The Legislative Assembly that replaced the Constituent is often seen as a kind of revolutionary interregnum, helplessly marking time between the constitutional monarchy and the Jacobin Terror. Compared with its predecessor, its personnel are thought of as nondescript, its utterances and decrees banal patriotic pieties lacking either the authentic conflicts of the Constituent or the feverish militancy of the Convention. Nothing could be further from the truth. A good case could be made that, in sheer political and intellectual talent, the Legislative was the most impressive of all the revolutionary assemblies. Its oratory was of an operatic intensity that made the speeches of its predecessor seem wan by comparison. And the war into which it led France was, arguably, the single most important event of the Revolution since the decision to call the Estates-General.
The Legislative came to Paris elected by a pathetically small proportion of the eligible voters: no more than 10 percent. Since the original elections to the Estates-General, in fact, it was a rule that the more radical the Revolution became, the narrower the electoral base on which it rested, for the Convention was to be produced from even fewer votes. Characteristically the Legislative’s membership was provided by those politicains in the provinces who had made a reputation from opposing the incumbent notables who still dominated the mayoralties and departmental administrations. In the Constituent Assembly, of course, the new regime had seen off all the aristocrats and clergy who had hung grimly on to their status as deputies since the Estates-General. The Legislative Assembly did, however, include a number of revolutionary aristocrats like Condorcet, the Protestant Chevalier de Jaucourt, the Marquis de Rovère and the Comte de Kersaint as well as constitutional bishops like Lamourette of Lyon and Fauchet of Caen.
For the rest, there was nothing much to distinguish the new legislators from their predecessors, and historians have spent fruitless efforts trying to determine just how bourgeois either group was. For what it is worth, there were rather fewer merchants, industrialists and financiers in the Legislative than in the Constituent. But it makes no sense to anatomize the body in terms of occupational distribution, especially when categories like “lawyers” (who, nominally, again dominated the body) disguise huge differences of fortune and status. What linked the body together was a kind of cultural community, so that an army engineer like Lazare Carnot could converse easily on technical matters with mathematicians like Monge and chemists like Guyton-Morveau who had written extensively on the military use of balloons. Other kinds of intellectuals were equally conspicuous: the arbiter of patriotic taste and designer of the Panthéon, Quatremère de Quincy; Patriote Palloy’s learned friend from the department of inscriptions at the Louvre, Dusaulx; François de Neufchâteau, who had translated Richardson’s most liquidly sentimental novels. Both deputies from Strasbourg were savants and, predictably, part of the intellectual circle around Dietrich: the mathematician-professor Arbogast and the historian Koch.
Politically, about half the Assembly declared its hand by the end of November. Just 136 were affiliated with the Jacobins, against 264 with the Feuillants. Though that gave Barnave the possibility of sustaining the kind of containment operation he and his friends had begun in the spring and summer, it was by no means a decisive majority. For it left 400-odd deputies determinedly uncommitted to either faction. That the Feuillants failed so signally to command their allegiance in the months that lay ahead was in large part due to the extraordinary influence exerted by a very small group gathered around the journalist Jacques-Pierre Brissot.
Brissot’s paper the Patriote Français was one of the most successful in Paris (though, reading its rather arid formula, it is sometimes difficult to see why), and having been both a hack writer and a police spy in the 1780s, he had become something of an expert in manipulating public opinion. The son of a pastry cook in Chartres (where he had known Jérôme Pétion since their childhood), Brissot, unlike Robespierre, was familiar with grinding poverty and had been imprisoned for debt in London. Living hand-to-mouth off his writing, he had become something of a professional lobbyist for liberal causes like the liberation of black slaves in the West Indies, and had pamphleteered his way in and out of trouble in Belgium, Switzerland and Boston, where, in 1788, he thought he had at last discovered “the simplicity, goodness and dignity of men which is the possession of those who realize their liberty.” Three years later, he had become a committed republican, and his professed aim was to thwart Barnave’s moderatism at every turn by pressing on the Assembly issues that would force the King to reveal his true colors as an enemy of the patrie. By marginalizing the monarchy he would make it unworkable. While this strategy was implacably and successfully pursued, Brissot was certainly no more Machiavellian than Barnave, who was still secretly sending advice to the Queen on how best to respond to the offensive of the republicans.
