The National Assembly

May 4, 1789—September 30, 1791


ON May 4 the 621 deputies of the Third Estate, dressed in bourgeois black, followed by 285 nobles under plumed hats and in cloth of lace and gold, then by 308 of the clergy—their prelates distinguished by velvet robes—then by the King’s ministers, and his family, then by Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, all accompanied by troops and inspired by banners and bands, marched to their designated meeting place, the Hôtel des Menus Plaisirs (Hall of Minor Diversions), a short distance from the royal palace at Versailles. A proud and happy crowd flanked the procession; some wept with joy and hope,1 seeing in that apparent union of the rival orders a promise of concord and justice under a benevolent king.

Louis addressed the united delegates with a confession of near-bankruptcy, which he attributed to a “costly but honorable war”; he asked them to devise and sanction new means of raising revenue. Necker followed with three hours of statistics, which made even revolution dull. On the next day the unity faded; the clergy met in an adjoining smaller hall, the nobles in another; each order, they felt, should deliberate and vote apart, as in that last States-General, 175 years ago; and no proposal should become law without receiving the consent of each order and the King. To let the individual votes of the congregated deputies decide the issues would be to surrender everything to the Third Estate; it was already evident that many of the poorer clergy would side with the commoners, and some nobles—Lafayette, Philippe d’Orléans, and the Duc de La Rochefoucauld-Liancourt—entertained dangerously liberal sentiments.

A long war of nerves ensued. The Third Estate could wait, for new taxes required their approval to get public acceptance, and the King was waiting anxiously for those taxes. Youth, vitality, eloquence, and determination were with the commoners. Honoré-Gabriel-Victor Riqueti, Comte de Mirabeau, brought them his experience and courage, the power of his mind and his voice; Pierre-Samuel du Pont de Nemours offered his knowledge of Physiocrat economics; Jean-Joseph Mounier and Antoine Barnave brought them legal knowledge and strategy; Jean Bailly, already famous as an astronomer, cooled with his calm judgment their excited deliberations; and Maximilien de Robespierre spoke with the persistent passion of a man who would not be silent until he had his way.

Born in Arras in 1758, Robespierre had now only five years to live, but in most of these he would move near or at the center of events. His mother died when he was seven; his father disappeared into Germany; the four orphans were brought up by relatives. An earnest and avid student, Maximilien won a scholarship at the Collège Louis-le-Grand in Paris, took his degree in law, practiced at Arras, and acquired such repute for his advocacy of reforms that he was among those sent from the province of Artois to the States-General.

He had no advantages of appearance to reinforce his oratory. He was only five feet three inches tall—his sole concession to brevity. His face was broad and flat, and pitted with smallpox; his eyes, weak and spectacled, were of a greenish blue that gave Carlyle some excuses for calling him “the sea-green Robespierre.” He spoke for democracy, and defended adult male suffrage, despite warnings that this might make the lowest common denominator the rule and standard of all. He lived as simply as a proletaire, but he did not imitate the trousered sansculottes; he dressed neatly in dark-blue tailcoat, knee breeches, and silk stockings; and he rarely left home before dressing and powdering his hair. He roomed with the carpenter Maurice Duplay in the Rue St.-Honoré; he dined at the family table, and managed on his deputy’s pay of eighteen francs a day. From that foot of earth he was soon to move most of Paris, later most of France. He talked too frequently of virtue, but he practiced it; stern and obdurate in public, in his private relations “he was generous, compassionate, and ever willing to serve”; so said Filippo Buonarrotti, who knew him well.2 He seemed quite immune to the charms of women; he spent his affection upon his younger brother Augustin and Saint-Just; but no one ever impugned his sexual morality. No gift of money could bribe him. When, in the Salon of 1791, an artist exhibited a portrait of him simply inscribed “The Incorruptible,”3 no one seems to have challenged the term. He thought of virtue in Montesquieu’s sense, as the indispensable basis of a successful republic; without unpurchasable voters and officials democracy would be a sham. He believed, with Rousseau, that all men are by nature good, that the “general will” should be the law of the state, and that any persistent opponent of the general will might without qualm be condemned to death. He agreed with Rousseau that some form of religious belief was indispensable to peace of mind, to social order, and to the security and survival of the state.

