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In the context of the French Revolution, the Legislative Assembly functioned from 1 October 1791 to September 1792. It provided the focus of political debate and revolutionary law-making between the periods of the National Constituent Assembly and of the National Convention.

The National Constiuent Assembly dissolved itself on 30 September 1791. Upon Robespierre's motion it had decreed that none of its members should be capable of sitting in the next legislature. But its legacy, the Constitution of 1791, was impracticable and did not last a year. In the attempt to govern, the Assembly failed altogether. It left behind an empty treasury, an undisciplined army and navy, and a people debauched by safe and successful riot.

At the elections of 1791 the party which desired to carry the Revolution further had a success out of all keeping with its numbers. This was due partly to a weariness of politics which had come over the majority of French citizens, partly to downright intimidation exercised by the Jacobin Club and by its affiliated societies throughout the kingdom of France.

The Legislative Assembly first met on 1 October 1791. It consisted of 745 members. Few were nobles, very few were clergymen, and the great body came from the middle class. The members were generally young, and, since none had sat in the previous Assembly, they largely lacked national political experience.

The Right consisted of the Feuillants, numbering about 165, and among them were some able men, such as Mathieu Dumas and Bigot de Préamenau, but they were guided chiefly by persons outside the House, because incapable of re-election: Barnave, Duport and the Lameths.

The Left consisted of the Jacobins, a term which still included the party afterwards known as the Girondins or Girondists - so termed because several of their leaders came from the region of the Gironde in southern France. The Jacobins numbered about 330. Among the extreme Left sat Cambon, Couthon and Merlin de Thionville. The Girondins could claim the most brilliant orators, Vergniaud, Guadet, Isnard. Inferior to these men in talent, Brissot de Warville, a restless pamphleteer, exerted more influence over the party which has sometimes gone by his name ("Brissotins"). The Left as a whole was republican, although it did not care to say so. Strong in numbers, it was reinforced by the disorderly elements in Paris and throughout France.

The remainder of the House, about 250 deputies, scarcely belonged to any definite party, but voted oftenest with the Left, as the Left was the most powerful.

The Left had three objects of enmity: first, King Louis XVI, Queen Marie Antoinette and the royal family; secondly, the émigrés[?]; and thirdly, the clergy.

The king could not like the new constitution, although, if left to himself, indolence and good nature might have rendered him passive. The queen throughout had only one thought, to shake off the impotence and humiliation of the crown; and for this end she still clung to the hope of foreign succour and corresponded with Vienna.

Those émigrés who had assembled in arms on the territories of the electors of Mainz and Treves (Trier) and in the Austrian Netherlands[?] had put themselves in the position of public enemies. Their chiefs were the king's brothers, who affected to consider Louis as a captive and his acts as therefore invalid. The count of Provence gave himself the airs of a regent and surrounded himself with a ministry. The émigrés were not, however, dangerous. They were only a few thousand strong; they had no competent leader and no money; they were unwelcome to the rulers whose hospitality they abused.

The non-juring clergy, although harassed by the local authorities, kept the respect and confidence of most Catholics. No acts of disloyalty were proved against them, and commissioners of the National Assembly reported to its successor that their flocks only desired to be let alone. But the anti-clerical bias of the Legislative Assembly was too strong for such a policy.

The king's ministers, named by him and excluded from the Assembly, were mostly persons of little mark. Montmorin gave up the portfolio of foreign affairs on 31 October 1791 and was succeeded by De Lessart. Cabier de Gerville was minister of the interior; Tarbé, minister of finance; and Bertrand de Molleville, minister of marine. But the only minister who influenced the course of affairs was the comte de Narbonne, minister of war.

On 9 November 1791 the Assembly decreed that the émigrés assembled on the frontiers should be liable to the penalties of death and confiscation unless they returned to France by 1 January following. Louis did not love his brothers, and he detested their policy, which without rendering him any service made his liberty and even his life precarious; yet, loath to condemn them to death, he vetoed the decree.

