Modern history



July 1789


Versailles had been built against Paris.

The first fountain to be seen in the park of the château on descending from the terrace tells the story. In a circular pool, Latona stands holding her infant boy Apollo. She has fled from the jealous wrath of Juno, whose husband Jupiter has been making advances to her. Stopping on her flight to drink some water, Latona is attacked by peasants, mobilized by the vindictive goddess. Seeing her plight, Jupiter intervenes and transforms the peasants into frogs. This is the moment at which the sculptor caught the story, with cat-sized amphibians squatting or jumping towards the nymph, croaking in their metamorphosis. Some still retain their human trunks while their heads have changed to popping eyes and broad, gaping mouths.

For the Sun King the story had direct personal significance. His mother, Anne of Austria, had been driven from Paris by the rebellion of the Fronde, carrying her infant Apollo as a fugitive. In his maturity, Louis XIV was determined never again to be held captive by the people and peers of Paris. Though the château at Versailles had begun as a huntinglodge and place of masque and revelry, the King rapidly made it the place in which he could redefine his absolutism. His minister Colbert spent enormous sums on the Louvre, hoping that Louis would make it his principal seat of government, but to no avail. To be the Sun King meant constructing a symbolic realm of stone and water, marble and mirrors, in which the monarch and the planet would traverse the course of the day serenely unoccluded by the havoc of city life. Court music would prevail over the croaking of the frogs.

For a century, the strategy worked. Paris and Versailles remained worlds apart. If the King’s peace was disturbed at Versailles it was by local townsmen and peasants, for the six-hour walk from Paris was a deterrent against popular manifestations. Not only was such a journey daunting in time and distance, it was dangerous. The Bois de Boulogne, through which travelers would have to go to reach the western roads, was notoriously full of bandes of thieves and whores.

By carriage, however, the journey was two hours, three at the most. And in the reign of Louis XVI the center of gravity for the grands of the court shifted back from the château to the city. Their hôtels were in the faubourg Saint-Germain or expensively refurbished in the Marais, their places of recreation the Opéra, the city theaters and the concertsspirituels, beside which court entertainment seemed pallid and derivative. The best art was at the biennial Salon, the best talk in private dinners and “assemblies” like those to be found chez Duport or Necker. Most important, political initiative had gravitated from the corridors and apartments of Versailles to the Palais de Justice and the Palais-Royal. So the courtiers, whose status and identity had once been defined by the pecking order at the palace, gradually became absentees. “Even in the chains of despotism,” commented Mirabeau, “Paris always preserved its intellectual independence which tyrants were forced to respect. Through the reign of arts and letters Paris prepared that of philosophy and through philosophy that of public morality.”

Even before Paris came to fetch the King from Versailles, the Palais-Royal had conquered the Château de Versailles. In every respect it was its opposite; indeed its nemesis. At the core of the château was a pavilion block where the King’s control over business was formalized by apartments enfilading off one another so that access at each stage could be barred or yielded as ritual and decorum required. North and south extended immense half-mile wings, dependencies in every sense, that housed the governmental and palatial services of the theoretically omnipotent monarch. The Palais-Royal was an open space, colonnaded at its perimeter: a Parisian equivalent of republican spaces like the Piazza San Marco in Venice. Its architecture gave no instructions. Rather it invited sauntering, watching, browsing, reading, buying, talking, flirting, pilfering, eating – all at random – in spontaneously improvised order or in no order at all. While Versailles was the most carefully patrolled place in France, the Palais-Royal, as the property of the Duc d’Orléans, prohibited the presence of any police whatsoever unless invited in by its proprietor. If institutional Versailles set great store by the hierarchy of rank, the frantic business of the Palais-Royal subversively jumbled it up. Versailles proclaimed corporate discipline; the Palais-Royal celebrated the public anarchy of the appetites.

At court, and even to some extent in council meetings, utterances were, in all senses, guarded. In the Palais-Royal, everything could be said, and the more extravagantly the better. At coffeehouses like the Café Foy, Arthur Young watched

expectant crowds listening à gorge déployée to certain orators who from chairs or tables harangue their audience. The eagerness with which they are heard and the thunder of applause they receive for every sentiment of more than common hardiness or violence against the present government cannot easily be imagined.

He was just as shocked by the democratization of pyrotechnics. At Versailles, fireworks shows, since the days of Louis XIV, had been carefully constructed to pay tribute to majesty. In the Palais-Royal, courtesy of Orléans, twelve sous bought as many squibs, rockets and serpents as five livres would bring from regular sources of supply. On the night of June 27, in celebration of the reunion of the orders, the Paris sky exploded with noise and color while the heavens above Versailles remained mournfully silent.

