End of the Monarchy and Beginning of National War

End of the Monarchy and Beginning of National War:

Public rejoicing welcomed the formal inauguration of the constitutional monarchy in 1791. Many believed that a new era of peace and prosperity was dawning for France. Yet the extravagant hopes that were widely entertained for the success of the new regime were doomed to speedy and bitter disappointment. The new government encountered all manner of difficulties, the country rapidly grew more radical in sentiment and action, and within a single year, the limited monarchy gave way to a republic. The establishment of the republic marked the second phase of the Revolution. Why it was possible and even inevitable may be gathered from a survey of developments in France during 1792, when the Legislative Assembly was in session, especially the outbreak of national war and the “treason” of Louis XVI.

By no means did all Frenchmen accept cheerfully and contentedly the work of the National Constituent Assembly. Of the numerous dissenters, some thought it went too far and some thought it did not go far enough. The former may be styled “reactionaries” and the letter “radicals”.

The reactionaries embraced the majority of the formerly privileged nobility and the non-juring clergy. Nobles had begun to leave France as soon as the first signs of violence appeared- about the time of the fall of the Bastille and the peasant uprisings in the provinces. Some of the clergy similarly departed, when the anti-clerical measures of the Assembly rendered it no longer possible for them to follow the dictates of conscience. Such reactionary exiles, or emigres as they were termed, collected in force along the northern and eastern frontier, especially at Coblenz on the Rhine. They possessed an influential leader in the King’s younger brother, the Count of Artois, and they maintained a perpetual agitation, by means of newspapers, pamphlets, and intrigues, against the new regime.

Nor were the reactionaries devoid of support within France. It was believed that the royal family, now carefully watched in Paris, sympathized with their efforts. So long as Mirabeau, the ablest leader in the National Assembly, was alive, he had never ceased urging the King to accept the reforms of the Revolution and to give no countenance to agitation beyond the frontiers. In case the King should find his position in Paris intolerable, he had been advised by Mirabeau to withdraw into western or southern France and gather the loyal nation about him. But unfortunately, Mirabeau, worn out by dissipation, died in April 1791.

Only two months later the royal family attempted to follow the course against which they had been warned. Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, in an effort to rid themselves of the spying vigilance of Parisians, disguised themselves, fled from the capital, and made straight for the eastern frontier, apparently to join the emigres. At Varennes, near the border, the royal fugitives were recognized and turned back to Paris, which henceforth was for them rather a prison than a capital. Although Louis subsequently swore to uphold the constitution, his personal popularity vanished with his ill-starred flight, and his wife- the “Austrian Woman”- was suspected with good reasons of being in correspondence with the emigres and with foreign governments. Marie Antoinette was more detested than ever. The elder of the King’s brothers, the Count of Provence, was more successful than the King in the flight of June 1791. He eluded detection and joined the Count of Artois at Coblenz.

Had the reactionaries been restricted to emigres and the royal family, they would not have been troublesome. They included, however, a considerable number of persons in France. A small group in the Assembly shared their views and proposed the most extravagant measures in order to embarrass the work of that body. Conservative clubs existed among the upper and well-to-do classes in the larger cities. And in certain districts of western France, especially in Brittany, Poitou (La Vendee), and Anjou, the peasants developed hostility to the course of the Revolution. Their strong devotion to Catholicism placed them under the influence of the non-juring clergy, and their provincial feeling made them suspicious of the nationalizing work of the Revolution. Riots occurred in La Vendee throughout 1791 and 1792 with increasing frequency until at length the district blazed into open rebellion against the radicals.

More immediately dangerous to the political settlement of 1791 than the opposition of reactionaries was that of radicals- those Frenchmen who thought that the Revolution had not gone far enough. The leading radicals were drawn from the middle class, which had done most to effect the revolutionary changes of 1789-1791 and had profited most from such changes. Elated by what they had already accomplished, they were driven on by the King’s pusillanimous conduct, by the rising tide of emotional nationalism about them, and by their own idealism to aspire to give full effect to the precepts of Rousseau and other eighteenth-century philosophers in whose writings they had been reared. Gradually they came to believe that “the people” could be trusted far more than the King, that republicanism was preferable to monarchy, even to constitutional monarchy, and that thoroughgoing democracy was the natural goal of all revolutionary efforts. Some especially denounced the distinction between “active” and “passive” citizens. Some desired the rooting out of all survivals of “privilege”, particularly the rights still accorded to religion, even to the “jurying” clergy. Most of them demanded sterner measures against aristocrats, clergymen, and everybody suspected of sympathy with the “old regime”. Some of them, in the growing enthusiasm for individual equality and national unity, began to take a lively interest in the economic lot of the mass of working people in the cities.

