Defending the Liberal Revolution in France: The Legislative Assembly and the Demise of the Constitution of 1791

When and Where

Friday, March 29, 2019 3:00 pm to 5:00 pm
North House
1 Devonshire Place, Toronto, Ontario, M5S 3K7


On 1 October 1791, the French Legislative Assembly convened in Paris, initiating the constitutional regime that revolutionaries in 1789 had committed themselves to establish. Within a year, however, the monarchy had been overthrown, and the Constitution of 1791 had collapsed. In explaining the French Revolution’s transition during this period from a moderate to a more radical phase, historians have emphasized factors such as the importance of the Flight to Varennes, the rise of the popular movement, and the dynamic of revolutionary discourse. Such explanations have tended to dismiss support for the constitutional regime on the eve of its demise as marginal, insincere, or irrelevant. Yet the advent of republican democracy in France should not completely eclipse the significance of the constitutional monarchy’s failure. This paper suggests that debate within the Legislative Assembly reveals not conflict between republicans and royalists, but a more nuanced struggle between differing conceptions of the revolution, the location of national sovereignty, and the importance of a written constitution. For example, the opposition of some deputies to the declaration of war against Austria on 20 April 1792 reflected determination to defend the constitution and the liberal principles it embodied. Beyond the Assembly, the paper also examines the departmental denunciations of the Paris crowd’s invasion of the Tuileries Palace on 20 June 1792. These addresses and petitions went beyond manifestations of loyalty to Louis XVI to express commitment to the ideal of constitutionalism. Thus this paper argues that there were many in France who still hoped to defend the liberal revolution of 1789, with its promise of individual liberty, property rights, and the rule of law, on the eve of a second revolution which would sweep away the Constitution of 1791.

Bill Cormack received his Ph.D. from Queen’s University at Kingston, Ontario in 1992. In 1995, Cambridge University Press published his first book, Revolution and Political Conflict in the French Navy 1789-1794. Since 1998, he has been a member of the Department of History at the University of Guelph in Ontario, where he teaches modern European history. His new book, Patriots, Royalists, and Terrorists in the West Indies: The French Revolution in Martinique and Guadeloupe, 1789-1802, comes out with the University of Toronto Press in January 2019. His current research concerns the French Legislative Assembly and the demise of the Constitution of 1791.


1 Devonshire Place, Toronto, Ontario, M5S 3K7