Modern history


The Breakdown Of the Revalutionary Consensus 1790-1791

NOBODY had ever expected that, once the reform of France began, the Church would remain untouched. The cahiers of all three orders in the spring of 1789 were full of suggestions for improving and rationalizing the organization and conduct of religious life. The clergy, as the first order in the State, expected to play a leading role in the process. And at the start they did play a leading role: it was clerical deputies who first broke the ranks of the ‘privileged orders’ in June 1789 and so opened the way to the transformation of the Estates-General into the National Assembly. In doing so they were responding to appeals from the third estate in the name of the God of Peace, and hoping to break a deadlock that was preventing emergency action to relieve the sufferings of a hungry populace. There is no evidence that they intended to give up the clergy’s status as a separate order in the State, or its veto on action prejudicial to the interests of the Church or religion in general. But within weeks far more than these advantages had been lost. No group, probably, suffered more from the renunciations of the night of 4 August than the clergy. Parish priests lost their tithes, their vestry fees, and their ability to group poor benefices through pluralism. Compensation was mooted, but rejected. Bishops and ecclesiastical corporations, including charitable and educational ones, lost whatever feudal dues they happened to own, which were often substantial. Here compensation was voted, but in the end seldom paid. And the Pope himself lost the Annates, the Peter’s Pence that all the faithful contributed towards the upkeep of the Holy See, and whose renunciation had marked the moment, in the sixteenth century, when Protestant kingdoms had made their break with Rome. In the debates over codifying these changes, further threats were uttered, this time against church lands; and Mirabeau declared that all clerics should be content to be salaried servants of the State. The later weeks of August brought yet more blows. The drafters of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen refused to declare Catholicism the state religion; refused to restrict freedom of expression and opinion; and declared public office and civil rights available to all, which meant Protestants and Jews as well as Catholics. Clerical speakers in the Assembly were now regularly jeered from the galleries; so that when in October the Assembly returned to the idea of confiscating the estates of the Church for other national purposes, nobody was really surprised. The clergy fought it tooth and nail, not simply to protect what they had left, but also because they saw that the loss of the Church’s remaining independent resources would make further action by the Assembly inevitable. Patriotic speakers sought to offer reassurance: the nation would take over the Church’s educational and charitable functions, and every parish priest was promised an income of at least 1,200 livres. That third of the clergy hither to dependent on the portion congrue could rejoice at the prospect of a massive rise. But for many others, 1,200 livresrepresented a cut; and besides, when would payment begin? The Assembly had ordered the continuance of tithes until that moment, but along with feudal dues and taxes, peasants were no longer paying them in most places, and it was dangerous to try to enforce them. By the end of 1789, in other words, the Revolution that so many priests had greeted with such goodwill and enthusiasm had brought the clergy little but spoliation and promises.

And in 1790 the process continued. On 13 February came the turn of the regular clergy: all monasteries and convents, except those dedicated to educational and charitable work, were dissolved, and new religious vows were forbidden. Previous legislation, of course, had already deprived these institutions of their property and income, but the Assembly’s motives went deeper than that. Most deputies, many parish priests among them, believed that contemplatives were useless parasites, unproductive burdens on society whose existence no national church could justify. There were recent precedents elsewhere in Europe for such a wholesale dissolution, notably in the Habsburg lands under the rationalizing Joseph II. France itself had witnessed many monastic closures since the 1760s. But after all the other blows suffered by the Church over the preceding six months, this new one seemed part of a more alarming pattern. On 12 April a worried Carthusian monk, Dom Gerle, who had hitherto voted with the patriots, moved a surprise motion to declare Catholicism the national religion and grant it the monopoly of public worship. Three hundred deputies supported him, but the motion was still lost in an Assembly which a few weeks before had elected a Protestant pastor, Rabaut de Saint-Etienne, as its president.

Some people, indeed, were beginning to wonder if the whole Revolution was a Protestant plot. Although there were only some fifteen known Protestants in the Assembly, they included radical leaders like Barnave and Rabaut himself, who demanded complete equality in every sphere for a group which had enjoyed no civil rights at all before 1787. He and five others represented Nîmes, where determined electoral organization by a Protestant bourgeoisie, enormously enriched by two decades of industrialization in the textile trade, had excluded the complacent Catholic establishment from the third-estate representation. Protestants also played a predominant part in setting up the Nîmes citizens’ militia in July. All this constituted a rapid and, to the Catholics, shocking shift of power to a group whose strength had hitherto been solely economic. In Montauban, too, the militia was largely a Protestant creation, arousing similar Catholic apprehensions. The Catholic response was to organize their superior numbers in the municipal elections of the spring of 1790 to ensure that local power remained in their hands. They succeeded, but that left Protestants all the more determined to retain control of the militias and exclude Catholic recruits. In both cities, therefore, sectarian tensions rose over the spring, and on 10 May they broke into an ugly riot at Montauban when crowds led by pious women forcibly prevented officials from taking inventories of confiscated monastic properties. They then turned against the militia, overwhelming them and killing five. Panic-stricken Protestants fled the city, and calm was only restored when militiamen from Bordeaux, with no sectarian associations, arrived in force. A month later far more violent scenes occurred in Nîmes. The term bagarre (brawl), by which they were remembered, does no justice to four days of pitched street battles which began on 13 June when Protestant National Guardsmen opened fire on rival companies of Catholics in an atmosphere of rising excitement as both sides organized their vote for the first departmental elections. Reinforced by peasant co-religionaries who poured in from the countryside at the first rumour of the clashes, the two sides fought with no quarter; but the Protestants had more fire-power, and in the end the bagarre became a massacre of Catholics. Perhaps 300 died, against barely 20 Protestants, and when it was over the Protestants were in complete control of the city for the first time in their community’s history. Subsequently they swept the departmental elections too. Thus it was they, in the Gard department, who represented the revolutionary government and implemented its policies, including its ecclesiastical ones. To pious local Catholics, therefore, the Revolution meant the triumph of an old and feared enemy, the world turned upside-down.

