June 21, 1791 — Royalist plot — Flight to Varennes — Drouet pursues King — Decision of people — Effect of this decision — France without a King — Middle classes recant — Causes of their reaction — King declared re-established — Massacre of republicans — Danton escapes to England — Robert, Marat and Féron go into hiding — Electoral rights of people further restricted — King takes oath to Constitution — Constituent Assembly dissolved — Legislative Assembly obtains power — Views of Marat and Desmoulins — Reaction continues — Treason in the air
The Great Revolution is full of events, tragic in the highest degree. The taking of the Bastille, the march of the women on Versailles, the attack on the Tuileries, the execution of the King, have resounded all over the world — we were taught the dates of them in our childhood. However, there are also other dates, which are often forgotten, but have an equally great significance, as they sum up the meaning of the Revolution at a given moment, and its further progress.
Thus, as regards the downfall of monarchy, the most significant moment of the Revolution — the moment that most clearly sums up its first part and gives, moreover, to all its further progress a certain popular character — is June 21, 1791: that memorable night when some obscure men of the people arrested the fugitive King and his family at Varennes, just as they were about to cross the frontier and to throw themselves into the arms of the foreigner. On that night royalty was wrecked in France. And from that night the people entered upon the scene, thrusting the politicians into the background.
The episode is well known. A plot had been formed in Paris to enable the King to escape, and to get him across the frontier, where he was to put himself at the head of the émigrés and the German armies. The Court had been concocting this plot since September 1789, and it appears that Lafayette was aware of it.
That royalists should have seen in this escape the means placing the King in safety, and of crushing the Revolution at the same time, was but natural. But many of the revolutionists among the middle classes also favoured the plan: once the Bourbons were out of France, they thought, Philippe, Duke of Orléans, would be put on the throne and he could be made to grant a middle-class Constitution, without having any need of assistance from the always dangerous popular risings.
The people frustrated this plot.
An unknown man, Drouet, ex-postmaster, recognised the King as he passed through a village. But the royal carriage was already off at full speed. Losing no time, Drouet and one of his friends, Guillaume, set off at once, in the dark, in hot pursuit after the carriage. The forests along the road were, they knew, scoured by hussars who had come to meet the royal fugitives at Pont-de-Somme-Vesle, but not seeing the carriage and fearing the hostility of the people had retreated into the woods. Drouet and Guillaume managed, however, to avoid these patrols by following paths known to themselves, but did not overtake the royal carriage until Varennes, where an unexpected delay had detained it — the relay of horses and the hussars not having been met at the exact place which had been appointed. There, Drouet, getting a little ahead, had just time to run to the house of a friendly innkeeper. “You are a good patriot, are you? “I should think so!” “Very well then, let us arrest the King.”
Then, without making any noise, they blocked, first of all, the road for the heavy royal carriage, by placing across the bridge over the Aire a cart laden with furniture, which they found there by chance. After that, followed by four or fivecitizens armed with muskets, they stopped the fugitives, just as their carriage, coming down from the upper town towards the bridge, was passing under the archway of the church of Saint Gencoult.
Drouet and his friends made the travellers alight despite their protestations and, while waiting for the municipality to verify their passports, made them go into the back-parlour of Sauce, the grocer. There, the King, being openly recognised by a judge residing at Varennes, was compelled to abandon, his character of servant to “Madame Korff” (the passport obtained for the Queen from the Russian ambassador bore that name) and with his usual duplicity began to plea plead the” dangers to which his family was exposed in Paris from the Duke of Orléans, to excuse his flight.
But the people of Varennes were in no wise deceived. They understood at once the King's stratagems. The tocsin was rung, and the alarm rapidly spread in the night from Varennes, all round to the country villages, whence there came flocking on every side peasants armed with hay-forks and sticks. They guarded the King until day broke, two peasants, hay-fork in hand, acting as sentinels.
