The Flight to Varennes

Hello, and welcome to Revolutions.

Since being dragged down to Paris in October 1789, King Louis XVI had publicly played the part of citizen King, and he was convincing enough in this role to still be regarded as a benevolent father figure by the average French citizen. But privately, he was sinking deeper and deeper into a morose funk, depressed about what was happening all around him, but also paralyzed by indecision about what he could do in response. One of his sisters commented that Louis’ great problem was that he was definitely afraid of making a mistake, and that this complete lack of self confidence led him to do whatever seemed to be expedient at any given moment without following any kind of coherent or consistent plan. 

In the best of times, Louis probably would have been a fine placeholder King,  just another name on a list of forgettable, but inoffensive monarchs. But in these worst of times, he just wasn’t up for the job, and he was probably more aware of it than anyone. And today, he will make one of those mistakes he was so terrified of making, and it will wind up costing him dearly. 

Now thus far, the King had been able to swallow the political concessions that had been required of him because that was the path of least resistance. But like the rest of France, this business about the Church was starting to erode his ability to work with the revolutionaries. Louis was not some super pious true believer, but the more the National Assembly turned its guns on the Church, the more uneasy Louis became. 

It was one thing to tolerate anticlerical screeds in the press, but stripping the Church of its property, openly defying the Pope and now demanding all clergymen swear an oath to put the French nation before their own religious scruples? He had accepted the civil constitution of the clergy because he felt powerless to stop it. He had even promulgated it. He had even written to the Pope asking the Vatican to sanction it. But in his heart, he did not like any of it one bit. 

Indeed, after he publicly signed off on the civic oath, he was so concerned about the blasphemy he was authorizing that when his own personal chaplain took the oath, as one might expect the personal chaplain of the King to do, Louis started to avoid him. And he went out of his way to not take communion from any priest who had taken the civic oath. 

So clearly there was a public King, seemingly working in harmony with the reforms of the National Assembly and a private King who was becoming permanently estranged from the whole project. Up until now, the people in France had only seen the public King. But in June 1791, they would finally get a look at the private King. And once they saw that King, they started asking whether or not they needed any King at all

The first public signal that Louis was not completely on board with the civil constitution or the civic oath came in early February 1791, when two of his aunts – old maids by this point – requested permission to travel to Rome for Holy Week. Now, under the new enlightened regime, what use did the Royal Family have for the Vatican? Ought they not stay in France and enjoy a good, patriotic Holy Week overseen by patriotic bishops who had sworn the civic oath? But Louis approved the trip and gave his permission for his aunts to travel, which caught many, especially in Paris, off guard. Their good, benevolent citizen King shouldn’t be letting his family wander off like that, and certainly not to go bow and scrape before the Pope. 

The radical press in Paris started to beat him up pretty good about this, and the story quickly morphed into a tale about this being the beginning of an organized emigration of the whole Royal Family. They would be let out at intervals for this reason or for that reason, but in the end, France would wake up in a few months and discover that the monarchy had flown the coop. 

The King’s brother, the Comte d’Artois, had just been busted trying to incite a rebellion in southern France, using religion as his wedge issue. And now these two royal ants are going to piously pay their respects to the Pope? It did not sit right with the radicals one bit

But even more surprising than the King allowing his aunt to leave the country was the man who suddenly rose to the King’s defense, the Comte de Mirabeau. Unbeknownst to almost everyone, but suspected by more than a few, Mirabeau had been on the King’s payroll since the spring of 1790 and was sending regular advice to the Royal Family on how best to weather the revolutionary storm

So when the National Assembly took up the matter of the traveling aunts and turned it into a general discussion about the problem of aristocratic emigration, you know, what can we do about it? Mirabeau got up and said that they should do nothing about it. In fact, they could do nothing about it. Freedom of movement was a core part of liberty, which, if I’m not mistaken, is exactly what we’ve been enshrining in law all these long months. Not only that, if we now turn around and say, well, freedom of movement for regular citizens is one thing, but it doesn’t apply to aristocrats or royalty, well, guess what, guys? We’ve just erected a two tiered justice system. Only now the privilege is working in reverse. If all men are born free and the law applies equally to everyone, then we can’t stop someone from choosing of their own free will to go visit Italy. That’s crazy. 