Among the proletariat, especially in Paris, there was as much unrest in 1791-1792 as there had been among the provincial peasantry in 1789. To be sure, the urban working class, like the peasants, had been promised certain “rights and liberties”, but, while the peasants had been freed from serfdom and enabled to appropriate land from aristocrats, what had been done for the material well-being of urban workers? They had obtained no property. Not even the installation of the King in Paris had given them bread. Now, in 1791, cut off by the provisions of the new constitution from all direct share in the conduct of government, they were led by radical agitators to believe that they had merely exchanged one set of masters for another and that the Revolution must go on until their own economic grievances were redressed.

In the circumstances, the radical movement in France represented, after 1791, a new alignment. Hitherto there had been a union of the “Third Estate” with “enlightened” nobles like Mirabeau and “enlightened” clergymen like Sieyes and Talleyrand for the benefit of the middle class and peasantry. Henceforth there was a union of radical middle-class leaders with and for the urban proletariat. Probably in many instances, it was for a personal ambition that this or that middle-class politician avowed his love for “the people” and extolled their “virtue”. But in many other instances, the motive was undoubtedly altruistic. We can hardly overemphasize the zeal with which numerous middle-class radicals labored after 1791 to bring about a democratic, republican, nationalist millennium in France and on the Earth. They would utilize any class for their unworldly ends, and they instinctively discovered that the proletariat- the common people- could so be utilized.

The radical movement centered in Paris, where now resided the royal family and where the legislature met. Its agitation made rapid headway during 1791 and 1792, by means of inflammatory newspapers, coarse pamphlets, and bitter speeches. It appealed to both middle-class reason and popular emotion. It was backed up and rendered effective by revolutionary “clubs”.

These clubs were interesting seats of political and social agitation. Their origin was traceable to the “eating clubs” which had been formed at Versailles in 1789 by various deputies of the Estates General who desired to take their meals together, but the idea progressed so far that by 1791 nearly every cafe in Paris was a meeting place for politicians and “patriots”. Although some of the clubs were strictly constitutional, and even, in a few instances, professedly reactionary, nevertheless the most influential were radical. Such were the Cordelier and Jacobin Clubs. The former, organized as a “society of the friends of the rights of man and of the citizen” was very radical from its inception and enrolled in its membership some of the foremost revolutionaries of Paris. The Jacobin Club, starting out as a “society of the friends of the constitution”, counted among its early members such moderates as Mirabeau, Sieyes, and Lafayette, but subsequently, under the leadership of Robespierre, it was transformed into an organization quite as radical as the Cordeliers. It is an interesting fact that both these clubs derived their popular names from confiscated monasteries where they held their meetings.

From Paris, the radical movement radiated in all directions. Pamphlets and newspapers were spread broadcast. The Jacobin Club established regular correspondence with branch clubs and kindred societies which sprang up in other French towns. The radicals- commonly called the “Jacobins”- were everywhere inspired by the same zeal and aided by a splendid organization.

Of the chief radical leaders, it may be convenient at this point to introduce three- Marat, Danton, and Robespierre. All belonged to the bourgeoisie by birth and training, but by conviction, they became the mouthpiece of the proletariat. All played important roles in subsequent scenes of the Revolution.

Marat, had he never become interested in politics and conspicuous in the Revolution, might have been remembered in history as a scientist and man of letters. He was a physician, and for skill in his profession, as well as for contributions to the science of physics, he had received an honorary degree from St. Andrews University in Scotland, and for a time he was in the service of the Count of Artois. The convocation of the Estates General turned his attention to public affairs. In vigorous pamphlets, he combated the idea then prevalent in France that his countrymen should adopt a constitution similar to Great Britain’s. During several years of sojourn in that country, he had observed that it was being ruled by an aristocratic oligarchy which, while using the forms of liberty and pretending to represent the country, was devoted to class interests. He made up his mind that real reform must benefit all the people and that it could be secured only by direct popular action. This was the simple message that filled the pages of the Ami du peuple- the Friend of the People- a newspaper that he edited from 1789 to 1792. With fierce invective, he assailed the court, the clergy, the nobles, and even the bourgeois Assembly. Attached to no party and with no detailed policies, he sacrificed almost everything for his single mission. No poverty, misery, or persecution could keep him quiet. Forced even to hide in cellars and sewers, where he contracted a loathsome skin disease, he preserved in his frenzied appeals to the Parisian populace to take matters into their own hands. By 1792 Marat was a man feared and hated by the authorities but venerated by the masses of the capital.