Left to his own devices, Brissot would not have been sufficiently persuasive to command the votes necessary to enact the radical measures designed to embarrass the Feuillant ministers, who when they appeared before the Legislative sat, ridiculously, on little stools before the President’s table. Supporting him, however, was a battery of orators the like of which had never before been heard together in one room and certainly not in France. They have passed into oblivion for a number of reasons, none of them good. They were first made the victims of the nineteenthcentury poet-politician Lamartine’s multivolume hagiography, the History of the Girondins. Their death on the guillotine at the hands of the Terror was invariably represented by anti-Jacobin historians as the fate of liberal republicans, doomed to perish at the hands of the unscrupulous. But to rob the Girondins (or “Brissotins,” as they were first known) of their own unscrupulousness is actually to do them a disservice, for it also robs them of the political complexity they had in abundance. As the focus of revolutionary history later shifted from political to social analysis, the Girondins again seemed to make no sense, being socially indistinguishable from the Jacobins. They also disappointed analysts of “parties” in the Revolution, being not much more than a loose group of friends who sometimes all dined and wined together at Mme Dodun’s in the place Vendôme, sometimes more amusingly chez Mme Roland at the Hôtel Britannique. In 1792, however, an informal dining club or a like-minded group of friends, three of them from the same area of southwest France – hence the appellation of the Gironde – was a much more effective political unit than any kind of formally organized proto-“party.” Moreover, Maximin Isnard (co-opted from the Provençal Department of the Var), Pierre Vergniaud, Marguerite-Elie Guadet and Armand Gensonné all recognized in each other the phenomenal power of their eloquence. While Robespierre deliberately worked alone, cultivating, Jean-Jacqueslike, the austere isolation of the prophet, the Girondins played off each other like members of a string quartet, the cadence and tempo of their transcendent rhetoric rising and falling, swelling and fading with the effect they had on each other. More significantly, they were deliberately playing to an audience in the Manège, the former royal riding school next to the Tuileries that now housed the Assembly, both on the benches of the deputies and the public galleries that were packed for the big debates.
It is difficult to recover the music of that oratory, since its sound is lost to even the most imaginative history, though even reading it on the browning leaves of the Archives Parlementaires can be an electrifying experience. But all that needs to be acknowledged is a truism known to all the historians of revolutionary oratory at the turn of this century, Alphonse Aulard among them, that the cumulative effect of their speeches was decisive for the course of the Revolution. More than anything else – more than food riots or rising prices or Jacobin propaganda – they converted the deputies of the Legislative from politicians to crusaders. By the time that war was declared on the “King of Hungary and Bohemia” in April 1792, a substantial majority of the Assembly was convinced that at stake in what they themselves called their “crusade” was not just the future of France but that of humanity at large. And the first premise of Barnave’s policy of stabilization – the preservation of peace – lay in ruins.
Well before that, however, it should have been obvious that the plan of Barnave and the other two “triumvirs,” Duport and Alexandre Lameth, was in serious trouble. Though the rank and file of the Legislative were certainly not Jacobins, they did exhibit a kind of suspicious truculence towards the monarchy that, right from the start, made the position of the King and his government very difficult. In keeping with the whole history of the Revolution, matters of protocol assumed enormous symbolic importance, so that the first occasion on which Louis came to the Assembly was a kind of dethronement by gestures. Demands were made that he should not receive any special seating – and certainly not a throne. After gratuitous insults and threats from the Tuileries not to come at all, the King was provided on October 6 with a simple chair, painted with the fleur-de-lis, which was conspicuously positioned by the side of the President. When he arrived, he found the deputies already standing and, to his dismay, as he began to speak, they all sat down with studied discourtesy and replaced their hats, prompting the King to do the same. Seeing her husband, whose brow had been anointed with the sacred oil of Clovis at Reims, sitting down reading to the deputies like some glorified notary only served to sharpen Marie-Antoinette’s already mortifying sense of indignity.
Though she replied attentively and politely to Barnave’s letters, the Queen had no intention of heeding their instruction to take the constitution seriously. When Barnave assured her that political peace was in the offing if only she would sincerely support the status quo, Marie-Antoinette not unreasonably asked him what force was available to the monarchy should such ideal circumstances not prevail. He assumed the best; she assumed the worst. And it was the Queen’s scenario that seemed more realistic when the Brissotins – who quickly dominated the crucial committees of the Assembly – promoted aggressive legislation designed to force the monarchy to make itself unpopular through the veto.
