Hello, and welcome to Revolutions.
After the great feast of the Federation, France passed into a period of outward calm as everyone went through the motions of trying to make the new order they had just celebrated work in practice. But as I hinted earlier, beneath the surface, there were surprisingly few people dedicated to defending what had just been celebrated, least of all the King himself.
Because though Louis was, for the moment, playing the part of citizen King, happily working alongside the people’s representatives, he was privately dejected by the lot that had fallen on him, his family, the monarchy, and the whole of the Kingdom. The concessions he had made had been forced on him by circumstances, and he was just waiting for the opportunity to renege as soon as circumstances changed.
But he was not the only one who saw the current constitutional settlement as anything but permanent. Conservatives both inside and outside of France were just biding their time, waiting for the Revolutionaries to falter so the heathen dogs could be swept aside once and for all. And the most reactionary of the emigrant nobles weren’t just biding their time, they were actively working to overthrow the new order.
Meanwhile, the Jacobin radicals were developing policy proposals that would take France even further down the road to full national regeneration, to say nothing of the ultra radical working class Parisians who were just starting to organize politically and wanted to turn the world upside down. In the summer of 1790, only Lafayette and his liberal noble brethren in the Society of 1789 looked at the current situation and liked what they saw. Everyone else saw it as a temporary summit to either climb back down from or push further on up from.
But though all these tensions swirled under the surface, a year would pass before France would be hit by another one of those Revolutionary tornadoes that would send everything spinning out of control. So today, I want to go back and pick up a few of the lingering constitutional issues that the National Assembly dealt with after moving to Paris, and then set up all the players on the board for the next major crisis that would hit in June 1791, when the King tried to bolt from France in the middle of the night.
So the first thing we need to talk about is the total administrative reorganization of France, especially because of all the permanent contributions made by the Revolution to modern France, this one is the most prominent and longest lasting. If you recall from way back in episode two, The Broken Regime, one of the things that plagued Ancien Régime, France, was the administrative chaos. Provinces didn’t line up with the généralité, and those didn’t line up with the jurisdictions of the Parlement, which didn’t line up with the Church diocese, which didn’t line up with tax regions. And all of the divisions had these customs barriers erected between every other division. It was a mess, everyone knew it. But trying to untangle it would require massive social, political, and economic upheaval.
But now that France was already dealing with massive social, political, and economic upheaval, we may as well clean up this mess while we have the opportunity. And after the move to Paris in October 1789, the National Assembly took up the question of administrative rationalization in earnest.
The first suggested reorganization, though, was frankly, a little too rational. This initial plan called for France to be divided up into 80 square-shaped departments equal in size. This number was quickly bumped up to 81 to fit in with a nested administrative system based on the number nine. So there would be 81 departments, each department would be divided into nine districts, and those districts would be divided into nine communes, with each level having an elected assembly to govern it.
But as geometrically sound as the plan was, it was a wee bit rigid for a Kingdom that had cultural, linguistic, and geographic divisions that stretched back into the misty past. So the Comte de Mirabeau got up and said, yes, we need to rationalize the administrative map, but these straight lines are no good. We need to take into account natural borders like mountains and rivers, and then account for both the number of people and the kind of people who will actually wind up grouped together.
This was a much more difficult task, obviously, but the National Assembly heeded Mirabeau’s advice and went back to the drawing board. But though what they came back with fit France a bit more naturally, one of the objectives of the new system was to push the heterogeneous subjects of the King into becoming homogeneous citizens of the nation. So old ethnic and cultural divisions were deliberately ignored, hopefully creating a more unified France in the process.
So in February 1790, they produced a new map of 83 departments, roughly equal in size, but with borders that made a bit more sense in the real world.
These new departments would become the subunit of French administration, tax assessment and collection, civil and criminal jurisdictions, even the dioceses of the newly organized French Church would be forced to fit into the departmental system. There would be elected assemblies at every level who would work in concert with the elected assemblies above them and below them to ensure that every citizen, active citizen for the moment, both had a say in lawmaking and then had the means to carry out the law uniformly and equally in every corner of the nation.
It goes without saying that any lingering rights and privileges enjoyed by this ancient province or that special généralité were just straight up nullified. And that did cause some friction here and there. Plus, the new system inevitably undermined the prestige of, say, Grenoble, which had been one of just 13 seats in the Parlement and was now nearly one of 83 departmental capitals.
