The National Assembly discusses political clubs (1791)




In the wake of the Champ de Mars Massacre, many moderates were questioning the role and activities of radical political clubs like the Jacobins. In the National Assembly, Isaac Le Chapelier championed a decree to reduce the growing power of these clubs. In this extract he engages with Robespierre, arguing that the French Revolution is ‘over’ and the usefulness of political clubs was at an end:



[Le Chapelier]

“We are going to speak to you about these organisations formed from an enthusiasm for liberty, and to which they owe their prompt establishment. We speak of those organisations which, during stormy periods, had the fortunate result of rallying public morale, providing centres for similar views, and showing the opposing minority the enormous size of the majority that wanted to exterminate the abuses, reverse the prejudices, and establish a free constitution.

But like all spontaneous institutions created from the purest of motives, due to considerable changes in circumstances and various other causes, they soon deviate from their goal and end up taking on a kind of political role that they should not. As long as the revolution lasted, this state of affairs was almost always more useful than harmful…

But when the Revolution is over and the Constitution of the State has been decided, when all public powers have been delegated and all the authorities called up, then everything must be restored to the most perfect order to ensure the security of that constitution. Then, nothing must hinder the actions of the constituted authorities, and deliberation and the power to act must be located where the constitution has placed them and nowhere else. Everyone must also recognise his own rights and responsibilities as a citizen, never exceeding the former nor violating the latter.

The Societies of Friends of the Constitution [Jacobins] have done too many favours for the State, and they are driven by excessive patriotism, so normally it is necessary to do no more than just warn their members of the dangers that these organisations pose to the State. They are dragged into illegal actions by men who cultivate them only to stir them up…

There is no power except that constituted by the will of the people and expressed through their representatives. There are no authorities except those delegated by the People, and there can be no actions except those of its representatives who have been entrusted with public duties. It is to preserve this principle, in all its purity, that the constitution has abolished all corporations, from one end of the state to another, and henceforth recognizes only society as a whole, and individuals.

A necessary consequence of this principle is the prohibition of any petition or poster issued in the name of a group. Organisations, peaceful assemblies of citizens and clubs – all go unnoticed in the State. Should they abandon the private status granted them by the constitution, they rise up against the constitution, thereby destroying it instead of defending it. From that point on, the invaluable rallying cry “Friends of the Constitution” seems nothing more than a cry of agitation designed to upset the legitimate exercise of authority…

The organisations that were formed to hear about and support its principles are only gatherings, friendship clubs which play no more role than any citizen, that is, to protect the constitution. They can learn, discuss and teach one another, but their conferences and their internal proceedings must never go beyond the confines of their meeting halls. No public characteristic or collective action should bring attention to them…”

[Robespierre]

“The revolution is finished. I would certainly like to join you in assuming this to be true, although I am not entirely clear of the meaning you attach to this proposition… But assuming this to be the case, is it less necessary now to propagate the knowledge, the constitutional principles, and the public spirit without which the constitution cannot exist? Is it less useful now to form assemblies in which citizens can concern themselves with these matters which are the most important interests of their country, in the most effective manner? Is there a more legitimate or more worthy concern for a free people?

To be able to truly say that the revolution is finished, it requires that the Constitution be firmly consolidated, for its destruction or weakening would necessarily prolong the Revolution, which is nothing more than the nation’s efforts to preserve or attain liberty. How then can it be proposed that the most powerful means of consolidating the constitution, that which the committee’s spokesman has himself acknowledged to have been generally recognized as necessary until now, be rendered invalid and without influence?

For my part, I see on the one hand that the fledgeling constitution still has enemies from within and without… I see plots and duplicity sounding the alarm at the same time as they sow unrest and discord, and leaders of opposing factions fighting less for the cause of the Revolution than for access to power in order to rule in the monarch’s name… When I see these things, I do not believe that the Revolution is finished…”

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