National Assembly Debate on Clubs (20 September 1791)

The "Champ de Mars Massacre" inaugurated a brief period of political repression directed at the popular movement and dramatized the growing tension between the claims of political activism and the desire of moderates to bring the Revolution to an orderly close. This issue was foremost in the minds of the representatives in the very last days of the Constituent Assembly, as they debated a proposal for a new decree limiting the political role of clubs. The decree was adopted but never implemented.


[Le Chapelier spoke on behalf of the constitutional committee:] . . . One duty remains to your former constitutional committee. That duty is imposed upon it by you, by its love for the public good, and by its desire to secure and propagate all the principles preserving the constitution that France has just received after two and a half years of travails and alarms.

We are going to speak to you about these organizations formed from an enthusiasm for liberty, and to which they owe their prompt establishment. We speak of those organizations which, during stormy periods, had the fortunate result of rallying public morale, providing centers for similar views, and showing the opposing minority the enormous size of the majority that wanted to exterminate the abuses, reverse the prejudices, and establish a free constitution.

But like all spontaneous institutions created from the purest of motives, due to considerable changes in circumstances and various other causes, they soon deviate from their goal and end up taking on a kind of political role that they should not.

As long as the Revolution lasted, this state of affairs was almost always more useful than harmful. When a nation changes its form of government, every citizen becomes a magistrate. Everyone deliberates, and should deliberate, on the State, and everything that expedites, everything that ensures, everything that speeds a Revolution, must be put to use. It is a momentary agitation that must be sustained and even increased so that the Revolution leaves no doubt in the minds of its opponents, encounters fewer obstacles, and reaches its end more quickly.

But when the Revolution is over and the constitution of the State has been decided, when all public powers have been delegated and all the authorities called up, then everything must be restored to the most perfect order to ensure the security of that constitution. Then, nothing must hinder the actions of the constituted authorities, and deliberation and the power to act must be located where the constitution has placed them and nowhere else. Everyone must also recognize his own rights and responsibilities as a citizen, never exceeding the former nor violating the latter.

The Societies of Friends of the Constitution have done too many favors for the State, and they are driven by excessive patriotism, so normally it is necessary to do no more than just warn their members of the dangers that these organizations pose to the State. They are dragged into illegal actions by men who cultivate them only to stir them up. . . .

All citizens have the right to peaceful assembly. In a free country, where a constitution, founded on the rights of man, has created a homeland, an intense and profound feeling attaches all inhabitants to the State. They feel the need to take care of it and discuss it. Far from extinguishing or restricting this sacred fire, all social institutions must help to sustain it.

But, in addition to this general interest, this deep affection created by the existence of a homeland, and the free use of citizen's rights, the maxims of public order and representative government must be in evidence.

There is no power except that constituted by the will of the People and expressed through their representatives. There are no authorities except those delegated by the People, and there can be no actions except those of its representatives who have been entrusted with public duties.

It is to preserve this principle, in all its purity, that the constitution has abolished all corporations, from one end of the state to another, and henceforth recognizes only society as a whole, and individuals.

A necessary consequence of this principle is the prohibition of any petition or poster issued in the name of a group.

Organizations, peaceful assemblies of citizens, and clubs; all go unnoticed in the State. Should they abandon the private status granted them by the constitution, they rise up against the constitution, thereby destroying it instead of defending it. From that point on the invaluable rallying cry—"Friends of the Constitution"—seems nothing more than a cry of agitation designed to upset the legitimate exercise of authority.

These organizations are, for the most part, composed of worthy citizens, true friends of the homeland and avid defenders of the constitution. They will easily understand us when we tell them that, if the Revolution has sometimes driven them to outward acts, the established constitution condemns such acts or that they cannot be affiliated to any of the major cities without being compared to the corporations that have been destroyed . . . and that this political role, necessarily leads to two equally fatal results: the organizations take on a public life; and they foster divisions that every good citizen should seek to extinguish—divisions which, with the aid of strange and corporate affiliations, reappear instantaneously whenever any kind of exclusive right to patriotism is proclaimed, producing accusations against unaffiliated citizens and hatred against unaffiliated organizations. Also, delegations, collective addresses, participation in public ceremonies, recommendations, or certificates given to a few favored persons, or praise and blame distributed among the citizens, are similarly infractions of the constitutional law and means of persecution of which evil men seize hold. Records of their debates, the publication of their resolutions, and the galleries set up in their meeting halls for spectators, are acts contrary to the constitution. They commit a very grave crime when they seek to influence administrative or judicial acts. And lastly that even the Revolution itself cannot waive the orders summoning public officials to account for their conduct. Acts of violence were committed in order to destroy the judicial proceedings against so-called patriots—an audacity which forced a tribunal to designate seats in its courtroom for deputies of these clubs so they could watch over criminal proceedings and judgments. These commissioners' dispatches are being sent to various places to delegate tasks that can only be assigned by constituted authorities, a right that belongs only to men in public office.

