II. WAR: 1792

It was a critical period for the Revolution. The émigrés, by 1791, had assembled twenty thousand troops at Coblenz, and were making headway with their appeals for help. Frederick William II of Prussia listened, for he thought he might use this opportunity to enlarge his realm along the Rhine. The Emperor Joseph II of the Holy Roman Empire might have gone to his sister’s aid, but his people too were in revolt, he was something of a revolutionist himself, and he was dying. His brother Leopold II, who succeeded him in 1790, was not inclined to war, but he issued with the King of Prussia a cautious “Declaration of Pillnitz” (August 27, 1791), inviting other rulers to join them in efforts to restore in France “a monarchical form of government which shall at once be in harmony with the rights of sovereigns, and promote the welfare of the French nation.”

Strange to say, both the monarchists and the republicans favored war. The Queen had repeatedly urged her imperial brothers to come to her rescue; and the King had explicitly asked the rulers of Prussia, Russia, Spain, Sweden, and Austria-Hungary to collect an armed force to restore the royal power in France.13 On February 7, 1792, Austria and Prussia signed a military alliance against France; Austria was hungry for Flanders, Prussia for Alsace. On March 1 Leopold II died, and was succeeded by his son Francis II, who itched for battle by proxy and for glory in person. In France Lafayette favored war in the hope that he would be commander in chief, and so be in a position to dictate to both the Assembly and the King. General Dumouriez, minister for foreign affairs, favored war in expectation that the Netherlands would welcome him as their liberation from Austria, and might reward him with a minor crown. Since there was as yet no talk of conscription, the peasantry and the proletariat accepted war as now a necessary evil because the unhindered return of the émigrés would restore and perhaps vengefully intensify the injustices of the Old Regime. The Girondins favored war because they expected Austria and Prussia to attack France, and counterattack was the best defense. Robespierre opposed the war on the ground that the proletariat would shed their blood for it, and the middle class would pocket any gains. Brissot outtalked him; “the time has come,” he cried, “for a new crusade, a crusade for universal freedom.”14 On April 20, 1792, the Legislative Assembly, with only seven dissenting votes, declared war upon Austria only, hoping to divide the allies. So began the twenty-three years of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. On April 26 Rouget de Lisle, at Strasbourg, composed “The Marseillaise.”

But the Girondins had not calculated on the condition of the French Army. On the eastern front it numbered 100,000 men, opposing only 45,000 Austrian troops; but they were officered by men nurtured in the Old Regime. When General Dumouriez ordered these officers to lead their soldiers into action, they replied that their raw volunteers were not prepared, with either weapons or discipline, to face trained soldiery. When, nevertheless, the order to advance was repeated, several officers resigned, and three cavalry regiments went over to the enemy. Lafayette sent to the Austrian governor at Brussels an offer to lead his National Guard to Paris and restore the authority of the King if Austria would agree not to enter French territory. Nothing came of the proposal except Lafayette’s later impeachment (August 20, 1792), and his flight to the enemy.

Matters reached a crisis when the Legislative Assembly sent to the predominantly Girondist ministry measures seeking the King’s signature for the establishment of a protective armed camp around Paris, and for the discontinuance of state stipends for nonjuring priests and nuns. The King, in a flurry of decision, not only refused to sign, but dismissed all the ministers except Dumouriez, who soon resigned to take command on the Belgian front. When the news of these vetoes circulated through Paris it was interpreted as a sign that Louis was expecting an army, French or alien, to reach Paris soon and put an end to the Revolution. Wild plans were made to evacuate the capital, and to form a new revolutionary army on the farther side of the Loire. The Girondist leaders spread among the sections a call for a mass demonstration before the Tuileries.

So on June 20, 1792, an excited crowd of men and women—patriots, ruffians, adventurers, fervent followers of Robespierre, Brissot, or Marat—forced their way into the courtyard of the Tuileries, shouting demands and taunts, and insisting on seeing “Monsieur et Madame Véto.” The King ordered his guards to let a number of them in. Half a hundred came, brandishing their varied weapons. Louis took his stand behind a table, and heard their petition—to withdraw his vetoes. He answered that these were hardly the fit place and circumstances for considering such complex matters. For three hours he listened to arguments, pleas, and threats. One rebel shouted, “I demand the sanction of the decree against the priests; … either the sanction or you shall die!” Another pointed his sword at Louis, who remained apparently unmoved. Someone offered him a red cap; he put it gaily on his head; the invaders shouted, “Vive la nation! Vive la liberté!” and finally “Vive le Roi!” The petitioners left, and reported that they had given the King a good scare; the crowd, dissatisfied but tired, melted back into the city. The decree against the nonjuring clergy was enforced despite the veto; but the Assembly, anxious to dissociate itself from the populace, gave the King an enthusiastic reception when, at its invitation, he came to accept its pledge of continued loyalty.15

The radicals did not relish this ceremonious reconciliation of the bourgeoisie with the monarchy; they suspected the sincerity of the King, and resented the readiness of the Assembly to stop the Revolution now that the middle class had consolidated its economic and political gains. Robespierre and Marat were gradually turning the Jacobin Club from its bourgeois sentiments to wider popular sympathies. The proletariat in the industrial cities was moving toward cooperation with the workers of Paris. When the Assembly asked each of the departments to send a detachment of the Federation of National Guards to join in celebrating the third anniversary of the fall of the Bastille, these “Fédérés” were mostly chosen by the city communes, and favored radical policies. One particularly rebel regiment, 516 strong, set out from Marseilles on July 5, vowing to depose the King. On their march through France they sang the new song that Rouget de Lisle had composed, and from them it took the name that he had not intended—“The Marseillaise.”*

The Marseillese and several other delegations of Fédérés reached Paris after July 14, but were asked by the Commune of Paris to delay their return home; it might have need of them. The Commune—the central bureau of delegates from the forty-eight “sections” of the city—was now dominated by radical leaders, and was day by day, from its offices in the Hôtel de Ville, replacing the municipal officials as the government of the capital.

