Hello, and welcome to Revolutions.
Last time, we saw the profound impact that France’s declaration of war had on domestic politics. So far, the revolution had played out against a backdrop of peace. Yes, fears about the intentions of the Austrians had long played a role in how the revolutionaries thought and acted, but until now, it had all been theoretical. So while the clashes between the various political factions were heeded, they were never dangerous.
But with the war off to a bad start and victory no longer confidently guaranteed, suddenly a mortal threat was aiming straight at the very heart of the revolution. Failure now meant extermination at the hands of a foreign enemy. It meant the loss of everything. The fear inside Paris that the Austrians and Prussians would soon be marching into the capital magnified the willingness of everyone to see enemies everywhere and then do whatever it took to survive. It is going to get very vicious and very bloody from here on out.
Now, the bad start to the war, though, does raise a point that I did not sufficiently return to last week. I mentioned in passing that after General Dillon’s vanguard turned tail, that the Austrians were not yet in a position to respond. And it’s true, they really weren’t. But then I hopped back to Paris and carried on with the story all the way through the demonstration of June 20 without ever returning to the frontier. So what was happening back out on the front through May and June? Surely something must have been going on. But no, nothing much to speak of.
Now, the reason for French inaction is obvious. Its commanders were convinced their armies were in no shape to go on the offensive. Remember, the top generals, Rochambeau, Lafayette and Luckner, even went so far as to advise the Legislative Assembly to sue for peace before the weakness of the French army was fully exploited. But that doesn’t explain Prussian and Austrian inaction. What does explain their inaction was that they were not feeling the slightest bit of urgency about any of this. This war was going to be easy once it got going, so there was no need to rush into things. So the allied Prussian and Austrian armies took their sweet time getting ready and, oh, by the way, I’m about to start using the “Allies” and “Allied armies” as a synonym for the Austrians and Prussians. Be aware. But through May and June, the Allies coordinated their staffs, they discussed how the invasion of France would proceed and they put troops into position and they pretty much went about it like they had all the time in the world. The only risk was in moving so fast that they made a mistake. So carefully, deliberately and methodically, they got ready to invade with an eye on crossing the border in early August. That is, if the French hadn’t given up yet.
Meanwhile, back in Paris, there was nothing careful, deliberate or methodical about anything that is about to happen. Fear had gripped the capital. Rumors swirled in tight, vicious circles. The generals are about to lay down their arms, the Prussians are on the move, the Austrians will be here any moment, the King is planning a coup, the mobs are planning to rise up. The effect of these swirling fears were accusations and counter accusations about what the greatest threat to France really was, who was to blame for what, and what we should do now?
The sudden mob demonstration of June 20 only further fractured domestic unity. The radical leaders in Paris believed the King was an enemy, the generals traitors, and the monarchy itself a threat to the nation. Inside the Legislative Assembly, the Girondins were now officially nervous about those mobs. Sure, the demonstration of June the 20th had been organized in part to get their guys reappointed to the Ministry. Sure, they didn’t like the King, and no, they didn’t much like the aristocratic generals either, but mob anarchy? No, thank you.
Meanwhile, those aristocratic generals out on the front were acutely aware that the weakness of the French army was real and believed France was threatened by radicals and demagogues who had no idea what the situation was out on the front and just wanted to blame everyone else for their own misguided rush to war.
That last bit, for example, was the considered opinion of Lafayette, who is now approaching the end of his revolutionary career. But in the aftermath of June 20, Lafayette saw one last opportunity to take center stage and maybe save both the Revolution and the nation. His primary concern was the growing power of the radical mobs in Paris and the deluded war mongers in the Legislative Assembly who were demanding too much from the super shaky French armies.
After those armies stumbled out of the gate and Brissot went into conspiracy overdrive, Lafayette started coming round to the idea that the capital might have to be pacified by force. To this end, he even sent feelers out to the Austrians asking if they maybe wouldn’t mind holding off their offensive if it turned out that he needed to march his army into Paris. After all, if they were really interested in securing the safety of the Royal Family, it would absolutely be in their best interest to let him go. Once the monarchy was saved, Lafayette could come back to the front and the war could commence as planned, if the war was even still necessary.
Lafayette also signaled his displeasure with the situation to the Parisians themselves when he sent that letter to the Legislative Assembly demanding that they suppress seditious political clubs. Then, when he got word of the events of June 20 just a few days after he sent that letter, he decided the time had come to act. He left the front and rode for Paris to hopefully take control of the situation before things got out of hand. Savior of the Revolution, that has a nice ring to it.
