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Constitutional Monarchy

Constitutional Monarchy

The Constitutional Monarchy was a period during the French Revolution from 1791 to 1792 during which Louis XVI enjoyed only a fraction of the power he had as an absolute monarch; developments of this change began in 1789.How did France become a constitutional monarchy, and how did Louis XVI feel about this?

Constitutional Monarchy Timeline

Let's look at a timeline of how France's Constitutional Monarchy came about.

DateEvent
16 August 1789All payments from the Treasury were suspended as Louis XVI's finance minister, Brienne, declared that France was bankrupt.
5 May 1789The Estates-General convened to deal with the financial situation.
17 June 1789After a deadlock caused by disagreements over the voting system, the Third Estate broke away and declared itself the National Assembly.
20 June 1789Members of the National Assembly took the Tennis Court Oath.
9 July 1789The National Assembly changed its name to the National Constituent Assembly.
14 July 1789The storming of the Bastille took place - now considered the beginning of the French Revolution.
26 August 1789The Declaration of the Rights of Men was issued.
20 June 1791Louis XVI and his family attempted to flee the country and escape to Belgium; however, they were apprehended and brought back to Paris.
3 September 1791The French Constitution was adopted.
14 September 1791Louis XVI formally agreed, albeit reluctantly, to the Constitution of 1791.
15 September 1791Olympe de Gouges published her Declaration of the Rights of Woman, which pointed out the lack of equality for women in the Constitution.
1 October 1791The Legislative Assembly was established to replace the National Constituent Assembly.
20 April 1792France declared war on Austria.
10 August 1792Louis XVI was overthrown following the Tuileries Massacre on 9 August 1792, effectively ending the monarchy.
21 September 1792The Legislative Assembly voted to abolish the monarchy.

Constitutional Monarchy French Revolution

In 1789, the National Assembly gathered on a tennis court and declared that they would not disband until a constitution for France had been written. What was the National Assembly, why did it meet on a tennis court, and what did this mean for the King, Louis XVI?

The National Assembly and the Tennis Court Oath

France was in a dire financial state during the reign of Louis XVI. After his Finance Minister, Brienne, declared bankruptcy in 1788, Louis XVI reluctantly agreed to host the Estates-General in May 1789 to have all orders agree to his financial reforms.

However, the newly politicised Third Estate demanded voting by head rather than voting by order. Voting by order (each estate voting as one) was the traditional way of voting. However, it meant that the other two orders could outvote the Third Estate two to one, even though the Third Estate represented around 98% of the population. In comparison, voting by head meant that each deputy had their own vote, which the Third Estate argued was fairer.

constitutional monarchy tennis court oath studysmarterFig. 1 Jacques-Louis David's depiction of the Tennis Court Oath.

The disagreement over voting caused a stand-off, culminating in the Third Estate declaring themselves a National Assembly on 17 June 1789. The King reluctantly agreed to this, but on 20 June, he shut the chamber where the National Assembly usually met.

Fearing that this meant the King was trying to dissolve the Assembly, the representatives quickly gathered on a nearby indoor tennis court. There they swore never to disband until they had given France a constitution and had limited the King's powers.

The Constituent Assembly

On 9 July 1789, the National Assembly changed its name to the National Constituent Assembly. Its main priority was drafting the new Constitution, but after the storming of the Bastille on 14 July 1789, they effectively became in charge of running the country.

During their period of governance, the Constituent Assembly presided over several attempts at reform and several crises, such as the Champs de Mars and Tuileries Massacres.

Let's first have a look at its reforms:

The Legal SystemThe EconomyThe Civil Constitution of the Clergy

The Constituent Assembly wanted to ensure that the judicial system treated everyone fairly and equally.

  • Criminal cases would be judged in public courts by a jury.
  • The Assembly abolished torture and mutilation and reduced the number of crimes punished by the death penalty.

The Constituent Assembly aimed to modernise the French economy.

  • The taxation system was reformed, ensuring that the burden of taxation fell on those who could afford it rather than the poor.
  • Price controls on certain goods were removed.

Reforms concerning the Church and religion were far-reaching and controversial, especially the Civil Constitution of the Clergy.