Thousands upon thousands of peasants from the neighbouringing villages flocked now on the road leading from Varennes to Paris, and these crowds entirely paralysed the hussars and dragoons of Bouillé, in whom the King had put his trust for escape. At Sainte-Menehould the tocsin was rung immediately after the departure of the royal carriage; and it was the same at Clermont-en-Argonne. At Sainte-Menehould the people even disarmed the dragoons, who had come to form an escort for the King, and then fraternised with them. At Varennes the sixty German hussars, under the command of sub-lieutenant Rohrig, who had come to escort the King until he would be met by Bouillé, and who had posted themselves in the lower town on the other side of the Aire, scarcely showed themselves. Their officer disappeared without any one ever knowing what had become of him, and the men, after drinking all day with the inhabitants, who did not abuse them, but won them over to their cause in a brotherly way, took no further interest in the King. They were soon shouting “Vive la Nation!” as they drank, while the whole town, roused by the tocsin, was crowding into the neighbourhood of Sauce's shop.
The approaches to Varennes were barricaded to prevent Bouillé's uhlans' from entering the town. And as soon as day dawned, the cry of the crowd was “To Paris! To Paris!”
These cries became even more menacing, when, about ten o'clock in the morning, the two commissioners — despatched on the morning of the 21st, one by Lafayette and the other by the Assembly, to stop the King and his family — arrived at Varennes. “Let them set out. They must set out. We shall drag them into the carriage by force!” shouted the peasants, growing furious when they saw Louis XVI trying to gain time in expectation of the arrival of Bouillé and his uhlans. The King and his family had to obey, and after having destroyed the compromising papers which they carried with them in the carriage, they saw that there was nothing left to do but begin their return to Paris.
The people took them back to Paris as prisoners. All was over with royalty. It was covered with opprobrium.
On July 14, 1789, royalty had lost its fortress, but it had retained its moral force, its prestige. Three months later, on October 6, the King became the hostage of the Revolution, but the monarchical principle was still firm. Louis XVI, around whom the propertied classes had rallied, was still powerful. The Jacobins themselves dared not attack him.
But on that night, when the King, disguised as a servant, passed the night in the back-parlour of a village grocer, elbowed by “patriots” and lighted by a candle stuck in a lantern — that night when the tocsin was rung to prevent the King from betraying the nation, and the peasant crowds brought him back as prisoner to the people of Paris — that night royalty was wrecked for ever. The King, who had been in olden times the symbol of national unity, lost now his right to be so regarded by becoming the symbol of an international union of tyrants against the peoples. All the throngs of Europe felt the shock.
Moreover, on that same night, the people entered the political arena, to force the hand of the political leaders. The expostmaster Drouet, who, on his own initiative, stopped the King and thus frustrated the deep-laid plots of politicians; this villager, who, obeying his own impulse at dead of night, urged his horse and made him gallop over hills and dales in pursuit of the secular traitor — the King — is a symbol of the people who from that day, at every critical juncture of the Revolution, took the lead and dominated the politician.
The invasion of the Tuileries by the people on June 20, 1792, the march of the faubourgs of Paris against the Tuileries on August 10, 1792, the dethronement of Louis XVI. with all its consequences — all these great events were to follow each other now, as a historic necessity.
The King's intention, when he tried to escape, was to put himself at the head of the army commanded by Bouillé, and supported by a German army, to march on Paris. Once the capital should be reconquered, we know exactly what the royalists intended to do. They were going to arrest all the “patriots”; the proscription lists were already drawn up. Some of them would have been executed, and the others deported or imprisoned. All the decrees voted by the Assembly for the establishment of the Constitution or against the clergy were going to be abolished; the ancient régime, with its orders and its classes, was to be re-established; the mailed fist would have been re-introduced, and, by means of summary executions, the tithes, the feudal laws, the game laws, and all the feudal rights of the old régime would have been reinstituted.
Such was the plan of the royalists; they did not trouble tp conceal it. “Just wait, you gentlemen patriots,” said they, to whoever would listen to them, “soon you will pay for your crimes.”
The people, as we have said, frustrated this plan. The King, arrested at Varennes, was brought back to Paris and placed under the guardianship of the patriots of the faubourgs.
One might think that now was the time for the Revolution to pursue its logical development with giant strides. The King's treachery having been proved, were they not going to proclaim his dethronement, overthrow the old feudal institutions and inaugurate the democratic republic?