A veil must be cast over all these actions. We must even repeat that their logic and goals have often been to protect our efforts and work against malicious attacks, and in confounding the latter's maneuvers, they hastened the establishment of liberty.

But now, such actions would only be a shameful malfeasance, a criminal attack on the authorities established by the constitution. The friends of the constitution, those who have sworn to maintain it by force of arms, have agreed to distinguish themselves only through the most profound respect for the constituted powers, and the most absolute repudiation of any thought of creating political entities proscribed by the constitution.

The organizations that were formed to hear about and support its principles are only gatherings, friendship clubs which play no more role than any citizen, that is, to protect the constitution. They can learn, discuss, and teach one another, but their conferences and their internal proceedings must never go beyond the confines of their meeting halls. No public characteristic or collective action should bring attention to them.

No one can contest these constitutional principles, yet we still see them violated. Collective petitions are forbidden, yet they are addressed to the constituent body itself, they are posted in the streets, and administrative officers and municipal authorities are worn out by them. . . .

Everyone has sworn to support the constitution, everyone calls for order and public peace, everyone wants an end to Revolution. From now on, these are the unequivocal signs of patriotism. The time of destruction is past. No abuses remain to be overthrown, no prejudices remain to fight against. From now on, we must embellish this edifice of which liberty and equality are the keystones. We must endear the new order to those who have shown themselves to be its enemies. And we must consider our most fearsome adversaries as those who seek to slander or degrade the established authorities, or to take over certain organizations in order to give them an active role in the administration of the state, turning them into arbitrary censors, turbulent detractors, and perhaps even despotic subjugators of public officials. . . .

Having spoken of the constitutional principles and the acts that tarnish them, does it need to be stated that the public existence of organizations, their affiliations, their newspapers, their collective petitions, their illegal influence, are able to alarm all peaceful citizens and alienate those who wish to live peacefully under the protection of the laws?

It is in the nature of things that deliberative societies seek to acquire some external influence, or that that wicked or ambitious men seek to take control of them to serve as instruments of their ambition or revenge. If the actions of these organizations become public, if they are transmitted through a network of affiliations and published in their newspapers, a constituted authority can be rapidly debased or discredited, or a citizen defamed. No one can fight such slander. A person is accused, but by his enemy. It is too easy to accuse and too easy to give this accusation an air of respectability. Society applauds it, sometimes welcoming it. All the affiliated organizations are informed, and the most honest of men, the public servant with the most integrity, can be the victim of the skillful maneuvering of an evil man. From a moral and ethical point of view, as well as from a constitutional point of view, there must be neither organized affiliations, nor published means for reporting their debates.

You must believe that public order, the confidence and security of a host of citizens, greatly depends on this. No one wants a master other than the law. If the organization could have an empire, if they held a man's reputation in their hands, if, as corporate entities, they had networks and agents from one end of France to the other, then their members would be the only free men. Or rather, a few affiliated members would have a free hand to destroy public freedom. There must therefore be neither affiliations among societies, nor newspapers reporting their debates. . . .

[Le Chapelier presented a draft decree providing penalties against the political intervention of societies in the conduct of public affairs. The assembly proceeded to a discussion of his proposals.]

Robespierre: Gentlemen, it is proposed that the assembly order the printing and distribution of the report it has just heard in the form of a directive. However, this report contains ambiguity and expressions that attack the principles of the constitution. The language of liberty and of the constitution were included and spoken of in a manner calculated to destroy them, and to conceal personal views and individual resentments under the guise of goodness, justice, and the public interest. [Applause from the galleries.]

Numerous members: Order! Order!

Robespierre: It is an art that is by no means foreign to revolutions, and we have seen it used often enough in the course of our own revolution to have learned how to detect and expose it. As for myself, I confess that if I ever strongly felt joy at arriving at the end of our task, it has been in witnessing this last example of that art, wherein we hear charges leveled at the organizations which secured the Revolution.

I would have thought that, on the eve of our replacement by a new legislature, we could have relied on both the enlightenment and zeal of our successors . . . to take the most appropriate action.

I remember with confidence—and I find this reassuring in view of the way in which we want to end our session—as I was saying, I remember with confidence and satisfaction that a very great number of those about to replace us come from the heart of these organizations. [Applause on the extreme left and in the galleries.] I know that the hope and confidence of the French nation rests particularly with them, and it is to them that the nation seems to entrust the task of defending liberty against the progress of a Machiavellian system that threatens its future ruin. . . .

