Front Page Titles (by Subject) XI: Sieyès and the Constitution Civile - Lectures on the French Revolution (LF ed.)
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XI: Sieyès and the Constitution Civile - John Emerich Edward Dalberg, Lord Acton, Lectures on the French Revolution (LF ed.) 
Lectures on the French Revolution, ed. John Neville Figgis and Reginald Vere Laurence, with a foreword by Steven J. Tonsor (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000).
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Sieyès and the Constitution Civile
Before coming to the conflict between Church and State, with which the legislation of 1790 closes, I must speak of a man memorable far beyond Mirabeau in the history of political thought and political action, who is the most perfect representative of the Revolution. I mean the Abbé Sieyès. As a priest without a vocation, he employed himself with secular studies, and mastered and meditated the French and the English writers of the age, politicians, economists, and philosophers. Learning from many, he became the disciple of none, and was thoroughly independent, looking beyond the horizon of his century, and farther than his own favourites, Rousseau, Adam Smith, and Turgot. He understood politics as the science of the State as it ought to be, and he repudiated the product of history, which is things as they are. No American ever grasped more firmly the principle that experience is an incompetent teacher of the governing art. He turned resolutely from the Past, and refused to be bound by the precepts of men who believed in slavery and sorcery, in torture and persecution. He deemed history a misleading and useless study, and knew little of its examples and its warnings. But he was sure that the Future must be different, and might be better. In the same disdainful spirit he rejected Religion as the accumulated legacy of childhood, and believed that it arrested progress by depreciating terrestrial objects. Nevertheless he had the confidence of Lubersac, Bishop of Tréguier, and afterwards of Chartres, who recommended him to the clergy of Montfort as their deputy.
Sieyès preferred to stand for the Third Estate at Paris where he was elected last of all the candidates. One of his preliminary tracts circulated in 30,000 copies, and had promptly made him famous, for it was as rich in consequences as the ninety-five theses of Wittenberg. His philosophy of history consisted in one idea. Barbarians had come down from Germany on the people of civilised and imperial Gaul, and had subjugated and robbed them, and the descendants of the invading race were now the feudal nobles, who still held power and profit, and continued to oppress the natives. This identification of privileged noble with conquering Frank was of older date; and in this century it has been made the master-key to modern history. When Thierry discovered the secret of our national development in the remarks of Wamba the Witless to Gurth, under the Sherwood oaks, he applied to us a formula familiar to his countrymen; and Guizot always defined French history as a perpetual struggle between hostile nations until the eighteenth century made good the wrong that was done in the fifth.
Right or wrong, the theory of Sieyès was adopted by his most learned successors, and must not be imputed to ignorance. His argument is that the real nation consisted of the mass of men enjoying no privilege, and that they had a claim for compensation and reprisal against those who had been privileged to oppress and to despoil them. The Third Estate was equal to the three Estates together, for the others had no right to be represented. As power exercised otherwise than by consent, power that does not emanate from those for whose use it exists, is a usurpation, the two first orders must be regarded as wrongdoers. They ought to be repressed, and the means of doing harm taken from them.
Although Sieyès neither wrote well nor spoke well, yet within a fortnight of his maiden speech he had vanquished the ancient order of things in France. The Court, the Church and the Noblesse had gone down before the imposing coherence of his ideas. He soon lost confidence in the Assembly, as it fell under the control of intruding forces, and he drew back into an attitude of reserve and distrust. Many of his measures were adopted, but he deemed that they were spoilt in the process, and that men who sought popular applause were averse from instruction.
