Clermont–Tonnerre, "Speech on Religious Minorities and Questionable Professions" (23 December 1789)

On 21 December 1789, a deputy raised the question of the status of non–Catholics under the new regime; his intervention started a long debate that quickly expanded to cover Jews, actors, and executioners, all of them excluded from various rights before 1789. Jews enjoyed certain rights within their own religious communities but were largely excluded from broader political and civil rights and in fact faced great restrictions on their choice of occupation, ability to own property, and the like. Actors and executioners both exercised professions that were considered "infamous"; actors took someone else’s role on the stage and were reputed to be immoral in their behavior, and executioners killed people, an act considered murder under other circumstances. As a consequence, neither actors nor executioners could vote or hold local offices before 1789, and they were often shunned. This first debate shows that declaring "the rights of man" raised as many questions as it answered. Once the question of Protestants had been raised, other excluded groups soon came up, beginning with actors. Since Brunet de Latuque had proposed a law covering "non–Catholics," it was inevitable that someone would ask if this included the Jews, who were also non–Catholics but whom many deputies regarded as another nation altogether. Count Stanislas–Marie–Adélaide de Clermont–Tonnerre (1757–92) gave a long speech on the subject. A deputy from the nobility of Paris and generally aligned with the liberal nobles, Clermont–Tonnerre argued for an inclusive interpretation of the declaration of rights, but he rejected any separate or different legal status for Jewish communities. In his view, citizens were citizens as individuals, not as members of different social or ethnic groups.


Sirs, in the declaration that you believed you should put at the head of the French constitution you have established, consecrated, the rights of man and citizen. In the constitutional work that you have decreed relative to the organization of the municipalities, a work accepted by the King, you have fixed the conditions of eligibility that can be required of citizens. It would seem, Sirs, that there is nothing else left to do and that prejudices should be silent in the face of the language of the law; but an honorable member has explained to us that the non-Catholics of some provinces still experience harassment based on former laws, and seeing them excluded from the elections and public posts, another honorable member has protested against the effect of prejudice that persecutes some professions. This prejudice, these laws, force you to make your position clear. I have the honor to present you with the draft of a decree, and it is this draft that I defend here. I establish in it the principle that professions and religious creed can never become reasons for ineligibility. . . .

The professions that the adversaries of my opinion claim to mark as infamous come down to two: the executioners and the actors who occupy our various theaters. I blush to compare the children of the arts with the instrument of the penal laws, but the objections force me to it. . . . What the law orders is inherently good; the law orders the death of a guilty person, the executioner only obeys the law. It is against all justice for the law to inflict upon him a legal punishment; it is against reason to tell him, do this and if you do it, you will be considered infamous.

I pass to the discussion of actors, and I will certainly have less trouble disarming a prejudice that has been weakened for a long time by the influence of the Enlightenment, the love of the arts, and reason. I will not say to you, Sirs, all that they have been and all that they can be. Several causes have motivated the opinion that attacks them: the license of morals, and let us not forget, Sirs, that a government that never had another goal than to compel obedience often had to take measures to corrupt and that the plays, by their influence both on morals and on opinions, have been directed toward this goal by the police, one of the most corrupt branches of the former administration. . . . In any case, we should either forbid plays altogether or remove the dishonor associated with acting. Nothing infamous should endure in the eyes of the law, and nothing that the law permits is infamous.

I have said enough about the professions; I come to the subject of religion, without doubt much more important. . . . There is no middle way possible: either you admit a national religion, subject all your laws to it, arm it with temporal power, exclude from your society the men who profess another creed and then, erase the article in your declaration of rights [freedom of religion]; or you permit everyone to have his own religious opinion, and do not exclude from public office those who make use of this permission. . . .

Every creed has only one test to pass in regard to the social body: it has only one examination to which it must submit, that of its morals. It is here that the adversaries of the Jewish people attack me. This people, they say, is not sociable. They are commanded to loan at usurious rates; they cannot be joined with us either in marriage or by the bonds of social interchange; our food is forbidden to them; our tables prohibited; our armies will never have Jews serving in the defense of the fatherland. The worst of these reproaches is unjust; the others are only specious. Usury is not commanded by their laws; loans at interest are forbidden between them and permitted with foreigners. . . .

This usury so justly censured is the effect of our own laws. Men who have nothing but money can only work with money: that is the evil. Let them have land and a country and they will loan no longer: that is the remedy. As for their unsociability, it is exaggerated. Does it exist? What do you conclude from it in principle? Is there a law that obliges me to marry your daughter? Is there a law that obliges me to eat hare [a kind of rabbit] and to eat it with you? No doubt these religious oddities will disappear; and if they do survive the impact of philosophy and the pleasure of finally being true citizens and sociable men, they are not infractions to which the law can or should pertain.

But, they say to me, the Jews have their own judges and laws. I respond that is your fault and you should not allow it. We must refuse everything to the Jews as a nation and accord everything to Jews as individuals. We must withdraw recognition from their judges; they should only have our judges. We must refuse legal protection to the maintenance of the so-called laws of their Judaic organization; they should not be allowed to form in the state either a political body or an order. They must be citizens individually. But, some will say to me, they do not want to be citizens. Well then! If they do not want to be citizens, they should say so, and then, we should banish them. It is repugnant to have in the state an association of non-citizens, and a nation within the nation. . . . In short, Sirs, the presumed status of every man resident in a country is to be a citizen.

Source: The materials listed below appeared originally in The French Revolution and Human Rights: A Brief Documentary History, translated, edited, and with an introduction by Lynn Hunt (Boston/New York: Bedford/St. Martin's, 1996), 86–88.