Modern history


On the fourth of June, the Dauphin died. He was seven years old and the second of the royal children to die in childhood. At his birth in 1781, fireworks had burst in the skies over Paris; the Hôtel de Ville had witnessed a spectacular banquet for privileged and commons alike. At his death France scarcely noticed and the Hôtel de Ville was the seat of what, in all but name, was a revolutionary municipal government. At a time when the eight-pound loaf was at an all-time high, 600,000 livres were reported to be assigned for his burial. “You see, ma bonne amie,” Ferrières reported drily to his wife as he prepared to go and sprinkle holy water on the body at Meudon, “the birth and death of princes is not an object of economy.”

By all accounts he had been a bright and endearing boy, certainly the apple of his mother and father’s eye. But he had not enjoyed good health. Lately it had become apparent that tuberculosis – “consumption” – had destroyed his right lung. He endured a long, wasting sickness in which he became so emaciated that his ribs and pelvis stuck out at irregular angles from his trunk. When he finally died, both parents were distraught, the more so because the political crisis hardly allowed for personal grief. Louis’ spirits had, in any case, been downcast by the collapse of the conciliation committee, by which he had set much store and for which he had written a personal letter of commendation. The loss of his son and heir seemed a much worse blow. He withdrew from public business and after the week’s formal lying-in-state removed himself altogether from Versailles to the country house at Marly-le-Roi prostrate with sorrow. A deputation from the Third duly arrived to offer condolences. But the père de la patrie wanted, simply, to be for a while the mourning père de famille. When told of their insistence on being admitted, he replied, “Is there no father among them?”

As he recovered himself, he did so by leaning on the support of his immediate family. It was not disinterested. News reached Marly of the self-authorization of the Third Estate as a National Assembly and of its declaration that current taxes were illegal. Both were direct challenges to the sovereign, and Artois and the Queen believed – not unrealistically – that if the monarchy was ever to recapture control of its own destiny it had to do so now. Supposing that some sort of stand was to be made, one of two courses of action was possible: direct military intervention, for which the crown did not have sufficient forces yet available, or an assertion of the King’s legal authority, coupled with the promise of agreed reforms. Even in the latter option Necker, who recalled only too well the fate of the Brienne reforms, saw nothing but disaster. But he was brusquely shoved aside by Artois, who blamed him for the predicament of the crown and who made no secret of his determination to be rid of the Minister. On approaching the council chamber before the crucial meeting on June 19, he shouted that as a foreigner and an upstart Necker had no business being there.

Supported by three of his colleagues, Montmorin, Saint-Priest and La Luzerne, Necker laid out a list of proposals for reform that faithfully followed the consensus of much of the cahiers. Prominence would be given to gestures of “patriotic duty” like the abolition of tax exemptions for the privileged. On what had become the most contentious issue, Necker’s plan approximated the “mixed” vote solution, presumably hoping to detach the moderate nobility from the reactionary minority. Deputies were to be permitted to vote in common on “national” issues like the periodicity of the Estates but not on matters pertaining to the separate orders. Working on this program at the end of May, Necker had wanted the King to issue its substance in a grandiose “declaration” that would have preempted the radicalism of the leaders of the Third. But the opportunity had passed, and his compromise was now doomed to please no one. The preservation of a society of orders implicit in its provisions was wholly irreconcilable with the National Assembly of common citizens created on the seventeenth. So the plan was bound to be unacceptable to that body, reinforced as they were each day by a growing number of the clergy.

But it was much too radical for the reactionaries at court. Making no secret of their hatred for the man whom they blamed for the crown’s predicament, Artois and the Queen did all they could to persuade the King of the necessity for his removal. As Louis seemed about to accept Necker’s program, the Queen interrupted the council for a conversation with her husband. When he returned, to Necker’s consternation, the King backed away from the plan, insisting that it had to be submitted to the enlarged council for further consideration. All that was agreed upon were the minatory elements of the plan, which reminded Necker all too vividly of the fate of the Brienne reforms. The King would confront the Estates in a grand plenary séance royale, simultaneously showing his paternal benevolence in reform and his august majesty in annulling the usurpations of June 17.

For so momentous an event, the ceremonial machine of Versailles had to be cranked up again. A dais had to be erected, the benches reorganized from their configuration for the Third to accommodate the entire assembly. But by virtue of what had happened on June 17, the Salle des Menus Plaisirs was no longer simply a piece of royal property to design at the King’s pleasure. It had become, in effect, the first territory staked out by the Nation.

