Hello, and welcome to Revolutions.
When we left off last time, Europe was hurtling towards war. The French believed the Austrians were a stagnant relic that could not possibly withstand the might of the fully mobilized French nation. The Austrians believe the French armies were in disarray, the French Treasury was empty, and the French leadership was a bunch of amateur lawyers who could not possibly withstand the might of a wet tissue, let alone the combined weight of the Austrian and Prussian armies.
The Prussians, meanwhile, thought the coming war would last approximately zero months and result in their getting some prime real estate for no money down. A Prussian minister actually advised a group of officers not to buy new horses for the campaign, since the fighting wouldn’t last long enough to make it worth the expense. Everyone turned out to be spectacularly wrong about all of this.
To back up a little bit so we can understand the chain of events for today’s episode, you’ll recall that just as the new Legislative Assembly was convening in October 1791 at the Feuillants Club managed to get a few of their guys appointed to key positions within the Royal Ministry. And so, over the winter of 1791 and 1792, Louis was surrounded by what is called the Feuillants Ministry. They favored strong prerogatives for the King and were not in favor of launching a war.
But one key position they did not hold was Minister of War. That was because the sitting Minister of War had been appointed back in November 1790 and did not resign until December 1791. By the time that vacancy popped up, the influence of the Feuillants was already on the wane, so they were unable to prevent the appointment of the Comte de Narbonne to the job. As I mentioned last week, Narbonne was an old drinking buddy of Talleyrand’s and both remained unreconstructed liberal nobles. It was, for example, at Narbonne’s initiative that Lafayette was appointed to high command within the army in mid December 1791, an appointment that might otherwise be difficult to explain given the collapse of Lafayette’s public reputation.
Narbonne believed that a quick war with Austria would be just a thing to reassert the legitimacy of the Constitution of 1791. And to this end, he went on an inspection tour of the frontier over the winter and came back with a report saying that everything was groovy and we only need a couple more thousand troops to fill in some recent losses in personnel. This was an optimistic assessment, to say the least.
By March 1, 1792, a war had become all but unavoidable. Remember, that was the day Louis had marked as ultimatum day for the Austrians. But when the Legislative Assembly convened on March 1, what they read from the Austrians was not a letter of contrition, but rather a bellicose declaration promising to end the upstart revolutionaries if they didn’t stand down. That sent the Assembly into a fit, the immediate consequences of which we’ll talk about in a second. But before we do, we need to talk about the other thing that happened on March 1st that made war unavoidable.
Though the French couldn’t yet know it, Holy Roman Emperor Leopold II suddenly died that very day. Remember, Leopold had long been trying to stay out of a war with France, and was under the impression that further Austrian blustering would lead the French to turn their collective backs on Jacques Pierre Brissot and his warmongering friends and restore the moderate Feuillants to power. Would Leopold have pulled back when he realized the blustering was having the opposite of its intended effect? Who knows? Because he died and was succeeded by his 24 year old son, Francis II. Francis was young and inexperienced and at this moment couldn’t possibly put the brakes on the war, even if he wanted to.
So, as I’ve said a few times now, all the Austrian saber rattling wound up doing was lead the Legislative Assembly to throw their lot in completely, with Brissot and his pro war gang. Adding fuel to the fire, someone had managed to procure the quote unquote ultimatum the King had sent the Austrians, which was written by his Foreign Minister, an unassuming Feuillant bureaucrat named Antoine de Lessart.
Lessart’s ultimatum turned out to have been some pretty weak tea and seemed to explain exactly why the Austrians felt comfortable answering with further chest thumping. The outraged Legislative Assembly voted immediately to impeach Lessart.
After these revelations, War Minister Narbonne publicly laid into his Feuillant colleagues, which was not really something you’re supposed to do if you’re a Royal Minister. So instead of sacking his beleaguered Foreign Minister, Louis instead sacked his loudmouth War Minister, which only upped the fury of the Legislative Assembly.
They met on the night of March the 9th to prepare articles of impeachment for Lessart, whose trial would be used as an opening to tear down the whole Feuillant Ministry and possibly the whole monarchy. There was now open talk of impeaching the Queen and suspending the King.
Louis had no interest in letting the Legislative Assembly put on that kind of show. And there’s even evidence that Louis very particularly did not wish to play Charles I to Lessart’s Earl of Strafford, a historical reference that we should all now be well acquainted with.