That the Palais-Royal was the empire of liberty was no longer in doubt when mutinying companies of the gardes françaises went there on June 28 to announce that they would under no circumstances fire on the people. On the thirtieth, two of their number went to the National Assembly dressed in civilian clothes to denounce their commander, the Duc du Châtelet, and were arrested by hussars and sent, along with a dozen of their comrades, to the Abbaye prison. When word of the incarceration spread, they were released by a crowd of four hundred who then went on to treat the soldiers to a festive and public supper. The Duc d’Orléans opened the premises for all-night carousing, and guarded by their “citizen-brothers” the renegade grenadiers slept on the floor of the Variétés Amusantes music hall. The next day, baskets were suspended from their new accommodation in the Hôtel de Genè ve inside the Palais-Royal, so that well-wishers could make patriotic contributions to their heroes. Not wanting to endorse a complete defiance of authority, the electors at the Hôtel de Ville and the National Assembly concocted a face-saving compromise by which the guards agreed to return to the prison for one night, after which they would be pardoned and discharged.

In the climate of boozy, loquacious defiance that prevailed at the Palais-Royal, it was not surprising that the Paris revolution began there. But it was born less of festive revolt than desperation. By July, bread prices were reaching levels that were symptomatic not just of dearth but of famine. Conditions throughout urban France were rapidly approaching the level of a food war. In France’s second city, Lyon, at the end of June, rioters had already enforced duty-exempt sales of grain in the mistaken belief that they were doing the King’s bidding. In Paris, sporadic attacks on the customs barriè res around the city were becoming so frequent that troops had to be posted both there and at the markets and accompany all convoys to protect grain and flour. Wednesdays and Saturdays, when the itinerant bakers sold their merchandise at Les Halles and other designated markets, were especially perilous occasions. The bakers were forbidden to remove from their stalls unsold loaves left at the end of the day, so it was at that time that hungry crowds congregated in the hope of bargains. And it was then that the danger of violence and the seizure of loaves was most acute.

Early July was also a crisis for the poor in another crucial respect. For at the end of its first week was the dreaded terme: the date for the settlement of all bills, including rent. As Richard Cobb so vividly describes, the July terme was the worst, since by the October terme the harvest would be in and bread cheaper, and in January more clemency and credit were often extended because of the bitter winter months. In July, prior to the harvest, bread prices were always at their highest and disposable income lowest. On the eve of the day of settlement, the seventh, whole families and colonies of families would decamp, sometimes taking with them the sheets they used to climb down from high windows. It was a time of fear, unsettlement and exodus.

So when the news that Necker had been summarily dismissed and sent into exile by the King reached the Palais-Royal on Sunday, the twelfth of July, it produced an instantaneous wave of panic and fury. For Necker had become not just a symbol of the victory of the Third Estate, but the latest pè re nourricier. In many of the countless prints celebrating his fame, he was shown as the bringer of cornucopias: the man who would make solvency from bankruptcy, create work where there was unemployment and bring bread where there was famine. It was his reputation for integrity that hovered over him like a halo, in direct contrast with aristocrats, who would stop at nothing, even engineering a famine, to dislodge him from power. (Not all this flattery was unmerited. Necker had put up his personal fortune as collateral for a grain shipment from the Amsterdam banking house Hope.)

The notion that famines were caused not by the climate but by conspiracy had a long pedigree in France. But it was never more widely shared nor more angrily expressed than in 1789. If bakers and millers who withheld their stock from the market to drive prices even higher were the immediate villains, behind them lay an even more sinister aristocratic cabal. Its immediate object was to discredit Necker and secure his dismissal. With him gone, so the pamphlets said, the people could be held hostage until the National Assembly was itself safely dissolved. “Past centuries,” said the author of one pamphlet, “can show no precedent for so foul a plot as that which this dying aristocracy has hatched against mankind.”

Sometimes, conspiracy theories turn out to be correct. There was, of course, no plot to starve the people into submission, but there certainly was a design to remove Necker and dissolve the National Assembly. On July 9, for example, opinions about Necker were expressed in strikingly different ways at Versailles and at the Palais-Royal. As he was about to enter the royal council, Necker was greeted by Artois shaking his fist at him, abusing him as a “foreign traitor” and a “sorry bourgeois” who had no “place” in the council and who should go back to the “little city” where he belonged. In the meeting itself the Prince went so far as to tell the Minister he thought he should be hanged. On the same day at the Palais-Royal, a “woman of quality” was publicly spanked for allegedly spitting on a portrait of the hero-minister.

All these fears and suspicions seemed corroborated by the increasing numbers of troops in and around Paris. Estimates of their number exaggerated the threat, but there was no mistaking the conspicuous German and Swiss soldiers among them. (Even some of the native French regiments were German-speakers from Lorraine.) Foreign troops, in coalition with bands of “armed brigands,” were commonly thought to be roaming the countryside and poised to invade towns as the avenging arm of despotism.

