Chapter 30: The Legislative Assembly — Reaction in 1791-1792

Submitted by GrouchoMarxist on April 28, 2012

King and Assembly — Fear of foreign invasion — Feuillants and Girondins — Count d'Artois and Count de Provence — Emigration of nobles — Assembly summon Count de Provence and émirgrés to return — Declaration of war against Austria — Fall of royalist Ministry — Girondins in power — Was war necessary? — Equalisation of wealth — Socialistic ideas of people — Mayor of Etampes killed by peasants — Robespierre and agrarian law — Middle classes rally round royalty — Royalist coup d'etat imminent — Lafayette's letter to Assembly

The new National Assembly, elected by active citizens only, which took the name of National Legislative Assembly, met October 1, 1791, and from the first moment, the King, encouraged by the manifestations of the temper of the middle classes who thronged round him, assumed an arrogant attitude it. Now began, just as in the early days of the States-general, series of malicious petty annoyances on the side the Court, with feeble attempts at resistance on the part of the representatives. In spite of this, as soon as the King entered the Assembly, he was received with the most servile, marks of respect and the liveliest marks of enthusiasm. On such occasions Louis XVI. spoke of an enduring harmony and inalienable confidence between the legislative body and the King. “May the love of country unite us, and public interest render us inseparable,” he would say — and at that very time he would be arranging the foreign invasion which as to overawe the constitutionalists and re-establish representaion Three Orders and the privileges of the nobility and clergy.

Generally speaking, since October 1791 — in reality, since the flight of the King and his arrest at Varennes in June, the fear of a foreign invasion obsessed all minds and had become the chief object of consideration. There were, it is true, in the Legislative Assembly two parties: the royalist Right, represented by the Feuillants, and the Left, represented by the Girondins, serving as a half-way house between those of the middle classes who were partly constitutional and those who were partly republican. But neither one nor the other of them took any interest in the great problems bequeathed to them by the Constituent Assembly. Neither the establishing of a republic nor the abolition of the feudal privileges excited the Legislative Assembly. The Jacobins themselves and even the Cordeliers seemed to have agreed not to mention the republic, and it was about questions of secondary importance, such as who should be mayor of Paris, that the passions of the revolutionists and anti-revolutionists came into collision.

The two great questions of the moment concerned the priests and the emigrated nobles. They dominated everything else on account of the attempts at anti-revolutionary risings organised by the priests and the émigrés, and because they were intimately connected with the foreign war, which, every one felt, was close at hand.

The youngest brother of the King, the Count d'Artois, had emigrated, as we know, immediately after July 14, 1789. The other brother, the Count de Provence, had escaped at the same time as Louis XVI., in June 1791, and had succeeded in getting to Brussels. Both of them had protested against the King's acceptance of the Constitution. They declared that the King could not alienate the rights of the ancient monarchy, and that, consequently, his act was null. Their protestation was published by the royalist agents all over France and produced a great effect.

The nobles left their regiments or their chateaux and emigrated en masse, and the royalists threatened those who did not do the same that they would be relegated to the middle class when the nobility returned victorious. The émigrés assembled at Coblentz, Worms and Brussels were openly preparing a counter-revolution which was to be supported by the foreign invasion; and it became more and more evident that the King was playing a double game, for it was impossible not to see that everything done by the emigrant nobles had his assent.

On October 30, 1791, the Legislative Assembly decided to proceed against the King's younger brother, Louis-Stanislas-Xavier, who had received from Louis XVI., at the time of his flight, a decree conferring upon him the title of regent, in case the King should be arrested. The Assembly, therefore, summoned the Count de Provence to return to France within two months; if not, he was to lose his right of regency. A few days later, on November 9, the Assembly ordered also all émigrés to return before the end of the year; if not, they should be treated as conspirators, condemned, sentenced in default, and their revenues should be seized for the profit of the nation — “without prejudice, however, to the rights of their wives, their children and their lawful creditors.”