So instead, on March 10, the King dismissed his entire Ministry and formed a new one from a list of acceptable candidates supplied by the Legislative Assembly. This new ministry has become known to history as the Girondin Ministry. We’ll have plenty of time to talk about the Girondins in the episode to come, but just so you know, they’ll get saddled with that name because some of the most prominent members of their party hailed from Gironde, a department in southwest France that included the city of Bordeaux.
When this delegation arrived in Paris, they intermingled with Brissot in his crowd and then a few other prominent figures who shared a basic worldview that skewed republican, though there is no discernible Girondin platform or ideology to speak of. But for the moment, they didn’t need a broad platform. All they needed to rise to power was the one single issue that bound them all together. The one single issue they harped on relentlessly through the winter of 1791 and 1792: war with Austria, war with Austria, war with Austria. So just remember, at this point, Girondin and warmonger are synonymous.
The place where these loosely affiliated Girondin met after hours was in the salon of one Madame Roland. Madame Roland was a politically ambitious young woman from Lyon, married to a politically ambitious manufacturer and sometime philosopher, Jean-Marie Roland. By all accounts, Madame Roland was the more impressive and influential of the two. But the rules of the day forced her to sit on the sidelines.
As the Revolution picked up steam, the couple moved from Lyon to Paris, where Madame Roland did what she was able to do according to the rules of the day. She began hosting a regular salon, through which most of the future Girondins came into contact with each other. This salon elevated her husband’s profile enormously and when their old friend Brissot began to dominate the Legislative Assembly and then orchestrate the tear down of the Feuillant Ministry in March 1792, Madame Roland made sure her husband was appointed Minister of the Interior.
Now, all that said, initially the leading figure in the new Girondin Ministry was not a Girondin at all. That leading figure was new Foreign Minister Charles François Dumouriez. Dumouriez was a career soldier and veteran of the Seven Years War, the disastrous consequences of which he blamed solely on the Austrians, who he hated with the heat of 1,000 suns.
His alliance with Brissot and the Girondins were not based on any real shared political principles. Indeed, Dumouriez’s plan was to use a short war to reestablish the power and authority of the Crown, which was certainly not what Brissot was after. But the only person on earth who wanted war with the Austrians more than Brissot was Dumouriez so the alliance was sealed.
After he became Foreign Minister, Dumouriez would periodically show up at the Jacobin Club to deliver further evidence that the Austrians were weak and the French were strong. When he delivered these speeches, he often wore, for a dramatic effect, a red phrygian cap, modeled on those worn by freed slaves in ancient Rome. Though Dumouriez was not the first to wear the red cap of liberty, his embrace of it on the brink of a patriotic war caused the fashion to spread throughout Paris, and it became an enduring symbol of the Revolution right along with the tricolor cockade.
By the end of March, Austria learned that their belligerence had backfired and that the French war party had pushed its way into power. So in the middle of April, they moved 50,000 troops into position along the border, and it was clearly now just a matter of when, not if the war would commence.
When reports of the full Austrian mobilization reached Paris, the Legislative Assembly decided there could be no further delay, and they told the King it was time to make good his ultimatum. So King Louis and his ministers entered the Legislative Assembly on April 20, 1792, to do just that. Dumouriez kicked things off with a scathing attack on the Austrians and every poisonous fruit born of the despicable Treaty of 1756, which had made France the slave of Austria and drained French blood and treasure in the service of a deceitful and treacherous ally.
Then, to the rapturous applause for all the assembled delegates and spectators, the King stepped forward and asked for the Assembly to declare war, which they did, nearly unanimously. There were only seven no votes from the 700 plus delegates.
Pointedly, though, this declaration of war was aimed only at the King of Hungary and Bohemia, that is, Francis II. This was because a) Francis hadn’t been confirmed as Holy Roman Emperor yet, but more importantly, because b) this was allegedly going to be a new kind of war, one aimed only at the despotic monarch and not his people. The Legislative Assembly swore that this would only be a defensive war waged against an aggressive tyrant who threatened French liberty. They further swore that French arms would never be used against the natural liberty of other peoples and that the lives and property of those other peoples would always be protected by French soldiers. Now, this all sounded great and was maybe even believed by a few of those voting for war, but it sure didn’t take long for all those pledges to get tossed overboard.