Two issues were of paramount significance and both were represented by the Brissotins as of demonstrably patriotic importance. The first concerned refractory priests, those who had still not taken the oath of loyalty demanded by the Civil Constitution. Recognizing the tragically disruptive potential of the religious schism then becoming steadily more bitter in large areas of France, Barnave had tried to relax the more punitive provisions of the Constituent’s legislation. In response to continuing turmoil in southern and southeastern France, which were already in a condition of virtual civil war, and to the periodic establishment of armed camps of royalist Catholics, the Legislative made its religious policy more severe. Nonjuring priests were to have their stipends cut off forthwith; the legal clergy was to be allowed to marry; and on November 29 those who remained defiant against the laws of the nation were to be given just eight days to comply on pain of being declared in conspiracy against the patrie. Even Robespierre blanched at this measure, realizing that it would make inevitable the most intransigent kind of holy war. In his paper he declared that “time,” after all, was needed to “mature the people” before they could face with equanimity the prospect of married priests. But it was Maximin Isnard from the embattled Department of the Var who set the inquisitorial tone of the session by declaring that “every corner of France is being soiled by the crimes of this caste… for when [a priest] ceases to be virtuous he becomes the most iniquitous of men.” To punish such priests, he insisted, was not to persecute them, since one could only persecute holy saints and martyrs, whereas “most of the intriguers and hypocrites who preach religion do so only because they have lost their riches. To chastise such a class of men is at once to exercise a great act of justice and to avenge outraged humanity.”
Needless to say, the King could not possibly sanction this criminalization of loyal Catholics. He had reluctantly assented, in September, to the “reunion” (for which read “annexation”) of the papal enclave of Avignon with France. That had led to a murderous little war that culminated in the slaughter of moderate notables and aristocrats in the prisons of Avignon by an armed band led by “Coupe-tête” (Cut-head) Jourdan. Other cities like Arles were in the hands of equally implacable royalist Catholic powers who urged the people to spit on the Constitution and abuse the uniform of the National Guard. Louis was acutely averse to doing anything that seemed to further embitter this already tragic situation, even if this meant playing into the hands of his enemies. Barnave, who was doing his utmost to manage difficult decisions, had the refractory clergy of Paris petition the King on the grounds of the constitutional protection of liberty of conscience. Once this had happened, the royal veto was duly applied, setting off violent demonstrations in Paris and other centers of anticlericalism like Lyon and Marseille.
The second, but not unrelated, issue on which the Feuillant strategy would founder was the issue of the émigrés. Since the return of the King from Varennes, the pace of emigration had quickened markedly. Ferrières lamented to his wife that it had become an “epidemic” in the army; regiments had lost to the emigration a third of their entire complement of officers. For obvious reasons the numbers of émigré nobles and priests were most considerable at the frontiers – in Alsace and along the eastern border from the Vosges to the Ardennes; in the Pyrenees, the Roussillon and Provence in the southwest and east; and in Brittany in the west. But these were also exactly the regions of France where the nervousness about foreign invasion was most acute and also where the deputies to the Assembly were most militant, seeing themselves as beleaguered patriots in a sea of conspiracy and intrigue. Emigrants were held responsible for currency speculation that was driving down the paper assignat and fueling inflation – the latest version of the perennial “famine plot.” From their bases first at Turin, and then at Coblenz, they were accused of planning invasions of France on the heels of absolutist armies that would put good patriots and their women and children to the sword and raze their cities. The Declaration of Pillnitz, which, as we shall see, was in fact a very guarded document issued by the Queen’s brother the Emperor Leopold in August, was publicized in France as a direct threat to the nation’s sovereignty and security.
On the thirty-first of October, the Assembly stated that all émigrés who, by the first of January 1792, had not dispersed from what were deemed to be armed camps would be declared guilty of conspiracy, and sentenced to the death penalty and the confiscation of their property. This draconian legislation was followed on the ninth of November by a summons to the King’s brother the Comte de Provence, to return within two months on pain of being deprived of the succession. Finally, on the twenty-ninth of November, the same day as the fiercest religious legislation, a law was adopted calling for the return of all the royal princes and making clear that confiscation of émigréproperty would include that owned by family members even if they had remained in France. Faced with this onslaught that affected not only the principles the King held but the fate of Louis’ own family, Barnave not only advised but insisted on a veto. To do anything else, he wrote, would be tantamount to an admission of complete impotence, and would dishonor the King in the eyes of Europe. But the veto should be accompanied by a letter drawn up on his own initiative calling for the return of the princes and declaring that under no circumstances would he ever tolerate any kind of armed incursion on the territory of France on behalf of the émigrés.