The delegates were surprised to hear the champion of the Revolution making this particular case. It may be sound in theory, but in practice, it invited counterrevolutionary disaster, and the delegates elected instead to set up a small committee who would be empowered to make decisions about who could enter France and who could leave France, which was their first foray into controlling the destinies of perceived enemies of the Revolution. 

What the delegates did not know then, but what we do know now, is that Mirabeau wasn’t just making this case in the abstract. At this point, there were basically two kinds of left wing revolutionaries. Those like the leaders of the populist Cordeliers Club and more radical Jacobins, who believed that the greatest threat to the nation was posed by reactionary conservatives. And then those like the members of the Society of 1789, and more moderate Jacobins, who believed that the greatest threat was posed by the violent anarchism of the lower classes

Despite his reputation as the orator of the people, Mirabeau was definitely more afraid of the mob than he was of the nobility. He did not want to go back to the ways of the Ancien Régime. But if things kept heading in a radical direction, what good reforms had been made would be lost, and the situation might get a whole lot worse. These guys might actually decide to try to overthrow the monarchy or something. 

So in private memos to the Royal Family, he started strongly urging them to figure out a way to get out of Paris. I don’t believe he ever went so far as to advise the King leave the country, but he certainly thought Louis should get out of the capital, and the sooner the better. Getting the King and his family away from the clutches of the Paris mobs was becoming critical. 

Mirabeau’s argument was that the National Assembly was already alienating itself from the rest of the country over the civil constitution of the clergy, and things were about to drift in the direction of civil war. His advice was for the Royal Family to get out of Paris, go set up a capital in some provincial city, wait for the National Assembly to fatally undermine its own legitimacy, whereupon the King could step in, call for new elections, bring in some new, sensible men to consolidate a constitutional monarchy built around a strong King who recognized basic civil rights and who listened to his new Principal Minister of state, me, the Comte de Mirabeau. But for the moment, Louis did not take the advice, though in very short order, he would wish that he had. 

The first incident that helped push Louis in the direction of getting the hell out of Paris came in late February 1791, the so-called Day of Daggers. When the press started filling up with stories about the King’s imaginary plot to escape from France, working class patriots started to believe that it was all true, that the King was about to take flight, hook up with the Austrian army and then come back in and slaughter them all. 

So in late February 1791, sporadic demonstrations in Paris started coalescing into organized action. On February 28, a radical commander of the National Guard led about 1,000 armed men and women in the direction of a prison on the outskirts of town, intending to tear it down as they had once torn down the Bastille. 

The prison was targeted both because it too was a symbol of tyranny and was not befitting a free people, but also because of the strong rumor that there was a secret tunnel connecting the prison to the Tuileries Palace through which the King was planning to escape. When word of the looming attack reached Lafayette, who was in charge of keeping peace in Paris, he rode out from his headquarters at the Tuileries to halt the mob. 

But when he got there, he discovered that there was some pretty generalized wrath going around and he himself was among the targets. He may have been the hero of two worlds, but his conduct of late had made him a hated figure among the radicals of the Cordeliers district. Over the course of the day, Lafayette dodged at least three concerted assassination attempts. 

With things taking such an ugly turn, old aristocrats of the once proud sword nobility got together and expressed concern to each other that the Royal Family might be targeted next. And indeed, a guy armed with a sword and multiple pistols was stopped trying to get into the Palace. So those old sword nobles did what old sword nobles were supposed to do: they rallied to protect the King. 

About 400 of them, secretly armed with sabers and daggers, entered the Palace one by one on passes arranged by a loyal chamberlain, and they set up a protective ring around the Royal Family. 

Okay, so now both major perceived threats to the new order have been activated. Reactionary nobles are seizing the palace while violent mobs are running amok in the streets. And then there’s Lafayette, caught in the middle. Having avoided being assassinated by the people, he now has to rush back to the Palace to confront armed nobles who probably despised him even more than the mobs did. For all his dreams of being the great unifying figure who embodied a new enlightened France, Lafayette was discovering that he was actually now hated by practically everyone. I imagine him at this point pining away for the simpler days when he and his adopted rustic brothers in the Continental Army faced a simple battle for liberty and justice for all. 