So when the Nation found itself locked out of its home without warning by workmen preparing the hall for the séance royale, it assumed that this had been intentional rather than inadvertent. Armed guards, after all, barred the entrance, at which were placards summarily announcing the séance royale. The letter from the master of ceremonies to Bailly had arrived only at the last minute and with no indication of an alternative meeting place. It seemed suspiciously like the first step in the dissolution of the Assembly. Chagrin turned to fury as the deputies stood about in heavy rain. The good Dr. Guillotin – the hero of the December petitioning campaign in Paris – remembered a tennis court owned by a friend of his in the rue du Vieux Versailles. And it was to that address that six hundred wetly exhilarated representatives trooped, followed by a gathering crowd.

Though it was Real – that is, Royal – Tennis that was played there, the naked, echoing court was the perfect opposite of the profusely decorated palace from where they had come. There they had been in the realm of the monarchy, a place allowed to them. Here they were, as Rousseau intended, stripped down to elemental citizenship and brotherhood. There was nothing but their bodies, their voices bounding off the pitched interior roofs from which tennis balls usually rebounded. A simple pine table was requisitioned from a next-door tailor, which served for the desk of the President, Bailly. Spectators crammed into the lower galleries and thrust their heads through the gallery windows. Clearly a performance was at hand. But of what kind?

Sieyès argued that the deputies should remove themselves as a body to Paris and be done with the charade of Versailles once and for all. But it was Mounier, who needed no lessons on the improvisation of authority (but who was concerned to head off the most radical proposals), who produced an alternative. “Wounded in their rights and their dignities,” he proclaimed, the members of the Assembly had been warned of attempts to push the King to a disastrous course of action. Against the threat of dissolution, they should instead swear an oath “to God and the Patrie never to be separated until we have formed a solid and equitable Constitution as our constituents have asked us to.” It was a gesture of sheer genius, for it cut the Assembly loose from its mooring in a particular space. Until that moment, the ordering of sovereign institutions in France had been defined by the space they were given to occupy: palaces of justice, council rooms, courts. But Mounier’s motion set the vessel of state off on a sea of abstraction. Wherever they were gathered was to be the National Assembly.

What kind of body language could possibly live up to the grandiloquence of the moment? With a sense that they had finally set themselves into a history worthy of the Romans, they joined in adopting the gesture given to the Horatii by Jacques-Louis David, and which they believed was the profession of patriot-martyrs. To give himself presidential prominence Bailly stood on the tailor’s table, placed one hand on his heart – the gesture par excellence of Rousseauean sincerity – and raised the other in command. With right arms outstretched, fingers taut, six hundred deputies became new Romans, echoing the oath in a version polished by Barnave. Only one, Martin d’Auch of Castelnaudary – depicted in David’s drawing of the scene as scowling, seated, his hands locked tight across his chest – declined. Arthur Young immediately recognized the revolutionary nature of the act. It was “an assumption of all authority in the Kingdom. They have at one stroke converted themselves into the Long Parliament of Charles I.”

On the following day, the augmented council met at Versailles, postponing by one day – till the twenty-third – the séance royale to allow more time for discussion (and, some feared, for military reinforcement). The effect of the Tennis Court Oath had been to aggravate even further the hostility to Necker on the part of the King’s brothers. Artois in particular shouted abuse at him and made no secret of his determination to be rid of him. The following day was worse. Despite support from Necker’s minister-colleagues, the princes were determined to reject any encroachment on the separate jurisdiction of the orders for any business whatever. In that view, it followed that there could be no business that could be declared “national” and so considered by the assembly as a whole. Any concessions on the part of the privileged orders as to their tax exemptions and the like would be purely for them to volunteer, not for general legislation. All this was to be upheld in the name of the inviolability of the “French constitution.”

In its repudiation of the common purposes of the Nation, it was a breathtaking reaction that traveled backwards beyond the reform programs of the 1780s, beyond Turgot to some sort of fantastic France based on classical order and hierarchical obedience. It was a France that had never really existed save in the absolutist idyll of the Hall of Mirrors, where it was lit by the Sun King’s five-foot silver candlesticks.

