Monday, 25 January 2016

1789: year of revolution

By the beginning of July 1789 many contemporary observers, such as the Briton Arthur Young, thought that the French Revolution had come to an end. The king had been forced to concede to the demands of the Third Estate and the nobles had given up their tax privileges.  The National Constituent Assembly had been charged with the task of drawing up a new constitution. In reality, however, there were many problems ahead.

  1. There was widespread mistrust of the king – would he use the armed forces to overthrow the Revolution?
  2. The poor harvest of 1788 meant that France, in particular, the urban areas, was faced with severe food shortages.
  3. Both in Paris and the countryside a range of economic and political grievances that had not been addressed.

The fall of the Bastille

'Camille Desmoulins',
Musée Carnavalet" by Unknown (French school) -
Licensed under Public domain
via Wikimedia Commons

The king was determined to fight back against the reforms. On 26 June four regiments were ordered from the frontiers to the Paris region and by 1 July 20,000 troops had been ordered to Paris. It was clear that they were intended to intimidate the Parisians. On 8 July Louis ignored an Assembly motion for the  soldiers to be withdrawn. 

The queen and the count of Artois were determined to get rid of Necker and they achieved their aim on Saturday 11 July when the king dismissed him, replacing him with a much more reactionary minister. When the news reached Paris the following day, the young lawyer Camille Desmoulins leapt onto a table outside the Cafe du Foy (one of many cafés in the garden of the Palais Royal frequented in large part by political dissidents) and delivered an impassioned call to arms. The immediate result was a demonstration of 5,000 to 6,000 people. In response the crowd put on green cockades then marched into the city in search of arms. 

'Prise de la Bastille'  by Jean-Pierre Houël (1735-1813) 
Bibliothèque nationale de France.
Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons  
Disorder continued throughout Monday and on Tuesday 14 July, insurgents ransacked Paris for arms. They first attacked the Invalides, seizing cannon and muskets. However as they lacked sufficient powder for the cannon they moved on to the ancient fortress of the Bastille, notorious in the popular imagination as the place were innumerable prisoners were incarcerated in dreadful conditions. Aided by the gardes-françaises, the infantry regiment of the royal household, the crowd stormed the weakly defended building, set fire to it and released all seven prisoners. The governor, the Marquis de Launay, and the chief magistrate of Paris, Jacques de Flesselles  were hacked to pieces and their heads were paraded through the streets on pikes.

Once again the king had lost the initiative. On 15 July he ordered
troops to withdraw from Paris and Versailles. On the same day the electors of Paris set up a communal committee, the ‘Paris Commune’ as an alternative government, with its own militia, the National Guard, under the command of revered general, Lafayette. On 16 July Necker was reinstated. On 17 July the king visited Paris and donned the new revolutionary cockade of red, white and blue.

The ‘Great Fear’

At the end of July rural France erupted into disorder.  Peasants sought out grain hoards, attacked châteaux, set fire to them and made bonfires of feudal documents. On the night of 4 August the National Assembly tried to stem the chaos by voting to end all feudal privileges, much of the initiative coming from reforming nobles. At a stroke many nobles suffered a huge loss of income and venal office-holding was abolished. On 11 August these resolutions were put into a decree.

The Declaration of the Rights of Man

On 26 August the Assembly voted the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. Encapsulating the themes of the rule of law and popular sovereignty, it became the founding document of the Revolution. 

'Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen in 1789'
by Jean-Jacques-François Le Barbier 
Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Legally, however, the Declaration was still a statement of intent, and the same applied to the declaration of 4 August.  Should the king have the right to veto them? On 11 September the Assembly rejected an absolute veto but allowed a suspensive one. This was the first time the Assembly had rejected popular sentiment,  and it gave Louis his let-out. On 15 September he criticised the degrees and refused to endorse them.

The Bread March of the Women

Louis’ refusal took place against a background of continuing economic hardship. The harvest of 1789 had been good but a dry autumn meant that the mills were immobilised. Food supplies therefore continued to be irregular and as some courtiers began to emigrate, unemployment rose. The political temperature was raised by the publication of newspapers and broadsheets, all criticising the king for his refusal to endorse the decrees. One of the most paranoid and inflammatory of these newspapers was founded by Jean-Paul Marat and was soon renamed L’Ami du Peuple. The parallels with the situation in early July were clear.  All that was needed was the rumour of a plot by the king.

Apprehensive that he might be taken by force to Paris, the king summoned the Flanders Regiment to Versailles on 14 September. It arrived there a week later.  Emboldened by his military protection the king declared that he was prepared to accept some parts of the 11 August decree but not others. On 4 October he voiced reservations about the Declaration of the Rights of Man. By this time Paris was awash with rumours that at a banquet given to the Flanders Regiment on 1 October the national cockade had been trampled underfoot.

On 5 October the tocsin rang throughout Paris and crowds of market-women marched on the Hôtel de Ville. Late in the morning they set off for Versailles, dragging cannon and brandishing weapons. In the early evening about 7,000 of them reached Versailles and invaded the National Assembly calling for bread and the punishment of those who had insulted the national cockade. A delegation called on the king, who was conciliatory and assented to their wishes. 

Later the National Guard arrived and Lafayette formally requested the king to return to Paris with him and take up residence in the Tuileries. The king’s response was equivocal.  Early the next morning a number of Parisians found their way into the palace precincts and were fired on by the royal bodyguards. An enraged
The concealed door
through which the queen
escaped. (My photograph)
mob then poured into the palace and as they approached the queen’s apartments she had to run for her life to the king’s. The royal family then appeared on the balcony and it became clear that the only thing that would satisfy the angry crowd below was the return of the royal family to Paris.

Later that morning the king and his family, accompanied by a procession 60,000 strong, began a nine-hour journey to the capital.  They never returned to Versailles and a British observer noted that once in the Tuileries they were now ‘more like prisoners than Princes’. On 9 October the National Assembly (now renamed the Constitutional Assembly) followed and by November they had set themselves up in the Manège, a converted riding-school. Paris now controlled the Revolution. 

The historian Jules Michelet was to write: 'Men had captured the Bastille, but it was the women who captured the king.'

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