And growing Catholic dismay at the course of events in France extended to the very top—for the Pope himself was soon involved. The end of the Annates proved merely a warning shot. By the end of 1789 many of the 150,000 papal subjects living in the enclaves of Avignon and the Comtat Venaissin were demanding the end of 441 years of rule from Rome and integration into France. In Avignon the annexationists won control of the city council after a long campaign and began to bring local law into line with the changes being made in France. Pius VI refused to accept these changes; and meanwhile, on 29 March, in an address to a secret consistory in Rome, he condemned the Declaration of the Rights of Man and all the policies so far pursued in France on religious matters. Encouraged by their ruler’s intransigence, anti-annexationists in Avignon made efforts to recapture power, culminating in a day of riots on 10 June. They were put down with the help of French National Guards, and a number of the Pope’s adherents were killed. Immediately afterwards the pro-French party proclaimed Avignon annexed to France, and later in the month several parts of the Comtat did the same. The Assembly, aware of the international ramifications of outright annexation, was in no hurry to accept these declarations, but in its debates on the question there were many who argued that the popular will had settled it. In the Comtat, it certainly had not, and civil war raged throughout the territory for the next twelve months. During that time, the split between the Pope and the Revolution was to become irreparable; but the breaking-point did not come over Avignon or the Comtat. The decisive issue was the Civil Constitution of the Clergy.

Ever since August 1789 an ecclesiastical committee of the Assembly had been working on a comprehensive reform plan to revitalize the Church, bring it into harmony with the principles of the Revolution, and provide a secure financial and organization basis for its future. Only a third of the committee’s original fifteen members were clerics; and when, as the full range of their colleagues’ ideas became apparent, they began to drag their feet, the Assembly added fifteen more laymen. A handful were freethinkers, steeped in the anti-clerical writings of the Enlightenment; but most were sincere Catholics, concerned only to purge the Church of its abuses, making it leaner but fitter. What they proposed, one declared, was ‘merely ... a return to the discipline of the early Church’.1 But that meant changing many practices centuries old, and observed throughout a Church that far transcended the frontiers of France. And, the committee made clear, it meant doing so without consulting the head of the Church, that foreign monarch, in any way. Nobody disputed the Pope’s authority in matters spiritual or doctrinal: but how the French Nation chose to organize the practice of religion within its own frontiers was none of his business. The most he could expect was the courtesy of notification. As the debates on the proposed Civil Constitution began on 29 May, the king was asked to arrange for the winding up of the Concordat of 1516, which had hitherto governed relations between Rome and the French Church. No replacement was envisaged. The National Assembly, having recast vast areas of French secular life unresisted, and indeed removed the Church’s material foundations without much outcry, saw no need to negotiate its policies with anyone. When, at the start of the debates, bishops suggested that the consent of the French Church to the Civil Constitution be obtained through a national council, they were brushed aside. There could be no question of resurrecting the clergy as a separate order in society or the State. Many parish priests in the Assembly endorsed this argument, remembering how before 1789 assemblies of the clergy had been mere mouthpieces of the hierarchy. But the danger of that was past. The danger of not referring the reforms to a national council was that, if the Pope came out against them, no other ecclesiastical authority could challenge his decision.

But was the Pope likely to object? What was proposed was scarcely more radical than changes he had accepted in the Habsburg realms in recent years. And the news from Avignon and the Comtat, coming in when the debate was at its height, suggested that if he did prove recalcitrant a French threat to agree to annexation of these territories would blackmail him into compliance. For all the weeks of debate, therefore, the plan tabled by the ecclesiastical committee was accepted almost without amendment on 12 July. Much of it, too, would probably have been perfectly acceptable to most of the clergy. The salary scales it laid down were generous, although most bishops and many rectors would make less than they had in the days of church lands and tithes. There were stringent residence requirements at every level, but these had been the unanimous demand of the cahiers. Even the rationalization of the ecclesiastical map made obvious good sense. Henceforth there were to be only eighty-three bishops, one per department, and ten metropolitans. Parishes, too, were drastically reduced in number: in all towns of less than 6,000 inhabitants there was to be only one. All chapters and other benefices without cure of souls were now abolished. Like monasteries and convents, they were regarded as useless and parasitical. The clergy existed to minister to the faithful, and had no other justification. On these grounds the requirement for bishops to have served fifteen years in a parish, and vicars five as a curate, were also clear improvements. Apart, therefore, from the clerical unemployment bound to result from the reduction and rationalization of benefices, there was little in the reorganization effected under the Civil Constitution to alarm the majority of priests. The real difficulties came with the provisions on appointment. All clerics were to be elected by the laity, just like other public officials. Bishops would be chosen by departmental assemblies, parish priests by districtones. Bishops would exercise their powers in concert with an advisory council. The latter recalled the synods of parish priests long advocated by certain sorts of Jansenists who derived inspiration from the seventeenth-century Sorbonne canonist Edmond Richer. ‘Richerists’ advocated church government by election—but not lay election, let alone election by a body of active citizens who might even include Protestants, Jews, or atheists. Cure of souls was too serious a business to be left in uninitiated hands. Finally there was the problem of the Pope’s role and powers. All French citizens were expressly forbidden to have any contact with any foreign bishop or his agents; without prejudice, it was true, to ‘the unity of the faith, and the communion to be maintained with the visible Head of the universal church’. The first draft had called him the bishop of Rome, but that was found too disrespectful. Respect, however, was all he was now to receive. The pontiff who had hitherto confirmed all episcopal appointments was now merely to be notified that they had been made.

The Pope’s private reaction anticipated the Assembly’s final approval of the Civil Constitution. On 10 July he wrote to Louis XVI urging him not to sanction a document which would drag the whole French Nation into schism. But by the time the letter arrived the king had already given his preliminary sanction, advised by bishops whom the Pope had thought would counsel intransigence. Schism was their fear too, but they thought the initiative for avoiding it lay with Rome. Few of the clerical deputies favoured resisting the new law, whatever their private reservations. But they all believed that it must be accepted by the Church, and since a national council was out of the question, the Pope must pronounce. Unaware that he already had pronounced, over the summer they bombarded Rome with urgings not to condemn the new order, but to seek ways of working with it. When the king formally promulgated the Civil Constitution on 24 August they presumed, erroneously but understandably, that agreement had been reached on abandoning the Concordat, and that a settlement was therefore in the offing. Pius VI, shocked by the pliability of the French episcopate, decided to temporize, consult his cardinals, and belatedly explore ways of avoiding schism. Outwardly he said absolutely nothing; yet so long as he remained silent the French clergy could not feel confident of the acceptability of what was now a law of the French State.