  • If a bishop had been appointed by the Pope but not approved by the state, their authority would not be recognised.
  • Clergymen would have to swear an oath of loyalty to the French state. The oath was not popular - only taken by 55% of the clergy.

Eventually, the Constituent Assembly was dissolved and replaced with the Legislative Assembly on 1 October 1791.

Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen

On 26 August 1789, the National Assembly issued the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen before creating the French constitution.

constitutional monarchy declaration of rights studysmarterFig. 2 The Declaration of the rights of man.

The idea for a French constitution can be traced directly to Enlightenment notions of equality which framed the American War of Independence. The American Revolution created the independent American Republic in 1776, which declared in its constitution:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.1

The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen adopted the concept of 'unalienable rights'. Its first article stated:

Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions may be founded only upon the general good.2

This document redefined the monarch's role as one that protected the rights of subjects. This was radical for the time, as governance previously tended to focus on the power and well-being of the monarch rather than the people.

Declaration of the Rights of Woman

In 1791, one of the most prolific yet unknown writers of the Enlightenment, Olympe de Gouges, published the Declaration of the Rights of Woman and of the Female Citizen in response to the Declaration of the Rights of Man. Her writings exposed the lack of gender equality in the reforms brought about by the French Revolution.

constitutional monarchy olympe de gouges studysmarterFig. 3 Olympe de Gouges by Alexander Kurcharsky.

Ironically, her attempt to further the main principles of the French Revolution led to her downfall. Her writings were seen as seditious, and she was convicted of treason and executed on 3 November 1793.

The French Constitution of 1791 Text

The Declaration served as the preamble of the 1791 French constitution. In July 1789, a constitutional committee was established to review and draft the constitution, which included men of very different political convictions. Although there were arguments, finally, a Constitutional text was drafted.

Key ideas from the text included:

  • All citizens should be treated equally, have freedom of speech and not fear censorship.
  • Citizens would be taxed in proportion to their means.
  • The new Legislative Assembly replaced the Constituent Assembly.
  • The voting population was limited to men over 25 who paid annual taxes equivalent to a minimum of three days of labour.
  • The King's official title was changed from 'King of France' to 'King of the French' to reflect the notion that his power came from the people rather than from any divine right. The law became the highest authority in the land, rather than the King.

There is no authority in France superior to that of the law; the King reigns only thereby, and only in the name of the law may he exact obedience. 3

Although the voting population was limited, the French Constitution was quite liberal in giving 4.5 million Frenchmen the ability to vote. By comparison, only 214,000 people could vote in England in 1780.

Legislative Assembly French Revolution

After the Constitution of 1791 was enacted, the National Constituent Assembly was dissolved and replaced by the Legislative Assembly, beginning the constitutional monarchy period. This assembly took on its role with gusto, introducing several reforms in line with the principles of the Revolution.

Reforms of the Legislative Assembly

The Legislative Assembly was keen to continue extending and enforcing the reforms made by the Constituent Assembly. Here is a brief overview of what they set out to accomplish.

  • They looked to clamp down on priests not adhering to the Civil Constitution of the Clergy.
  • The Assembly was also responsible for creating one of the most famous symbols of the Revolution - the guillotine. In 1792, the Assembly approved the guillotine to be used as the primary method of execution in France.
  • The Legislative Assembly also implemented new laws concerning families and inheritance rights; divorce was made more easily accessible for both men and women.
  • The émigrés (nobles who had fled France at the outbreak of the Revolution) were a particular focus of the Legislative Assembly. They were categorised into three groups with separate punishments of increasing levels of severity.

The Collapse of the Constitutional Monarchy

Despite some promising first steps, the constitutional monarchy could not last. After the war with Austria and Flight to Varennes, it became clear that such a system was not sustainable in France.

The Flight to Varennes

The King was becoming increasingly appalled at the radicalism of the Revolution. Although he publicly supported the new constitution, he found it unacceptably radical and limiting of his power. He decided to flee France for Belgium in an escape attempt that would become known as the 'Flight to Varennes' - which ultimately failed as the King only got as far as the village of Varennes.

flight to varennes constitutional monarchy studysmarterFig. 4 This map shows the route the king and his family took - Varennes was around 250km from Paris.

