- The Night the Old Regime Ended: August 4, 1789, and the French Revolution
August 4, 1789 figures significantly in any narrative of the French Revolution. On that day, in the wake of peasant rioting and with a desire to quell rebellion, representatives from all three orders participated in “renunciations” of a wide range of privileges. Although these actions, often perceived as the end of “feudalism,” proved to be a watershed to divide the Old and the New Regime, scholars have spent far less time on this subject than it deserves.
Despite the title, which implies that this book focuses on August 4, Michael Fitzsimmons actually dwells little on the events of the crowded session that occurred in the evening. On this matter, he agrees with others’ findings that this altruism, in which members of the body threw caution aside, emerged from an inexplicable momentum. The main thrust of his book becomes the next two years of the delegates’ actions, as Fitzsimmons argues that it took quite a while to translate these renunciations into a thoroughgoing reorganization.
In addition studying these events and their eventual results, Fitzsimmons explores the initial political impact. As is well known, the months preceding the declaration of August 4 were filled with rancor between the commoners and the privileged orders. From the initial meeting in May until the July seizure of the Bastille, the Third Estate, which metamorphosed into the National Assembly, [End Page 1113] sought to overcome the political advantages of the clergy and nobility. Although some issues had already been settled, August 4 created what Fitzsimmons labels a functional consensus in the Assembly. The generosity of the upper ranks so impressed the remainder of the National Assembly that the body then coalesced around a mutual respect. Although a vituperative exchange over the role and activity of the monarch meant that this spirit of cooperation would not outlast 1789, the next year witnessed a return of good feeling that endured until Louis XVI tried to escape from France in June 1791.
Fitzsimmons devotes the remainder of his book to a systematic examination of the ramifications of the various renunciations. The most important implications for the Church emerging from August 4 were the proclamation of freedom of religion and the ending of the tithe. While no thoroughgoing reorganization of the Church was at first envisioned, the difficulties between orders in late 1789 coupled to the logic of religious freedom led to the Civil Constitution of the Clergy and an oath of political loyalty being demanded from the clergy. To some extent, Fitzsimmons treats these developments—in which the parishioners elected the clergy who then had to demonstrate their good citizenship—as moderate and initially not arousing great resistance. However, the failure to consult the Pope and his subsequent rejection of the reorganization produced a reaction that “did more than any other action of the National Assembly to undercut the unitary ideal that the Assembly had hoped to realize” (p. 92).
Although the abolition of the nobility was implied in the principles articulated on August 4, it would be June 19, 1790 before this occurred. Beyond the destruction of fiscal privileges which had already taken place, the decision to abolish hereditary titles profoundly disrupted daily life, seating at mass, and even the appearance of buildings that were decorated with coats of arms. The Night the Old Regime Ended remains somewhat ambiguous as to the cause of this momentous change. At some level, it appears to be a misunderstanding between revolutionaries who believed that this was just the logical conclusion of previous changes and the new class of ex-nobles who saw their derogation as gratuitous and harmful. In the end, according to Fitzsimmons, this action was principled.
During that momentous August 4 evening the Assembly clearly intended to destroy “feudalism” in the countryside. Fitzsimmons tacitly accepts that the legislators could clearly identify what practices could be labeled feudal and moves on to discuss the effort to abolish outright elements of personal servitude while...