This list below includes 330 text documents (personal memoirs, official reports, newspaper articles, treatises, eyewitness accounts)most of them translated from French to English and edited for the student and general reader. You can search for particular documents by keyword or topic on the search page.
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"Admission of Jews to Rights of Citizenship," 27 September 1791
After several tumultuous discussions about the Jewish communities still excluded from political rights, the National Assembly finally voted to regularize the situation of all the different Jewish communities on 27 September 1791. AdrienJeanFrançois Duport (175998), a deputy of the nobility of Paris, proposed the motion. The deputies shouted down those who attempted to speak against it, and it quickly passed. A subsequent amendment indicated that swearing the civic oath implied a renunciation of previous Jewish privileges, that is, the right to an autonomous community ruled by its own members according to its own customs. The law required Jews to be individuals just like everyone else in France.
"Constitution of 1793"
The primary task of the Convention, when seated in the fall of 1792, had been to draft a new, republican constitution. Only after the purge of the Girondins, however, did the Convention complete this task, with what became known as the Constitution of 1793 or sometimes the "Montagnard Constitution." Particularly notable was the commitment to political democracy; universal manhood suffrage with no property requirements for voting or holding office at national or municipal levels was implemented, and the equal application of the law to all citizens was emphasized. This constitution also required the government to ensure a "right to subsistence," while simultaneously reiterating the inviolability of personal property. To many, especially the Jacobins, the Constitution of 1793 provided a model framework for an egalitarian, democratic republic; however, owing to the ongoing war the Convention suspended constitutional rule in October 1793 in favor of "revolutionary government . . . until the peace."
"La Chalotais" Affair
In the spring of 1765, the regional conflict between the Breton Parlement and the King spilled over to a higher level when the Parlement of Paris took up the case of Breton parlementary ally La Chalotais and began issuing its own remonstrances defending the regional Parlements power (issued 3 March 1766), under the doctrine of the "union of classes"which held that all the Parlements were allied in speaking for the "nation." Supporters of the crown strongly opposed this idea, which they saw as contrary to the principle that the King alone could speak for the kingdom. The animosities generated by this "affair" continued to cut across French politics in the 1770s, since the Duke dAguillon retained his hostility to the Parlementary magistrates when in 1771, Louis XV made him foreign minister in the Maupeou government. This excerpt from the Paris Parlement from 1766 raises fears and attacks monarchical government in an inflammatory way, though still avoiding direct blasts against the King.
"Letter from a Gentleman in Paris to His Friend in London" (1757)
The news of RobertFrançois Damienss attack on the King and his subsequent trial spread rapidly and generated great interest across France and all of Europe. This pamphlet, published in London, describes for English readers the goingson in Paris, especially the public outpouring of sympathy for the King and the general hostility toward Damiens. Damiens, even for this English observer, was horrible for having dared to touch, let alone try to kill the KingGods anointed representative in France and the guarantor of public order and domestic peace.
"Letter to Fréron: Émigrés Return" by Thérèse Bouisson
Once in power, the Directorial government appeared poised to preserve the gains of the Revolution while undoing what some considered the excesses of the period of Jacobin ascendancy. Yet precisely what the Revolutions gains werebeyond the elimination of the monarchy and remnants of feudalismremained unclear. One perspective, that of the émigré nobles, held that the fall of the Convention signaled a restoration of their confiscated lands, which they reappropriated from those who had purchased them earlier in the decade. In this letter, the widow of one such purchaser, a sailor killed in combat, appeals to the government to recognize her right to the newly acquired lands over the claims of the returning noble family from whom they had been seized.
"Memorandum to Her Majesty the Queen Concerning the Diamond Necklace Affair" (1786)
Controversy surrounding the Queen reached a fever pitch in 178586 in what was known as the "diamondnecklace affair." A court schemer, Jeanne de la Motte, wove a complex web of intrigue, in which she convinced Cardinal Louis de Rohanan aristocrat from a longstanding noble family who was determined to become the Queens loverto purchase for Marie Antoinette an elaborate jewel necklace (made by two highly reputed jewelers) on which she had supposedly set her sights. In reality, the Queen had no knowledge of either the jewel or Rohans purchase, and de la Motte was able to make off with both Rohans money and the necklace. When the scheme came to light several months later, the cardinal was arrested along with de la Motte; during the ensuing trial, numerous pamphlets were published speculating on and mocking the Queens potential involvement in the intrigue, further damaging her reputation. This pamphlet, supposedly from the jewelers, describes their difficulties in obtaining payment from Rohan and asking the Queen herself to intervene.
