Hello, and welcome to Revolutions.
After the National Assembly closed its doors on September 30, 1791, French revolutionary politics took zero days off because the next morning, October 1, 1791, the new Legislative Assembly convened for the first time. Elections for the Assembly had started up at the end of August and run through September on the assumption that the Constitution of 1791 was about to be completed and the King would accept it. Then it was, and he did so a new slate of elected representatives from the various departments and municipalities of France were already in Paris, ready to hit the ground running on October 1.
The Legislative Assembly, as I mentioned at the end of last week’s episode, was composed of an entirely new cohort of political leaders. Robespierre’s self denying decree prevented National Assembly delegates from standing for election. But it wasn’t just that the members were literally different men, it was also that they were a different kind of men. The most obvious difference between the two assemblies was that almost no clerics or nobles stood for election. When I say nobles, I mean men who had formerly been noble since technically their titles had now been set aside. Those guys had constituted half the membership of the National Assembly, now they were nowhere to be seen. Of the 745 delegates to the Legislative Assembly, only a handful were drawn from the ranks of the old First and Second estates.
Another big difference is that most of the Legislative Assembly delegates had spent the last two and a half years of the Revolution living and working in the districts they now represented. Why is that important? Well, because the National Assembly delegates had spent that same two and a half years living and working in Versailles and Paris. I mean sure some of them went home from time to time, but for the most part they were working in a bubble, passing these enormous reforms and then lobbying them out into the countryside where locals had to pick their way through it all. The guys who were elected to the Legislative Assembly were those locals who had been picking their way through the reforms on the ground. They were also the ones who had to deal with daily resistance to those reforms, which the National Assembly only heard about by way of secondhand reports, if they heard about it at all.
So the Revolution was not an abstract matter of principle to the men of the Legislative Assembly, it was a real tangible thing that they had been working on for years now and it was very much in need of a firm defense.
So while the outgoing National Assembly delegates had a tendency to look down on the incoming Legislative Assembly delegates, dismissing them as a bunch of young, obscure and inexperienced rustics, that was only because the National Assembly delegates had kind of lost touch with what was going on back home. The incoming delegates may have been a bit younger, statistically, but obscure and inexperienced? Not any more.
Nearly every one of them had more than two years of practical experience in revolutionary politics and had become quite well known, at least in their home departments. Many had been officers in the National Guard or served in local government after that little municipal revolution swept through the provinces after the Fall of the Bastille. Then the departmental reorganization of France had created all manner of new administrative posts that had to be filled, to say nothing of the provincial Jacobin Clubs that began sprouting up all over the place where ambitious locals could meet and mingle and get to know each other. These guys were way deep in the Revolution in a way that the members of the National Assembly simply could not understand.
Aside from serving in local government, there was also one other way to pick up practical political experience and earn reputation enough to get elected to the Legislative Assembly, and that was by not serving in local government, but instead by being a fierce and vocal critic of local government. So the Legislative Assembly came with a whole bunch of guys who had made their bones not applauding the new order, but by harping on all the ways it fell short of perfection. And since conservatism was dormant for the moment, these attacks invariably came from the left. The Revolution must go faster, it must go further, it must go higher. Send me to the Legislative Assembly and oh, the heights to which we’ll soar.
But all that said, when the Legislative Assembly delegates began arriving in Paris, it appeared that the Feuillants Club, led by the triumvirate, would maintain their ascendant edge through the transition period. The electorate was, remember, composed of well to do, active citizens and on top of that, only about 10% bothered to vote. And that’s not 10% of the total population, that’s 10% of the already minuscule active citizen electoral rolls.
So the men being elected and doing the electing were drawn from the ranks of France’s social and economic upper middle crust, so mostly well off property owners, or, as always, lawyers. So though the Legislative Assembly came in collectively leaning further to the left than the departing National Assembly, there were still a lot of delegates with a vested interest in solidifying the new order.
So when the newly minted delegates arrived in Paris and went looking for a political club to join, only about 130 went straight for the Jacobins. Meanwhile, somewhere between 250 and 350 joined the Feuillants, indicating that at the outset at least, opinion ran in the direction of making the Constitution of 1791 work.
But also worth noting is that the remaining 300 to 400 delegates joined no club at all. And it was this persuadable middle over which the coming political battles would be fought and then decisively won by the Jacobins.
Now, there are a couple of big reasons the Feuillants are going to run out of gas so quickly. First, their core leadership, built around Barnave, Duport and Lameth, were now out of power. Barred from the Legislative Assembly and further barred by another National Assembly decree from serving in the Royal Ministry, they could now only influence policy informally.