But those days were gone, and surviving a winter in Valley Forge was starting to look like a breeze compared to surviving one day in revolutionary Paris. When he got back to the Palace, Lafayette confronted the 400 nobles and demanded that they lay down their weapons. At first, the nobles refused, but then King Louis himself told them to heed Lafayette. Defying the National Guard would only invite more danger on all their heads. And so, disgusted, the nobles complied and were escorted from the palace. 

Almost every one of them was soon on the road out of France to join the growing emigrate community and plot their glorious return to smash the Revolution and save their dishonored kingdom. 

As the sun set on the Day of Daggers, both threats to the constitutional order were suppressed. The Paris mob was stopped from tearing down the prison they had intended to demolish, and the armed nobles were broken up. The main casualty of the day’s events was Lafayette standing with everyone as both conservatives and radicals had now concluded, his real sympathies lay with the other side. This was the beginning of a journey that would eventually land him in an Austrian prison. 

The Comte de Mirabeau was, of course, delighting now in Lafayette’s growing unpopularity. Though he and Lafayette had a great deal in common, they were now fierce rivals for power, as both sought to be the principal leader of France and the chief steward of a new constitutional monarchy. But Mirabeau did not have long to savor his rival’s downward spiral. Nor would he even get to see that spiral pick up speed after the massacre at the Champ de Mars. Plus, it’s unclear whether Mirabeau’s own popularity would have survived had he lived, because the Day of Daggers allowed the National Assembly to justify further restrictions on emigrates in their property, since it was now clear that if they were left to their own devices, they would use every penny they had to fight the Revolution

But Mirabeau continued to oppose these restrictions on travel. And debates with his old friends on the left got bitter and personal, especially after Mirabeau tried to come back to the Jacobin Club to defend himself and was greeted with overt hostility from its leaders. 

But instead of winding up as a despised betrayer of the revolution as so many of his station and beliefs would soon be, Mirabeau managed to die at the perfect moment and instead became the first great mythic hero of the Revolution.  

At the end of March 1791, Mirabeau suddenly got sick from something, no one was sure what at the time, though the scandal rags had it that it was complications from venereal disease. After lingering for a few days, somewhat melodramatically in the eyes of his old friend Talleyrand, Mirabeau died on April 2, 1791. Right away, it was determined that a man as great as Mirabeau deserves something more than just a funeral and the people of France deserves something more than just a grave to come visit. 

So his death was seized on as a vehicle to launch a project that had been kicked around for years and whose time had now come. The idea was to create a space where the best men of France could be buried together in a national tomb, something of a Westminster Abbey for the French. A not quite finished neoclassical church that had been languishing for lack of funds was appropriated and rechristened the Pantheon

Mirabeau would be the first member of a new cult of national heroes. A huge procession accompanied his body to the new Pantheon that included companies of the National Guard, nearly every member of the National Assembly and, surprisingly, every member of the Jacobin Club. There had been ill wills late, but there was no denying the central role Mirabeau had played in the Revolution. 

The remains of the great orator were then returned inside the pantheon and from that moment on, Mirabeau passed from being a mere mortal to a legendary hero and his shrine was visited by patriotic citizens throughout the course of the Revolution and it still remains a central fixture of the Pantheon today. I’m just kidding about that. Once the Paris Commune found out Mirabeau had been in the King’s pay, they disinterred him in 1794, dumped his remains in an unmarked grave and replaced him in the Pantheon with the recently assassinated Jean Paul Marat. Of course, it wouldn’t be long before the Revolution took another swing and Marat was himself disinterred because that’s how it goes in the French Revolution

So getting back to it, after the Day of Daggers, the rumors that the Royal Family was getting ready to run only picked up steam and the King started to seriously wonder if it wasn’t time to make the false rumors true and his wife was certainly badgering him to do just that. So shortly after the great funeral for Mirabeau, the King finally decided that it was no longer safe in Paris

What finally tilted the balance was an incident in mid April during the lead up to Holy Week. The Royal Family had from time to time gone to visit Saint-Cloud, which was a neighborhood close to the city but far enough away to breathe a little fresh air. In the past, these short trips had not been a problem, but after the Day of Daggers, the radicals in Paris were on hyper alert. And so when they learned that the Royal Family was getting ready to leave on a week’s holiday, it screamed an escape attempt and about 1,000 men and women rushed down to the Tuileries

When the King and Queen emerged from the Palace to get into their waiting carriage, they were heckled mercilessly and the mob closed ranks and refused to let them leave. Lafayette came out and ordered a company of national guardsmen to escort the family through the crowd. But as had happened on the day of the Women’s March on Versailles, the company refused the order, embarrassing Lafayette to no end. 

