« 36.8 The Revolution of the Year 1789 |Contents | 36.10 The Revolution of the Jacobins »

36.9 The French Crowned Republic of 1789-1791

The French National Assembly was far less fortunate in the circumstances of its task than the American Congress. The latter had half a continent to itself, with no possible antagonist; but the British Government. Its religious and educational organizations were various, collectively not very powerful, and on the whole friendly. King George was far away in England, and sinking slowly towards an imbecile condition. Nevertheless, it took the United States several years to hammer out a working constitution. The French, on the other hand, were surrounded by aggressive neighbours, with Machiavellian ideas, they were encumbered by a king and court resolved to make mischief, and the church was one single great organization inextricably bound up with the ancient order. The queen was in close correspondence with the Count of Artois, the Duke of Bourbon, and the other exiled princes who were trying to induce Austria and Prussia to attack the new French nation. Moreover, France was already a bankrupt country, while the United States had limitless undeveloped resources; and the revolution, by altering the conditions of land tenure and marketing, had produced an economic disorganization that has no parallel in the case of America.

These were the unavoidable difficulties of the situation. But in addition the Assembly made difficulties for itself. There was no orderly procedure. The English House of Commons had had more than five centuries of experience in its work, and Mirabeau, one of the great leaders of the early Revolution, tried in vain to have the English rules adopted. But the feeling of the times was all in favour of outcries, dramatic interruptions, and such-like manifestations of Natural Virtue. And the disorder did not come merely from the assembly. There was a great gallery, much too great a gallery, for strangers; but who would restrain the free citizens from having a voice in the national control? This gallery swarmed with people eager for a «scene», ready to applaud or shout down the speakers below. The abler speakers were obliged to, play to the gallery, and take a sentimental and sensational line. It was easy at a crisis to bring in a mob to kill debate.

So encumbered, the Assembly set about its constructive task. On the Fourth of August it achieved a great dramatic success. Led by several of the liberal nobles, it made a series of resolutions, abolishing serfdom, privileges, tax exemptions, tithes and feudal courts. (In many parts of the country, however, these resolutions were not carried into effect until three or four years later.) Titles went with these other renunciations. Long before France was a republic it was an offence for a nobleman to sign his name with his title. For six weeks the Assembly devoted itself, with endless opportunities for rhetoric, to the formulation of a Declaration of the Rights of Man on the lines of the Bills of Rights that were the English preliminaries to organized change. Meanwhile the court plotted for reaction, and the people felt that the court was plotting. The story is complicated here by the scoundrelly schemes of the king’s cousin, Philip of Orleans, who hoped to use the discords of the time to replace Louis on the French throne. His gardens at the Palais Royal were thrown open to the public, and became a great centre of advanced discussion. His agents did much to intensify the popular suspicion of the king. And things were exacerbated by a shortage of provisions for which the king’s government was held guilty.

Presently the loyal Flanders regiment appeared at Versailles. The royal family was scheming to get farther away from Paris in order to undo all that had been done, to restore tyranny and extravagance. Such constitutional monarchists as General Lafayette were seriously alarmed. And just at this time occurred an outbreak of popular indignation at the scarcity of f ood that passed by an easy transition into indignation against the threat of royalist reaction. It was believed that there was an abundance of provisions at Versailles; that food was being kept there away from the people. The public mind had been much disturbed by reports, possibly by exaggerated reports, of a recent banquet at Versailles, hostile to the nation. Here are some extracts from Carlyle descriptive of that unfortunate feast.

«The Hall of the Opera is granted; the Salon d’Hercule shall be drawing-room. Not only the Officers of Flandre, but of the Swiss, of the Hundred Swiss; nay of the Versailles National Guard, such of them as have any loyalty, shall feast; it will be a Repast like few.

«And now suppose this Repast, the solid part of it; transacted; and the first bottle over. Suppose the customary loyal toasts drunk; the King’s health, the Queen’s with deafening vivatts; that of the nation ‘omitted,’ or even ‘rejected.’ Suppose champagne flowing; with pot-valorous speech, with instrumental music; empty: featherheads growing ever the noisier, in their own emptiness, in each other’s noise. Her Majesty, who looks unusually sad tonight (His Majesty sitting dulled with the day’s hunting), is told that the sight of it would cheer her. Behold! She enters there, issuing from her State-rooms, like the Moon from clouds, this fairest unhappy Queen of Hearts; royal Husband by her side, young Dauphin in her arms! She descends from the Boxes, amid splendour and acclaim; walks queen-like round the Tables; gracefully nodding; her looks full of sorrow, yet, of gratitude and daring, with the hope of France on her mother- bosom! And now, the band striking up, 0 Richard, 0 mon Roi l’univers i’abandonne (Oh Richard, 0 my king, the world is all forsaking thee), could man do other than rise to height of pity, of loyal valour? Could featherheaded young ensigns do other than, by white Bourbon Cockades, handed them from fair fingers; by waving of swords, drawn to pledge the Queen’s health; by trampling of National Cockades; by scaling the Boxes, whence intrusive murmurs may come; by vociferation, sound, fury and distraction, within doors and without-testify what tempest-tost state of vacuity they are in?

