Modern history

D) DEMOLITION PROBLEMS

The Bastille, arch-symbol of Revolutionary action, was turned into a demolition-site days after it was stormed, providing mass employment for Parisian building workers, visual entertainment for the leisured classes, and a fat profit for building entrepreneur Palloy, who added to his profits by selling off chunks of the fortress as patriotic memorabilia – an early example of Revolutionary commercialism. The ‘Ancien Régime’ (for the term was coming into use) did not, however, come down quite as easily. The work of political demolition proved altogether more intractable than the National Assembly, floating on a cloud of its own adrenaline and ceaselessly invoking the principle of unity in the political architecture of the new regime, was prepared to admit.

Writing to the US envoy in Paris in October 1789, the American President George Washington saluted the ‘wonderful’ revolution which had taken place in France, but expressed his fear that ‘the revolution is of too great a magnitude to be effected in so short a space and with the loss of so little blood’. Shrewd government would be called for if ‘the mortification of the king, the intrigues of the queen and the discontent of the princes and noblesse’ were not to foment division and bloodshed.58 Privilege – the prime target of Revolutionary legislation – had not been confined prior to 1789 to the so-called ‘privileged orders’ evoked by Washington, and its track-marks could be traced all over the corporative body of the Bourbon polity. Rabaut Saint-Étienne once sketched out the dilemma of any pre-1789 reforming minister ‘who wants to disentangle the wires [of privilege, yet] does not know where to begin because as he touches them he makes the interest cry out to which they are attached’.59 After 1789, the deputies in the Assembly found themselves in this very position. ‘Everyone wants reform’, sagely noted Ferriéres, ‘but when they themselves are affected, they complain.’60 The sheer interconnectedness of so many features of the Bourbon polity ramified problems along crazily unpredictable zigzag paths. The reorganization of the church linked, for example, to the need to nationalize church lands so as to settle state finances – which were in turn affected by decisions on the slave colonies, decisions on which had implications on rights of citizenship. At each stage, decisions would be made which were popular with some, unpopular with others. There were, it is true, many individuals willing to sacrifice the benefits of pre-1789 privilege for the rights and freedoms guaranteed by the Revolution. Yet there would also be many – and not simply the powerful and ultra-privileged – who lost out, and whose discontent operated as a kind of political yeast, alimenting ‘unpatriotic’ thoughts and acts.

Much of that yeast stuck to the old ‘privileged orders’, for it was they who had most to lose from Revolutionary reforms and who often proved most recalcitrant at forming a patriotic identity. The Revolutionary melodrama of the summer crisis of 1789 had cast the privileged orders as stage villains – but the social groupings behind those personae were reluctant to leave the stage without a struggle. Deputy Adrien Duquesnoy was soon musing that the only individuals not to benefit ‘enormously’ from the Revolution were an unrepresentative sample of ‘priests, nobility, magistrates and financiers’.61 Yet his naive assumption that their importance had been snuffed out by a national tidal wave of patriotism proved well wide of the mark. In fact, these groups became the nodes around which opposition to the Revolution concentrated.

1789 had, moreover, much extended the sites in which resistance and protest could occur. Foremost in this respect was the Constituent Assembly itself, which was increasingly riven by division and dissension. ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ as terms designating particular political persuasions were coined precisely in this period, the ‘patriot’ deputies forming the habit of sitting to the left of the assembly’s president in the Salle du Manège of the Tuileries palace, while the more monarchically inclined huddled to the right. The stars of the Right, which attracted a large following from the provincial nobility, were intransigents such as the abbé Maury, the eccentric Cazalès and Mirabeau’s younger brother, the anorexically challenged Mirabeau-‘Tonneau’ (‘Mirabeau the Barrel’). Themonarchiens(now minus Mounier) had also regrouped and exploited the freedoms of the Assembly to continue to support a stronger role for the monarchy in the constitution-in-the-making. Furthermore, although the National Assembly rather than the monarch was now the cynosure of power, the royal court remained a significant political site, and factional and behind-the-scenes politicking continued. Jockeying to secure the king’s ear was still prevalent, and extended from émigré leaders such as the comte d’Artois, through the leaders of the Right in the Assembly, through to even many of the individuals and groupings generally viewed as belonging to the ‘Left’. The older Mirabeau, who had more than paid his patriotic dues during the summer crisis of 1789, passed covertly into the ranks of the king’s advisers in spring 1790, while Layafette too sporadically made himself available for royal consultation.