On July 28 the city was again shocked into fear and rage by learning of the manifesto issued by the Duke of Brunswick from Coblenz:

Their Majesties the Emperor and the King of Prussia having intrusted to me the command of the united armies which they had collected on the frontiers of France, I desire to announce, to the inhabitants of that kingdom, the motives which have determined the policy of the two sovereigns, and the purposes which they have in view.

After arbitrarily violating the rights of the German princes in Alsace Lorraine, disturbing and overthrowing good order and legitimate government in the interior of the realm, … those who have usurped the reins of government have at last completed their work by declaring an unjust war on his Majesty the Emperor, and attacking his provinces in the Low Countries….

To those important interests should be added another matter of solicitude, … namely, to put an end to the anarchy in the interior of France, to check the attacks upon the throne and the altar, to … restore to the King the security and the liberty of which he is now deprived, and to place him in a position to exercise once more the legitimate authority which properly belongs to him.

Convinced that the sane portion of the French nation abhors the excesses of the faction which dominates it, and that the majority of the people look forward with impatience to the time when they may declare themselves openly against the odious enterprises of their oppressors, his Majesty the Emperor and his Majesty the King of Prussia call upon them and invite them to return without delay to the path of reason, justice, and peace. In accordance with these views I … declare:

1. That … the two allied courts entertain no other object than the welfare of France, and have no intention of enriching themselves by conquests….

7. The inhabitants of the towns and villages who may dare to defend themselves against the troops of their Imperial and Royal Majesties and fire upon them … shall be punished immediately according to the most stringent laws of war, and their houses shall be … destroyed….

8. The city of Paris and all its inhabitants shall be required to submit at once and without delay to the King…. Their Majesties declare … that if the Château of the Tuileries is entered by force or attacked, if the least violence be offered to … the King, the Queen, and the royal family, and if their safety and liberty be not immediately assured, they will inflict an ever memorable vengeance by delivering over the city of Paris to military execution and complete destruction….

It is for these reasons that I call upon and exhort, in the most urgent manner, all the inhabitants of the kingdom not to oppose the movements and operations of the troops which I command, but rather, on the contrary, to grant them everywhere a free passage, and to assist … them with all good will….

Given at the headquarters at Coblenz, July 25, 1792.


That somber eighth paragraph (perhaps offered to the amiable Duke by vengeful émigrés17) was a challenge to the Assembly, the Commune, and the people of Paris to abandon the Revolution or to resist the invaders by whatever means and at whatever cost. On July 29 Robespierre, addressing the Jacobin Club, demanded, as a defiance to Brunswick, the immediate overthrow of the monarchy, and the establishment of a republic with manhood suffrage for all. On July 30 the Marseillese Fédérés, still in Paris, joined other provincial detachments in pledging aid in deposing the King. On August 4 and the following days section after section of the city sent notice to the Assembly that it no longer acknowledged a king; and on August 6 a petition was presented to the deputies that Louis should be deposed. The Assembly took no action. On August 9 Marat published an appeal to the people to invade the Tuileries, arrest the King and his family, and all promonarchical officials, as “traitors whom the nation … ought first to sacrifice to the public welfare.”18 That night the Commune and the sections rang the tocsin calling for a massing of the people around the Tuileries the next morning.

Some came as early as 3 A.M.; by seven o’clock twenty-five sections had sent their quotas of men armed with muskets, pikes, and swords; some came with cannon; eight hundred Fédérés joined in; soon the crowd numbered nine thousand. The palace was defended by nine hundred Swiss and two hundred other guards. Hoping to discourage violence, Louis led his family from the royal chambers into the palace theater, where the Assembly was in chaotic session; “I come here,” he said, “to prevent a great crime.”19The insurgents were allowed to enter the courtyard. At the foot of the stairs leading to the King’s bedroom the Swiss forbade further advance; the crowd pressed against them; the Swiss fired, killing a hundred or more men and women. The King sent orders to the Swiss to cease fire and withdraw; they did, but the crowd, led by the Marseillese, overwhelmed them; most of the Swiss were slain; many were arrested; fifty were taken to the Hôtel de Ville, where they were put to death.20 The servants, including the kitchen staff, were slaughtered in a mad festival of blood. The Marseillese sang “The Marseillaise” to the accompaniment of the Queen’s harpsichord; a tired prostitute rested on the Queen’s bed. The furniture was burned, the wine cellars were sacked and drained. In the nearby courts of the Carrousel the happy crowd set fire to nine hundred buildings, and shot at firemen who came to put out the flames.21 Some of the victors paraded with banners made from the red uniforms of the dead Swiss Guards—the first known instance of a red flag used as the symbol of revolution.22

The Assembly tried to save the royal family, but the murder of several deputies by the invading crowd persuaded the remainder to surrender the royal refugees to the disposition of the Commune. It locked them under strict guard in the Temple, an old fortified monastery of the Knights Templar. Louis yielded without resistance, grieving over his now white-haired wife and his ailing son, and waiting patiently for the end.

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