Second, and this one hit Barnave especially hard. The Feuillants leadership had believed that the Royal Family would love them for saving the monarchy from radical republicans, when in fact, they were now despised by the conservatives at court for salvaging the dishonorable settlement represented by the Constitution of 1791. These conservatives did their best to undermine the Feuillants, often by cynically giving aid to the radicals in the hopes that the whole revolutionary project would fall apart.
Finally, as I mentioned at the end of last week, the Feuillants were deliberately depoliticizing their club: subscription rates were high, the public was barred from its meetings, they did not plot concrete legislative strategy. So if you are an energetic and ambitious politician, the Feuillants Club was no place for you. The action, as everyone knew, was down in the Jacobin Club, where nightly the house was brought down by the best speakers, the most charismatic leaders who were debating the most important issues of the day.
By December, Feuillant would be in terminal decline. But they were able to score one last success during the transition period by getting a few of their allies appointed to high positions in the Royal Ministry, though those new ministers would not survive for long in the new political climate.
When the Legislative Assembly got rolling in October 1791, they dove headlong into two related issues that they believed demanded immediate attention: what to do about intransigent priests who refused to take the civic oath, they were now called refractory priests or non-juring priests, and what to do about the émigrés. As the delegates knew from their own personal experience, those two groups posed an active threat to the Revolution. And until they were dealt with, there was no real point in taking up other business.
The issue of the non-juring priests was opened just a week into the first session of the Legislative Assembly, when a report was introduced detailing mass Catholic resistance in the Vendée region of western France. Since the civil constitution of the clergy had been initiated, priests who refused to take the civic oath had been treated fairly leniently, especially after the Pope officially denounced the civil constitution back in March 1791 – sorry, I skipped over that part.
Recognizing the difficult position this put many sincere Catholics, the National Assembly had granted refractory priests a pension and even given them permission to hold unofficial services in unused churches. Hopefully, this would help reconcile everyone to the new religious regime. Instead, it gave the refractory priest a platform from which to attack the new religious regime.
But while the National Assembly was treating the French priests sympathetically, they had no such sympathy for the Pope, who was clearly trying to stir up a religious civil war. Diplomatic relations were broken off with the Vatican, and then in May 1791, French forces occupied Avignon and the Comtat Venaissin, the two main papal enclaves within the French frontier. Then, in September, just as they were packing up to leave, the National Assembly formally annexed the two enclaves. This provocative annexation, of course, led to confrontations within the enclaves between pro annexationist patriots and anti annexationist conservatives.
Shortly after the Legislative Assembly convened, a pro annexationist official was lynched by an arch Catholic gang in Avignon, and in retaliation, something like 60 anti annexationist prisoners were slaughtered by their patriot guards. The Legislative Assembly was informed of the slaughter on October 21, and coupled with the reports coming out of the Vendée and the first hand experience of most of the delegates themselves, it was clear that the religious schism was threatening to tear the nation apart.
But as they wrestled with the problem of the seditious non-juring priests, the Legislative Assembly also took up the question of the émigrés. Now, the delegates believed that ignoring the threat posed by the émigrés was a folly, especially those delegates from the southeast who had witnessed first hand the émigré attempt to stir up a mass counterrevolutionary uprising.
Now, the National Assembly had attempted to force the émigrés to come home in the wake of the flight to Varennes by announcing on July 9, 1791, that the property of any émigré that did not return to France within one month would be subject to triple taxation. The King even sent out a public notice of his own on July 31, calling for his brothers to return to France, but to no avail. And in fact, as we saw last time, emigration dramatically increased in the second half of 1791.
At the behest of the newly convened Legislative Assembly, Louis reiterated on October 15 his public call for the princess to come home. The new constitution can work, you just have to stop fighting it. Then on October 20, a delegate who was about to command the attention not just of France but of all Europe, stepped up to the podium and delivered his first major address. That man was Jacques Pierre Brissot, and he is about to plunge Europe into war.
Jacques Pierre Brissot was born in January 1754, so he was about 37 years old when he stepped up to the proverbial mic in October 1791. He had studied law and apprenticed as a clerk in Paris, but law would turn out to be neither his passion nor his vocation, nor would he settle in Paris. Instead, he married a young woman adept at translating English works, and the couple moved up to London where they started a family.
Brissot’s real passion was the written word, and while living in Paris, he made a living as a journalist and correspondent for various newspapers and then, trying to make a literary name for himself, by publishing works of legal philosophy rooted in the theories of Rousseau. In the early 1780s, Brissot embarked on an ambitious venture to collect and publish the most advanced philosophical and scientific work from around the world, all in one place. But the venture was too ambitious, and it failed.