This counsel was followed to the letter, and Louis even surprised the Assembly by appearing in person on December 14 to voice his own patriotic indignation at the possibility of any kind of military intervention on the part of European monarchs. While the Brissotins were (as Barnave had calculated) taken aback by the warmth of his ardor, Louis had his own reasons for sounding so determined. Guided by the one minister genuinely in his confidence, the ex-intendant Bertrand de Moleville, the King had come to appreciate that a war policy might actually be in his interest. Given his plight, he had hardly anything to lose (or so he imagined). Should such a war go well, it would surely be a means to concentrate power in his hands as commander in chief and might even give him the military force he needed to restore his authority at home. If it went badly, France could expect the foreign intervention that, in all likelihood, would also restore him to the throne. All this, of course, presupposed his abandoning the Feuillant peace strategy, and there is every sign that this indeed was his intention by December 1791, much applauded by the Queen and even more by his sister, Mme Elisabeth. The Queen had always detested the policy of compromise counseled by the Feuillants, and now that it was about to be wrecked she wrote a chuckling letter to Axel Fersen: “I do believe that we are about to declare war on the Electors [of Mainz and Trier]. The imbeciles! They cannot see that this will serve us well, for… if we begin it, all the Powers will become involved.”
On December 7, the King appointed the Comte de Narbonne-Lara to the Ministry of War. Barnave had been urging the appointment for some time on the assumption that Narbonne would be an obedient Feuillant in office. But no sooner was he installed in his post than the new Minister realized, with his usual shrewdness, the true tenor of court policy. Instead of holding the line at peace, he began to prepare actively for war. It was, by common consent, to be a limited campaign against the minor German Prince-Bishop of Trier, on whose territory at Coblenz Artois and Condé had established their court. The size of the émigré army – no more than four thousand – precluded a serious campaign on its own. But it was large enough to act as a casus belli if the issue was pressed. Narbonne demanded a special subsidy from the Legislative of twenty million livres (in specie, not assignats) to spend on military preparations. And at the end of the year he established the prototype of a people’s minister of war by going in person to the frontier to inspect fortifications and munitions and leading the patriotic salute in armed camps.
If this looked like stage conduct borrowed from Lafayette’s promptbook, it was not accidental. The General had never really recovered his credibility after the flight to Varennes and had been humiliated in elections for the Paris mayoralty in October, when he had been soundly beaten by Jérôme Pétion. He had retired to his estates in the Auvergne and was actively lobbying for a military command that would restore his reputation. A patriotic war of limited extent against the Elector of Trier seemed a sure thing, and Narbonne was ready to oblige him. All that remained was to secure British neutrality in the event of hostilities, and in mid-January Talleyrand was sent to London on an unofficial mission to seek such an engagement.
Louis de Narbonne and Talleyrand had been good friends for some time and the warmth of their amity was not in the least compromised by the fact that the former had replaced the latter as the lover of Necker’s remarkable daughter Germaine de Staël. Mme de Staël had been anunusual conquest for Talleyrand – articulate, generously emotional, but at times capable of irony that matched his own. Physically, she was a big-boned Junoesque woman much given to dressing in turbans and pseudo-oriental robes. For a while the shared pleasures of their merry intelligence and Germaine’s genuinely affectionate nature made them happy lovers, but their relationship was deeper and more durable as friends. There seems to have been no romantic strategy in Narbonne recommending Talleyrand for the London mission, only an act of goodwill and a shrewd guess that the ex-bishop was better suited to diplomacy than episcopacy.
The first assignment in what was to be the most spectacular diplomatic career of the age was also Talleyrand’s easiest, for William Pitt’s administration had already determined that it would not be in Britain’s interest to become embroiled in a European conflict. This, however, did not prevent Talleyrand’s being subjected to the full withering force of British snobbery, which led many to turn their backs on the notorious Voltairean revolutionary scoundrel-bishop. Like Mirabeau, Talleyrand had long been convinced that Anglo-French understanding was the condition of French survival, but his enthusiasm for the project was sorely tried by his stinging rejection at the hands of polite British society. More humiliating still, his military friend Biron (once the Duc de Lauzun) was arrested while attempting to buy horses for the army and had to be bailed out. At least Grenville and even Pitt saw Talleyrand, the latter at the end of January 1792 for a wintry interview when Talleyrand’s efforts to relax the tone by alluding to an encounter they had had ten years before at Reims failed to warm the bleak quality of the meeting. Since Talleyrand was not properly accredited he could expect nothing in the way of an engagement, or anything else for that matter, from His Majesty’s government. That was all.
In the early months of 1792 the issue was in any case not so pressing since, for a while, the threat of war had temporarily receded. This was due more to the cautious attitude of the Emperor Leopold than any sudden turn towards peace on the part of French policy.