But other cities welcomed the reorganization as it elevated backwaters into local political, economic and cultural hubs. But critically, it was still to be determined what the relationship would be between the national government seated in Paris and the local government seated in the departmental capitals. And that is going to be a thing.
When all the elections started being held for the local and departmental offices over the course of 1790, a few things became apparent. First, there were a dizzying array of elections. In the new order, everyone had to be elected: judges, mayors, assemblymen, even priests. The average French citizen suddenly went from having no say in who was going to be appointed to public office to being required to weigh in on every candidate for public office. It was an unexpected burden.
And as the Revolution progresses, one thing we’ll see is that electoral turnout will drop to the point where blanket nonparticipation was practically the rule. And a guy serving, for example, in the Paris Commune would be literally elected by dozens of votes. And that’s not the margin of victory, that’s the total number of votes. So the dream of democratic participation definitely ran into the reality of political fatigue, indifference and alienation, especially after politics becomes a super deadly business to get mixed up in.
The other thing that became apparent is that though France now had a whole new administrative apparatus, the personnel actually doing the administrating changed very little at first, of course, new men fired up by the Revolution entered the system for the first time, and old men turned off by the Revolution withdrew. But there was a pretty good swath of public officials in the middle who adapted quite naturally to the new order. So old councilors of the Parlement stood for and won the judgeships in their new departments. Men appointed by the King to serve at the local level simply took off their royal robes and donned the Revolutionary cockade. Many, indeed, were local aristocratic nobles who just stopped using their titles after those titles had been suppressed and recast themselves as citizens with experience and an aptitude for public management. And they would, of course, win, because who else was going to do it?
So though the Revolution seems to be so obviously a clean break with the past, nothing can ever be quite so clean. And through these first years, public administration was as much a continuation as it was a total reinvention.
Along with this major rationalization of the administrative apparatus, the National Assembly pursued other political and economic reforms that showed their continued commitment to the kind of Enlightenment ideals held by the old philosophes and now best represented by the liberal nobles of the Society of 1789.
So old marks of tyranny, like the Lettres de Cachet, and those unjustly levied taxes, like the gabelle, that despised salt tax, were abolished. But as much as these decrees aligned with the desires of most French citizens, active or passive, the National Assembly also made moves that would help alienate the lower classes from the supposed leaders of the Revolution.
So, for example, just as they were abolishing Lettres de Cachet and the gabelle, the National Assembly also took a look at which feudal dues and rights would be abolished in the spirit of the night of August 4, and which would require some form of monetary compensation. The private property loving delegates wound up classifying most of the dues as real property, and so not really subject to the sweeping declarations of August 4.
But though this classification wrangled those who found out about it, out in the provinces, or should I now say out in the departments, good luck getting the average peasant to understand the difference. Then they made another fairly big step away from public opinion but it was all right in keeping with their own philosophy when they reintroduced free trade in grain, and that, as you can imagine, earning them quite a bit of ill will from the Paris mobs who were now surrounding the deliberations of the National Assembly and of whom we will speak directly.
But this was matched by the abolition of all internal customs barriers which no one in their right mind could complain about. So, throughout 1790, we see the National Assembly pursuing an enlightened agenda that at times earned them heaps of praise and other times heaps of scorn. They were all doing their best to heal old wounds, but unfortunately, in the process, they opened up a few new ones.
Shortly after France as a whole was reorganized, Paris underwent a similar transformation. And I’ll use that transformation to pivot into a discussion of the pieces that would be on the board come the Royal Family’s ill fated flight from Paris in June 1791. We’ll start with the radicalizing, lower class mobs of Paris and then move our way across the political spectrum before rounding out today’s episode with a brief look at the army and the clergy, both of whom are currently being torn asunder.
So, as you’ll recall, the city of Paris had been rechristened the Paris Commune after the fall of the Bastille, and representatives from the 60 districts of the city now ran Paris from the Hotel de Ville with Sylvain Bailly as mayor. But one particular section, the Cordeliers, immediately started making a great nuisance of itself. The men and women of that most radical district had played a central role in the Storming of the Bastille, and they now found themselves cast aside as mere passive citizens. And so for them, the Revolution was now on the verge of being utterly betrayed. And they railed against Bailly and Lafayette and the whole agenda of the Society of 1789.
Jean Paul Marat, that most inflammatory of newspapermen, set up shop in the Cordeliers where he was safe to publish his screeds without fear of reprisal. Well, mostly without fear. In January 1790, he had set his pen against Lafayette in particular, and once the rhetoric got ugly enough, a warrant was finally issued for Marat’s arrest. But the good people of the Cordeliers refused to let the police execute the warrant and Marat safely made his way into hiding.