Sieyès was essentially a revolutionist, because he held that political oppression can never be right, and that resistance to oppression can never be wrong. And he was a royalist, not as believing in the proprietary right of dynasties, but because monarchy, justly limited and controlled, is one of many forces that secure the liberty which is given by society and not by nature. He was a Liberal, for he thought liberty the end of government, and defined it as that which makes men most completely masters of their faculties, in the largest sphere of independent action. He was also a democrat, for he would revise the constitution once in a generation; and he described the law as the settled will of those who are governed, which those who govern have no share in making. But he was less a democrat than a Liberal, and he contrived scientific provision against the errors of the sovereign nation. He sacrificed equality by refusing the vote to those who paid no taxes, and he preferred an elaborate system of indirect and filtered election. He broke the direct tide of opinion by successive renewals, avoiding dissolution. According to his doctrine, the genuine national will proceeds from debate, not from election, and is ascertained by a refined intellectual operation, not by coarse and obvious arithmetic. The object is to learn not what the country thinks, but what it would think if it was present at the discussion carried on by men whom it trusted. Therefore there is no imperative mandate, and the deputy governs the constituent. He mitigated democracy by another remarkable device. The Americans have made the guardians of the law into watchers on the lawgiver, giving to the judiciary power to preserve the Constitution against the legislature. Sieyès invented a special body of men for the purpose, calling them the constitutional jury, and including not judges, for he suspected those who had administered the ancient law of France, but the élite of veteran politicians.
Thus, although all power emanates from the nation alone, and very little can be delegated to an hereditary and irresponsible monarch, he intended to restrict its exercise at every point, and to make sure that it would never be hasty, or violent, and that minorities should be heard. In his sustained power of consistent thinking, Sieyès resembles Bentham and Hegel. His flight is low, and he lacks grace and distinction. He seems to have borrowed his departments from Harrington, the distilled unity of power from Turgot, the rule of the mass of taxpayers over the unproductive class above them, from the notion that labour is the only source of wealth, which was common to Franklin and Adam Smith. But he is profoundly original, and though many modern writers on politics exceed him in genius and eloquence and knowledge, none equal him in invention and resource. When he was out of public life, during the Legislative Assembly, he acted as adviser to the Girondins. Therefore he became odious to Robespierre who, after the fall of Danton, turned against him, and required Barère to see what he could be charged with. For, he said, Sieyès has more to answer for as an enemy to freedom than any who have fallen beneath the law.
The Abbé ’s nerves never quite recovered from the impressions of that time. When he fell ill, forty years later, and became feverish, he sent down to tell the porter that he was not at home, if Robespierre should call. He offered some ideas for the Constitution of 1795, which found no support. He patiently waited till his time came, and refused a seat on the Directory. In 1799, when things were at the worst, he came back from the embassy at Berlin, took the command, and rendered eminent service. He had no desire for power. “What I want,” he said, “is a sword.” For a moment he had thought of the Duke of Brunswick and the Archduke Charles; at last he fixed on Joubert, and sent him to fight Suworow in Italy. If he had come home crowned with victory, the remnant of the National Assembly was to have been convoked, to place the daughter of Lewis on her father’s throne.
At Novi, in the first action, Joubert fell, and Moreau commanded the retreat. Sieyès now applied to him. Moreau was not yet the victor of Hohenlinden. His ascendancy was doubtful, and he hesitated. They were conferring together when news came that Bonaparte had escaped from Egypt, and would soon be at Paris. Sieyès exclaimed, rather impudently, “Then France is saved!” Moreau retorted, “I am not wanted. That is the man for you.” At first Bonaparte was reserved, and took so much time to feel his way that Sieyès, who was the head of the government, called him an insolent fellow who deserved to be shot. Talleyrand brought them together, and they soon came to an understanding. The conspiracy of Brumaire would have failed at the deciding moment but for the Abbé. For Bonaparte, when threatened with outlawry, lost his head, and Sieyès quietly told him to drive out the hostile deputies. Thereupon the soldier, obeying the man of peace, drew his sword and expelled them.
Everybody now turned to the great legislator of 1789 for the Constitution of the hour. With incomparable opportunities for observation, he had maturely revolved schemes for the government of France on the lines of that which was rejected in 1795. He refused to write anything; but he consented to dictate, and his words were taken down by Boulay de la Meurthe, and were published long after, in a volume of which there is no copy at Paris or in London.