Outside the Assembly too, the Right clustered under the protective wing of the freedoms guaranteed by the Rights of Man: the Revolutionary public sphere still encompassed the as yet indefeasible right to criticize the Revolution. Thus the patriot press had its counterpart in royalist sheets like abbé Royou’s L’Ami du Rot and Rivarol’s Les Actes des Apôtres which specialized in sarcasm and character assassination. Freedom to assemble was also utilized by the counter-revolutionaries for their own ends. L’Ami du Roipurported to be the mouthpiece of a nationwide network of ‘Society of Friends of the King’, roughly equivalent to the Jacobins’ ‘Society of Friends of the Constitution’. The comte d’Antraigues, who had once been a prominent supporter of the rights of the Third Estate,62 was by now a brazenly counter-revolutionary plotter who helped organize mass royalist rallies in the Ardèche in late 1790 and early 1791. Courtiers also illicitly disbursed money among Parisians in order to secure ‘spontaneous’ collective demonstrations of support for the king. On several occasions, the Assembly debated whether more stringent policing of possible acts of treason required the violation of these individual freedoms in the interest of public safety, and indeed an Investigation Committee (Comité des recherches) was established in 1789. It was only a very pale foreshadowing, however, of the organs of Terror in 1792–4. The period down to the summer of 1791 was marked by the exercise of liberal freedoms even by the Revolution’s avowed opponents.

‘The people’, Mirabeau once argued, ‘have been promised more than can be promised; they have been given hopes that it will be impossible to realize … and in the final analysis the people will judge the Revolution by this fact alone: does it take more or less money?’63 The judgement was, if crude and cynical, also shrewd. For the Revolution had accorded the popular classes not only a new horizon and expanded means of communication but also – as counter-revolutionaries could attest – a new language of political entitlement, which could be used to critique the universalist rhetoric of the National Assembly. The latter was thus squeezed between dual critiques from ‘above’ from the old privileged classes and from ‘below’ from the popular classes. Whereas deputies made great show of speaking in the interests of the entire nation, when the crunch came, moreover, they invariably gave a bourgeois gloss to universalist claims – as we have seen, for example, over the question of the tiered property franchise.64 Economic freedoms were also divergent in their social impact: the introduction of free trade in grain from autumn 1789, for example, was massively unpopular with rural and urban consumers. Furthermore, the implementation of legislation regarding the abolition of feudalism involved the reintroduction of dues which many peasants had already renounced in the summer of 1789. The law of 15 March 1790 made a distinction between feudal dues imposed as a result of historical usurpation or personal violence (serfdom, hunting rights,corvées, banalités, etc.) and other seigneurial dues which were more contractual in nature. Whereas the former were adjudged to have been abolished outright on the Night of 4 August, the latter were to be redeemed by the peasantry over twenty to twenty-five years. This meant that seigneurs – both noble and bourgeois – were acting quite legally in taking errant peasants before the newly established network of lawcourts for arrears and payment of such rights. Even where seigneurs did accept the outright abolition of feudal dues, moreover, they invariably tried to compensate themselves by raising formal ground rents, and indeed the Assembly also permitted them to add the cost of the old tithe to rents.

The erasure of corporative privilege could, moreover, hit the low as well as the high. The abolition of pays d’état, for example, meant an instant tax-hike for all Bretons and Languedocians, whose privileged status had protected them from the full weight of royal fiscality. The tax load within the old province of Brittany may even have doubled. Many cities also lost out from the cull of privilege, especially if they failed to secure nomination as a departmental chef-lieu: Bayeux complained that the loss of ecclesiastical establishments as a result of the Civil Constitution lost the town 0.4 million livres annual income in wages and charities. The loss of their Ancien Régime superstructure of administrative, judicial and ecclesiastical establishments had, the inhabitants of Laon and Luçon stated, caused the towns to come face to face with likely ‘annihilation’ and ‘nothingness’.65 Other unlooked-for socio-economic effects caused by the Revolution included the collapse of the luxury trades, notably in Paris, as a result of the emigration of high nobles; and the inflation consequent on the Assembly’s decision in spring 1790 to permit assignats to be used as legal currency (rather than, as originally planned, purely as an entitlement bond for the purchase of former church property).