Less radical and more statesmanlike was Danton, who has been called “a middle-class Mirabeau”.The son of a farmer, he had studied law, purchased a position as an advocate of the Royal Council, and acquired, before the outbreak of the Revolution, a reputation as a man of liberal tastes. He was brought to the fore in the early days of the Revolution through Mirabeau’s favor, and like his patron, he was a person of powerful physique and stentorian voice, a clever debater, and a moving orator. In 1790, in conjunction with Marat and Desmoulins, he founded the Cordelier Club, the activities of which he directed throughout 1791 and 1792 against the royal family and the cause of monarchy. An influential member of the commune of Paris, he was largely instrumental in crystallizing public opinion in favor of republicanism. Danton was rough and courageous, but neither venal nor bloodthirsty.

Less practical than Danton and further removed from the proletariat than Marat, Maximilien Robespierre yet combined such qualities as made him the most prominent exponent of democracy and republicanism. Of a middle-class family, he had been a classmate of Camille Desmoulins in the law school of the University of Paris and had practiced law and been prominent in “enlightened” circles in his native town of Arras. He read Rousseau from cover to cover and believed in the philosopher’s doctrines with all his mind and heart. He was sure that they would regenerate France and all mankind. Elected to the Third Estate in 1789, Robespierre took his place with a group of extreme radicals in that body- the “thirty voices”, as Mirabeau contemptuously called them. They were unable to exert much influence on the legislation of the time, and Robespierre gradually turned for support to the Parisian populace. He was already a member of the Jacobin Club, which, by the withdrawal of its more conservative members in 1791, came then under his leadership. It proved a most effective instrument for radical propaganda and Robespierre was its oracle. He was deadly serious and delighted in making long, denunciatory speeches. He was essentially a dreamer, a bit pedantic, and a bit of a fop. While championing the “rights” of the proletariat, he never catered to their tastes; to the last day of his life, he retained the knee-breeches and silk stockings of the old society and wore his hair powdered.

We are now in a position to understand why the constitutional monarchy floundered. It lacked competent pilots and was bound to strike the rocks of reaction on one side or those of radicalism on the other.

The new government came into being with the first meeting of the Legislative Assembly in October 1791. Immediately its troubles began. Its members were wholly inexperienced in parliamentary procedure, for an unfortunate self-denying ordinance of the retiring Constituent Assembly had prohibited any of its members from accepting election to the new body. The Legislative Assembly contained deputies of fundamentally diverse views. Moreover, it speedily came into conflict with the King, who vainly endeavored to use his constitutional right of suspension veto to check its activities. Combined with these difficulties were the increasing popular agitation; a peasant revolt in La Vendee; threats of emigre nobles and non-juring clergy; loud tumults of the proletariat of Paris and of other large cities as well.

The difficulties of the limited monarchy were complicated by an embarrassing foreign situation. It should be borne in mind that Europe as a whole respected the class society that the French Revolution attacked, and that every European country, except Great Britain, adhered to absolute monarchy. Outside of France there appeared as yet no such thing as “public opinion”, and certainly no sign among the lower classes of any opinion favorable to revolution. In Great Britain alone there was a constitutional monarchy, and in the early days of the French Revolution, so long as British statesmen could flatter themselves that their neighbors across the Channel were striving to imitate their political system, they sympathized with the course of events. But when it became evident that the Revolution was going further, that it aimed at a social and democratic leveling, then even British criticism assailed it. At the close of 1790 Edmund Burke published his Reflections on the Revolution in France, a bitter arraignment of “mob rule” and a brilliant defense of conservative evolution against radical revolution. Although Burke’s book was speedily challenged by Thomas Paine and other radicals, it enjoyed widespread popularity. It was quickly translated into the chief languages on the Continent and was acclaimed by monarchs, nobles, and clergymen. Catherine II of Russia personally complimented the author, and the puppet King of Poland sent him a letter of flamboyant glorification and a gold medal. All over Europe, voices were raised against the French Revolution as a wicked assault upon traditional society and civilization.