Systematic military concentration was not a figment of popular paranoia. Louis XVI had given the first of a succession of marching orders to frontier regiments on June 22, when he still expected the séance royale to abort the National Assembly. When that policy failed, he summoned more troops on the twenty-sixth. By the sixteenth of July, a series of reinforcements was to bring the complement of troops in the Paris and Versailles region to more than twenty thousand. A conspicuous number of the regiments – more than a third – were foreign, many of them German-speaking. The King claimed that troops were being mobilized to contain potential disorders in and around Paris. But for the Queen, Artois and the group of ministers led by Breteuil eager to see the back of Necker, the military show of force was to be the instrument by which the crown could recover its freedom of action.

That plan was to be frustrated by the anxiety of those entrusted with its enforcement, who feared that the chain of command was about to fall apart. There were some grounds for their fears. Throughout the 1780s the desertion rate in the French army had risen to three thousand a year. This was in spite of the savage punishment awarded to first offenders: ten runs through a gauntlet of fifty men armed with ramrods. On the second of July the British Ambassador reported that this same ordeal had been inflicted on two soldiers of the Swiss regiment of the Salis-Samade who had been colluding with mutinous gardes françaises. Two others were hanged.

The most serious problem was that disaffection was by no means confined to enlisted men but had seeped into the ranks of junior officers. If there was anywhere in the old regime where social reality corresponded to polemics about aristocratic monopolies and frustrated promotion, it was in the army. Guibert’s reforms may have brought about some improvement in pay but they also brought with them Prussian discipline and no compromise in the reservation of commissions to the “old” nobility. Though the Ségur law was meant to offer protection for the older, poorer nobility, the most publicized grievance remained spoiled young sons of rich dynasties being presented with regimental commissions when barely out of college. That irked career officers and the noncommissioned, who saw all hope of rising into the officer caste blocked by the new law. It was for good reasons, then, that anti-aristocratic rhetoric made headway in the junior ranks.

Privates in the regular army may have been even more receptive to identifying themselves with the citizenry of the Third Estate. Over eighty percent of them, according to Samuel Scott, had practiced another trade at some time and a surprisingly high proportion came from an urban artisan background. The royal army of the line, then, was not a peasant force at all but closer to the workers of the faubourgs who had sacked Réveillon’s works and would make up the majority of the “conquerors” of the Bastille. That improvised solidarity between troops and people was to be crucial on the fourteenth of July, when over fifty regular soldiers joined the people storming the fortress. But even before that date, reports of troops’ reluctance to use force against grain seizures or forcible sales were becoming commonplace.

This instinctive fraternity was even more obvious among the gardes françaises. Until the monumental research of Jean Chagniot it was commonly thought that the guards were older, more settled among the Parisian population and often practicing trades to make up for their meager pay. We now have a quite different profile, but one which makes their vulnerability to revolutionary propaganda even more apparent. A great many of the guards were young, of provincial origins, especially from northern towns like Amiens, Caen and Lille, and far from settled. A series of reforms in the 1760s and 1770s had closed off the possibilities – open to their predecessors earlier in the century – of keeping shops or market stalls. Half of the men were married with families, and sometimes their wives supported them. But the rank-and-file of the military body on which the old regime most relied to supplement the fifteen hundred or so police was in fact rootless, impoverished and often insubordinate. Among the lower officers, especially the sergeants, there was, complained one older officer, a “sentiment of equality which unfortunately in the present century mixes together all stations and ranks.” Jean-Joseph Cathol, the son of an Auvergnat notary and a sergeant in the guard, later said that it was in 1788 that he first started to read the papers “exposing the villainy of priests and nobles” and took his newfound political truculence into the ranks. Others who were less actively engaged in political argument were simply borne along by the atmosphere of opposition they found in the wine shops where they drank and the Palais-Royal where they promenaded. On the twelfth of July, for example, a cadet of the Reinach regiment at Versailles encountered two guards, in the company of women and evidently very drunk, who told him, “Come with us, money and advancement await you in Paris.”

For whatever mixture of reasons, the Réveillon riots were, for the gardes françaises, a kind of traumatic turning point after which they became truculently disinclined to obey orders. Increasingly too, they began to live up to their name as native patriots. On the sixth of July at Versailles they almost came to blows with German-speaking hussars who had been mobilized to intimidate the townspeople. And on the eighth Jean-Claude Monnet, a lottery-ticket hawker, was arrested for distributing among soldiers seditious pamphlets, one of which was an appeal to grenadiers from “an old Comrade of the Gardes Françaises.” “We are Citizens before Soldiers, Frenchmen before slaves” was its message.