But nothing of the sort happened. On the contrary, it was reaction that triumphed definitely a few weeks after the King's flight to Varennes, and the middle classes handed over to royalty a new patent of immunity.
The people had grasped at once the situation. It was evident that the King could not be left on the throne. Reinstated in his palace, would he not resume all the more actively the web of his conspiracies and plots with Austria and Prussia? Since he had been prevented from leaving France, he would doubtless the more zealously hasten the foreign invasion. This was obvious, the more so as he had learned nothing by his Varennes adventure. He continued to refuse his signature to the decrees directed against the clergy, and the prerogatives of the nobles. Evidently the only possible solution was to declare his dethronement without further delay.
This is how the people of Paris and a large part of the provinces understood the situation. At Paris they began, the day after June 21, to demolish the busts of Louis XVI. and to efface the royal inscriptions. The crowd rushed into the Tuileries, openly inveighing against royalty and demanding the dethronement. When the Duke of Orléans took his drive through the streets of Paris, with a smile on his lips, believing as he did that he would pick up a crown there, people turned their backs on him: they did not want any King. The Cordeliers openly demanded the republic and signed an address in which they declared themselves to be all against the King — all “tyrannicides.” The municipal body of Paris issued similar declaration. The sections of Paris proclaimed their permanence; the woollen caps and the men with pikes reappeared in the streets; every one felt that it was the eve of another July 14. The people of Paris were, in fact, ready to rise for the definite overthrow of royalty.
The National Assembly, under the pressure of the popular movement, went ahead: they acted as if there was no longer a King. Had he not, in effect, abdicated by his flight? They seized the executive power, gave orders to the ministers and took over the diplomatic correspondence. For about a fortnight France existed without any King.
But then the middle classes suddenly changed their mind; they recanted, and set themselves in open opposition to the republican movement. The attitude of the Assembly changed, in the same way. While all the popular and fraternal societies declared themselves in favour of dethronement, the Jacobin Club, composed of the middle-class statists, repudiated the idea of a republic, and declared for the maintenance of a constitutional monarchy. “The word republic frightened the haughty Jacobins,” said Réal from the platform of their club. The most advanced among them, including Robespierre, were afraid of compromising themselves: they did not dare to declare for dethronement, they said it was calumny when they were called republicans.
The Assembly which were so decidedly anti-royalist on June 22, now suddenly reversed their decisions, and on July 15 they published in great haste a decree which declared the King to be blameless and pronounced against his dethronement, and therefore against the republic. Thenceforth, to demand a republic became a crime.
What had happened during those twenty days that the leaders should have tacked so suddenly and formed the resolution of keeping Louis XVI. on the throne? Had he shown any signs of repentance? Had he given any pledges of submission to the Constitution? No, nothing of the kind! The explanation lies in the fact that the middle-class leaders had again seen the spectre which had haunted them since July 14 and October 6, 1789: the rising of the people! The men with the pikes were out in the streets and the provinces seemed ready to rise, as in the month of August 1789. Thousands of peasants were hastening from their villages, at the sound of the tocsin, on the road to Paris, and bringing the King back to the capital; the mere sight of this had given them a shock. And now they saw the people of Paris ready to rise, arming themselves and demanding that the Revolution should go on: asking for the republic, for the abolition of the feudal laws, for equality pure and simple. The agrarian law, the bread tax, the tax upon the rich, were they not going to become realities?
No, rather the traitor King, the invasion of the foreigner, than the success of the popular Revolution.
This is why the Assembly hastened to make an end of all republican agitation, in hurrying through, on July 15, the decree which exculpated the King, re-established him on the throne, and declared all those who wished to push forward the Revolution to be criminals.
Whereupon the Jacobins, those pretended leaders of the Revolution, after one day of hesitation, abandoned the republicans, who were proposing to get up a huge popular demonstration against royalty, on July 17, in the Champ-de-Mars. And then, the middle-class counter-revolutionists, sure of their position, assembled their National Guard commanded by Lafayette, and brought them up against the masses as they assembled, unarmed, in the Champ-de-Mars, round the “altar of the fatherland,” to sign a republican petition. The red flag was unfurled, martial law proclaimed, and the people, the republicans, were massacred.