Back on the other side of the lines, King Frederick William II of Prussia was simply delighted that the French were taking the initiative to declare war, because that meant when the Prussians inevitably won, he would be able to extract further concessions at the bargaining table because France will have technically started it. The Austrians, for their part, did not wait for the French to take the initiative. On April the 28, two days before they actually received the French declaration of war, Francis II and his ministers themselves declared war on France. And so it was war.
The French forces were arrayed in three main armies along the frontier. The army of the north was stationed up near Lille and was commanded by our old friend General Rochambeau, hero of the American War of Independence and longtime liberal noble supporter of the Revolution. The army of the center sat along the Moselle River and was commanded by Lafayette, who was chomping at the bit to rehabilitate his reputation. Further south was the army of the Rhine, commanded by, of all things, a Bavarian named Nicolas Luckner, who had served in the French army since 1763.
It was agreed that the opening move in the war would come in the north, where Rochambeau’s army would cross the border into the Austrian Netherlands, aka Belgium, where they would be greeted as liberators by the locals, who would then help the French permanently detach the region from Austrian control.
Now, here I must pause for a moment, because in all my discussions of the confusing dance of European international diplomacy, I have somehow managed to not talk about the Austrian Netherlands or their recently failed attempt to declare independence from Habsburg rule.
The quick and dirty history of all this is that after the War of Spanish Succession ended badly for the Spanish in 1715, their possessions in Europe were divided amongst the victorious powers. At the insistence of the British and Dutch, the Spanish Netherlands were given to the Austrians, mostly because the British and Dutch didn’t want the territory to fall under French dominion. But the funny thing is that the Austrians didn’t really want the Spanish Netherlands, which were geographically isolated from the rest of their domains. The Austrians only accepted the territory at the behest of their then ally, Great Britain.
For the next 75 years, the Habsburgs would show up at every European treaty, negotiation or interstate summit, dying to trade the Netherlands away in exchange for what they really wanted, which was Bavaria, because locking up Bavaria would complete their domination over southern Germany. But they could never get anyone else to go along with it so they were stuck with this little island of territory up on the North Sea.
The locals in the now Austria Netherlands were never given much attention by the Habsburgs until the 1780s when Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II started rolling out his project of enlightened reforms which were heatedly opposed by the locals. So shortly after the French Revolution broke out, these locals rose up in revolt, kicked out the Austrian garrison in October 1789 and declared themselves the United Belgian States.
But this self declared little country was not recognized by the other European powers and was badly divided internally. So when Leopold II succeeded his brother in September 1790, one of the first things he did was roll an army into the United Belgian States and turn them back into the Austrian Netherlands.
The important thing for us to keep in mind though, is just how badly this was all misunderstood by the revolutionaries in France. All they appear to have seen was a subject people rising up against the despotism of an absolute monarch, you know just like us. What they utterly failed to recognize was that this uprising got going because the local nobility and conservative Catholics didn’t like the thrust of the Habsburg’s enlightened reforms. So the aims of the revolutionaries in France, anti aristocratic and anticlerical, and the aims of the revolutionaries in Belgium, pro aristocratic and pro clerical, could not have been more opposed. So for the French to think that they would be greeted by anything but overt hostility when they crossed the border in April 1792 was the purest of follies.
But on April 28, 1792, coincidentally the same day the Austrians declared war, the first French forces crossed the border. It then became immediately apparent that the war was not going to be the cakewalk that Brissot and the Girondins had been selling. The vanguard of the French army of the north was a 5,000 men mix of veteran cavalry and newly raised volunteer infantry under the command of an Irish general named Theobald Dillon. Dillon’s forces quickly ran into a battery of Austrian artillery, took one look at the guns and turned and ran.
The most demoralizing part of this ignoble flight was that it was not triggered by the new volunteers, but by the seasoned cavalry, which did not bode well for the French. The flight of the cavalry then got caught up with a pre planned withdrawal of some forces further down the road. Suddenly the whole line was engulfed in a panicked retreat. General Dillon himself took refuge in a peasant cottage where he made the ill fated decision to take off his uniform coat. Suspecting that he was housing a traitor, the peasant sheltering Dillon alerted some nearby soldiers who barged in, took the protesting general into custody and dragged him off to Lyon. There, General Dillon did not even enjoy the spectacle of a kangaroo court, he was convicted of treason by the riotous acclamation of a mob composed mostly of regular soldiers, national guardsmen and civic minded locals, who then stabbed Dillon to death and hung his body from a lamp post.