If the war party in both the court and the Legislative Assembly was looking for a helpfully bellicose adversary they could not have done worse than the Emperor. The younger of Maria Theresa’s gifted sons, he had inherited from his brother Joseph an empire in a state of insurrection. Whole provinces, from the Netherlands to Hungary, were in outright revolt against the dramatically anti-aristocratic and utilitarian policies instituted by Joseph II in the extraordinary decade of his rule. On his deathbed many of the offending reforms like the land tax had been revoked, but Leopold had still needed exceptional qualities of tact and pragmatic intelligence to see the Habsburg Empire through the storm. Moreover, his major foreign-policy problems were in the east, not the west: in Poland, where Russia and Prussia were sharpening their knives for a further partition of that unfortunate kingdom, and in the Levant, where an unsuccessful war with Turkey was winding down.
For that matter, Leopold’s own views on the world were in many respects closer to Condorcet’s than to those of Artois, the émigré who was most aggressive in his advocacy of a war of restoration. As grand duke of Tuscany Leopold had been a model of enlightened absolutism, abolishing torture and the death penalty and beginning a legal codification on principles recommended by the great Milanese penal reformer Cesare Beccaria. He needed no lessons from the French on the costs and opportunities of creating a modern state.
Yet at the same time he could not altogether ignore the predicament of his sister and brother-in-law. He had not seen Marie-Antoinette for twenty-five years and in any event had always taken an even dimmer view of her fecklessness than had Joseph. But since the traumatic days of October 1789 he too had realized that the Queen and her family might, at any moment, be in physical danger. On the other hand, he thought that military action on his part would be more likely to increase that peril. So for two years he remained cautiously attentive, trying to comfort and calm his sister through Ambassador Mercy d’Argenteau while staying deaf to the repeated urging of Artois to commit the Empire to a counter-revolutionary campaign. Only when he was given the mistaken information that the royal flight from Paris had actually succeeded and the family was out of harm’s way did he write breathlessly to the Queen: “Everything I have is yours, money, troops, everything.”
When it became apparent that, far from the King and Queen recovering their freedom, their position was more helpless than ever, and that an “Austrian Committee” was being blamed by the Paris press for the flight, Leopold’s attitude subsided again into prudence. But it was now an active, rather than a passive concern, guided by the principle that it was the duty of the powers of Europe to deter France from anything that might imperil the monarchy and lead to an irrevocable, bloody war. This was the purpose of the Padua circular in July and the rapprochement, later in the month, with the traditional enemy of the Habsburgs, Hohenzollern Prussia. When Leopold met King Frederick William at the spa of Pillnitz in Saxony at the end of August, they were joined by Artois, who arrived uninvited. But the common declaration that emerged was as much an expression of the two sovereigns’ resistance to calls for a war of intervention as of their concern for the personal safety of the royal family.
The text of the Pillnitz Declaration stated that the fate of the French monarchy was of “common interest” to the powers and urged the restoration of its full liberty. Should warnings against harming the King and Queen go unheeded, it was implied, common action might have to be concerted. That the statement was meant as prophylactic rather than aggressive was plainly indicated by Leopold’s emphasis on the in-dispensability of the collective agreement of all major powers before any action could be contemplated. Since it was known at the time that there was no question of British agreement to any such plan, the declaration could, at the same time, sound honorably firm, without committing Austria to anything at all. And without Austria, Prussia was very unlikely to act on its own. All the evidence indicates that the bellicose tone of the statement was meant to help the Feuillants within France to stabilize the position of the monarchy and to use the threat of a European war against the republicans. This was confirmed by the fact that both Leopold and his octogenarian adviser Kaunitz were prepared for the constitutional settlement as managed by Barnave to have a chance of success. If it was viable, Kaunitz wrote, it would be “an act of terrible folly” to jeopardize it by an adventure along the lines proposed by the émigrés. If it was not viable, it was better that it should cave in on its own rather than be seen to be threatened by the shadowy hand of the “Austrian Committee.”