What I have just said will give you a more favourable view of Sieyès than you may find in books. The Abbé was not a high-minded man, and he has no friends in his own country. Some dislike him because he was a priest, some because he was an unfrocked priest. He is odious to royalists as a revolutionist, and to republicans as a renegade. I have spoken of him as a political thinker, not as a writer, an orator, or an administrator. Mr. Wentworth Dilke and Mr. Buckle1 have pointed out something more than specks in the character of Burke. Even if much of what they say is true, I should not hesitate to acknowledge him as the first political intellect of his age. Since I first spoke of Sieyès, certain papers have come to light tending to show that he was as wicked as the rest of them. They would not affect my judgment on his merit as a thinker.
In this oracular manner the Constitution of 1799 came into existence, and it was not his fault that it degenerated in the strong hands of Napoleon. He named the three Consuls, refusing to be one himself, and he passed into ceremonious obscurity as president of the Senate.
When the Emperor had quarrelled with his ablest advisers he regretted that he had renounced the aid of such an auxiliary. He thought him unfit to govern, for that requires sword and spurs; but he admitted that Sieyès often had new and luminous ideas, and might have been useful to him beyond all the ministers of the Empire. Talleyrand, who disliked Sieyès, and ungenerously reproached him with cupidity, spoke of him to Lord Brougham as the one statesman of the time. The best of the political legacy of the Revolution has been his work. Others pulled down, but he was a builder, and he closed in 1799 the era which he had opened ten years before. In the history of political doctrine, where almost every chapter has yet to be written, none will be more valuable than the one that will show what is permanent and progressive in the ideas that he originated.
It was the function of the constituent Assembly to recast the laws in conformity with the Rights of Man, to abolish every survival of absolutism, every heirloom of inorganic tradition, that was inconsistent with them. In every department of State they were obliged to make ruins, to remove them, and to raise a new structure from the foundation. The transition from the reign of force to the reign of opinion, from custom to principle, led to a new order through confusion, uncertainty, and suspense. The efficacy of the coming system was nowhere felt at first. The soldiers, who were so soon to form the finest army ever known, ran away as soon as they saw a shot fired. The prosperous finances of modern France began with bankruptcy. But in one division of public life the Revolution not only made a bad beginning, but went on, step by step, to a bad end, until, by civil war and anarchy and tyranny, it had ruined its cause. The majority of the clergy were true to the new ideas, and on some decisive occasions, June 19 and August 4, promoted their victory. Many prelates were enlightened reformers, and even Robespierre believed that the inferior clergy were, in the bulk, democratic. Nevertheless the Assembly, by a series of hostile measures, carefully studied, and long pursued, turned them into implacable enemies, and thereby made the Revolution odious to a large part of the French people.
This gradual but determined change of front, improbable at first, and evidently impolitic, is the true cause of the disastrous conflict in which the movement of 1789 came to ruin. Had there been no ecclesiastical establishment to deal with, it may be that the development of Jacobin theory, or the logic of socialism, would have led to the same result. As it was, they were secondary causes of the catastrophe that was to follow. That there was a fund of active animosity for the church, in a generation tutored by Voltaire, Diderot, Helvétius, Holbach, Rousseau and Raynal, none could doubt. But in the men of more immediate influence, such as Turgot, Mirabeau and Sieyès, contempt was more visible than resentment; and it was by slow degrees that the full force of aversion predominated over liberal feeling and tolerant profession. But if the liberal tendency had been stronger, and tolerant convictions more distinct, there were many reasons which made a collision inevitable between the Church and the prevailing ideas. The Gallican Church had been closely associated with the entire order of things which the Assembly, at all costs, was resolved to destroy. For three centuries from the time when they became absolute the French kings had enjoyed all the higher patronage. No such prerogative could be left to the Crown when it became constitutional, and it was apparent that new methods for the appointment of priest and prelate, that a penetrating change in the system of ecclesiastical law, would be devised.
Two things, chiefly, made the memory of monarchy odious: dynastic war and religious persecution. But the wars had ended in the conquest of Alsace, and in the establishment of French kings in Spain and Naples. The odium of persecution remained; and if it was not always assignable to the influence of the clergy, it was largely due to them, and they had attempted to renew it down to the eve of the Revolution. The reduction of the royal power was sure to modify seriously the position of men upon whom the royal power, in its excess, had so much relied, and who had done so much to raise up and to sustain it. People had come to believe that the cause of liberty demanded, not the emancipation, but the repression of the priesthood. These were underlying motives; but the signal was given by financial interests. The clergy, being a privileged order, like the nobles, were involved in the same fate. With the nobles, at the same night sitting of August 4, they surrendered the right of taxing, and of not being taxed.