Nor were the French clergy alone in feeling they could not afford to wait. All over the country church lands were now being inventoried prior to sale, monasteries and convents were being closed down, and patriots were proclaiming that support for the Civil Constitution, like the assignats, was a test of commitment to the new order. The whole complex of issues raised by religion, in fact, was soon polarizing opinion in ways not seen since the spring of 1789. The conservative press, disparate and unco-ordinated throughout 1789, came together for the first time to denounce the Civil Constitution with one voice as an attack on the Catholic faith. Patriotic papers responded with by now characteristic anti-clerical vigour. And no stimulus was more important in the proliferation of Jacobin clubs which was such a striking feature of political life in 1790.

When the National Assembly moved to Paris, its radical leaders formed a ‘Revolution Club’ to discuss and co-ordinate reform policies in the way first pioneered at Versailles by the shadowy ‘Breton Club’. It met in a Jacobin convent near the Assembly, and in January 1790 renamed itself the ‘Society of the Friends of the Constitution’. A number of provincial centres had also seen the foundation of political clubs in the course of the stirring events of 1789. Some emerged in great cities, like Bordeaux or Dijon, but many sprang up in improbable remote townships. From the earliest stage they sought to correspond with one another, and in the spring of 1790 they began to seek affiliation with the society meeting at the Jacobins in Paris. As the fame of the latter increased new affiliates proliferated. From two dozen in February they grew to 152 in August, and over 200 by November. In these bodies the leisured, educated men of France, recognized by the National Assembly as active citizens, turned their habit of forming circles, associations, and lodges over the preceding two generations to politics. The Paris Jacobins, with a membership of over 200 deputies and, by July 1790, 1,000 others, debated national issues before and even as they were ventilated in the National Assembly itself. The provincial clubs saw their duty as keeping up enthusiasm for the new order. They organized festivals and demonstrations, chivvied lax local authorities, read and distributed patriotic newspapers, and sent endless addresses to their counterparts in other towns. Many figures prominent in the later history of the Revolution gained their first political experience in the clubs. Occasions for their foundation varied, but usually they emerged from some specific event or issue. None was more important than those connected with religion. Thus at Bergerac and Tulle clubs were founded to denounce those deputies who had supported Dom Gerle’s ill-fated motion of 13 April. At Nîmes and Montauban they were formed by Protestants in the aftermath of sectarian clashes which marked local Catholic leaders as counterrevolutionary. In September the annexationists of Avignon set up a club as a further sign of their determination to join France, and its appearance was hailed by the Jacobins of neighbouring towns like Aix, Marseilles, Nîmes, and Tarascon. The clubs of the Midi were also galvanized during the summer by the first armed demonstration of avowed counterrevolutionaries. In August a federation of National Guards met in a remote valley of the northern Gard at Jalès. Unimpeachably patriotic at first in its activities, the meeting was later taken over by the leaders of the Nîmes Catholics defeated in the bagarre. They declared themselves to be an insurrection and drafted a petition denouncing Protestant control of the department. ‘Exploiting decrees intended for our protection’, they complained,2 ‘the Protestants are endeavouring to impose their laws upon us. The department, the districts and the municipalities are all filled with their protégés. They receive the advancements, the offices and the honours … the tribunals are deaf to our pleas.’ Although the camp then dispersed, it left behind a planning committee to organize further camps and coordinate action with agents of the Count d’Artois, who from exile in Turin was now dreaming of armed intervention to rescue the king and reverse the Revolution.

To these groups the Civil Constitution of the Clergy was quite literally a godsend. And the way the Assembly chose to deal with the clergy’s persistent hesitations compounded their delight. On 30 October thirty bishops from the Assembly who had voted against the Civil Constitution issued an Exposition of Principles to explain why they had. It was no call to arms; they merely declared that they could not connive at such radical changes without consulting the Church through either a council or the Pope. Nevertheless patriots saw it as an incitement to disobey the law, and local authorities, clamorously supported by Jacobin clubs, began to enforce it. Bishops began to be expelled from suppressed sees; chapters were dissolved. In October and early November the first departmental bishops were elected. But this time the clergy did not meekly accept its fate. There were protests. ‘I can no more’, declared the incumbent of the doomed see of Senez, ‘renounce the spiritual contract which binds me to my Church than I can renounce the promises of my baptism ... I belong to my flock in life and in death … If God wishes to test his own, the eighteenth century, like the first century, will have its martyrs.’3 The first elected bishop, the deputy Expilly, who was chosen by the Finistère department, was refused confirmation by the archbishop of Rennes. In Soissons, the bishop was dismissed by the departmental authorities for denouncing the Civil Constitution. It was impossible to dismiss all the 104 priests of Nantes who did the same, but their salaries were stopped. Evidently there was to be no peaceful transition to a new ecclesiastical order, and indignant local authorities bombarded the Assembly with demands for action. Eventually, on 27 November, action was taken. The deputies decided, after two days of bitter debate, to dismiss at once all clerics who did not accept the new order unequivocally. And to test this acceptance they imposed an oath. All beneficed clergy were to swear after mass on the first available Sunday ‘to be faithful to the nation, the king and the law, and to uphold with all their power the constitution declared by the National Assembly and accepted by the king’. All who refused were to be replaced at once through the procedures laid down in the Civil Constitution.

The French Revolution had many turning-points; but the oath of the clergy was, if not the greatest, unquestionably one of them. It was certainly the Constituent Assembly’s most serious mistake. For the first time the revolutionaries forced fellow citizens to choose; to declare themselves publicly for or against the new order. And although refusers branded themselves unfit to exercise public office in the regenerated French Nation, paradoxically their freedom to refuse was a recognition of their right to reject the Revolution’s work. In seeking to identify dissent, in a sense the revolutionaries legitimized it. That might scarcely have mattered if, as the deputies expected, nonjurors had amounted only to a handful of prelates and their clients. But when, months rather than the expected few weeks later, the overall pattern of oath-taking became clear it was found that around half the clergy of France felt unable to subscribe. With no word from Rome, the king sanctioned the new decree on 26 December, so that oath-taking (or refusal) dominated public life throughout the country in January and February 1791. The clergy in the Assembly themselves set the pattern, in that they were completely divided. Only 109 took the oath, and only two bishops, one of them Talleyrand. As the deadline approached on 4 January the Assembly was surrounded by crowds shouting for nonjurors to be lynched; and the patriots, led unpersuasively by the Protestant Barnave, used every possible argument and procedural ploy to sway waverers. But there were none. And faced with this example from the majority of clerical deputies, it is little wonder that so many clerics in the country at large became refractories (as nonjurors were soon being called). There were, however, spectacular geographical differences. In anti-clerical Paris, few priests braved popular disapproval by refusing.

