The great achievement in storming the Bastille was not that the people of Paris took an infamous prison by force. It was that the King didn’t or couldn’t punish those responsible. Louis XVI came from Versailles to Paris a cowed man, acquiescing to the crowd’s demands to recall his foreign troops and leave the National Assembly intact and unharmed. The besiegers became national heroes, the exemplars of popular power in the face of royal abuse. Louis’ decision was probably the prudent one, and certainly the least violent option, and it calmed the armed crowds of Paris and lowered tensions in Versailles. Louis’ decision also conceded that he could be beaten with relative ease.
The rest of France did not lie idly by. The same news of minister Jacques Necker’s dismissal that had inflamed passions in the Palais Royal spread across the country, setting off riots and revolution in cities and towns throughout France. The follow-up story of the King’s submission did not calm matters. It was taken by the revolutionary minded as a sign that the old days of Royal authority were at an end, even if it wasn’t official yet. Even in Paris, many people weren’t sure what exactly had happened and no one could say for sure what it meant. In the rest of the country rumors, fears, and revolutionary ambitions all combined into one Great Fear.
The Great Fear rose up in July 1789. Everyone had something to be afraid of. A long economic slump combined with ineffectual law enforcement meant that groups of brigands roamed the country’s roads in record numbers. The unprecedented debut of an elected National Assembly as a political power in opposition to a weak king left the nobility very worried about the future of their ancient privileges and incomes. A fearful nobility and rumors of conspiracies combined with the hopes raised by the new politics inspired a peasantry and made them think they could take their future into their own hands. And so they did. Violence erupted, but in many cases it was a very targeted and in its way savvy violence.
The revolutionary crowds forced their way into the chateaus of their lords, no doubt a terrifying experience for all the chateau-dwellers. Their goal was not to ransack the castles in general (although this surely happened in some cases), but to destroy the paperwork that recorded all the debts and seigneurial dues that peasants were required to pay their lords. These ancient taxes were seen as crippling and extortive to the poor people who had to pay them. While the nobles had fought any change to their own taxes when the King was trying to save France’s economy, they had no compunctions about extracting all they could from the people. At least that was the view of the crowds who made giant bonfires of contracts, grants, and other legal papers. Now all proof that anyone owed anything went up in smoke.
The members of the National Assembly meeting in Versailles were not wild-eyed radicals looking to throw out the king and establish some sort of democratic republic. Most of them had an English-style constitutional monarchy in mind, although there was deep disagreement over how much or how little power the monarch should have. They did agree that unbridled mob violence like the Great Fear was dangerous, and something needed to be done to calm the country. Most of them also agreed that the rioters had a point: the ancient privileges of the nobility and the clergy weren’t fair and had no place in a modern and enlightened France. Some kind of reform was needed, although burning records might be a step too far.
Two different approaches to settling these issues of rights, privilege, and fairness came together in August 1789. One of them, led by the Marquis de Lafayette and Bishop Talleyrand, was carefully thought out and put together, and resulted in one of the most important rhetorical achievements of the Revolution. The other was the result of a long night of assembly politicking and speechifying, with representatives continuously upping the ante until the very basis for France’s socio-economic system was destroyed.
The Marquis de Lafayette is one of the most famous Frenchmen of the revolutionary era. As a young man he’d volunteered to aid the American Colonies fight for independence from Britain, helping to rally French support and ultimately becoming a close friend of George Washington. His deeds made him famous back home in France, and although he was a nobleman he was firmly in the circle of liberal-minded aristocrats who believed their country was in dire need of some Enlightenment-inspired reform. After the storming of the Bastille he was made head of the National Guard that grew out of the Bourgeois Militia. As the French Revolution unfolded, his star would fall very far, but today he is memorialized with streets and statues in Paris and the United States.
Lafayette deeply admired the United States and its leaders. Drawing on the Declaration of Independence as a model, he pushed for the National Assembly to produce its own version. He had political and authorial support from the Bishop Talleyrand, a noble clergyman from a wealthy family who was not very priestly at all, but was an important member of the same circle aristocratic reformers as Lafayette and a brilliant politician and thinker. He would go on to thrive as a foreign minister later in the Revolution and then under Napoleon and then again under the restored Bourbon monarchy. Talleyrand was the quintessential political survivor, but in these early days he also helped shape the radically inspiring Declaration of the Rights of Man.
The Declaration of the Rights of Man is a fascinating document because it came to be seen as a bedrock of the revolution and everything it hoped to achieve and yet never really became binding law, at least as written and in its entirety. That has more to do with the complicated politics and multiple constitutions of revolutionary France than any faults with the document itself. It was widely read and circulated, printed up in lovely illustrated one-sheets, some of them huge posters. Politicians of every stripe, up to and especially including Napoleon, would reference it and its principals to justify their own positions. While there was much crass maneuvering in such rhetoric, many of the core rights enumerated in the declaration become fundamental tenets of France, overturning centuries of tradition and law.
