Urban workers, too, found an opportunity to express their discontent, through elections to the Estates-General. Elections were held in the form of neighborhood gatherings, at which participants collectively designated a representative and compiled cahiers de doléance (lists of grievances) to present to the King, who would communicate them to guide the representatives. Many of these petitions expressed opposition to the privileges of nobles and officeholders. The National Assembly decrees of August 1789 against privilege—which had been the centerpiece of the French social order—were no doubt cheered by the populace.

For all its momentousness, however, the elimination of privilege did not bring an end to the social conflicts underlying the Revolution. Instead, it marked the beginning of another system of social distinctions, set forth in a new constitution introduced by the National Assembly. The most notable of these was the distinction between "active" citizens, who were granted full rights to vote and hold office, and "passive" citizens, who were subject to the same laws but could not vote or hold office. Membership in one class or the other was determined by one's income level, gender, race, religion, and profession. With the Le Chapelier Law of 1791, the National Assembly further differentiated workers from property owners and banned worker associations as being harmful to national unity.

The National Assembly seemed unwilling to grant workers full political and social participation in the new society. One reason for this reluctance was the widespread fear of further unrest. Another was the strong belief among spokespersons for the Enlightenment that only those with a propertied stake in society could be trusted to exercise reason, or to think for themselves. Furthermore, many reform-minded revolutionaries argued that economic-based "combinations" formed by workers too closely resembled corporate guilds and would impinge on the freedom of the individual.

Whatever the assembly's motives, its actions were met with strong opposition. Workers were not untrustworthy or retrograde traditionalists, they retorted, but hard-working, uncomplicated, and honest citizens, unlike the effete and "feminized" rich. Calling themselves sans-culottes to indicate that they wore pants, not knee breeches (a symbol of luxury), they glorified direct action, strength, candor, and patriotism, ideals that radical journalists associated with artisanal work and found lacking in property ownership alone. The fact that such radicals as Elisée Loustallot, Jacques Roux, and Jacques-Réné Hébert were educated men who did not exactly work with their hands for a living led some to question whether their discussions of sans-culottes expressed ideas held by workers themselves. Moreover, one may wonder whether the views associated with the sans-culottes extended much beyond Paris. All the same, the sans-culotte concept took on increasing political significance, because those in authority saw reflected in it the genuine working man. Thus the use of the sans-culotte in radical rhetoric led contemporaries to believe that rich and poor were in conflict throughout the Revolution. How this perception influenced the course of revolutionary events may be seen in the case of Gracchus Babeuf. Before the Revolution, Babeuf had been an agent for seigneurial lords, but after 1789, he became increasingly attracted to the idea of social and political egalitarianism. By 1795, he was leading a conspiracy, although his goals and plans remained vague. Nevertheless, the political authorities worried about class war; they considered him a dangerous egalitarian revolutionary and arrested him. At his trial, Babeuf delivered an inspiring attack on private property and endorsed a system of property sharing that many see as a forerunner of socialism.

In rural areas, social cleavages were as deeply rooted as in the cities. Peasants, in their lists of grievances of 1789, expressed hostility to noble landlords; and, as noted earlier, this hostility intensified after Bastille Day. From July through September 1789, word of the National Assembly's decisions and of the popular revolts in Paris and other cities spread across the French countryside. It was also rumored that frightened nobles were sending groups of armed "brigands" to burn fields, steal crops, and attack villages in order to keep down the peasantry in this moment of crisis. Propelled by what became known as "the great fear," peasants in various regions of France took matters into their own hands, forming armed groups to defend their fields and their villages. The 4 August decrees, largely a response to this upheaval, initially quieted the countryside and soon cemented the peasants to the revolutionary cause.

SOCIAL RECONSTRUCTION

 

NO MORE NOBLES

TARGETING THE NOBILITY

DIVISIVENESS

DISTINCTIONS CONTINUE

SANS-CULOTTES

RADICALISM

MILITANCY & GOOD JUDGMENT

CLUBS CRITICIZED

BABEUF'S DEFENSE

PEASANT PLEAS

AUGUST 4 DECREES

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