Mirabeau’s corpse was hardly cold before legends settled around the bier. At the autopsy ordered by the procureur of his Paris section, it was rumored, the defunct hero revealed an imposing erection. It was this evidence of “satyriasis” which led his son to characterize Mirabeau’s notorious erotic appetite as “involuntary.” His last words had actually been a request to Dr. Cabanis for opium, that he might be spared further pain. But the grief-stricken public needed something more edifying. So it was reported that he had provided his own oracular epitaph in the manner of the Stoics: “I take with me the death of the monarchy. The factions will prey upon its remains.” The words, or variations of them, appeared in many of the memorial prints that were hurriedly produced to assuage the stricken population of Paris. In one by Borel, Mirabeau’s pessimism is transformed into a determination to “fight the factions wherever they may be,” a sentiment engraved by his bed above copies of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Constitution. While Death approaches from behind a grieving France, Mirabeau points to a drape lifted by Truth, revealing in the right background a dismal scene of strife as “faction” reduces crown, clergy and people to a warring chaos.
When the news was brought to the Constituent Assembly, a crushing sense of loss immediately fell over the gathering, drawing into its shadow even those, like Barnave, who had been among Mirabeau’s bitterest enemies. Sobbing broke out here and there as Bertrand Barère proposed that the entire Assembly, rather than just a deputation, attend the funeral. Talleyrand then stood as a last witness and communicant, the necessary Elisha. “I went yesterday to see M. de Mirabeau; there were many people in the house and I went with an even greater measure of sadness than that of the public sorrow. The sight of desolation filled one with the picture of death; it was everywhere save in the spirit of the one in most imminent danger…” Mirabeau had given him his last speech, a gift snatched from the thief Death himself, the testimony of a public man.
What followed, alas, did not live up to this stunning piece of memorial stagecraft. Talleyrand read a lengthy and uncharacteristically dull discussion, written by Solomon Reybaz, of the laws of inheritance, the saving grace of which was that its subject was so obviously on Mirabeau’s mind as he approached his end. The man who just before his death had argued so passionately for heroic materialism completed his career by commissioning an argument in the opposite vein: for the priority of fraternal justice (that is to say, inalienable equal inheritance) over the free disposition of legacies. Doubtless his own disinheritance had not been far from his mind.
On the following day the Assembly remained in session, which was unusual on a Sunday, purely to discuss the arrangements for Mirabeau’s funeral. From the passions engaged, as well as the general sense of distress in the streets outside, and throughout France, it was apparent that the Revolution, which was committed to the enactment of abstract principles, also had the deepest cravings for heroes who embodied them. Modern historical writing (with some honorable exceptions) has been reluctant to acknowledge this, as though to do so were to acknowledge a nineteenthcentury view of the Revolution as the product of Great Lives. The Revolution has instead been presented as the outcome of impersonal forces: of the friction of social structure and institutional dysfunction. For contemporaries, however, the confluence of the neo-Roman obsession with exempla virtutes and the Romantic infatuation with the Promethean will meant that no epochal event like the Revolution could be apprehended without its incarnation in cults of heroes and martyrs. That candidates for this exemplary role had paraded their imperfections was no obstacle, for had not Homer himself made much of such human frailty amongst the gods and heroes? So it was that Mirabeau, who in his forty-two years had exhibited every sign of common mortality, was the first to be elevated to the ranks of the modern Immortals.
In keeping with the cult of patriot-heroes that had been steadily growing since the Seven Years’ War, it had already been determined that there should be a “Westminster Abbey for the French.” The idea of a Panthéon predated the Revolution, and a number of projects of the 1770s listed the same worthies who had figured in the necrologies and medallic histories: Turenne, Colbert, Lamoignon. Such a monument to “Grands Hommes” would distinguish itself from a crypt of kings by celebrating virtue over lineage, self-invention over tradition. When the Marquis de Pastoret proposed a Panthéon, its first obvious candidate, Descartes, wasrepresented as someone persecuted by kings, forced into the fugitive life of the independent philosopher. The imprisonment and exiles of Voltaire and Rousseau fitted conveniently into the same pattern.
Soufflot’s handsome, still unfinished church of Sainte-Geneviève was thought suitable because its austere neoclassicism seemed to project the virtues associated with the philosophers and patriotic statesmen. The architect Quatremère de Quincy, to whom the commission was given, saw the building as ideal precisely because it was at the opposite extreme from the arbitrarily crowded Gothic crypt of kings at Saint-Denis. As Mona Ozouf has pointed out, the designated space was to be stripped of associations of death, since its function was to celebrate the immortality of heroes. Consequently it would be a triumphal, not a burial, space.
On the face of it, Mirabeau’s candidacy as the first of the revolutionary heroes to be accommodated in the Panthéon raised all sorts of difficulties. The exemplary virtues of the “Grands Hommes” were supposed to be personal and familial as well as political or philosophical. But the great outpouring of lamentation that followed his death so drowned skepticism that even Robespierre and Barnave, to whom Mirabeau’s vices had been all too apparent, voiced support for the proposal.