On 29 November 1791 the Assembly decreed that every non-juring clergyman must take within eight days the civic oath, substantially the same as the oath previously administered, on pain of losing his pension and, if any troubles broke out, of being deported. This decree Louis vetoed as a matter of conscience. In either case his resistance only served to give a weapon to his enemies in the Assembly. But foreign affairs were at this time the most critical.

The armed bodies of émigrés on the territory of the Empire afforded matter of complaint to France. The persistence of the French in refusing more than a money compensation to the German princes who had claims in Alsace afforded matter of complaint to the Empire. Foreign statesmen noticed with alarm the effect of the French Revolution upon opinion in their own countries, and they resented the endeavours of French revolutionaries to make converts there.

Of these statesmen, the emperor Leopold II was the most intelligent. He had skilfully extricated himself from the embarrassments at home and abroad left by his predecessor Joseph II. He had family ties to Louis XVI, and he was obliged, as chief of the Holy Roman Empire, to protect the border princes. On the other hand, he understood the weakness of the Habsburg monarchy. He knew that the Austrian Netherlands, where he had with difficulty restored his authority, were full of friends of the Revolution and that a French army would be welcomed by many Belgians. He despised the weakness and the folly of the émigrés and excluded them from his councils. He earnestly desired to avoid a war which might endanger his sister Marie Antoinette or her husband.

In August 1791 Leopold had met Frederick William II of Prussia at Pillnitz[?] near Dresden, and the two monarchs had joined in stating in the Declaration of Pillnitz[?] that they considered the restoration of order and of monarchy in France an object of interest to all sovereigns. They further declared that they would be ready to act for this purpose in concert with the other powers. This declaration appears to have been drawn from Leopold by pressure of circumstances. He well knew that concerted action of the powers was impossible, as the English government had firmly resolved not to meddle with French affairs. After Louis had accepted the ccnstitution, Leopold virtually withdrew his declaration. Nevertheless it remained a grave error of judgment and contributed to the approaching war.

In France many persons desired war for various reasons. Narbonne trusted to find in it the means of restoring a certain authority to the crown and of limiting the Revolution. He contemplated a war with Austria only. The Girondins desired war in the hope that it would enable them to abolish monarchy altogether. They desired a general war because they believed that it would carry the Revolution into other countries and make it secure in France by making it universal. The extreme Left had the same objects, but it held that a war for those objects could not safely be entrusted to the king and his ministers. Victory would revive the power of the crown; defeat would be the undoing of the Revolution.

Hence Robespierre and those who thought with him desired peace. The French nation generally had never approved of the Austrian alliance, and regarded the Habsburgs as traditional enemies. The king and queen, however, who looked for help from abroad and especialiy from Leopold II, dreaded a war with Austria and had no faith in the schemes of Narbonne. Nor was France in a condition to wage a serious war. The constitution was unworkable and the governing authorities were mutually hostile. The finances remained in disorder, and assignats of the face value of 900,000,000 livres were issued by the Legislative Assembly in less than a year. The army had been thinned by desertion and was enervated by long ill-discipline. The fortresses were in bad condition and short of supplies.

In October Leopold ordered the dispersion of the émigrés who had mustered in arms in the Austrian Netherlands. His example was followed by the electors of Treves and Mainz. At the same time they implored the emperor's protection, and the Austrian chancellor Kaunitz informed Noailles, the French ambassador that this protection would be given if necessary. Narbonne demanded a credit of 20,000,000 livres, which the Assembly granted. He made a tour of inspection in the north of France and reported untruly to the Assembly that all was in readiness for war. On 14 January 1792 the diplomatic committee reported to the Assembly that the emperor should be required to give satisfactory assurances before 10 February. The Assembly put off the term to 1 March.

In February Leopold concluded a defensive treaty with Frederick William III. But there was no mutual confidence between the sovereigns, who were at that very time pursuing opposite policies with regard to Poland. Leopold still hesitated and still hoped to avoid war. He died on 1 March 1792, and the imperial dignity became vacant. The hereditary dominions of Austria passed to his son Francis, afterwards the emperor Francis II, a youth of small abilities and no experience. The real conduct of affairs fell, therefore, to the aged Kaunitz.