Not till near his end did he seem to doubt the full identity of his judgment with the popular will. His mind was weaker than his will; most of his ideas were borrowed from his reading, or from the catchwords that filled the revolutionary air; he died too young to have acquired sufficient experience of life, or knowledge of history, to check his abstract or popular conceptions with patient perception or impartial perspective. He suffered severely from our common failing—he could not get his ego out of the way of his eyes. The passion of his utterance convinced himself; he became dangerously certain and ludicrously vain. “That man,” said Mirabeau, “will go far; he believes all that he says.”4 He went to the guillotine.

In the National Assembly, in its two and a half years, Robespierre made some five hundred speeches,5 usually too long to be convincing, and too argumentative to be eloquent; but the masses of Paris, learning of their tenor, loved him for them. He opposed racial or religious discrimination, proposed emancipation of the blacks,6 and became, till his final months, the tribune and defender of the people. He accepted the institution of private property, but wished to universalize small-scale ownership as an economic basis for a sturdy democracy. He called inequality of wealth “a necessary and incurable evil,”7 rooted in the natural inequality of human ability. In this period he supported the retention of the monarchy, properly limited; an attempt to overthrow Louis XVI, he thought, would lead to such chaos and bloodshed as would end in a dictatorship more tyrannical than a king.8

Nearly every deputy heard the young orator impatiently except Mirabeau, who respected the careful preparation and exposition of Robespierre’s arguments. Elsewhere9 we have watched Mirabeau growing up painfully under a brilliant but brutal father, avidly absorbing every available influence of life in travel, adventure, and sin; seeing human frailty, injustice, poverty, and suffering in a dozen cities; imprisoned by the King at his father’s request, pillorying his enemies in vituperative pamphlets or passionate appeals; and at last, in a lusty and double triumph, elected to the States-General by the Third Estate of both Marseilles and Aix-en-Provence, and coming to Paris as already one of the most famous, colorful, and suspected men in a country where crisis was evoking genius as rarely in history before. All literate Paris welcomed him; heads appeared at windows to watch his carriage pass; women were excited by rumors of his amours, and were fascinated as well as repelled by the scars and distortions of his face. The deputies listened in thrall to his oratory, though they were suspicious of his class, his morals, his aims. They had heard that he lived beyond his means, drank beyond reason, and was not above selling his eloquence to mitigate his debts; but they knew that he berated his class in defense of commoners, they admired his courage, and doubted they would ever see such a volcano of energy again.

There was more oratory in those hectic days, and more political maneuvering than the Hôtel des Menus Plaisirs could house, and they overflowed in journals, pamphlets, placards, and clubs. Some delegates from Brittany formed the Club Breton; soon it opened its membership to other deputies, and to other wielders of tongue or pen; Sieyès, Robespierre, and Mirabeau made it a sounding board and testing place for their ideas and schemes; here was the first form of that powerful organization that would later be called the Jacobins. Freemason lodges were active, too, usually on the side of constitutional monarchy; but there is no evidence of a secret Freemason conspiracy.10

Perhaps it was in the Club Breton that Sieyès and others planned the strategy by which the nobles and the clergy were to be drawn into united action with the Third Estate. Sieyès reminded the commonalty that it comprised 24 million out of the 25 million souls in France; why should it longer hesitate to speak for France? On June 16 he proposed to the deputies in the Menus Plaisirs that they should send a final invitation to the other orders to join them, and that, if they refused, the delegates of the Third Estate should declare themselves the representatives of the French nation, and proceed to legislate. Mirabeau objected that the States-General had been summoned by the King, was legally subject to him, and could legally be dismissed at his will; for the first time he was shouted down. After a night of argument and physical combat the question was put to the vote: “Shall this meeting declare itself the National Assembly?” The count was 490 for, 90 against. The delegates had pledged themselves to a constitutional government. Politically the Revolution had begun, June 17, 1789.