The funeral was thus designed as a great demonstration of patriotic reverence that would culminate in Mirabeau’s arrival at the Panthéon. At around six o’clock on April 4, a long military procession left his house, led by companies of the National Guard on horse and foot, the infantry showing their rifles reversed and drums muffled with black crepe. At the center was a leaden urn containing Mirabeau’s heart – the seat of what had been decreed his sovereign virtues of candor, passion and sincerity. Behind the pallbearers, also of the National Guard, followed battalions of veterans and children (by now a standard feature of these occasions); representatives of the municipality of Paris and the departmental administration on which Mirabeau had served; virtually the entire Constituent Assembly; and even more surprisingly, en masse, the Jacobins, who, notwithstanding his apostasy, had decreed a week of mourning for their ex-president and resolved each year, on June 23, to read aloud Mirabeau’s retort to the Marquis de Dreux-Brézé. At the very end, the procession simply dissolved into a gigantic crowd of Parisians and those who had come to the city to be close to the dead hero, a crowd, it was said, of three hundred thousand, an enormous tide of humanity flowing through the streets bearing torches in the descending Paris night. “It seemed,” wrote Nicolas Ruault to his brother, “that we were travelling with him to the world of the dead.”
At the black-draped Church of Saint-Eustache a halt was made so that the Abbé Cérutti could preach a eulogy to the dead man in a manner compatible with Mirabeau’s not especially orthodox beliefs. The procession then resumed and plodded forward to the music of a requiem mass specially composed by Gossec and scored for unusual wind instruments that sounded keening notes amidst the conventional pomp. Near midnight the procession finally reached Sainte-Geneviève, where theheart of the orator was set on a catafalque beside the tomb of the philosopher.
Some accounts, in word and image, took the journey still further. An impromptu play, Mirabeau’ s Arrival in the Elysian Fields, acted out the content of an engraving by Moreau le Jeune that had the Count received by Rousseau, crowned by Franklin and fêted by Voltaire, Montesquieu and Fénelon. On another plane his virtues were celebrated by oratoricalpredecessors like Demosthenes and Cicero. Only Brissot in his paper objected to the incessant allusions to Mirabeau’s virtue. He knew the dead man well enough to know that he would have struck the word from the testimonials, for his “tomb is not honored by a lie.”
Mirabeau became the object of mass veneration not just in Paris but in the provinces. In Reims there was a requiem mass and in the Church of Notre Dame at Bordeaux a sarcophagus for the great man was raised on four columns, the exploits of the “heroic Hercules” engraved on its side. And in dramatic contrast to Mirabeau’s unlikely beatification was the accelerated erosion of respect for the King. His connivance in the exit of the aunts was represented in the Patriot press as tolerance of, if not sympathy for, the position of the Pope, whose official denunciation of the Civil Constitution was announced in March, and whose effigy was burned on the streets of Paris. Pius VI had declared ex cathedra the ordination of constitutional bishops to be a sacrilege and required every priest who had taken the oath to recant within forty days on pain of suspension. Through all this Louis lay uncharacteristically sick, with high fevers and hacking bloody coughs. Brooding miserably on his assent to the law enforcing the oath, given on Christmas Eve 1790, he now repented himself of the apostasy. His chaplain, who had taken the oath, was replaced by a pious nonjuror, Père Hébert, and the King decidedhenceforth to avoid communion from a constitutional priest. With Holy Week approaching, the best solution seemed to be to travel to SaintCloud, where these devotions could take place away from the angry anticlericalism of the Parisians.
This was all the more necessary since the mood of the capital in the spring of 1791 was not benign. Angry crowds, often mobilized by the popular societies, protested lack of work and denounced counterrevolutionary traitors they claimed to have unmasked. There were repeated threats to close the public-relief works, which paid twenty sous a day to nearly thirty thousand men and women. On the same day as the “affair of the daggers” in the Tuileries, just such a crowd of workers from Santerre’s brewery had attempted to march on the Château deVincennes, which they said was being prepared as a new Bastille. A number were arrested and severely dealt with. But disorder continued with a wave of strikes called by the better-organized journeymen artisans – farriers, carpenters and hatters – against low wages.
All these moods – hunger, poverty, anticlerical rage and patriotic paranoia – converged on the Monday of Holy Week, April 18, when news spread in the sections that the King and Queen were about to depart for Saint-Cloud. On the previous day, the Cordeliers Club had published a resolution declaring that by flouting the Civil Constitution Louis had betrayed his own title of “the Restorer of French Liberty” and reminding him that as “first functionary of the state” he was also “the first subject of the Law.” By his example, it was said, he had authorized rebellion and was “preparing for the French nation all the horrors of discord, and the scourge of civil war.” And at the time of the King’s illness, Fréron’s paper had described the Assembly’s official expression of con-cern as “twelve hundred legislators soiling their dignity as men and as representatives of the French nation by going into ecstasies for eight days over the state of the King’s urine and his stools to the point of falling on their faces before his toilet as if it were the most resplendent throne.”
When the King and Queen attempted to reach their carriage at the gates of the palace they found their way blocked by a large and angry crowd. Marie-Antoinette then proposed they use a berline that could be harnessed inside the courtyard and escorted by National Guardsmen commanded by Lafayette. When, however, the General attempted to clear a path for its exit, his men refused to obey and began – as on the morning of October 5, 1789 – to direct threats against him. Continued harangues were of no avail. For an hour and three quarters, the King and Queen sat inside the coach enduring ripe abuse. To the crowd and soldiers they were not much more than the hybrid monster of the print “The Two Make But One,” which showed a horned (and cuckolded) goat-man at one end and a plumed hyena-woman at the other. When Louis tried to make a little speech, expressing surprise that “he who gave the French nation its freedom should now be denied his own,” a grenadier of the Guard retorted, “Veto.” Another told him that he was a fat pig whose appetite cost the people twenty-five millions a year. The Queen sat hunched against a carriage wall, tears of vexation and alarm streaming down her face. Terror at this ordeal gradually gave way to dejection and dejection to resignation. Lafayette realized that there was no way out but humiliation. The horses backed up and Louis and Marie-Antoinette returned to their apartments in the palace bitterly aware that, more than ever, they were captives. The next day the King reiterated his demand to the National Assembly that his legal entitlement to travel within a radius of twenty miles from the capital be honored. On the same day Brissot’s paper appeared carrying a laudatory review of a work by one Louis La Vicomterie entitled The Crimes of the Kings of France from Clovis to Louis XVI.
