The coming of the French Revolution



Although it was the American revolution that set the French Revolution vibrating, no two countries could have been less alike than the United States and France in 1789. The one was vast, undeveloped land that offered boundless opportunities to a free and democratically-minded people; the other an ancient, monarchical state shackled by traditions and privileges.

In America, taxation – the cause of the rebellion of 1775 – was decided by representation, in France it was determined by the king and paid by the Third Estate – that is, by everybody except the nobility and clergy. The grievances caused by this lack of equity were stimulated instead of mitigated by the rising prosperity of France, because every increase in wealth was at once cancelled out by increased debt and additional taxation.

King Louis XVI of France, detail of painting by Antoine-Francois Callet, 1788

King Louis XVI of France, detail of painting by Antoine-Francois Callet, 1788

It was not the poverty-stricken proleteriat, but the well-to-do middle classes – the wealth producers – who were hardest hit, and it was their demands for social justice and a place in the direction of national affairs which resulted in the revolution.

To pay for the part played by France in the War of the American Independence, Louis XVI (1774 – 1792) had summoned to his counsels the Genovese banker Jacques Necker, and he, to avoid increased taxation, had adopted the expedient of financing the war of loans, until interest on them could no longer be paid without increased taxation. It was debt which precipitated the flood predicted by Louis’s grandfather, Louis XV, when he is reputed to have exclaimed: “Après moi le déluge”.

Jacques Necker, circa 1781

Jacques Necker, circa 1781

In 1781 Necker was dismissed, and soon after was replaced by Charles Alexandre de Calonne who, to stay the crisis, persuaded Louis to assemble the Notables (deputies of the nobility and clergy). They met in 1787, but when they found that Calonne’s financial reforms struck at their privileges, they refused to sanction them. Next, on August 8, 1788, Louis, with much trepidation, was persuaded by the Parlement 1 of Paris to summon the States General for the following year. They had not met since 1614.

What people wanted was a constitutional monarchy, under which their representatives would meet periodically and grant supplies, and it was with these ideas in mind that the States General assembled in Versailles and held their first session on May 5, 1789.

The 'Oath of the Tennis Court' painted by Auguste Clouder

The ‘Oath of the Tennis Court’ painted by Auguste Clouder

The representatives of the Third Estate refused to sit as a separate order, and invited the deputies of the nobility and clergy to deliberate with them, and because few were willing to do so, on June 10, the representatives declared themselves a National Assembly. Ten days later, in the famous Tennis Court, they took an oath that they would not separate until they had decided upon a new constitution. To appease them, Louis ordered all deputies of the privileged orders to join the Commons, but simultaneously, to forestall trouble, he instructed the Duc de Broglie to form a camp of Swiss and German troops at Versailles, and he dismissed Necker, whom he had called back some time before.

"You should hope that this game will be over soon." The Third Estate carrying the Clergy and the Nobility on its back, 1789

“You should hope that this game will be over soon.” The Third Estate carrying the Clergy and the Nobility on its back, 1789

This thinly disguised threat put the Paris mob, the tool of the capitalists, who held that Necker was the only man who could effect the recovery, in a frenzy. The outcome was that, on July 14, the rabble stormed the Bastille and massacred its garrison. When the news was brought to Louis he exclaimed: “This is a great revolt.” The Duc de Liancourt replied: “No, Sire, it is a great revolution.”

The immediate effect of this outbreak were the recall of Necker and the formation of the National Guard under the Marquis de Lafayette. In order to reassure the people, on August 26 the National Assembly issued a declaration known as “The Rights of Man”, which closely resembled the American “Declaration of Independence”. As Louis hesitated to ratify it, on October 5, Lafayette, with a detachment of the National Guard, followed by a howling mob, brought the royal family from Versailles to the capital. Thereon the King’s youngest brother, the Comte d’Artois, fled the country with the first wave of émigrés, who at once began to plot the overthrow of the Revolution. Their intrigues with foreign powers were one of the main causes of eventual war.

Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, painting by Joseph-Desire Court, 1834

Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, painting by Joseph-Desire Court, 1834

As the country was bankrupt, on the suggestion of the Bishop of Autun (Talleyrand) – lover of Necker’s daughter Madame de Staël – the Assembly set out to reform the Church in order to appropriate its vast estates. It declared that the bishops and clergy should henceforth be elected by the representatives of the people. Next, Mirabeau urged that money in the form of assignats be issued against the confiscated Church lands. But Necker outjockeyed him and obtained vast tracts of ecclesiastical property as security for his promises to pay in gold and silver; but as neither existed his notes were refused and a run on the exchanges followed. Necker then fled the country, and under Mirabeau’s influence the land-money was issued.

This anti-religious legislation cut Louis to the quick. “I had rather be the king of Metz,” he exclaimed, “than rule over France on such terms.” The result was that, shortly after it had come into force, he began to contemplate flight, not to royal Normandy or Brittany, as Mirabeau had suggested, but to the émigrés at Metz. In this he was ardently supported by the Queen Maria Antoinette – daughter of Maria Theresa and sister of the Austrian Emperor Leopold II (1790 – 1792).

Queen Maria Antoinette, painting by  by Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun

Queen Maria Antoinette, painting by by Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun

On the night of June 20-21, Louis and his family gave their guardians the slip and set out on the road to Montmédy, but they were recognized and arrested at Varennes, and sent back to Paris. When the news reached Leopold, he declared that the King’s arrest ‘compromised directly the honour of all sovereigns and the security of every government”. On August 27, in conjuction with Frederick William II of Prussia (1786 – 1797), he issued the “Declaration of Pilnitz”, in which the two monarchs stated that they were ready to join other European rulers should they support Louis. Leopold’s aims were far from disinterested, for shortly before the declaration was issued he had concerted a plan with Frederick William to partition France: Austria was to take Alsace and Lorraine and Prussia the duchies of Jülich and Berg and be given a share in the contemplated partition of  Poland.

On September 14, the National Assembley, which had decided on a new constitution, dissolved itself and was replaced by the Legislative Assembly provided by the Constitution. It held its first session on October 1, 1791.

Arrest of Louis XVI and his Family, Varennes, 1791

Arrest of Louis XVI and his Family, Varennes, 1791

Its leadership passed into the hands of a group of young middle-class enthusiasts, known as the Girondins, because many came from the Gironde. They were violently opposed to the émigrés, Leopold and Marie Antoinette. Fearful of, and insulted by, the assembly of small émigré armies on the eastern frontiers of France, they argued that war with Austria would unite the nation and compel Louis to show his hand.

In December, this enthusiasm for war led to the organization of the troops along the eastern frontier of France into three armies: the Army of the North under Rochambeau, the Army of the Centre under Lafayette, both of whom had served in America, and the Army of the Rhine, under Marshal Nicolaus Luckner, an old German hussar. These were the first armies of the Revolution.

Frederick William II of Prussia, painting by Anton Graff

Frederick William II of Prussia, painting by Anton Graff

Increasingly, the Paris press stimulated the warlike passion of the people, and at the Jacobins 2 and in the Assembly Brissot excited enmity toward the court and belief in the necessity of war. War was required not only to consolidate the people and keep them subservient to the will of the Assembly, but also because, as Hérault de Sechelles said, “in time of war measures can be taken that would appear too stern in time of peace” – a forecast of the approaching Terror.

When the Bastille was stormed there was no idea in Europe of a crusade against France. The problem which then held the attention of the courts was Poland and not the Revolution. With the death of Leopold on March 1, 1792, a change rapidly set in; for his son Francis – Francis II and last of the Holy Roman Emperors (1792 – 1835) – took up the challenge of the Girondins and was eager to vindicate the honour of his aunt. At the same time, Frederick William looked upon France as easy prey and saw in the Revolution an excuse to extend his realm, while Catherine II of Russia (1762 – 1796) sought to entangle both Vienna and Berlin in the affairs of France, so that she might gain elbow-room in Poland, which was on the verge of its second partition. Finally, the monarchial party in France saw in an Austrian irruption and the scattering of the French levies the sole means of saving Louis. Such was the situation when on April 20, 1792, under a Girondin Ministry, Louis XVI, its captive, proposed to his captors a declaration of war against Austria, in order that they might be overthrown and himself released.

