French Constitution of 1791

The short-lived French Constitution of 1791 was the first written constitution of France.

One of the basic precepts of the revolution was adopting constitutionality and establishing popular sovereignty, following the steps of the United States of America.

In the summer of 1789, the French National Assembly began the process of drafting a constitution. The Declaration of the Rights of Man, adopted August 26, 1789 eventually became the preamble of the constitution adopted in September 3, 1791.

The Constitution followed the lines preferred among reformists at that time: the creation of a French constitutional monarchy. The main controversy was the level of power to be granted to the king of France in such a system. Gilbert du Motier proposed a combination of the American and British systems, introducing a bicameral parliament, with the king having the suspensive veto power in the legislature, modeled to the authority then recently vested in the President of the United States.

The Constitution of 1791

3 September, 1791


The National Assembly, wishing to establish the French Constitution upon the principles it has just recognized and declared, [35] abolishes irrevocably the institutions which were injurious to liberty and equality of rights.

Neither nobility, nor peerage, nor hereditary distinctions, nor distinctions of orders, nor feudal regime, nor patrimonial courts, nor any titles, denominations, or prerogatives derived therefrom, nor any order of knighthood, nor any corporations or decorations requiring proofs of nobility or implying distinctions of birth, nor any superiority other than that of public functionaries in the performance of their duties any longer exists. [36]

Neither venality nor inheritance of any public office any longer exists.

Neither privilege nor exception to the law common to all Frenchmen any longer exists for any part of the nation or for any individual.

Neither jurandes nor corporations of professions, arts, and crafts any longer exist.

The law no longer recognizes religious vows or any other obligation contrary to natural rights or the Constitution.



The Constitution guarantees as natural and civil rights:

1st, That all citizens are admissible to offices and employments, without other distinction than virtues and talents;

2nd, That all taxes shall be assessed equally upon all citizens, in proportion to their means;

3rd, That similar offences shall be punished with similar penalties, without any distinction of persons.

The Constitution guarantees likewise as natural and civil rights:

Liberty to every man to come and go without being subject to arrest or detention, except according to the forms determined by the Constitution; {232}

Liberty to every man to speak, write, print, and publish his opinions without having his writings subject to any censorship or inspection before their publication, and to worship as he pleases;

Liberty to citizens to assemble peaceably and without arms in accordance with police regulations;

Liberty to address individually signed petitions to the constituted authorities.

The legislative power may not make any laws which infringe upon or obstruct the exercise of the natural and civil rights recorded in the present title and guaranteed by the Constitution; but, since liberty consists of being able to do only whatever is not injurious to the rights of others or to public security, the law may establish penalties for acts which, assailing either public security or the rights of others, might be injurious to society.

The Constitution guarantees the inviolability of property, or a just and previous indemnity for that of which a legally established public necessity requires the sacrifice.

Property reserved for the expenses of worship and for all services of public benefit belongs to the nation, and is at its disposal at all times. The Constitution guarantees conveyances which have been or may be made according to the forms established by law.

Citizens have the right to elect or choose the ministers of their religions.

A general establishment for public relief shall be created and organized to raise foundlings, relieve the infirm poor, and furnish work for the able-bodied poor who have been unable to procure it for themselves.

Public instruction for all citizens, free of charge in those branches of education which are indispensable to all men, shall be constituted and organized, and the establishments thereof shall be apportioned gradually, in accordance with the division of the kingdom.

National festivals shall be instituted to preserve the memory of the French Revolution, to maintain fraternity among the citizens, and to bind them to the Constitution, the Patrie, and the laws.

A code of civil law common to the entire kingdom shall be drafted. {233}



1. The kingdom is one and indivisible; its territory is divided into eighty-three departments, every department into districts, every district into cantons.

2. The following are French citizens:

Those born in France of a French father;

Those who, born in France of a foreign father, have established their residence in the kingdom;

Those who, born in a foreign country of a French father, have established themselves in France and have taken the civic oath;

Finally, those who, born in a foreign country and descended in any degree whatsoever from a French man or a French woman expatriated because of religion, come to reside in France and take the civic oath.

3. Those who, born outside the kingdom, of foreign parents, reside in France become French citizens after five years of continuous domicile in the kingdom if, in addition, they have acquired real estate, married a French woman, or founded an agricultural or commercial establishment, and if they have taken the civic oath.

4. The legislative power may, for important reasons, bestow naturalization upon a foreigner, without other qualifications than establishment of a domicile in France and taking of the civic oath therein.

5. The civic oath is: I swear to be faithful to the nation, to the law, and to the King, and to maintain with all my power the Constitution of the kingdom, decreed by the National Constituent Assembly in the years 1789, 1790, and 1791.

