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The Night the Old Regime Ended: August 4, 1789, and the French Revolution.

The Night the Old Regime Ended: August 4, 1789, and the French Revolution. By Michael P. Fitzsimmons (University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2003. x plus 245 pp.).

August 4, 1789 figures significantly in any narrative of the French Revolution. On that day, in the wake of peasant rioting and with a desire to quell rebellion, representatives from all three orders participated in "renunciations" of a wide range of privileges. Although these actions, often perceived as the end of "feudalism," proved to be a watershed to divide the Old and the New Regime, scholars have spent far less time on this subject than it deserves.

Despite the title, which implies that this book focuses on August 4, Michael Fitzsimmons actually dwells little on the events of the crowded session that occurred in the evening. On this matter, he agrees with others' findings that this altruism, in which members of the body threw caution aside, emerged from an inexplicable momentum. The main thrust of his book becomes the next two years of the delegates' actions, as Fitzsimmons argues that it took quite a while to translate these renunciations into a thoroughgoing reorganization.

In addition studying these events and their eventual results, Fitzsimmons explores the initial political impact. As is well known, the months preceding the declaration of August 4 were filled with rancor between the commoners and the privileged orders. From the initial meeting in May until the July seizure of the Bastille, the Third Estate, which metamorphosed into the National Assembly, sought to overcome the political advantages of the clergy and nobility. Although some issues had already been settled, August 4 created what Fitzsimmons labels a functional consensus in the Assembly. The generosity of the upper ranks so impressed the remainder of the National Assembly that the body then coalesced around a mutual respect. Although a vituperative exchange over the role and activity of the monarch meant that this spirit of cooperation would not outlast 1789, the next year witnessed a return of good feeling that endured until Louis XVI tried to escape from France in June 1791.

Fitzsimmons devotes the remainder of his book to a systematic examination of the ramifications of the various renunciations. The most important implications for the Church emerging from August 4 were the proclamation of freedom of religion and the ending of the tithe. While no thoroughgoing reorganization of the Church was at first envisioned, the difficulties between orders in late 1789 coupled to the logic of religious freedom led to the Civil Constitution of the Clergy and an oath of political loyalty being demanded from the clergy. To some extent, Fitzsimmons treats these developments--in which the parishioners elected the clergy who then had to demonstrate their good citizenship--as moderate and initially not arousing great resistance. However, the failure to consult the Pope and his subsequent rejection of the reorganization produced a reaction that "did more than any other action of the National Assembly to undercut the unitary ideal that the Assembly had hoped to realize" (p. 92).

Although the abolition of the nobility was implied in the principles articulated on August 4, it would be June 19, 1790 before this occurred. Beyond the destruction of fiscal privileges which had already taken place, the decision to abolish hereditary titles profoundly disrupted daily life, seating at mass, and even the appearance of buildings that were decorated with coats of arms. The Night the Old Regime Ended remains somewhat ambiguous as to the cause of this momentous change. At some level, it appears to be a misunderstanding between revolutionaries who believed that this was just the logical conclusion of previous changes and the new class of ex-nobles who saw their derogation as gratuitous and harmful. In the end, according to Fitzsimmons, this action was principled.

During that momentous August 4 evening the Assembly clearly intended to destroy "feudalism" in the countryside. Fitzsimmons tacitly accepts that the legislators could clearly identify what practices could be labeled feudal and moves on to discuss the effort to abolish outright elements of personal servitude while demanding the redemption of other liabilities linked to the ownership of the manor. The author here asserts that the revolutionaries did a very good job of putting their own principles into practice, even though contemporaries and many historians have doubted that point. According to the author, peasant complaints stemmed more from their own escalating demands than from any failure of the new rules to adhere to the August 4 decrees. Even the peasant failure to pay redemptions promptly might be read more as a loophole in the law than as evidence of a strong dissatisfaction.

Even though Old Regime administrators had tried to abolish guilds some fifteen years before the revolution, it was not easy for the National Assembly to take the same action. The events of August 4, through the abolition of privilege, had placed corporate bodies under considerable pressure. Only in February and March of 1791, driven by a need to create trade licenses for tax revenue, did the revolutionaries finally eliminate guilds. This action restructured work, making it less controlled than it had been for centuries. However, as Fitzsimmons notes, this legislation was silent about journeymen's organizations which under the Old Regime had no legal standing but represented of their members' rights. Historians have debated whether the later elimination of these organizations in June 1791 by the Le Chapelier law was an effort to suppress political dissent or simply to eliminate a bastion of privilege. Fitzsimmons's description leans toward the latter explanation but also provides evidence for the former. In any case, the end of these journeymen groups continued the assault on remnants of corporate privilege.

Fitzsimmons's survey of the effects of the August 4 decrees is a well-written, well organized addition to the literature on the French Revolution. Based on a comprehensive command of the secondary literature and an extraordinary use of primary sources for a book of this breadth, The Night the Old Regime Ended provides quite a comprehensive view of how the efforts of August 1789 worked themselves out in the following two years. Fitzsimmons's command of the Old Regime is also impressive. This book will quickly have an impact on our general understanding of the Revolution.

Although Fitzsimmons jousts with various other scholarly treatments throughout his manuscript, he seldom openly engages in polemics. His style is crisp, but hardly aggressive. Yet the cumulative arguments of the book make a very significant historiographical point. First, the dominant school of the French Revolution, formerly led by Francois Furet, has viewed August 4 as an attack on privilege but has focused on the date's ideological meaning. In particular, for the Furetists, the main significance of August 4 was the evolution of the French from subjects into citizens. Fitzsimmons's silence on this issue and focus on others might be seen as his assent to the social argument trumping that of the ideological.

Furthermore, this book defends the actions of the Assembly in working out the implications of the August decrees. The legislators come across, particularly in regulating the Church, ending rural feudalism, and abolishing nobility, as carrying out their duty fairly. For example, as explained previously in this review, Fitzsimmons believes the Assembly acted correctly toward the countryside. This viewpoint conflicts not only with Furetists who see the momentous decision as of the summer of 1789 as the revolution going too far to promote leveling, but also with many others who perceive the glorious goals of 1789 as shortcircuited, hajacked by bourgeois self interest in subsequent years. In short, Fitzsimmons tries to rehabilitate the National Assembly and gives substantial support to the Anglo-American notion of a good, liberal revolution that commenced the decade. Only subsequent events can explain the Terror. This interesting and important book has a deceptively poignant message.

Jack R. Censer

George Mason University
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Title Annotation:Reviews
Author:Censer, Jack R.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 2004
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