communal municipalities, and the creation of cantonal councils of administration. The Montagnards were decidedly against this abolition, the more so as the Girondins wished to destroy also the unity of Paris and of its Commune, and demanded that each town of more than 50,000 inhabitants should be divided into several municipalities. On this point the Convention took up the opinions of the Montagnards and rejected the Girondist project of cantonal municipalities.
The Constitution of the Montagnards — and herein lies its distinctive feature — maintained the municipalities intact.
“Could we,” said Hérault de Séchelles, “give up the municipalities, however great their number? To abolish them would have been an ingratitude towards the Revolution and a crime against liberty. Nay, it would be to annihilate completely popular government.” “No,” he added, after having uttered some sentimental phrases, “no, the idea of suppressing municipalities can only have been born in the heads of the aristocrats, whence it transferred itself into those of the Moderates.”
For the nomination of representatives the Montagnard Constitution introduced direct manhood suffrage by ballot in each district (50,000 inhabitants). For the nomination of the administrators of the departments and those of the districts, the suffrage was to be in two degrees, and in three degrees for the nomination of the twenty-four members of the Executive Council (the Ministry) which was to be renewed each year. The Legislative Assembly was to be elected for one year only, and its acts were to be divided into two categories: the decrees, to be carried into effect at once; and the laws, for which the people could demand the referendum.
However, in the Montagnard Constitution, as well as in the Girondin scheme, the right of referendum was illusory. To begin with, nearly everything could be done by decrees, and this excluded the referendum. Then, to obtain the referendum it was necessary that “in half of the departments, plus one-tenth of the Primary Assemblies of each department, regularly constituted,” an objection should be formulated against a new law, during the forty days after the promulgation of the proposed law.
Finally, the Constitution guaranteed to all Frenchmen “equality, liberty, safety, inviolability of property, the security of the national debt, free worship, common education, public relief, unrestricted liberty of the press, the right of petitioning, the right of forming popular societies, and enjoyment of all the rights of man.”
As to the social laws which the people awaited from the Constitution, Hérault de Séchelles promised these later. Order first: they would see later on what they could do for the people; upon this the majority of the Girondins and Montagnards were in perfect agreement.
On June 24, 1793, this Constitution was accepted by the Convention, and was immediately submitted to the Primary Assemblies, which pronounced themselves with great unanimity and even enthusiasm in favour of it. The Republic was then composed of 4944 cantons, and when the votes of 4420 cantons were known, it appeared that the Constitution had been accepted by 1,801,918 voices against 11,610.
On August 10, the Constitution was proclaimed in Paris with much pomp, and in the departments it became an effective means of paralysing Girondist risings. These no longer had a pretext, since the calumnies which the Girondins spread everywhere about the Montagnards wishing to re-establish royalty, with a Duke of Orléans on the throne, had fallen through. On the other hand, the Constitution of June 24, 1793, was so well received by the majority of the democrats that it subsequently became the creed of democracy for nearly a century.
The Convention which had been convoked for the special purpose of giving a republican Constitution to France had now only to lay down its powers. But it was obvious that under the circumstances, invaders holding part of the country, and the war having to be carried on with an energy far surpassing the means at the disposal of the Republic, and in the face of risings in La Vendée, at Lyons, in Provence, and elsewhere, the Constitution could not be applied. It was impossible for the Convention to disperse, and to leave the Republic to run the risks of new elections.
Robespierre developed this idea before the Jacobin Club on the very morrow of the promulgation of the Constitution, and the numerous delegates who had come to Paris to assist at this promulgation held the same opinion. On August 28, the Committee of Public Welfare expressed the same opinion before the Convention, which, after hesitating for six weeks, finally decreed, when the Republican Government had obtained its first successes at Lyons — that is to say, on October 10, 1793 — that the government of France should remain “revolutionary” till the conclusion of peace.
This meant to maintain, in fact, if not by right, the dictatorship of the Committees of Public Welfare and General Safety, which had just been strengthened in September by the law of suspects and the law dealing with revolutionary committees.