6. French citizenship is lost:

1st, By naturalization in a foreign country;

2nd, By condemnation to penalties which entail civic degradation, as long as the condemned person is not reinstated;

3rd, By a judgment of contempt of court, as long as the judgment is not rescinded;

4th, By affiliation with any foreign order of knighthood, or with any foreign corporate body which implies either proofs of nobility or distinctions of birth, or which requires religious vows. {234}

7. The law considers marriage only as a civil contract. [39]

The legislative power shall establish for all inhabitants, without distinction, the method by which births, deaths, and marriages are to be declared, and it shall designate the public officials who are to receive and preserve the records therefor. [40]

8. French citizens, considered with respect to local relations which derive from their association in cities and in certain arrondissements of rural territory, constitute the communes.

The legislative power may establish the extent of the arrondissement of every commune.

9. The citizens composing a commune have the right to elect at stated times, according to the forms determined by law, those among them who, under the title of municipal officials, are responsible for administering the immediate affairs of the commune.

Some functions relative to the general interest of the State may be delegated to the municipal officials.

10. The rules which municipal officials are required to follow in the performance of their municipal duties and of those delegated to them for the general welfare shall be established by law.



1. Sovereignty is one, indivisible, inalienable, and imprescriptible. It appertains to the nation; no section of the people nor any individual may assume the exercise thereof.

2. The nation, from which alone all powers emanate, may exercise such powers only by delegation.

The French Constitution is representative; the representatives are the legislative body and the King.

3. The legislative power is delegated to a National Assembly, composed of temporary representatives freely elected by the people, to be exercised by it, with the sanction of the King, in the manner hereinafter determined.

4. The government is monarchical; the executive power is delegated to the King, to be exercised, under his authority, by ministers and other responsible agents in the manner hereinafter determined.

5. The judicial power is delegated to judges who are elected at stated times by the people. {235}


Of the National Legislative Assembly

1. The National Assembly constituting the legislative body is permanent and is composed of only one chamber.

2. It shall be formed every two years by new elections.

Every period of two years shall constitute a legislature.

3. The provisions of the preceding article shall not apply to the next legislative body, the powers of which shall cease on the last day of April, 1793.

4. Renewal of the legislative body shall take place without need of sanction.

5. The legislative body may not be dissolved by the King.

Section 1. Number of Representatives–Bases of Representation

1. The number of representatives in the legislative body is 745, in proportion to the eighty-three departments of which the kingdom is composed, and apart from those which might be granted to the colonies.

2. The representatives shall be allotted among the eighty-three departments according to the three proportions of territory, population, and direct tax.

3. Of the 745 representatives, 247 are allocated on the basis of territory.

Each and every department shall elect three of these, except the department of Paris, which shall elect only one.

4. Two hundred and forty-nine representatives are allocated on the basis of population.

The sum total of the active population of the kingdom is divided into 249 parts, and every department elects as many deputies as it possesses parts of the population.

5. Two hundred and forty-nine representatives are allocated on the basis of direct tax.

The sum total of the direct tax of the kingdom is likewise divided into 249 parts, and every department elects as many deputies as it pays parts of the tax.

Section 2. Primary Assemblies–Selection of the Electors [41]

1. In order to constitute the National Legislative Assembly, the active citizens shall meet every two years in primary assemblies in the cities and cantons. {236}

The primary assemblies shall be formed, without need of sanction, on the second Sunday in March, if they have not been convoked previously by the public functionaries determined by law.

2. In order to be an active citizen it is necessary:

To have been born, or to become, a Frenchman;

To be fully twenty-five years of age;

To be domiciled in the city or canton for the period determined by law;

To pay, in any part of the kingdom whatsoever, a direct tax equal at least to the value of three days’ labor, and to present the receipt therefor;

Not to be in a position of domesticity, that is to say, a servant for wages;

To be, inscribed upon the roll of the National Guard in the municipality of his domicile;

To have taken the civic oath.

3. Every six years the legislative body shall establish the minimum and maximum of the value of a day’s labor, and the departmental administrators shall effect the local determination thereof for every district.

4. No one may exercise the rights of active citizenship in more than one place or by proxy.

5. The following are excluded from the enjoyment of the rights of active citizenship:

Those who are under indictment;

Those who, having been proved by authentic evidence to be bankrupt or insolvent, do not produce a general release from their creditors.

6. The primary assemblies shall choose electors in proportion to the number of active citizens domiciled in the city or canton.

One elector shall be chosen for every hundred active citizens, present or not, at the assembly.

Two shall be chosen for from 151 to 250, and so on.