When the principle of exemption was rejected, the economists computed that the clergy owed 100 millions of arrears. Their tithes were abolished, with a promise of redemption. But this the landowners would not suffer, and they gained largely by the transaction. It followed that the clergy, instead of a powerful and wealthy order, had to become salaried functionaries. Their income was made a charge on the State; and as the surplice fees went with the abolished tithe, the services of the parish priest to his parishioners were gratuitous. It was not intended that the priests should be losers, and the bargain was a bad one for the public. It involved an expenditure of at least two millions a year, at a time when means were wanting to pay the national creditor. The consequences were obvious. The State, having undertaken to remunerate the inferior clergy out of a falling revenue, had a powerful motive to appropriate what remained of the Church property when the tithes were lost. That resource was abundant for the purpose. But it was concentrated in the hands of the higher clergy and of religious orders—both under the ban of opinion, as nobles or as corporations. Their wealth would clear off the debts of the clergy, would pay all their salaries and annuities, and would strengthen the public credit. After the first spoliation, in the month of August, these consequences became clear to all, and the secularisation of Church property was a foregone conclusion.
On October 10 Talleyrand moved that it be appropriated by the State. He computed that after ample endowment of the clergy, there would be a present and increasing surplus of £2,000,000 a year. It was difficult for the clergy to resist the motion, after the agreement of August, that the State should make provision for them. The Archbishop of Paris had surrendered the tithe to be disposed of by the nation; and he afterwards added the gold and silver vessels and ornaments, to the value of several millions. Béthizy, Bishop of Usez, had declared the Church property a gift of the nation, which the nation alone could recall. Maury, loosely arguing, admitted that property is the product of law; from which it followed that it was subject to modification by law. It was urged in reply that corporate property is created by law, but not private, as the individual has his rights from nature. The clergy complained that the concessions of August were applied to their destruction in November, but they suffered by their change of front. Boisgelin, Archbishop of Aix, proposed a practical and statesmanlike arrangement. As the credit of the Church stood better than the credit of the State, he offered to advance £16,000,000 as a loan to the Government on the security of Church property, which it would thus become impossible for the Assembly to tamper with. The State would be rescued from its present difficulties; the Church would secure the enjoyment of its wealth for the future.
By restoring the finances, and the authority of government, it was believed that this plan would ensure the success of the Revolution, and would prevent the collapse that was already threatening. Necker, for a moment, was fascinated. But his wife reminded him that this compact would establish Catholicism for ever as the State Church in France, and he broke off the conference. Talleyrand’s motion was altered and reproduced in a mitigated form; and on November 26, 1789, 568 votes to 346 decided that the possessions of the clergy were at the disposal of the nation. On December 19 it was resolved that the sum of 16 millions should be raised by the sale of the new national property, to be the basis for an issue of paper money. That was the beginning of the assignats that rendered signal service at first, and fell rapidly after two years. It was made apparent that more was at work below the surface than the financial purpose. There was the desire to break up a powerful organisation, to disarm the aristocratic episcopate, and to bind the individual priest to the Revolution. Therefore Malouet made no impression when he urged that they were taking on themselves the maintenance not only of the priesthood, but of the poor; and that no surplus would be available as long as there was a Frenchman starving.
In August, 1789, a committee on Church questions had been appointed, and in February, as it did not agree, its numbers were increased, and the minority was swamped. Thereupon they reported against the religious orders. Monasticism for some time had been declining, and the monks fell, in a few years, from 26,000 to 17,000. Nine religious orders disappeared in the course of twelve years. On February 13, 1790, the principle that the civil law supported the rule against the monk was abandoned. Members of monastic orders were to depart freely if they liked, and to remain if they liked. Those who elected to leave were to receive a pension. The position of those who remained was regulated in a series of decrees, adverse to the system, but favourable to the inmate. It was not until after the fall of the throne that all monastic orders were dissolved, and all their buildings were seized.
