Cover image for The Night the Old Regime Ended: August 4, 1789 and the French Revolution By Michael P. Fitzsimmons

The Night the Old Regime Ended

August 4, 1789 and the French Revolution

Michael P. Fitzsimmons


$40.95 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-02899-6

256 pages
6" × 9"

The Night the Old Regime Ended

August 4, 1789 and the French Revolution

Michael P. Fitzsimmons

“Historians have tended to dismiss or underplay the importance of the night of August 4 and to be somewhat cynical about the motives of those involved. In this well-researched study, Fitzsimmons shows that the events of this night had momentous consequences across a wide area of revolutionary policy and played a key role in forging French national identity.”


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If the Fall of the Bastille on July 14, 1789, marks the symbolic beginning of the French Revolution, then August 4 is the day the Old Regime ended, for it was on that day (or, more precisely, that night) that the National Assembly met and undertook sweeping reforms that ultimately led to a complete reconstruction of the French polity. What began as a prearranged meeting with limited objectives suddenly took on a frenzied atmosphere during which dozens of noble deputies renounced their traditional privileges and dues. By the end of the night, the Assembly had instituted more meaningful reform than had the monarchy in decades of futile efforts. In The Night the Old Regime Ended, Michael Fitzsimmons offers the first full-length study in English of the night of August 4 and its importance to the French Revolution.

Fitzsimmons argues against François Furet and others who maintain that the Terror was implicit in the events of 1789. To the contrary, Fitzsimmons shows that the period from 1789 to 1791 was a genuine moderate phase of the Revolution. Unlike all of its successor bodies, the National Assembly passed no punitive legislation against recalcitrant clergy or émigrés, and it amnestied all those imprisoned for political offenses before it disbanded. In the final analysis, the remarkable degree of change accomplished peacefully is what distinguishes the early period of the Revolution and gives it world-historical importance.

“Historians have tended to dismiss or underplay the importance of the night of August 4 and to be somewhat cynical about the motives of those involved. In this well-researched study, Fitzsimmons shows that the events of this night had momentous consequences across a wide area of revolutionary policy and played a key role in forging French national identity.”
“Carefully examining the delicate privilege question, Fitzsimmons convincingly demonstrates that clergy and noble representatives were divided over this issue. . . . This volume is a valuable addition to the historiography of the French Revolution.”
“There is no dispute that Fitzsimmons’s book is both interesting and essential not only for study of the early part of the French Revolution, but also for an accurate understanding of modernity, as the author provides in his book a useful and workable model of that often overused term. Thus, it has a timely double appeal and utility and, therefore, it has a place in any academic library and many private ones as well. In both important areas, Fitzsimmons has made timely and valuable contributions.”
“Fitzsimmons’s command of the Old Regime is also impressive. This book will quickly have an impact on our general understanding of the Revolution.”
The Night the Old Regime Ended is an important and worthwhile book that will prove useful to both experts and advanced students of the French Revolution.”
“[A] superbly documented and clearly written book. . . . The Night the Old Regime Ended [will be] indispensable book for any student of the early part of the Revolution.”
“Fitzsimmons is keen to stress the spread of commonality amongst the deputies.”
“This is a challenging and interesting analysis, which will be invaluable for students at undergraduate and graduate levels and, hopefully, stimulate further work on the legislative achievement of the National Assembly.”

Michael P. Fitzsimmons is Professor of History at Auburn University Montgomery. He is the author of The Parisian Order of Barristers and the French Revolution (1987) and The Remaking of France: The National Assembly and the Constitution of 1791 (1994).



1. The National Assembly and the Night of August 4

2. The Impact on the Church

3. The Abolition of Nobility

4. The Ramifications in the Countryside

5. The Reverberation in the Cities






Of the major turning points of the French Revolution universally recognized by day and month alone, few have a more indeterminate legacy than the night of August 4. Although the question of their relative significance might occasionally be debated, July 14, August 10, 9 Thermidor and others have a relatively unambiguous standing. The meeting of the National Assembly of the night of August 4, however, has a far more equivocal heritage.

The unsettled legacy of the night of August 4 stems in large measure from the ambiguity of both the origin and the outcome of the meeting of that evening. The calculated nature of the event, with deputies planning to renounce certain rights in return for cash compensation in an effort to appease the countryside, has opened to question the sincerity of the participants. The original plan went awry and the initial relinquishments became the catalyst for a wholly unanticipated and emotional surrender of privileges of every sort. Members of all three orders spent hours renouncing an extraordinary array of exemptions, prerogatives and privileges, and the relinquishments were so extensive that deputies could not recall all of them. Indeed, whereas the minutes of previous meetings had been prepared within a day or two of each session and were generally eight to twelve pages in length, those for the meeting of August 4 took two weeks to appear and comprised more than forty pages. The ultimate outcome of these renunciations would take two years to be realized and, in the case of a relatively large proportion of the clergy and nobility, was not what they had expected when they had agreed to the abolition of privilege. Nevertheless, the meeting of the night of August 4 provided a program and guiding principles for discussion and debate, whereas heretofore an agenda had been lacking.