Of the monarchs of Europe, several had special reasons for viewing the progress of the Revolution with grave misgiving. The Bourbons of Spain and of the Two Sicilies were united by blood and family compacts with the ruling dynasty of France; any belittling of the latter was likely to affect disastrously the former. Then, too, the French Queen, Marie Antoinette, was an Austrian Habsburg. Her family interests were in measure at stake. In the Austrian dominions, the visionary Joseph II died in 1790 and was succeeded by another brother of Marie Antoinette, the gifted though unemotional Emperor Leopold II. Leopold skilfully extricated himself from the embarrassment at home and abroad bequeathed him by his predecessor and then turned his attention to French affairs. He was in receipt of constant and now frantic appeals from his sister to aid Louis XVI against the revolutionaries. He knew that the Austrian Netherlands, whose rebellion he had suppressed with difficulty, was saturated with sympathy for the Revolution and that many of their inhabitants would welcome annexation to France. As chief of the Holy Roman Empire, he must keep revolutionary agitation out of Germany and protect the border provinces against French aggression. All these factors served to make him the foremost champion of the “old regime” in Europe and incidentally of the royal cause in France.

Now it so happened that Leopold II found an ally in Frederick. William II of Prussia, who had succeeded Frederick the Great in 1786, and who combined gross sensuality with Protestant mysticism in most curious ways. He neglected the military machine which his predecessors had constructed with infinite patience and thoroughness. He lavished money upon favorites and mistresses. In foreign affairs, he reversed the policy of Frederick the Great by allying himself with Austria and accepting for Prussia a secondary role among the German states. In August 1791, he joined with Emperor Leopold in issuing the public Declaration of Pillnitz, to the effect that the two rulers considered the restoration of order and of monarchy in France an object of “common interest to all sovereigns of Europe”.

The declaration was only a threat, for the armies of the German allies were not prepared for war, but the very threat of foreign despots to interfere in the internal affairs of France aroused bitter and militant feelings among the masses of Frenchmen, who were patriotic as well as revolutionary.

The prospect of war with the monarchs of Austria and Prussia was quite welcome to several important factions in France. Marie Antoinette and her court clique gradually came to the conclusion that their reactionary cause would be aided by war. If the Allies won, absolutism could be restored in France by force of arms. If the French won, it would redound to the prestige of the royal family and enable them by constitutional means to recover authority. Then too, the constitutionalists, the bourgeois party which was led by Lafayette and which supported the settlement of 1791, worked for war. Military success, in their opinion, would consolidate the French people in loyalty to the constitution, and Lafayette aspired to win personal glory as a victorious commander. Finally, the overwhelming majority of radicals clamored for war. To them, it seemed as if the liberal monarchy would be completely discomfited by war and that out of it would emerge a republic in France and the general triumph of democratic principles in Europe. Why not stir up all the European people against their monarchs? The cause of France should be the cause of Europe. France should be the missionary of a new dispensation.

The Legislative Assembly, on which depended in the last instance the solution to all these vital problems, domestic and foreign, represented several diverse shades of political opinion. Of the 750 members, 350 admitted no special leadership but voted independently on every question according to individual preference or fear, while the others were divided between the camp of “Feuillants” and that of “Girondists”. The Feuillants were the constitutionalists, inclined, while in general consistently championing the settlement of 1791, to uphold the royal power- they were the conservatives of the Assembly. The Girondists- so-called because some of their conspicuous members came from the department of the Gironde- were the radicals.

The Girondists were eloquent and intensely patriotic. They were filled with noble if somewhat impractical, “classical” ideas borrowed from the ancient republics of Greece and Rome. They were eager to discredit Louis XVI and to establish a republic in France. In Brissot, a Parisian lawyer, they had a leader and organizer. In Vergniaud, they had a polished orator. In Condorcet, they had a scholar and philosopher. In Dumouriez, they possessed a military genius of the first order. And in the home of the wealthy and talented Madame Roland, they had a charming salon for political discussion.

