The French Revolution - A Short History
by R. M. Johnston
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[Frontispiece: 1. Voltaire. 2. Marie Antoinette on her way to the guillotine. 3. Fouquier-Tinville. 4. Carrier. 5. Danton before the Tribunal Revolutionnaire.]

The French Revolution



R. M. Johnston


Assistant Professor of History in Harvard University







Published, May, 1909

Second Printing, January, 1910


Rayner Neate




The object of this book is similar to that with which, a few years ago, I wrote a short biography of Napoleon. The main outlines of the Revolution, the proportion and relation of things, tend to become obscured under the accumulation of historical detail that is now proceeding. This is an attempt, therefore, to disentangle from the mass of details the shape, the movement, the significance of this great historical cataclysm. To keep the outline clear I have deliberately avoided mentioning the names of many subordinate actors; thinking that if nothing essential was connected with them the mention of their names would only tend to confuse matters. Similarly with incidents, I have omitted a few, such as the troubles at Avignon, and changed the emphasis on others, judging freely their importance and not following the footsteps of my predecessors, as in the case of the capture of the Bastille, the importance of which was vastly exaggerated by early writers on the subject.

The end of the Revolution I place at Brumaire,—as good a date as any, though like all others, open to criticism. The present narrative, however, will be found to merge into that of my Napoleon, which forms its natural continuation after that date.

CAMBRIDGE, MASS., Feb., 1909.



I. THE PERSPECTIVE OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION . . . . 1 II. VERSAILLES . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 11 III. ECONOMIC CRISIS . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 25 IV. CONVOCATION OF THE STATES GENERAL . . . . . . . 35 V. FRANCE COMES TO VERSAILLES . . . . . . . . . . . 52 VI. FROM VERSAILLES TO PARIS . . . . . . . . . . . . 70 VII. THE ASSEMBLY DEMOLISHES PRIVILEGE . . . . . . . 89 VIII. THE FLIGHT TO VARENNES . . . . . . . . . . . . . 105 IX. WAR BREAKS OUT . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 123 X. THE MASSACRE . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 139 XI. ENDING THE MONARCHY . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 157 XII. THE FALL OF THE GIRONDE . . . . . . . . . . . . 170 XIII. THE REIGN OF TERROR . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 185 XIV. THERMIDOR . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 202 XV. THE LAST DAYS OF THE CONVENTION . . . . . . . . 222 XVI. THE DIRECTOIRE . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 239 XVII. ART AND LITERATURE . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 262 INDEX . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 279





The magnitude of an event is too apt to lie with its reporter, and the reporter often fails in his sense of historical proportion. The nearer he is to the event the more authority he has as a witness, but the less authority as a judge. It is time alone can establish the relation and harmony of things. This is notably the case with the greatest event of modern European history, the French Revolution, and the first task of the historian writing a century later, is to attempt to catch its perspective. To do this the simplest course will be to see how the Revolution has been interpreted from the moment of its close to the present day.

It was Madame de Stael, under the influence of Constant, who first made Europe listen to reason after the Bourbon restoration of 1815. {2} Her Considerations sur la Revolution francaise, published in 1818, one year after her death, was a bold though temperate plea for the cause of political liberty. At a moment of reaction when the Holy Alliance proclaimed the fraternity not of men but of monarchs, and the direct delegation by Divine Providence of its essential virtues to Alexander, Frederick William and Francis,—at a moment when the men of the Convention were proscribed as regicides, when the word Jacobin sent a thrill of horror down every respectable spinal chord, the daughter of Necker raised her voice to say that if, during the stormy years just passed, the people of France had done nothing but stumble from crime to folly and from folly to crime, the fault did not, after all, lie with them, but with the old regime. If Frenchmen had failed to show the virtues of freemen, it was because they had for so many centuries been treated as slaves. This was in 1818, three years after Waterloo.

Madame de Stael was a pamphleteer; the historians soon followed. Thiers in 1823, Mignet in 1824, produced the first important histories of the Revolution; the former more eloquent, more popular; the latter more ballasted with documentary evidence, more {3} accurate, more pedestrian, in fact, to this day, in its negative manner, one of the best general histories of the matter. Both of these writers were too near their subject and too hampered by the reactionary surroundings of the moment to be successful when dealing with the larger questions the French Revolution involved. Thiers, going a step beyond Madame de Stael, fastened eagerly on the heroic aspects of his subject. It was with this emphasis that later, under the more liberal regime of Louis Philippe, he continued his work through the epoch of Napoleon and produced his immensely popular but extremely unsound history of the Consulate and the Empire. In 1840 the remains of Napoleon were transferred from St. Helena to Paris, and were processionally drawn to the Invalides surrounded by the striking figures and uniforms of a handful of surviving veterans, acclaimed by the ringing rhetoric of Victor Hugo, who in prose and in verse vividly formulated the Napoleonic legend. And just before and just after this event, so made to strike the imagination and to prepare changes of opinion, came a series of notable books. They were all similar in that they bore the stamp of the romanticism of the thirties and forties, interpreting history in terms of the {4} individual; but they differed in their political bias. These works were written by Carlyle, Louis Blanc, Lamartine and Michelet.

Carlyle's French Revolution belongs far more to the domain of literature than to that of history. Its brilliancy may still dazzle those who are able to think of Carlyle as no more than the literary artist; it will not blind those who see foremost in him the great humanitarian. He was too impulsive an artist to resist the high lights of his subject, and was hypnotized by Versailles and the guillotine just as his contemporary Turner was by the glories of flaming sunsets and tumbling waves. The book is a magnificent quest for an unfindable hero, but it is not the French Revolution.

Carlyle's French contemporaries add the note of the party man to his individualistic impressionism, and all three are strong apologists of the Revolution. Lamartine extols the Girondins; Blanc sanctifies Robespierre, whom he mistakes for an apostle of socialism; Michelet, as enthusiastic as either, but larger in his views and much more profound as a scholar, sees the Revolution as a whole and hails in it the regeneration of humanity. Within a few days of the publication of his {5} first volumes, France had risen in revolution once more and had proclaimed the Second Republic. She then, in the space of a few months, passed through all the phases of political thought which Thiers, Blanc, Lamartine and Michelet had glorified—the democratic, the bourgeois, the autocratic republic, and finally the relapse into the empire—the empire of Louis Napoleon.

And, essentially, the histories of the Revolution produced by these writers were special pleadings for a defeated cause, springing up in the year 1848 to a new assertion. Under the Second Empire, with autocracy even more triumphant than under the brothers of Louis XVI, they became the gospels of the recalcitrant liberalism of France; Michelet the gospel of the intellectuals, Blanc the gospel of the proletarians. De Tocqueville added his voice to theirs, his Ancien Regime appearing in 1856. Then came 1870, the fall of the Empire, and 1871, the struggle between the middle class republic of Thiers, and the proletarian republic of Paris. The latter, vanquished once more, disappeared in a nightmare of assassination and incendiarism.

It was under the impression of this disaster that Taine set to work to investigate the past {6} of his country, and particularly the great Revolution on which all else appeared to be founded. Between 1875 and 1894 he produced his Origines de la France Contemporaine, which in a sense supplanted all previous works on the Revolution. Behind it could be plainly perceived a huge scaffolding of erudite labour, and the working of an intellect of abnormal power; but what was not so apparent, and is now only being slowly recognised, was that much of this erudition was hasty and inspired by preconceived opinions, and that Taine's genius was more philosophic than historic. Assuming the validity of the impressions he had formed when witnessing the agony of Paris in the spring of 1871, his history of the Revolution was a powerful and brilliant vindication of those impressions. But it is only the philosopher who forms his opinions before considering the facts, the historian instinctively reverses the order of these phenomena. As it was, Taine's great work made a tremendous impact on the intellect of his generation, and nearly all that has been written on the Revolution since his day is marked with his mark. His thesis was that the Church and the State were the great institutions whereby brute man had acquired his small share of justice and {7} reason, and that to hack at the root of both State and Church was fatal; it could only lead to the dictatorship of the soldier or to that of the mob. Of these two evils the former appeared to him the less, while the latter he could only think of in terms of folly and outrage. Taine's conservatism was the reaction of opinion against the violence of the Commune and the weak beginnings of the Third Republic, as Michelet's liberalism had been its reaction against Orleanist and Bonapartist middle class and military dictation.

Since Taine's great book, the influence of which is, in this year 1909, only just beginning to fade, what have we had? Passing over von Sybel's considerable and popular history of the Revolution, we have Sorel's L'Europe et la Revolution francaise, more historical, more balanced than Taine's work, clear in style and in arrangement, but on the whole superficial in ideas and incorrect in details. Of far deeper significance is the Histoire Socialiste of Jean Jaures, of which the title is too narrow; Histoire du peuple, or Histoire des classes ouvrieres, would have more closely defined the scope of this remarkable work. Here we have a new phenomenon, history written for the labouring class and from the point of {8} view of the labouring class. And although not free from the taint of the party pamphlet, not of the first rank for historical erudition, intellectual force or artistic composition, Jaures' history presents the Revolution under the aspect that gives most food for thought and that places it most directly in touch with the problems of the present.