Luckily, in the midst of all this chaos, neither the Austrians nor the Prussians were yet in position to take advantage of the situation. So the war was not immediately lost.
The consequences of this whole fiasco were twofold. First, it absolutely destroyed whatever morale was left among the French officers. Remember, well over half the old officer corps had already emigrated. Those that remained were just told in no uncertain terms that the punishment for failure in the field would be mob execution. And it’s not like every battle and skirmish is just going to go our way, you know, things happen, so the desertion rate skyrocketed.
The second consequence was to turn Paris into a paranoid madhouse. There are a lot of different moments you can point to and say, this is the moment when the French Revolution goes from this project of enlightened human progress into an insanely bloody free for all. But for me, it’s basically the moment Paris finds out about the fiasco in the north, because it is all going to get very paranoid and very bloody from here on out.
The immediate problem for Brissot and his allies in the Legislative Assembly was to explain why the supposedly invincible French army had just turned and run at the first sign of the enemy. So Brissot stood up and said, look, guys, this isn’t that big of a deal. I probably shouldn’t have promised total victory right out of the gates. There are going to be some stumbles while our armies get their feet under them. It’s just the nature of the beast. So, you know, everyone relax.
Oh, wait, he didn’t say that at all. He launched into a full throated conspiracy theory that asserted that the Royal Family, the generals in the field and a cabal of aristocratic reactionaries he collectively dubbed the Austrian Committee, were plotting to intentionally lose the war. The Legislative Assembly that had bought into Brissot’s propaganda in the first place and now needed to defend their rush to war, were happy to believe his conspiracy theories rather than admit that they had maybe miscalculated.
When three top generals, Rochambeau, Lafayette and Luckner, sent a joint dispatch on May 18 urging peace rather than risking these raw and poorly led armies in battle, that was just further proof of a treasonous conspiracy to hand France over to the Austrians. It was also the last thing Rochambeau did before resigning. This certainly was a new kind of war and one he wanted no part of.
Since the problem did not lay with the French army or the righteousness of the French cause, but rather a sinister network of internal enemies, the Legislative Assembly turned all their attention to rooting out those enemies. On May the 20th, they passed a law putting all foreigners under surveillance. Then, a week later, they passed a law allowing for the immediate deportation of any non-juring priest who had been denounced by a sufficient number of active citizens.
Then, on May 29, they decreed that Louis’ personal bodyguard would be dissolved. This last measure, though, was accepted suspiciously easily by the King and fed fears that he didn’t mind losing his bodyguard because he knew the regular troops left in Paris were preparing to launch a royalist coup. So the Legislative Assembly announced on June 8 that all regular troops left in Paris were hereby ordered to the front lines, and 20,000 dependable National Guardsmen would be dispatched from their local department to help defend Paris.
This influx was to conveniently coincide with the coming celebrations on July 14th of the now third anniversary of the Fall of the Bastille. The King, however, sensed an opportunity to keep his enemies divided when he learned that the 8,000 or so men of the Parisian National Guard were not happy that their collective prestige was about to be diminished by the mass arrival of mere provincials.
They wrote a petition to the Legislative Assembly protesting the order, and Louis announced his intention to support them and veto the order. He also announced his intention to veto that thing about deporting non-juring priests. This triggered an almost unprecedented breach of political etiquette. Interior Minister Roland, almost certainly at the prodding of Madame Roland, sent a blistering letter to the King, very possibly written by Madame Roland, attacking Louis for blocking the will of the French people.
A Royal Minister publicly attacking his own King was unheard of, and it didn’t take long for Louis to respond. Roland was dismissed, along with most of his colleagues on June 13. Foreign Minister Dumouriez resigned two days later, though it is entirely possible he was happy to be leaving, since he made straight for the front lines to take up an active military command and hopefully kill a bunch of Austrians.
Still technically holding the right to appoint his own ministers, Louis then replaced the ousted Girondnis with minor non entities formerly of the Feuillants Club.
This sudden ministerial bloodbath galvanized the people of Paris into forceful action. Ever since the massacre of the Champ de Mars, the populist leaders of the capital had been laying low. But as 1792 had progressed, they began to come out of the shadows, and then they began to re-rally the people.
As usual, they were able to get their foot back in the door due to food shortages in Paris. But this time, it wasn’t a basic commodity like bread that was disruptively scarce. It was instead a commodity that might be considered a luxury, but which was nonetheless essential to daily life: sugar.