Partly in response to the hyper radical sentiments now spewing forth from the district, the Paris Commune voted to rejigger the district lines, producing 48 sections that erased the Cordeliers from the map as an autonomous unit. But in response to this attack, the popular agitators in the quarterly rallied and formed a political club to keep up the fight, because that was just the sort of thing you did in those days. And thus the Cordeliers Club was born in April 1790, it was officially called the Society of the Friends of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. Their goal was to defend the universal rights proclaimed by that sacred document, which already seemed to be eroding as fancy pants nobles and their slick talking lawyer friends refused to even recognize the vast majority of Frenchmen as full citizens.
In keeping with their egalitarian ideology, the Cordeliers Club required less than two livres as an entry fee, and thus drew in what the Society of 1789 and even the Jacobins might dismiss as the dregs of society, but which they themselves called the people. The club was led by the soon to be major revolutionary figure, George Danton, and was supported by the pens of Marat and Desmoulins who called the Cordeliers District the only sanctuary where liberty had not been violated. It was from these beginnings that the working class sans-culottes would be drawn, organized, and directed as a potent political force.
To the right of the populist Cordeliers, but well to the left of everyone else, was the Jacobin Club. They had taken their licks of late, as many original members defected to the Society of 1789, but their open door membership policy did not keep them down for long. By August 1790, there were 1,200 members in the Paris Club and 150 affiliate clubs scattered across France, mostly in major urban areas where middle class intellectuals tended to gather.
True, they were not able to dominate roll calls in the National Assembly anymore, but their message was beginning to spread far and wide. The defection of so many liberal nobles paved the way for speeches and pamphlets promoting universal education, opposition to the Catholic Church, equal rights before the law, even hinting around the idea that maybe France ought to be a republic though officially the Jacobins supported a constitutional monarchy.
They also continued to push for an end to the distinction between active and passive citizens, which they thought unjustly, disenfranchised the vast majority of the population. It was this last point that put them in a box with the populist radicals in the Cordeliers Club. And though neither side really liked or trusted the other, when their forces would combine over this issue, they would form a revolutionary juggernaut. That said, for the moment, the Jacobin Club was still in the main moderate, not yet having shed itself of the die hard constitutional monarchists who would first rise above their more radical brothers and then be felled by them shortly thereafter.
To the right of the Jacobins was, of course, the Society of 1789. At this moment, the ascendant party. They controlled most of the key political positions in France: Lafayette, head of the National Guard; Bailly, mayor of Paris; six of the eight members of the National Assembly’s all important constitutional committee and then, over the rest of 1790, almost all the presidents elected to lead the National Assembly were members of the club.
On top of that, these guys were able to start shouldering their way right into the Royal Ministry itself, at least by proxy. The National Assembly had passed a decree back in November 1789 stating that delegates could not become Royal Ministers, a law designed to prevent anyone from wielding power in both wings of government simultaneously. This came as a blow to the Comte de Mirabeau, who appears to have been angling for just such an appointment into the Ministry. Denied the opportunity to do it out in the open, the great orator of the people and vocal defender of the Revolution secretly offered his services to the Royal Family as a paid advisor, and early in 1790 Louis accepted the offer, much to his own distaste.
After that, Mirabeau’s extensive debts were suddenly gone and though he continued his public role as orator for the people, he was simultaneously doing his best to see that the King’s position was stabilized and even enhanced. The revelation that Mirabeau was a paid agent of the monarchy would not come out until after he died and was given the first great hero’s funeral of the Revolution.
By September 1790, the power of the Society of 1789 was such that they were able to finally force the resignation of Jacques Necker, who had been hanging on as a sort of useless appendage all these months. And that triggered a little wave of ministerial reshuffling over the next few weeks that saw men closely associated with either Lafayette or Mirabeau appointed to key positions.
So as 1790 drew to a close, the liberal nobles were absolutely in the driver’s seat and appeared to control the Paris Commune, the National Assembly, and the Royal Ministry. But as quickly as they had risen to power, history would soon dispense with them. And in case you’re wondering, almost every member of the Society of 1789 will wind up either dead or in exile.
But for the moment, the Society of 1789 and their fellow travelers still orbited the Revolution. Outside the orbit of the Revolution, however, were the unreconstructed conservatives on the far right of the political spectrum, many of whom were now choosing voluntary exile rather than submitting to the new order.