Two days later the clerical order, separately assembled, voted 149 to 137 to merge with the Third Estate; the lower clergy was casting its lot with the commonalty that it knew and served. Shocked by this desertion, the hierarchy joined the nobility in an appeal to the King to prevent the union of the orders, if necessary by dismissing the Estates. Louis responded, on the evening of June 19, by ordering the Hôtel des Menus Plaisirs to be closed at once to permit its preparation for seating the three orders at a “royal session” to be held on June 22. When the deputies of the Third Estate appeared on the twentieth they found the doors locked. Believing that the King intended to dismiss them, they gathered in a nearby tennis court (Salle du Jeu de Paume); Mounier proposed to the 577 deputies gathered there that each should sign an oath “never to separate, and to meet wherever circumstances might require, until a constitution should be firmly established.” All but one of the delegates took this oath, in an historic scene that Jacques-Louis David would soon depict in one of the major paintings of that age. From that time the National Assembly was also the Constituent Assembly.

Postponed for a day, the royal session opened on June 23. To the united gathering the King had an aide read, in his presence, a statement reflecting his conviction that without the protection of the nobility and the Church he would be reduced to political impotence. He rejected as illegal the claim of the Third Estate to be the nation. He agreed to end the corvée, lettres de cachet, internal traffic tolls, and all vestiges of serfdom in France; but he would veto any proposal that impaired “the ancient and constitutional rights … of property, or the honorific privileges of the first two orders.” He promised equality of taxation if the higher orders consented. Matters concerning religion or the Church must receive the approval of the clergy. And he ended with a reassertion of absolute monarchy:

If, by a fatality which I am far from anticipating, you were to abandon me in this great enterprise, I alone would provide for the welfare of my people. I alone should regard myself as their true representative…. Consider, gentlemen, that none of your projects can have the force of law without my special approbation…. I order you, gentlemen, to disperse at once, and to appear tomorrow morning each in the room set apart for his own order.11

The King, most of the nobles, and a minority of the clergy left the hall. The Marquis de Brézé, grandmaster, announced the King’s will that the room should be cleared. Bailly, president of the Assembly, replied that the assembled nation could not accept such an order, and Mirabeau thundered to Brézé, “Go and tell those who sent you that we are here by the will of the people, and will leave our places only if compelled by armed force.”12 It was not strictly true, since they had come by invitation of the King, but the delegates expressed their sense of the matter by crying out, “That is the will of the Assembly.” When troops of the Versailles Garde du Corps tried to enter the hall a group of liberal nobles, including Lafayette, barred the entrance with their drawn swords. The King, asked what should be done, said wearily, “Let them stay.”

On June 25 the Duc d’Orléans led forty-seven nobles to join the Assembly; they were greeted with a delirium of joy, which was enthusiastically echoed in and around the Palais-Royal. Soldiers of the Garde Française fraternized there with the revolutionary throng. On that same day the capital had its own peaceful revolution: the 407 men who had been chosen by the Paris sections to select the deputies for Paris met at the Hôtel de Ville and appointed a new municipal council; the royal council, lacking military support, peaceably abdicated. On June 27 the King, yielding to Necker and circumstance, bade the upper orders to unite with the triumphant Assembly. The nobles went, but refused to take part in the voting, and soon many of them retired to their estates.

On July 1 Louis summoned ten regiments, mostly German or Swiss, to come to his aid. By July 10 six thousand troops under Maréchal de Broglie had occupied Versailles, and ten thousand under Baron de Besenval had taken up positions around Paris. Amid turmoil and terror, the Assembly proceeded to consider the report that had been submitted on July 9 for a new constitution. Mirabeau begged the deputies to retain the King as a bulwark against social disorder and mob rule. He pictured Louis XVI as a man of good heart and generous intentions, occasionally confused by shortsighted counselors; and he asked, prophetically:

Have these men studied, in the history of any people, how revolutions commence and how they are carried out? Have they observed by what a fatal chain of circumstances the wisest men are driven far beyond the limits of moderation, and by what terrible impulses an enraged people is precipitated into excesses at the very thought of which they would have shuddered?13

The delegates followed his advice, for they too felt groundswells emanating from the sidewalks of Paris. But instead of meeting a measured loyalty with substantial concessions to the Third Estate, Louis outraged radicals and liberals alike by dismissing Necker a second time (July 11), replacing him with the Queen’s uncompromising friend Baron de Breteuil, and (July 12) making the warrior de Broglie minister for war. The chips were down.

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