When the property of the Church became the property of the State, the committee drew up a scheme of distribution. They called it the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, meaning the regulation of relations between Church and State under the new Constitution.
The debate began on May 29, and the final vote was taken on July 12. The first object was to save money. The bishops were rich, they were numerous, and they were not popular. Those among them who had been chosen by the Church itself for its supreme reward, the Cardinal’s hat—Rohan, Loménie de Brienne, Bernis, Montmorency and Talleyrand—were men notoriously of evil repute. Here then the Committee proposed to economise, reducing the number by fifty, and their income to a thousand a year. Each of the departments, just created, was to become a diocese. There were no archbishops. This was not economy, but theory. By putting all bishops on the same level, they lowered the papacy. For the Jansenists influenced the Assembly, and the Jansenists had, for a century, borne persecution, and had learnt to look with aversion both on papacy and prelacy, under which they had suffered, and they had grown less averse to presbyterianism. As they took away the patronage from the king, and did not transfer it to the Pope who was a more absolute sovereign than the king, and besides was a foreigner, they met the difficulty by the principle of election, which had been upheld by high authorities, and had played a great part in earlier times. The bishop was to be chosen by the departmental electors, the parish priest by the district electors; and this was to be done in the Church after Mass. It was assumed, but not ordained, that electors of other denominations would thereby be excluded. But at Strasburg a bishop was elected by a Protestant majority. In conformity with the opinion of Bossuet, the right of institution was taken away from Rome.
It was the office of the king to negotiate with the Pope; and he might have saved the Revolution, the limited monarchy, and his own life, if he had negotiated wisely. The new dioceses, the new revenues, were afterwards accepted. The denial of papal institution was in the spirit of Gallicanism; and the principle of election had a great tradition in its favour, and needed safeguards. Several bishops favoured conciliation, and wished the measure to be discussed in a National Council. Others exhorted the Pope to make no concession. Lewis barely requested him to yield something; and when it became clear that Rome wished to gain time, on August 24 he gave his sanction. At the same time he resolved on flight, relying on provincial discontent and clerical agitation to restore his throne.
On November 27 the Assembly determined to enforce acceptance of the Civil Constitution. Every ecclesiastic holding preferment or exercising public functions was required to take an oath of fidelity to the Constitution of France, sanctioned by the king. The terms implicitly included the measure regarding the Church, which was now part of the Constitution, and which a large majority of the bishops had rejected, but Rome had not. Letters had come from Rome which were suppressed; and after the decree of November and its sanction by the king on December 26, the Pope remained officially silent.
On the 4th of January 1791 the ecclesiastical deputies were summoned to take the prescribed oath. No conditions or limitations were allowed, Mirabeau specially urging rigour, in the hope of reaction. When the Assembly refused to make a formal declaration that it meant no interference with the exclusive domain of religion, the great majority of clerical deputies declined the oath. About sixty took it unconditionally, and the proportion out of doors was nearly the same. In forty-five departments we know that there were 13,426 conforming clergy. It would follow that there were about 23,000 in the whole of France, or about one-third of the whole, and not enough for the service of all the churches. The question now was whether the Church of France was to be an episcopal or a presbyterian Church. Four bishops took the prescribed oath; but only one of them continued to act as the bishop of one of the new sees. Talleyrand refused his election at Paris, and laid down his mitre and the ecclesiastical habit. Before retiring, he consecrated two constitutional bishops, and instituted Gobel at Paris. He said, afterwards, that but for him the French constitutional Church would have become presbyterian, and consequently democratic, and hostile to the monarchy.