Last Sunday [wrote one observer on 11 January] I was at St. Germain l’Auxerrois to watch, since I was curious to see this ceremony, the priests’ oath. The church was full up. The vicar and the second curate refused; 15 other priests swore with a good grace and a good heart, to the repeated applause of all the people. On that day there were scandals in almost every parish; at St. Severin, the vicar had fled with his curates … The people revile all these runaway priests and dote on those who remain faithful to the new laws. You should hear the things the people say, even in the churches. How, they say, can there be two consciences? Some swear, others won’t swear! Has the Mass changed? No, no, it’s the money they miss, it’s good cooking, etc. etc. … and all this larded with epithets I would not dare repeat.4

Other areas of high oath-taking were the plains around Paris, the Pyrenees, and above all the south-east, Provence and Dauphiné, whose underpaid congruistes had been prominent in the clerical revolts of the early 1780s against ‘episcopal despotism’. Many big provincial cities, however, saw high levels of refusal, as did most peripheral regions. Less than a quarter of the beneficed clergy took the oath in most districts of Flanders and Alsace, areas culturally distinct from the French heartland. Languedoc, riddled with Protestants who had appropriated the Revolution for their own ends, produced few clergy willing to endorse the new order. Above all, there was a massive refusal of the oath throughout the west. West of a line roughly from Rouen to La Rochelle there were only isolated pockets where more than a quarter of clerics accepted the oath. Here, priests had often lived well on their own tithes and extensive glebe, and they tended to be of local peasant stock, which was even more important than material considerations. Everywhere pressure from the laity seems to have been crucial in the decision priests took. Local authorities and clubs went to great lengths to promote acceptance, and where there was popular support they achieved successes. But in the bocage country of the west, where the new local authorities were townsmen already disliked for having done too well out of the Revolution, priests preferred solidarity with their parishioners. In many regions, in fact, the oath acted as a sort of opinion poll on the work of the Revolution so far, and a priest’s decision to become a refractory or a ‘constitutional’ reflected his parishioners’ opinion on a far wider range of issues than the Civil Constitution of the Clergy. In the end, about 54 per cent of the parish clergy took the oath. This suggests that well over a third of the country was now prepared to signal that the Revolution had gone far enough.

Not only parish priests were subjected to the oath. All clergy who hoped for election to a benefice in the new constitutional Church had to take it. Their chances of elevation in the hierarchy, non-existent before 1789, were enormously increased by a clean sweep of the episcopate when all but seven bishops refused to swear. Talleyrand, however, was there to assure the apostolic succession, and the constitutional Church opened clerical careers to the talents. Many monks and canons, despite their ejection from the cloister, took the oath in order to qualify themselves for the cure of souls and a salary far better than the meagre pension allotted to ex-regulars. And, despite the Civil Constitution’s drastic reduction in the number of parishes, refusal rates meant that there were plenty of benefices to be had. Too many, in fact: the National Assembly’s first humiliation at the hands of the refractories came when it had to ask them to remain in office until suitable replacements could be found. Worse was to come. On 10 March the Pope broke his silence with a private letter to the bishops who had signed the Exposition of Principles, criticizing the Civil Constitution at length. On 13 April he asked them formally not to take the oath. On 4 May these texts were made public; and, although they still stopped short of explicit condemnation, all sides now took them for that. Many constitutionals now withdrew their oaths: in the end perhaps 10 per cent. In Paris the Pope was burned in effigy and hostile crowds prevented refractory priests and their congregations from exercising the freedom of worship vouchsafed as one of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. The Assembly returned to debating the annexation of Avignon. At the end of the month, the papal nuncio left the country. The breach between revolutionary France and the Roman Church was complete.

Only now did counter-revolution begin to acquire the makings of a popular base beyond the areas already torn by sectarian strife. Until the spring of 1790, there had indeed been no such thing as counter-revolution outside the over-heated imaginations of the Count d’Artois and his threadbare émigré court in Turin. When, after the October Days, Mounier had withdrawn to Dauphiné and attempted to reconvene the Dauphin estates with a view to denouncing the course events were now taking, his co-provincials rebuffed him. It was true that, as early as September 1789, Mirabeau had begun to play a double game. Continuing to boom radicalism from the tribune of the Assembly, he had offered the king and queen his secret services as an adviser. In May 1790, despite their loathing for him personally, they began to pay him for regular secret notes of advice. But Mirabeau wanted to arrest the Revolution, not reverse it. He believed in a strong monarchy, and he believed that the king should be got out of Paris, but he had no time for the plotters of Turin and their schemes of resurrecting aristocratic power. Louis XVI, in any case, took none of Mira-beau’s advice, and he died in April 1791 a frustrated man, though with his patriotic reputation still intact. But nor did the king pay much heed to the messages smuggled in from Artois. As the latter told Calonne, whose counsel he was increasingly taking throughout 1790, ‘We must serve the king and the queen in spite of themselves’.5 By then, in fact, his agents were in touch with Catholic leaders in the Gard, and that autumn they felt so encouraged by reports of unrest in the south-east that they began to plan a general insurrection taking in the whole of the Rhône valley. But security was always to prove even less the counter-revolution’s strong point than realism, and in December plotters were arrested in Lyons with papers that exposed the whole conspiracy. In February 1791 a second Camp de Jalès failed in its objective of rallying overwhelming numbers of Catholic National Guards to march on Nîmes. A largely Protestant force hunted down the ill-co-ordinated insurgents with considerable bloodshed. By then, Artois’s support for such episodes was causing severe embarrassment to the king of Sardinia, who began to make clear that the émigré court was no longer welcome in Turin. In January 1791 the affronted exiles decided to leave, and by June they had found themselves a new headquarters in Germany, at Koblenz—the territory, appropriately enough, of a prince of the Church, the archbishop elector of Trier.