For two hours, the family sat inside the carriage, listening to every insult in the book hurled at them while waiting for the crowd to disperse. But the crowd never did disperse and Lafayette couldn’t get his men to do anything about it. Finally, they all had to call it a day and retreat back into the Palace, humiliated and not a little bit scared for their lives. Whatever fiction remained that the King and Queen lived in Paris of their own patriotic accord was now obliterated. They were prisoners and it was time to stage a jailbreak. 

Over the next two months, a plan was cooked up to sneak the Royal Family out of Paris. The man who organized the operation was a Swedish count named Axel von Fersen, who had for many years been one of the Queen’s intimate, going back to her early days in France when Louis would have nothing to do with her. 

They were the same age and just teenagers when they first met. Fersen became one of the Queen’s most devoted admirers, though whether they ever consummated that mutual admiration is unknown. 

Outside Paris, the safety of the Royal Family was put in the hands of General de Bouillé, that guy we talked about last time, who put down the mutiny in Nancy. Having proven beyond a shadow of a doubt his dependability, he was trusted with arranging loyal troops to escort the family once they got out of Paris and then also to arrange for a strong garrison to be waiting to receive them in the fortress of Montmédy, about 200 miles from Paris, right on the border with the Austrian Netherlands. 

As the appointed day approached, the Royal Family was urged to travel out of the city separately and in light fast coaches. But either the King or the Queen overruled this advice, I’ve seen both blamed for the decision. They elected to keep everyone together in a much slower moving caravan. The plan they settled on was for the family to engage in a little station swapping. Their governess would pretend to be a Russian countess while the Queen dressed up in the clothes of the governess and Louis dressed up like the family valet. The Russian baroness would then use a forged passport that listed Frankfurt as her final destination to get past any checkpoints. 

But there was still the problem of getting the King and Queen out of the Palace without being detected. For the King, they arranged for a loyal nobleman to come and go in an ostentatious costume in the weeks leading up to the escape. So at midnight on June 20, 1791, Louis dressed himself up in that garish outfit, now a well known fixture of the palace halls, and strolled boldly out to the carriage without drawing a second glance. 

The queen, meanwhile, dressed up like the governess and slipped down towards the courtyard separately. But on the way, she almost literally bumped into Lafayette making his nightly rounds. She then got turned around after getting flustered and was almost a half hour late for the rendezvous. This was the first of a series of delays that would help turn the escape attempt into a failed escape attempt. 

Once they got moving, though, everything seemed to be going according to plan. They switched coaches shortly after exiting the city, then picked up fresh horses right where the fresh horses were supposed to be. By dawn, they were well on their way, but as they crossed the bridge, the carriage hit a post and wiped out and they were delayed further as the necessary repairs were made to a broken wheel. 

These delays were now becoming a problem because about halfway along the journey, they were supposed to start linking up with the loyal troop escorts. The officer in charge of the first escort waited two hours for the Royal Family to show, and when they didn’t, he assumed that something had gone wrong, that the plan had either failed or been aborted. So he sent a messenger to the further escort groups waiting down the line that the plan appears to be off. 

Now, the officer was, of course, wrong about that, but he was nervous about how he was going to explain what he was doing to all the nervous locals who first thought that he was there to demand they start paying all those taxes they were now refusing to pay. And then they became suspicious when the officer told them, no, it has nothing to do with your taxes. I’m just here to protect some treasure that’s going to be on the road here shortly. With the Royal Family still not showing, he finally withdrew his men from their conspicuous position along the road. Thus, when the Royal Family finally did show, there was no escort. 

But that wasn’t the big problem. The big problem was that by using the slower moving carriage and then suffering unexpected delays, once the Tuileries Palace woke up and realized that the Royal Family had flown the coop, the messenger sent out from the city to spread the word overtook the family in no time. So when they passed through a town that had already been alerted to keep an eye out, the local postmaster recognized them

He was pretty sure that that governess was the Queen because he had seen her once while serving in the cavalry. And that portly valet, well, he was probably the King. To make doubly sure, he pulled out an assignat from his pocket. The Revolution’s currency bore a picture of Louis, and the King’s big, prominent nose was a perfect match for the big, prominent nose on that portly valet who just passed me by. So the postmaster hopped on his horse and sped off on a shortcut to the next town up the road, Varennes, just 30 miles from the border. 

