Like the workers and small property owners in cities, peasants questioned the settlement reached by the National Assembly in 1791. In contrast to Parisian artisans, however, who began pushing for a more far-reaching revolution in 1792–94, large numbers of cultivators hankered for a return to stability in their villages. But this seemed a remote possibility as the Revolution and its wars expanded.

For the peasantry, the foremost cause of instability during the Revolution was the Civil Constitution of the Clergy of 1790. The Civil Constitution, like the Revolution itself, originated in the fiscal crisis that the National Assembly inherited from the crown. Needing substantial revenues, the assembly targeted church lands, which accounted for 10 percent of all landed wealth in France. The legislature divested the church of its property and in exchange took charge of its expenses and administration. The revolutionaries, imbued with the Enlightenment's criticism of the Catholic religion, suspected bishops and archbishops of resisting all change. To ensure the loyalty of parish priests, the assembly (in whose employ the priests now found themselves) added to the Civil Constitution a requirement that all clergy swear an oath of allegiance to the nation. However, almost half refused to do so. Because most "refractory priests" (those who refused the oath) lived in the countryside, the Civil Constitution—designed to promote national unity and prevent religion from becoming a source of resistance to the Revolution—instead generated considerable resentment among the peasantry. This resentment increased with the decree of 9 March 1792, authorizing the confiscation of grain to prevent "hoarding." Chapter 7 shows how this early hostility developed into an armed counterrevolution.

Thus in both towns and countryside, it seemed that the Revolution was not producing the hoped-for results. Instead of bringing unity and a quick, political resolution to the questions of 1789, as intended by its originators, the Revolution was producing further conflicts. What had happened? Had the revolutionaries expected too much? Did the fault lie with the new political elite, because they excluded the lower classes from the optimistic prospects for change? Or did the leaders, despite their commitment to social equality, find it impossible to avoid making private property (and the differences in wealth it necessarily generated) the cornerstone of the new society? The events of the 1790s brought France no closer to determining how and whether social equality could be achieved through political measures. This very issue continues to vex modern society—long after the social stresses of 1789 have dissolved into the dustbin of history. Indeed, it remains one of the most vibrant legacies of the French Revolution.






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