In its serpentine rationality, this was a typical piece of eighteenth-century (or, for that matter, perennial) diplomacy. But its very calculation to do something other than what it seemed to say put the Declaration of Pillnitz at the opposite end of discursive expression from the world of revolutionary patriotism. While diplomatic language since the age of heralds had habitually used subterfuge, and presupposed distinctions between ostensible and actual intentions that would be read by those to whom its messages were addressed, the language of citizens was meant to be transparently sincere, direct and unmediated. Against the higher moral law of self-determination embraced by the Revolution, even the language of treaties between princes had no standing. How could the Pope claim to be sovereign of Avignon, or some German princes of the Empire claim property rights in Alsace, when the citizens of those places had never consented to the alienation of their territory? With these kinds of higher moral criteria in mind, nothing was easier than to represent the Declaration of Pillnitz as a direct affront to the sovereignty of the people, the first stage of a counter-revolutionary war. “A huge conspiracy against the liberty not only of France but of the whole human race” was being planned, said Hérault de Séchelles, ex-Parlementaire and eager Jacobin. But the brilliant light thrown by the Revolution would penetrate even the veil of obscurity which tyrants had thrown over their machinations.
The war crisis of 1791 and 1792 is often seen by modern historians (many of them not much interested in diplomatic history) as an aberration of the Revolution, something so obviously foolish as to be explicable only in terms of Brissotin tactics to capture power from the Feuillants. But this instrumentalist view of revolutionary war fails to see that patriotic war was, in fact, the logical culmination of almost everything the Revolution represented. It had begun, after all, as the consequence of patriotic exertion in America and had continued to define itself, through allusions to Rome, as the reinvigoration of national power through political transformation. From the very outset, there had been a strain of nervous defiance in revolutionary utterance which often translated itself at the popular level into paranoia. So in 1789 rumors abounded that the Austrians were already poised at the frontiers, that the British were sailing for Brittany and that Spanish cutthroats were about to pour into Roussillon. Worse, it was assumed the invaders had collaborators within France who placed their own selfish sectional interests above that of the patrie. Precisely because the new political world was defined as “the Nation” those who were deemed its enemies – aristocrats, nonjuring priests, the “Austrian” Queen – were stigmatized as foreigners, even when their credentials were as native as those of self-designated “Patriots.”
Added to this was, paradoxically, a kind of philosophical universalism that made it even more difficult for the Revolution to act pragmatically. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen and the assertions of natural rights on which the constitution was based were, by definition, universally applicable. How could men be born to freedom in equality in one patch of the world but not another? So although the Constituent in 1790 had enacted a Declaration of Peace abjuring any war of conquest, even that statement had about it an air of sententious preaching to the unenlightened. “The trumpet which sounded the reveille of a great people has reached the four corners of the globe,” claimed that specialist in international liberty, Anacharsis Cloots. For a while, this kind of messianic utterance could be dismissed as utopian raving. But once the international situation appeared to become threatening in the second half of 1791, the mood changed from amiable cosmopolitanism to crusading self-righteousness. “The French have become the foremost people of the universe,” proclaimed Isnard, “so their conduct must now correspond to their new destiny. As slaves they were bold and great; are they to be timid and feeble now that they are free?”
Before the Revolution, Brissot had made a career out of linking arms with brothers-in-freedom in his Société Gallo-Américaine, so that a missionary approach to international liberation came naturally to him. Similarly his colleague and friend Etienne Clavière had been prominent among the Genevan democrats whose uprising against the patricians of that republic had been suppressed by Vergennes in 1782. There were already in Paris clubs of “free Allobrogians” (Swiss) and “Batavians” (Dutch) who saw themselves as part of an international league against “tyrants” and who were eager to send armed legions to fight alongside the French in the liberation of their respective homelands.
On October 14 Brissot, who effectively controlled the all-important Diplomatic Committee of the Legislative, rehearsed all these themes in a long and powerful speech. It was, in effect, an extended seminar on all the hurt suffered by French national interest at the hands of the absolutist powers and in particular Austria, France’s ostensible ally since the Treaty of 1756. By the time that he had drawn his audience through a procession of wrongs and indignities, Brissot had sketched out the features of a vast conspiracy extending throughout Europe, designed to isolate and cripple French power forever. Posing a series of rhetorical questions, he put the pieces of the puzzle in place. Why had Russia suddenly made peace on its eastern frontier with Turkey if not to concentrate on something more sinister? Why had the King of Sweden, a known correspondent of the Queen’s since his visit to France in the 1780s, mobilized his armies? Why indeed had those arch-enemies Austria and Prussia fallen into each other’s arms at Pillnitz? The answer to all these questions was a dagger pointing directly at the heart of the only truly free nation of men in the Old World.
Brissot’s speech had a dramatic effect on the Assembly not because it relied solely on new concepts of revolutionary polarity between the free and the “enslaved” nations, but rather because it appealed to conventional, even traditional, concepts of national interest, and especially the “honor” and even “glory” of France – terms more usually associated with Louis XIV. It was just because the “new” patriotism was in effect a Romantic reworking of much older themes of history – blood, honor and soil – that it was so irresistibly arousing. Thus when Brissot finished by exclaiming “I tell you that you must avenge your glory or condemn yourselves to eternal dishonor,” he was greeted with thunderous applause not just from his own supporters but from the vast majority of uncommitted deputies in the center.