7. No one may be chosen as an elector if, in addition to the qualifications necessary for active citizenship, he does not fulfill the following requirements:

In cities of more than 6,000 inhabitants, that of being proprietor or usufructuary of a property assessed on the tax rolls at a revenue equal to the local value of 200 days’ labor, or of being tenant of a dwelling assessed on said same rolls at a revenue equal to the value of 150 days’ labor; {237}

In cities of fewer than 6,000 inhabitants, that of being proprietor or usufructuary of a property assessed on the tax rolls at a revenue equal to the local value of 150 days’ labor, or of being tenant of a dwelling assessed on said same rolls at a revenue equal to the value of 100 days’ labor;

And in rural districts, that of being proprietor or usufructuary of a property assessed on the tax rolls at a revenue equal to the local value of 150 days’ labor, or of being farmer or métayer of properties assessed on said same rolls at the value of 400 days’ labor.

With regard to those who are at the same time proprietors or usufructuaries on the one hand, and tenants, farmers, or métayers on the other, their revenues from such divers titles shall be cumulated up to the rate necessary to establish their eligibility.

Section 3. Electoral Assemblies–Election of Representatives [42]

1. The electors chosen in each and every department shall assemble to elect the number of representatives whose election is assigned to their department, and a number of substitutes equal to one-third of that of the representatives.

The electoral assemblies shall be formed, without need of sanction, the last Sunday in March, if they have not been convoked previously by the public functionaries determined by law.

2. The representatives and the substitutes shall be elected by absolute majority of votes, and they may be chosen only from among the active citizens of the department.

3. All active citizens, whatever their position, profession, or tax, may be elected representatives of the nation. [43]

4. Ministers and other agents of the executive power who are revocable at will, commissioners of the National Treasury, collectors and receivers of direct taxes, supervisors of the collection and administration of indirect taxes and national domains, and those who; under any denomination whatsoever, are connected with the military and civil household of the King shall be obliged to choose between their offices and that of representative.

Administrators, subadministrators, municipal officials, and commandants of the National Guards likewise shall be required to make their choice. {238}

5. The performance of judicial duties is incompatible with those of representative of the nation, throughout the entire duration of the legislature.

Judges shall be replaced by their substitutes, and the King shall provide, by warrants of commission, for the replacement of his Commissioners at the courts.

6. The members of the legislative body may be re-elected to the following legislature, but thenceforth they may be elected only after an interval of one legislature.

7. The representatives elected in the departments shall not be representatives of a particular department, but of the entire nation, and no mandate may be given them.

Section 4. Holding and Administration of Primary and Electoral Assemblies [44]

1. The functions of the primary and electoral assemblies are limited to election; they shall disperse immediately after the elections are completed, and they may reassemble only when convoked, except in the case of article 1 of section 2 and article 1 of section 3 above.

2. No active citizen may enter or vote in an assembly if he is armed.

3. No armed force may be brought into the assembly without the express request thereof, unless violence is committed therein; in which case, an order of the president shall suffice to summon the public force.

4. Every two years, in every district, lists of active citizens, by cantons, shall be drawn up, and the list of each and every canton shall be published and posted there two months before the meeting of the primary assembly.

Claims which may be made, either contesting the qualifications of citizens entered on the list or on the part of those alleging their unjust exclusion therefrom, shall be taken to the courts for summary judgment.

In all matters not rectified by judgments rendered prior to the meeting of the assembly, the list shall serve as the basis for admission of citizens to the next primary assembly.

5. The electoral assemblies have the right to verify the qualifications and credentials of those presenting themselves thereat; and their decisions shall be executed provisionally, subject to the judgment of the legislative body at the time of verification of the powers of the deputies. {239}

6. In no case, and under no pretext, may the King, or any of the agents appointed by him, take cognizance of questions relative to the regularity of convocations, the holding of assemblies, the form of elections, or the political rights of citizens, without prejudice to the functions of the Commissioners of the King in the cases determined by law where questions relative to the political rights of citizens are to be brought before the courts.

Section 5. Meeting of the Representatives in National Legislative Assembly

1. The representatives shall meet on the first Monday in May at the place of the sessions of the last legislature. [45]

2. They shall form provisionally in assembly, under the presidency of the oldest member, in order to verify the credentials of the representatives present.

3. As soon as 373 members have been verified, they shall constitute themselves under the title of National Legislative Assembly; it shall elect a president, a vice-president, and secretaries, and shall enter upon the performance of its duties.

4. During the entire course of the month of May the Assembly may not perform any legislative act if the number of representatives present is fewer than 373.

