The great French revolution, 1789-1793


49. The Lands Restored to the Communes

Law of June 11, 1793 — Lands to be restored — Difficulty of partition — Details of decree — Diverse opinions of peasants — Majority of communes quickly take possession of lands — Subsequent history of communal lands

So long as the Girondins were the masters, the question of the communal lands remained as it was. The Convention did nothing to minimise the harmful effects of the decrees of August 1792, still less did it accept Mailhe's proposal concerning the lands of which the communes had been robbed.

But immediately after June 2, the Convention took up the question again, and on June 11, 1793, it passed a law which has marked an epoch in the village life of France, and has been full of consequences — more, perhaps, than any other law in French legislation.

By this law all the lands taken from the communes within the last two centuries, by virtue of the triage ordinance of 1669, had to be restored, as well as all those unoccupied, and waste lands, grass, marsh, heath, &c., that had been taken from the village communes in one way or another by individuals, including also those that came under the “forty years' possession” Act, decreed by the Legislative Assembly.[236]

However, in passing this just and necessary measure, which was to efface the effects of the spoliations committed under the old régime, the Convention made a false step concerning the partition of these lands. On this point there were two conflicting currents of ideas in the Convention as in every other place in France. The well-to-do peasants, who had long coveted the communal lands, of which they in many cases held portions in pledge, wanted the partition. They knew that if the lands were divided, it would be easy for them before long to buy up from the poorer peasants the plots of and which would be allotted to them. They wanted also, as we have said, the division to be made between the “citizens” alone, to the exclusion of the “inhabitants,” or even of the poorer citizens — the passive citizens of 1789. These bourgeois peasants found in the Convention energetic advocates, who always pleaded in the name of property, justice and equality when they pointed out the inequality in the properties held by the different communes — which did not prevent them from defending the inequalities within the commune. These were the men who demanded compulsory division,[237] there being only a few, like Julian Souhait, who demanded that communal property should be maintained.

The Girondist leaders, however, were no longer there to support the advocates of division, and the purified Convention, dominated by the Montagnards, would not agree to divide the communal lands among one part only of the inhabitants; but it believed at the same time that it was doing a good thing, and acting in the interests of agriculture, by authorising the lands to be divided among the inhabitants individually. The idea which led the Convention astray was that no one in France should be refused a share of the Republic's land, and under the influence of this idea the Convention favoured, rather than permitted, the division of the communal lands.

The division, says the law of June 11, 1793, shall be made between all, “so much per head of the domiciled inhabitants, regardless of age or sex, absent or present.”[238] “Every citizen, including the labourers and the domestics on the farms, domiciled for a year in the commune, shall have an equal share in this division, and for ten years the communal portion assigned to each citizen shall not be seized for debt.”[239]

The partition, however, had to be optional. An assembly of the inhabitants, composed of all individuals having an interest in the division, of either sex and over the age of twenty-one, was to be convened on a certain Sunday, and this assembly was to decide whether the communal property should be divided, either the whole of it, or only in part. If a third of the assembly voted for the division, the division should be decided upon and could not be revoked.[240]

It is easy to conceive the immense change brought about by this decree in the economic life of the villages. All the lands taken from the communes for the past two centuries, by means of triage, pretended debts, and frauds, could now be taken back by the peasants. The forty years' possession was no longer a title to property, the communes could go as far back as 1669 to claim their former possessions from the powerful and the crafty. And all the communal lands, including the lands restored to the peasants by the law of June 11, now belonged to all those who had lived in the commune for a year in proportion to the number of persons in each family, including the children of both sexes and aged relatives. The distinction between citizen and inhabitant was wiped out. Every one had a right to the land. It was a complete revolution.

Concerning the other part of the law that decreed the division, and its being carried into effect by the will of one-third over two-thirds of the inhabitants, it was applied only in certain parts of France, and then not generally. In the North, where there was not much pasture, the peasants willingly divided the communal lands. But in La Vendee and in Brittany they violently opposed the division being made by the will of a third of the inhabitants. They meant to hold, all of them, their right of grazing, &c., over the uncultivated lands intact. In some parts of France there were numerous divisions. Thus, in the Moselle, which is a wine-growing country, 686 communes divided the communal property, 107 of them per head and 579 per family, only 119 communes remaining undivided; but in other departments, in Central and Western France, the majority of the communes kept their lands intact.

As a rule the peasants, who knew very well that if the communal lands were divided, the poorer families would soon become proletarians and poorer than ever, were in no hurry to vote for the partition.