The Flight to Varennes proved that the king had no intention of sticking with a constitutional monarchy and fully intended to regain his lost powers. Equally, this action undermined any future attempts at progress, such as the Constitution of 1791. This was the death knell for the experiment in a constitutional monarchy.

War with Austria

On 20 April 1792, France declared war on Austria. Although the Assembly could not unanimously agree on a solution for around a year, all realised that the King was becoming a huge liability to the security of the Revolution.

Therefore, the unfortunate conclusion was that the constitutional monarchy could not last in France's present situation. There was no middle ground - either the king would be restored to his full power, or he would have to have all his power stripped from him.

On 21 September 1792, the Legislative Assembly voted to abolish the monarchy.

Constitutional Monarchy - Key takeaways

  • The French constitution of 1791 was the first written constitution of the French republic. It formed a constitutional monarchy instead of an absolute monarchy.

  • France faced many issues, especially in taxation, finance, and society. The Constitution aimed to rectify these.

  • The French Constitution derived its origin from Enlightenment ideas of equality which led to the Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen.

  • The constitution separated the French into active and passive citizens. Only active male citizens of the property-owning class could vote.

  • Fundamental changes were made to the taxation system and the Church - the Civil Constitution of the Clergy radically altered the structure of the Church, much to the chagrin of the clergy and Pope.

  • Both the Flight to Varennes and the War with Austria proved that a constitutional monarchy would not work in France's situation and led to the collapse of the experiment in a constitutional monarchy.

References

  1. USA, Declaration of Independence (4 July 1776) https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/declaration-transcript
  2. France, 'Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen' (1789) https://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/rightsof.asp
  3. France, Constitution of 1791 https://wp.stu.ca/worldhistory/wp-content/uploads/sites/4/2015/07/French-Constitution-of-1791.pdf
  4. Figure 3. Olympe de Gouges (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Olympe_de_Gouges.png) Licensed under CC-BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en)

Frequently Asked Questions about Constitutional Monarchy

The constitutional monarchy was established in 1791 and included the King's powers being checked by a constitution.

France did not have a constitutional monarchy to begin with but an absolute monarchy. This meant that the King could do anything he wanted without any authority limiting his powers. In 1789 after the outbreak of the Revolution, the National Assembly decided to create a constitution to limit the King's powers. This led to a constitutional monarchy in 1791.

Active citizens were males over 25 who owned property and paid taxes worth at least three days labour. 

The Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen was a document detailing the rights all citizens should theoretically enjoy in a successful state. The Declaration was enshrined in the constitution of 1791.

The constitutional monarchy eventually collapsed. It lasted from 4 September 1791 until 10 August 1792. On 10 August 1792, the Paris sans-culottes stormed the Tuileries Palace and imprisoned the King, declaring the overthrow of the monarchy and the start of a Republic. By this point, the King had lost all his credibility with the public.

Final Constitutional Monarchy Quiz

Question

In what month was the March on Versailles?

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Answer

October.

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The fears of food scarcity sparked the Réveillon riots in April 1789. True or false?

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Answer

True.

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Question

Where was the October 1st banquet held?

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Answer

In Versailles.

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Question

The march sparked a genuine affection for the King and the rest of the royal family. True or false?

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Answer

False.

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Question

Who intervened on the behalf of the King at the Palace?

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Answer

Lafayette.

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Question

The royal family became virtual prisoners of the Tuileries. True or false? 


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Answer

True.

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Question

What regime collapsed paving the way for the revolution?

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Answer

The Ancien Régime.

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The women who bravely marched to Versailles were later known as the Mothers of the Revolution. True or false?

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Answer

False.

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Question

Which of the following were reasons why people disliked Marie Antoinette? (Choose three)

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Answer

She was Spanish.

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What was Marie Antoinette’s infamous apocryphal statement when there was no bread?

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Answer

‘Let them eat cake.’

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Question

The term Sans-Culottes also referred to what?

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A piece of clothing.

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The Sans-Culottes wore trousers instead of culottes to disassociate themselves from the elite. True or false? 

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True.

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In what year were the Sans-Culottes predominantly active?

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In 1792.

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They supported the privileges given to the monarch, nobility and the Roman Catholic clergy. True or false?

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Answer

False.