But when Lafayette appeared before the Legislative Assembly on June 28, he discovered just how little influence he had left. He demanded the leaders of the June 20 demonstration be punished and repeated his call for the Jacobin Club and Cordelieres Club. This was not greeted by rousing cheers or stony silence, he was greeted by cat-calling and questions on why he left his post in the middle of a war. Basically, what are you doing here? Get out of here. Shaken, Lafayette left the Legislative Assembly and tried for an audience with the Royal Family. But at this point the King and Queen refused to see him, because at this point they absolutely hated Lafayette’s guts, believing him to be a traitor to his class who had proudly served as their jailer after convincing them to abandon Versailles.
Getting a little worried now, Lafayette reached out to his old comrades in the Parisian National Guard. He had, after all, been their first commander; he had organized their companies; designed their uniforms. Surely they must, but they, too, told him to take a hike. We don’t take orders from you anymore. Far from being the hero everyone was begging for, Lafayette discovered he was now little more than a disgraced villain. If he had really been planning the coup so many of his enemies accused him of planning, now would have been a good time to order his army to move on Paris. But Lafayette hadn’t thought that far ahead, his troops weren’t sitting around waiting for that order and he maybe wasn’t bold enough to take that last step anyway. He was, after all, a political idealist, not a ruthless cynic.
Lafayette quietly returned to the front to mope. After the insurrection of August 10, which we’ll be getting to here in a moment, it will be made very clear to Lafayette that remaining in France would now be hazardous to his health.
After the Legislative Assembly yelled at Lafayette to get back to his post, they went back to trying to solve the problem Lafayette had thought he was the answer to: how to salvage the deteriorating political situation. The June 20 demonstration had forced everyone to take sides in a domestic squabble right at the moment a foreign threat loomed out on the frontier.
As I said at the end of last week’s episode, the abuse of King Louis by the mobs of Paris had been abhorrent to a lot of people. Petitions of solidarity with the King started coming in from the provinces demanding the same thing Lafayette had just demanded, that the organizers of June 20 be punished. The governing board of the Department of Paris, that is, the department within which the Commune of Paris was legally nested, took action on July 6 and removed Paris mayor Pétion from power for his role in abetting and or failing to contain the demonstration.
The delegates of the Legislative Assembly were mostly in agreement with all this but they were pretty unsure now of what they could do about it. They were not insensible to the fact that they were a little island smack dab in the middle of sans-culotte-ville and who knows what they’ll do to us if they decide that we are a part of the problem? But if they were worried about losing control of the situation, the Legislative Assembly then made a few decisions that all but guaranteed they would lose control of the situation.
First, they decided to ignore the King’s veto of the order calling in the 20,000 National Guardsmen into Paris. They skirted the issue by simply keeping open the invitation to the provincial National Guard units to come attend the third Feast of the Federation on July 14. Because of this direct connection to the Feast of the Federation, the companies that accepted the invitation and who would soon play a central role in the insurrection of August 10 have been collectively dubbed by history as the fédérés.
Then, on July 5, the Legislative Assembly passed the famous law on The Country in Danger that, if invoked, would send all legislative and administrative bodies into permanent session and then grant those bodies emergency powers beyond what the constitution technically allowed. While the Legislative Assembly sowed these seeds that they would soon come to deeply regret, they also launched a sustained attack on the King’s ministry. Since the demonstration of June 20 had failed to convince the King to ditch his new ministry and recall the Girondins to power, the Legislative Assembly, coordinating with the Jacobin Club, decided to heap all kinds of abuse on the newly appointed ministers themselves.
No doubt acutely self conscious of their own role as mere pawns in a bigger game, the oh-so recently appointed ministers collectively resigned on July 10, so the executive branch of government was all but headless.
The next day, a dispatch came in from the frontier saying that the Prussians were finally moving into the attack position. So on July 11, the Legislative Assembly invoked the law declaring the country in danger. They called for 50,000 new volunteers to join the army and authorized all local National Guard units to be dispatched at once to the front. Mayor Pétion was put back in office to redirect energy that had been building to have his removal from power reversed.
So this state of emergency, then, was the backdrop for the third Feast of the Federation. The first had been a mass rally of national unity. The second had been a subdued affair, mostly defined by the collective realization that no one was really satisfied with the status quo. The third, on July 14, 1792, was said to have been as big and well attended as the first, but there was something deeply menacing about the show. Those National Guard units, those fédérés that had accepted the invitation to attend, were in many cases even more radicalized than the radicalized sections of Paris. These guys, after all, had been out on the front lines battling counterrevolutionary plots back home, plots they believed were being actively assisted by the Royal Family.