The postmaster managed to beat the Royal Family to Varennes and convinced the local authorities to take a closer look at the Russian baroness who was about to pass through. The authorities weren’t too impressed with the wild claims of the breathless postmaster, but he kept insisting and demanded, at the very least, the party be detained. So they were. Led into the home of a local official, an old servant who had once served at Versailles recognized Louis and instinctively dropped to one knee, to which Louis kind of carelessly tossed off, yes, I am your King, which I mean by this point, I’m sure he believed the jig was up. But, dude, let the burden of proof stay with your accusers. Don’t confess just because some old man took a knee. 

So just like that, the flight to Montmédy became known to history as the flight to Varennes, which should more accurately be called the flight as far as Varennes, since it was never the intended destination. 

Meanwhile, back in Paris, the radical sections and the Jacobins both went crazy. They accuse Lafayette, now their favorite whipping boy, of being incompetent or treacherous or both for letting the family escape. They further decided that the entire thing was a plot cooked up in concert with the Austrians, who would be invading any day now. And there were suddenly very real fears, both inside Paris and out near the frontier, that France was about to be invaded

The National Assembly sent an order straight away for the family to be brought back to Paris, then decreed that the King’s powers were provisionally suspended, that the borders were closed and that they were now sitting in permanent session. The Jacobin Club soon followed suit and declared a similar permanent session.

The Royal Family was then escorted back to the capital by some 6,000 armed men and women, mostly companies of National Guard, but also just civilians who wanted to make sure the King and Queen got home safe and sound. This was a fairly debilitating blow to the family’s morale, because, locked up in Paris, they had just assumed that outside the capital, they were as popular as ever. Indeed, everyone in on the plot assumed that even if the Royal Family was recognized on the road, that their loyal subjects wouldn’t turn them in, they were shocked to discover just how delighted everyone seemed to be that they had been caught

When they got back to Paris on June 25, they were met by crowds standing around in an eerie silence. There was no heckling or catcalling, just muted staring that I can only imagine was quite a bit more unsettling. The family was then deposited back in the Tuileries Palace, where they would remain under guard until the National Assembly decided what to do with them

Already, the Cordeliers Club was drawing up a petition that declared liberty and royalty to be incompatible. And more than a few delegates in the National Assembly were starting to agree. But most of the others were not quite willing to take that particular plunge. And though they were furious with the King, they wanted to hedge their bets a bit. And they got General de Bouillé, who had obviously hopped across the border after the family was arrested. Well, they induced him to accept responsibility for abducting the King, a transparent fiction made even more transparent because Louis had left behind a declaration to the French people justifying his escape and denouncing everything that had happened since the Tennis Court Oath. But as Republicanism started to pick up steam, this fiction about an abduction became necessary to ward off the super radical populists. 

The flight to Varennes is in many ways a replay of Charles I’s flight from London in 1642. Remember all that business? In that case, Charles got away. He hoisted a banner and started a civil war. What if he had been caught, though, and returned to Whitehall? Would the monarchy have collapsed right then and there? Or what if Louis had gotten away? Would he have hoisted a banner and started a French version of the English civil wars? It’s impossible to know for sure, because he did not get away. And all we do know is that the result of all this was the death of the monarchy’s legitimacy and an end to any cooperation whatsoever between the revolutionary leaders and the Royal Family

In the next phase of the action, some of those leaders will continue to try to keep the King at the center of the constitutional order. But with the radicals holding torches and pitchforks at the gate and Louis himself purposefully now undermining their efforts, there was almost no chance of salvaging the situation. The flight to Varennes was thus a major turning point in the course of the French Revolution. And next time, we’ll get into the immediate aftermath of the failed flight, as the Cordeliers Club will hold a mass demonstration on the Champ de Mars to demand an end to monarchy, a demonstration that will be suppressed by Lafayette, further estranging everyone from everyone else. 

Next week, however, is Thanksgiving here in the States. So it will be two weeks before we get into all of this, but I will see you then for the massacre of the Champ de Mars

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