Last of all, what of the labours of the professed historian of to-day? Few of the writers just named could stand the tests rigidly applied to the young men sent out in large numbers of recent years by the universities as technically trained historians. Of these many have turned their attention to the vast field offered by the Revolution and some have done good work. The trend of modern effort, however, is to straighten out the details but to avoid the large issues; to establish beyond question the precise shade of the colour of Robespierre's breeches, but to give up as unattainable having any opinion whatever on the French Revolution as a whole. Not but that, here and there, excellent work is being done. Aulard has published an important history of the Revolution which is a good corrective to Taine's; the Ministry of Public Instruction helps the publication of the documents drawn {9} up to guide the States-General, a vast undertaking that sheds a flood of light on the economic condition of France in 1789. The historians have, in fact, reached a moment of more impartiality, more detachment, more strict setting out of facts; and with the general result that the specialist benefits and the public loses.

What has been said should explain why it is that the Revolution appears even more difficult to treat as a whole at the present day than it did at the time of Thiers and Mignet. The event was so great, the shock was so severe, that from that day to this France has continued to reel and rock from the blow. It is only within the most recent years that we can see going on under our eyes the last oscillations, the slow attainment of the new democratic equilibrium. The end is not yet, but what that end must eventually be now seems clear beyond a doubt. The gradual political education and coming to power of the masses is a process that is the logical outcome of the Revolution; and the joining of hands of a wing of the intellectuals with the most radical section of the working men, is a sign of our times not lightly to be passed over. From Voltaire before the Revolution to Anatole France, at {10} the present day, the tradition and development is continuous and logical.

It now remains to be said that if this is the line along which the perspective of the Revolution is to be sought, this is not the place in which the details of that perspective can be adequately set out. That must be reserved for a history of far larger dimensions, and of much slower achievement, of which a number of pages are already written. In this volume nothing more can be attempted than a sketch in brief form, affording a general view of the Revolution down to the year 1799, when Bonaparte seized power.




At the close of the 18th century France had more nearly reached her growth than any of her great European rivals; she was far more like the France of to-day, than might at first be supposed by an Englishman, American or German, thinking of what his own country accomplished during the 19th century. Her population of about 25,000,000 was three times more numerous than that of England. Paris, with 600,000 inhabitants or more, was much nearer the present-day city in size than any other capital of Europe, except Naples. Socially, economically, politically, notwithstanding gross abuses, there was great development; and the reformer who remodelled the institutions of France in 1800 declared that the administrative machine erected by the Bourbons was the best yet devised by human ingenuity. Large manufacturing cities and a number of active ports indicated the advent of a great economic period.

{12} All this reposed, however, on a very incongruous foundation. Feudalism, mediaevalism, autocracy, had built up a structure of caste distinction and class privilege to which custom, age, stagnation and ignorance, lent an air of preordained and indispensable stability. The Church, most privileged of all corporations, turned her miracles and her terrors, both present and future, into the most powerful buttress of the fabric. The noblesse, supreme as a caste, almost divided influence with the Church. The two, hand in hand, dominated France outside the larger towns. Each village had its cure and its seigneur. The cure collected his tithes and inculcated the precepts of religion, precepts which at the close of the 18th century, preached Bourbonism as one of the essential manifestations of Providence on earth. The seigneur, generally owning the greater part of all freehold property, not only weighed as a landlord but exercised many exclusive privileges, and applied the most drastic of sanctions to the whole as the local administrator of justice. There were hundreds of devout priests and of humane seigneurs, but a proportion, conspicuous if small, were otherwise; and the system gave such an opportunity for evil doing, that opinion naturally, but unjustly, {13} converted the ill deeds of the few into the characteristic of the whole class.

The culmination of this system, its visible and emphatic symbol, fastened on Paris like a great bloated tumour eating into the heart of France, was Versailles. But compared with class privilege, the Church, and the seigneur, Versailles was a recent phenomenon, invented by Louis XIV little more than one hundred years before the outbreak of the Revolution. At the beginning of the 17th century the French monarchy had somewhat suddenly emerged from the wars of religion immensely strengthened. Able statesmen, Henry IV, Sully, Richelieu, Mazarin, Louis XIV, had brought it out of its struggle with the feudal aristocracy triumphant. Before the wars of religion began the French noble was still mediaeval in that he belonged to a caste of military specialists and that his provincial castle was both his residence and his stronghold. The struggle itself was maintained largely by his efforts, by the military and political power of great nobles, Guises, Montmorencys and others. But when the struggle closes, both religion, its cause, and the great noble its supporter, sink somewhat into the background, while the king, the kingly power, fills the eye. And {14} the new divine right monarchy, triumphant over the feudal soldier and gladly accepted as the restorer of order by the middle class, sets to work to consolidate this success; the result is Versailles.

The spectacular palace built by Louis XIV threw glamour and prestige about the triumphant monarchy. It drew the great nobles from their castles and peasantry, and converted them into courtiers, functionaries and office holders. To catch a ray of royal favour was to secure the gilt edging of distinction, and so even the literature, the theology, the intellect of France, quickly learned to revolve about the dazzling Sun King of Versailles, Louis XIV.

Versailles could not, however, long retain such elements of vitality as it possessed. It rapidly accomplished its work on the feudal aristocracy, but only at a great price. With Louis XIV gone, it began to crumble from corruption within, from criticism without. Louis XV converted the palace into the most gorgeous of brothels, and its inmates into the most contemptible and degraded of harlots and pimps. The policy of France, still royal under Louis XIV, was marked by the greed, lewdness and incapacity of Richelieu and Dubois, of Pompadour and du Barry. When {15} the effluvious corpse of Louis XV was hastily smuggled from Versailles to the Cathedral of St. Denis in 1774, that seemed to mark the final dissolution into rottenness of the Bourbon-Versailles regime. That regime already stank in the nostrils of public opinion, a new force which for half a century past had been making rapid progress in France.

The great religious and military struggle of the 16th and 17th centuries had in one direction resulted in enhancing the prestige and crystallizing the power of the French monarchy. In another direction it had resulted in establishing even more firmly the new intellectual position of Europe, the spirit of enquiry, of criticism, of freedom of thought. The Roman or supreme doctrine of authority had been questioned, and questioned successfully. It could not be long before the doctrine of Bourbon authority must also be questioned. Even if French thought and literature did for a moment pay tribute at the throne of Louis XIV the closing years of the century were marked by the names of Leibnitz, Bayle and Newton; the mercurial intelligence of France could not long remain stagnant with such forces as these casting their influence over European civilization. {16} The new century was not long in, the Regent Philip of Orleans had not long been in power, before France showed that Versailles had ceased to control her literature. A new Rabelais with an 18th century lisp, Montesquieu, by seasoning his Lettres Persanes with a sauce piquante compounded of indecency and style, succeeded in making the public swallow some incendiary morsels. The King of France, he declared, drew his power from the vanity of his subjects, while the Pope was "an old idol to whom incense is offered from sheer habit"; nothing stronger has been said to this day. A few years later, in his Esprit des Lois, he produced a work of European reputation which eventually proved one of the main channels for the conveyance of English constitutional ideas to the thinking classes of France.

An even greater influence than Montesquieu was Voltaire. He exercised an irresistible fascination on the intellectual class by the unrivalled lucidity and logic of his powerful yet witty prose. He carried common sense to the point of genius, threw the glamour of intellect over the materialism of his century, and always seized his pen most eagerly when a question of humanity and liberalism was at stake. He had weak sides, was materialistic in living as {17} in thinking, and had nothing of the martyr in his composition; yet, after his fashion, he battled against obscurantism with all the zeal of a reformer. He was, in fact, the successor of Calvin. But since Calvin's day Protestantism had been almost extirpated in France, so that the gradual growth of the spirit of enquiry, still proceeding below the surface, had brought it to a point beyond Protestantism. It was atheism that Voltaire stood for, and with the vast majority of the people of France from that day to this the alternative lay between rigid Catholicism on one hand and rigid atheism on the other. The innumerable shades of transition between these extremes, in which English and German Protestantism opened a pioneer track, remained a sealed book for them. In his Letters on the English, published in 1734, Voltaire dwells less on constitutional than on religious questions. Liberty of conscience is what he struggles for, and he discerns not only that it is more prudent to attack the Church than the State but that it is more essential; religion is at the root of the monarchical system even if the 18th century ruler is apt to forget it. And the Church gives Voltaire ample opportunity for attack. The bishops and court abbes are often enough {18} sceptics and libertines, though every once in a while they turn and deal a furious blow to maintain the prestige and discipline of their ancient corporation. And when, for a few blasphemous words, they send a boy like the Chevalier de La Barre to the scaffold, to be mutilated and killed, Voltaire's voice rings out with the full reverberation of outraged humanity and civilization: Ecrasez l'infame! He believed that the Revolution, which he like so many others foresaw, would begin by an attack on the priests. It was the natural error of a thinker, a man of letters, concerned more with ideas than facts, with theology than economics.

Above all things, Voltaire stood out as a realist, in the modern sense of the word, and if he detested the Church it was largely because it represented untruth. He did not deflect opinion to the same extent as his great contemporary Rousseau, but he represented it more; and of the men of the Revolution, it was Robespierre, who reigned less than four months, who stood for Rousseau, while Bonaparte, who reigned fourteen years, was the true Voltairian.