Nobody could be more violently opposed to royalism than some of the elected prelates, such as Fauchet, Bishop of Calvados, who acted with the Girondins and perished with them, or Grégoire, the Bishop of Blois. Grégoire was the most conspicuous, and is still the best known of the constitutional clergy. He was a man of serious convictions, and as much sincerity as is compatible with violence. With much general information, he was an inaccurate writer, and in spite of the courage which he manifested throughout the Reign of Terror, an unimpressive speaker. He held fast to the doctrines of an elementary liberalism, and after the fall of the Terrorists he was active in the restoration of religion and the establishment of toleration. He was absent on a mission, and did not vote for the death of the king; but he expressed his approval, and dishonoured his later years by dissembling and denying it. Gobel, the Bishop of Paris, was far inferior to Grégoire. Hoping to save his life, he renounced his office under the Convention, after having offered his retractation to the Pope for £12,000. For a time it was believed that the clergy of the two churches could co-exist amicably, and a moderate pension was granted to the nonjurors. But there was disorder and bloodshed at Nîmes, and in other parts of France, and it was seen that the Assembly, by its ecclesiastical legislation, had created the motive and the machinery for civil war. The nonjuring clergy came to be regarded as traitors and rebels, and the mob would not suffer them to celebrate mass in the only church that remained to them at Paris. Bailly said that when the law has spoken conscience must be silent. But Talleyrand and Sieyès insisted on the principle of toleration, and succeeded in causing the formula to be adopted by the Assembly. It was not observed, and was entirely disregarded by the second legislature.
The Civil Constitution injured the Revolution not only by creating a strong current of hostile feeling in the country, but by driving the king to seek protection from Europe against his people. The scheme of negotiation which led to the general war in 1792, having been delayed by disunion among the powers and the extreme caution of the Emperor Leopold, began in the midst of the religious crisis in the autumn of 1790. The problem for us is to discover why the National Assembly, and the committee that guided it, did not recognise that its laws were making a breach in the established system of the Church, whether Gallican or Roman, that they were in flagrant contradiction with the first principles of the Revolution; and why, in that immense explosion of liberal sentiment, there was no room for religious freedom. They believed that there was nothing in the scheme to which the Pope would not be able to consent, to avoid greater evils, if the diplomacy of the king was conducted wisely. What was conceded by Pius VII. to Bonaparte might have been conceded by Pius VI. to Lewis XVI. The judgment of Italian divines was in many instances favourable to the decree of the National Assembly, and the College of Cardinals was not unanimous against it. Their opinions found their way to Paris, and were bought up by Roman agents. When the Concordat of 1801 was concluded, Consalvi rejoiced that he had done so well, for he was empowered, if necessary, to make still greater concessions. The revolutionary canonists were persuaded that the Pope, if he rejected the king’s overtures, would be acting as the instrument of the aristocratic party, and would be governed by calculated advantage, not by conscience. Chénier’s tragedy of Charles IX. was being played, and revived the worst scenes of fanatical intolerance. The hatred it roused was not allayed by the language of Pius VI. in the spring of 1791, when, too late to influence events, he condemned the Civil Constitution. For he condemned liberty and toleration; and the revolutionists were able to say that there could be no peace between them, and that Rome was the irreconcilable adversary of the first principles on which they stood. The annexation of the papal dominions in France was proposed, in May 1791, when the rejection of the Civil Constitution became known. It was thrown out at first, and adopted September 14. We shall see, later on, that the conflict thus instituted between the Revolution and the Church hastened the fall of the throne, and persecution, and civil war.
I have repeatedly pointed to the jealousy of the executive as a source of fatal mischief. This is the greatest instance of the harm it did. That the patronage could not be left in the hands of the king absolutely, as it was by the Concordat of Leo X., was obvious; but if it had been given to the king acting through responsible ministers, then much of the difficulty and the danger would have been overcome, and the arrangement that grew out of the Concordat of Napoleon would have been anticipated. That idea was consistently rejected, and, stranger still, the idea of disestablishment and separation was almost unperceived. A whole generation later, under the influence of American and Irish examples, a school of Liberals arose among French Catholics who were as distinct from the Gallicans as from the Ultramontanes, and possessed the solution for the perpetual rivalry of Church and State. For us, the great fact is that the Revolution produced nothing of the sort, and went to ruin by its failure in dealing with the problem.
[1.]Dilke, Papers of a Critic, vol. ii, pp. 309–384; Buckle, History of Civilisation, ed. J. M. Robertson, pp. 258–269.