Would Louis XVI try to turn himself into Louis XIV? Before the last meeting on June 22 he asked Montmorin and Saint-Priest, the two ministers who supported Necker, for their views. Both were under no illusions that such a confrontational position would ever receive assent. It would have to be enforced. But there was no money in the Treasury to pay for the enforcers and, said Montmorin, a policy of reaction guaranteed that the Estates-General would never vote any further revenues. What was the alternative? Saint-Priest tried to make the King see that, however unfortunate unauthorized changes had been, it was “the weight of present circumstances” that had to govern his decision. “Shipwreck threatens the vessel of state,” he wrote, hardly overstating the situation. And quite correctly he pointed out that, historically, there had been nothing immutable about the French constitution anyway. It was necessary to accept change when circumstances required it, for “nothing stays the same under the sun” – an unfortunate choice of cliché, since Louis’ reign, after all, had begun with the emblem of a new sun rising over France.

All this was to no avail. Three councillors – Barentin, de La Galaizière and Vidéaud de La Tour, who wrote an alternative speech for the King – supported the hard line of Artois and Provence. The King then replaced Necker’s plan with theirs and braced himself for the inevitable collision of wills the following day.

Though it was a séance royale, not a lit de justice, the occasion had all the atmosphere of a traditional assertion of royal will. Soldiers surrounded the assembly hall. For the last time the Third Estate was gratuitously humiliated by being made to enter from a side door while the other two orders were seated. It was also forcibly separated from the deputies of the clergy, including now the liberal archbishops of Bordeaux and Vienne, who had rallied to its assembly. Necker was not present to listen to the formal defeat of all his attempts at conciliation. When the King spoke, it was with a perceptible nervousness that had not been apparent at the opening session on May 5. He was, he said, “the common father of all my subjects” and he owed it to them to end the unhappy divisions that had impeded the work of the Estates-General. Fifteen articles were then read for him, one after the other, making only too plain his intention to preserve the three orders and annul the “illegal” proceedings of the seventeenth and the “anticonstitutional” limits placed on deputies by the mandates of their constituents. There followed another set of personal remarks by the King, including the self-congratulatory comment “I can say, without illusion, that never has any King done so much for any nation.”

It was a bitter pill to swallow. The thirty-five reform proposals that followed were intended to sweeten it, but they were covered with only the lightest powdering of sugar. The first item stated axiomatically that no taxes would be raised except by the assent of the representatives of the people – at the same time that that representation was itself being made moot. Similar reservations were scattered through the text. Liberty of press was granted provided it did not harm religion, morals or the “honor of citizens”: virtually the status quo. Letters de cachet were abolished except in cases of sedition or family delinquency. (Mirabeau must have had good cause for a sardonic smile at that point.) Tax exemptions could be ended, but only if the privileged agreed, and all seigneurial dues and rights were to be preserved and protected as an inviolable form of property.

At the end, the King issued an admonition. Should the assembly “abandon him” in his efforts, he would be forced “to proceed alone for the good of my people, and I will consider myself alone to be their true representative.” If necessary, then, and with the utmost reluctance, he would turn himself into an Enlightened Despot. For now, “I command you, Messieurs, to adjourn directly and tomorrow assemble in your separate chambers to resume your sessions.”

Nothing of the sort happened. On the twenty-second, while Necker’s plan was being sabotaged in the royal council, the National Assembly had continued to meet, fortified now by over 150 of the clergy and a group of 47 nobles who had signified their clear intention to join their fellow citizens. In a display of childish petulance, Artois had actually rented the tennis court to prevent their meeting but, in the spirit of Mounier’s motion, the Church of Saint-Louis did just as well. There they had determined to meet immediately following the séance royale.

Following the exit, in deathly silence, of the King and the court, carpenters entered to dismantle the dais and platforms used for the ceremony. The Third remained defiantly seated amidst the clatter and hammering and metamorphosed once again into the National Assembly. Under Bailly’s presidency they stubbornly affirmed all their earlier decisions. Mirabeau, whose knowledge of summary arrest was unrivaled by anyone in the Assembly, in particular exhorted his colleagues to declare the personal inviolability of the deputies. Whatever good might have been contained in the reforms, he said, they had been imposed in the most offensive manner. It was not for “your mandatory” to impose laws but for the “mandatory” to receive laws from the “inviolable priesthood of the Nation.” Any assault on that inviolability was to be, in a neologism he coined, lèse-nation.