Just at the side of Voltaire stood the Encyclopedists, led by Diderot and d'Alembert. The {19} great work of reference which they issued penetrated into every intellectual circle, not only of France but of Europe, and brought with it the doctrines of materialism and atheism. However much they might be saturated with the ideas of Church and State in the Roman-Bourbon form, many of its readers became unconsciously shaken in their fundamental beliefs, and ready to question, to criticize and, when the edifice began to tremble, to accept the Revolution and the doctrine of the rights of the common man.

Voltaire, Diderot, d'Alembert, were at heart essentially aristocrats; for them the common man was an untrustworthy brute of low instincts, and their revolution would have meant the displacement of an aristocracy of the sword by an aristocracy of the intellect. Rousseau stood for the opposite view. To him it was only despotism that degraded man. Remove the evil conditions and the common man would quickly display his inherent goodness and amiability; tenderness to our fellows, or fraternity, was therefore the distinctive trait of manhood. The irrepressible exuberance of Rousseau's kindliness overflowed from his novels and essays into a great stream of fashionable sensibility. During the years of {20} terrific stress that followed, during the butcheries of the guillotine and of the Grande Armee, it was the vogue to be soft-hearted, and even such a fire eater as Murat would pour libations of tears over his friends' waistcoats at the slightest provocation. In his Contrat Social Rousseau postulated the essential equality of the governor and the governed. But his sentimental attitude towards man involved a corresponding one towards the Deity; unable to accept Catholicism or even Christianity, he sought refuge from atheism in the arms of the Etre Supreme. It was this Supreme Being of Rousseau that was to become the official deity of France during the last days of the Reign of Terror.

An influence of a slightly different sort to that exercised by these writers was that of the theatre. The century had seen the rise of the middle-class man, and his attempts at self expression. The coffee-house and the Freemason's lodge gave facilities for conversation, discussion, opinion; and the increasing number of gazettes supplied these circles with information as to the course of political events. But the gazettes themselves might not venture into the danger-marked field of opinion, and for the fast growing public, especially in the {21} city of Paris, there was no opportunity for comment or criticism on the events of the day. In a tentative way the theatre proved itself a possible medium. In 1730, Voltaire produced his tragedy Brutus. It fell flat because of the lines

. . . et je porte en mon coeur La liberte gravee et les rois en horreur.

The audience was too loyal to Bourbonism to accept these sentiments; there were loud murmurs; and Brutus had to be withdrawn. As late as 1766, a play on the subject of William Tell was given to an empty house; no one would go to see a republican hero. But from the sixties matters changed rapidly. Audiences show great enthusiasm over rivalries of art, of actors, of authors, of opinions, and every once in a while applaud or boo a sentiment that touches the sacred foundations of the social and political order. At last an author appears on the scene, keen, witty, unscrupulous, resourceful, to seize on this growing mood of the public and to play on it for his own glory and profit.

Beaumarchais, Mirabeau, Dumouriez, Bonaparte, these are the types of the adventurers of the Revolution, and the first only belongs {22} to the period of incubation and also to the domain of letters. Thrown into the war of American independence by his double vocation of secret diplomatic agent and speculator in war supplies, he had espoused the cause of the American people with an enthusiasm that always blazed most brightly when a personal interest was at stake. His enthusiasm for American liberty was easily converted into enthusiasm for the liberty of his own class, and to vindicate that, he put Figaro on the stage.

The first public performance of the Noces de Figaro, in 1784, was the culmination of a three years' struggle. Louis XVI had declared the play subversive, and the author had raised a storm of protest in its behalf. A special performance was conceded for the Court; and the Parisian public, irritated at being thus excluded, then raised for the first time the cry of tyranny and oppression. When at last the Government in its weakness made the final concession, and permitted a public performance, the demand for seats was greater than had ever previously been known. The theatre was packed. Great lords and ladies sat elbow to elbow with bourgeois and fashionable women; and when Figaro came on and declaimed against social injustice, the opposite parties in {23} the house stormed approval or disfavour. Figaro is Beaumarchais, is the lower or middle class man, with nothing but his wits with which to force his way through the barriers which privilege has erected across every path along which he attempts to advance. As the valet of Count Almaviva he has seen the man of privilege at close quarters and has sounded his rottenness and incapacity. Because you are a grand seigneur, he says, you think yourself a great genius; but, Monsieur le Comte, to what do you really owe your great privileges? To having put yourself to the inconvenience of being born, nothing more. I, with all my ability and force, I who can work for myself, for others, for my country, I am driven away from every occupation.

That was what the pushing adventurer and witty dramatist had to say, but all through the country thousands of plain, inconspicuous men, doctors, lawyers, merchants, farmers, even here and there a peasant or a noble, the best representatives of the deep-rooted civilization of France, of her keen intelligence, of her uprightness, of her humanity, revolted inwardly at the ineptitude and injustice of her government. As they saw it, the whole system seemed to revolve about Versailles, the abode {24} of the Bourbon King, the happy hunting ground of the privileged courtier, the glittering abode of vice and debauchery, the sink through which countless millions were constantly drained while the poor starved, the badge of dishonour and incapacity which had too frequently been attached to the conduct of France both in war and in peace. The twenty-five millions without the gates gazed at the hundred thousand within, and the more they gazed the louder and more bitter became their comment, the dimmer and the more tawdry did the glitter of it all appear to them, and the weaker and more half-hearted became the attitude of the one hundred thousand as they attempted by insolence and superciliousness to maintain the pose of their inherited superiority.




Even under such conditions the Bourbon monarchy might have survived much longer had it not failed badly at one specific point. Napoleon himself declared that it was in its financial management that the ancien regime had broken down; and although for a long period historians chose to accentuate the political and social aspects of the Revolution, of recent years the economic has been the point of emphasis. And it was to consider a financial problem that the States-General were summoned in 1789; while most of the riots that broke out in Paris that same year were due to scarcity of food.

The editors of the Encyclopaedia had not neglected economic questions, and had given much employment to a number of writers who ranked as Economists or as Physiocrats. Among the men most interested in such questions were Quesnay, the physician of Madame de Pompadour; Turgot, the ablest minister of {26} Louis XVI, and the Marquis de Mirabeau, father of a more famous son. They concerned themselves, among other things, with theories of agriculture largely based on the conditions of their country. With her large population France could with difficulty produce sufficient food for her people. The wheat which she did produce was brought to market under extremely bad conditions of distribution and of payment. The century witnessed what appeared to be an endless succession of short crops and consequent famine. Viewing these conditions as a whole, the economic thinkers concluded that the foundations of the State must repose on agriculture, and they quickly voiced a demand that there should be encouragement for the production of wheat and free circulation.

Towards the end of the reign of Louis XV the effect of these economic doctrines began to be felt. Several efforts were made to remove the restrictions on the circulation of wheat. These efforts, however, proved unavailing until after the meeting of the States-General, and that largely because of the powerful interests that were concerned in maintaining the wheat question as it then existed. The conditions were curious and are of great importance in {27} their relation to the outbreak of the Revolution.

Wheat had become the great medium of financial speculation. It was an article that came on the market at a stated period in large quantities, though in quantities which experience showed were rarely sufficient to meet the requirements of the succeeding twelve months. The capitalist who could pay cash for it, and who had the means of storing it, was therefore nearly certain of a moderate profit, and, if famine occurred, of an extravagant one. That capitalist of necessity belonged to the privileged classes. Frequently religious communities embarked in these ventures, and used their commodious buildings as granaries. Syndicates were formed in which all varieties of speculators entered, from the bourgeois shopkeeper of the provincial town to the courtier and even the King. But popular resentment, the bitter cry of the starving, applied the same name to all of them: from Louis XV to the inconspicuous monk they were all accapareurs de ble, cornerers of wheat. And their profits rose as did hunger and starvation. The computation has been put forward that in the year 1789 one-half of the population of France had known from experience the meaning of the {28} word hunger; can it be wondered if the curse of a whole people was attached to any man of whom it might be said that he was an accapareur de ble?

The privileged person, king or seigneur, bishop or abbot, levied feudal dues along the roads and waterways, so that a boatload of wine proceeding from Provence to Paris was made to pay toll no less than forty times en route. He owned the right of sitting as judge in town or village, and of commanding the armed force that made judgment effective. Where he did not own the freehold of the farm, he held oppressive feudal rights over it, and in the last resort reappeared in official guise as one of an army of officials whose chief duty it was not so much to ensure justice, good government, or local improvement, as to screw more money out of the taxpayer. Chief of all these officials were the King's intendants, working under the authority of the Controleur-General des Finances.

The Controleur was the most important of the King's ministers, and had charge of nearly all the internal administration of the kingdom. He not only collected the revenue, but had gradually subordinated every other function of government to that one. So he took charge {29} of public works, of commerce and of agriculture, and directed the operations of an army of police, judicial and military officials—and all for the more splendid maintenance of Versailles, Trianon, and the courtiers.

In the provinces he was represented by the intendant. This official's duties varied to a certain extent with his district or generalite. In administration France showed the transition that was proceeding from feudalism to centralized monarchism. Provinces had been acquired one by one, and many of them still retained local privileges. Of these the chief was that of holding provincial Estates, and where this custom prevailed, the chief duty of the Estates lay in the assessment of taxes. Where the province was not pays d'etat, it was the intendant who distributed the taxation. He enforced its collection; directed the marechaussee, or local police; sat in judgment when disorder broke out; levied the militia, and enforced roadmaking by the corvee. Thirty intendants ruled France; and the modern system with its prefects is merely a slight modification devised by Napoleon on the great centralizing and administrative scheme of the Bourbon monarchy.