Although the decent harvests of 1789 and 1790 at least helped keep grain prices within reach of working people again, the social and economic spin-offs of the transformation of political culture in the aftermath of 1789 ensured a continuing ferment of popular discontent. Most of this is probably best classified as anti- rather than counter-revolutionary – that is to say, it embraced the idea of the Revolution and wanted to improve it rather than reject it wholesale or plot its overthrow. The Assembly’s legislation failed to end all outbreaks of popular violence – and indeed, some of its judgements even incited them. From December 1789 to mid-1790, many areas in the south-west (Quercy, Périgord, Limousin, the Albigeois, Rouergue) and part of Upper Brittany were involved in violent attacks against seigneurs who were continuing to demand feudal dues or else were utilizing the Assembly’s moderate legislation on the abolition of feudalism to maintain their social authority. Subsistence riots continued to occur fitfully too, especially in northern France: disturbances in Paris in late October 1789 in which a baker, François, was murdered, led to the Assembly introducing martial law provisions. In some cities with a Protestant community, social protest took on a religious imprint: the bagarre(‘brawl’) of Nîmes in June 1790 pitched Catholic peasants and workers against Protestant local authorities and National Guard in street battles which left several hundreds (mainly Catholics) dead. Military garrisons were perilously involved in political activity too, the rank-and-file seeking to relive the 14 July experience and fraternize with their civilian co-citizens and criticize their largely aristocratic officers. In August 1790, the Nancy garrison in which the Royal Châteauvieux regiment was stationed experienced an acute crisis of military discipline, which was put down in draconian fashion by the local commander, the marquis de Bouillé, a notorious royalist. The Constituent Assembly supported the army high command, and the affair left a nasty taste in the mouth.

In many ways what was most striking about the degree of popular discontent and disillusion which subsisted through 1790 and into 1791 was the extent to which it was canalized within the framework of the new political culture established in 1789. Some peasants, urban workers and rank-and-file soldiers took direct action or resorted to illegality over the course of 1790 to express their disappointment that the high hopes of 1789 had not been met and that universal rights were not being properly implemented. But far more utilized the new court system to pursue their ends or petitioned the king and the Assembly for a redress of grievances. This adoption of the discourses and practices of Revolutionary citizenship by individuals and groups formally removed from the political process highlighted the expansion of the pre-revolutionary public sphere. Debate was particularly sharp over the issue of active and passive citizenship in autumn 1789. Were the ‘active’ citizens (popular speeches and pamphlets demanded) those crypto-royalists who passively accepted the outcome of 14 July 1789, or those putative ‘passive’ citizens who had actually stormed the Bastille? Women were another disenfranchized grouping to whom the new language of citizenship now began to be extended, in contradistinction to the intentions of the framers of the Declaration of the Rights of Man: indeed the term, ‘citizen’ (citoyen) acquired a female declension (‘citoyenne, citizeness’) for the first time in the word’s history, and the maverick writer Olympe de Gouges penned a forcibly argued (and almost wholly disregarded) ‘Declaration of the Rights of Woman’ in 1791.