At that point the young Marquis de Dreux-Brézé, the master of ceremonies, whom the King had specifically instructed to prepare the hall for the Third Estate, mustered up enough courage to reiterate the royal order to leave the hall forthwith. His remarks were addressed to Bailly, but it was Mirabeau whose shaggy head bore down on the preciously dressed boy, hat on head, condescending to give orders to the “unprivileged.” Mirabeau was sick and enfeebled with hepatitis, and his voice may not have carried with its usual booming amplitude. Accounts differed as to whether the words that followed were actually as Mirabeau himself claimed: “Go tell those who have sent you that we are here by the will of the people and that we will not be dispersed except at the point of bayonets.”

Accuracy of report is not the issue though. The French Revolution was to be made up of such tableaux vivants, crystallizing in theatrical form the intensity of emotion experienced by its participants. Only with this dramatic license could its message be communicated to the many millions who could thus share its euphoria, become engaged in its outcome and so bond themselves to its allegiance. It was, already, a new kind of religion.

Mirabeau’s intervention was actually resented by Bailly as a gratuitous call to arms, but he repeated the Assembly’s decisions to continue their proceedings. Dreux-Brézé withdrew, walking slowly backwards, hat on head, precisely as official etiquette prescribed: a suitable valediction for the ritual of absolutist Versailles. His was merely a retreat. Louis XVI’s response, however, was surrender, no less complete for being so casually expressed. Told of the resolution of the Assembly, he shrugged his shoulders and remarked, “Oh well, let them stay.”

As in the summer and autumn of 1787, the King did the worst possible thing by parading a show of royal authority but then shrinking from enforcing it. He was increasingly incapable of deciding whether he could indeed become some sort of King of the People as Mirabeau wanted or the anointed of Reims, armed with the oriflamme. The question suddenly became urgent, since a popular riot seemed in the making in the center of Versailles in response to Necker’s eloquent absence from the séance royale. In the late afternoon several hundred deputies were seen going to the Contrôle-Général in a gesture of solidarity, and they were rapidly joined by a crowd of five thousand, shouting “Vive Necker.” Marie-Antoinette, who had been boldest in her defiance of the People, now was the first to be frightened by them as they poured into the courtyard of the château and then into its interior, unobstructed by the gardes françaises militia. Asking to see Necker, she implored him not to resign and in a separate interview the King followed suit.

Now that the hard-line policy was so evidently in ruins, Necker agreed to remain at his post on condition that the King implement his original program designed to reunite the three orders. Leaving the King he walked among deputies and rejoicing townspeople, characteristically attempting to sober their jubilation. “You are very strong now,” he told the deputies, “but do not abuse your power.” In contrast to this popular triumph, the King departed for Marly, his coachmen cutting through a surly and ominous crowd.

There were still fitful attempts to impose royal authority. On the day after the séance royale Bailly arrived at the hall to find it invested with troops who, as on the day before, had orders not to allow into the hall any deputies from the noble and clerical orders, nor any members of the public. But his indignation vanished when it became apparent that the officer charged with this duty had in effect gone over to the National Assembly and that his men were eagerly fraternizing with the deputies, insisting that “we, too, are citizens.” The “patriotic clergy” was then taken through a back entrance into the Salle des Menus Plaisirs, where, led by the Archbishop of Vienne, they once again became part of the National Assembly. Later that day, the Archbishop of Paris, who had been mistakenly singled out as a prime enemy of the people, barely escaped stoning in his carriage.

The following day, June 25, brought another tableau vivant into the annals of the National Assembly when forty-seven of the liberal nobility finally joined the Assembly. They had been preceded by two nobles of the eight deputies from the Dauphiné, the remainder joining them enbonne compagnie, as they put it the next day. They were led by Stanislas Clermont-Tonnerre and included many of the members of Duport’s club of the previous autumn: Lally-Tollendal the father-vindicator, the Duc d’Aiguillon, the Duc de Luynes, La Rochefoucauld-Liancourt, Alexandre de Lameth, Montmorency de Luxembourg and, not least, the King’s own cousin Philippe, Duc d’Orléans. These were not parvenus, but the very highest cadre of the peerage: men whose forebears had died on the fields of the Hundred Years’ War; who had surrounded the young Sun King on his military promenade through Franche-Comté and Flanders; who had been marshals, constables, grand almoners of France. Now they were citizens.

