EXCERPTS FROM AN ADDRESS OF THE NATIONAL ASSEMBLY TO THE FRENCH PEOPLE (1790)

 

The National Assembly, as it progresses in its work, is receiving upon every hand the felicitations of the provinces, cities, and villages, testimonials of the public satisfaction and expressions of grateful appreciation; but murmurs reach it as well, from those who are affected or injured by the blows aimed at so many abuses and prejudices. While occupied with the welfare of all, the Assembly is solicitous in regard to individual ills. It can forgive prejudice, bitterness, and injustice, but it feels it to be one of its duties to warn you against the influence of calumny, and to quiet the empty terrors which some are vainly trying to arouse in you. To what have they not resorted in order to mislead and dis­courage you? They pretend to be unaware of the good that the National Assembly has accomplished; this we propose to recall to your mind. Objections have been raised against what has been done; these we propose to meet. Doubts and anxiety have been disseminated as to what we propose to do in the future; this we will explain to you.

 

What has the Assembly accomplished? In the midst of storms, it has, with a firm hand, traced the principles of a constitution which will assure your liberty forever. The rights of man had been misconceived and insulted for centuries; they have been reestablished for all humanity in that declaration, which shall serve as an everlasting war cry against oppressors and as a law for the legislators them-selves. The nation had lost the right to decree both the laws and the taxes; this right has been restored to it, while at the same time the true principles of monarchy have been solemnly established, as well as the inviolability of the au-gust head of the nation and the heredity of the throne in a family so dear to all Frenchmen.

 

Formerly you had only the Estates General; now you have a National Assembly of which you can never be again deprived. In the Estates General the several orders, which were necessarily at odds and under the domination of ancient pretensions, dictated the decrees and could check the free action of the national will. These orders no longer exist; all have disappeared before the honorable title of citizen. All being citizens alike, you demanded citizen-defenders and, at the first summons, the National Guard arose, which, called together by patriotism and commanded by honor, has everywhere maintained or established order and watches with untiring zeal over the safety of each for the benefit of all.

 

Privileges without number, irreconcilably at enmity with every good, made up our entire public law. These have been destroyed, and at the word of this Assembly the provinces which were the most jealous of their own privileges applauded their disappearance, feeling that they gained rather than lost thereby. A vexatious feudal system, power­ful even in its ruin, covered the whole of France; it has now disappeared, never to return. In the provinces you were subject to a harassing administration; from this you have been freed. Arbitrary commands threatened the liberty of the citizens; they have been done away with. You desired a complete organization of the municipalities; this you have just received, and the creation of these bodies, chosen by your votes, offers, at this moment, a most imposing spectacle. At the same time the National Assembly has finished the task of a new division of the kingdom, which alone might serve to remove the last trace of former prejudices, substitute for provincial selfishness the true love for one's country, and serve as the basis of a just system of representation….

 

This, Frenchmen, is our work, or rather yours, for we are only your organ, and you have enlightened, encouraged, and sustained us in our labors. What a glorious period is this which we at last enjoy! How honorable the heritage which you may transmit to your posterity! Raised to the rank of citizens; admissible to every form of employment; enlight­ened censors of the administration when it is not actually in your hands; certain that all will be done by you and for you; equal before the law; free to act, to speak, to write; owing no account to individuals but always to the common will ; - what condition more happy! Is there a single citizen worthy of the name who would dare look back, who would rebuild once more the ruins which surround us, in order again to contemplate the former structure?

 

Yet what has not been said and done to weaken the natural impressions which such advantages should produce upon you? It is urged that we have destroyed everything; everything must, then, be reconstructed. But what is there which need be so much regretted? If we would know, let those be questioned in regard to the objects of reform or destruction who did not profit by them; let even men of good faith be questioned who did profit by them. But let us leave one side those who, in order to ennoble the demands of purely personal interests, now choose as the objects of their commiseration the fate of those to whom they were formerly quite indifferent. We may then judge if each sub­ject of reform does not enjoy the approval of all of those whose opinions should be considered.

 

Some say that we have acted too precipitately, as many others proclaim that we have been too deliberate. Too much precipitation! Does not every one know that only by attacking and overthrowing all the abuses at the same time can we hope to be freed from them without danger of their return; that then, and then only, every one becomes inter­ested in the reestablishment of order; that slow and partial reforms have always resulted in no reform at all, and that an abuse preserved becomes the support, and before long the means of restoring all those which we thought to have destroyed?