The taxes formed a somewhat complicated {30} system, but they may, for the present purpose, be grouped as follows: taxes that were farmed; direct taxes; the gabelle; feudal and ecclesiastical taxes.

In 1697 had begun the practice of leasing indirect taxes for the space of six years to contractors, the fermiers generaux. They paid in advance, and recouped themselves by grinding the taxpayer to the uttermost. They defrauded the public in such monopolies as that of tobacco, which was grossly adulterated; and they enforced payments not only with harshness and violence, but with complete disregard for the ruin which their exactions entailed. The government increased the yield of the ferme in a little less than a century from 37 to 180 millions of livres or francs,[1] and yet the sixty farmers continued to increase in wealth. They formed the most conspicuous group of plutocrats when the Revolution broke out and were among the first victims of popular indignation. Of the direct taxes the most important in every way was the taille. It brought in under Louis XVI about 90 millions of francs. It represented historically the fundamental right of the French monarch to tax his {31} subjects delegated to him by the Estates of the kingdom in the 15th century. By virtue of that delegated power it was the Royal Council that settled each year what amount of taille should be levied. It was enforced harshly and in such a manner as to discourage land improvement. It was also the badge of social inferiority, for in the course of centuries a large part of the wealthier middle classes had bought or bargained themselves out of the tax, so that to pay it was a certain mark of the lower class or roture. Taillable, roturier, were terms of social ostracism impatiently borne by thousands.

Other direct taxes were the capitation, bringing in over 50 millions, the dixieme, the don gratuit. But more important than any of these was the great Government indirect tax, the monopoly on salt, or gabelle. Exemptions of all sorts made the price vary in different parts of France, but in some cases as much as 60 francs was charged for the annual quantity which the individual was assessed at, that same individual as often as not earning less than 5 francs a week. So much smuggling, fraud and resistance to the law did the gabelle produce that it took 50,000 officials, police and soldiers, to work it. In the year 1783 no less {32} than 11,000 persons, many of them women and children, were arrested for infraction of the gabelle laws.

Last of all, the tithe and feudal dues were added to the burden. The priest was maintained by the land. The seigneur's rights were numerous, and varied in different parts of the country. They bore most heavily in the central and northeastern parts of France, most lightly in the south, where Roman law had prevailed over feudal, and along most of the Atlantic coast line, as in Normandy. These feudal dues will be noticed later in connection with the famous session of the States-General on the 4th of August, 1789.

In all this system of taxation there was only one rule that was of universal application, and that was that the burden should be thrown on the poor man's shoulders. The clergy had compounded with the Crown. The nobles or officials were the assessors, and whether they officiated for the King, for the Provincial Estates or for themselves, they took good care that their own contributions to the royal chest should be even less proportionately than might legally be demanded of them. And after all the money had been driven into the treasury it was but too painfully evident what became {33} of it. The fermiers and the favourites scrambled for the millions and flaunted their splendour in the face of those who paid for it. The extravagance of the Court was equalled only by its ineptitude. No proper accounts were kept, because all but the taxpayers found their interest in squandering. Under Madame de Pompadour the practice arose that orders for money payments signed by the King alone should be paid in cash and not passed through the audit chamber, such as it was. Pensions became a serious drain on the revenue and rapidly grew to over 50 millions a year at the end of the reign of Louis XVI. They were not infrequently granted for ridiculous or scandalous reasons, as in the case of Ducrest, hairdresser to the eldest daughter of the Comtesse d'Artois, who was granted an annual pension of 1,700 francs on her death; the child was then twelve months old; or that of a servant of the actress Clairon, who was brought into the Oeuil de Boeuf one morning to tell Louis XV a doubtful story about his mistress; the King laughed so much that he ordered the fellow to be put down for a pension of 600 francs!

With its finances in such condition the Bourbon monarchy plunged into war with England {34} in 1778, and, for the satisfaction of Yorktown and the independence of the United States, spent 1,500 millions of francs, nearly four years' revenue. At that moment it was estimated that the people of France paid in taxation about 800 millions annually, about one-half of which reached the King's chest. But the burden of debt was so great that by 1789, nearly 250 millions were paid out annually for interest.

To meet this situation the Government tried many men and many measures. There were several partial repudiations of debt. The money was clipped, much to the profit of importers from Amsterdam and other centres of thrift. Necker made way for Calonne, and Calonne for Necker. But these names bring us to the current of events that resulted in the convocation of the States-General by Louis XVI, and that must be made the subject of another chapter.

[1] The franc comes into use at the period of the Revolution. It will be employed throughout instead of livres as the standard denomination.




Louis XVI, grandson of Louis XV, came to the throne in 1774. He showed some, but not all, of the characteristics of his family. He was of sluggish intelligence, and extremely slow, not to say embarrassed, in speech. He was heavy in build and in features. His two great interests were locksmithing, which he had learned as a boy, and running the deer and the boar in the great royal forests, St. Germain, Fontainebleau, Rambouillet. He had all the Bourbon insouciance, and would break off an important discussion of the Council from indifference, incompetence, or impatience, to go off hunting. Worst of all, for an autocrat, he had not in his nature one particle of those qualities that go to make up the man of action, decision, energy, courage, whole-heartedness. In this he represented the decay of his race, surfeited with power, victim of the system it {36} had struggled so long and so hard to establish. At the best he had flashes of common sense, which, unfortunately for himself, he was never capable of translating into deeds. He was full of good intentions, of a certain underlying honesty and benevolence, all rather obscured by his boorish exterior and manners. Like his ancestors, he ate and drank voraciously, but, unlike them, he did not care for women. He even showed some indifference for his wife at first, but later, when she bore children, he appeared to the public in the character of a good father of the family. In that and some of his other traits he had elements of popularity, and he remained in a way popular almost to the moment of his trial in 1792.

Marie Antoinette of Austria, his wife, was of very different mould; and in her everything made for unpopularity. She had begun under the worst auspices. The French public detested the Austrian alliance into which Madame de Pompadour had dragged France, and had felt the smart of national disgrace during the Seven Years' War, so that a marriage into the Hapsburg-Lorraine family after the conclusion of that war, was very ill received. To make the matter worse a catastrophe marked the wedding ceremonies, and at a great {37} illumination given by the city of Paris, a stampede occurred, in which hundreds of lives were lost. The Austrian princess, l'Autrichienne, as she was called from the first, did not mend matters by her conduct. Until misfortune sobered her and brought out her stronger and better side, she was incurably light-headed and frivolous. She was always on the very edge of a faux pas, and her enemies did not fail to accuse her of frequent slips beyond the edge. The titled riffraff that had adorned the Louis XV-du Barry court was swept out on the accession of the young Queen, but only to be replaced by a new clique as greedy as the old, and not vastly more edifying. Richelieu and d'Aiguillon only made way for Lauzun, the Polignacs, and Vaudreuil. And if it was an improvement to have a high-born queen rule Versailles instead of a low-born courtesan, the difference was not great in the matter of outward dignity, and especially of the expenditure of public money. Millions that cannot be computed for lack of proper accounts were poured out for the Queen's amusements and for the Queen's favourites, men and women.

It was the Controleur whose function was to fill the Court's bottomless purse. Under this strain and that of the American war, a man of {38} humble origin but of good repute as an economist and accountant was called to the office, the Geneva banker, Jacques Necker. For three years he attempted to carry the burden of the war by small economies effected at many points, which produced the minimum of result with the maximum of friction. Finally, in 1781, the Queen drove him from office. Necker himself provided the excuse by the publication of his Compte rendu, a pamphlet which first put the financial crisis fairly before the public.

All that the public knew up to this time was that while the Court maintained its splendour and extravagance, the economic and financial situation was rapidly getting worse. There was no systematic audit, there was no budget, there was no annual account published, so that the finances remained a sealed book, a private matter concerning the King of France only. But here, in Necker's pamphlet, was an account of those finances, that revealed to a certain extent the state of affairs, and, which was even more important, that constituted an appeal to the public to judge the King's administration. Louis was furious at his minister's step, and not only dismissed him, but banished him from Paris.

{39} From 1783 to 1787 the finances were in the hands of Calonne, whose management proved decisive and fatal. His dominant idea was that of a courtier,—always to honour any demand made on the treasury by the King or Queen. To do less would be unworthy of a gentilhomme and a devoted servant of their Majesties. So Calonne, bowing gracefully, smiling reassuringly, embarked on a fatal course, borrowing where he could, anticipating in one direction, defaulting in another, but always, and somehow, producing the louis necessary to the enjoyment of the present moment. He reached the end of his tether towards the close of 1786.

It was during Calonne's administration that occurred the famous affair of the diamond necklace. It was a vulgar swindle worked on the Cardinal de Rohan by an adventuress, Mme. de La Motte Valois. Trading on his credulity and court ambitions, she persuaded him to purchase a diamond necklace, which the Queen, so he was told, greatly wished but could not afford. Marie Antoinette was personated in a secret interview given to Rohan, and Mme. de La Motte got possession of the diamonds. Presently the jewellers began to press Rohan for payment, and the secret came out. The {40} King was furious, and sent Rohan to the royal prison of the Bastille, while Mme. de La Motte was handed over to the legal procedure of the Parlement of Paris.