«A natural Repast; in ordinary times, a harmless one: now fatal … Poor ill-advised Marie Antoinette; with a woman’s vehemence, not with a sovereign’s foresight! It was so natural, yet so unwise.’ Next day, in public speech ‘of ceremony, her Majesty declares herself ‘delighted with Thursday».’

And here to set against this is Carlyle’s picture of the mood of the people.

«In squalid garret, on Monday morning Maternity awakes, to bear children weeping for bread. Maternity must forth to the streets, to the herb-makers and bakers’-queues; meets there with hunger-stricken Maternity, sympathetic, exasperative. 0 we unhappy women! But, instead of bakers’-queues, why not to Aristocrats’ palaces, the root of the matter? Allons! Let us assemble. To the Hotel-de-Ville; to Versailles . . ».

There was much shouting and coming and going in Paris before this latter idea realized itself. One Maillard appeared with organizing power, and assumed a certain leadership. There can be little doubt that the revolutionary leaders, and particularly General Lafayette, used and organized this outbreak to secure the king, before he could slip away-as Charles I did to Oxford-to begin a civil war. As the afternoon wore on, the procession started on its eleven mile tramp.

Again we quote Carlyle:

«Maillard has halted his draggled Menads on the last hilltop; and now Versailles, and the Chateau of Versailles, and far and wide the inheritance of Royalty opens to the wondering eye. From far on the right, over Marly and Saint-Germainen-Laye; round towards Rambouillet, on the left, beautiful all; softly embosomed; as if in sadness, in the dim moist weather! And near before us is Versailles, New and Old; with that broad frondent Avenue de Versailles between-stately frondent, broad, three hundred feet as men reckon, with its four rows of elms; and then the Chateau de Versailles, ending in royal parks and pleasances, gleaming lakelets, arbours, labyrinths, the Menagerie, and Great and Little Trianon. High-towered dwellings, leafy pleasant places; where the gods of this lower world abide: whence, nevertheless, black care cannot be excluded; whither Menadic hunger is even now advancing, armed with pike-thyrsi!»

Rain fell as the evening closed.

«Behold the Esplanade, over all its spacious expanse, is covered with groups of squalid dripping women; of lank-haired male rascality, armed with axes, rusty pikes, old muskets, iron shod clubs (batons ferres, which end in knives or sword blades, a kind of extempore billhook); looking nothing but hungry revolt. The rain pours; Gardes-du-Corps so caracoling through the groups ‘amid hisses’; irritating and agitating what is but dispersed here to reunite there . . .

«Innumerable squalid women beleaguer the President and Deputation; insist on going with him: has not his Majesty himself, looking from the window, sent out to ask, What we wanted? ‘Bread, and speech with the King,’ that was the answer. Twelve women are clamorously added to the deputation; and march with it, across the Esplanade; through dissipated groups, caracoling bodyguards and the pouring rain».

«Bread and not too much talking!» Natural demands.

«One learns also that the royal Carriages are getting yoked, as if for Metz. Carriages, royal or not, have verily showed themselves at the back gates. They even produced, or quoted, a written order from our Versailles Municipality—which is a monarchic not a democratic one. However, Versailles patrols drove them in again; as the vigilant Lecointre had strictly charged them to do …

«So sink the shadows of night, blustering, rainy; and all paths grow dark. Strangest night ever seen in these regions; perhaps since the Bartholomew Night, when Versailles, as Bassompierre writes of it, was a chetif chateau.

«O for, the lyre of some Orpheus, to constrain, with touch of melodious strings, these mad masses into Order! For here all seems fallen asunder, in wide-yawning dislocation. The highest, as in down-rushing of a world, is come in contact with the lowest: the rascality of France beleaguering the royalty of France; ‘iron- shod batons’ lifted round the diadem, not to guard it! With denunciations of bloodthirsty anti-national body-guards, are heard dark growlings, against a queenly name.

«The Court sits tremulous, powerless: varies with the varying temper of the Esplanade, with the varying colour of the rumours from Paris. Thick-coming rumours; now of peace, now of war. Necker and all the Ministers consult; with a blank issue. The Oeil-de-Bceuf is one tempest of whispers: We will fly to Metz; we will not fly. The royal carriages again Attempt egress-though for trial merely; they are again driven in by Lecointre’s patrols».

But we must send the reader to Carlyle to learn of the coming of the National Guard in the night under General Lafayette himself, the bargaining between the Assembly and the King, the outbreak of fighting in the morning between the bodyguard and the hungry besiegers, and how the latter stormed into the palace and came near to a massacre of the royal family. Lafayette and his troops turned out in time to prevent that, and timely cartloads of loaves arrive from Paris for the crowd.