Now that he too was committed to a war policy (though for a reason the very opposite of the Brissotins’), Louis could respond actively to these attempts to replace the monarch by the People in Arms as the embodiment of French patriotism. That was the meaning of his appearance in the Assembly on December 14 to demand the dispersion of the émigré camp at Coblenz. And as if to oblige, the Elector of Trier speedily complied with the ultimatum. This was the signal, however, for a renewed campaign of patriotic exhortation in the press and the Assembly which would concentrate directly on the Austrian threat said to be mobilizing at the frontiers. The evidence of this was aggressive notes sent from Vienna on the subject of the Alsace princely properties and orders to the Austrian commander in the Netherlands (Belgium), General Bender, to assist the Elector of Trier should there be any French invasion of his territory. As T.C.W. Blanning has made clear in his perceptive work on the outbreak of the war, Kaunitz’s more abrasive tone was based on a fateful misreading of French politics. Since the Austrians mistakenly congratulated themselves on having installed the Feuillants as a result of the Declaration of Pillnitz, another similarly minatory gesture was supposed to rescue the beleaguered government from the combined bellicosity of the Lafayette-Narbonne faction and the Brissotins. Needless to say, it had precisely the opposite effect.
The last week in 1791 and the first two of 1792 witnessed a succession of extraordinary rhetorical performances by the leading Brissotins, reiterated in Jacobin clubs and printed for distribution around the provinces. At the same time that they were contemptuous of General Bender, who was the butt of outrageous lampoons in popular caricatures, the speeches played on popular anxieties about retribution and called for an army of citizen-soldiers to show the world the invincibility of the free. On Christmas Day, Elie Guadet leapt from the President’s chair to the tribune, unable to contain his passions as decorum required. “If the Revolution has already marked 1789 as the first year of French liberty, the date of the 1st of January 1792 will mark this year as the first year of universal liberty.” Two days later Pierre Vergniaud, whose oratory could only be challenged by Mirabeau’s as the most powerful and exhilarating of all the torrents of rhetoric produced during the Revolution, made the clinching speech. He painted a frightening picture of murderous émigrés, blessed by fanatical priests, gathering at the frontiers of the patrie.
The audacious satellites of despotism, carrying fifteen centuries of pride and barbarism in their feudal souls, are now demanding in every land and from every throne the gold and soldiers to reconquer the scepter of France. You have renounced conquests but you have not promised to suffer such insolent provocations. You have shaken off the yoke of your despots but this was surely not to crook the knee so ignominiously before some foreign tyrants and submit the whole system of your regeneration to the corrupt politics of their governments.
Vergniaud then used what would become a standard theme of revolutionary crusade: the pledge of patriotic self-immolation. “Yes, the representatives of free France, unshakably attached to the constitution, will be buried beneath the ruins of their own temple rather than propose to you [the people] a capitulation unworthy of them and of you.” His coda was an almost hymnlike evocation of the nobility of French arms that anticipated Napoleon Bonaparte’s much feebler campaign speeches. At its conclusion the entire Manège, including the public galleries, was on its feet waving hats, shouting oaths of loyalty, swept away in a great flood tide of patriotic rapture:
So, led by the most sublime passions beneath the tricolor flag that you have gloriously planted on the ruins of the Bastille, what enemy would dare to attack you… follow the course of your great destiny that beckons you on to the punishment of tyrants who have placed arms in your hands… Union et courage! Glory awaits you. Hitherto kings have aspired to the title of Roman citizens; it now depends on you to make them envy that of Citizens of France!
For the Brissotins, then, war would be what Mme Roland called “a school of virtue,” much as it had been for the virile legions of Rome. In the Jacobins only one voice of any significance was raised against this truism: that of Maximilien Robespierre. He had originally approved of the martial rhetoric as a means of forcing the King’s hand, but the apparent eagerness of Narbonne for war had made him reconsider. A war, he argued cogently, would play into the hands of the court or else it would create a military dictatorship. As for the supposed benefit to the rest of humanity awaiting the springtime of their liberation, “No one,” he stated prophetically, “loves armed missionaries.” Later, as the presiding figure in the most formidable machine for military mobilization seen in Europe, he would recant these views. In fact they remain some of the truest sentiments he ever articulated.