This incident created great excitement, and was much distorted by public report. It left two lasting impressions, one relating to Mme. de La Motte, the other to the Queen. The adventuress was too obvious a scapegoat to be spared. While Rohan was allowed to leave the Bastille after a short imprisonment, the woman was brought to trial, and was sentenced to public whipping and branding. Her execution was carried out in bungling fashion, and at the foot of the steps leading to the law courts, whence Danton's voice was to reverberate so loudly in his struggle with so-called Justice ten years later, a disgraceful scene occurred. The crowd saw La Motte struggling in the hands of the executioners and rolling with them in the gutter, heard her uttering loud shrieks as the branding iron was at last applied to her shoulders. The impression produced by this revolting spectacle was profound, and was heightened by the universal belief that Marie Antoinette was not less guilty in one direction than Madame de La Motte had been in another. The outbreak of slander and {41} of libel against the Queen goes on accumulating from this moment with ever-increasing force until her death, eight years later. A legend comes into existence, becomes blacker and blacker, and culminates in the atrocious accusations made against her by Hebert before the Revolutionary Tribunal; Messalina and Semiramis are rolled into one to supply a fit basis of comparison. And the population of Paris broods over this legend, and when revolution comes, makes of Marie Antoinette the symbol of all that is monstrous, infamous and cruel in the system of the Bourbons; makes of her the marked victim of the vengeance of the people.

Meanwhile Calonne was struggling to keep his head above water, and in the process had come into conflict with the Parlements, or corporations of judges. At last, in 1786, he went to the King, admitted that he had no money, that he could borrow no more, and that the only hope lay in fundamental reform. He proposed, therefore, a number of measures, of which the most important were that money should be raised by a stamp tax, that a land tax should be the foundation of the revenue, and that it should apply to all proprietors, noble, cleric, and of the Third Estate, with no {42} exceptions. There was no chance, however, as matters stood, of persuading the Parlements to register decrees for these purposes, so Calonne proposed that the King should summon an assembly of the notables of France to give their support to these reforms. Here again, although Calonne and Louis did not realize it, was an appeal to public opinion; the monarchy was unconsciously following the lead of the philosophers, of the dramatists, and of Necker.

In January, 1788, the Notables assembled, "to learn the King's intentions," one hundred and fifty of them, mostly nobles and official persons. In February Calonne put his scheme before them, and then discovered, to his great astonishment, that they declined to give him the support, which was all he wanted of them, and that, on the contrary, they wished to discuss his project, and, in fact, held a very adverse opinion of it. In this the Notables were not factious; they merely had enough sense of the gravity of the situation to perceive that a real remedy was needed, and that Calonne's proposal did not supply it. His idea was good enough in the abstract, but in practice there was at least one insurmountable objection, which was that the land tax could not be established until a cadastral survey of France had {43} been undertaken—a complicated and lengthy operation. Very soon Calonne and the Notables had embarked on a contest that gradually became heated, until finally Calonne appealed from the Notables to the public by printing and circulating his proposals. The Notables replied by a protest, and declared that the real reform was economy and that the Controleur should place before them proper accounts. This proved the end of Calonne, his position had long been weak, he now toppled over, and was replaced by Lomenie de Brienne, Archbishop of Toulouse.

Lomenie was an agreeable courtier, and well liked by the Queen, but he was also a liberal, an encyclopedist, and a member of the Assembly of Notables. He succeeded in getting the approval of that body for a loan of 60,000,000 francs, and then, on the 1st of May, 1787, dissolved it. The new minister had, however, come to the opinion that his predecessor's programme was the only possible one, and as soon as he had got rid of the Notables, his late colleagues, he attempted to get the Parlement of Paris to register the new laws.

The Parlement resisted; and popular discontent became a serious feature of the situation. The Chancellor, Lamoignon, was burnt {44} in effigy by the mob. In July, 1787, the Parlement of Paris demanded that the States-General of the kingdom should be assembled. For a whole year the struggle between the judges and the ministers grew hotter and hotter. The arrest of d'Espremenil, one of the leaders of the Parlement, in May, 1788, led to severe rioting in Paris, and only the energetic use of police and troops saved the situation. Not only did the provincial Parlements support that of Paris in its resistance to the Court, but the provinces themselves began to stir, and finally, a month after d'Espremenil's arrest, a large meeting at Grenoble decided to call together the old Estates of the province, the province of Dauphine.

This was almost civil war, and threatened to plunge France back into the conditions of two centuries earlier. The Government ordered troops to Grenoble to put down the movement. The commanding general, however, on arriving near the city, found the situation so alarming that he agreed to a compromise, whereby the Estates were to hold a meeting, but not in the capital of the province. Accordingly, at the village of Vizille, on the 21st of July, several hundred persons assembled, representing the three orders, nobility, clergy, and {45} Third Estate of the province; and of these it had been previously agreed that the Third Estate should be allowed double representation.

The leading figure of the assembly of Vizille was Jean Joseph Mounier. He was a middle class man, a lawyer, upright, intelligent, yet moderate, who felt the need of reform, and who was prepared to labour for it. He inspired all the proceedings at Vizille, and as secretary of the Estates, had the chief part in drawing up its resolutions. These demanded the convocation of the States-General of France, pledged the province to refuse to pay all taxes not voted by the States-General, and called for the abolition of arbitrary imprisonment on the King's order by the warrant known as the lettre de cachet.

The effect of the resolutions of the assembly of Vizille through France was immediate. They were simple, direct, and voiced the general feeling; they also indicated that the moment had come for interfering in the chronic mismanagement of affairs. So irresistible was their force that Lomenie de Brienne and the King accepted them with hardly a struggle. The minister was now at the end of his borrowing powers and in the month of August his tenure of power came to a close. Before {46} leaving office he suspended payments, and issued a decree convoking the States-General for the 1st of May, 1789. He was succeeded by Necker.

It was unfortunate for the Bourbon monarchy that at this great crisis a king and a minister should have come together, both lacking initiative, both lacking courage, and yet not even sympathetic, but, on the contrary, lacking mutual confidence and refusing one another mutual support. And while Louis lacked executive vigour, so Necker tended always to lose himself in figures, in details, in words, in fine sentiments, and to neglect the essential for the unimportant. He was well intentioned but narrow, and merely followed the current of events. From all parts of France advice and representations reached him as to the conditions under which the States-General should be convoked. Their last meeting had been held as far back as 1614, so that there was naturally much uncertainty on questions of procedure. Partly to clear this, partly to find some support for his own timidity, Necker called the Notables together again. They met in November and helped to settle the conditions under which the elections {47} to the States-General and their convocation should take place.

The old constitutional theory of the States-General was that it was an assembly of the whole French nation, represented by delegates, and divided into three classes. Thus it was tribal in that it comprised every Frenchman within its scope, and feudal in that it formed the caste distinctions, noble, clergy, people. In other words it afforded little ground for comparison with the English Parliament; the point at which it approached it nearest being in the matter of the power to vote the taxation levied by the Crown; but this power the States-General had lost so far back as the 15th century.

This fundamental conception entailed another, which was that the delegates of the nation were not members of a parliament or debating assembly, but were mere mandatories charged by the electors with a specific commission, which was to place certain representations before the King. This meant that in the stage previous to the election of these delegates, the electors should draw up a statement of their complaints and a mandate or instructions for their representatives. This was in fact done, {48} and many thousands of cahiers, as they were called, were drawn up all over France, in which the demands of as many individuals, or corporations, or bodies of electors were stated. These were summarized into three cahiers for each province, and eventually into three, one from each order, for all France, and these last three were in due course presented to Louis XVI.

As a source of information on the economic and social condition of a country, the cahiers are the most wonderful collection of documents available for the historian. Many of them have been more or less faithfully published, and at the present day the French government is liberally helping on the work of making them public. But in a work of this scope it is impossible to go at length into the state of affairs which they depict; only the most salient features can be dealt with.

First, then, it must be said that the cahiers present at the same time remarkable uniformity and wide divergence. The agreement lies partly in their general spirit, and partly in the repetition of certain formulas preached throughout the country by eager pamphleteers and budding political leaders. The divergence can be placed under three chief heads: the markedly different character of a great part {49} of the cahiers of the clergy from those of the other two orders; provincial divergence and peculiarities of local customs; demands for the maintenance of local privileges. Of the last class, Marseilles, a port with many commercial and political privileges, affords perhaps the most extreme example. The uniformity is to be seen especially in the general spirit of these complaints to the King. One feels, while reading the cahiers, the unanimity of a long-suffering people anxious for a release from intolerable misgovernment,—more than that, anxious to have their institutions modernized, but all in a spirit of complete loyalty and devotion to the King and to all that was wise, and good, and glorious, and beneficent, that he still seemed to represent. The illusion of Bourbonism was at that moment, so far as surface appearances went, practically untouched.

The noblesse and the clergy conducted their elections by means of small meetings and chose their delegates from among themselves. The Tiers Etat elected as its representatives men of the upper middle class and professional class; the lower classes, ignorant and politically untutored, were unrepresented and accepted tutelage with more or less alacrity—more in the provinces, less in Paris. But in addition, a {50} small number of men belonging to the privileged orders sought and obtained mandates from the lower. Sieyes and a few other priests, Mirabeau and a few other nobles, were elected to the States-General by the Third Estate.