From that time began a period of open reaction, which went on increasing until the spring of 1792.
The republicans, authors of the Champ-de-Mars petition which demanded the dethronement of the King, were fiercely persecuted. Danton had to cross over to England (August 1791), Robert, a declared republican and editor of the Révolution de Paris, Fréron, and above all Marat, had to go into hiding.
Profiting by this period of terror, the middle classes took, care to limit further the electoral rights of the people. Henceforth, to be an elector, besides paying in direct contributions ten days' labour, a man had to possess, either as owner, or in usufruct, property valued at 150 to 200 days' work, or to hold as a farmer property valued at 400 days' labour. The peasants, as we see, were deprived absolutely of all political rights.
After July 17, 1791, it became dangerous to call oneself or, to be called a republican, and soon some of the revolutionists, who had “nothing to lose and everything to gain from disorder and anarchy,” themselves began to treat as “depraved men” those who asked for a republic instead of a king.
By degrees the middle classes became still bolder, and it was in the middle of a pronounced royalist movement, to the accompaniment of enthusiastic cheers for the King and Queen from the Paris middle classes, that the King came on September 14, 1791, before the Assembly to accept and solemnly swear fealty to the Constitution which he betrayed the same day.
Fifteen days later, the Constituent Assembly dissolved, and this was made another occasion for the constitutionalists to renew their manifestations of loyalty in honour of Louis XVI. The Government then passed into the hands of the Legislative Assembly, elected on a restricted suffrage, and clearly even more middle class than the Constituent Assembly had been.
And still the reaction grew. Towards the end of 1791 the best revolutionists completely despaired of the Revolution. Marat believed all was lost. “The Revolution,” he wrote in his Ami du peuple, “has failed. . . .” He demanded that in appeal should be made to the people, but the politicians did not listen to him. “It was a handful of poor folk,” he said in his journal, on July 21, “who knocked down the walls of the Bastille. Only set them to work, and they will prove themselves as they did that first day; they ask nothing better than to fight against their tyrants; but then they were free to act, now they are chained.” Chained by the leaders, be it understood. “The patriots dare not show themselves,” says Marat again on October 15, 1791, “and the enemies of liberty fill the galleries of the Senate-house, and are seen everywhere.”
Similar words of despair were uttered by Camille Desmoulins at the Jacobin Club, on October 24, 1791. The “reactionaries have turned,” he said, “the popular movement of July and August 1789, to their advantage. The Court favourites talk to-day about the sovereignty of the people and the rights of man, of equality among the citizens, to deceive the people, and they parade in the uniform of the National Guard to seize or even buy the posts of leaders. Around them gather the tools of the throne. The aristocratic devils have displayed an infernal cleverness.”
Prudhomme said openly that the nation was betrayed by its representatives; the army by its chiefs.
But Prudhomme and Desmoulins could at least show themselves, while a popular revolutionist, such as Marat, had to hide himself for several months, not knowing sometimes where to find a shelter for the night. It has been well said of him that he pleaded the cause of the people with his head upon the block. Danton, on the point of being arrested, had gone to London.
The Queen herself, in her correspondence with Férsen, by whose intermediary she arranged for invasion and prepared for the entry of the German armies into the capital, bore witness to “a marked change in Paris.” “The people,” she said, “no longer read the papers.” “They are only interested in the dearness of bread and the decrees,” she wrote on October 31, 1791.
The dearness of bread — and the decrees! Bread, so that they might live and carry on the Revolution, for bread was scarce already in October! And the decrees against the priests and the émirgrés, which the King refused to sanction!
Treason was everywhere, and we know now that at that very time — at the close of 1791, Dumouriez, the Girondist General who commanded the armies in the East of France. Was already plotting with the King. He was drawing up for Louis a secret memorandum on the means for checking the Revolution, this memorandum was found after the taking of the Tuileries in the iron safe of Louis XVI.