The fall of the Bastille on 14 July 1789 was followed by a mass uproar spreading from Paris to the countryside. Noble families were attacked and many aristocratic manors were burned. Abbeys and castles were also attacked and destroyed. The peers started to emigrate to the cities of France, and incidents of brigandage multiplied by the moment. The season of La Grande Peur – the Great Fear – was characterised by social hysteria and anxiety over who was going to be the next victim. In many cases, the violence was begun not by homeless people or hunger-driven peasants but by settled countrymen who took this opportunity to further their own cause.
The Great Fear opened up the vulnerable nature of the French government – there was a lack of authority at the very center of it. The prolonged riots and massacres led to a general anxiety that things might get out of control, and they did. It was an experience that the country had never undergone before.
By late July 1789, as the peasant revolt reports poured into Paris from every part of the country, the Assembly decided to reform the social pattern of the country in order to pacify the outraged peasants and encourage them towards peace and harmony. The discussion continued through the night of the fourth of August, and on the morning of the fifth the Assembly abolished the feudal system, and eliminated many clerical and noble rights and privileges. The August decrees were finally completed a week later.
There were nineteen decrees in all, with a revised list published on 11 August.
- Article One
- The Assembly declared the feudal system abolished thereafter. Within the “existing rights and dues, both feudal and censuel (this refers to the cens, a perpetual due similar to the payments made by English copyholders), all those originating in or representing real or personal serfdom shall be abolished without indemnification.” All other dues were redeemable, but the terms and mode of redemption was to be fixed by the Assembly. Those dues that were not removed by this decree were to be collected as usual until indemnification took place.
- Article Two
- The exclusive right of fuies [allowing birds to graze] and dovecotes is abolished. The pigeons will be locked up during times determined by the communities. During these periods, they will be considered prey, and anyone will be allowed to kill them on their properties..
- Article Three
- The exclusive rights of keeping unenclosed warrens were abolished as well. Every landowner shall have the rights to destroy all kinds of game in their own land. However, public safety regulations must be maintained by them. All hunting spaces, including the royal forest, and all hunting rights were similarly abolished as well. There were provisions made for the king’s hunting, however, for his personal pleasure in it. The president of the Assembly was commissioned to ask of the king the release of those people who were sent to prison or exiled for the violation of the previously existing hunting rights.
- Article Four
- All the Manorial Courts were suppressed, but the judges and other officials of justice were allowed to continue with their duties until further instructions from the Assembly.
- Article Five
- Any kind of tithes, as well as any substitution for them were abolished. Whosoever possessed them,“…secular or regular congregations, by holders of benefices, members of corporations (including the Order of Malta and other religious and military orders), as well as those devoted to the maintenance of churches, those impropriated to lay persons, and those substituted for the portion congrue (this expression refers to the minimum remuneration fixed for the priests), are abolished, on condition, however, that some other method be devised to provide for the expenses of divine worship, the support of the officiating clergy, for the assistance of the poor, for repairs and rebuilding of churches and parsonages, and for the maintenance of all institutions, seminaries, schools, academies, asylums, and organizations to which the present funds are devoted.” Until these provisions were made, the Assembly allowed the priests to collect the tithes. All the other tithes, which were not abolished under this law, were to be collected as usual.
- Article Six
- All sorts of ground rents were redeemable at a price the Assembly fixed. No dues were to be created in the future that was irredeemable.
- Article Seven
- Selling judicial and municipal offices were abolished. Justice should be dispensed freely. However, all such magistrates were to do their duty until further instructions from the Assembly.
- Article Eight
- As soon as the portion congrue was increased, the fees of all parish priests and curates were abolished.
- Article Nine
- Fiscal privileges in the payment of taxes were abolished forever. Taxes were to be collected from all the citizens, in exactly the same manner, and plans were to be considered to set up a new method of tax collection.
- Article Ten
- All particular privileges given to certain provinces, district, cities, cantons and communes, financial or otherwise, were abolished because under the new rules, every part of France was equal.
- Article Eleven
- All citizens, no matter what class or birth he might be, were eligible for any office in civil and military service.
- Article Twelve
- No allowances were to be made for “…annates or for any other purpose to the court of Rome, the vice legation at Avignon, or to the nunciature at Lucerne.” The clergy should apply to their bishops for financial donations and benefits, which shall be given free to any church of France.
- Article Thirteen
- Various ecclesiastical dues were thereby abolished by the Assembly.
- Article Fourteen
- The revenue limited to the clergies were restricted to the sum of three thousand livres. Any individual could not enjoy the benefits of several pensions at the same time, if the pensions that he already enjoyed was more than three thousand livres.
- Article Fifteen
- The King and the Assembly would together consider all the reports that were to be presented with regards to pensions, favors and salaries, and would have a right to suppress or reduce that which was undeserved.
- Article Sixteen
- A medal was to be struck in the memory of the important deliberations for the welfare of France, and “…a Te Deum shall be chanted in gratitude in all the parishes and the churches of France.”
- Article Seventeen
- King Louis XVI was proclaimed the Restorer of French Liberty.
- Article Eighteen
- The Assembly was to present itself as a body before the king and submit this important set of decrees, and Te Deum was to be sung in the chapel of the king.
- Article Nineteen
- As soon as possible, the Assembly was to give grave consideration to the drawing up of the laws that would be help carry out these decrees.
The Impact of the Decrees
The August Decrees were declared with the idea of calming the populace and encouraging them towards civility. However, the August Decrees revised itself over and over again during the next two years. King Louis XVI, in a letter, on the one hand expressed deep satisfaction with “…the noble and generous demarche of the first two orders of the state…” who, according to him had “…made great sacrifices for the general reconciliation, for their patrie and for their king.” On the other hand, he went on to say that though the “…sacrifices were fine, I cannot admire it; I will never consent to the despoliation of my clergy and my nobility… I will never give my sanction to the decrees that despoil them, for then the French people one day could accuse me of injustice or weakness.” What Louis was concerned with was not with the loss of position of the French nobility and clergy, but with adequate reparation for this loss. Meanwhile, the August Decrees paved the way for the Assembly to make the Declaration of the Rights of Man.
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- Simon Schama. Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution. pp. 441–442.
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