Sieyes, of powerful mind, a student of constitutionalism, terse and logical in expression, had made a mark during the electoral period with his pamphlet, Qu'est-ce que le Tiers Etat? What is the Third Estate? His reply was: It is everything; it has been nothing; it should be something. This was a reasonable and forceful exposition of the views of the twenty-five millions. Mirabeau, of volcanic temperament and morals, with the instinct of a statesman and the conscience of an outlaw, greedy of power as of money, with thundering voice, ready rhetoric, and keen perception, turned from his own order to the people for his mandate. He saw clearly enough from the beginning that reform could not stop at financial changes, but must throw open the government of France to the large class of intelligent citizens with which her developed civilization had endowed her.

The outstanding fact brought out by this infiltration of the noblesse and clergy into the {51} Third Estate, was clear: the deputies to the States-General, whichever order they belonged to, were nearly all members of the educated middle and upper class of France. Part of the deputies of the noblesse stood for class privilege, and so did a somewhat larger part of those of the clergy. But a great number in both these orders were of the same sentiment as the deputies of the Third Estate. They were intelligent and patriotic Frenchmen, full of the teaching of Voltaire, and Rousseau, and Montesquieu, convinced by their eyes as well as by their intellect that Bourbonism must be reformed for its own sake, for the sake of France, and for the sake of humanity.




At the beginning of May, twelve hundred and fourteen representatives of France reached Versailles. Of these, six hundred and twenty-one, more than half, belonged to the Third Estate, and of the six hundred and twenty-one more than four hundred had some connection with the law, while less than forty belonged to the farming class. Little preparation had been made for them; the King had continued to attend to his hounds and horses, the Queen to her balls and dresses, and Necker to his columns of figures, his hopes, and his illusions. But the arrival of this formidable body of men of trained intellect in the royal city, now that it had occurred, at once caused a certain uneasiness. As they walked about the city in curious groups, it was as though France were surveying the phenomenon of Versailles with critical eye; at the very first occasion the courtiers, feeling this, set to work to teach the {53} deputies of the Third Estate a lesson, to put them in their place.

On the 4th and 5th of May the opening ceremonies took place, processions, mass, a sermon, speeches; and the Court's policy, if such it could be called, was revealed. The powerful engine known as etiquette was brought into play, to indicate to the deputies what position and what influence in the State the King intended they should have. This was perhaps the greatest revelation of the inherent weakness of Bourbonism; the system had, in its decline, become little more than etiquette, and Louis XVI seen hard at work in his shirt-sleeves would have shattered the illusions of centuries. And so, by means of the myriad contrivances of masters of ceremonies and Court heralds the Third Estate was carefully made to feel its social inferiority, its political insignificance.

The Third Estate noted these manifestations of the Court with due sobriety, and met the attack squarely. But while on the part of the Court this way of approaching the great national problem never attained a higher dignity than a policy of pin pricks, with the Third Estate it was at once converted into a constitutional question of fundamental importance. Was the distinction between the three orders {54} to be maintained? was the noble or priest a person of social and political privilege? or were the deputies of all to meet in one assembly and have equal votes? That was the great question, as the Third Estate chose to state it, and, translated into historical terms, it meant no less than the passing of the feudal arrangement of society in separate castes into the new system of what is known at our day as democracy.

Nearly all the cahiers of the Third Estate and many of those of the noblesse, had demanded this measure, and the Third Estate on assembling to verify the mandates of its members immediately called on the other two orders to join it in this proceeding. The struggle over this point continued from the 5th of May to the 9th of June, before any decisive step was taken. But as the days went by, apparently in fruitless debate, there was in reality a constant displacement of influence going on in favor of the Third Estate. In the opening session the statement of affairs made by Necker had left a very poor impression. Since then the ministers had done nothing, save to attempt, by a feeble intervention, to keep the orders apart. And all the time the Third Estate was gradually becoming conscious of its own strength and of the feebleness {55} of the adversary. And so at last, on the 10th of June, Sieyes moved, Mirabeau supporting, that the noblesse and the clergy should be formally summoned to join the Tiers, and that on the 12th, verification of powers for the whole of the States-General should take place.

Accordingly on the 12th, under the presidency of the astronomer Bailly, senior representative of the city of Paris, the Tiers began the verification of the deputies' mandates. On the 13th, three members of the clergy, three country priests, asked admission. They were received amid scenes of the greatest enthusiasm, and within a few days their example proved widely contagious. On the 14th, a new step was taken, and the deputies, belonging now to a body that was clearly no longer the Tiers Etat, voted themselves a National Assembly. This was, in a sense, accomplishing the Revolution.

So rapidly did the Tiers now draw the other parts of the Assembly to itself that on the 19th, the Clergy formally voted for reunion. This brought the growing uneasiness and alarm of the Court to a head. Necker's influence was now on the wane. The King's youngest brother, the Comte d'Artois, at this moment on good terms with the Queen, and Marie {56} Antoinette herself, were for putting an end to the mischief before it went further, and they prevailed. It was decided that the King should intervene, and should break up the States-General into its component parts once more by an exercise of the royal authority.

On the morning of the 20th of June, in a driving rain, the deputies arriving at their hall found the doors closed and workmen in possession. This was the contemptuous manner in which the Court chose to intimate to them that preparations were being made for a royal session which was to take place two days later. Alarmed and indignant, the deputies proceeded to the palace tennis court close by,—the Jeu de Paume,—and there heated discussion followed. Sieyes, for once in his career imprudent, proposed that the Assembly should remove to Paris. Mounier, conservative at heart, realizing that this meant civil war, temporized, and carried the Assembly with him by proposing a solemn oath whereby those present would pledge themselves not to separate until they had endowed France with a constitution.

On the 23rd, the royal session was held. A great display of troops and of ceremony was made. The deputies assembled in the hall, and {57} the King's speech was read. It was a carefully prepared document, announcing noteworthy concessions as well as noteworthy reservations, but vitiated by two things: the concessions came just too late; the reservations were not promptly and effectively enforced. The King declared that for two months past the States-General had accomplished nothing save wrangling, that the time had therefore arrived for recalling them to their duties. His royal will was that the distinction between the three orders should be maintained, and after announcing a number of financial and other reforms, he ordered the deputies to separate at once. The King then left the hall supported by his attendants, and by the greater part of the nobles and high clergy. There followed a memorable scene, to understand which it is necessary to go back a little.

On the arrival of the deputies at Versailles, they had at once tended to form themselves into groups, messes, or clubs, for eating, social and political purposes. An association of this kind, the Club Breton, so called from the province of its founders, soon assumed considerable importance. Here the forward men of the assembly met and discussed; and here, filtering through innumerable channels, came {58} the news of the palace, the tittle tattle of Trianon and the Oeuil de Boeuf, the decisions of the King's council. At every crisis during the struggle at Versailles, the leaders of the assembly knew beforehand what the King and his ministers thought, and what measures they had decided on. All that was necessary therefore was to concert secretly the step most likely to thwart the royal policy, and by eloquence, by persuasion, by entreaty, to cajole the great floating mass of members to follow the lead of the more active minds. The King's speech on the 23rd of June was no surprise to the assembly, and the leaders were prepared with an effective rejoinder.

So when Louis XVI left the hall after commanding the deputies to disperse, the greater part of them kept their seats, and when Dreux Breze, Master of Ceremonies, noting this, called on the president to withdraw, Bailly replied that the assembly was in session and could not adjourn without a motion. The discussion between Dreux Breze and Bailly continuing, Mirabeau turned on the King's representative and in his thundering voice declaimed the famous speech, which he had doubtless prepared the night before. "We are here," he concluded, "by the will of the people, and we {59} will only quit at the point of the bayonet." At this de Breze withdrew and reported to the King for orders. But Louis had done enough for one day, and the only conclusion he could come to was that if the deputies refused to leave the hall, the best course would be for them to remain there. And there in fact they stayed.

Immediately after this scene Necker sent in his resignation. On the morning of the 24th, this was known in Paris, and produced consternation and a run on the banks. To reassure the public, Necker was immediately reinstated, on the basis that Louis should accept, as now seemed inevitable, the fusion of the orders. On the 25th, a large group of nobles headed by the Duc d'Orleans and the Comte de Clermont Tonnerre joined the assembly, and a week later the Assemblee Nationale was fully constituted, the three orders merged into one.

During the two months through which this great constitutional struggle had lasted, the assembly had had a great moral force behind it, a moral force that was fast tending to become something more. The winter of 1788-89 had been one of the most severe of the century. There had been not only the almost chronic shortage of bread, but weather of {60} extraordinary rigour. In the city of Paris the Seine is reported to have been frozen solid, while the suffering among its inhabitants was unparalleled. As an inevitable consequence of this riots broke out. In January there had been food riots in many parts of France that taxed severely the military resources of the Government. They continued during the electoral period, and were occasionally accompanied by great violence. And when the deputies assembled at Versailles there was behind them a great popular force, already half unloosed, that looked to the States-General for appeasement or for guidance.