The King sanctioned the decree concerning his brother, but opposed his “veto” to the second, concerning the émigrés. He vetoed also a decree which ordered the priests to take the oath to the Constitution, under pain of arrest as suspects, in case of religious disturbances in the communes to which they ministered.

The most important act of the Legislative Assembly was the declaration of war against Austria, which was openly preparing for an invasion, in order to re-establish Louis XVI. in those rights he had held before 1789. The King and MarieAntoinette urged it upon the Emperor of Austria, and their entreaties became still more urgent after their flight had been stopped. But it is extremely probable that the warlike preparations of Austria would have been prolonged, perhaps until the following spring, if the Girondins had not pressed for war.

Lack of cohesion in the royalist Ministry, one of its members, Bertrand de Moleville, being strongly opposed to the constitutional régime, whilst Narbonne wanted to make it one of the props to the throne, had led to its fall; whereupon, in March 1792, Louis XVI. called into power a Girondist Ministry, with Dumouriez for foreign affairs, Roland, that is to say, Madame Roland, for the Interior, Grave, soon to be replaced by Servan, at the War Office, Clavière for Finance, Duranthon for justice, and Lacoste for the Marine.

It need not be said, as Robespierre quickly made it appear, that far from hastening the Revolution, the coming of the Girondins into power was on the contrary a weight in the, scales for reaction. Henceforth all was for moderation, since the King had accepted what the Court called the “Ministère sans-culotte.” It was only in the affair of the war that this Ministry showed any ardour, against the advice of Marat and Robespierre, and on April 20, 1792, the Girondins triumphed. War was declared against Austria, or as they said then, “against the King of Bohemia and Hungary.”

Was the war necessary? Jaurès[140] has put the question, and in the answering of it has placed before the reader's eyes many documents of that time. And the conclusion that must be drawn from these documents, and is deduced from them by Jaurès himself, is the same as that which was defended by Marat and Robespierre. The war was not necessary. The foreign sovereigns no doubt feared the development of republican ideas in France; but from that to their rushing to the help of Louis XV1. was far enough; they were very far from eager about entering upon a war of that kind. It was the Girondins who wanted the war, because they saw in it the means of combating the royal power.

Marat told the plain truth concerning the matter. “You want the war,” he said, “because you do not want to appeal to the people for the giving of a decisive blow to royalty.” The Girondins and a mass of the Jacobins preferred indeed a foreign invasion, which, by arousing patriotism and laying bare the treachery of the King, would lead to the downfall of royalty without any popular rising. “We want some great treachery,” said Brissot, who hated the people, their disorderly risings, and their attacks upon property.

Thus the Court on one side, and the Girondists on the other, found themselves in agreement in encouraging the invasion of France. Under such conditions war was inevitable. It blazed out, and it raged for twenty-three years with all its fatal consequences, fatal to the Revolution and to European progress. “You do not want to appeal to the people; you do not want the popular revolution — very well, you shall have war, and perhaps the general break-up!” How many times has this truth been verified since.

The spectre of the people, armed and insurgent, demanding from the middle classes their share of the national wealth, never ceased to haunt those members of the Third Estate who had attained power, or who had, through the clubs and newspapers, acquired an influence upon the course of events. It must be said also that, by degrees, the revolutionary education of the people was being accomplished by the Revolution itself, and that the masses were by degrees emboldened to demand measures imbued with a communist spirit, which to some extent would have contributed to efface the economic inequalities.