Louis XVI, warned of the Lyons plot, had begged his brother not to go through with it. In any case, it had depended for its ultimate success on the co-operation of loyal troops, and by the summer of 1790 it was uncertain whether any units of the army could be completely relied on. Antagonism between aristocratic officers and ranks influenced by unhierarchical National Guard units erupted into a series of mutinies in Lille, Hesdin, Perpignan, and Metz. They culminated in July and August with the rebellion of three regiments stationed at Nancy, energetically supported by the local Jacobin club. General Bouillé, supreme commander in the eastern departments, resolved to make an example of them and took Nancy by storm. Twenty-three mutineers were executed and savage punishments imposed on over a hundred more. Despite uproar in the Assembly at these echoes of ancien régime despotism, the example seemed to work. Effervescence in the army diminished over the winter, and the king came to regard Bouillé as someone whom he could perhaps rely on. The queen had been dreaming of flight and/or rescue by her Austrian brother’s armies ever since the summer of 1789; but it seems to have been only towards the end of 1790, even as he was urging his exiled brother to drop rescue plans, that the king began to think seriously about escaping on his own initiative.

It was ironic that he should be inclining this way just as the prospects for a popular rallying to the royal cause were beginning to brighten; and doubly so in that both developments could be ascribed to the same cause—the religious schism. It was true that the king had duly sanctioned both the Civil Constitution and the clerical oath, but he had done so with clear misgivings, and when huge numbers of clergy refused the oath, and the Pope remained ominously silent, his personal doubts were reinforced. His confessor subscribed, but from then on the king refused to consult him. The most important women in his life after the queen, his maiden aunts, also spurned the constitutional clergy. When in February 1791 they begged to be allowed to go to Rome to consult the Pope in person, the king himself supervised arrangements for them to leave prematurely and unmolested. Crowds of women, who were now the mainstay of popular demonstrations in the capital, arrived just too late to prevent them. Encouraged by the Jacobins, the popular press, and the more radical Cordeliers Club (or more formally, ‘Society of the Friends of the Rights of Man’: pointedly not the Constitution) they mounted menacing demonstrations outside the residences of other members of the royal family, suspecting a plan for piecemeal emigration. Lafayette and his National Guards spent much of the spring of 1791 rushing around Paris dispersing anti-royal and anti-clerical demonstrations. Vilified by the popular press and hated by the popular political societies which the Cordeliers were attempting to foster all over the capital, he won no gratitude, either, from the king or his devotees. Lafayette saw himself as the protector of royalty: they considered him its gaoler. He could not even, they thought, guarantee the security of his charge, for he always seemed to arrive almost too late. On 28 February he was out at Vincennes trying to prevent a militant crowd from demolishing the keep there, a Bastille lookalike. Fearing the king was unprotected, hundreds of nobles armed with knives and pistols converged on the Tuileries. It looked like an escape plot, and Lafayette hurried back to conclude this ‘Day of Daggers’ by disarming everybody in the palace. The contempt of royalists for this posturing ‘mayor of the palace’ reached a peak in April, in Easter Week. As in 1790, the royal family intended to spend Easter on the wooded western heights above the city, at Saint-Cloud. But the Sunday before, the king publicly received communion from a refractory priest. Soon the whole city knew, and when, the next morning, the royal family attempted to set out for Saint-Cloud, a huge crowd surrounded their carriage and prevented it from moving. Lafayette, arriving late as usual, ordered National Guardsmen to clear the way. They refused. After almost two hours the king went back into the palace. There is no evidence that the excursion to Saint-Cloud was part of an escape plan; but its abandonment convinced the king that he now really was a prisoner of his Godless capital. From this moment rumours and predictions of his impending flight became self-fulfilling. He began to make concrete preparations for his own emigration.

Meanwhile, popular persecution of refractories intensified. In one incident market women publicly caned a whole convent of nuns who had punished pupils for attending a constitutional mass. Threats of the same treatment prevented refractory congregations from using disused churches they had hired for private worship. And all this lawlessness took place against a background of rising unemployment in the capital, as droves of servants and workers in the luxury trades were thrown on to the streets by noble emigration or retrenchment and the wholesale closure of chapters and monasteries. Public charity workshops, the most famous of which was dismantling the Bastille, took up some of the unemployment. This was where the idea of demolishing the keep at Vincennes came from. With so much labour on the market, wages had not risen much since 1789 but, as depreciating assignats began to drive coin out of circulation, prices were beginning to go up. On 2 March 1791 the National Assembly addressed a problem shelved in August 1789: it abolished trade guilds and corporations as vestiges of a now vanished society based on privilege. But guilds had also been employers’ associations, and their disappearance now encouraged various groups of workers to press for higher wages. Most prominent among them were the carpenters and blacksmiths, who by early June were hinting darkly at a ‘general coalition’ of 80,000 workers determined to force masters into paying more. The carpenters were talking of a minimum wage enforced by strikes, and popular societies were encouraging them. The municipality made increasingly frantic attempts to resist the movement, but at length the National Assembly itself felt obliged to intervene. On 14 June, on the motion of Le Chapelier, it voted to prohibit all organizations of workers, and concerted industrial action of any sort. Local authorities were forbidden to accept representations from such groups or offer any sort of employment to their members. This law was to govern industrial relations in France for the next 73 years.