It was this harrowing experience that, by his own account, led Louis to embrace a more drastic plan of escape. Mirabeau’s death had removed the one figure whose persuasiveness and intelligence might have made a genuine constitutional monarchy possible. The King’s troubled conscience over religion and his deepening anxiety over the physical safety of his family moved him further towards the secret plans for flight that had long been Marie-Antoinette’s favored means of liberating the monarchy from its predicament. A succession of advisers had been urging this on her, most notably the ex-minister Breteuil, now safely ensconced in Switzerland. From his own exile in London, Calonne, who had assumed something like an active leadership of the counter-revolution, agreed that that would be the best strategy. And most important, Lafayette’s cousin the Marquis de Bouillé, the army commander at Metz, indicated that troops at a frontier garrison could be mustered in enough numbers to assure protection for the escapees. The previous August, Bouilléhad responded with the utmost severity to a mutiny at the Nancy garrison of the Suisses de Châteauvieux – the last in a series of insurrections over wages and the right to fraternize. Since the soldiers were under special military jurisdiction, the sentences were draconian. One soldier had been broken on the wheel; twenty were hanged and forty-one sentenced to the galleys for life. To Marie-Antoinette this seemed assuring evidence that he would be dependable.
The selected garrison town was to be Montmédy, on the frontier ofthe Austrian Netherlands, where four German and two Swiss regiments of the royal army would provide adequate security for the King to plant his banner. It was the closest border from Paris, nearly two hundred miles – perhaps two days’ hard drive. On the other side, the Queen’s brother the Emperor Leopold might have enough military force to deter any attempt at recapture, or even to restore the King’s authority in the same manner the Prussian grenadiers had restored Prince William V to The Hague in 1787. The co-ordinator of the plan of escape was Axel Fersen, an officer of the Swedish regiment of the French army who had become a passionate devotee of the Queen and increasingly anguished by the royal family’s plight. Reams of paper have been wasted in an attempt to discover whether Fersen and Marie-Antoinette were or were not lovers, provoking prurience from her detractors and indignation from her defenders. Given the Queen’s dramatically more somber manner and appearance during this period and her subjection to incessant surveillance, a sexual liaison seems wildly unlikely, but in any event it misses the point. In keeping with the culture of sentimental devotion, Fersen’s passion was of a kind in which chivalric feeling overwhelmed erotic ambition. What he wanted was the freedom and dignity of the injured woman. “She is an angel and I try to console her as best I can,” he wrote. One way, it seemed, was to buy her box after box of the softest Swedish calfskin gloves impregnated with attar of roses.
To secure the escape required careful planning and good fortune. In the event, however, the plans went awry and fortune looked the other way. Fersen had sensibly urged a light, fast coach for the journey, with the King and Queen traveling separately to divert suspicion. But the Queen insisted on a capacious berline that would carry the whole family, one which would only travel at about seven miles an hour. Since the Revolution was in the process of reducing them to common citizens, how fitting it would be to depart reversing roles with their servants. The royal governess, Mme de Tourzel, was to play a “Baronne Korff” in whose name passports would be supplied to Frankfurt; the Queen, looking persuasively prim in a plain black coat, was to be governess to the children (with the Dauphin dressed as a girl named, rather beautifully, Aglaé); Mme Elisabeth, the King’s sister, was to be a bonneted nurse;and the King, in round hat, wig and plain coat, was to be the valet “Durand.” At around midnight on June 20, he exited the palace past guards who mistook him for the Chevalier de Coigny, who for some weeks had carefully been dressed in the disguise costume and had been ostentatiously exercising his right to come and go as he pleased. Leaving soon after by an unlit and unguarded passage, Marie-Antoinette almost ran into Lafayette, who was doing his usual rounds of the palace security by carriage. She turned abruptly, pressing her face against the wall to avoid recognition. Her composure rattled, the Queen then got herself lost in the dark alleys around the Tuileries, taking half an hour before finding the carriage with its anxious passengers.
At two o’clock on a helpfully moonless night the coach passed through the Porte Saint-Martin going northeast. Beyond the barrière Fersen rode up with the berline, gradually moving alongside slowly and carefully enough that all the company could transfer from one carriage to the other without stopping. The first coach was left behind and six fast post-horses harnessed to its successor. Fersen took the coach the first stage of the journey and implored the King to allow him to continue, but Louis was at least aware that it would be unseemly for the King of the French to be conducted to the frontier by a foreign soldier. Fersen disappeared into the night promising a rendezvous in Brussels.
By dawn, the family was beginning to relax somewhat. Teams of horses came and went as planned. At Claye the Queen’s maids joined her in a little cabriolet that followed behind. But there was nothing out of the ordinary in a fast-traveling heavily loaded black-and-green berline with yellow wheels, its baggage swaying, to arouse any suspicion. At Meaux, twenty-six miles from Paris, the party breakfasted on boeuf àla mode with petits pois and carrots snugly trapped in aspic while they, on the other hand, were beginning to feel free. “Once my bum is in the saddle again I’ll be a new man,” said the King, reverting to the kind of homely diction he was accustomed to use around Versailles. An even more obvious sign of his return to form was the obsessive way he plotted the journey on a specially prepared map. Cottages dotting the flat, prosperously uninteresting countryside of the Marne went by and at a posthouse near Châlons they were given consommé by the wife of apostmaster who recognized the King but registered nothing more than gratifyingly devoted silence.