So the third Feast of the Federation wasn’t about patriotic unity, it was about the potential for patriotic action. And it didn’t take long for formal planning of that patriotic action to get underway. Shortly after the feast, the Jacobin Club started to turn away from their long standing defense of constitutional monarchy. Robespierre, who had been quietly biting his time while Brissot and the Girondins took control of his beloved Jacobin Club and then drove it into a war he opposed, now flanked them on the left and came out in favor of ditching the Constitution of 1791. So the Girondins were now losing their grip on things everywhere. I mean, they had wanted their men reappointed to the Royal Ministry, not see the Royal Ministry abolished.
But they were unable to stop a Jacobin petition from being issued on July 23, calling for an end to the monarchy. Since it was now becoming dangerous to defend the monarchy publicly, Brissot and the Girondins opened secret negotiations with the King to figure out what they could do to preserve the Constitution. This secret correspondence is not going to look good at all when the Girondins get dragged before a hostile revolutionary tribunal after things really go off the rails next year. Nor, frankly, did it do much to preserve the Constitution of 1791, which is about to get chucked into the dustbin of history.
Compounding this loss of control, the national emergency the Legislative Assembly had just declared, allowed the various assemblies of the Paris sections to sit in permanent session, giving the radicals an institutional base from which to organize that direct patriotic action. And it was at this moment that Georges Danton stepped back into the limelight and drove events into what, as I said last week, might plausibly be called the Second French Revolution.
When last we left Danton, he had slipped out of Paris following the massacre of the Champ de Mars and taken a well advised vacation to England. He was able to safely return just a few months later, though, when a general amnesty was declared at the closing of the National Assembly in September 1791. He then stood for a seat in the new Legislative Assembly but with his public reputation still a little bit singed, he was unable to win a seat.
Despite this setback, he was still a highly visible figure, both in the street and in the Jacobin Club. But as Brissot and the Girondins stirred up war fever, Danton joined Robespierre in the very unpopular opposition to that war. He had looked on approvingly then, as the sugar shortages began to re-stir up the people of Paris, but he opposed the demonstration of June 20th as a counterproductive exercise that only generated sympathy for Louis.
After June 20, however, Danton decided the time had finally come to do something very productive, and he started actively planning to overthrow the French monarchy. A very patriotic action indeed.
From his base in the Cordeliers district, Danton made the rounds to the Paris sections and urged them to start ignoring the distinction between active and passive citizens. Everyone should be admitted to all proceedings. The poorer assemblies wasted no time, and soon their meetings were teeming with sans-culottes: workers, artisans, apprentices, shopkeepers, none of them happy, all of them ready to do something about it.
On July 27, Danton then helped organize a Coordinating Committee that would start holding regular meetings in the Hotel de Ville to, well, coordinate the activities of the Paris sections, the fédérés National Guard companies and allied political clubs, including, of course, the Jacobins, who were represented on the committee by Robespierre.
Many of the better off sections of Paris declined to send representatives, which meant that the Coordinating Committee was free of all moderation or doubt. Now what exactly they were coordinating for was still a closely held secret, but it wasn’t too hard to guess.
The day after the Coordinating Committee was established, a bomb was dropped on Paris that sealed the fate of the French monarchy. From his headquarters just beyond the border, the Allied commander in chief, the Duke of Brunswick, issued the instantly infamous Brunswick Manifesto.
This manifesto declared the war aims of Austria and Prussia: to end the anarchy in France, to stop attacks on the King and on the Catholic Church, to reestablish to the King all his sovereign authority. And then it got to the juicy bits. If anyone in Paris decided to harm even a single hair on the King’s head, the violence visited upon the Parisians collectively would be, quote, “exemplary“. Clearly, Austria and Prussia had decided to learn nothing from the counterproductive results of their previous tough talk, because once again, this direct threat only galvanized the French into mass resistance and led directly to the overthrow of the monarchy it was ostensibly trying to protect.
After the manifesto landed in Paris on July 28, events moved very quickly. On July 30, the Legislative Assembly passed an order that passive citizens would now be allowed to join the National Guard and that all patriotic citizens should do so at once. Then, that same day, a 500 man company of National Guardsmen arrived from Marseille. Now, the men from Marseille turned out to be a particularly eager bunch. Their home city down on the Mediterranean coast had become something of a regional hub for patriotic revolutionaries, and its citizens had appointed themselves defenders of the revolution in the southeast. They sent armed units to help the annexationists seize control of Avignon. Then they identified the nearby city of Arles as the center of counterrevolutionary activity and sent out a 6,000 man expeditionary force to lay siege to Arles and expel its leaders.