In internal affairs, the Legislative Assembly accomplished next to nothing. Everything was subordinated to the question of foreign war. Here, Feuillants and Girondists found themselves in strange agreement. Only such extreme radicals as Marat and Robespierre, outside the Assembly, opposed a policy that they feared would give rise to a military dictatorship. Marat expressed his alarms in the Freind of the People: “What afflicts the friends of liberty is that we have more to fear from success than from defeat…. the danger is lest one of our generals be crowned with victory and lest…. he lead his victorious army against the capital to secure the triumph of the Despot”. But the counsels of extreme radicals were unavailing.

In the excitement, the Girondists obtained control of the government and demanded of the Habsburg Emperor that his Austrian troops be withdrawn from the frontier and the emigres be expelled from his territories. As no action was taken by the Emperor, the Girondist ministers prevailed upon Louis XVI to declare war in April 1792. Lafayette assumed supreme command, and the French prepared for the struggle. Although Leopold had just died, his policy was followed by his son and successor, Emperor Francis II. Francis and Frederick William II of Prussia collected an army of 80,000 men with which to invade France. The campaign of 1792 was the first stage in a vast conflict that was destined to rage throughout Europe for twenty-three years. It was the beginning of an international contest between the forces of revolution and those of the old order.

Enthusiasm was with the French. They felt they were fighting for a cause- the cause of liberty, equality, and nationalism. Men put on red liberty caps, and such as possessed no firearms equipped themselves with pikes and hastened to the front. Troops coming up from Marseilles sang in Paris a new hymn of freedom that Rouget de Lisle had just composed at Strasbourg for the French soldiers- the inspiring Marseillaise that was to become the national anthem of France. But enthusiasm was about the only asset that the French possessed. Their armies were ill-organized and ill-disciplined. Provisions were scarce, arms were inferior, and fortified places were in poor repair. Lafayette had greater ambition than ability.

The war opened with a series of French reverses. An attempted invasion of the Austrian Netherlands ended in dismal failure. On the eastern frontier, the allied armies under the Duke of Brunswick experienced little difficulty in opening up a line of march to Paris. Intense grew the excitement in the French capital. The reverse gave color to the suspicion that the royal family was betraying military plans to the enemy. A big demonstration took place on June 20. A crowd of market women, artisans, coal heavers, and hod carriers pushed through the royal residence, jostling and threatening the King and Queen. No violence was done, but the temper of the Parisian proletariat was evident.

On July 25, 1792, the Duke of Brunswick, as commander-in-chief of the allied armies, issued a proclamation to the French people. He declared it his purpose “to put an end to the anarchy in the interior of France, to check the attack upon the throne and the altar, to reestablish the legal power, to restore to the King the security and liberty of which he is now deprived and to place him in a position to exercise once more the legitimate authority which belongs to him”. The Duke further declared that French soldiers who might be captured “shall be treated as enemies and punished as rebels to their King and as disturbers of the public peace,” and that, if the slightest harm befell any member of the royal family, his Austrian and Prussian troops would “inflict an ever memorable vengeance by delivering over the city of Paris to military execution and complete destruction, and the rebels guilty of such outrages to the punishment that they merit”. This manifesto sealed the fate of the French monarchy. It convinced the revolutionaries that French royalty and foreign armies were in formal alliance to undo what had been done.

Important Links:

Intellectual Enlightenment
Political Causes of the French Revolution
Economic Causes of the French Revolution
Beginning of the French Revolution
Functions of the Constituent Assembly
Unsuccessful Attempt of the Royal Family to Flee the Country
Phases of the French Revolution
Role of Philosophers in the French Revolution
Nature of the French Revolution
Correlation Between the Objectives and Achievements of the French Revolution
Do you agree that the French Revolution achieved far less than what it intended to achieve?
Triumph of Jacobinism
Transformation of the Republic into a Military Dictatorship
Importance of the French Revolution
French Revolution of 1848
The Foreign Policy of Louis Philippe
Causes of the Revolution of February 1848
Short Note on the French Revolution of 1848
Bonaparte Napoleon
Napoleon Ascendency
Consulate Rule and Constitution of 1799
Reforms of Napoleon
Napoleon Concord With Pope
Napoleonic Code
Continental System
Causes of the Failure of the Continental System
Napoleonic Imperialism
Napoleonic War
Short Note on Napoleon Bonaparte
The United States and the French Revolution, 1789–1799