Active and passive citizens

Active and passive citizens

=Citizenship during the French Revolution=

During the French Revolution, a distinction was made for a time between active and passive citizens. In 1791, the Legislative Assembly was chosen by a process of indirect election; the Electors of the Assembly were themselves elected by "active" citizens, male citizens whose annual taxes equalled the local wages paid for three days of labour. This disfranchised about half of the male citizens of France. Even higher economic requirements for the Electors and the members of the Assembly left only about 50,000 eligible men in a country of some 25 million people.


Slavery was abolished in France on the 28th of September, 1791. In spite of this, slavery still remained common in the colonies. The abolishion of slavery in the colonies would have affected planters which were represented in the assemblies by deputies, particularly the Lameths. The coloured free saw that their rights were being taken from them and finally on this date in 1791 the assembly decided to withdraw their civil rights. Along with this the rights for free association for workers and the right to strike were also taken away. After a series of strikes on June 14th, 1791 in workshops located in Paris, the Loi Le Chapelier was passed. The intention was to establish a free labour market by forbidding associations by workers and also the formation of trade unions.

Voting Rights

It remained that all had the right to contribute towards the making of the laws, but on December 22nd 1789 voting rights were only for those that owned property. It was believed during these times that only those who had a stake in the decisions which would be made for society as a whole and those which had shown that they could manage their own affairs would be eligible to have political involvement. Three categories were created to divide the citizens of France as had been done in Britain and the United States. The categories were divided as follows: Passive Citizens, Active Citizens, and the Electors.

Passive Citizens

Passive Citizens were those individuals who did not hold any property rights and did not have any voting rights. They were entitled to protection by law with relation to their belongings and their liberty but they were not to take any active involvement in the making of any government bodies. This group ended up totalling around three million men within France.

Active Citizens

Active Citizens numbered around four million men. They were to be literate adults who could use reason. They needed to speak French and have been a resident for more than one year. These individuals had a stake in the government bodies. They paid in taxes about the value equal to three days work, a sum of about 1 ½ and 3 livres. These men met in primary assemblies (assemblees primaires) and nominated electors and members of the councils within their municipalities. Active citizens (and their sons over the age of 18) were also, in that period, the basis for the French National Guard, the military bastion of the middle class.


Roughly one in every hundred active citizens became electors. The electors paid in taxes about the value equal to 10 days work. This was a sum of about 5 to 10 livres. There were about 50,000 electors in France at the time. These electors also met in assemblies at which time they nominated the deputies, judges, and member of other departments.

ystem of Elections

This new system of elections and electoral rights managed to accomplish removing the common people from political involvement. The laws were to apply to all equally with the plan that everyone could have passive citizenship rights. It was not expected that all passive citizens would end up becoming active citizens. This was mostly true for their belief that women could not use reason to deliberate. For this reason active citizens could only be men.

Vincent Oge argued that coloured people or 'gens de couleur' owned properties and should be considered for active citizenship. Unfortunately, the assembly felt that this would disrupt their trade overseas and they could not do anything that would hinder these trades.

Passive citizens had the ability to be aware of political arena by reading newspapers and even attending political meetings. Political groups and clubs began to arise as time in the Revolution progressed. These groups began to hold organized demonstrations and circulated petitions. Newspapers during these times had a lot of political influence.

The Constitutional committee felt that qualification by property ownership would result in passive citizens competing to become active citizens. They felt that the passive citizens would fight with more eagerness to become rich in hopes of owning property and becoming active citizens and maybe even electors.

This system of representation by the amount of taxes which were being paid maintained society in the hands of the rich. Camille Desmoulins said it best, “ […] but what on earth is meant by this expression ‘active citizens’ which we hear repeated so often? Active citizens are the men who stormed the Bastille, those who work the land, whereas the idle members of the Court and the clergy, despite the vast estates which they own, are nothing more than vegetables, vegetables like that tree in scripture which bore no fruit and which was therefore condemned to be thrown into the fire and burned.”

Additional Reading

Soboul - The French Revolution 1787-1799Brown - Cultures in Conflict - The French Revolution

Active Citizen/Passive Citizen []

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