Over the spring of 1792, the patriots in Marseille egged on outbreaks of pro revolutionary violence, much of it playing out as a more overtly political version of the upheavals of the great fear, with aristocratic estates targeted and ransacked. So the 500 men from Marseilles who arrived in Paris on July 30 were absolutely ready to take this fight to the next level. And when they came into the capital, they came in singing a new patriotic anthem that had been written by an army officer stationed out on the Rhine just a few months earlier. The song had quickly spread, and when the Marseilles Company arrived in Paris, they came in singing it proudly, which is how the song wound up getting called La Marseillaise, better known right now as the French national anthem. With its chorus “to arms, citizens, form your battalions let’s march, let’s march let impure blood water our furrows”.
Now, when ultra patriot fédérés, like the Marseille Company, arrived in Paris, they pointedly did not put themselves at the disposal of the official Paris Commune government, but instead pledged their loyalty to Danton’s Coordinating Committee. With a growing army at its command, the Coordinating Committee now began to wield more practical power than the official Paris Commune government. And it wasn’t long before the power of the Committee began to rival the Legislative Assembly itself, which had been backed into an uncomfortable defense of the Constitution of 1791.
When, on August 3, Mayor Pétion represented the assembly with a petition demanding the overthrow of the monarchy, the Legislative Assembly refused to consider it. And indeed, Brissot and the Girondins spent most of the first week of August giving speech after speech opposing any violent move on the King, though, of course they were not of one mind about this. More than a few of them could see the writing on the wall and were afraid that if they didn’t back the Paris sections that they would be swept out with the monarchy that they themselves had no particular love for.
But the Legislative Assembly, as a body, had more or less decided to oppose what Danton and his Coordinating Committee were trying to force them to do. When, for example, the delegates came under intense pressure to impeach the damned traitor Lafayette, they debated the case on August 8 and then refused. The next day, they finally agreed to discuss whether or not to suspend the King but after debating the matter for a few hours, the Legislative Assembly adjourned without coming to a firm conclusion.
At this point. Danton and his associates concluded that the Legislative Assembly was beyond hope and the Coordinating Committee met in an all night session at the end of which they declared themselves now to be the Insurrectionary Commune. Then, just before dawn on August 10, 1792, they set about seizing control of Paris. First, the old Commune government was expelled from the Hotel de Ville. Well, expelled isn’t really the right word. Mostly they just didn’t show up for work if they knew what was good for them.
Then the Insurrectionary Commune, already controlling most of the fédérés’ companies, declared themselves in control of the Parisian National Guard; most of those companies accepted the declaration willingly, though not all would go over immediately. Indeed, once the tocsin bell started ringing, signaling the beginning of the insurrection, the commander of the Parisian companies, a guy named Mandat, rushed around, blocking up the bridges across the Seine to prevent mobs from the two sides of the city from linking up. Then he went down to the Tuileries Palace to lend what help he could to the rapid fortifications being erected to defend the palace grounds.
When Danton learned that Mandat was taking orders from the King, not the Insurrectionary Commune, he ordered the National Guard Commander to come at once to the Hotel de Ville to explain himself. Mandat resisted for a few hours but eventually decided he could maybe forestall an armed confrontation if he went and made his case.
But when he got to the Hotel de Ville, he was hauled in front of Danton, who balled him out for insubordination and then ordered the now clearly ex commander of the Paris National Guard thrown in prison. But the unfortunate Mandat never made it to prison as soon as he was outside, one of his more patriotic escorts shot him in the head with a pistol. Back at the Tuileries, the Royal Family waited nervously for the hammer to drop. The palace grounds were defended by about 2,000 National Guard, a couple hundred random courtiers and regular army officers and then 900 Swiss mercenaries.
King Louis flirted briefly with the idea of leading the defense of the palace personally. But he was persuaded that that was a really bad idea and that he and his family should take formal asylum within the Legislative Assembly, who had gathered for a nervous session composed of the few hundred delegates willing to make some kind of public demonstration that they were, in fact, still a thing.
So, at about 9:00 a.m., the Royal Family crossed the courtyard to the Legislative Assembly and were placed in a small room where their safety could at least be reasonably hoped for. It would be the last free act of their lives.