If freedom of the press allowed such arguments to be conducted in the public sphere, so too did freedom of assembly. The year 1790 saw the beginnings, notably in Paris, of popular clubs and societies whose procedures were based on those of the Jacobin Club but which extended membership to a much lowlier and less respectable clientele. The prototype here was the Cordeliers Club, or ‘Society of Friends of the Rights of Man’ which originated as a neighbourhood grouping on the Left Bank and which derived its name from the Cordeliers monastery in which it held its meetings. Admission costs were low, and membership included numerous artisans and shopkeepers, topped off with a talented crew of journalists and intellectuals including Georges Danton, Camille Desmoulins and Jean-Paul Marat. The latter’s eponymous L’Ami du People proved a propaganda vehicle for the club, emphasizing its special role as the surveillance and denunciation of the public authorities. Women and workers were members too of the numerous Cordeliers-style fraternal societies which developed in the course of the 1790s. From 1792, these were often within the new framework of forty-eight sections within which Paris was administered. There was also the more intellectual Cercle Social, founded by ex-cleric Claude Fauchet, in which many budding political figures (Bonneville, Brissot, Roland, Condorcet) cut their polemical teeth. The Cercle Social developed a left-wing critique of the Jacobin club, which was dominated by the moderate ‘Triumvirate’ – the Grenoblois barrister Barnave, the ex-parlementaire Adrien Duport and ‘Americanist’ career soldier Alexandre de Lameth (to whom was occasionally added Lameth’s brother, Charles). The group also, along with the Cordeliers, attacked both the Paris municipality controlled by Bailly and the ‘Society of 1789’, which elitist opponents of the Triumvirate (notably Lafayette, Siéyès, Talleyrand and Bailly) established as a rival to the Jacobins in spring 1790. These popular discontents received support and endorsement, moreover, from within the Assembly itself – notably from Robespierre, who was fashioning himself quite a reputation as the whistle-blowing ‘Incorruptible’ and from a handful of other fellow-Jacobin radicals such as Pétion, Buzot and the abbé Grégoire.

The ‘mortification’ of the king in the summer of 1789 on which George Washington had remarked displayed itself thereafter as a characteristic political vacillation which made more difficult the Constituent Assembly’s task of producing political harmony and tranquillity. Louis found it impossible to determine a means of both rallying to the Constituent Assembly and of supporting ‘his’ nobility and clergy. This tested the limits of his abandonment of the corporative format of political life with which he had grown up and his acceptance of the new, civic idiom of Revolutionary political culture. The venal Mirabeau dreamed of the king seizing the initiative and ‘popularizing’ monarchy so as to increase royal power. He reminded Louis that the abolition of the parlements, the provincial estates, the corporative privileges of nobility and clergy was an oeuvre of which even Richelieu would have been proud: ‘several reigns of absolute government would not have done as much for royal authority as a single year of liberty’.66 Sporadically at least Louis was alert to such opportunities for boosting his own popularity. In February 1790, for example, he went before the Assembly to express support for the work of the assembly, craftily combining this with a request to be more personally involved in its work. Nor did he baulk from playing a leading role in the Fête de la Féderation on 14 July 1790, or in December from publicly chiding the émigrés for their lack of patriotism.

It seems likely that all this amounted to little more than royal lip-service to the new political culture. The king inwardly harboured deeply felt hostility towards the new arrangements, which kept him in virtual imprisonment in the Tuileries, demoted him to mere executive agent of legislative power and drained away the power of his ministers into the hands of Assembly committees. Although he lacked the requisite intelligence and duplicitous steadfastness, he endeavoured to develop the kind of clandestine parallel diplomacy which his grandfather had cultivated through the Secret du Roi. His private letter to Charles IV of Spain in November 1789 renouncing the concessions he had made thus far was followed a year later by the equally secret grant of plenipotentiary diplomatic powers to the baron de Breteuil, central player in the ill-fated ministry of 11–14 July 1789, to negotiate with foreign courts. What held Louis back from more open counter-revolutionary sentiments was, first, a desire to avoid civil war and, second, a concern not to fall into a position of over-dependence towards the émigré nobility. After all, many of the latter had been responsible, by their acts in 1787–8, for getting him into his wretched position in the first place.

Louis’s morose indecisiveness placed him increasingly in thrall to his wife, whose opposition to the Revolution was ferociously unconditional (and who, irritatingly, occasionally beat him at billiards). The queen used her champion, Fersen, and Austrian diplomatic envoy Mercy to keep in touch with her brothers, the Austrian emperors, Joseph II (down to his death in February 1790), then Leopold II (1790–92). These contacts gave rise to suspicions that she was running an ‘Austrian Committee’ which treasonously plotted with France’s erstwhile ally. L’Autrichienne (‘the Austrian bitch’) became the target for public attacks which harmed the royal cause. In pornographic news-sheets and crude engravings she was portrayed as a kind of Habsburg Messalina, polluting the purity of French political life; while the disclosures of the so-called Livre rouge (‘The Red Book’) – the list of pensions which the king had disbursed before 1789 – revealed the extent of court extravagance for which the poor queen was widely held to be responsible. All ways out, Mirabeau was far less successful in ‘popularizing’ the monarchy at this critical stage than Marie-Antoinette in depopularizing it.