The constitution guarantees all Frenchmen the right to unarmed peaceful assembly. It guarantees them free expression of their ideas, as long as no harm is caused to others. The constitution guarantees all Frenchmen the right to act in any way that is not directly contrary to the laws of the state. In view of these principles, I ask how anyone dares to tell you that the sharing of ideas from one gathering of peaceful, unarmed men to other gatherings of a similar nature can be prohibited by the principles of the constitution? . . . Is it not evident that he who has attacked these principles, he who violates them in the most open manner, is only putting them forth today to make up for the odious attack he gets away with against liberty? How, and under what facade, will you send orders to the departments that are to persuade citizens that the Societies of Friends of the Constitution are forbidden to correspond and affiliate? What is unconstitutional in an affiliation? An affiliation is nothing more than the relationship between one legitimate organization and another, in which they agree to correspond one with another on matters of public interest. How can there be anything unconstitutional about that? Or rather, show me how the constitutional principles that I have outlined do not sanction these truths? . . .

Le Chapelier: I ask to reply to Robespierre, who knows not a word of the constitution. [Enthusiastic applause] . . .

Robespierre: Praise has been lavished on the Societies of Friends of the Constitution, but in truth this is done only to gain the right to denigrate them, and to make extremely vague allegations that are far from proven and absolutely slanderous. But it doesn't matter, because at least the good that cannot be denied has been said—which is nothing less than acknowledging their services since the beginning of the Revolution in the name of liberty and the nation. It seems to me that this consideration alone would have given the constitutional committee reason not to hasten to restrict societies which, by its own admission, have been so useful. But they say we no longer need these organizations because the Revolution is over and it is time to break the tool that has served us so well. [Applause from the galleries] . . .

The Revolution is finished. I would certainly like to join you in assuming this to be true, although I am not entirely clear of the meaning you attach to this proposition that I have heard repeated with such affectation. But assuming this to be the case, is it less necessary now to propagate the knowledge, the constitutional principles, and the public spirit without which the constitution cannot exist? Is it less useful now to form assemblies in which citizens can concern themselves with these matters which are the most important interests of their country, in the most effective manner? Is there a more legitimate or more worthy concern for a free people? To be able to truly say that the Revolution is finished, it requires that the Constitution be firmly consolidated, for its destruction or weakening would necessarily prolong the Revolution, which is nothing more than the nation's efforts to preserve or attain liberty. How then can it be proposed that the most powerful means of consolidating the constitution, that which the committee's spokesman has himself acknowledged to have been generally recognized as necessary until now, be rendered invalid and without influence?

For my part, I see on the one hand that the fledgling constitution still has enemies from within and without, that the nature of the discourse and outward appearances have changed while actions remain the same, and that hearts could only have been changed by a miracle. I see plots and duplicity sounding the alarm at the same time as they sow unrest and discord, and leaders of opposing factions fighting less for the cause of the Revolution than for access to power in order to rule in the monarch's name. On the other, I see the excessive zeal with which they call for blind obedience while, at the same time, dictate every word of liberty. I see the extraordinary means they use to kill the public's spirit by rekindling prejudices, irresponsibility, and idolatry. . . . When I see these things, I do not believe that the Revolution is finished. . . .

If I must adopt other language, if I must stop protesting against the plans of the state's enemies, if I must applaud my country's ruin, order what fate you will for me, but let me die before liberty is lost. [Mutterings and applause] Even so, men will remain in France that will be sufficiently sincere and devoted to liberty, sufficiently farsighted to perceive the traps that are being laid all around us and to prevent the traitors from ever enjoying the fruits of their efforts.

I know that in preparing the success of the plans that are being put forth in your discussions today, care has been taken to proliferate criticisms, sophisms, slander, and all the petty means used by the petty men who are both the disgrace, and the scourge, of revolutions. [Applause in the galleries, laughter in the center] I know that all the knaves and fools in France have been brought around to their opinions. [Renewed laughter] I know that these kinds of schemes give great pleasure to all who are fond of prevaricating with impunity, because anyone who is corruptible fears the surveillance of informed citizens, just as criminals fear the light that reveals their hideous crimes. Only virtue can unearth this sort of conspiracy against the patriotic organizations. Destroy them, and you will have eliminated the most powerful restraint against corruption, and you will have overthrown the last obstacle in the way of its sinister schemes. For the conspirators, the plotters, the ambitious, will know well how to gather and elude the law whose passage they have secured.

Source: M. J. Mavidal and M. E. Laurent, eds., Archives parlementaires de 1787 à 1860, première série (1787 à 1799), 2d ed., 82 vols. (Paris: Dupont, 1879–1913), 31:617–23.