In France Narbonne failed to carry the king or his colleagues along with him. The king took courage to dismiss him on 9 March 1792, whereupon the Legislative Assembly testified its confidence in Narbonne. De Lessart having incurred its anger by the tameness of his replies to Austrian dictation, the Assembly voted his impeachment.

The king, seeing no other course open, formed a new ministry which was chiefly Girondin. Roland became minister of the interior, Clavière of finance, De Grave of war, and Lacoste of marine. Far abler and more resolute than any of these men was Dumouriez, the new minister for foreign affairs. A soldier by profession, he had been employed in the secret diplomacy of Louis XV and had thus gained a wide knowledge of international politics. He stood aloof from parties and had no rigid principles, but held views closely resembling those of Narbonne. He wished for a war with Austria which should restore some influence to the crown and make himself the arbiter of France.

The king bent to necessity, and on 20 April 1792 came to the Assembly with the proposal that war should be declared against Austria. It was carried by acclamation. Dumouriez intended to begin with an. invasion of the Austrian Netherlands. As this would awaken English jealousy, he sent Talleyrand to London with assurances that, if victorious, the French would annex no territory.

The French war plan envisaged invading the Netherlands at three points simultaneously. Lafayette would march against Namur, Biron against I?dons, and Dillon against Tournay[?]. But the first movement disclosed the miserable state of the army. Smitten with panic, Dillon?s force fled at sight of the enemy, and Dillon, after receiving a wound from one of his own soldiers, was murdered by the mob of Lille. Biron was easily routed before Mons. On hearing of these disasters Lafayette found it necessary to retreat.

This shameful discomfiture quickened all the suspicion and jealousy fermenting in France. De Grave had to resign and was succeeded by Servan. The Austrian forces in the Netherlands were, however, so weak that they could not take the offensive. Austria demanded help from Prussia under the terms of their recent alliance, and the claim was admitted. Prussia declared war against France, and the Duke of Brunswick[?] was chosen to command the allied forces, but various causes delayed action. Austrian and Prussian interests clashed in Poland. The Austrian government wished to preserve a harmless neighbour. The Prussian government desired another Polish partition and a large tract of Polish territory. Only after long discussion was it agreed that Prussia should be free to act in Poland, while Austria might find compensation in provinces conquered from France.

The respite thus given allowed France to improve the army. Meantime the Legislative Assembly passed three decrees: one for the deportation of nonjuring priests, another to suppress the king's Constitutional Guard, and a third for the establishment of a camp of fedérés near Paris. Louis consented to sacrifice his guard, but vetoed the other decrees. Roland having addressed to him an arrogant letter of remonstrance, the king with the support of Dumouriez dismissed Roland, Servan and Clavière. Dumouriez then took the ministry of war, and the other places were filled with such men as could be had. Dumouriez, who cared only for the successful prosecution of the war, urged the king to accept the decrees. As Louis was obstinate, he felt that he could do no more, resigned office on 15 June 1792 and went to join the army of the north.

Lafayette, who remained faithful to the constitution of 1791, ventured on a letter of remonstrance to the Assembly. It paid no attention, for Lafayette could no longer sway the people. The Jacobins tried to frighten the king into accepting the decrees and recalling his ministers. On 20 June 1792 the armed populace invaded the hall of the Assembly and the royal apartments in the Tuileries[?]. For some hours the king and queen were in the utmost peril. With passive courage Louis refrained from making any promise to the insurgents.

The failure of the insurrection encouraged a movement in favour of the king. Some twenty thousand Parisians signed a petition expressing sympathy with Louis. Addresses of like tenor poured in from the departments and the provincial cities. Lafayette himself came to Paris in the hope of rallying the constitutional party, but the king and queen eluded his offers of assistance. They had always disliked and distrusted Lafayette and the Feuillants, and preferred to rest their hopes of deliverance on the foreigner. Lafayette returned to his troops without having effected anything.

The Girondins made a last advance to Louis, offering to save the monarchy if he would accept them as ministers. His refusal united all the Jacobins in the project of overturning the monarchy by force.