 

Our meetings are said to be disorderly; what of that, if the decrees which proceed from them are wise? We are indeed far from wishing to hold up for your admiration the details of all our debates. More than once they have been a source of annoyance to us, but at the same time we have felt that it was very unjust to take advantage of this dis­order; and indeed this impetuosity is the almost inevitable effect of the first conflict which has perhaps ever been fought by every right principle against every form of error.

 

We are accused of having aspired to a chimerical per­fection. A curious reproach indeed, which, if one looks at it closely, proves to be only an ill-disguised desire for the perpetuation of the abuses. The National Assembly has not allowed itself to be influenced by motives of servile interest or pusillanimity. It has had the courage, or rather the sense, to believe that useful ideas, essential to the human race, were not destined simply to adorn the pages of a book, and that the Supreme Being, when he granted the attribute of perfectibility to man, did not forbid him to apply this peculiar appanage of his nature to the social organization, which has become the most comprehensive of his interests and almost the most important of his needs.

 

It is impossible, some say, to regenerate an old and cor­rupt nation. Let such objectors learn that there is nothing corrupt but those who wish to perpetuate corrupting abuses, and that a nation becomes young again the moment it resolves to be born anew in liberty. Behold the regenera­tion! How the nation's heart already beats with joy and hope, and how pure, elevated, and patriotic are its senti­ments! With what enthusiasm do the people daily solicit the honor of being allowed to take the oath of citizen!-but why consider so despicable a reproach ? Shall the National Assembly be reduced to excuse itself for not hav­ing rendered the French people desperate?

 

But we have done nothing for the people, their pretended friends cry on all sides. Yet it is the people's cause which is everywhere triumphant. Nothing done for the people! Does not every abuse which is abolished prepare the way for, and assure to them, relief ? Is there an abuse which does not weigh upon the people? They do not complain, - it is because the excess of their ills has stifled complaint. They are now unhappy, - say better that they are still unhappy, -but not for long; that we swear.

 

We have destroyed the power of the executive - no, say rather the power of the ministers, which, in reality, for­merly destroyed or often degraded the executive power. We have enlightened the executive power by showing it its true rights; we have, above all, ennobled it by bringing it to the true source of its power, the power of the people. The exec­utive power is now without force, - against the constitution and the law, that is true, but in support of them it will be more powerful than ever before.

 

The people are aroused, - yes, for its defense, and with reason. But, it is urged, in several places there have been unfortunate occurrences. Should the National Assembly be reproached for these? Should disasters be attributed to it which it mourns, which it would have prevented and arrested by the force of its decrees, and which the here-after indissoluble union between the two powers and the irresistible action of all the national forces will doubtless check?

 

We have exceeded our powers. The reply is simple. We were incontestably sent to make a constitution: this was the wish and the need of the whole of France. But was it pos­sible to create a constitution and form an even imperfect body of constitutional decrees, without the plenitude of power which we have exercised? We will say more : with-out the National Assembly France was lost ; without the recognition of the principle which has governed all our decrees, of submitting the decision of every matter to a majority of votes, freely cast, it is impossible to conceive, we will not say a constitution, but even the prospect of destroying permanently the least of the abuses. This prin­ciple embodies an eternal truth and has been recognized throughout France. It receives recognition in a thousand ways in the numerous ratifications which oppose the swarm of libels reproaching us for exceeding our powers. These addresses, felicitations, compliments, and patriotic resolu­tions, - what a conclusive confirmation do they constitute of those powers which some would contest!

 

These, Frenchmen, are the reproaches which have been directed against your representatives in the mass of culpable writings in which a tone of civic grief is assumed. But their authors flatter themselves in vain that we are to be discour­aged. Our courage is redoubled; you will not long wait for the results….We will pursue our laborious task, devot­ing ourselves to the great work of drawing up the constitu­tion - your work as well as ours. We will complete it, aided by the wisdom of all France.

 

[The reforms which the Assembly announces for the future are omitted here. The chief were an enlightened system of taxes, a reor­ganization of the Church, new codes of the criminal and civil law, and a national system of education.]