Not long afterwards, cornering at speed (that is, around ten miles an hour) on a bridge, a wheel hit a stone post, breaking the traces and felling the horses. Another half hour was needed to right the carriage – which, added to earlier delays, meant that theberlinewas seriously behind schedule for its rendezvous with the military escorts planned to conduct it to Montmédy. Bouilléhad instructed the young Duc de Choiseulto provide a military escort when the royal coach reached Pont de Somme-Vesle, the first in a series of escorts that would accompany the royal family until they arrived safely at Montmédy. But the unexpectedarrival at Pont de Somme-Vesle of a troop of mounted soldiers had roused local fears that they had come to enforce tax collection, and groups of peasants and villagers were gathering in some force to resist. Waiting nervously for a coach that failed to arrive, Choiseul reassured the people that the guards were only needed to escort “treasure” to Sainte-Menehould farther along the road. By four thirty in the afternoon the royal party was two hours late for the rendezvous and Choiseul became gradually convinced that the plan had miscarried. Waiting with him was another figure, apparently indispensable to the Queen, her hairdresser Léonard, a veteran from the golden days of Mme Vigée-Lebrun and Rose Bertin. Departing in haste, Choiseul gave Léonard anote for the officers of the other relays indicating that something had gone wrong and that he would rejoin Bouillé. He waited another hour or so and then led his men into the forest of the Argonne, where they duly lost their way.
From this point, the crucial coordination of the journey unraveled. News of the King’s escape from Paris had already beaten his coach to Sainte-Menehould and the local National Guard had forcibly disarmed a party of dragoons, suspecting them of abetting the fugitives. The postmaster, Drouet, had seen the Queen while serving in the cavalry, and with talk of the royal flight the main topic in the town, he needed little convincing of the passengers’ identity. Checking the face of the
large “valet” in the corner of the coach against the image of the King printed on a fifty-livre assignat removed all further doubts.
With none of the promised soldiers appearing, and the stares of village postmasters becoming interrogatory rather than sympathetic, Louis was growing acutely aware that June 21 was the longest day of the year, denying the travelers the anonymity of the night. But there were other troubles. At Varennes, just forty miles away from Montmédy, eighteenyear-old captain of the planned military escort, Rohring, faced with bored and baffled men, gave them permission to find quarters to sleep. Close to ten thirty he received orders to muster them again. But it proved impossible to extricate the soldiers from the taverns and houses where they had gone to seek sleeping quarters and other comforts.
By the time that Louis arrived at Varennes in search of fresh horses and the elusive escort, he had been overtaken on a back route by the postmaster, who, as an ex-dragoon, could ride hard and fast. A general alert had been raised and, with the mayor absent, the coach was stopped by the local procureur, M. Sauce. Papers which seemed to be in order were examined. It was only Drouet’s insistence that they were indeed the King and Queen and that letting them through was tantamount to treason that changed Sauce’s mind. The town was now wide awake, crowds with torches and local guardsmen with rifles at the ready filling the cobbled streets. Sauce had the party wait in his house, from which he sold candles and provisions. They were given an upstairs bedroom, in which the exhausted children were put to bed. At around midnight an elderly juge de paix, M. Destez, who had lived at Versailles, was led in. Looking aghast and overwhelmed by the King’s presence, he instinctively fell on his knee. “Eh bien,” responded Louis, “I am indeed your King.”
Was there something of a conditioned reflex about this? An emotionally overcome subject, rather than a citizen, crooking the knee and involuntarily eliciting the fatal words.
In Paris, consternation erupted on the discovery of the King and Queen’s departure. “In twenty-four hours the kingdom could be in flames and the enemy could be at our door,” exclaimed Charles de Lameth. Lafayette was the person immediately responsible for their safekeeping and, safe in his coach, Louis had gloated over his guardian’s predicament. At the Jacobins both Danton and Robespierre used the occasion not only to hold the General accountable but to imply that he had been an accomplice in the escape. “You, M. Lafayette,” threatened Robespierre, “will answer to the Assembly on the fate of the King with your head.”
When the news was brought to the Assembly, the fiction of an enlèvement, an abduction by ill-intentioned persons, was used to forestall an outburst of republicanism. But the Jacobin and Cordelier press, which for some days before the flight had pointed to unusual movements of troops and arms to the north and eastern frontiers, exploded in contemptuous indignation. Fréron’s paper was typical in seeing the event as the work of an infernal Austrian committee presided over by the Queen, with Lafayette as its accomplice and Louis the pathetic tool of its design.
He has gone, this imbecile King, this perjured King, that scoundrel Queen who combines the lustfulness of Messalina with the bloodthirstiness of the Medicis. Execrable woman, Furie of France, it is you who were the soul of the conspiracy!
Enraged crowds went about the Paris streets defacing or smashing shop and inn signs bearing the King’s name. Notaries whose profession was designated by boards bearing the fleur-de-lis hurriedly removed them. Someone posted a placard against the gates of the Tuileries palace reading “Maison à louer” (House to let). The more telling reaction, however, was among relatively moderate politicians whose faith in a viable active constitutional monarchy was irreversibly undermined. Condorcet, for example, was immediately converted to republicanism, hitherto the preserve of only the wilder zealots of the Cordeliers, and discussed with Brissot and Tom Paine plans to set up a journal actively campaigning for an end to the monarchy. Citizen Ferrières, no militant, writing to his wife, sounded for the first time like a revolutionary prosecutor distancing his own identity as Citizen Ferrières from the “aristocrats.”