If the royal family attracted increasingly open attacks, this was even more true of the princes and the nobles whose ‘discontent’ Washington had evoked as a cause of potential political instability. The aristocracy worked to a considerable extent, as we have seen, within the legal framework of the new political culture – yet it also developed an extralegal and openly counter-revolutionary character through the émigré princes, Artois (from July 1789) and Provence (from June 1791), and their exclusivist retinues. Over the course of the 1790s, perhaps 100,000 French men and women sought the road of emigration, particularly after 1791–2. Although only one in six of these was a noble, in the very early days the emigration was predominantly aristocratic and was driven by high politics (the fiasco of 14 July 1789, noble panics triggered by the Great Fear and the October Days) and anti-noble legislation (notably the end of feudalism and the abolition of noble titles). Artois appointed himself as a kind of clandestine regent in exile, petitioning the courts of Europe from his base in Turin for military and diplomatic aid against the Revolution, utilizing Antraigues and others to foment internal insurrectionary activity and seeking in all ways ‘to serve the king and queen in spite of themselves’.67Yet by the end of 1790, nobles had achieved precious little for their pains, apart from irking popular opinion and maintaining the king in his state of endless vacillation. Their contention that they were not only defenders of their own privileges but also the tireless paladins of the rights of the French nation rang hopelessly hollow. What changed the fortunes of their cause was the reform of the Ancien Régime church in the Civil Constitution of the Clergy of 12 July 1790, whose unpopularity could be exploited for their own ends.

Root-and-branch reform of the Catholic church had been made indispensable by Revolutionary reforms (the abolition of tithes, the nationalization and sale of church property, etc.). Yet though the Constituent Assembly’s handling of the ecclesiastical issue was to prove in the long run its most disastrous misjudgement, the church itself was, initially at least, far from the unwilling victim of ideologically driven or anti-clerical reforms. The anti-hierarchical lower clergy of the First Estate had been instrumental in ensuring the success of the Third Estate’s manoeuvres during the summer crisis of 1789, and ecclesiastical deputies such as Talleyrand and the abbés Grégoire and Siéyès played important roles within the Constituent Assembly. The model of the ‘citizen-priest’ had been widely current among churchmen prior to 1789. Many of the Civil Constitution’s stipulations – the stress on social utility, for example, and attacks on pluralism and absenteeism – were congruent with that model and were popular with dedicated clergy and lay-people alike. Nor were the Constituent Assembly’s first steps to reorganize the church unwelcome: the prohibition of perpetual vows (October 1789) and the consequent reform of monasteries and convents (February 1790) – which allowed monks and nuns to leave their orders with a state pension or else to be regrouped in more economically run institutions – developed an anti-monastic current of thinking which had been evident among churchmen as well as philosophes prior to 1789.

Furthermore, the Civil Constitution appealed to a strong pre-1789 current of Jansenist and/or Gallican feeling among churchmen, by tying the national church much more closely to the state even than had been the case in the era of Divine Right absolutism. First, it made the diocesan framework identical with the departmental network which had just been established, consequently reducing the number of bishops from 136 to 83. Second, it provided for the payment of ecclesiastical salaries out of state coffers, setting parish priest salaries, for example, at a more generous level (1200 livres per annum) than that enjoyed by those on the portion congrue before 1790 (900 livres). Third, it stipulated the election rather than the appointment to benefices: thus parish priests were elected by members of the district assemblies, and bishops by those on the departmental assemblies, making it possible for Protestants and Jews to be amongst the electorate. (Ménard de la Groye expressed pleasure that henceforward ‘we’ll have to count the virtues of our bishops, rather than their degrees of nobility’.)68 And finally it ended the 1516 Concordat of Bologna between Pope and the ‘Most Christian King’, by stating that the papacy had only the power to approve the election of bishops, rather than to share in their designation.