The fact that it was moved by Le Chapelier was significant. Here was one of the leading radicals of the early Revolution, a founder member of the Jacobin Club, and for long one of the pacemakers of the left in the Assembly. But by 1791 he had become convinced that the Revolution could go no further without imperilling the gains made since 1789. The time had come to consolidate, complete the constitution, and get it working before popular passions undermined it completely. Many hitherto radical deputies were coming to similar conclusions. Sensing the change of mood, in the last weeks of 1790 a group of former monarchiens established a Monarchical Club to rival the Jacobins. Soon it had hundreds of members; but it compromised itself with too blatant a bid for popular support when, during the cold winter weather, it began to sell heavily subsidized bread. The Jacobins were able to badger the city authorities into closing it down for disrupting the market. Barnave led this campaign; but by early summer even he had begun to moderate his views, as had his old radical allies Duport and the Lameth brothers. They had begun to realize that, should the king abscond, the keystone of the whole constitution would be lost, with incalculable consequences. Besides, there was also the question of power after the Constituent completed its work, which everyone now expected to be in the summer. Deputies who had taken a lead in national life for two years could hardly view the prospect of a return to provincial obscurity with much enthusiasm. To conciliate the king would open the way to office, especially now that Mirabeau was gone. But the drift of the Barnave, Duport, and Lameth ‘triumvirate’ towards the centre-ground of politics rapidly aroused popular suspicion and brought to favour a number of hitherto obscure deputies on the left whom Mirabeau, in one of his last speeches (28 February 1791), had identified as the ‘thirty voices’. The British ambassador was even more explicit about their aims. ‘There is a sett of men’, he reported on 15 April, ‘whose object is the total annihilation of monarchy however limited.’6 Their leader, he observed, was Robespierre. Whether Robespierre was at this stage republican is doubtful. Certainly he denied it in the Jacobin Club on 10 April. But another British observer saw beyond these professions.

He is [noted W. A. Miles, who had joined the Jacobin Club to report on its activities to London] in his heart Republican, honestly so, not to pay court to the multitude, but from an opinion that it is the very best, if not the only, form of government which men ought to admit. Upon this principle he acts, and the public voice is decidedly in favour of his system. He is a stern man, rigid in his principles, plain, unaffected in his manners, no foppery in his dress, certainly above corruption, despising wealth … I watch him very closely every night. I read his countenance with eyes steadily fixed on him. He really is a character to be contemplated; he is growing every hour into consequence, and, strange to relate, the whole National Assembly holds him cheap, consider him as insignificant, and, when I mentioned to one of them my suspicions, and said he would be a man of sway in a short time, and govern the million, I was laughed at.7

This was on 1 March, Five weeks later, on 7 April, came Robespierre’s first tangible achievement. Playing on old suspicions that had blighted Mira-beau’s hopes of office in November 1789, he moved that no deputy should be eligible for executive office until four years after the Constituent ended. The motion was carried. So was his next one, on 16 May, which excluded members of the Constituent from the subsequent Legislative Assembly. Both were profoundly important for the subsequent course of the Revolution, but at the time they seemed little more than tactical victories. Right-wingers supported them to spite the triumvirs, gleeful to see the fragmentation of the left.

The fragmentation continued throughout May and early June. When the Assembly returned to debating Avignon, Robespierre and his group called for instant annexation, this time unsuccessfully: the majority were beginning to recognize the risks in further alienating the Pope. Much time was also devoted to colonial questions, which had dogged the history of the Assembly ever since 8 June 1789, when a deputation from Saint-Domingue had demanded recognition. In March 1790 the deputies had voted not to abolish slavery, on the recommendation of a committee chaired by Barnave: evidently the Rights of Man did not extend to blacks. But what about the free coloureds? Whites in Saint-Domingue, where there were almost 40,000 of them, were determined to resist their claims to political rights, and when in October 1790 a small group attempted to assert themselves by force of arms, they were brutally repressed. Others now petitioned the Assembly, where Barnave warned of the dangers of meeting their claims, while Robespierre denounced slavery and called for political rights to be granted regardless of colour. Once more he carried the day. Now, too, he was beginning to dominate the Jacobin Club; and his popularity in Paris was demonstrated when on 11 June he was elected public prosecutor at the criminal court.

None of this was calculated to reassure the royal family, and during all these controversies their plans for flight were gradually elaborated. The king was now indifferent to attempts to conciliate him: he gave all his attention to composing a defiant manifesto which he proposed to leave behind, denouncing all that had been done since October 1789, and much before that. The arrangements were made by the queen’s devoted admirer, the Swedish adventurer Count Axel von Fersen. Through him Bouille was contacted: he promised to provide military escorts when the royal fugitives made the dash for Montmedy, close to the Luxembourg frontier. The troops would think they were being moved up to observe Austrian forces massing on the other side with the co-operation of the Emperor, and in any case the royal party would travel incognito, under a specially prepared passport. On the night of 20 June they slipped out of the Tuileries, past guards which had been doubled at renewed rumours of just such an attempt. Despite delays, they got clean away; but delay meant that the first escort had abandoned its post before the royal coach got there, thinking the enterprise had failed. This was the word that now went up the line of further escorts. At the same time, however, all these troop movements had aroused suspicion at towns along the route, National Guards were called out, and at Sainte-Menehould, on the evening of 21 June, the king was recognized. Drouet, the local postmaster whose claims to have made the identification launched him into a career in radical politics, made a dash to Varennes, the next town on the route. Here the party was stopped, the whole town turned out, and the troops waiting there could do nothing. On the morning of the twenty-second messengers arrived from Paris with orders to bring the would-be escapers back.

The flight to Varennes was the Revolution’s second great turning-point. Like the oath of the clergy, it forced everybody to make choices that most would have preferred not to face. Even if it had succeeded choices would have been unavoidable. Whether the king merely intended, as he claimed, to go to Montmedy and negotiate from that safe distance; or whether, as most suspected (and his brother, Provence, who at the same time did reach the Austrian Netherlands, put about), he intended to emigrate and return at the head of Austrian armies, the achievements of the Revolution up to that moment would have been fundamentally challenged. Diplomats thought war would have been precipitated there and then. The failure of the attempted escape postponed that danger—but demanded choices of a different order. The monarch had renounced the Revolution, and had explained why at great length in the proclamation he left behind. He complained of imprisonment in Paris, violation of property, and ‘complete anarchy in all parts of the empire’. He denounced betrayal of the wishes expressed in the cahiers, the lack of power accorded to the Crown under the new constitution, the tentacular power usurped by the Jacobin clubs, and, implicitly, the new religious order. How could such a man remain head of State? The blackest suspicions of the Parisian populace and radical leaders were confirmed. Republicans now came into the open. All over the capital symbols of royalty were attacked and defaced, and on 24 June the Cordeliers Club delivered a petition to the National Assembly to depose the king or consult the Nation on his fate in a referendum. A crowd of 30,000 escorted its presenters.