“Equalisation of wealth” was very much spoken of among the people. The peasants who possessed only miserable little plots, and the town-workers, thrown out of work, began to affirm their right to the land. In the villages, the peasants demanded that no one should possess a farm of more than a hundred and twenty acres, and in the towns it was said that any one who wished to cultivate the land should have a right to a certain quantity.[141]

A tax upon food-stuffs, to prevent speculation in objects of prime necessity, laws against monopolists, municipal purchasing of food-stuffs which should be delivered to the inhabitants at cost price, a progressive tax on the rich, a forced loan and heavy taxes on all inheritances, these ideas were discussed by the people and found their way into the press. The very instantaneousness with which they manifested themselves each time the people gained a victory, either in Paris or in the provinces, proved that these ideas were widely circulating among the disinherited, even though the revolutionary writers did not dare to express them too openly. “You do not then perceive,” said Robert in his Révolutions de Paris, in May 1791, “that the French Revolution, for which you are fighting, as you say, as a citizen, is a veritable agrarian law put in execution by the people. They are re-entering on their rights. One step more, and they will re-enter upon their possessions...”[142]

It s easy to guess the horror with which these ideas inspired the middle classes, who were eager to enjoy now, and at their ease, their acquired wealth, as well as their new, privileged position in the State. We can imagine the fury which was kindled among them in March 1792, when the news came to Paris that the Mayor of Etampes, Simonneau, had just been killed by the peasants. He, as well as so many other middle class mayors, had shot down the peasants who had revolted without any legal formalities and no one had said a word. But when the hungry peasants, who asked only that the price of bread should be fixed, killed this mayor with their pikes, a chorus of indignation was raised among the Parisian middle classes.

“The day has come when the landowners of all classes must feel at length that they are falling under the scythe of anarchy,” groaned Mallet du Pan in his Mercure de France; and he demanded a “coalition of the landowners “against the people, against the “brigands,” the preachers of agrarian law. Every one began to perorate against the people, Robespierre as well as the others. The priest Dolivier was alone in raising his voice in favour of the masses and to declare that “the nation is really the owner of its land.” “There is no law,” he said, “which could justly prevent the peasant from eating when he is hungry, so long as the servants and even the beasts of the rich have all they need.”

As for Robespierre, he declared that “the agrarian law was only an absurd bogey displayed to stupid men by wicked ones.” And he rejected beforehand every attempt that was made in the direction of the “equalisation of wealth.” Always careful never to go beyond the opinion of those who represented the dominant power at a given moment, he took care not to side with those who marched with the people but knew that it was the ideas of equalisation and communism which alone could give the Revolution the force that was necessary for the final demolition of the feudal system.

This fear of popular risings and of their economic consequences impelled the middle classes also to rally closer and closer round royalty and to accept whatever kind of Constitution came from the hands of the Constituent Assembly, with all its defects and its compliance with the King's wishes. Instead of progressing in the way of republican ideas, the middle classes and the “intellectuals” developed in a contrary direction. If in 1789, in all the actions of the Third Estate, a decidedly republican and democratic spirit was to be seen, now, according as the people manifested communistic and equalising tendencies, these same men became the defenders of royalty; while the sincere republicans, such as Thomas Paine and Condorcet, represented an infinitesimal minority among the educated members of the middle classes. As the people became republican, the “intellectuals” retrograded towards constitutional royalty.

On June 13, 1792, scarcely eight days before the invasion of the Tuileries by the people, Robespierre was still inveighing against the republic. “It is in vain,” he cried on that date, “for any one to wish to seduce ardent and uninstructed minds by the lure of a freer government under the name of a republic: the overthrow of the Constitution at this moment can only kindle civil war, which will lead to anarchy and to despotism.”

Did he fear the establishing of a sort of aristocratic republic, as in the Netherlands? Such is, at least, the supposition of Louis Blanc, and it is possible, after all; but to us it seems more probable that having remained up till then a fierce defender of property, Robespierre feared at that moment, as nearly all the Jacobins did, the fury of the people, their attempts at levelling down fortunes, “expropriation,” as we say to-day. He feared to see the Revolution wrecked in its attempts at Communism. The fact is, that even up to the eve of August 10, at a time when the whole Revolution, unfinished as it was, checked in its onrush, and assailed by a thousand conspiracies, was almost on the point of being defeated, and nothing could save it except the overthrow of royalty by a popular rising, Robespierre, like all the Jacobins, preferred to maintain the King and his Court rather than risk a fresh appeal to the revolutionary fire of the people. Just as the Italian and Spanish republicans of our own times prefer to retain monarchy rather than risk a popular revolution which they foresee would surely be inspired with communistic tendencies.