The procedure which the Third Estate and National Assembly stumbled into, gave this popular force an opportunity for expressing itself. The public was admitted to the opening session, and it continued to come to those that followed. From the public galleries came the loudest sounds of applause that greeted the patriotic orator. The Parisian public quickly fell into the way of making the journey to Versailles to join in these demonstrations, and soon transferred them from the hall of the assembly to the street outside. Mirabeau, Sieyes, Mounier, and other popular members were constantly receiving ovations—and soon learnt to {61} convert them into political weapons; while members who were suspected of reactionary tendencies, especially the higher clergy, met with hostile receptions. And all this, well known both to Court and assembly, was but a faint echo of the great force rumbling steadily twelve miles away in the city of Paris.

The leaders of the assembly did not scruple to use this pressure of public opinion, of popular violence, for all it was worth. And placed as they were it was not surprising that they should have done so. The deputies were only a small group of men in the great royal city garrisoned with all the traditions of the French royalty and 5,000 sabres and bayonets besides. It was natural that they should seek support then, even if that support meant violence, lawlessness or insurrection.

Thus Paris encouraged the assembly, and the assembly Paris. The ferment in the capital was reaching fever-heat just at the moment that the assembly had won its victory over the orders. The working classes were raging for food, the bankers, capitalists and merchants saw in the States-General the only hope of avoiding bankruptcy, the intellectual and professional class was more agitated than any other. The cafes and pamphlet shops of the {62} Palais Royal were daily more crowded, more excited. And on the 30th of June the army itself began to show symptoms of following the general movement.

The regiment of French guards was a body of soldiers kept permanently quartered in the capital. The men were, therefore, in closer touch with the population than would be the case in ordinary regiments. Their commanding officer at this moment was not only an aristocrat but a martinet, and he completely failed to keep his regiment in hand. Trouble had long been brewing in the ranks and culminated in mutiny and riot at the close of June. Making the most of the state of Paris many of the mutinous guardsmen took their liberty and refused to return to barracks. Clearly what between the accomplished revolt of the Third Estate, the incipient revolt of Paris, and the open mutiny of the troops, something had to be done.

Necker's return to the Ministry had been imposed on the Court, and although his policy of accepting the fusion of the orders was followed, his influence really amounted to little. The Queen and the Comte d'Artois soon plucked up courage after their first defeat, and took up once more the policy of repression; but {63} as it was now apparently useless to attempt to stem the tide by means of speeches or decrees, they persuaded the King that force was the only means. By using the army he could get rid of Necker, get rid of the National Assembly, and reduce Paris to order.

Accordingly the Marshal de Broglie, a veteran of the Seven Years' War, was put in charge of military matters, and an old Swiss officer, the Baron de Besenval, was placed in immediate command of the troops. Regiments were brought in from various quarters, and by the end of the first week of July the Court's measures were developing so fast, and appeared so dangerous, that the assembly passed a vote asking the King to withdraw the troops and to authorize the formation of a civic guard in Paris. The King's answer, delivered on the 10th, was negative and peremptory; his troops were to be employed to put down disorder.

At this crisis the action of the assembly and of Paris became more definitely concerted. The government of the city had been in the hands of a somewhat antiquated board presided over by a provost of the merchants. It was too much out of touch with the existing movement to have any influence, and felt its impotence so keenly that it would willingly {64} have resigned its power. At the time of the elections to the States-General the Government had broken up Paris into sixty electoral districts for the sake of avoiding the possibility of large meetings. These sections, as they were called, had formed committees, and these committees, towards the middle of June, had been coming together again informally and tending towards permanence. On the 23rd of that month, with disorder growing in the city, they had held a joint meeting at the Hotel de Ville, the town house, and the municipality had given them a permanent room there, hoping that their influence would help keep disorder under.

When, on the 11th, the news reached Paris that Louis had refused the assembly's demand for the withdrawal of the troops, the central committee of the sections took matters into its hands and voted the formation of a civic guard for the city of Paris. On the same day the King, now ready to precipitate the crisis, dismissed and exiled Necker, and called the reactionary Breteuil to power. On the 12th, Paris broke out into open insurrection.

It was Camille Desmoulins who set the torch to the powder. This young lawyer and pamphleteer, a brilliant writer, a generous {65} idealist, almost the only reasoned republican in Paris at that day, was one of the most popular figures in the Palais Royal crowds. On the 12th of July, standing on a cafe table, he announced the news of the dismissal of Necker, the movement of the troops on Paris, and with passion and eloquence declaimed against the Government and called on all good citizens to take up arms. He headed a great procession from the Palais Royal to the Hotel de Ville.

The move on the Hotel de Ville had for its object to procure arms. The committee of the sections had voted a civic guard, but a civic guard to act required muskets. The troops of Besenval were now pressing in on the city, and had nearly encircled it. In a few hours Paris, always hungry, might be reduced to famine, and the troops might be pouring volleys down the streets. The soldiers of the French guards, siding with the people, were already skirmishing with the Germans of the King's regiments, for the army operating against Paris was more foreign than French, and the Swiss and German regiments were placed at the head of the columns for fear the French soldiers would not fire on the citizens. Royal-Etranger, Reinach, Nassau, Esterhazy, Royal-Allemand, Royal-Cravate, Diesbach, such were some of {66} the names of the regiments sent by Louis XVI to persuade his good people of Paris into submission. No wonder that the crowd shouted when Desmoulins told them that the Germans would sack Paris that night if they did not defend themselves.

On the night of the 12th to the 13th, Paris was in an uproar. Royalist writers tell us that gunshops were plundered by the mob, republican writers that the owners of guns voluntarily distributed them. Besenval, lacking instructions from Broglie, and hesitating at what faced him, had done little or nothing; but Paris intended to be ready for him if he should act on the following day.

On the 13th, the disorder and excitement continued. The committee at the Hotel de Ville took in hand the formation of battalions for each section of the city; while Besenval still remained almost inactive at the gates. On the 14th the insurrection culminated, and won what proved to be a decisive victory.

At the east end of Paris stood the Bastille. It was a mediaeval dungeon of formidable aspect, armed with many cannon and dominating the outlet from the populous faubourg St. Antoine to the country beyond—one of the mouths of famishing Paris. It contained a great store {67} of gunpowder and a garrison of about 100 Swiss and veterans. The fortress had an evil reputation as a state prison. Although in July, 1789 its cells were nearly all unoccupied, popular legend would have it that numerous victims of royal despotism, arbitrarily imprisoned, lay within its walls. So it was a symbol of the royal authority within Paris, a threat, or reckoned so, to the faubourg St. Antoine and the free movement of food supplies from the east side of the city, a store of guns and ammunition. For all these reasons the mob, undisturbed by Besenval, turned to attack it.

The first effort was in vain. Although the garrison of the Bastille, except its commander, the Marquis de Launay, was disinclined to fire on the mob, and was so short of provisions that resistance was useless, the attackers succeeded in little more than getting possession of some of the outbuildings of the fortress. The musketry which the Governor directed from the keep proved more than the mob cared to face. But the first wave of attack was soon reinforced by another. From the French regiments of Besenval's army a steady stream of deserters was now setting into Paris through every gate. A number of these soldiers and of the men of the regiment of the French guards {68} were drawn to the Bastille by the sound of the firing and now took up the attack with system and vigour. Elie, a non-commissioned officer of the Queen's regiment, gave orders, supported by Hullin, Marceau, and others; two small pieces of cannon were brought up, the soldiers and some few citizens formed elbow to elbow, the guns were wheeled opposite the great drawbridge in the face of the musketry, and at that the Bastille gave up. De Launay made an attempt to explode his magazine, but was stopped by his men. The white flag was displayed, the drawbridge was let down, and the besiegers poured in.

Great disorder followed. De Launay and one of his officers were massacred despite the efforts of Elie and the soldiers. The uproar of Paris was intensified by the victory. At the opposite side of the city there had been another success; the Invalides had been taken and with it 30,000 muskets. With these the civic guard was rapidly being armed, under the direction of the committee of the sections. The Hotel de Ville was the centre of excitement, and the provost of the merchants, having lost all authority, was anxious to surrender his power to the new insurrectional government. Late in the evening he too was sacrificed to {69} the violence of the mob, and, drawn from the Hotel de Ville, was quickly massacred by the worst and most excitable elements of the populace.




The effect of the insurrection of Paris was immediate. Besenval, lacking instructions and intimidated by the violence of the rising, held his troops back; while Louis, shrinking from violence as he always did, and alarmed at the desertion in the army, decided to bow before the storm. He had nerved himself to a definite and resolute policy, but the instant that policy had come to the logical proof of blood-letting, he had fallen away; his kindliness, his incapacity for action, had asserted themselves strongly.

Necker was once more recalled, and once more weakly lent himself to what was rapidly becoming a farcical procedure. The King, without ceremony, presented himself to the National Assembly and announced that in view of the events of the day before he had recalled his minister, and ordered Besenval's troops to be withdrawn. The assembly manifested its satisfaction, and sent a deputation headed by {71} Bailly to communicate this good news to Paris. And on the same day began the first movement of emigration of the defeated courtier caste, headed by the Comte d'Artois and de Breteuil.

The deputation from the assembly presently reached Paris, and was received by the committee of the sections at the Hotel de Ville. There followed congratulation, speech-making, disorder, and excitement; and out of it the insurrection evolved a political head and a military leader, Bailly and La Fayette.