"Petition of the Jews of Paris, Alsace and Lorraine to the National Assembly" (28 January 1790)
When the Jews of Paris and the eastern provinces presented their case to the National Assembly, they leaned heavily on the precedent of granting full rights to the Protestants and on the language of human rights philosophy. They insisted that the Jews should be treated no differently from anyone else and refuted one by one all the customary prejudicial arguments used against the Jews, such as their reliance on making loans with interest (usury). Their petition shows the power of the language of rights; "All men of whatever religion . . . should all equally have the title and the rights of citizen." Despite the pleas of the Jews, the assembly held off on granting them full political rights until September 1791.
"Petition of Women of the Third Estate to the King" (1 January 1789)
Little is known about womens grievances or feelings in the months leading up to the meeting of the EstatesGeneral. They did not have the right to meet as a group, draft grievances, or vote (except in isolated individual instances) in the preparatory elections. Nevertheless, some women did put their thoughts to paper, and though little evidence exists about the circumstances or the identities of those involved, the few documents offering their views bear witness to their concerns in this time of ferment. In this document working women addressed the King in respectful terms and carefully insisted that they did not wish to overturn mens authority; they simply wanted the education and enlightenment that would make them better workers, better wives, and better mothers. The petitioners expressed their deep apprehensions about prostitution and the fear that they would be confused with them; like prostitutes, working women did not stay at home but necessarily entered the public sphere to make their livings. Most of all, however, the women wanted to be heard; they saw the opening created by the convocation of the EstatesGeneral and hoped to make their own claims for inclusion in the promised reforms.
"Terror Is the Order of the Day"
Responding to pressure from the sections, the Convention voted on 5 September 1793, to declare that "Terror is the Order of the Day," meaning that the government, through internal "revolutionary armies" that were formed two days later,should and would use force against its own citizens to ensure compliance with its laws, including the law of the Maximum.
"The Declaration of Pillnitz"
In response to the "Padua Circular," King Louiss brother, the Count of Artois, a leader of the émigré nobles, expressed his support for Emperor Leopold II of Austria. Leopold, in conjunction with Prussian King FrederickWilliam III, then issued this "Declaration of Pillnitz"; the "resolution to act quickly" was perceived as a declaration of war on France for the purpose of ending the Revolution, even though neither Austria nor Prussia was displeased by French weakness.
"The King of the Third Estate" (June 1789)
The Kings decision to accept the idea of a "National Assembly" and to order the deputies of all three orders to debate and vote as a single body met with sharp opposition within the royal entourage, especially among the aristocratic faction close to the Queen. In this passage, one of these hardliners, the Countess dAdhémar, expresses contempt for the idea of allowing any significant role for the Third Estate in the government. She seems here almost to pity the King for his unwillingness to preserve the traditional prerogatives of the crown and the higherranking nobility.
"The Padua Circular" (5 July 1791)
Even after the aborted flight of the royal family in June 1791, Emperor Leopold von Habsburg of Austria, brother of Marie Antoinette, continued his efforts to organize a coalition of French émigré nobles and other European powers that would invade France and put an end to the Revolution. In this letter, written shortly after the forced return of Louis and Marie Antoinette to Paris (which Leopold considered their "arrest"), he proposes an alliance of Austria, Prussia, Britain, Spain, Russia, and other forces against the French Revolution and sets forth the principles for which this alliance would fightmost notably, the restoration of Louis to his full pre1789 powers.
"The Royal Orgy" (1789)
In 1789, with the collapse of old regime censorship as well as a sense of liberation from traditional moral constraints, printed libels against the Queen became both more common and more intense. An example of this greater intensity is this light opera, with raunchy lyrics set to popular tunes. Not intended to be performed, the pamphlet spoofs the Queens great interest in opera and her supposedly even greater interest in the sexual prowess of some of her courtiers. As with the pornographic libels of the old regime, the printed accounts of her trysts with the Count of Artois and the Duchess of Polignac had no basis in fact, but they were consistent with the popularly held view of Marie Antoinette as out of touch with her people, selfinterested, and a hindrance to the proper government of France, because of her uncontrollable lusts for power, luxury, and sex.
4 August Decrees
In late July 1789, as reports of several thousand separate yet related peasant mobilizations poured into Paris from the countryside, a majority of them against seigneurial property, the deputies of the National Assembly debated reforming not just the fiscal system or the constitution but the very basis of French society. In a dramatic allnight session on 45 August, one deputy after another stepped forward to renounce for the good of the "nation" the particular privileges enjoyed by their town or region. By the morning deputies of all orders had proposed, debated, and approved even more systematic reform, voting to "abolish the feudal system entirely." In effect, they had decided to eliminate noble and clerical privilege, the fundamental principle of French society since the Middle Ages. Nevertheless, the meaning was unclear, for the "feudal system" had ceased to exist in France several hundred years earlier. Thus working out the details of this decree became a primary objective of the National Assembly for the next two years.