So this, ma bonne amie, is where the intrigues and the little plots of those reckless and guilty Aristocrats have led. They have abused the weakness of the King to advise him to undertake so pernicious a deed; for their own selfish interests and the vengeance of their pride, they have not feared to expose the patrie to the horrors of the most murderous civil war, the King whom they say they love to the loss of his crown and all his family to the most frightful consequences. They have been undone as they always will be and their criminal efforts will come down on their heads. I won’t complain of that, they deserve their fate. But the King! What humiliation! The Queen! That Queen whom, it seems, God in his anger has given France!
Marie-Antoinette and her husband were indeed being forced to drink a bitter cup to the lees. Confined in the upstairs room of the candlemaker procureur, they were confronted at dawn the next morning by two couriers from the National Assembly requiring their return to Paris. The Queen described the demand as insolence; Louis announced that “there is no longer a king in France.” They departed from Varennes surrounded by six thousand armed citizens and National Guardsmen, enough to make the King shrink from any suggestion that Bouillé’s troops should be used to secure his release by force. Only one pathetic attempt was ventured when the Comte du Val de Dampierre, stricken by loyalist fervor, attempted to ride to the coach and salute the King. Barely resisting, he was dragged away by the guard and hacked to death by a crowd comprised of peasants to whom he had been a notoriously callous seigneur.
Like the involuntary journeys to Paris of July and October 1789, the abject procession of 1791 signified the annihilation of the royal mystique. At Versailles, court hierarchy had been defined by strict conventions governing physical proximity to the persons of the King and Queen, enacted each day in the rituals of the lever and the coucher. At Epernay those taboos were casually tossed aside when two official representatives of the Assembly, Jérô me Pétion and Barnave, got into the coach and sat themselves, without asking permission, between the King and Queen. When they ate, the two men also ate; when Pétion needed to relieve himself, the coach stopped. Barnave had the Dauphin demonstrate what a good reader he was by repeating out loud the newly fashionablemotto inscribed on his buttons: “Vive Libre ou Mourir” (“Live free or die”). Pétion, in his vanity, even imagined (or so his memoirs claimed) that Mme Elisabeth was so smitten with him that she pressed herself against him with meaningful insistence. On the other hand, the “air of simplicity and family feeling” that he found in the royal party surprised and pleased him.
Even as the coach trundled its way back to captivity, news of the flight was traveling around the country. Since it took three to four days for news to reach the farthest corners of the country, panics broke out, especially at the frontiers. At Bayonne there were reports of a Spanish invasion, to occur almost immediately; on the Breton coast, men were posted to watch for a British fleet of forty sail carrying an army of five thousand émigrés. Even when the news of the King’s arrest was received at Metz, not far away, the Jacobins issued a proclamation calling all citizens to arms: “Defend your homes, count only on your brothers!” Many other rumors spread that Varennes had already been laid waste by Austrian soldiers as a reprisal for stopping the King.
Contempt lightened fear in the outpouring of satirical prints, many of them dwelling on the King’s reputation for gluttony. A number showed him detained at dinner when enraged National Guards came to make the arrest. One primitive production in this vein, strongly reminiscent of English satires, has Louis attacking a roast as the decree for his arrest arrives. “Be damned with that,” he replies, “let me eat in peace.” Marie-Antoinette, admiring herself in the mirror, implores her husband, “My dear Louis, haven’t you finished your two turkeys yet or drunk your six bottles of wine, for you know we must dine at Montmédy.” The Dauphin is being congratulated for his efforts with the chamber pot, while on the walls a print of the fall of the Bastille is hung beside a royal proclamation turned upside down.
As the royal carriage approached Paris, the mood inside became funereally somber. At Pantin, on the outskirts of the city, women shouted invective at the Queen. In Paris itself, unlike the arrivals of 1789, there was not even the faintest pretense of a royal entry. Instead of cheering, crowds had been instructed by the Assembly to show restrained disrespect. “Anyone who applauds the King will be beaten,” read a widely posted sign; “anyone who insults him will be hanged.” The Jacobins recommended that citizens keep their hats on their heads as the carriage passed to show displeasure. In the streets, National Guardsmen crossed their rifles in the air in attitudes of defiance. Even Lafayette was obliged (as much for his safety as the King’s) to issue a reprimand by telling Louis that if he separated his cause from that of the people his own first loyalty would be to the latter. “It’s true that you have followed your principles,” Louis responded, and rather sheepishly confessed that only with this last penitential journey across France had he realized how widely those principles were shared.
With the royal family returned to Paris, the Assembly was in a quandary as to how to respond to the abortive flight. Having left behind him a long declaration, which had been read and published in all the newspapers in his absence, Louis himself had made it impossible to sustain the pretense that he had been “abducted.” The document was a peculiar mixture of intelligence and tactlessness. The greater part of it was a lucidly reasoned critique of the constraints imposed on the monarchy by the decrees of the Assembly, largely echoing Mirabeau’s own concerns, now shared by Barnave, Duport and the Lameths. In impressively argued paragraphs Louis raised the problematic nature of the place of the monarch in a system that purportedly gave him a constitutional role but in reality no power whatever to use it. How could magistrates be said to administer justice in the King’s name when he had no part in either their nomination or confirmation and when the royal power to commute sentences and grant clemency had been stripped from him? How was it possible to pretend that France was represented abroad by his servants when he had a say neither in confirming ambassadors nor in negotiating and concluding treaties of peace? How could there be any discipline in the army if the clubs were allowed to purge or approve officers on some index of political orthodoxy – as the Jacobins were urging? How, in fact, was it at all possible to have a coherently governed state “of the size and populousness of France” with administrations hostage to the fickleness and hysteria of press and club opinion?