When he returned to Paris in 1784, he was promptly thrown in jail for allegedly publishing a little pornographic pamphlet starring Queen Marie Antoinette. Not exactly advanced Enlightenment philosophy, but, you know, a guy’s gotta eat. But Brissot was not just thrown in any jail, he was chucked in the Bastille, making him one of the only revolutionaries to enjoy that honor.
He was released four months later and promptly published an open letter to Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II, arguing that the emperor’s subjects were perfectly entitled to revolt against his rule any time they saw fit. Since Austria was still technically a French ally, the heat came down again, and Brissot had to hightail it back to London.
While in London the second time, he fell in with a new species of political activists, one heretofore unknown in world history: abolitionists. Brissot became a passionate convert to the cause of slave emancipation. And it was these abolitionist beliefs that would help form the first bonds between the men, who would all shortly be called the Girondins, who we’ll talk about next week.
In 1788, Brissot toured the United States and hung out for a bit with famed francophile and slave owner Thomas Jefferson, who was left with the impression that Brissot was getting ready to emigrate to the New World. But upon his return to the Old World, Brissot discovered France was on the verge of a massive political upheaval; so this was no time to split the scene.
After press restrictions were loosened in the lead up to the Estates General, Brissot started up a new paper called The French Patriot, and it quickly became one of the largest circulation journals in Paris. It earned him enough notoriety that he was soon elected into the new government of the Paris Commune.
But philosophically, Brissot had more in common with the radicals of the Cordeliers District than he did with his colleagues in the Paris Commune, most especially because Brissot had developed into an ardent republican.
He was generally opposed to all the injustices of the Ancien Régime. But he also had a personal grudge against the Royal Family for locking him up in the Bastille and then chasing him back to London. Nothing he had seen since the convening of the Estates General had convinced him that the King and Queen were doing anything but playing for time until they could launch the counter revolutionary coup clearly being planned by the reactionaries at Court, who were in league with émigrés and the Austrians. The flight to Varennes was for Brissot just further proof that this so-called Austrian plot existed. And as I noted, Brissot was the primary author of the republican petition that was being signed at the Champ to Mars when Lafayette came down to break up the party. Brissot did not suffer for his involvement, however, and he was shortly thereafter elected as a delegate to the Legislative Assembly representing Paris.
So, back to his maiden address in October 20, 1791, Brissot’s topic was what do we do about the émigrés? And boy, was it a barn burner. Deploying a whole series of suggestive rhetorical questions, Brissot painted a picture of a vast Europe-wide conspiracy against France, orchestrated by the émigrés to topple the Revolution. Why were Prussia and Austria cozying up to each other? Why had they issued the Declaration of Pillnitz? Why had Russia just suddenly cut off its war with Turkey? Why were the Swedes assembling artillery? Then he thundered to the conclusion that French honor was at stake and the time had come to take action.
All property of the princes should be confiscated immediately. And if that didn’t bring them home, then France should attack those who harbored them. At the moment, this meant the electors of Trier and Mainz, a couple of minor German princes in whose territory the Comte d’Artois and his exile court had set up shop. Emigrating French army officers had been flocking to that exile court, and they now formed a hilariously top heavy 4,000 man army that had like 3994 officers and six no doubt very put upon enlisted men.
Brissot’s hardline speech against the émigrés was a massive hit in the Legislative Assembly, even if the delegates weren’t quite ready to declare war. If Brissot was ahead of the times with this kind of aggressive war mongering though, he wasn’t too far ahead. On October 31, the Legislative Assembly gave the Comte de Provence, next in line to the throne, two months to return to France, where he would be written out of the line of succession.
Then, on November 9, they passed a sweeping anti émigré law: return to France by January 1, or all your property will be confiscated and you will be considered traitors to the nation – a capital offense. This was all sent to the King for his signature. And you can probably guess what happened next. That’s right. Louis pulled out his perfectly legal veto pen and he used it. The anti émigré law was officially in suspensive veto limbo and there was nothing the Legislative Assembly could do about it. They were bound by constitutional rules drawn up by their predecessors, none of whom, mind you, were now around to defend the King’s legitimate right to veto a bill.
The King tried to say that, look, the fact that I’m using the veto proves the system works and that I’m not just some prisoner, that I’m an active partner in government. But the delegates of the Legislative Assembly didn’t care much about that. All they saw was further evidence that Brissot was right and that there was a vast conspiracy built around the axis of the Queen, the émigrés and Holy Roman Emperor Leopold II.