The ruling spirit of this new revolution was Danton, a barrister only thirty-two years old, who had not sat in either Assembly, although he had been the leader of the Cordeliers, an advanced republican club, and had a strong hold on the common people of Paris. Danton and his friends were assisted in their work by the fear of invasion, for the allied army was at length mustering on the frontier. The Assembly declared the country in danger. All the regular troops in or near Paris were sent to the front. Volunteers and fedérés were constantly arriving in Paris, and, although most went on to join the army, the Jacobins enlisted those who were suitable for their purpose, especially some 500 whom Barbaroux, a Girondin, had summoned from Marseilles. At the same time the National Guard was opened to the lowest class. Brunswick?s famous declaration of 25 July 1792, announcing that the allies would enter France to restore the royal authority and would visit the Assembly and the city of Paris with military execution if any further outrage were offered to the king, heated the republican spirit to fury. It was resolved to strike the decisive blow on 10 August.

On the night of 9 August a new revolutionary Commune took possession of the hotel de ville, and early on the morning of 10 August the insurgents assailed the Tuileries. As the preparations of the Jacobins had been notorious, some measures of defence had been taken. Beside a few gentlemen in arms and a number of National Guards the palace was garrisoned by the Swiss Guard, about 950 strong. The disparity of force was not so great as to make resistance altogether hopeless. But Louis let himself be persuaded into betraying his own cause and retiring with his family under the shelter of the Assembly. The National Guards either dispersed or fraternised with the assailants. The Swiss Guard stood firm, and, possibly by accident, a fusillade began. The enemy were gaining ground when the Swiss received an order from the king to cease firing and withdraw. They were mostly shot down as they were retiring, and of those who surrendered many were murdered in cold blood next day.

The king and queen spent long hours in a reporter's box while the Legislative Assembly discussed their fate and the fate of the French monarchy. Little more than a third of the deputies were present, almost all of them Jacobins. They decreed that Louis should be suspended from his office and that a convention should be summoned to give France a new constitution. An executive council was formed by recalling Roland, Clavière and Servan to office and joining with them Danton as minister of justice, Lebrun as minister of foreign affairs, and Monge as minister of marine.

When Lafayette heard of the insurrection in Paris he tried to rally his troops in defence of the constitution, but they refused to follow him. He was driven to cross the frontier and surrender himself to the Austrians. Dumouriez was named his successor.

But the new government was still beset with danger. It had no root in law and little hold on public opinion. It could not lean on the Assembly, a mere shrunken remnant, whose days were numbered. It remained dependent on the power which had set it up, the revolutionary Commune of Paris. The Commune could therefore extort what concessions it pleased. It got the custody of the king and his family, who were imprisoned in the Temple. Having obtained an indefinite power of arrest, it soon filled the prisons of Paris.

As the elections to the Convention were close at hand, the Commune resolved to strike the public with terror by the slaughter of its prisoners. It found its opportunity in the progress of invasion. On 19 August 1792 Brunswick crossed the frontier. On 22 August Longwy[?] surrendered. Verdun was invested and seemed likely to fall. On 1 September the Commune decreed that on the following day the tocsin[?] should be rung, all able-bodied citizens convened in the Champs de Mars[?], and 60,000 volunteers enrolled for the defence of the country.

While this assembly was in progress gangs of assassins were sent to the prisons and began a butchery which lasted four days and consumed 1400 victims. The Commune addressed a circular letter to the other cities of France inviting them to follow this example. A number of state prisoners awaiting trial at Orleans were ordered to Paris and on the way were murdered at Versailles. The Assembly offered a feeble resistance to these crimes. Danton can hardly be acquitted of connivance at them. Roland hinted disapproval, but did not venture more. He with many other Girondins had been marked for slaughter in the original project.

The elections to the Convention were by almost universal suffrage, but indifference or intimidation reduced the voters to a small number. Many who had sat in the National Constituent Assembly and many more who had sat in the Legislative Assembly were returned. The Convention met on 20 September and became the new de facto government of France.

Original text from 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica



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