These were all perfectly legitimate and telling questions. As Louis himself noted, they had increasingly been on the mind of “gens sages” in the Assembly, but he had watched as those very men (like Mounier and later Sieyès) became discredited. Mirabeau’s enemies, Duport, Barnave and the Lameths – and later even the Girondins – would follow in exactly the same path. Nothing vindicates the substance of what Louis argued in the declaration more than the fact that Robespierre and the Committee of Public Safety would come to exactly the same conclusion and resolve to reestablish state authority by crushing public opinion and club politics at the end of 1793.
Unfortunately, though, the King’s declaration was also colored by characteristic petulance. He rehearsed the history of physical intimidation during 1789, which made it evident that all his professions of devotion to the people of Paris had only been made under duress and the need to safeguard the lives of his family. He complained that the twenty-five millions granted to him on the civil list was not enough to “sustain the honor of France” and that the accommodations at the Tuileries in October 1789 were far from what the royal household had a right to expect or what they had been accustomed to. He asked Frenchmen if they really wished the “anarchy and despotism of the clubs” to replace “a monarchical government under which France has prospered for fourteen hundred years,” but he had made that anarchy more likely by forbidding his ministers to sign any kind of decrees in his absence.
More than anything in the text of the declaration, the manner in which it was issued by an absentee King traveling at speed to the frontier made it impossible to take seriously. It was not at all clear, however, to the majority of the Assembly what an appropriate response would be. The Cordeliers issued a characteristic statement on the twenty-second requiring their members to take a solemn vow of “tyrannicide” against threats to liberty from both without and within the country, “wherever they may be.” Danton, who had previously declared that Lafayette must be either a traitor or an imbecile to have allowed the escape to happen, now applied the same descriptives to Louis himself. But he received very little support for his proposal to summarily replace the King with an executive council chosen by specially elected representatives. When Condorcet had the Moniteur publish a translation of a declaration written by Tom Paine arguing that the absence of “Louis Capet” had already in effect instituted a republic, it was refuted by a counter-argument by Sieyès reiterating that men were freer in a monarchy since “kings were necessary to save us from the peril of masters.” Even Robespierre in the Jacobins fudged the issue by declaring that the constitution already gave France the best of both worlds, offering “a Republic with a monarch.”
Even at this most discreditable moment in the King’s career, then, most Frenchmen clung to the possibility that Louis’ defection had been the work of an “Austrian Committee.” When Bouillé, from beyond the frontiers, issued a proclamation threatening dire consequences should any harm befall Louis, it only seemed to confirm the conspiracy thesis. At any rate, as Marcel Reinhard has shown, demands for a republic in petitions to the Constituent from around the country were relatively rare.
What were the other options? Perhaps the King could be deposed in favor of the Dauphin and some sort of regency? Smelling an opportunity, “Monsieur Orléans,” as he now liked to be called, had returned to Paris and, managed by the writer Choderlos de Laclos, even sought admission at the Jacobins as a testimony to his revolutionary ardor. But Orléanism had already had its day as a viable alternative to the Bourbons. There was also a growing anxiety that deposing Louis XVI might lead to a war with Austria, something the majority of the Assembly was still anxious to avoid. In mid-July the King’s role in government was declared to be “suspended” until the Assembly had completed its work on the constitution. The entire constitutional project would then be presented to the monarch for a simple yes or no. As a living element in the body politic, however, Louis XVI had already become redundant. Condorcet, who detested the hypocrisy of preserving some sort of mummified convenience of the monarchy when its real raison d’être had gone, took this perception one stage further by publishing a mordant satire in which a mechanical robot-king was devised to go through all the necessary gesticulations of kingship – vetos and such like – leaving real power in the hands of those who switched the levers.
This journey from sacerdotal absolutism to constitutional disposability was made more emphatic by a journey in the opposite direction that took place two weeks after the return of the royal family to Paris. In November 1790 yet another revolutionary marquis, Charles de La Villette, in whose house Voltaire had died, made a speech at the Jacobins urging that the philosopher’s remains be given some sort of national recognition. The problem was acute, for the Abbey of Sellières, where he had been buried, was about to go on the auctioneer’s block. “Will you permit this precious relic to become the property of an individual?” de La Villette asked rhetorically. “Will you allow it to be sold like so much ‘national property’?” (biens nationaux – the euphemism Talleyrand had given to church property sold for the profit of the state).
De La Villette was, in any case, one of the prime movers of the Panthéon project, and the Constituent shared his appraisal of Voltaire – “the glorious Revolution has been the fruit of his works.” Thus they agreed that Voltaire’s remains should be brought back to Paris for interment in the monument to the “Grands Hommes.” The moment was particularly timely. The spring of 1791 had seen something like a cult of Voltaire. Talma had been playing Brutus in the proper antique manner and had even added a scene which exactly replicated David’s great history painting of 1789, with the actor sitting brooding in the shadow cast by “Mother” Roma while the bodies of his plotting monarchist sons, executed by his writ, are borne in on a litter. At the Cordeliers on the twenty-second of June, when the oath for tyrannicide was taken, speeches were made specifically referring to an earlier moment in the Brutus history, when news of the rape of Lucrèce by Tarquin’s sons was brought to the consul and he swore “by the chaste dagger to exterminate the race of Tarquin.” When the ignoble King attempted to return to Rome he had the gates of the city shut in his face. “What grandeur, what dignity,” commented Fréron. “Frenchmen, why is there no Brutus among you?”