Now, I’m not going to go into too much detail on the cause of this shortage, since if I ever actually complete the French Revolution, we will be talking about it at length, because back in 1791, there had been a major slave uprising on the key sugar producing colony of Saint Domingue.
So in January and February 1792, sugar shortages in Paris led to demonstrations organized by the leaders of the radical sections. Then, in April, these radical leaders successfully organized a mass gathering in support of the soldiers who had been locked up for their role in the Nancy mutiny, which we talked about back in Episode 3.17. The political climate had obviously changed quite a bit since August 1790, and the mutineers were released from prison and paraded as heroes through the streets of Paris on April 15 as part of the patriotic run up to war.
So when the King purged the Girondin Ministry in mid June, the radical sections of Paris already had a full head of steam, fueled also, of course, by the sudden bad news from the front and Brissot’s conspiratorial rhetoric about counterrevolutionary aristocrats plotting their collective downfall. Then this head of steam was further fueled by an open letter from Lafayette that arrived in Paris on June 18. Lafayette announced that the internal unity of France was threatened not by some secret Austrian committee, but rather by demagogues using seditious political clubs as platforms to attack the constitution. He advised the Legislative Assembly to immediately shut down the Jacobin Club and the Cordeliers Club. This, of course, did nothing but confirm everyone’s belief that Lafayette was a traitor to the Revolution.
The final bit of fuel was heaped on by the King on June 19, when he went ahead and vetoed both the law on deporting non-juring priests and the law calling in the 20,000 national guardsmen to Paris.
So June 20, 1792, was, conveniently enough, the third anniversary of the Tennis Court Oath, and the radical leaders of Paris used it as an excuse to call for a mass meeting outside the Tuileries Palace, ostensibly to plant a commemorative liberty pole in the Tuileries garden.
That morning, tens of thousands showed up outside the palace to make their displeasure with the King known. It was at this rally that the Revolution also began to hear the first prominent assertions of the sans-culottes, that is, those workers and artisans who did not wear the fancy knee breeches, were not only an independent political force on their own but that they were a superior political force. The distinction between active and passive citizens should not be abolished. It should be reversed! The will of the true people of France should dominate. All aristocratic culotte-wearing swine should be swept aside.
The demonstration of June 20 was organized to be a peaceful one. Yes, the mob was armed, and yes, the mob was intimidating, but intimidating was all they wanted to be for the moment. They first pushed their way into the Legislative Assembly and presented a petition calling for an investigation of the King’s treason against the nation, specifically his alleged undermining of the war effort. The petition concluded that if the King was found guilty that he had to be removed from power. Then they went off and pushed their way into the Royal apartments themselves, the National Guardsmen on duty simply let them pass.
Knowing that there was nothing he could do to stop them, Louis ordered the doors to his private chamber opened, and in came the rabble. For the next two hours, Louis put on a brave face as these thousands of lowly wretches filed past to get a look at him and maybe hurl an insult or two. When a red liberty cap was thrust in his direction, the King prudently put it on. When a glass of wine was thrust in his hand, he raised it and drank to the nation.
But though these symbolic gestures helped sort of win the people over, he also pointedly declared his continued faith in the constitution and that he had no intention of reinstating the dismissed Girondin ministry. Eventually, the mayor of Paris, Pétion, whose sympathies clearly lay with the mob but who decided he should probably do something to restore order, arrived on the scene, mounted a chair, and convinced everyone to disperse.
The demonstration of June 20 was ominous and not a little bit surreal, but it failed to achieve its immediate objective. The King would not reverse any of his vetoes, and he would not reinstate the dismissed ministers. Then, in the medium term, it actually did quite a bit to damage the revolutionary cause, or at least the revolutionary cause as seen from the perspective of the emerging sans-culottes. Because once the rest of the nation got word that the mobs of Paris were trying to dictate national policy by means of foul language and general smelliness, moderate provincials would sympathize with the King and start wondering why so much power was concentrated in Paris, where foulmouthed, smelly mobs could wield such disproportionate influence.
This would combine with other grievances particular to each department, paving the way for a general breakdown of political harmony between the center and the periphery of the nation and then lead to out and out civil war. In the long term, though, the events of June 20 fit neatly into the straight line leading directly to the subject of next week’s episode: the great Insurrection of August 10, an insurrection that might plausibly be called the Second French Revolution, because next week we will see a similar mob of radical Parisians rise up, overthrow the monarchy, and declare France a republic.
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