Most members of the National Assembly, however, had been thoroughly frightened by the king’s departure. Its very behaviour when the crisis broke, paradoxically, showed that public business could go on perfectly well without a king: ministers were summoned, military dispositions checked, and debate proceeded as if nothing untoward had happened. ‘One would never have imagined’, marvelled one noble deputy, ‘that at this moment there was no longer a King in France.’8 But to depose the king would mean at best a regency, notorious in French history for their perils; or at worst a complete redrafting of a constitution that was all but completed. Revisions in a republican direction could only lead to a strengthening of those popular forces which increasing numbers of deputies had found so alarming over the spring. Within a day of the news of the flight breaking, however, the Assembly had found a way out of the dilemma. It would pretend, against all the evidence, that the king had been kidnapped. It said so in a proclamation issued on 22 June urging the nation to keep calm. The denunciations he had left behind had been wrested from an unwilling monarch by wicked advisers. Those who objected to such patent fictions were heavily voted down. The king was suspended from his functions: for the rest of its life the Constituent Assembly controlled the executive as well as made laws. But there was never any doubt that the vast majority of deputies were determined to retain the monarchy at the cost of however many fudges and fictions were required. On 15 July the entire blame for the flight was imputed by decree to Bouille and his subordinates, who were to be prosecuted. By then, however, as the deputies well knew, most of the accused had emigrated, and were safe in Austrian territory.

The sense of emergency at the news of Varennes was nation-wide. There was a general expectation that the Austrians would invade to rescue the royal captive. National Guards were stood to, local authorities organized permanent committees to maintain revolutionary vigilance, and in many places there was renewed persecution of refractory priests and their congregations. The assumption was that they were in league with aristocrats and foreigners in some vast plot. Jacobin clubs were filled to bursting with anxious patriots. The religious turmoil of the spring had revitalized the Jacobin network, with the need to drum up support for oath-taking and promote participation in the election of priests and bishops. By July there were well over 900 affiliated clubs, almost three times as many as at the start of the year; and in his parting manifesto the king had pinpointed them as the source of much of what had gone wrong. But Varennes confronted the clubs with serious problems. Many of their members clearly thought that the king’s betrayal of his trust ought to lead to his deposition. At least sixty clubs called for him to be put on trial. But only a handful called openly for a republic, and many others explicitly repudiated the idea. It was soon apparent that the ‘mother society’ itself was split. Few speakers in its debates seemed to find the Assembly’s policy satisfactory, but outright republicanism also found few supporters. Even Robespierre only advocated leaving the decision to the people. But the club felt unable to resist the sense of outrage which swept Paris on 15 July when it became known that the Assembly held the king blameless. That evening its meeting was swamped by a crowd of 4,000 organized by a hitherto obscure radical club called the Social Circle. Before Varennes, the Social Circle had been noted for somewhat Utopian political discussions, but afterwards it had cooperated with the Cordeliers in their call for a republic, and had publicized their petition of 24 June in its newspaper, the Bouche de fer (Iron Mouth). The intruders now urged the Jacobins to join them in drawing up a petition against the king’s reinstatement. They hoped to attract mass signings by promulgating it on the altar to the Fatherland which had been erected on the Champ de Mars for the celebration of the second anniversary of the fall of the Bastille the day before. A joint committee was set up to draft the petition overnight. Among those elected to it were Danton and Brissot, who had built himself a democratic reputation in Paris through his newspaper, Le Patriot Français, and his activities in the Social Circle. But as finally drafted and published in the Bouche de fer the next afternoon, the petition declared that the king had abdicated, and should not be replaced unless a majority of the Nation so decided. It was in effect a republican manifesto; and its result was to split the Jacobin Club. Lafayette, the Lameths, and a majority of its active members were committed monarchists, and they now seceded. They took with them every deputy except Robespierre, his close ally Pétion, and one or two others and set themselves up as a rival club meeting in the former convent of the Feuillants. Robespierre was appalled at the fragmentation of his most secure platform, and after a heated debate hepersuaded the rump of the Jacobins to withdraw their support for the petition. It was too late. The Feuillants were only too delighted to have shed their radical colleagues. In any case, the Cordeliers had now taken up the petition, and were determined to push ahead with the signing ceremony.

On 17 July, accordingly, perhaps 50,000 people gathered on the Champ de Mars. By late afternoon 6,000 had signed. But long before that two unfortunates found hiding beneath the patriotic altar were lynched by excited and suspicious crowds, and this gave Bailly, as mayor of Paris, an excuse for declaring martial law under the decree of October 1789. Lafayette and the National Guard now marched to the Champ de Mars flying the red warning flag. They were greeted with a hail of stones and some shots. Thereupon they opened fire on the largely unarmed crowd, shooting them down, as one participant put it, ‘like chickens’.9 Perhaps 50 people were killed and several more wounded as the crowd scattered. In the weeks that followed the ‘Massacre of the Champ de Mars’ another 200 or so known activists in the Parisian popular movement were arrested, although Danton escaped to England, and Desmoulins and Marat went into hiding. It seemed that the nascent republican movement had been broken. Radical newspapers ceased to publish; the Cordeliers and the Social Circle ceased to meet, and the latter never resumed. Even the Jacobins had been shattered, and the Feuillants drafted a confident manifesto to provincial affiliates inviting them to recognize the new club as the only legitimate Society of the Friends of the Constitution. Untroubled, therefore, by further popular pressure, the Constituent Assembly now set about producing a final and definitive version of the Constitution on which it had laboured for two years.

In this process Lafayette and the triumvirate, bitter rivals right down to June 1791, co-operated. Barnave, who, as one of the Assembly’s commissioners sent to escort the royal family back from Varennes, had been captivated by the queen, took a lead in trying to secure last-minute amendments that would make the constitution more acceptable to the king. They scored some successes. The Civil Constitution of the Clergy was excluded from the constitution: that meant an oath to the constitution did not imply acceptance of the new ecclesiastical order, and also that the Civil Constitution might be amended or even replaced as an ordinary law without going through the deliberately cumbrous, ten-year process laid down for changing the constitution itself. Meanwhile a proposal that all refractory priests should be ordered not to come within thirty miles of any place where they had been beneficed was thrown out as inflammatory. In a disingenuous gesture, the ‘silver-mark’ qualification for election as a deputy, which had proved a particularly useful issue for rallying the Parisian popular societies in the spring, was abolished; but qualifications for voting in secondary electoral assemblies, which actually chose deputies, were raised to a level far above the silver mark, to put control of the important levers of power securely in the hands of very rich landowners. In any case, by the time these amendments passed, on 27 August, the elections to the subsequent Legislative Assembly had already been held, and all those chosen had had to pass the silver-mark test. Finally the Feuillants were able to carry a law to restrict the freedom of the press. Holding press licence responsible for much of the popular effervescence curbed (it was hoped finally) in July, the Assembly decreed on 23 August, against the lonely opposition of Robespierre, that any writer who ‘deliberately provokes disobedience to the Law, [or] disparagement of the constituted powers and resistance to their acts’ might be prosecuted, and that public officials whose probity or honest intentions were impugned might sue for damages. The Lameths, and Malouet (who unlike them had always believed in such safeguards), also dreamed of making the royal veto absolute, allowing deputies to be ministers, and even a second chamber; but it was too late now to revive the monarchien programme of 1789. The king was to be asked to accept a constitution the same in all but detail as had been envisaged ever since the laying of its corner-stones in 1789.