It need hardly be said that the Convention, whose middle-class members loved so much to talk of the inequalities that would result if the communes simply retook possession of their lands, made no attempt to equalise the benefits conferred on the communes by the law of June 11. Making speeches about the poor communes that got nothing served as an excellent pretext for doing nothing and for leaving the dishonestly appropriated lands with those who had got them, but when the opportunity came for proposing something to prevent this “injustice,” nothing was proposed.[241]

What the communes, up till then, had been doing themselves was going to be handed over now to paid officials, who, most probably, would have favoured the better-off men in the province, by enabling them to enrich themselves at the expense of the village communes.

The communes that made no delay in retaking possession of their ancient lands secured them then and there, so that when reaction triumphed and the lords came back into power, they could do nothing to regain what the law had taken away from them and the peasants were holding in actual possession. But the communes that hesitated got nothing at all. For, as soon as reaction got the better of the revolutionists, as soon as the insurrection of the last of the Montagnards had been crushed on the 1st Prairial, Year 111. (May 20, 1795), the first care of the reactionary Convention was to annul the revolutionary decrees of the Montagnard Convention. On the 21st Prairial, Year IV. (June 19, 1796), a decree was issued prohibiting the restitution of the communal lands to the communes.[242]

A year later, on May 21, 1797, a new law forbade the village communes to transfer or exchange their property by virtue of the laws of June 11 and August 24, 1793. Henceforth special legislation was required for each particular act of transference. This law was clearly meant to check the too scandalous plundering of the communal property which went on after the Revolution.

Later still, under the Empire, there were several attempts made to abolish the legislation of the Convention. But, as M. Sagnac remarks, “the successive attempts against the laws of the Convention failed miserably.” There were too many interests established on the part of the peasants for these attacks to have any effect.

On the whole, it may be said that the majority of the communes that had retaken possession of the lands filched from them since 1669 retained possession of them, while those that failed to do so before June 1796 got nothing. In revolution it is only the accomplished facts which count.


[236]^ All the communal lands in general,” said the law of June 10-11, 1793, “known throughout the Republic under the various names waste lands, &c. (gastes, garrigues, landes, pacages, pâtis, ajoncs, bruyères, bois communs, hermes, vacants, palus, marais, marécage, montagne), and under any other denomination whatsoever, are the property of, and by their nature belong to, the generality of the inhabitants, or members of the communes, or sections of the communes. The communes shall be authorised to demand their restitution.” Clause 4 of Article 25 of the ordinance concerning the “waters and forests of 1669, as well as all the edicts, declarations, decrees of the council and letters patent, which since that time have authorised the triage, division partial distribution or concession of woods and forests, manorial and seigniorial, to the prejudice of the communal rights and usages...and all the judgements given, and acts done as resulting therefrom, are revoked and remain in this respect as null and void.” “The forty years' possession, declared by the decree of August 28, 1792, as sufficient to establish the ownership of an individual, shall not in any case be allowed to take the place of the legitimate title, and the legitimate title shall not be that which emanates from feudal authority.”

[237]^ Vide the speech of P. Lozeau concerning the communal properties, printed by order of the Convention.

[238]^ Section ii., Article I.

[239]^ Section iii., Article I.

[240]^ Ibid. Article 2.

[241]^ An exception should be made in favour of Pierre Bridet (Observation sur le décret du 28 août 1792. Paris, 1793). He proposed something like what is to-day described as “land nationalisation.” “The communal lands,” said Bridet, “are national property, and consequently it is unfair to allow certain communes to possess a great deal of land while others have only a little.” He proposed therefore that the State should take possession of all the communal lands, and lease them in small lots, if leaseholders were to be found; if not in large lots, thrown open to the enterprise of inhabitants from other districts in the neighbourhood. All this was to be done by the Directories of the departments, which were, as we know, highly reactionary bodies representing the interests of the rich. Of course this scheme was not adopted. Since the lands belonging to each commune would have been leased (as they already were) in the first instance, to the local peasants, rich and poor, by the communes themselves, and would only in exceptional cases be rented by inhabitants from neighbouring districts, the scheme practically amounted to this: In order to permit a few exceptional middle-class men to lease lands situated in other districts and communes than their own, the State was going to step in and take the place of the communes in the administration of their lands. This is what the scheme meant. Of course, its preamble contained lofty language about justice which might appeal to socialistically inclined town-people, ignorant of the land question, and unable to examine that language more closely. But in reality the scheme tended only to create many new injustices, even worse than the old ones, and to establish numerous sinecures — all in the name of State regulation.

[242]^ “Inasmuch as the effect of the law of June 10, 1793, has given rise to numberless actions for claims...” since the examination of these matters under dispute would take a long time, “and since it is, moreover, urgent that the unfortunate results of the too literal inter-pretation of the law of June 10, 1793, should be checked, serious inconveniences from them having already been felt . . . all actions and proceedings resulting from this law are, for the time being to be suspended, and all the present holders of the said lands are, for the time being, to be maintained in their possession”(Dalloz, ix. 195).

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