If only they knew then what we know now, things might have turned out different because though the Queen was begging Leopold to get into it, Leopold was perfectly happy with the situation in France in the autumn of 1791, why wreck it with a war? And as for the King’s emigrant brothers, Leopold had done nothing but give them the brush off and the Queen probably hated their guts more than anyone alive because their preposterously inflammatory rhetoric threatened the safety of her and her children.
While the delegates plotted what to do about the King’s veto of the anti-émigré law, they returned to the matter of those non-juring priests who were weakening the fabric of the nation from the inside, just as the émigrés and their alleged Austrian backers threatened it from the outside. The consensus now was that the refractory priest could no longer be treated with kid gloves and that restrictions on their freedoms up to and including exile were perfectly acceptable measures, given the circumstances. So, on November 29, they decreed a new civic oath that must be taken within one week. Same just as the old one – loyalty to the nation.
Above all, if anyone refused to take the second oath, they would be stripped of their pensions. And any priest who proved to be a double refractory, that is, had refused to take both oaths, well, they were officially suspect and subject to inspection by a new surveillance committee, and they could be kicked out of any region deemed to be suffering from religious disturbances. And if you think that is going to do anything but exacerbate the situation, then you have not been reading ahead.
While all of this was debated, Brissot and his allies continued to press for military action against the German princes who harbored the émigrés, arguing now that war would solve everything. It would neutralize the émigrés, it would put Europe on notice that France would not be bullied, and most especially, it would help expose traders at home. And for Brissot, that did not just mean secret reactionaries or non juring priests, it meant most especially the Royal Family themselves. If the King and Queen gave anything less than their full support to the war, it would prove that they were secretly in league with the émigrés and the Austrians.
So on November 29, oddly enough, the same day the new civic oath was passed, a delegation from the Legislative Assembly went to the King and demanded that he issue an ultimatum to the German princes to expel the émigrés or face war. To everyone’s great surprise, the King heard them out and then said, yeah, okay, I’ll do it. So everyone’s on the same page now? Hardly.
The King did not support the war for the same reasons Brissot and the Legislative Assembly did. Now, Louis was convinced that if France attacked the German princes, that Austria would have to respond militarily. And once Austria was in the war, the overmatched French army would be swept aside, the Austrians would be able to march unopposed on Paris, and the Royal Family would be delivered from the clutches of the revolutionaries. So, yeah, let’s go try and start a war, you guys.
After consenting to the ultimatum, Louis then had the bit of political cover he needed to issue his second major veto, sending into suspensive limbo the new civic oath. But that was less of an affront now that war was coming. I mean, that would help sort out the patriots from the traders far quicker anyway. As Brissot and his allies geared France up for war, they got critical support from a somewhat unexpected direction: the old liberal noble crowd surrounding the Marquis de Lafayette.
Lafayette’s reputation had gone into a tailspin since the massacre of the Champ de Mars, and he had just been dealt a very public embarrassment. You see, the mayor of Paris, Jean Sylvain Bailly’s reputation had gone into a tailspin after the Champ de Mars mess too and he decided it was time to retire from politics and go back to astronomy. In the mayoral elections that subsequently followed his retirement in mid November, Lafayette had put himself forward as Bailly’s natural successor and then got trounced two to one by a Jacobin candidate and intimate of Brissot’s named Jérôme Pétion.
Pétion had recently made a name for himself by being one of the delegates selected to escort the Royal Family back from Varennes. But instead of being taken in by the family like Barnave, Pétion had acted with studious contempt for their supposed superiority and become a popular hero for his insolence. But now I’m digressing. Where was I?
Yes, to keep from sliding into political oblivion, Lafayette threw his support beyond a war that was sure to bring him a high command, a little glory and a renewed path to greatness.
So really, it was only the Feuillants and Maximilian Robespierre, as we’ll see in a second, who were nervous when Louis came down to the legislative assembly on December the 14th and announced that the ultimatum had been issued. The German princes must disperse the émigrés by January 15 or it would be war. This was greeted by rapturous applause. Brissot then took the stage again on December the 16th and extolled the coming war as a chance to regenerate France and expose all her hidden enemies.
But then the German princes refused to play the part everyone assigned to them. And instead of standing firm, they immediately capitulated to the ultimatum and made it plain that they were ready to disperse the émigrés, which was kind of a letdown back in Paris, where everyone was now spoiling for a quick and glorious little war.
And that’s when the Austrians came blundering in to save the day. Learning of the ultimatum and believing erroneously that their previous threats had cowed France into accepting moderate Feuillant rule, the Austrians issued a blunt response to the ultimatum on December 21 and it said, if you attack the German princes, we will attack you. But when the Austrian threat hit Paris on December 31, all it did was confirm every paranoid argument Brissot had made about the alleged Austrian plot. Brissot had in fact been depressed for a few days after the German princes refused to play along with his little war. Now he and his allies were rejuvenated and the delegates of the Legislative Assembly were more willing than ever to listen to what they had to say. And what they now had to say was this: forget the princes, we need a war with Austria!