Voltaire’s apotheosis on July 11 was deliberately stage-managed to stress his “Roman” virtues at the expense of the discredited monarchy. Fréron, whose father Voltaire had loathed and of whom he had memorably said “a snake bit Fréron; the snake died,” allowed himself just one reference to the “irascible philosopher” but was thrilled by the elaborately antique nature of the memorial. The body had been transported from Romilly-sur-Seine in a simple wagon decorated with a blue cloth and had been received, at successive stages, by civic dignitaries and officials. At the outskirts of Paris it was escorted by National Guardsmen to the ruins of the Bastille, where the philosopher’s smile might contemplate his victory over the fortress in which he had been twice incarcerated. He, the message ran, had endured while the stones had fallen! The coffin was then placed behind a barrier of poplars and cypresses and guarded by alternating shifts of National Guardsmen and girls dressed àl’ antique in white robes.
For the procession to the Panthéon a monumental chariot, as high as a two-story house, was designed by a small committee that included Quatremère de Quincy and Jacques-Louis David. Its wheels were cast in bronze and according to Roman models. The sarcophagus was of imperial porphyry and was raised on three steps. At its top reposed Voltaire on an antique couch-bed in an attitude of sleep, his face settled into the benign expression made famous by replicas of Houdon’s portrait busts. By his side was a broken lyre and behind the bolster the figure of Eternity placed a crown of stars on his head. At the corners of the catafalque figures representing Genius were seated in expressions of mourning, their torches reversed. Inscriptions from Voltaire’s works were engraved on its four sides, including Brutus’s “O gods, give us death rather than slavery.” Four white horses caparisoned only with the tricolor drew the chariot.
The cortège included the usual cast of characters – Jacobins, deputies, representatives of the Commune, National Guardsmen – but was made much more interesting by the inclusion of representations from Voltaire’s works and life. The twenty-third model of the Bastille to be made by Palloy from its stones was given prominence and a troupe of men dressed in Roman costume carried as trophies of glory editions of all Voltaire’s works. Another group of actors from Talma’s troupe represented the family of Jean Calas, the Protestant who had been executed for allegedly murdering his son and whose vindication became Voltaire’s most famous cause célèbre. Citizens of the faubourg Saint-Antoine carried banners on which had been painted the faces of other comparable worthies: Franklin, Rousseau and Mirabeau.
As usual in a Paris July, it rained. But a hundred thousand turned out nonetheless to watch as the procession made its way in a series of “stations” to the Panthéon, stopping at the sites of Voltairean triumphs: the Opéra, where actresses sang a special hymn written by Gossec and Chénier; the Théâtre-Français, where the aria from Samson was sung urging “people to awake, break your chains, ascend to your greatness of old.” It took from three in the afternoon until ten at night for Voltaire to finally arrive at the Panthéon to become the third in the rather oddly assorted trinity. In many ways, however, the old Newtonian was a more suitable roommate for Mirabeau than for Descartes.
It was said that as the immense procession passed by the Pont-Royal, Louis XVI was watching furtively from an upstairs window. Everywhere, in the popular press and especially in printed images, the connection was made between the disgrace of the King and the apotheosis of the philosopher. In a typical example of the genre, the allegorical figure of Fame salutes Voltaire’s pantheonization (seen in the background) in the customary way while providing an altogether different salvo for the toppling monarch. The invidious pairing is carried through all the details of the print, Voltaire’s immortality being contrasted with the “Faux Pas” blundering mortality – a reference to the aborted flight to Varennes – reinforced by the motto, drawn from one of the philosopher’s plays, that “A king is merely a man with an august title; first subject of the laws, he is forced to be just.” At the foot of their respective pedestals are a lyre and a rank growth of weeds and thistles.
This unflattering comparison was not altogether the intention of those who organized the fête de Voltaire. If anything, they were more concerned with dulling the edge of the agitation for a republican democracy being waged in the popular societies than with sharpening it. On May 9 a decree had been enacted banning all petitions bearing “collective signatures.” Together with the Le Chapelier law passed at the end of June proscribing worker “coalitions,” it represented a concerted effort to place sharp limits on the disruptive capacity of popular politics. Accordingly, one of the inscriptions on Voltaire’s sarcophagus made strong references to the favorite refrain of Lafayette and Bailly, now endorsed by Barnave and Duport: the necessity of obeying the law. And one of the heroes memorialized on banners in the procession was the soldier Desilles, who had been killed while attempting to separate royal and mutinous troops at Nancy and had become canonized as the martyr of the “moderates.”
Most histories argue that these efforts to subsume republicanism in the fictions of revolutionary unity failed. On the sixteenth of July, François and Louise Robert’s Central Committee of popular societies circulated a petition declaring that Louis XVI had “deserted his post” and that by this act and his “perjury” had, in effect, abdicated. Until the rest of the nation indicated a will contrary to the petition, the signatories declared, they would no longer recognize him as their King. A signing demonstration was called for at the Champ de Mars the following day on the “altar of the patrie.” On the morning of the seventeenth, two men who were found hiding under the altar were immediately suspected of evil intentions and summarily hanged. Lafayette this time succeeded in persuading Bailly to declare martial law, so that around fifty thousand demonstrators, unarmed, and many of them from the poorer districts of the city, were confronted by the National Guard. Showered with stones, the guardsmen opened fire, killing a number put at thirteen by the authorities and fifty by one of the leaders of the demonstration.
