Study Guide

The National Assembly in Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen

By The Marquis de Lafayette

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The National Assembly

Some Assembly Required

Without the National Assembly, there wouldn't have been a Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. This Assembly was the yeast to the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen's bread; the sugar to its cookies; the basil to its pesto.

The disaster that was the meeting of the Estates General in 1789 led directly to France's first legislative body the National Assembly and to the adoption of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen.

The Estates General was woefully ineffective—in part because it hadn't been called in a whopping 175 years and no one could exactly remember how to do it. French kings had avoided Estates Generals because they seemed to resemble parliaments or legislatures and that was not a road that those absolute monarchs wanted to go down. King Louis XVI was forced to call for one because, if he didn't, France was going to be taken out back and beaten up for not paying its debts.

The three Estates held elections in spring of 1789 to each send about three hundred representatives to Versailles. However, the King agreed to allow the Third Estate to double their number of representatives. Anyone who could do simple math had to admit that it didn't really make sense for somewhere around 28 million people to have the same number of representatives as the nobility and the clergy who combined were only about half a million people.

Despite the kings generous allowance to double the representation of the Third Estate he didn't give them any additional votes. It was decided at the beginning of the meeting that each estate had one vote, even the super-sized Third Estate. Ultimately this meant that the clergy and nobility would always outvote the Third Estate two to one.

Frustrated by the game being rigged against them the Third Estate began meeting separately and actually discussing ways to deal with the tax issues and the food shortages facing France. They eventually began calling themselves the National Assembly, where each representative was allowed to vote. Because they were voting by head they allowed members of the First and Second Estate to join them…which is how the Marquis de Lafayette came to introduce the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen.

The Cast

A committee was formed to discuss and revamp the Declaration, which included some of the National Assembly's heavy hitters including Honore de Mirabeau and Emmanuel Joseph Sieyes. Mirabeau was a scandal-plagued count who'd been elected to represent the Third Estate and argued for a constitutional monarchy. Sieyes was an abbot who'd made a career out of standing up for the common man and therefore had also been elected as a Third Estate representative.

Both men were influential at shaping the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen before it was voted on by the full Assembly and both continued to be major players as France attempted to create a new government.

But the National Assembly fractured. Monarchists and conservatives argued for the aristocracy while the liberals wanted more of revolutionary changes. The liberals themselves eventually fractured into increasingly radical groups most notably the Jacobins who frequently used violence to achieve their goals.

The Assembly itself changed names multiple times as they wrote and rewrote constitutions and dissolved into unproductive and bickering sessions. What started out as such a bright moment of representatives coming together to get something done despite obstacles, turned into an ineffective disaster much like the Estates General itself.

But hey: their hearts were originally in the right place. Right?

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