National Constituent Assembly

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For the Brazilian Constituent Assembly, see 1988 Constituent Assembly.
National Constituent Assembly
Assemblée nationale constituante
Kingdom of France
Coat of arms or logo
Established 9 July 1789
Disbanded 30 September 1791
Preceded by National Assembly
Succeeded by Legislative Assembly
Seats Variable; 1315 in total
Meeting place

The National Constituent Assembly (French: Assemblée nationale constituante) was formed from the National Assembly on 9 July 1789, during the first stages of the French Revolution. It dissolved on 30 September 1791 and was succeeded by the Legislative Assembly.[1]



The Estates-General of 1789, made up of representatives of the three estates, which had not been convoked since 1614, convened on 5 May 1789. The Estates-General reached a deadlock in its deliberations by 6 May. The representatives of the Third Estate therefore attempted to make the whole body more effective; they met separately from 11 May as the Communes. On 12 June, the Communes invited the other Estates to join them: some members of the First Estate did so the following day. On 17 June 1789, the Communes approved the motion made by Sieyès that declared themselves the National Assembly[2] by a vote of 490 to 90. The Third Estate now believed themselves to be a legitimate authority equal to that of the King. Elements of the First Estate, primarily the parish priests who were closer in wealth to the Third Estate compared to the bishops who were closer in wealth to the Second Estate, joined the assembly from 13 June onwards and, on 19 June, the whole of the clergy voted to join National Assembly. A legislative and political agenda unfolded.

Tennis Court Oath[edit]

Le serment de Jeu de Paume. Copper plate by Pierre-Gabriel Berthault after a drawing by Jean-Louis Prieur (1789). The representatives swore not to depart until they had given France a new constitution.
Main article: Tennis Court Oath

There were soon attempts by King Louis XVI and the Second Estate to prevent the delegates from meeting, as well as misunderstandings on both sides about one another's intentions. The new assembly, led by its president Jean-Sylvain Bailly, was forced to relocate to a nearby tennis court on 20 June; there, it swore the Tennis Court Oath, promising "not to separate, and to reassemble wherever circumstances require, until the constitution of the kingdom is established and consolidated upon solid foundations".[3] Failing to disperse the delegates, Louis started to recognize their validity on 27 June. The Assembly renamed itself the National Constituent Assembly on 9 July, and began to function as a governing body and a constitution-drafter. However, it is common to refer to the body even after this date as the "National Assembly" or alternatively, "Constituent Assembly."

Structure in the summer of 1789[edit]

Following the storming of the Bastille on 14 July, the National Constituent Assembly became the effective government of France. In the words of historian François Mignet:

The assembly had acquired the entire power; the corporations depended on it; the national guards obeyed it... The royal power, though existing of right, was in a measure suspended, since it was not obeyed, and the assembly had to supply its action by its own.[4]

The number of the Estates-General increased significantly during the election period, but many deputies took their time arriving, some of them reaching Paris as late as 1791. According to Timothy Tackett, there were a total of 1,177 deputies in the Assembly by mid-July 1789. Among them, 278 belonged to the nobility, 295 to the clergy, and 604 were representatives of the Third Estate. For the entire duration of the Assembly, a total of 1,315 deputies were certified, with 330 for the clergy, 322 nobles and 663 deputies of the Third Estate. Tackett noted that the majority of the Second Estate had a military background, while the Third Estate was dominated by men of legal professions.[5]

Some of the leading figures of the Assembly at this time included:

  • "The Left" (also called "National Party") at this time still relatively united in support of revolution and democracy, representing mainly the interests of the middle classes, but strongly sympathetic to the broader range of the common people. In this early period, its most notable leaders included Mirabeau, the Marquis de Lafayette, and Jean-Sylvain Bailly (the first two of aristocratic background). Mignet also points to Adrien Duport, Antoine Pierre Joseph Marie Barnave, and Alexander Lameth as leaders among the "most extreme of this party" in this period, leaders in taking "a more advanced position than that which the revolution had [at this time] attained." Lameth's brother Charles also belonged to this group.

To this list one must add the Abbé Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès, foremost in proposing legislation in this period, and the man who, for a time, managed to bridge the differences between those who wanted a constitutional monarchy and those who wished to move in more democratic (or even republican) directions.


For a detailed description of the proceedings in the National Constituent Assembly and related events, please see the following articles:

For a list of presidents of the National Constituent Assembly, see: List of Presidents of the French National Assembly.

For a partial list of members of the National Constituent Assembly, see: Alphabetical list of members of the National Constituent Assembly of 1789.

Notable Decisions[edit]

In the summer of 1791, the National Constituent Assembly decided that the king needed to be restored to the throne if he accepted the constitution. This decision was made after the king's failed attempt to flee to Varennes. This decision by the Assembly enraged many Parisians into protesting, and one major protest devolved into the Champ de Mars Massacre, where 12 to 50 people were killed by the National Guard.[6]


After surviving the vicissitudes of a revolutionary two years, the National Constituent Assembly dissolved itself on 30 September 1791. The following day the Constitution of 1791 went into effect, granting power to the Legislative Assembly.


  1. ^ Leo Gershoy, The French Revolution and Napoleon (1964) pp 107-71
  2. ^ Gershoy, The French Revolution and Napoleon (1964) pp 100-107
  3. ^ Fred Morrow Fling; Helene Dresser Fling (1913). Source Problems on the French Revolution. Harper & Brothers. p. 26. 
  4. ^
  5. ^ Timothy Tackett, Becoming a revolutionary: the deputies of the French National Assembly and the emergence of a revolutionary culture (1789-1790) (Princeton University Press, 1996)
  6. ^ Woodward, W. E. Lafayette. 

This article incorporates text from the public domain History of the French Revolution from 1789 to 1814, by François Mignet (1824), as made available by Project Gutenberg.

Further reading[edit]

  • Fitzsimmons, Michael P. The remaking of France: the National Assembly and the Constitution of 1791 (Cambridge University Press, 2002)
  • Gershoy, Leo. The French Revolution and Napoleon (1964) pp 107–71
  • Hampson, Norman. Prelude to Terror: The Constituent Assembly and the Failure of Consensus, 1789-1791 (Blackwell, 1988)
  • Tackett, Timothy. "Nobles and Third Estate in the revolutionary dynamic of the National Assembly, 1789-1790." American Historical Review (1989): 271-301. in JSTOR
  • Thompson, Eric. Popular Sovereignty and the French Constituent Assembly, 1789-91 (Manchester University Press, 1952)
  • Whiteman, Jeremy J. "Trade and the Regeneration of France, 1789–91: Liberalism, Protectionism and the Commercial Policy of the National Constituent Assembly." European History Quarterly 31.2 (2001): 171-204.
  • von Guttner, Darius. The French Revolution [1] (2015).

Primary sources[edit]

  • Stewart, John Hall. A documentary survey of the French Revolution (Macmillan, 1951). pp 101–270