The King, reluctant to surrender the nobility, the clergy, and the monarchy to total denudation of their ancient authority, and convinced that a people so individualistic and impetuous as the French would obey no rule, permit no restraints, not sanctioned and ingrained by time, clung hopefully to the vestigial powers still left him, and resisted the daily urging of nobles and the Queen that he should escape from Paris, perhaps from France, and return with an army, native or foreign, strong enough to reestablish him upon a reinvigorated throne. He signed (January 21, 1791) the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, but he felt that he was betraying the faith that had been his precious refuge against the disappointments of his life. He was profoundly shocked by the Assembly’s decision (May 30, 1791) to have the remains of Voltaire transferred to the Panthéon; it seemed intolerable to him that the arch-infidel of the century should be carried in triumph to lie with honors in what, only yesterday, had been a consecrated church. He gave his long-withheld consent to the Queen to prepare for a flight across the frontier. Her devoted friend, Count Axel von Fersen, raised money for the escape, and arranged the details; the King, certainly a gentleman, probably not a cuckold, thanked him fervently.59
All the world knows that story: how the King and Queen disguised as M. and Mme. Korff, with their children and attendants, left the Tuileries furtively at midnight of June 20–21, 1791, and rode all next day, in joy and fear, 150 miles, to Varennes, near the frontier of what is now Belgium (then the Austrian Netherlands); how they were stopped there and arrested by peasants armed with pitchforks and clubs and led by Jean-Baptiste Drouet, postmaster of Ste.-Menehould. He sent to the Assembly for instructions; soon Barnave and Pétion came with the answer: Bring your captives, unharmed, back to Paris. Now it was a three days’ drive, leisurely led by sixty thousand of the National Guard. On the way Barnave sat in the royal coach opposite the Queen; he had been trained in the surviving chivalry of the Old Regime; he felt the glamour of royal beauty in distress. He wondered what would be her fate, and that of the children she guarded. By the time they reached Paris he was her slave.
Through his efforts and other cautious considerations, the Assembly rejected the cry of the sansculottes for immediate deposition. Who could tell what anarchy would ensue? Would the bourgeois Assembly, and all property, be at the mercy of the unfranchised Parisian populace? So the word went out that the King had not fled but had been abducted; he must be allowed to keep his head, at least for a while, and as much of his crown as the new laws had left him. The radical leaders protested; the clubs and the journals called for the people to assemble on the Field of Mars; on July 17, 1791, fifty thousand came, and six thousand signed a demand for the King’s abdication.60 The Assembly ordered Lafayette and the National Guard to disperse the rebels; these refused, and some of them stoned the Guard; the angry soldiers fired, killing fifty men and women; so ended the universal brotherhood that had been pledged there a year before. Marat, proscribed and hunted by the police, lived in dank cellars, and called for a new revolution. Lafayette, his popularity ended, returned to the front, and waited impatiently for a chance to escape from the mounting chaos of France.
The King, grateful for a reprieve, went in subdued state to the Assembly on September 13, 1791, and formally signed his assent to the new constitution. Returning to his desolate palace and Queen, he broke down and wept, and begged her to forgive him for having brought her from her happiness in Vienna to the shame of this defeat, and the mounting terror of this imprisonment.
As that month neared its end, the Assembly prepared to conclude its labors. Perhaps the deputies were tired, and felt that they had done enough for a lifetime. And indeed, from their standpoint, they had accomplished much. They had presided at the collapse of the feudal system; they had abolished hereditary privileges; they had rescued the people from monarchical absolutism and an idle, arrogant aristocracy; they had established equality before the law, and had ended imprisonment without trial. They had reorganized local and provincial administration. They had chastened the once independent and censorious Church by confiscating its wealth and declaring freedom of worship and thought; they had revenged Jean Calas and Voltaire. They had seen with pleasure the emigration of reactionary nobles, and had put the upper middle class in control of the state. And they had embodied these changes in a constitution to which they had won the consent of the King, and of the great majority of the population, as a promise of national unity and peace.
The National and Constituent Assembly completed its record by arranging for the election of a Legislative Assembly to transform the constitution into specific laws, and to meet with deliberation the problems of the future. Robespierre, hoping that a fresh poll would bring a more representative personnel to power, persuaded his fellow deputies to disbar themselves from election to the new legislature. Then, on September 30, 1791, “the most memorable of all political assemblies”61 declared itself dissolved.