9 Thermidor: The Conspiracy against Robespierre
This account of the proceedings in the Convention Hall on the 9 Thermidor Year II (27 July 1794) describes how Robespierre and SaintJust, facing an organized attack by other members of the Committee of Public Safety, tried one last gamble, appealing to the deputies of the "Right" to come to their aid. These deputies repudiated the appeal, and the Convention unanimously voted for the resolution condemning them.
A Vindication of the Rights of Woman
The English writer Mary Wollstonecraft (175997) argued against both Burke and Rousseau, defending the notion of natural rights, particularly rights for women, such as equal education. She insisted that women could not become virtuous, even as mothers, unless they won the right to participate in economic and political life on an equal basis with men. Although she did not specifically demand the right to vote for women, her emphasis on womens rights made her an object of ridicule for some, heroism for others.
Anecdotes on the Countess du Barry (1775)
Since the royal familys ability to procreate was crucial to the perpetuation of the reign and thus to the continuity of the monarchy, the obsession shown in pamphlets about the bodies and sexual activities of King and Queen must be seen as having not just prurient interest for readers but also political overtones.This particular pamphlet, by a journalist named Mathieu Pidansat de Mairobert who had been an active supporter of the proParlement party in the magistrates recent conflicts with the crown, was published anonymously early in the reign of Louis XVI. It purportedly described the liaison between the recently deceased Louis XV and his longterm mistress, the "Countess" of Barry, a common courtesan who had supposedly been procured to satisfy the aging Kings lusts. The entire book could be (and was) read as a parody of the mounting problems facing Louis XV, all of which center on the disorder he had created at Versailles by giving such a prominent place to a wholly inappropriate person, a woman, a courtesan, and a commoner.Whether or not the "anecdotes" were true is of less historical interest than the wide readership they drew and the negative influence they had on the reputation of the current King, Louis XVI, and the Queen, Marie Antoinette.
Champ de Mars: Petitions of the Cordelier and Jacobin Clubs
In the aftermath of the Kings failed flight in June 1791, the more radical clubs circulated petitions calling on the National Assembly to depose the King rather than grant him executive power as a constitutional monarch, under the new constitution. Below are excerpts from two such petitions, from the Cordeliers and Jacobin clubs, respectively; note that these efforts technically violated a law passed the previous 10 May, which had proscribed the circulation of petitions by clubs.
Citoyenne Lacombe’s "Report to the Society of Revolutionary Republican Women Concerning What Took Place 16 September at the Jacobin Club"
Claire Lacombe, an actress and one of the leaders of the Society of Revolutionary Republican Women, published a pamphlet to counter charges made against her and the club. By September 1793 the revolutionary government had begun to harass the leaders of the club.
Curious Proposal of the Women of the Maubert Marketplace (1785)
As a result of the "libels" against the court and especially the Queen, asense was spreading that the monarchy was not fulfilling its obligations inruling over France. Demonstrating that sentiment, this pamphlet is writtenin the voice of Parisian working women from the openair market of theplace Maubert. It describes how such hardworking, saltoftheearth,honest, familyoriented women could do a better job raising the Dauphinthan the Queen, thus suggesting that the future of the realm should beentrusted to its people rather than the royal family.
Declaration of Independence, 1776
The author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson (17431826), was deeply influenced by the European Enlightenment. He spent many years in Paris and was just as much at home among European intellectuals as he was on his plantation in Virginia. Although a slaveholder, Jefferson wrote eloquently about freedom for the colonists. Even though it was not an official part of the U.S. Constitution, promulgated years later, the Declaration of Independence captures many of the chief ideals of the American revolutionaries and demonstrates the depth of their belief in "unalienable rights."
Declaration of Rights and Duties of Man and Citizen, Constitution of the Year III (1795)
After the fall of Robespierre and the dismantling of the Terror, the National Convention drafted yet another republican constitution. The new constitution was also approved in a referendum and put into effect 26 October 1795. It remained until Napoleon came to power in November 1799. Note that this declaration links duties with rights. It also drops the references to welfare and public assistance and emphasizes family obligations (Art. 4 among duties) for the first time. This declaration also makes clear that "men" refers to males only.
Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen from the Constitution of the Year I (1793)
The National Convention drew up this new declaration of rights to attach to the republican constitution of 1793. The constitution was ratified in a referendum, but never put into operation. It was suspended for the duration of the war and then replaced by a new constitution in 1795. Note the contrast with the original Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen; this one places more emphasis on welfare and public assistance (see article 21).
Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, 26 August 1789
Once they had agreed on the necessity of drafting a declaration of rights, the deputies of the National Assembly still faced the daunting task of composing one that a majority could accept. The debate raised several questions: should the declaration be short and limited to general principles or should it rather include a long explanation of the significance of each article; should the declaration include a list of duties or only rights; and what precisely were "the natural, inalienable, and sacred rights of man"? After several days of debate and voting, the deputies decided to suspend their deliberations on the declaration, having agreed on seventeen articles. These laid out a new vision of government, in which protection of natural rights replaced the will of the King as the justification for authority. Many of the reforms favored by Enlightenment writers appeared in the declaration: freedom of religion, freedom of the press, no taxation without representation, elimination of excessive punishments, and various safeguards against arbitrary administration.