Bailly was proposed and acclaimed as Mayor of Paris. This office was new, and therefore revolutionary, but as the provost of the merchants had clearly gone for all time, it was necessary to find something to replace him, and what could be better than this? The new mayor had as qualifications for his office two facts only: he was the senior deputy of the city to the National Assembly; he possessed an unquenchable supply of civic and complimentary eloquence. Behind this figurehead the sections soon built up a new municipality or town council made up of delegates from the sections, and that varied in numbers at different times.

Paris also required a military leader, and for that post the name of the Marquis de La Fayette was acclaimed. La Fayette is a {72} personage easy to praise or to blame, but not to estimate justly. At this moment he enjoyed all the prestige of his brilliant connection with the cause of American independence ten years before, and of his constancy to the idea of liberty. His enemies, and they were many in Court circles, could detect easily enough the vanity that entered into his composition, but neither they nor his friends could recognise or appreciate in him that truest liberalism of all which is toleration. La Fayette had already learned the lesson it took France a century to learn, that liberty implies freedom of opinion for others, and that reasonable compromise is the true basis of constructive politics. When later he appeared to swerve, or to contradict himself, it was often enough merely because he felt the scruples of a true devotee of liberty, against imposing a policy. For the moment he had become a popular idol, the generous, brave, high-minded young knight, champion of the popular cause. He was to command the civic guards of the city of Paris, 40,000 armed citizens, the national guards as they became owing to the rest of France following the example of Paris. His first act was to give them a cockade, by adding the King's white to the city's red and blue, thus forming {73} the same tricolour that he had already fought under in another struggle for liberty ten years before.

The King's withdrawal of the troops implied a policy of conciliation, and he was therefore unable to resist the demand that he should demonstrate his acceptance of the events of Paris by a formal visit to the city. Reluctant, and half expecting violence, he made his entry on the 17th between lines of armed citizens representing every class of his Parisian subjects, and proceeded to the Hotel de Ville. It was an occasion on which a little kingly grace or a little kingly boldness, which so many of his ancestors commanded, might have fired the flame of pent-up popular emotion. But there was nothing of this sort to be found in the apathetic Louis. Bailly's stores of oratory had to be drawn on freely for what the King found himself unable to supply, and the honours of the day, which he might so easily have had, were heaped instead on the dashing La Fayette. As it was, Louis returned safely to Versailles, having met with a not unfriendly reception, but having failed to adjust himself to the new situation, which was what he was bound to attempt, having once abandoned the policy of repression by force.

{74} The uproar of the 14th of July could not be suddenly changed to a calm, whatever Louis XVI, La Fayette and Bailly might do. Grave disorders broke out in many parts of France, and scenes of violence continued in Paris. On the 20th, Count Lally moved a resolution for the repression of the excesses that were being committed, but the assembly, with no sense of responsibility for the conduct of affairs,—directly interested, on the contrary, in weakening the executive,—defeated it. In Paris, these scenes culminated on the 23rd, when Foulon, who had been Controleur des Finances, was brought in to the city from his country estate, where he had been seized. Foulon represented all that was worst in the old regime. As commissary with the French armies and later in the internal administration of the country, he had displayed the most heartless rapacity. His attitude towards the lower classes was echoed in utterances that were popularly quoted. The people, he declared, might feed on hay while he was minister;—the people had now got him in their clutches. In vain Bailly and Lafayette, during a long agony at the Hotel de Ville, attempted to save him; the mob would not be denied. Finally Foulon was seized; he was strung up to a street lantern, and later his {75} head, the mouth stuffed full of hay and nettles, was paraded in triumph through the streets.

While such scenes were being enacted in Paris, and while all through France the large class of poor and criminals created by Bourbonism was committing even worse excesses, the assembly was addressing itself to the task of regenerating France by endowing her with a constitution. This task appeared comparatively simple and was taken up with a light heart; it was only by degrees that the assembly discovered the difficulties in the way, and it proved to be only after two years of hard labour that it could get its constitution accomplished. And even then it proved almost useless.

The Constitution may be left for the present, to be considered when, in 1791, it became operative. The general trend of the assembly, however, was to dissociate itself from practical concerns of government, to interest itself in the theories of politics, and both in its attitude toward the events of the day, and in its constitutional policy, to weaken the executive. The executive and the Bourbon regime were synonymous, and so the men of the National Assembly, with no responsibility as it seemed for the good government of France, {76} tried hard, at the moment when a vigorous and able executive was more than necessary, to pull down the feeble one that existed. It was the Nemesis that Bourbonism had brought on itself.

In the midst of these debates the practical question of disorder thrust itself forward once more in very insistent form, and with very remarkable results, on the night of the 4th of August. In parts of France the excitement had taken the form of a regular Jacquerie in which the isolated country houses and families of the aristocracy had suffered most. Details were accumulating and a terrible picture was unfolded before the assembly that night. How was the evil to be dealt with?

It was the injured themselves who indicated the remedy, at their own personal sacrifice. The nobles of the assembly, led by Noailles, d'Aiguillon, Beauharnais, Lameth, La Rochefoucauld, declared that if the people had attacked the property of the nobles, it was because that property represented the iniquities of feudalism, that the fault lay there, and that the remedy was not to repress the people but to suppress the institution. They therefore proposed to the Assembly that instead of issuing proclamations calling on the people to {77} restore order, it should vote decrees for the abolition of feudalism.

And so feudalism, or what passed by the name, went by the board amid scenes of wild enthusiasm. All the seigneurial rights accumulated during a thousand years by the dominant military caste, the right of justice, the privilege of commanding armies, the hunting privileges, the warren, the dovecot, serfage, were sacrificed on the altar of patriotic regeneration. The burden of the centuries was suddenly lifted from the shoulders of Jacques Bonhomme.

The men who proposed this surrender of their rights, who had already, by joining the Tiers, done so much to accomplish the great social revolution, deserve greater consideration as a class than history has, as a rule, meted out to them. The French nobility at the close of the 18th century counted in its ranks a great number of admirable men, admirable for loyalty, for intellectuality, for generosity. It is true that the most conspicuous, those who made up the Court, or who secured the lucrative appointments, had caught the plague of Versailles, and that even, in the provincial nobility there was much copying of the fashion of the courtiers. But there were other {78} representatives of the order. Most conspicuous was that large class of liberal nobles who played so great a part in the early days of the Revolution. The ten deputies elected by the nobility of Paris to the States-General all belonged to that category: grave, educated men, writers and thinkers, versed in questions of politics, economics, religion and education, experienced in many details of practical government, soldiers and local administrators, penetrated with the thought of a protesting and humanitarian age. Some, like La Fayette, had played conspicuous roles, and proved revolution in the making; others, like La Rochefoucauld, had mastered every intricacy of political and philanthropic thought; and some, like Condorcet, had proved themselves among the masters of science of their time. Counts, marquises, dukes, they were prepared to lay all aside in the overwhelming demand which suffering humanity made for release from all its troubles. And alongside of these, more loyal to their King if less loyal to humanity, no less admirable if lagging a little in knowledge and development, were those hundreds of country gentlemen, many of them poor, who, when the day of adversity came, rallied to their sovereigns, faced the guillotine for them, or laid down their lives {79} following the fearless standard of Henri de La Rochejacquelein. The position of the French nobility, and the part it played, has been too much forgotten. Its most intelligent section nearly led the Revolution, which later fell into the hands of lawyers and theorists, then of demagogues, and lastly of soldiers.

What has just been said does not imply that the action of the National Assembly on the night of the 4th of August was altogether admirable. The example of the nobles was infectious. A consuming fervour of self-sacrifice seized every member of the house. Archbishops, bishops and abbots rushed to the tribune and offered all they could. Tithes, pluralities, and every sort of ecclesiastical privilege were sacrificed. The unprivileged class attempted desperately, but in vain, to hold its own in the contest, and could find nothing more to surrender than some of the special privileges and franchises attached to certain provinces and cities of the kingdom.

Now all this was generous and admirable,—it forms one of the most generous and admirable pages in history. It was even more. It was the emphatic and right declaration that privilege and class distinction was the root of all the evils of the old system and had been {80} condemned by the French nation. But it had none of the qualities of practical statesmanship. It did not tend to decrease disorder but the contrary; and for the moment, with reform advancing so prosperously, order was the first consideration. The effects of the decrees were disastrous and intensified the bad conditions of the country. The woodlands were immediately invaded by armies of timber and fuel cutters. Game was killed off. The poor country priest found his salary gone. The gabelle itself was disregarded. Local justice came to an end. And so the Government, with all its extra load, found the already failing revenue almost entirely cut off. The peasants and people of France interpreted the decrees after their fashion, refused to pay taxes and abused the surrendered privileges.

Through August and September the assembly continued its constitutional debates, one of the three actors in this great political tragedy; the other two, Paris and King Louis, watched its proceedings with growing impatience. Uneasy at the increasing unrest of the capital, at the now popular cry that the King ought to reside in Paris, and at the constitutional demands which the assembly was gradually formulating and accumulating, Louis decided to bring {81} some troops into Versailles for his protection, this duty being assigned to the regiment of Flanders. This was a small enough matter when compared with the formidable preparations of de Broglie and Besenval three months before, yet it served the purpose of immediately crystallizing two opposite currents of opinion.

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