Nor was it at all certain that Louis XVI would accept it. Bombarded with conflicting advice from both France and abroad, he seemed undecided until the very last minute. Sometimes he seemed resolved to try to make the constitution work: on 31 July he wrote to Artois asking him to return to the country and abandon his counter-revolutionary plottings. The next day the Assembly provided sterner incentives by passing the first law imposing penalties on émigrés. They were summoned to return with in a month on pain of subjection to triple taxation. Now for the first time, too, official lists of émigrés were to be drawn up. The first proposal for such a law had come the preceding February, but it had been defeated when Mirabeau denounced it. Since that time, however, the stream of emigration had swelled enormously, especially after Varennes. Already alienated by a new oath of loyalty to the nation, the law, and the king (in that order) imposed on 11 June, army officers were outraged by the Varennes débâcle. Bouillé’s emigration was followed, over the next six months, by the disappearance of perhaps 6,000 of his fellow officers, well over half the officer corps of the entire army. The flow was not staunched by the abrogation of the new law against emigration on 14 September, as part of a general amnesty to mark the promulgation of the constitution. By this time, discipline throughout the army had all but collapsed amid new mutinies. Many officers who might have been prepared to stay were positively driven out.

In aristocratic circles, in fact, the Feuillants received no credit for their efforts to restore a national consensus around a constitutional king. Every effort was made to block them. In the Assembly nobles, or, as they were now being called, Blacks or Ci-devants(‘hithertos’), either abstained from voting or took a perverse pleasure in supporting Robespierre and Pétion. Despite its avowedly conservative aims, few right-wingers joined the Feuillant Club; yet it also failed spectacularly to win over most of the provincial clubs. Only seventy-two severed their links with the Jacobins, and many of those had drifted back by the end of the summer. When martial law was lifted early in August, and newspapers began to reappear, no important Parisian journal came out for the Feuillants. Nothing did more to keep politics polarized than rumours of war, which persisted throughout the summer. The left assumed that the flight to Varennes had been part of an international conspiracy to crush the Revolution; and that, indeed, was what the queen and the émigréshad hoped to forge. When the flight failed, all sides assumed that the German powers would now redouble their efforts, and that the crumbling French army would not be able to stand up to them. On 10 July, in fact, the ‘Padua Circular’ issued by the Emperor Leopold invited fellow monarchs to join him in a campaign to restore the liberty of the French royal family. But only the king of Prussia responded positively, and the result was merely a further appeal for concerted action when the two monarchs met at Pillnitz on 27 August.

The Declaration of Pillnitz stated that the situation of the king of France was an object of common interest to all the sovereigns of Europe. It invited the other powers to join in the employment of ‘the most effectual means … to put the king of France in a state to strengthen, in the most perfect liberty, the bases of a monarchical government equally becoming to the rights of sovereigns and to the wellbeing of the French Nation’. If the other powers agreed, the two kings declared themselves ready to ‘act promptly’. Privately the Austrians, at least, recognized that there was no prospect of other powers joining a crusade, and at this very moment they were disbanding regiments. For them the declaration was to satisfy monarchical and family honour, a move that might even promote some moderation within France, but scarcely a serious threat. But in that case it was needlessly provocative to state that it was issued at the request of the émigré princes, or to allow the latter to publish it together with an inflammatory letter to Louis XVI urging him to reject the constitution. The Constituent Assembly, therefore, came to an end amid rumours of an émigré invasion backed by foreigners; and in the last gesture of defiance towards international opinion, the deputies finally voted on 14 September to annex Avignon and the Comtat.

The princes’ appeal to their brother had come too late. On 3 September the constitution was completed and presented to the king for acceptance. On the thirteenth, he signified his acceptance, amid scenes of rejoicing and a general amnesty. The Revolution, the Feuillants were determined to believe, was now complete, and ordinary constitutional life could begin; ushering in, so they hoped, calmer times. But much of the rejoicing was really at the approaching end of the Constituent Assembly, which came on 30 September. Its achievements had been enormous. In twenty-six months it had dismantled the ancien régime, the product of centuries of slow evolution. At the same time it had laid down the principles of a new order and established structures whose outlines were to endure down to our own day. When, later in the Revolution, or well into the next century, men spoke approvingly of the principles of 1789, they meant those accepted by Louis XVI in 1791, before the Revolution went to extremes. Yet the seeds of those later extremes had already been sown, and the Constituent Assembly was responsible for them, too. By forcing the clergy to choose between Church and State, it had split the country and given counter-revolutionaries a higher cause than self-interest. In its very last days the Assembly deepened this self-inflicted wound by unilaterally seizing papal territory. The religious schism made it impossible for millions to give the new order their whole-hearted support—beginning with the king himself. Only those who dared not think anything else believed, by September 1791, that his acceptance of the constitution was sincere. He had already shown, and said, what he really thought at the time of what he now chose to call his ‘journey’ in June. But that created a further split, between constitutional monarchists and a rapidly growing republican movement all the more alarming in that its mainstay was the turbulent populace of Paris. As to the nobles who had done so much to launch the Revolution, most had by now opted out, hiding themselves in rural obscurity or slipping across the Rhine to join the princes. None of this promised well for the Feuillant dream of post-revolutionary life. The British ambassador’s prediction of April 1791 was truer than ever by October: ‘The present constitution has no friends and cannot last.’10

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