Diary of a Woman at Fifty
Born in 1770 and married to the only surviving son of one of the greatest noble families in France, the Marquise de la Tour du Pin endured humiliation, emigration, and Terror during the first part of the revolutionary decade. Upon her return to France with her husband in 1796, she was shocked at the aristocratic style and open royalism of many powerful government figures.
Edict of Toleration, November 1787
Calvinists had a long and tumultuous history in France. They first gained the right to worship according to their creed in 1598 when King Henry IV issued the Edict of Nantes to end the wars of religion between Catholics and Calvinists. Louis XIV revoked that edict in 1685 and initiated a massive campaign to forcibly convert all of the Calvinists in France. For more than a century, public worship by Calvinists remained illegal, though many worshiped in private and some became leading merchants or businessmen in their local communities. Finally in 1787, Louis XVIs government proposed a new edict of toleration (the decision became official in January 1788). It granted Calvinists civil rights, including the right to practice their religion, but no political rights. Although the reference to nonCatholics might seem to promise a broader toleration including other groups as well, the edict applied only to Calvinists, for Jewish and Lutheran communities were not covered here. The preamble to the edict, with its evasive and tormented logic, shows the many pressures felt by the government as it tried to navigate between the demands of a powerful Catholic Church and a longoppressed minority that had the support of many influential writers and jurists.
Historical Essays on the Life of MarieAntoinette, of Austria (1783)
Although by law, political power could not pass through the Queens body (only male heirs could succeed to the throne in France), there was great political interest in the body of Louis XVIs Queen, Marie Antoinette, a Habsburg princess whose marriage into the Bourbon household solidified a diplomatic alliance between France and Austria. From nearly the moment she arrived at Versailles in 1770, she was widely suspected of deviousness, and by the late 1770s (by which time she had become Queen), her reputation was being maligned in clandestinely published, pornographic pamphlets known as "libels." The Historical Essays on the Life of MarieAntoinette of Austria, first published in 1783 and immediately suppressed by the royal censors, was republished secretly several times in the ensuing years, and as many as 20,000 copies may have been in circulation by 1789. It compared Marie Antoinette to the Countess du Barry, suggesting that they had the same fondness for nighttime walks in the gardens of Versailles, which often degenerated into orgies with courtiers of all sexes, ranks, and ages. Again, what is of interest is not whether or not the stories were true but that they further contributed to the view that the monarchy was degeneratingphysically, morally, and politically.
Historical, Political, and Moral Essay on Revolutions, Ancient and Modern
The French novelist and essayist FrançoisRené Chateaubriand (17681848) was a royalist who for a time admired Napoleon. Like Burke, he denounced the revolutionary reliance on reason and advocated a return to Christian principles. Although Chateaubriand detested the revolutionaries and their principles, he recognized that the French Revolution required extended commentary. Here he analyzes the Jacobins whom he clearly despises.
Père Duchesne Idealizes the Sansculottes
The sansculotte [without the breeches of the wealthy] became the symbol of the committed, patriotic revolutionary everyman. This newspaper article describes the ideal sansculotte, emphasizing his industriousness as a handicraft worker, his honesty, his simplicity, his willingness to act directly, and above all his commitment to sacrifice for the Revolutionary cause. This description is from a radical newspaper, "Father Duchesne" was, like the sansculotte, a figure drawn from popular culture: a goodhearted, honestspeaking, hardworking stove repairman who would report to his companions in laymans terms the strange doings of the wealthy he overheard while in their homes to fix stoves, a luxury item in the eighteenth century.
Parlement of Brittany
Particularly vocal in its resistance to the financial edicts of 1763 was the Parlement of Rennes, which had jurisdiction in the province of Brittany. A series of "remonstrances," issued by this court between 1763 and 1765, reveal the conflict between the parlementarians and the crown. At first, the magistrates merely protested the proposed new taxes, but when several of them were arrested for defying the Kings orders, the rest argued that they had a collective obligation to protest royal decrees that, in their view, violated the traditional "liberties" of the region. The Breton magistrates later voiced opposition to the crowns efforts to remove them and in their place seat a new, more docile court. Particularly infuriating to the magistrates were the machinations of the regional governor, the Duke dAguillon, who came from a longstanding, aristocratic Breton family, who therefore saw as rivals the "robe" nobles of the parlement. DAguillon tried to discredit Louis René Caradeuc de La Chalotais, the public prosecutor loyal to the parlement, by accusing him of sending threatening letters to the King. Here we see an effort by the Breton Parlement to stand up for its rights.