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.