It may issue an order enjoining the absent members to repair to their duties within two weeks at the latest, under penalty of 3,000 livres fine, unless they present an excuse which the Assembly deems valid.

5. On the last day of May, whatever number of members be present, they shall constitute themselves in National Legislative Assembly.

6. The representatives shall pronounce in unison, in the name of the French people, the oath to live free or to die.

Thereafter, they shall individually take oath to maintain with all their power the Constitution of the kingdom decreed by the National Constituent Assembly in the years 1789, 1790, and 1791, to propose and to consent to nothing during the course of the legislature which might be injurious thereto, and in all matters to be faithful to the nation, to the law, and to the King.

7. The representatives of the nation are inviolable; they may not be questioned, accused, or tried at any time for what they have said, written, or done in the performance of their duties as representatives. {240}

8. For criminal acts they may be seized flagrante delicto, or by virtue of a warrant of arrest; but notice thereof shall be given to the legislative body immediately, and prosecution may be continued only after the legislative body has decided that there is occasion for indictment.


Of Monarchy, the Regency, and the Ministers

Section 1. Monarchy and the King

1. Monarchy is indivisible, and is delegated hereditarily to the reigning family, from male to male, by order of primogeniture, to the perpetual exclusion of women and their descendants.

(Nothing is presumed concerning the effect of renunciations in the present reigning family.)

2. The person of the King is inviolable and sacred; his only title is King of the French.

3. 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.

4. On his accession to the throne, or as soon as he has attained his majority, the King, in the presence of the legislative body, shall take oath to the nation to be faithful to the nation and to the law, to employ all the power delegated to him to maintain the Constitution decreed by the National Constituent Assembly in the years 1789, 1790, and 1791, and to have the laws executed.

If the legislative body be not in session, the King shall have a proclamation published, in which said oath, and the promise to reiterate it as soon as the legislative body has assembled, shall be set forth.

5. If, one month after the invitation of the legislative body, the King has not taken said oath, or if, after having taken it, he retracts it, he shall be deemed to have abdicated the throne. [46]

6. If the King places himself at the head of an army and directs the forces thereof against the nation, or if he does not, by a formal statement, oppose any such undertaking carried on in his name, he shall be deemed to have abdicated the throne.

7. If the King, having left the kingdom, does not return after invitation has been made by the legislative body, and within the period established by proclamation, which may not be less than two months, he shall be deemed to have abdicated the throne. {241}

The period shall date from the day of publication of the proclamation of the legislative body in the place of its sessions; and the ministers shall be required, on their responsibility, to perform all acts of the executive power, exercise of which by the absent King shall be suspended.

8. After express or legal abdication, the King shall be classed as a citizen, and as such he may be accused and tried for acts subsequent to his abdication.

9. The private property which the. King possesses upon his accession to the throne is irrevocably united with the national domain; he may dispose of property acquired by singular title; if he has not disposed thereof, it likewise is united at the end of the reign.

10. The nation provides for the splendor of the throne by a civil list, the sum of which shall be determined by the legislative body at each change of reign, for the entire duration of the reign. [47]

11. The King shall appoint an administrator of the civil list, who shall institute lawsuits on behalf of the King, and against whom all actions for debt against the King shall be directed and judgments pronounced. Condemnations obtained by creditors of the civil list shall be executory against the administrator personally, and upon his own property.

12. Apart from the guard of honor furnished him by the citizen National Guard of the place of his residence, the King shall have a guard, paid out of the funds of the civil list; it may not exceed the number of 1,200 infantry and 600 cavalry.

The grades and rules of promotion therein shall be the same as in the troops of the line; but those who compose the King’s guard shall progress through all grades among themselves exclusively, and may obtain none in the army of the line.

The King may choose the men of his guard only from among those who are at present on active service in the troops of the line, or from among citizens who have served for a year as National Guards, provided they are resident in the kingdom and have previously taken the civic oath.

The King’s guard may not be ordered or requisitioned for any other public service.

Section 2. The Regency

1. The King is a minor until he is fully eighteen years of age, and during his minority there shall be a regent of the kingdom. {242}

2. The regency appertains to the kinsman of the King nearest in degree, according to the order of succession to the throne, and fully twenty-five years of age, provided that he is a native Frenchman, that he is not heir presumptive to another crown, and that he has previously taken the civic oath.

Women are excluded from the regency.

3. If a minor king has no kinsman who combines the qualifications above stated, the regent of the kingdom shall be elected as provided in the following articles.

4. The legislative body may not elect the regent.

5. The electors of each and every district shall meet at the chief town of the district, following a proclamation made in the first week of the new reign by the legislative body, if it is in session; and if it is in recess, the Minister of Justice shall be required to make such proclamation within the same week.