The binding themes within the Declaration are the supremacy of the law and the sovereignty of the people. In a huge change, power is declared to emanate from the people, not from some divine right. Thus the king would come to be referred to as not the King of France, but the King of the French. Equally important, each of the individual men (and yes, men, not necessarily women) that make up the People is born with equal rights. One’s ancestry should not grant you unique rights. This egalitarianism is especially important in matters of law and property. No longer should a nobleman or clergyman have special standing before the law, nor should their property be more sacrosanct than that of any man. As it would turn out, the Church’s property in particular would soon be stripped away of special protections and eventually just plain stripped away. These rights of liberty and equality were declared a fundamental natural right, something inherent in existence that the French government was now promising to formally recognize as central to the nation’s future constitution.
By the time these natural rights had been endorsed by the Assembly, a dramatic session had stripped away the ancient rights of the first two estates that had ruled France for centuries. Among the delegations to the Assembly gathered in Versailles, the representatives from Brittany had proven themselves to be on the radical end of the political spectrum. They would meet on their own at the Cafe Amaury to discuss and debate the issues of the day, forming in the process the Breton Club, which would become the incredibly important Jacobin Club when it moved to Paris. Although the cafe is long gone, a plaque marks the building where it once hosted the future Jacobins. It is just a matter of minutes from the gates of Versailles, that shining edifice of noble privilege. It’s about the same distance, a quick walk, from another key location, the Hotel de Menus-Plaisirs, where the National Assembly met.
Drinking coffee and wine at the Breton Club and debating rights and laws in the Menus-Plaisirs produced a plan to force France forward towards a just society. Waiting until Tuesday, August 4th when one of their own Bretons would be chairing the Assembly, a proposal was put forward to curtail noble privileges. With the Great Fear already burning the records of seigneurial dues, it was seen as a way to allay the fears and violence and make France’s complicated taxation and tithing system more just. Word had gotten out about the Breton Club’s plans, and other radicals joined in the fun, suggesting their own limits on the nobles and clergy. Revolutionary noblemen were among the first to suggest placing limits on their own kind, a showy act of self-sacrifice.
Over the course of the evening, common sense and fairness tore into the ideas of church and noble rights like a pack of wild dogs. Noble hunting rights, bishop’s tithes, special exemptions to laws, seigneurial dues owed by peasants to their lords, and restrictions on employment based on blood all went down to votes by popular acclaim. The idea that all Frenchmen were equal before the law and that the idea of nobles or priests having inherent rights that the rest of the people didn’t were voted into law. Known to history as the Abolition of the Privileges, it was a massive blow against the first two estates. It looked like the higher level church members suffered more, as tithing was completely destroyed. The nobles were promised compensation for their lost feudal dues, although as it would turn out the peasants would refuse to pay them. Caught up in the spirit of the day and knowing an opportunity when they saw one, they would refuse to pay a lot of taxes in the coming years.
The mass abolitions were made official on August 11th, and the Declaration of the Rights of Man was approved on August 26th. The Assembly had decreed a new world order for France. The question remained: would the King agree? And what would happen if he didn’t? At this point all the major players (at least the ones who hadn’t fled France) agreed that some constitution was needed. The big open question was, what powers should the King have? One particularly important sticking point was whether or not the king should have the power to veto new laws. He wanted it, radicals said he shouldn’t have it, but most in the Assembly supported some sort of veto.
The Assembly approved a suspensive veto by a large majority. This gave the king the right to delay a law from going into effect for several years. This clearly seemed like a fair compromise to the politicians in Versailles, but the move proved very unpopular among the politically active people of Paris. Whole newspapers sprung up, devoted to arguing against the veto. Some started to claim that the King and Assembly were too far removed from the people, out there in Versailles. In Paris they would be under closer scrutiny and have to abide by the will of the people. King Louis undoubtedly thought that was a terrible plan.
The storming of the Bastille, the abolition of privileges, and the Declaration of the Rights of Man all brought tremendous change to France, but they didn’t do much to make bread cheaper. Although prices had come down some, by October they were going back up and the women of Paris were in the forefront of organizing protests. There had been numerous instances of bakers being forced by angry crowds to sell bread at what the crowd decided was a fair price, even if that meant a terrible loss for the baker. Many were calling for more official price controls. Lafayette was forced to use the National Guard to protect bakeries from such looting, an uncomfortable situation that was ripe with potential tragedy.