In the chronology of revolutionary inevitability, this confrontation on the Champ de Mars is seen as not only anticipating but causing the popular republicanism of 1792 and 1793. But that is not at all how matters seemed to stand in August and September of 1791. On the contrary, the attempts of constitutionalists to arrest the drift of revolution towards what they called “anarchy” seemed to have succeeded. On April 18, when the King was prevented from leaving for Saint-Cloud, Lafayette had wanted Bailly to declare martial law and he had refused. In July he had concurred, and the repression was as severe as the General intended it should be. Robespierre had actually persuaded the Jacobins not to support the “abdication” petition, and while condemning the violent repression on the Champ de Mars, they refused to associate themselves with its cause. Despite this reticence, the club still broke in two over the crisis. By far the greater both in numbers and in influence were the newly baptized Feuillants led by Barnave, Duport and the Lameths. Robespierre and Pétion found themselves in the rue Saint-Honoré talking to a smallrump of a hundred or so members. Further repression against the Cordeliers and the other popular societies succeeded even more completely in wiping them out as effective centers of propaganda among the Paris artisans. Mme Roland wrote that Lafayette’s guards went around seizing copies of Marat’s newspaper from vendors and tearing them up with impunity.
On the other flank, the strategies of the traditional royalists – the Noirs – in the Assembly had been completely confounded by the fiasco of the King’s escape. With Mirabeau gone, and Lafayette in bad odor after the Champ de Mars, the role of constitutional guardians fell to the “triumvirs”: Barnave, Adrien Duport and Alexandre Lameth. All three were men who had come out of the judicial polemics of the old regime and had been converted to national, rather than popular, sovereignty. In September 1791 they had some reason for supposing that the chances of stabilizing the Revolution were better than they had been for some time. On the thirteenth the King accepted, without demur, the Constitution and the following day was officially installed in his political nullity as “King of the French.”
Two days before, the biennial Salon had opened at the Louvre. At its center were three great canvases, all by Jacques-Louis David, which seemed to proclaim with an eloquence unmatched by any of the orators of the Assembly the reigning fictions of revolutionary patriotic unity. In the center was the brooding Brutus, loaned by Louis XVI, who was still its owner as well as principal victim. At left were the Horatii and immediately below them the deputies of the Estates-General echoing the gesture of the Roman brothers by raising their arms in the Tennis Court Oath. The latter, enormous work was still a drawing, but the austerity of the bistre monochrome seemed fitting for the devotional austerity of the mood and somehow reinforced the enormous compositional pull of the work towards its patriotic center, where light played on the head of Sylvain Bailly commanding the oath.
By this time, the harmonies the drawing celebrated were rapidly turning discordant. At the center of the work was the triangular concordance of faiths: the Protestant Rabaut Saint-Etienne, the Capuchin Dom Gerle (who was not even in the tennis court that day) and the Patriot Abbé Grégoire. But Dom Gerle had become an enemy of the Revolution since he had proposed on April 10, 1790 that Catholicism be declared the sole religion of state; Protestant guards and Catholic rebels were killing each other in the Midi and the Rhone Valley; and while Grégoire would go on to be a Conventionnel, Rabaut had already recoiled from the excesses of popular insurrection. Bailly, to whom all arms were raised, was rapidly losing control of government in Paris. Sieyès, seen at a desk as the ideologist of the national sovereignty, had been alienated by the Civil Constitution and had just produced a refutation of Tom Paine’s republi-can manifesto. If Barnave, to the right of the picture, was given prominence in the urgency of his gesture, he was at least counter-balanced by Maximilien Robespierre (who had been completely insignificant in June 1789), his arms crossed on his chest in the body language of Rousseauean sincerity and virtue.
Nowhere in the work, however, did David editorialize more optimistically on the Revolution than in the three corners where spectators are shown. It is there that the People, endlessly apostrophized by the politicians, make their appearance as audience, pupils and ideal citizens: patriotic in their muscularity but never threatening in their unruliness. For the most part they are emblems of Jacobin political aesthetics: the sans-culotte with the Phrygian hat is modeled like an antique statue and posed like a Michelangelo fresco. The group at top right (possibly drawn from David’s own children) incorporates the inevitable sentimental alliance between the venerable and the juvenile: past suffering and future hope.
The clichés become forgivable as David throws into the composition the immense force of the revolutionary tempest, given literal visualization through the blown drapery. Old-regime conventions and traditional sovereignty are turned inside out like the umbrella seen at top left. Even the expression given to its holder registers the exact, transforming moment, with a coup de foudre hitting the Royal Chapel. This great political gale surges into the empty space of the court to meet the straining, ecstatic collective gesture of the deputies, at the lit center of the orthogonal cross.
The figures, said one critic, “breathe with the love of the patrie, of virtue and liberty. Everywhere one sees Catos ready to die for them.” The famous dissent of Martin d’Auch at bottom right only served to reinforce the feeling that this was a hymn to revolutionary unity. But David was never able to complete the work, precisely because in the course of the following year those unities were exposed as fictitious. On the revelation of his dealings with the court, Mirabeau, whom David had placed closer to the beholder than any other figure, fell into such deep disgrace that in 1793 his remains were disinterred from the Panthéon and thrown into a common burial pit. Bailly and Barnave would perish on the guillotine, Sieyès survive by great feats of agile pragmatism. David himself would sign warrants as a member of the Committee for General Security and surpass himself in public expressions of devotion to Robespierre and Marat.
Poets of Romantic weather-forecasting like André Chénier and William Wordsworth, who felt its drama, continued to describe the Revolution as a great cyclonic disturbance. But increasingly it was no longer the storm that invigorates and cleanses; rather, a dark and potent elemental rage, moving forward in indiscriminate destruction. Its breath was no longer sweet but foul. It was the wind of war.