"The Storming of the Bastille", by Henry Singleton

“The Storming of the Bastille”, by Henry Singleton

France was quite unprepared for war: her treasury was empty, her army chaotic and her people hysterical. On July 11, a general call to arms was made and a rabble of volunteers enrolled. A fortnight later, Prussia declared war on her, and the Duke of Brunswick, who had been appointed to the command of the Prussian army, issued an ill-advised manifesto, concocted by the émigrés, which threw Paris into a frenzy. On August 10, the Tuileries was stormed, and a decree issued that abolished the Constitution of 1791 deprived Louis of all his power and established universal suffrage. The Legislative Assembly was succeeded by the Convention.

In the midst of this chaos, the gravest peril came from the army, 82,000 strong, excluding frontier garrisons. On the left, the Army of the North, now under Lafayette, covered the frontier from Dunkirk to Malmédy, and was split into two groups, one (24,000) in camps on the Flemish border, and the other (19,000), known as the Army of the Ardennes, near Sedan. On its right stretched the Army of the centre – also called the Army of Metz – (17,000) from Montmédy to the Vosges, under Marshal Luckner. And on his right lay the Army of the Rhine (22,000) from the Vosges to Basle, under General Biron (formerly the Duc de Lauzon). In the rear, around Soissons, there was also a rabble of unorganized and insubordinate volunteers, known as the Reserve Army.

When on August 11, Lafayette, then at Sedan, learnt of the decree of the day before, he at once ordered General Arthur Dillon, at Pont-sur-Sambre, and General Dumouriez, at the camp of Maulde, to march on Paris. Though the former – a royalist – agreed, the latter – a friend of the Girondins – refused to do so. The Assembly learnt of the mutiny and sent commissaries to Sedan, who were seized by Lafayette and imprisoned. Others were then sent, and on August 18 they placed Dumouriez in command of the Army of the Army of the North. The next day, when he found that his army had lost confidence in him, Lafayette and many of his officers crossed the Luxemburg border and surrendered to the Austrians. At the same time, Luckner at Metz – a friend of Lafayette – refused to accept the decree and was replaced by General François Christophe Kellermann and sent to Châlons to command second line troops. Nearly all Luckner’s principal officers were dismissed, and in the Army of the Rhine, Biron alone among its generals full-heartedly accepted the decree. Such was the state of the army when Dumouriez succeeded Lafayette.

excerpt from J. F. C. Fuller, “Decisive Battles of the Western World”

  1. The Parlements (Municipal Councils) had been abolished by Louis XV, and were recalled by Louis XVI on his accession
  2. When the Assembly moved to Paris, certain represantatives of the Third Estate rented a large room in the monastery of the Jacobins, hence the name of the most famous of the revolutionary clubs.

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4 Responses to The coming of the French Revolution

  1. michael dunne says:

    Need and would love to know more about this classic period of European Rebellion. The American Revolution was first but that was relatively straightforward having the British Empire to shake off. The French Revolution was much more complex and deeprooted in terms of established decadence. Bloody as it was it inspires hope for mankind.

  2. AC says:

    This could replace the Reader’s Digest sketch of the FR. Who wrote this piece, anyway? Did he get a degree in gym and then start writing up tales in history? What sources form the basis of the statement that it was not the urban and rural lower classes, but the bourgeoisie who suffered most from the conjuncture of the 1770s and 80s? Not that long ago, historians in the field had calculated that just before the outbreak of the Revolution, more than 90% of lower urban wages went for the purchase of bread. Meantime, I guess, the bourgeois simply did without!

    • tamara says:

      The article is an excerpt from J.F.C.Fuller’s book “Decisive Battles of the Western World”. Fuller was the military historian and ex-British officer (so I guess that he might be good in the gym). If you read carefully, you will notice the Fuller mentioned Third Estate as one that suffered the most of the new taxation policy and economic crisis after American War and Seven Years War.
      However, through the history and even in today’s world a great majority of the revolutions are started and led by political or social elite, not by peasants and small town shoemakers, although that would be so romantic.

      The History Notes

  3. Gerald Ritter says:

    While this article mentions the money borrowed by the King to aid the Revolution in America, it does not make clear that our failure to repay that loan precipitated the crisis. Perhaps that is included elsewhere in the book. It certainly is not taught in American history classes.

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