History thus repeats itself, and how many times it may again repeat itself, when Russia, Germany and Austria begin their great revolution!

The most striking thing in the condition of mind of the politicians of the period is shown by the fact that exactly at this moment, July 1792, the Revolution found itself menaced by a formidable royalist coup d'état, long preparing, which was to be supported by widespread insurrections in the south and west, and also by a German, English, Sardinian and Spanish invasion.

Thus in June 1792, after the King had dismissed Roland, Clavière and Servan, the three Girondist ministers, Lafayette, chief of the Feuillants and royalist at heart, at once wrote his famous letter to the Legislative Assembly, dated June 18, in which he offered to make a coup d'état against the revolutionists. He openly demanded that France should be purged of the “Jacobins,” and he added that in the army “the principles of liberty and equality are cherished, the laws respected, and property, sacred” — not as in Paris, for example, where attacks were openly made upon it in the Commune and at the Club of the Cordeliers.

Lafayette demanded — and this already gives the measure of the progress of reaction — that the royal power should remain “intact and independent.” He desired “a revered King” — and this after the flight to Varennes; this, at the very moment when the King was keeping up an active correspondence with Austria and Prussia, expecting from them his “liberation,”, and treating the Assembly with more or less contempt, according to the tenor of the news he received concerning the progress of the German invasion.

And to think that the Assembly was upon the point of sending out this letter of Lafayette's to the eighty-three departments, and that only a stratagem of the Girondins prevented it — Gaudet pretending that the letter was a forgery, that it could not have come from Lafayette! All this within two months of August 10.

Paris was inundated at this time by royalist conspirators. The émigrés came and went freely between Coblentz and the Tuileries, whence they returned after receiving the caresses of the Court and plenty of money. “A thousand houses of ill-fame were open to the conspirators,” wrote Chaumette, then Public Prosecutor of the Commune of Paris, in his Notes.[143] The departmental administration of Paris which had Talleyrand and La Rochefoucauld in its midst, belonged entirely to the Court. The municipality, a great many of the Justices of the Peace, “the majority of the National Guard, and all its General Staff, were for the Court, serving it as an escort and as watch-dogs in the frequent excursions that royalty were making in the streets and in the theatres.” June 21 was then apparently forgotten.

“The semi-military household of the King, composed very largely of old body-guards, returned émigrés, and some of those heroes of February 28, 1791, known under the name of “knights of the dagger” (chevaliers du poignard), irritated the people by their insolence, insulted the National Representatives and loudly declared their liberticide intentions,” continues Chaumette.

The monks, the nuns and an immense majority of the priests stood on the counter-revolutionary side.[144]

As to the Assembly, this is how Chaumette characterised: “A National Assembly, without force, without respect, divided against itself, lowering itself in the eyes of Europe by petty and vexatious debates, humiliated by an insolent Court, and replying to insult only by redoubling its servility; without power, without any stability of purpose.” In fact, this Assembly, which used to discuss for hours in succession how many members should compose such and such a deputation to the King, and whether one or two wings of the folding doors should be open for them — which really spent its time, as Chaumette wrote, “in listening to declamatory speech all ending in . . . addressing some new message to the King” — such an Assembly could inspire nothing but contempt in the Court itself.

Meanwhile, all through the west and the south-east France, up to the very gates of the revolutionary towns, such as Marseilles, secret royalist committees were at work, collecting arms in the châteaux, enrolling officers and men, and preparing paring for the levy of a powerful army, which was to march upon Paris, under the command of chiefs who would be sent from Coblentz.

These movements in the south are so characteristic that it is necessary to give at least a general view of them.