So consonant was the Civil Constitution with the reforming wishes of the absolute monarchy (as indeed of the philosophes) that it received the unreflecting assent of the monarch with an absence of fuss on 24 August 1790. However, both the papacy and the church itself soon stirred into hostile action and made him reconsider. Pope Pius VI was already much exercised over the papal enclave of Avignon and the Comtat Venaissin, which in June, after a plebiscite in favour of annexation into France, had indeed been incorporated into the revolutionary state, in a clear infringement of international law. The elective element in the Civil Constitution, the disrespect which it implied for church property and the growing toleration of other denominations were sufficient to excite the opposition of the pope, and from autumn 1790, Louis XVI began to receive papal warnings urging him not to agree to the reform. Although this injunction hit home with the king, many of the clergy could probably have lived fairly comfortably with papal disapprobation, such was the strength of Gallican sympathies in the church. Yet by the same token, they looked to a synodal meeting of the church as a whole to approve the reforms.

The Assembly’s way around the problem, however, was not to submit the measure to a corporative decision, but to impose on the individual members of the church an oath of loyalty to the new measure. To have allowed the church to deliberate in that way seemed to deputies a denial of civic egalitarianism and a corporatist infringement of national sovereignty which they imagined the Night of 4 August had ended. Decided on 27 November 1790, this option of the oath was put into effect in December 1790 and January 1791. It revealed a church split almost down the middle: around 45 per cent of the parish clergy refused the oath (and were called ‘refractory’ or ‘non-juring’ clergy), and though 55 per cent did take it, around 6 per cent of the ‘jurors’ publicly retracted following the pope’s public announcement of his opposition to the Civil Constitution in March 1791. There were higher numbers of refusals of the oath among other sectors of the clergy: only seven of 136 bishops took the oath, for example. Four of these were deputies in the Constituent Assembly, whose clerical membership was split from top to bottom by the oath.

Despite the individualistic, anti-corporative twist of the oath, the clergy did not vote in isolation. On the contrary, it would seem that they were under often intense pressure from their social environment. Parishioners appear to have viewed the oath as a chance to express through their local priest their attitude towards the Revolution thus far. The Civil Constitution poll thus served as a proxy measure of Revolutionary adherence mapping out – but also accentuating – a geography of Revolutionary and anti-revolutionary sentiment. The geography of resistance covered most of the west and much of the north-west of France, eastern France from the Vosges through Alsace to Picardy, and the southern fringe of the Massif Central. The strongholds of Revolutionism were more diffuse: the Paris basin, the Alpine region from Lyon to Nice, and a broad central swathe bounded in the north and north-east by Picardy, Champagne and Lorraine, and by Guyenne and the Massif Central in the south. A wide and complex range of factors influenced the clergy’s choice on the matter, but it is noticeable that in many juring areas, the idea of the ‘citizen-priest’ had been current before 1789, and their cahiers had endorsed part of the programme of the Civil Constitution. There is an interesting correlation too between refractory areas and those non-French-speaking areas of western and south-western France which had been most antagonistic to centralization in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

The Civil Constitution of the Clergy opened up a running sore at the heart of the polity which would suppurate throughout the 1790s, sapping the strength of the new regime. It dramatized the conflict between civic and corporative versions of the polity. And it sketched out a political geography rooted in the new Revolutionary culture which would be incredibly perdurable: non-juring areas in 1791 correspond closely to the strongholds of the Right in French politics down to the eve of the twenty-first century. The Assembly’s handling of the issue only, moreover, comforted the king in his vacillatory and duplicitous stance towards the Revolution. He harkened to the pope’s strictures, observed the negative attitude of the upper clergy whom he most respected and came to regard the constitutional clergy as heretical. From December 1790, moreover, he could see the Civil Constitution oath becoming the source of internecine conflicts in numerous regions: in refractory regions, the expulsion of non-jurors and their replacement by constitutional clerics triggered riots, threats to life, civil disobedience and other expressions of popular ill-will. In localities such as Paris, where a strong majority had taken the oath, the refractory minority was subject to vicious scapegoating: nuns from the Paris Hôtel-Dieu, for example, were subject to humiliating public spankings.

