Le Chapelier Law

Note: this page is currently undergoing rewriting and expansion. It will be updated in June 2015.

le chapelier
Isaac Le Chapelier, the sponsor of the unpopular labour reform law

By mid-1791 there was growing impatience with the National Constituent Assembly which, despite its attempts to reform the political system and the church, had done little to improve the nation’s dire economic state. The value of paper money had been tumbling constantly through the first half of the year, creating even more hardship for workers, who responded with strikes and protests. Some municipal governments responded by placing limitations on guilds (workers’ associations that regulated and controlled certain industries) in the hope of preventing worker unrest. On June 14th 1791 the National Assembly followed suit and implemented the Le Chapelier Law, which would apply to the entire nation, banning guilds and declaring strikes unlawful. The law was initiated by Isaac Rene Guy le Chapelier, a radical who believed that demands for wage rises were not in the spirit of the revolution. The first three articles of his bill read:

Article 1. In that the abolition of any kind of citizen’s guild in the same trade or of the same profession is one of the fundamental bases of the French Constitution, it is forbidden to re-establish them under any pretext or in any form whatsoever.
Article 2. Citizens of the same trade or profession, entrepreneurs, those who have set up shop, workers and journeymen of any skill may not, when assembled, appoint a president, secretaries, or trustees, keep accounts, pass decrees or resolutions, or draft regulations concerning their alleged common interests.
Article 3. All administrative or municipal bodies are forbidden to receive any address or petition in the name of an occupation or profession, or to make any response thereto. Additionally, they are enjoined to declare null and void whatever resolutions have been made in such manner, and to make certain that no effect or execution be given thereto.

“Had the Le Chapelier Law been seen as a way of protecting the rich against the poor, or the propertied against the property-less, it would have met with strenuous opposition by one of the Assembly’s defenders of the poor. [But] the law was passed without opposition because it seemed evidence to the entire National Assembly that the reconstitution of corporations in any form was a fundamental threat to the nation and its free constitution… The law made it clear that… no intermediary body could stand between the individual – now armed with his natural rights – and the nation – now the guarantor of natural rights.”
William H. Sewell, historian

These measures made the National Assembly increasingly unpopular among urban workers. There were calls for its dissolution from various sans culotte groups, as well as constant petitions for a republic. The political clubs around Paris buzzed with radical ideas and suggestions. Within the walls of the Assembly, however, the delegates remained moderate and dedicated to the idea of a constitutional monarchy. The Constitution of 1791, which was taken up much of the Assembly’s time and efforts, was almost complete; dismissing the king now would make this constitution worthless. At the same time as the Le Chapelier legislation, the Assembly also announced the closure of several charity workshops, which had provided poor relief over the previous winter. The 30,000 people previously employed in these charities were given the option of leaving Paris or joining the army.

© Alpha History 2015. Content on this page may not be republished or distributed without permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use.
This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn and S. Thompson, “The Le Chapelier law”, Alpha History, accessed [today’s date], http://alphahistory.com/frenchrevolution/le-chapelier-law/.