Just as the origins of the meeting were ambiguous, so, too, was its outcome. To deputies of the National Assembly, particularly those who had been in attendance, the meeting of the night of August 4 and the principles that it instilled were beyond reproach. To many of those who were affected by the measures enacted by the National Assembly in the aftermath of August 4, however, the session was not above recrimination. Most elements in French society were prepared to participate in the spirit of sacrifice that the meeting represented, but the ultimate outcome produced sharp disillusionment, particularly among the First and Second Estates.

In the case of the First Estate, the Church believed that it was joining in the spirit of sacrifice by relinquishing the tithe. But the renunciation of the tithe mandated a new method of financing the Church, which ultimately led to the nationalization of Church lands. The need to convert clergymen to salaried public officials who, like all other public officials, would be elected produced the Civil Constitution of the Clergy. The fact that this document was drafted without consulting the Church, however, provoked substantial opposition, and the subsequent requirement by the Assembly of an oath of loyalty to the Civil Constitution led to a bitter schism in French society.

With respect to the nobility, the sense of fraternity that emerged from the relinquishments made during the night of August 4 led to the dissolution of orders in French society, a measure formally enacted in October, 1789. The nobility acquiesced to the dismantling of orders in the political sphere, but the abolition of nobility in June, 1790, after the nobility had accepted political and fiscal equality, struck many of its members as gratuitous and excessive.

The meeting also deeply affected the Third Estate, both the peasantry and urban inhabitants. It had, after all, been an attempt to address rural unrest that produced the initial renunciations. Relinquishments made during the meeting utterly transformed the situation of the peasantry and began their politicization. Although somewhat less apparent, the meeting also had a major impact on urban inhabitants of France. The renunciation of venality of office led to a new structure of municipal government, and guilds, a fixture of urban life since the medieval era, were abolished.

The National Assembly sought to codify the results of the meeting of the night of August 4 in the Constitution of 1791. Indeed, the preamble to the Constitution of 1791 recapitulates, in essence, the renunciations made during the meeting of the night of August 4, highlighting the centrality of that meeting to the Revolutionary agenda.

The night of August 4, 1789, was clearly the night that the Old Regime ended, but, although it has often been characterized in general terms, it has received surprisingly little attention from historians. Patrick Kessel produced an analysis based on a thorough compilation of sources, and Jean-Pierre Hirsch edited a documentary collection of the meeting. Both books are useful, but they consist largely of documentation of the meeting and its immediate aftermath. A significant void in interpretation remains. What has been particularly lacking is a consideration of how the meeting inspired the deputies of the National Assembly to embrace a new ideal of the polity and an assessment of the vast social consequences of that new ideal for French society.

This study, then, considers the manner in which the renunciations of privilege made during the meeting of the night of August 4 formed the agenda for the National Assembly during the remainder of its existence. After examining the manner in which the meeting affected the National Assembly itself, this study analyzes the manner in which each of the three orders or estates within the kingdom was transformed as a result of the meeting of the night of August 4 and the legacy of that transformation not only on the early period of the Revolution, but also beyond.

Happily, the field of the French Revolution, despite the passionate nature of our debates, is, with a few exceptions, suffused with a spirit of fraternité and scholarly generosity that I have always valued. Many colleagues have read portions of this manuscript and contributed significantly to it, and I am delighted to have this opportunity to express my gratitude. I wish to thank Nigel Aston, William Doyle, Alan Forrest, Robert Griffiths, Peter Jones, Colin Lucas, Kenneth Margerison, Jay Smith and Frank Tallett for their insightful criticisms. Rory Browne kindly provided logistical support and Rafe Blaufarb and Melvin Edelstein shared unpublished work. William Doyle, Alan Forrest, Kenneth Margerison, Susie Paul, Isser Woloch and Rochelle Ziskin offered moral support and encouragement that was extraordinary and for which my expression of deepest thanks still seems inadequate.

This study would not have been possible without the helpful assistance of scores of archivists and librarians in France, and I thank them all. I especially wish to remember M. Michel Bouille of the Archives Nationales in Paris, who was always exceedingly kind and whose untimely death was a loss to all who worked there — staff and readers alike.

It has been a pleasure to work with Peter Potter at the Penn State Press. His courtesy and professionalism have been exemplary, and he has helped to make this a better work.

The Society for the Study of French History provided a forum for this project at its outset, and I would like to thank Peter Campbell and Marisa Linton for their generous hospitality, which was all the more appreciated because it coincided with the birth of their child. Special thanks are also due once again to William Doyle.

The Newberry Library assisted this project with a Short Term Fellowship in Residence that proved invaluable. The openness of the Newberry and the warmth that it shows to scholars make it a real treasure. The Research Council of Auburn University Montgomery supported this project with Research Grants-in-Aid and without them it would not have been completed. I am grateful to the Council for its confidence and support.

The Department of History at Auburn University Montgomery has provided a collegial and encouraging environment throughout the course of this study. I thank all of my colleagues, especially Qiang Zhai, for making our department the cordial and supportive setting that it is.

The dedication in this book may seem unusual, but it is deeply felt. The years that we shared — from 1967 to 1971 — were tumultuous, and we were divided by the great issue of the time, the Vietnam War. We left for an uncertain future, but we have remained close, and I am proud of the principled and productive lives that have ensued from our humble beginnings. Finally, without one member of the class of 1971, albeit not of Belmont Abbey College, the long journey that began there and that leads to this page would not have been possible. Thank you, Theresa, both for making it possible and for sharing it.

Montgomery, Alabama

December 6, 2001

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