Louis’s attitude towards the Assembly’s religious policy exacerbated political divisions, especially when combined with his equivocal attitude towards the emigrated princes and nobility. It was soon generally known that the king preferred the refractory to the constitutional clergy for his own spiritual needs, and the view developed that he was biding his time to escape from Paris and raise the standard of revolt either in the provinces or from abroad. Fearing that the king’s rupture from the Revolutionary cause would trigger civil war, the ‘Triumvirate’, the most influential political grouping in the Constituent Assembly in early 1791, put out secret feelers to the court and sought to placate the monarch by adopting more conservative policies. They got the Assembly to agree to the practice of public worship by refractory priests; to forbid collective petitioning in an effort to reduce the influence of anti-clerical and anti-monarchical political clubs; and to pass the Le Chapelier Law of 14 June against workers’ associations. ‘What we call the Revolution’, ‘Triumvir’ Adrien Duport announced in the Assembly on 17 May, ‘is over’.69

Initially at least, however, the Triumvirs failed to palliate the king or to dissipate a growing jitteriness in political life. In February, the emigration of the king’s aged aunts, Adelaide and Victoire, to join Artois in Turin, had triggered a tremendous furore which was worsened by an imbroglio (the ‘chevaliers du poignard’ (‘knights of the dagger’) affair) on 28 February in which a gang of young royalist noblemen were alleged to be plotting to kidnap the king. At Easter that year, matters worsened. On the Monday before Easter Day, 18 April, the king prepared to leave Paris for the royal palace at Saint-Cloud, where he planned to perform his Easter duties at the hands of a non-juror. Was this a cover so as to avoid having to receive communion from a Constitutional priest? Or was it, more darkly still, a pretext for royal flight? As his coach prepared to leave the Tuileries, Louis found his way blocked by hostile Parisian crowds and by National Guardsmen under a highly embarrassed Lafayette.

By confirming Louis in his feeling that he would remain effectively a political prisoner as long as he stayed in Paris, the Saint-Cloud incident determined the king to quit the capital. Secret preparations were made through Marie-Antoinette’s knight errant, Fersen, and on 21 June 1791 Parisians awoke to discover the royal bird had flown, taking his family with him. Louis left behind him an open letter in which his petty rancours and inward resentments at all he had had to endure since 1789 were chronicled in graphic detail. The document also mapped out a programme of reform which reconnected with his views set out in the séance royale of 23 June 1789, that nec plus ultra of Bourbon reformism. It seemed, however, less a negotiating document than a piqued expression of royal wilfulness emanating from a political culture which had had its day. The king’s declaration was made to look all the more inept, moreover, by the fact that the royal bird proved unable to quit its cage. Louis’s aim seems to have been to effect a junction in eastern France with the royalist commander Bouillé, who would take over the fortress at Montmédy near the frontier. From there, it was planned that the king would negotiate constitutional change with the Assembly. But the king was not a great one for midnight swashbuckling or indeed for travel – he had only once been out of the Île-de-France in his entire life (to Cherbourg in 1786) – and the royal party lumbered along at a leisurely pace blithely assuming that the (pathetically transparent) disguise that they had adopted proofed them against discovery. However, Jean-Baptiste Drouet, humble postmaster of Saint-Ménéhould near Verdun, spied the king out, identifying the royal profile from a fifty-livre assignat he happened to have in his pocket. The bungling entourage was stopped at Varennes before it had achieved its objective.

An explosive situation which could well have lurched towards republicanism and civil war was stopped on the brink by ‘Triumvir’ Barnave. The latter was despatched to Varennes to collect the royal entourage and bring them back to Paris, and en route he brokered a deal with the king and (it was said) the queen. He held up to the pathetic monarch the prospect of his deposal and ensuing civil war in France as a spectre to frighten him into a more positive stance towards the Revolution. A line was agreed whereby the king would allow it to be known that he had been ‘abducted’ by counter-revolutionaries. In his journey through France he had come to understand that ‘public opinion had decided in favour of the constitution’, and he now wished to bow to ‘the general will’.70

If Barnave had the king on side, it still remained to assemble a kind of party of order in the Assembly and secure a majority for the transparent ‘kidnapping’ fiction. Here the Triumvirs were helped by the utter disarray of the aristocratic faction, and by the sabre-rattling of the émigrés. Artois had moved his head-quarters to Coblentz, and his brother Provence joined him there following his successful escape from Paris (via Brussels) on 20 June. The flight to Varennes caused profound disillusionment amongst the noble-dominated army officer corps: in the following weeks, around half of them – some 6,000 men – left the service, some to join their émigré colleagues. For on the Rhine, Condé and Mirabeau-‘Tonneau’ had formed émigré legions at Worms ready for an invasion, and were stepping up pressure on Europe’s crowned heads to join a counter-revolutionary crusade. These developments sent anxiety levels within France sky-rocketing. News of the king’s flight had provoked a mini ‘Great Fear’ in many regions, leading on to pre-emptive mobilizations against feared military invasions and vengeful attacks on local aristocrats and non-juring priests. In Paris, while the Jacobins agonized, the Cordeliers and Parisian fraternal societies began to agitate noisily for the deposing of the king.