The first wave of emigration came after the Fall of the Bastille, when Comte d’Artois and his friends left the country, eventually setting up a little court in exile in Turin, Italy. Other waves of immigration followed as the Great Fear in the summer of 1789 erupted. And then after the women’s March on Versailles in October. Every day, it seemed, some noble decided that he had reached the end of the line, packed up his things and quietly slipped across the border.
Some of these emigrants were content to wait out the storm patiently, but others, led by the Comte d’Artois, dedicated themselves to plotting an end to the Revolution. To this end, they did their best to foment unrest inside of France and then convince the European powers outside France to come to the aid of their beleaguered Royal Family.
For the work inside France, their best angle was the revolutionary assault on the Catholic Church, which we’ll talk about even more in a second. Beginning in the spring of 1790, that is, just as the civil constitution of the clergy was being worked out, the first genuine counterrevolutionary demonstrations began to break out, mostly in the south of France, where a) emigrate agents could easily stay in contact with their masters in turn and b), the long dormant Protestant community was starting to come out from under the shadows, much to the dismay of local Catholics.
With these quasi uprisings spreading, d’Artois and his followers laid plans for a huge coordinated rebellion all across southern France. When word of the plot reached Louis though, he sent back orders to stop the planned uprising, believing it would only make a bad situation worse to which d’Artois responded that he and his friends must continue to serve the King and Queen in spite of themselves.
In the end, though, the plot was halted, but only because agents of the counterrevolutionary emigrates were apprehended in Lyon in December 1790, with all the written details of the whole conspiracy in their pockets, the uprising fizzled out.
For the work outside France, the emigrants bombarded the courts of Europe with pleas for assistance: money, troops, intelligence, sanctuary, anything, everything. All of this, much to the great annoyance of those courts of Europe. To this end, the emigrants generally stressed how the contagion of the Revolution might begin to spread across Europe. The Declaration of the Rights of Man was intended not just for the French, but for everyone. So if you don’t want to wind up like our poor King and Queen, now trapped in their palace by degenerate mobs, you’d better help us out here.
But for the moment, the heads of Europe had no intention of getting into it. Even the Holy Roman Emperor brothers of Marie Antoinette, first Joseph II and then Leopold II, after Joseph died in September 1790, well they all but ignored the cries of their sister and her in-laws. They were far more concerned about the situation in the east, the continued ambitions of Catherine the Great and the fate of Poland. Prussia seemed slightly more interested in armed intervention, but only as a way to gobble up more territory, not to help the King overcome his domestic troubles. Britain and, of course, wanted no part of any of this whatsoever.
Indeed, the European powers actually got together in July 1790 to try to settle any differences they had with each other on their Western fronts. The resulting Treaty of Reichenbach swapped around some territory and gave permission to Austria to go back in and reassert control over the Austrian Netherlands, not with an eye on further action in France but rather clearing up old business so that everyone could focus on the east, where it was agreed where the real action was now that France could no longer trouble them.
The frustrated emigrants were thus left mostly to their own devices, only finding real support among the minor German princes on the French border, whose property and rights were being attacked directly by the Revolutionaries. And it was there that the Comte d’Artois emigrant court found a new home, after the King of Sardinia kicked them out of Turin for causing him nothing but headaches.
So that’s how the political landscape lay at the beginning of 1791, with most everyone just waiting for something to break so they could rush in and push France in their own chosen direction. Forward or backward? Left or right?
We’ll wrap up today with a brief look at the tensions inside two great institutions that had once been critical to the social fabric of Ancien Régime society in which we’re now fraying apart: the army and, of course, the Catholic Church.
Now, we talked a bit about how at odds with itself the army had become in the last years of the Ancien Régime. Well, since the Fall of the Bastille, things have only gotten worse. The army, as you’ll recall, was divided into three basic camps: aristocratic senior officers disgruntled over the very fact of the Revolution, commoner or not aristocratic enough junior officers disgruntled at being held back by their aristocratic superiors, and then regular soldiers disgruntled about, you know, the things that regular soldiers are always disgruntled about.
Between the Fall of the Bastille and the Feast of the Federation, these tensions became unbearable, and acts of disobedience and near mutiny started cropping up in garrisons across France. On top of that, the Jacobin Correspondence Club was now in full effect, and local branches started coaching junior officers and common soldiers on the finer points of Revolutionary politics.