In September of 1789, the king finally weighed in on the abolition of privileges and the Rights of Man. He was willing to support some of the changes, but not others, pleasing no one. Meanwhile, he took the opportunity to order one of his more loyal military units, the Flander Regiment, to move from the border to Versailles. The king’s prevarication and the summoning of soldiers raised tensions to pre-Bastille levels, just as the price of bread was doing the same thing. By October Paris was rife with rumors about the king’s anti-revolutionary plots and stories that the Flanders regiment had insulted the revolution at a private banquet with the royals.
On October 4th thousands of women gathered in the markets of Paris and converged on the Hotel de Ville, echoing the events from July that had led to the storming of the Bastille. King Louis might have felt safe in Versailles, miles outside Paris, but even with rain coming down and a long march ahead of them, 7000 or so women set out towards the royal palace, and armed with whatever weapons they could lay their hands on, including several cannons.
It took them around twelve hours to get to Versailles, and their first stop wasn’t the king’s palace, but the undefended National Assembly. They wanted two things - bread for themselves and their families and punishment for the troops and aristocrats they believed had insulted the revolution. The Assembly went along with the women, whether out of fear or sympathy for their cause was probably a personal matter for each delegate. Soon after the crowd gathered outside the palace gates, Lafayette arrived with a huge contingent of National Guardsmen. It was unclear to both the royal guards inside the palace and the crowds outside what side he was on. Typically, he tried to steer a middle path.
He had no interest in firing on the women, but did manage to defuse tensions enough that no attempt was made to storm the palace that night. He went alone into the chateau and gave his assurances to the royal family that he would do his duty and ensure their safety, while urging them to give into the demands. In the early morning, a few members of the crowd slipped over or through the gates and onto the grounds. When you’re at Versailles the vastness of the gardens overwhelms the palace itself, and it’s easy to imagine a determined intruder scaling a wall or fence unseen. The royal guards fired on them, killing a small number. Word quickly spread to the crowd outside, and they angrily stormed through the gates to avenge their fallen.
Masses of people rushed into the royal wing of the palace, sending the queen and her children fleeing from her chambers in fear of their lives. Two of the royal guards were killed, their heads put upon pikes. Lafayette told the king what he must have already known - he was going to have to give up. The king had no choice but to submit to the demands that he return with the crowd to Paris. This was the last thing the queen wanted, and probably the last thing he wanted, but Lafayette convinced them that it was the only way he could ensure their safety.
Louis stepped out onto a balcony to address the angry mass crowded into the marble courtyard just a dozen or so feet below him. He agreed to return to Paris and the crowd cheered, hailing the king. Lafayette then convinced the queen to make an appearance on the balcony as well, which she was understandably nervous about. She knew full well that she was not popular with the people, and she’d just seen many of them charging through her private chambers. But she faced the crowd and, at least this once, they cheered her too.
Further massacres had been avoided, but the royals had to leave their palatial estate at once and, as it turned out, forever. Tens of thousands of marchers accompanied the royal family back to Paris, where they would take up residence in the Tuileries Palace. Adjacent to the Louvre, and in the center of the city, the very public Tuileries couldn’t have been more different from the isolation of Versailles. The queen would no longer have access to her private retreats or her faux-peasant village where she could play at being a shepherdess. The royal family would never return to Versailles, although they would leave Paris one more time.
For about the next year, the Revolution seemed to be on course to a relatively happy ending. For the first anniversary of the storming of the Bastille in 1790, a huge celebration was planned. Held on the Champ de Mars, it brought together citizens and National Guard members from all over France. Lafayette presided, the king and queen were present, and Talleyrand gave the blessing in his role as a bishop. With hundreds of thousands in attendance, it was seen as a high point in a year of unprecedented ups and downs for everyone in France.
There were still many tough challenges to overcome, but the solutions had generally broad support. With royal authority and its institutions all but levelled, the new quasi-government set about reorganizing the entire country into a new administrative structure. Having thrown off their feudal dues, it proved difficult for the new order to collect taxes under its new and theoretically fairer tax system. An already teetering French economy still faced disaster.
The Assembly’s solution to the nation’s financial woes was put forth by, among others, Talleyrand. The bishop suggested the seizing of church lands and the issuing of securities against their value. The church, especially the monks and nuns who would be the first to lose their property, protested, but they held little political power at that point, especially in the Assembly. The result was the issuing of assignats, which were bonds based on the future sale of church lands by the government to private buyers. These paper bonds quickly became a kind of paper money, which provided some short term relief. They would eventually suffer incredible devaluation as the economy worsened.