Paradoxically, the surge of popular anti-royalism served Barnave’s intentions very well. He used the spectre of popular anarchy and civil and foreign war as a means of frightening his fellow deputies into accepting the Varennes fiction. ‘One step further towards liberty must destroy the monarchy,’ Barnave fulminated, ‘one more step towards equality is an assault on private property.’71 The deputies bought the package, formally stating on 16 July that the person of the monarch was inviolable, that Louis had indeed been ‘abducted’ on 20 June by Bouillé and that he should be reinstated as reigning monarch – but only when he had formally accepted the Constitution. The king now played his part in the drama, working assiduously with the Assembly over the summer on the Constitutional Act. He formally accepted this on 13–14 September, also agreeing for good measure to urge his brothers to return to France, and to oblige all émigrés to pay a triple tax load if they stayed abroad.

To be fully effective, however, the post-Varennes settlement still required the progress of popular republican sentiment to be stopped in its tracks – which duly occurred, in mid-July. Barnave’s party of order seemed to be winning the arguments over the republicans in middle-class opinion, which preferred Barnave’s recipe of ‘finishing’ the Revolution to the idea of initiating a second, more radical Revolution. The Cordeliers and the other Parisian popular societies were, however, still orchestrating republican demonstrations and petitions in mid-July. As a result of the kind of misunderstanding which occurs when both sides to a dispute are fearing the worst from the other, a mass republican demonstration on the Champ de Mars on 17 July led to the proclamation of martial law by mayor Bailly, and the crowd was fired on by Lafayette’s National Guard, causing extensive casualties. A crack-down on political radicals ensued, entailing the infringement or limitation of forms of individual freedom hitherto taken as read. There was police harassment and imprisonment of popular militants, suppression of newspapers, the hounding of individual radicals such as Marat, Danton, Desmoulins and Hébert and new laws on seditious meetings and political associations. Barnave led the majority of moderate Jacobins out of the Paris club, forming a new Feuillant club which sought to rally the national Jacobin network behind Triumvirate policies.

Barnave carried the day – in the short run at least. Political republicanism had been checked; a majority was spatchcocked together in the Assembly to agree to the reincorporation of Louis XVI into the political nation; and the king himself was blackmailed into acceptance of the new constitution, to take effect from 1 October, when the members of the Constituent Assembly would retire from the fray and be replaced by a new legislature, the Legislative Assembly. The Constituent Assembly could congratulate itself on having achieved a colossally impressive work of political architecture. Gone for ever, however, was that ‘great and wonderful majority of the early days’ evoked nostalgically by deputy Camus as the deputies prepared to go home.72 Political harmony had been maintained sufficiently to avoid major bloodshed of the kind predicted by George Washington in 1789. Yet the Assembly had far from demolished the dangerous relics of the Bourbon polity, which retained the active power to threaten everything which had been achieved. Émigré sabre-rattling would be the white noise against which the Revolutionary process would unfold through the 1790s.

The new Assembly would, moreover, bring new men into the political spotlight to face these difficult challenges. On 16 May – prior to the Varennes affair – ‘Incorruptible’ Robespierre had managed to persuade his fellow deputies to pass a self-denying ordinance whereby they excluded themselves from standing for election to the Legislative Assembly. The new men’s efforts to patch up the broken unity of 1791 without major bloodshed would prove ineffectual. The Champ de Mars massacre would seem a veritable picnic in comparison with what would follow over the coming years. The deputies of the Constituent Assembly themselves would pay their pound of flesh: by the end of the decade nearly one in ten of them had been executed or murdered, one in five of the commoners spent time in gaol, and around a quarter sought the road to emigration. The initial architects of the Revolutionary nation would suffer copiously at the hands of their creation.

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