The Royal Family was ecstatic by these renewed prospects for war, even as Barnave begged the Queen to use her influence to secure peace. But she was behind attacking the Austrians 1000%. And it was then that Barnave realized he had overestimated his standing with the Royal Family. Depressed, he withdrew back to Dauphiné.
Toward the rather more ambitious end of provoking a war with the Austrians, Brissot and his allies spent January 1792 delivering speech after speech in succession, playing up different themes, citing different causes, all designed to weave a web from which no uncommitted delegate could escape. There was an economic argument that a successful war would help stabilize the falling value of the assignat, the Revolution’s paper currency that you can maybe win if you pause this episode right now and go buy a t-shirt at Revolutionspodcastfundraiser.com.
Anyway, victory would give the French more international credibility, and European financiers would feel more confident investing in France and accepting the assignat as payment. Then there was the argument that war would end all domestic strife, enemies of the Revolution inside France would expose themselves and be dealt with accordingly and enemies outside France, like the belligerent émigrés, would simply be destroyed.
Then there was, of course, the ever present Austria-phobia of everyone in the room. No one liked the Austrians. Everyone hated the dishonor the Treaty of 1756 had brought upon France. This basic hatred of the Austrians helped sway more than a few uncommitted delegates who might otherwise have had doubts. And then, finally, there is the argument that has been trotted out to sell every war in the history of the world: it will be quick, it will be easy, and we will surely win. The Holy Roman Empire is a tottering relic just waiting to be pushed over by the rising might of the fully mobilized French nation.
Now, it takes someone who is just a touch mad to stand against this kind of nationalistic warmongering once it gets going. And I think it’s fair to say that Maximilian Robespierre was just a touch mad. Brissot and his allies were making their case, not just in the Legislative Assembly, but in the Jacobin Club, where they were becoming the dominant faction. But Robespierre refused to go along with them.
And for every thundering call to arms, Robespierre would step forward and answer in his tight and dispassionate style of oratory. The fortunes of war are uncertain, he said, even in the most favorable circumstances. To lose such a war at this moment would be disastrous. And what makes you think we can even beat the Austrians? Have you not read the reports of our army state of readiness? Plus, even if we are victorious, all you will have done is hand the keys over to the victorious generals, who will be hailed as national heroes and who will then turn around and establish a military dictatorship eh-hem, Lafayette.
But Robespierre’s big point was that where Brissot saw the war as the solution to domestic strife, Robespierre believed that domestic strife had to be solved first before going to war. We must deal with our internal enemies before we can deal with our external enemies. But, of course, Robespierre could only make these arguments in the Jacobin Club. He had no voice in the Legislative Assembly, and in that body, no one stood against the march to war.
On January 25, 1792, they formally declared that the Treaty of 1756 was broken beyond repair due to Austrian aggression. And they told the King to tell the Austrians that if they didn’t stand down by March 1, France would declare war on them. The King, secretly delighting in all this, told the Assembly off hand that, a) you’re really kind of overstepping your authority here, foreign relations is really my business and b) I’ve already told the Austrians to back down, and I’m just waiting for their response.
But the Austrians were themselves now convinced more than ever that all they had to do was stay puffed up and the French would back down. I mean, how could the revolutionaries possibly believe their headless and disorganized army can stand against the professional and experienced army of the Austrians? But even if the French didn’t back down and war came, the Austrians were as convinced as the French that the war would be quick and it would be easy and they would surely win. Funny how that works out.
So Austria agreed to the French ultimatum with defiance and then told the Prussians that they were ready to sign that alliance that the Prussians had been angling for these past two years. The Prussians wasted no time taking yes for an answer. And on February 7, the longstanding rivals were suddenly allies. Within the week, the Prussians had a campaign strategy worked up and had sent representatives to Vienna to coordinate the attack, which the most pessimistic estimates expected to last no more than two months. It would, in fact, last a generation.
So that is where we will leave off. Everyone barreling towards a war that everyone believed would be over in no time and next time we’ll plunge into that war. But as I mentioned, I’m going to have to take off the next two weeks, so I won’t be back until January 11. So when you get up next Monday morning and there’s no episode, and you contemplate what a dismal place the world would be if there was never an episode waiting for you on Monday morning ever again, please go to revolutionspodcastfundraiser.com. Happy Saturnalia.
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