Missing was Lafayette. His absence was all the more remarkable since he had been one of the party of liberal nobles who with their persons had barred the way of a detachment of troops sent to intimidate the Third following the séance royale. Lafayette belonged to a group of another seventy or so noble deputies that had previously voted for reunion but felt bound by the wishes of their constituents to remain separate unless instructed otherwise by the King. There was a possibility of bringing over a decisive number if the National Assembly was prepared to respect the possibility of their retaining some sort of separate identity in matters concerning the nobility. But to ask this was in effect to ask the Assembly to abandon the premise of its freshly invented identity: theindivisibility of citizenship. A “deputation” from the nobles was denied a hearing on the grounds that its reception would constitute an acknowledgment of those special claims.

On the twenty-seventh of June, the Estates-General finally died, given the coup de grâce by the King who had commanded it into existence. He wrote to the deputies of the two privileged orders, “engaging” them to unite “to achieve my paternal goals.” By this he did not necessarily mean an unconditional capitulation to the acts of June 17 and 20 – the obliteration of the orders within an indivisible sovereignty vested in the National Assembly. Even after the final reunion, at two o’clock in the afternoon, had been accomplished in an atmosphere of unhappy gravity rather than joyous reconciliation, some of the nobles and clergy continued to interpret the royal letter as meaning deliberation in common on matters of joint interest.

All these reservations were swept aside in a great surge of popular celebration out of doors. The streets of Versailles were illuminated; fire-crackers exploded in the afternoon air. Singing and dancing crowds packed the courtyards and streets leading to the palace, shouting “Vive Necker” and at least as often “Vive le Roi.” Persuaded of the benign mood of the people, Louis and Marie-Antoinette made an impromptu appearance. They stood on the balcony of Louis XIV’s bedroom, overlooking the Cour de Marbre, where Molière had acted and Lully conducted for the Sun King. They tried to look happy. Louis even made an attempt at a wave. But it was the Queen who was the cynosure of all eyes, not because of the magnificence of her appearance, but the humility. The sorrow of the death of her son had, it was said, noticeably grayed her hair, which she wore down over her shoulders like a citizeness. There were no jewels to be seen. She turned inward to the room and, fighting back tears, brought before the amazed crowd her two children. Together, papa, maman, enfants with blond curls tumbling to their shoulders stood quietly before people cheering themselves hoarse. It was the first of many such encounters to come, few of them this affable. For the moment, though, the sight of them gave fresh meaning to Bailly’s remark earlier that afternoon: “Now the family is complete.”

The Marquis de Ferrières to Madame de Médel, Sunday June 28:

I will only say a word to you, my dear sister, since perhaps you have been worried about d’Iversay and me. We have come close to the bloodiest catastrophe, a renewal of the horrors of a Saint Bartholomew’s Eve massacre. The weakness of the government seems to allow anything… The séance royale served only to bring about a triumph for the Third. On the same evening the King was made to change his declaration even though it had been accepted by us… On Friday, fifty members of the nobility, at the head of which was the Duc d’Orléans, joined the Third even though most of their constituents expressly forbade them to vote by head. I would certainly have done the same with greater justification since my cahier did not say anything strict about voting by order or head and I am wholly indifferent to the manner of deliberation… but I did not think I could abandon my Order in the critical circumstances in which it found itself. People speak openly in the Palais-Royal of massacring us, our houses are marked out for this murder and my door was marked with a “P” in black [for proscrit – proscribed]. This butchery was supposed to be carried out on the night of Friday or Saturday. To tell the truth all Versailles were accomplices.

The Court expected, at any minute, to see itself attacked by forty thousand armed brigands who, it was said, were on their way from Paris. The gardes françaises refused to obey orders; whole companies deserted and went to the Palais-Royal where they were given drinks and ices and paraded in triumph. Fortunately the man in whose name this infernal plot was concocted [Orléans] is too cowardly to be a villain. So the nights of Friday and Saturday passed quietly and on Saturday the 27th the King wrote to us through our President, M. de Luxembourg, to join the Third…

Everything now seems tranquil; however the gardes françaises no longer acknowledge their officers; the defection of troops is general and everything announces a great revolution… The Estates-General of 1789 will be celebrated but by a banner of blood that will be carried to all parts of Europe…

Adieu my dear, good sister; the state of affairs is not very comforting. If only there was one [dependable] man I would not regard things as desperate, but the ministers are so incapable.

Embrace Médel for me.



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