On January 25, 1792, Brissot’s Diplomatic Committee persuaded the Legislative to send to Vienna what amounted virtually to an ultimatum. It required the Emperor to explain his conduct in respect of the émigrés and to desist not only from giving them aid and succor but to engage never to ally himself (under the terms of the Treaty of 1756) with an enemy of France. The response was equally sharp. Kaunitz mistakenly clung to the view that, in the last resort, the French were so ill prepared for war they would not dare to undertake it. There was some truth in the assumption that the army was not in a condition to mount a major campaign. But the Prussian intelligence on which Kaunitz relied had exaggerated the degree of disarray. On the first of January the émigré princes were declared traitors and their lands and titles forfeited. On the seventeenth a note from Vienna demanded not just the restoration of the German lands in Alsace and the liberation of the royal family but, for the first time, the return of Avignon and the Comtat to the Pope. A formal alliance was concluded between Austria and Prussia on February 7.
The deadline for the demand that Austria give France satisfaction over the Treaty of 1756 was March 1. (Indeed, the issue was set out virtually like a challenge to a duel, still a common practice even among revolutionaries who officially despised it as “superstition.”) On that same day, Leopold died and was succeeded by his son Francis, a solemn lightweight who, much more than the late Emperor, was in the hands of advisers. They were much more disposed than the ancient Kaunitz to pick up the gauntlet thrown down by the Legislative, especially since Marie Antoinette was sending them detailed plans of French military dispositions as soon as they were discussed in royal council. In the event, the decision was taken out of the Austrians’ hands by a ministerial crisis in France. The Foreign Minister de Lessart had responded weakly to the latest sharp note from Vienna and on March 1 the humiliating exchange of correspondence was read to the Assembly, with the hapless Minister listening from one of the little stools in front of the President’s desk. The Brissotin reaction was to launch a fierce attack on the incapacity of the Feuillants to stand up to Austria and Prussia, in effect accusing not only de Lessart but Bertrand de Moleville, the Minister of the Navy, of a form of disguised treason. When Narbonne actually joined in the onslaught, the King dismissed him on March 9. A week later Vergniaud moved for de Lessart’s impeachment.
For a week or so Louis flailed around with increasing desperation to find an administration that could assuage the gathering hue and cry. Finally, perhaps recalling Mirabeau’s advice to draw the sting from adversaries by co-opting them, he created a government wholly acceptable to Brissot and his friends: Clavière, the inventor of the assignat, was minister of finance; Roland, the ex-inspector of manufactures, minister of the interior; and Charles Dumouriez, the ex-commandant of Cherbourg, Louis XVI’s pride and joy, had already been made minister of foreign affairs on March 1. Dumouriez was the odd man out here, more a Fayettiste than a Brissotin, but in his fifties someone with the military experience and the political grit to contain the crisis.
In Vienna the change of ministry was taken as a virtual declaration of war, all the more so since a special emissary from the Queen had recently arrived with bad news. This was the engineer Goguelat, who had been one of the miserable figures accompanying the Duc de Choiseul as he waited for the berline on the road to Montmédy. Before the imperial council he stated as a certainty the imminence of war, and Marie-Antoinette’s own view that, in all probability, she would be put on trial. In the second week of April fifty thousand Austrian troops were moved to the Belgian frontier.
On April 20 Louis XVI came to the Assembly to hear Dumouriez’ official account of the situation facing France. The House of Austria, the deputies were told, had “enslaved” France to its ambitions since 1756. The undoing of that treaty, Gensonné had already said, would be an act of joyous destruction akin to the demolition of the Bastille. War was demanded forthwith, with only a few deputies of Robespierre’s mind opposing it. One, Becquet, from the Haute-Marne, warned that “we shall earn the reputation of being an aggressive and restless people who disturb the peace of Europe and disregard treaties and international law.” These cautions were shoved aside by a great hallelujah of patriotic affirmation. Anacharsis Cloots was beside himself with messianic rapture:
Here is the crisis of the universe. God disentangled the primitive chaos; the French will unravel the feudal chaos… for free men are Gods on earth… [Kings] make impious war on us with slave soldiers and extorted money; we will make a holy war with free soldiers and patriotic contributions.
The commander in chief of what Brissot had called “a crusade for universal liberty” in which each soldier would say to his enemy, “Brother, I am not going to cut your throat… I am going to show you the way to happiness” was not himself visibly happy. In a flat, faltering voice Louis XVI then read the formal declaration of war as though it were a death sentence upon himself. Which indeed it was.