At last it was decided that the king should come to Paris.

«Processional marches not a few our world has seen; Roman triumphs and ovations, Cabiric cymbal-beatings, Royal progresses, Trish funerals; but this of the French Monarchy marching to its bed remained to be seen. Miles long, and have breadth losing itself in vagueness, for all the neighbouring country crowds to see. Slow: stagnating along, like shoreless Lake, yet with a noise like Niagara, like Babel and Bedlam. A splashing and a tramping; a hurrahing, uproaring, musketvolleying; the truest segment of Chaos seen in these latter Ages! Till slowly it disembogue itself, in the thickening dusk, into expectant Paris, through a double row of faces all the way from Passy to the Hôtel-de-Ville.

«Consider this: Vanguard of National troops; with trains of artillery; of pikemen and pikewomen, mounted on cannons, on carts, hackney-coaches, or on foot … Loaves stuck on the points of bayonets, green boughs stuck in gun-barrels. Next, as main-march, ‘fifty cart-loads of corn,’ which have been lent, for peace, from the stores of Versailles. Behind which follow stragglers of the Garde-du-Corps; all humiliated, in Grenadier bonnets. Close on these comes the royal carriage; come royal carriages; for there are a hundred national deputies too, among whom sits Mirabeau-his, remarks not given. Then finally, pell- mell, as Tear-guard, Flandre, Swiss, Hundred Swiss, other bodyguards, brigands, whosoever cannot get before. Between and among all which masses flows without limit Saint Antoine and the Menadic cohort Menadic, especially about the royal carriage … Covered with tricolor; singing ‘allusive songs; pointing with one hand to the royal carriage, which the allusions bit, and pointing to the provision-wagons with the other hand, and these words: ‘Courage, Friends! We shall not want bread now; we are bringing you the Baker, the Bakeress and Baker’s boy.’…

«The wet day draggles the tricolor, but the joy is unextinguishable. Is not all well now? ‘Ah Madame. notre bonne Reine,’ said some of these Strong-women ‘some days hence, ‘Ah, Madame, our good Queen, don’t be a traitor any more and we will all love you!’..».

This was October the sixth, 1789. For nearly two years the royal family dwelt unmolested in the Tuileries. Had the court kept common faith with the people, the king might have died there, a king.

From 1789 to 1791 the early Revolution held its own; France was a limited monarchy, the king kept a diminished state in the Tuileries, and the National Assembly ruled a country at peace. The reader who will glance back to the maps of Poland we have given in the previous chapter will realize what occupied Russia, Prussia, and Austria at this time. While France experimented with a crowned republic in the west, the ‘last division of the crowned republic of the east was in progress. France could wait.

When we consider its inexperience the conditions under which it worked, and the complexities of its problems, one must concede, that the Assembly did a very remarkable amount of constructive work. Much of that work, was sound and still endures, much was experimental and has been undone. Some was disastrous. There was a clearing up of the penal code; torture, arbitrary imprisonment, and persecutions for heresy were abolished. The ancient provinces of France, Normandy, Burgundy, and the like gave place to eighty departments. Promotion to the highest ranks in the army was laid open to men of every class. An excellent and simple system of law courts was set up, but its value was much vitiated by having the judges appointed by popular election for, short periods of time. This made the crowd a sort of final court of appeal, and the judges, like the members of the Assembly, were forced to play to the gallery. And the whole vast property of the church was seized and administered by the state; religious establishments not engaged in education or works of charity were broken up, and the salaries of the clergy made a charge upon the nation. This in itself was not a bad thing for the lower clergy in France, who were often scandalously underpaid in comparison with the richer dignitaries. But in addition the choice of priests and bishops was made elective, which struck at the very root idea of the Roman church, which centred everything upon the Pope, and in which all authority is from above downward. Practically the National Assembly wanted at one blow to make the church in France. Protestant, in organization if not in doctrine. Everywhere there were disputes and conflicts between the state priests created by the National Assembly and the recalcitrant (non-juring) priests who were loyal to Rome …

One curious thing the National Assembly did which greatly weakened its grip on affairs. It decreed that no member of the Assembly should be an executive minister. This was in imitation of the American constitution, where also ministers are separated from the legislature. The British method has been to have all ministers in the legislative body, ready to answer questions and account for their interpretation of the laws and their conduct of the nation’s business. If the legislature represents the sovereign people, then it is surely necessary for the ministers to be in the closest touch with their sovereign. This severance of the legislature and executive in France caused misunderstandings and mistrust; the legislature lacked control and the executive lacked moral force. This led to such an ineffectiveness in the central government that in many districts at this time, communes find towns were to be found that were practically self-governing communities; they accepted or rejected the commands of Paris as they thought fit, declined the payment of taxes, and divided up the church lands according to their local appetites.

« 36.8 The Revolution of the Year 1789 |Contents | 36.10 The Revolution of the Jacobins »

comments powered by Disqus

Table Of Contents