About two hours later, the forces of the Insurrectionary Commune had finally cleared the bridges gathered in one great mass and arrived at the palace gates. They were at least 20,000 strong by now, and at their head was no longer scruffy artisans or angry fishwives, but trained soldiers. And at the head of the head was a particularly eager company of National Guardsmen from Marseilles.
Now, what happens next is a bit confused, not just to us, but to the people at the time. What we do know is that the National Guard inside the palace immediately defected to the mob. Then it seems like there was a back and forth that led some in the crowd to believe that the Swiss and the leftover courtiers were going to stand down and let them in. So when the gates opened and they poured in, it came as quite a shock when the Swiss Guard suddenly opened fire.
It reminded the angry mob of nothing so much as the betrayal at the Fall of the Bastille, when a similar mob rushed into a similar courtyard and was similarly shot at. Now, why the Swiss fired, whether it was by accident or by design, is a mystery. But the reaction of the mob was not. They started shooting back and a heated firefight engulfed the Tuileries.
From his hiding place inside the Legislative Assembly, the King issued an order for the Swiss to stand down, but there was no way to get them that order. Inevitably, the vastly outnumbered Swiss were forced to fall back. And when they did, the mob surged forward and just overwhelmed them. No quarter was offered. The Swiss Guards were engulfed by an angry nightmare of sans-culottes lot bearing knives and daggers and pikes, which they used to hack the Guards to death.
The explicit details for all this are actually quite a bit more gruesome than you might even be picturing, and I’m not going to go into it. But the bloody frenzy was soon out of control. It took hours to track down and kill the last few stragglers who had gone into hiding inside the palace. In total, about 600 of the Swiss Guards were killed, either in the initial fighting or the subsequent massacre. About 300 from the patriot mob lay dead alongside them.
Inside the Legislative Assembly, the delegates who remained at their posts did what they could to placate the mob. They voted immediately to suspend the King. Then they declared that elections would be held immediately for a new National Convention. The task of that Convention would be to drop a new constitution for France because as of this moment, the Constitution of 1791 is dead as a doornail.
Crucially elections to the new National Convention would be held on the basis of universal manhood suffrage. No more of this active passive citizen baloney because those citizens out there don’t seem very passive to me. The Royal Family was then transferred under close guard to the temple, a medieval fortress on the outskirts of Paris, where they would remain until the Convention could come to a final conclusion about their fate.
The Legislative Assembly then pressed on as best they could. Though the King was personally suspended, the Royal Ministry still technically existed and so they voted to reappoint all the ousted Girondins to their previous posts. But to this new Ministry, they added one new member and that one new member actually got more votes than anyone. Georges Danton, by nearly unanimous acclamation, was appointed Minister of Justice.
But after the blood and smoke of August 10 cleared, it would soon become clear to everyone that neither the Legislative Assembly nor the new Ministry wielded any real power. Real power now lay in the Insurrectionary Commune who had just overthrown the national government and seized control of not just Paris, but all of France!
Oddly enough, we’re now 50 episodes into Revolutions and this is practically the first fully realized revolutionary act of the series. As we’ve seen, most of the revolutionary acts of the English, American and French revolutions have been backed into accidentally. I mean, nobody planned to overthrow Charles I, certainly no one planned to put him to death. And even then, all the subsequent experiments with the republican government were more or less improvised in the moment.
American independence was stumbled into by everyone, it was all but unthinkable until the moment the Second Continental Congress looked around and was like, yeah, okay, I guess we better do it. We have, after all, been at war for like a year now. And now here in the French Revolution, all the big moments: the Tennis Court oath, the Fall of the Bastille, the Women’s March on Versailles were all spontaneous reactions to events.
The insurrection of August the 10th, though, was planned. It was organized, it was armed, it had a revolutionary purpose, and when it was launched, it violently and successfully seized power. In the future, all aspiring revolutionaries would, of course, study the events of the French Revolution with great interest. But the clever ones did not look to the Revolution of 1789 for inspiration and guidance, but rather to the Revolution of 1792. And it should come as no surprise that Lenin thought Danton the greatest master of revolutionary tactics yet known.
Next week, we will deal with the fallout from this second French Revolution. The Insurrectionary Commune will now be calling the shots backed by an intimidating street army that was done coddling the counter revolutionary enemies of France. The allied armies will finally cross the frontier and begin what will look to both sides like a steady and irresistible march on Paris. This will lead to a reaction in Paris that will make Brissot’s paranoid rhetoric about secret conspiracies seem downright restrained. Because now that the mobs were running Paris, words alone would not be enough. Which is how we will get to the shocking brutality of the September Massacres.
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