The church also came under assault from another direction, one that proved incredibly controversial and sowed the seeds of future civil war. The Assembly wanted to cut off France’s church from Papal control. In addition to eliminating the nunneries and monasteries, they wanted to set a standard wage for priests that would be a boon to local parishes but would strip away wealth from powerful bishops and cardinals. That alone might’ve passed without much public outcry, but the assembly also wanted to change the way church officials were chosen. Instead of answering to Rome, priests would answer to their parishioners - the priests would be elected, their modest salaries paid by the state.
Called the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, no one expected the bishops and other high-ranking clergy to embrace these new rules, but the Assembly was surprised when close to half of the lower-level clergy also resisted the new civil priesthood. All priests were expected to take an oath to the the new civil constitution, but only half of them agreed to do so. In effect the oath became a kind of referendum on the revolution itself, and reactions to it were very regionally biased. In Paris most priests took the oath, but in places like the west of France where the revolution was proving unpopular, the majority of priests refused.
Popular resistance to the revolution began to coalesce around the issue of a civil clergy, and the King himself was less than supportive of it. The pope in Rome wasn’t a fan either, and issues of faith and devotion became important political forces. Thousands of nobles had fled France, some of them forming counter-revolutionary cabals in foreign sanctuaries. They saw the civil clergy as an issue they could oppose and win support amongst the more conservative parts of the populace that was uncomfortable with some of the revolution’s sweeping changes. These counter-revolutionaries wanted to restore the monarchy to its former glory, but to do that they needed the king. Unfortunately, he was all but a prisoner in Paris.
The King and Queen lasted almost a year in the Tuileries, but they came to resent it more and more every day. Where Versailles was distant from Paris and surrounded by vast estates, the Tuileries was right in the heart of things, butting up against busy streets and the Parisian populace. For Easter in 1791, the royal family planned to travel to another royal palace, Saint-Cloud, just across the river from Paris to celebrate the holiday. Based on rumors and fears that the King was trying to flee (which he probably was not), thousands of people mobbed the royal carriages and blocked them from leaving. Although it had long felt like they were prisoners to their subjects’ whims, this was tangible proof that the King and Queen did not have any real say in where they could and could not go.
Queen Marie Antoinette enlisted the help of Count Axel von Fersen, her confidant and alleged lover. Together with sympathetic nobles in the French Army, they conceived of a plan to escape Paris and take refuge with loyal troops on the border. It’s unclear whether the next move would have been to negotiate with the Assembly from a safe distance or march on Paris with the help of an Austrian army, because the fugitive royals were caught on the road. Some miscommunications and delays prevented the King’s small party from linking up with their military escort. They were recognized at several points along the way, including by a dedicated supporter of the revolution, who rode ahead and brought out the National Guard in the town of Varennes. Less than subtle troop movements in the region by the king’s military co-conspirators had already put the locals on edge, and they detained the King. They didn’t quite arrest him, but there was no letting him and his family proceed. News reached Paris and soon a crowd of thousands surrounded the royal family and slowly escorted them back to the Tuileries.
Although the official cover story became that the King had been tricked or kidnapped, it was impossible to ignore the written document he’d left behind in the Tuileries. It repudiated much of the revolution’s gains and was all the proof many people needed that the King had obviously committed treason. While the leaders in the Assembly still had hopes of some sort of constitutional monarchy, the idea of getting rid of royalty all together was starting to become a more and more popular idea. Nevertheless, the brand new constitution assumed the presence of a King and the Assembly didn’t want or know how to govern without one. The assembly temporarily stripped him of his powers, but they declared him officially blameless in the flight to Varennes.
Those in the Assembly, led by some members of the Jacobin Club, had had enough. They began to openly call for a republic, no kings needed. This caused a split in the club, with most of its members still unwilling to take such a radical step. The republican cause was taken up by the even more radical Cordeliers Club, which had been in the vanguard against the monarchy for months. They started circulating a petition calling for a republic.
On July 17th, 1791, just a few days after the second anniversary of the storming of the Bastille, tens of thousands gathered on the Champ de Mars to sign the petition. Two unfortunates, suspected by some in the crowd of being counter-revolutionaries, were lynched. This mob violence raised fears that the crowd of thousands might grow even more violent or possibly transform into a general insurrection. Lafayette led a troop of National Guardsmen to the field, with authority to disperse the crowd. They resisted dispersal with stones and shouts. The National Guard opened fire on the unarmed crowd, killing dozens. This dispersed the crowd in the moment, but would have lasting consequences for the revolution itself.Just one year after the scene of national unity, the Champ de Mars became the site of a massacre.
Political factions began to radicalize in the new government. Lafayette’s reputation suffered greatly from his role in the massacre, while monarchists felt emboldened by the political discord amongst the republicans. The era of revolutionary accord and relative peace was about to end, as France was poised on the precipice of both international and civil wars that would engulf the nation for the next two decades or more.