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In what month did Robespierre make plans to reconstitute the army?

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Answer

In April.

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The demonstration of 20 June was a peaceful desperate attempt to persuade the King to change his approach to governance. True or false?

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Answer

True.

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In what year did the Sans-Culottes threaten an insurrection against the aristocrats?

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In 1793.

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The Montagnards were not concerned about the working class but rather the privilege. True or false?

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False.

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One of the aims the Sans-Culottes advocated was on price limits on food and essential commodities. True or false?

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True.

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What other pieces of Sans-Culottes clothing were distinctive to them? (Choose three)

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The carmagnole.

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Question

Which Manifesto played a part in the September Massacres?

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The Brunswick Manifesto.

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Why were the September Massacres referred to as the French Revolution's ‘First Terror’?

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They preceded the Reign of Terror, which began about a year later, and were in some ways a precursor. 

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Which Parisian politician encouraged revolutionary fervour with a speech on August 25?

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Answer

Danton

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What did the Duke of Brunswick warn in his manifesto?

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He warned Parisians to obey Louis XVI and threatened violence if they didn't.

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Who were the refractory priests?

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Refractory priests were members of the clergy that had refused to sign an oath of loyalty to the constitution.

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Which of the following fell victim to the killings? 

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Jacobins

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On what grounds did armed men storm the Bicêtre Prison?

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On the grounds that a large number of counterrevolutionary weapons were hidden there.

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Who was incarcerated in the Prison de la Force?

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Political prisoners

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Which famous wax sculptress was commissioned to create an effigy of one of the victims of the September Massacre?

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Answer

Marie Grosholtz, otherwise known as Madame Tussaud.

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How did the British react to the September Massacres?

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Answer

With abhorrence. Newspapers reported the events in graphic detail and circulated rumours of cannibalism and demon worship.

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What was Robespierre criticised for after the September Massacres?

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For creating a personality cult.

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What was the Great Fear?

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A period of widespread panic over food shortages in late France during the late 1780s.

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Which of these was NOT a cause of the Great Fear?

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The threat of war with Austria and Great Britain.

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How did vagrancy impact the Great Fear?

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The increased presence of beggars, vagrants, and other landless, itinerant groups caused fear and anxiety among peasant farmers.

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What was the 'Famine Plot'?

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A conspiracy theory that aristocrats were driving up prices to starve peasants.

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What was the tipping point that caused the Great Fear to turn into a popular revolt?

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The Storming of the Bastille, 14 July 1789.

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How did changing French demographics (population trends) help fuel the Great Fear?

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The population of France grew by about 2 million during the period 1770-90, worsening poverty and food scarcity.

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What happened during the Great Fear?

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French peasants in several provinces looted food stores and attacked the property of landowners.

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How did the peasant uprisings of the Great Fear influence later Revolutionary armies?

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The need for local defence and the large involvement of ordinary men helped lay the groundwork for the levée en masse of the French Revolutionary forces and would play a role in the formation of the National Guard.

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Question

True or False: the French aristocracy were able to consolidate their position despite the turmoil of the Great Fear.

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Answer

False: the Great Fear was an embarrassing political defeat for the French nobility.

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Question

True or False: the Great Fear ultimately strengthened the position of the Third Estate.

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Answer

True: the Third Estate made significant political gains at the expense of the nobility.

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Question

When was the Constitution created?

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Answer

1791

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What did the National Assembly swear in the Tennis Court Oath?

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Answer

Not to disband until the Constitution was implemented

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Question

Which social, political and scientific movement heavily influenced the new Constitution?

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Answer

The Enlightenment 

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Question

When was the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen declared?

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Answer

26 August 1789

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Question

In 1791, Olympe de Gouges published a response to the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. What did it do?

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Answer

Pointed out that the Declaration lacked the mention of equal rights for women

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Question

Under the new Constitution, how many Frenchmen could vote?

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Answer

4.5 million

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How was the King's power limited under the Constitution?

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Answer

His title was changed to 'King of the French' to reflect that his power came from the people.

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Question

Which law restricted trade unions and strikes?

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Answer

The Le Chapelier Law

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Question

When did the Flight to Varennes begin?

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Answer

20 June 1791

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