6. The electors in each and every district shall elect, by individual ballot and absolute majority of votes, an eligible citizen domiciled in the district, to whom they shall give, by the procès-verbal of the election, a special mandate limited to the single function of electing the citizen whom he, in his mind and conscience, deems the most worthy of being regent of the kingdom.

7. The mandatory citizens elected in the districts shall be required to assemble, not later than forty days after the accession of the minor King to the throne, in the city where the legislative body holds its sessions; and there they shall form the electoral assembly, which shall proceed to the election of the regent.

8. The election of the regent shall be effected by individual ballot and absolute majority of votes.

9. The electoral assembly may occupy itself only with the election, and shall disperse as soon as the election is completed; any other act undertaken by it is declared unconstitutional and noneffective.

10. The electoral assembly shall have the procès-verbal of the election presented by its president to the legislative body, which, after having verified the regularity of the election, shall have it published throughout the kingdom by proclamation.

11. Until the majority of the King, the regent shall perform all the functions of monarchy, and shall not be personally responsible for acts of his administration.

12. The regent may enter upon the performance of his duties only after having taken, in the presence of the legislative body, oath to the nation, to be faithful to the nation, to the law, and to the King; to {243} employ all the power delegated to the King, and the exercise of which is entrusted to him during the minority of the King, to maintain the Constitution decreed by the National Constituent Assembly in the years 1789, 1790, and 1791, and to have the laws executed.

If the legislative body is not in session, the regent shall have a proclamation published in which said oath and the promise to reiterate it as soon as the legislative body has assembled shall be expressed.

13. Until the regent has entered upon the performance of his duties, the sanction of laws shall remain suspended; the ministers shall continue to perform, on their responsibility, all acts of the executive power.

14. As soon as the regent has taken oath, the legislative body shall determine his stipend, which may not be changed throughout the duration of the regency.

15. If, owing to the minority of the kinsman summoned to the regency, it has devolved upon a more remote kinsman or has been conferred by election, the regent who has taken office shall continue his duties until the majority of the King.

16. The regency of the kingdom does not confer any right concerning the person of the minor King.

17. The custody of the minor King shall be entrusted to his mother; and if he has no mother, or if she has remarried at the time of her son’s accession to the throne, or if she remarries during the minority, the custody shall be conferred by the legislative body.

Neither the regent, his descendants, nor women may be elected to the custody of the minor King.

18. In case of generally recognized insanity of the King, legally established and declared by the legislative body after three deliberations taken successively from month to month, there shall be occasion for a regency as long as the insanity continues.

Section 3. The Royal Family

1. The heir presumptive shall bear the name of Prince Royal.

He may not leave the kingdom without a decree of the legislative body and the consent of the King.

If he has left it, and if, having reached the age of eighteen years, he does not return to France after having been summoned by a proclamation of the legislative body, he shall be deemed to have abdicated the right of succession to the throne.

2. If the heir presumptive is a minor, the kinsman fully of age first in line for the regency is required to reside within the kingdom. {244}

In case he has left it and does not return upon demand of the legislative body, he shall be deemed to have abdicated his right to the regency.

3. If the mother of the minor King in charge of his custody, or the elected guardian, leaves the kingdom, she or he is deprived of the custody.

If the mother of the minor heir presumptive leaves the kingdom, she may not, even after her return, have the custody of her minor son who has become king, except by a decree of the legislative body.

4. A law shall be made to regulate the education of the minor King and that of the minor heir presumptive.

5. The members of the Royal Family in line for the eventual succession to the throne enjoy the rights of active citizenship, but are not eligible to any of the positions, employments, or functions at the disposal of the people.

With the exception of the departments of the ministry, they are eligible to the positions and employments at the disposal of the King; nevertheless, they may not be commanders in chief of any military or naval force, or serve as ambassadors, except with the consent of the legislative body, granted upon the proposal of the King.

6. The members of the Royal Family in line for eventual succession to the throne shall add the denomination of French Prince to the name given them in their birth certificate, and such name may not be patronymical or composed of any of the titles abolished by the present Constitution.

The denomination of prince may not be given to any other individual, and it shall not entail any privilege or any exception to the law common to all Frenchmen.

7. The birth, marriage, and death certificates of French princes shall be presented to the legislative body, which shall order the deposit thereof in its archives.

8. No real apanage shall be granted to members of the Royal Family.

The younger sons of the King shall receive at the age of fully twenty-five years, or at the time of their marriage, a rente apanagère, which shall be established by the legislative body and shall terminate with the extinction of their masculine posterity.