Impressions became polarized very quickly. On one side appeared to be the Austrian Queen and her hangers-on at court, supported now by Hungarian hussars and German dragoons. Bivouacked on the Champ de Mars at the Invalides, they were preparing, it was said, to mine the Palais-Royal. Another encampment, at Saint-Denis, was organized to bombard the city from the Buttes-Montmartre. Necker’s principal opponent, Breteuil, had been reported as saying in council, “If we have to burn Paris, then Paris will burn,” and now, it seemed, they had the men and the means to do so. Standing against this satanic conspiracy were native soldiers, led by the gardes françaises, but with other troops ready to follow should the people be seriously threatened. At Nangis, “near enough to Paris for the people to be politicians,” on June 30, the perruquier who dressed Arthur Young told him to “be assured as we are that French soldiers will never fire on the people,” adding, “but if they should, it is better to be shot than to starve.”

Mirabeau shared this view. “French soldiers are not just automata… they will see in us their relatives, their friends and their families… they will never believe it is their duty to strike without asking who are the victims…?” But he expressed it, on July 8, in a speech to the National Assembly that was dark with foreboding. In a speech of prophetic power, he painted a picture of impending civil war. Though he too exaggerated – at thirty-five thousand – the number of troops between Versailles and Paris, no one could be oblivious to the artillery rumbling over roads and bridges, and the batteries being dug in that he described. Worst of all was the transparent deceit being practiced – the incorrigible vice of the old regime confronted with New Men. Have those who embarked on these follies, he asked rhetorically, “foreseen the consequences they entail for the safety of the throne? Have they studied in the history of all peoples, how revolutions begin…?”

He had touched a nerve in the Assembly. The deputies had watched, helpless and apprehensive, as tents went up, first in the Cour de Marbre, then in the great colonnaded Orangery built by Mansart on the model of a Roman circus. Pyramids of muskets stood propped up against the Doric columns. Mirabeau’s eloquence gave voice to their gathering apprehension, and its peroration was greeted with waves of applause crashing over his sweaty head. When it subsided, an address was drafted to the King that spoke, only too correctly, of “danger… beyond all the calculations of human prudence… The presence of troops [in Paris] will produce excitement and riot and… the first act of violence on the pretext of maintaining public order may begin a horrible sequence of evils.” Louis was asked to withdraw his troops and defuse this explosive situation.

On July 10, two days later, the King responded. He attempted to calm the Assembly’s anxieties by claiming that the troops had been summoned to contain violent disorders in Paris of the magnitude of the Réveillon riots, that they were for the “protection,” not the intimidation, of the Assembly. All this was the classic preparatory language of the military coup d’état. The King even added a gratuitous suggestion of removing the Assembly to Noyons or Soissons should “conditions” make its work untenable at Versailles!

Only the most gullible royalist could possibly have believed him. The truth of course was that on the same day as Mirabeau’s address – and possibly provoked by it – Louis XVI had decided on a test of strength: his force against that claimed by the National Assembly. It was a more decisive act and a speedier one than those urging this confrontation on him – in particular the Queen and the princes – had dared to hope for. He had had, it seems, enough of being told what was good for him and for the monarchy. His exasperation with Necker’s self-righteousness had grown into something close to detestation when he had been upstaged by the Minister on June 23. At some point in his pursuit of boar, bird and roebuck, which continued unabated, Louis XVI had decided to assert the honor of the Bourbons.

He first needed the assent of Breteuil, who was to be appointed Necker’s successor in the ministry that would take on the National Assembly. When that was given, the King informed the princes on the tenth. Though their military planning called for all available troops to be in place on the sixteenth, no one was going to dampen the King’s new ardor for self-assertion. The weekend, moreover, was ideal for the coup. The National Assembly would not meet on Sunday and Necker could be expedited out of the country before it had time to react.

On Saturday the eleventh, the Minister was about to begin a congenial dinner at the proper hour of three in the afternoon, when the Minister of the Navy, La Luzerne, arrived with a letter from the King. It was terse and to the point. It required Necker to remove himself sans bruit – in secret – from Versailles, indeed from France altogether, and return to Switzerland. Necker pocketed the note, spoke briefly to his wife and called for the carriage in which he usually took his evening drive. Around five o’clock a valise was slung into its interior; Mme Necker, still in her tenue de soirée, got in, followed by her husband. The coach should, by rights, have turned south towards the Mâconnais, Lyon and the Swiss frontier. Instead it traveled northeast towards Brussels, where the Neckers alighted the following day. From there he wrote a letter to the Dutch bankers Hope, assuring them that notwithstanding his dismissal the two million livres they had loaned as security for impending grain shipments to France remained good.

It was an act of an honnête homme, in dramatic contrast with the petulant insecurity of the monarch who had sacked him.

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