With these politically motivated tensions reaching the breaking point, many senior officers felt compelled to simply stop giving orders that might trigger acts of disobedience, or they themselves chose to become emigrants, slipping across the border, leaving their regiments without a leader. The French army was, at the moment, very much paralyzed.
Finally, in August 1790, the inevitable finally came when a full blown mutiny broke out in the garrison of Nancy on the northeastern frontier. A soldier’s committee in one of the regiments, very likely prompted by local Jacobins, demanded to see the regimental book so they could be audited. When rebuffed, they arrested the quartermaster, locked their officers up in some barracks, and then grabbed hold of the regimental treasury. The other regiments of the Nancy garrison followed suit, and pretty soon, the soldiers were in charge. The mutiny was complete.
When word reached Paris, the National Assembly was shocked and worried about what this might mean for discipline everywhere. Obviously, in due course, the grievances of the soldiers would have to be addressed, but mutiny was not the answer, and it could not be tolerated. So they ordered 4,500 soldiers to put down the mutineers. The officer in charge was himself an arch conservative named General de Bouillé who would soon earn a further place in history for himself by helping to arrange that ill fated escape attempt by the Royal Family that I keep alluding to.
When de Bouillé got to Nancy, he demanded the captive officers be released and the ringleaders of the mutiny handed over. But before any terms could be worked out, mutineers manning some artillery fired into de Bouillé’s men, killing 60. A small but bloody battle then erupted, and soon something like 500 men lay dead, mostly mutineers.
After this mutiny had been crushed, 22 men were hanged on the spot. Another 42 were sentenced to 30 years hard labor, and 72 just sent off to prison. This brutal suppression and punishment were officially approved by the National Assembly as necessary to restore discipline. But the radical populace in the Cordeliers Club and the Jacobin Club could see nothing in all this but re-entrenching tyranny. And it helped further their anger at Lafayette and his whole gang of liberal nobles, who now seem to be openly embracing a downright reactionary posture.
So that brings us finally back around to the French Catholic Church, who are about to become even more estranged from the Revolution than they had ever been. Now, we left them off last time, beaten down by the civil constitution of the clergy. But as I said, the majority of the clergy were willing to go along with the program if this could just please be the end of it. Indeed, French clergymen sent messages over to the Pope, all but begging him to let them go along with the new order. Even King Louis tried to convince the Vatican to accept at least parts of the new order rather than risk an all out schism.
But unfortunately for them, and somewhat inexplicably for history, the Pope decided to say nothing about it one way or the other. So, in August 1790, when the King officially promulgated the civil constitution, most of the clergy did go along with it, assuming that some sort of tacit agreement had been worked out with Rome. But no tacit agreement was in fact worked out. And as the months passed, members of the clergy became less and less sure that they could go forward without definitive support from the Pope.
Finally, in late October 1790, 30 bishops signed a letter saying they would not accept the new civil constitution because it had not yet been sanctioned by the Vatican. This helped spark protests from existing clergy as new departmental bishops were being elected. Then, spurred on by local chapters of the Jacobin Club, departmental authorities fired back and began to move vigorously to enforce the civil constitution which only led to further resistance and further clashes.
In response to all of this, the National Assembly debated what to do and in late November decided that any clergyman who couldn’t reconcile himself immediately would be dismissed. The test would be the now infamous civic oath, which required them to, “be faithful to the nation, the King and the law, and to uphold with all their power the constitution declared by the National Assembly and accepted by the King”.
By forcing the clergy to take this oath, the National Assembly was forcing them to publicly choose between their patriotic spirit and their religious convictions. Now, almost all the bishops save, of course, Talleyrand and one other guy, refused to take the civic oath. But it wasn’t just the noble ecclesiastics who wouldn’t take it. Men who had so far been along for the revolutionary ride simply couldn’t take this next step. And depending on where they lived, their flocks openly supported their decision. God Almighty, or a bunch of anticlerical radicals in Paris. Gee, I wonder which we should choose?
With the deadline of January 4, 1791 coming and going, only about half the clergy took the oath and the rest were summarily dismissed which began a permanent rupture between traditional religious values and revolutionary politics that would soon lead to, among other things, a full blown civil war in Western France when a radicalized Paris Commune tried to impose its will on the very Catholic population of the Vendée.
But that is for another day, as indeed is everything else. Next week, we will plow on through the first half of 1791 as the King decides to change his mind yet again. And this time heed the advice of his most conservative advisers that he is in danger and he needs to get out of France. And, as we’ll see, he’ll almost make it, too. If only his nose wasn’t so big.
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