The Constitution of 1791
Background and Context
The Constitution of 1791 transformed France from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy. The Constitution was one of the first undertakings of the National Constituent Assembly (June 1789-30 September, 1791). The foundations of the Constitution were based on the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, passed by the National Constituent Assembly on the 26th of August, 1789. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen was based on Enlightenment thought, with direct influence from Rousseau’s Social Contract (1762), as well as the works of Voltaire, Locke and Montesquieu. The Declaration also became the preamble for the Constitution of 1791. The Constitution embodied the ideals and principles of the revolution, in particular political equality and liberty.

Nature of the event
Much of the Constitution (such as the idea of an elected assembly and the king’s suspensive veto) had been established in 1789, but it wasn’t officially passed until it was accepted by the King on 14 September 1791. Under the new Constitution the Legislative Assembly (1 October 1791 – 20 September 1792) was formed. No one who was previously a member of the National Constituent Assembly could be elected to the Legislative Assembly. The Girondins dominated the Assembly at this time, with significant leaders including Brissot, Gensonné, Vergniaud, Guadet and Isnard. The idea of a legislature made up of two chambers was rejected; it was believed that only one chamber should be formed as a representation of a united nation. This meant that decision making was left almost solely to the one body.
Despite the radical concepts of the Constitution, it was still moderate in many ways. Citizenship was divided into two categories, active and passive citizens. Active citizens were the only persons eligible to vote; this excluded women, those who had not resided in their home for a year, those involved in domestic service and those who could not afford to pay the equivalent of three days taxes in labour (that is about 22-23 million, of the 28 million population, were ineligible to vote).

Significance to the Revolution
The Constitution of 1791 replaced the absolute monarchy which previously existed in France, with a constitutional monarchy. The King’s power was well-defined under the Constitution (as to disallow any abuse of power on the King’s behalf), his power was limited and Louis XVI now became ‘the King of the French’. The King was given the right of suspensive veto over legislation (that applied to financial or constitutional matters). This power of veto allowed the king to suspend legislation for up to five years (Mirabeau’s suggestion of a permanent veto was dismissed). The King was given the power to assign his own ministers as well as military commanders. Consent from the Assembly was needed before the king could declare war. Under this new system, the king was the head of the government but the Assembly was responsible for the making of laws. Under no circumstances could the king dissolve the Assembly.

Response of Revolutionary government and society
The Legislative Assembly was dissolved on the 20th of September, 1792, and replaced by the republican National Convention. The Constitution of 1791 became ineffective in 1792 with the overthrow of the monarchy on 10 August 1792. The Constitution was based on a constitutional monarchy; however France was now a republic. The major dilemma facing the Convention now was the fate of the king. Under the Constitution of 1791 the king had been protected from any punishment worse than dethronement, and no court legally had any authority over him. However, the Convention passed Louis’ (now referred to as Louis Capet) death sentence, a reprieve was also rejected, and the king was guillotined on the 21st of January 1793. The Constitution of 1791 lasted only 11 months before it was no longer relevant as the guiding doctrine of France. It was replaced by the Constitution of 1793, a constitution defining France as a republic.

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