An engaging account of selected revolutions in modern history.
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10 August 1792
'Le jour de gloire est arrivé'
Le jour de gloire est arrivé.
The day of glory has arrived.
L'audace, encore l'audace, toujours l'audace.
Boldness, more boldness, forever boldness.
Georges Jacques Danton, 1792
The tocsin shook the citizens of Paris from their sleep. 'Allons, enfants de la patrie ...'
It was followed by the boom of a gun. 'Aux armes, citoyens!'
It was shortly past midnight, on 10 August 1792. The king had been sleeping fitfully after a pleasant meal. Suddenly an explosion shook him. Like a sleepwalker the king stumbled from his bed, a fat man in a dark-red dressing gown with his wig awry. His fat lips trembled. He was lost in the confusion of interrupted sleep and frightening noises.
'Louis, what is going on?' demanded the queen, clutching her nightgown anxiously around her. The tocsin kept on ringing.
The Duc de La Rochefoucauld charged into the room. The king looked startled: 'What is it? Une révolte?'
'Non, sire, c'est une révolution! It's a revolution!'
'I rule with my arse in the saddle and my pistol in my hand,' announced the first ofthe Bourbon line, Henri IV, on the day of his coronation in 1572. Here was a monarch who drank more beer than ten of his soldiers, who led them into battle from the front, and who spent his time when he was not at war with one of his sixty-four mistresses. Henri IV, King of France and Navarre, was no doubt one of the most colourful monarchs in European history. He was not an intellectual, but a man of action, and his court became a cross between a cavalry barrack and a whorehouse. Henri de Navarre was without doubt the most popular of all French kings, someone whose dream was that every one of his subjects would be able to have a chicken in his Sunday pot.
The next in the Bourbon line was Louis XIII, married to Anne d'Autriche. The papal nuncio told him that Heaven (and Catholic France) needed an heir, and the young king fulfilled his marital duties. But when it came to ruling a kingdom, he was too young and unsure. He was fortunate to meet in Armand de Plessis a man better known in history as Cardinal Richelieu. By the time Richelieu died in 1642 he had transformed France into the greatest kingdom in Europe. On 14 May 1643, the day the forty-one-year-old Louis XIII lay dying, he asked for his son to be brought to his bedside. 'What do you call yourself, my son?' There was nothing timid about the child's reply: 'Louis XIV.'
This, the most glamorous of all French sovereigns, adopted the sun as his emblem, and declared: 'L'état c'est moi! I am the state.' And he added: 'War, if necessity demands it, is a just act not only permitted, but commanded to kings. It is a grave error to think that one can reach the same aims by weaker means.' How the history of France, and probably that of Europe, would have been different, had the future Louis XVI listened to the dictum of his illustrious ancestor.
Louis XV's reign was a time of great refinement but also of considerable conflict. His flagrant lifestyle, as much as his futile wars, depleted the treasury. He lost Canada, the Ohio Valley, and Louisiana to the British. France fell into a rapid decline. Conflict grew from within, fed by a generation of great French philosophers, whose thinking was to touch the entire world. Voltaire and Montesquieu, who were liberally inclined, wanted the monarchy to accept a new form of society. The sarcastic Beaumarchais expected little of social reforms. The extremists, Diderot and Rousseau, loudly voiced their doubts that society would find by itself the strength to force reform; rebels against dogmatism and martyrs to free thought and opinion, they predicted that change would have to be imposed by an example from the outside.
It was not long in coming. In North America a conflict broke out between the colonists and the crown. Europe waited for events to duplicate those taking place across the Atlantic. If citizens in Boston and Philadelphia could find happiness by applying the principles of the French thinkers, why continue to support old monarchical idols? In 1774, Louis XV lay dying. His son, an overweight, sixteen-year-old dumpling of a dauphin, was married to Archduchess Maria Antonia of Austria, a capricious fifteen-year-old blonde. Their heritage was a kingdom on the verge of bankruptcy. The old king's dying words were an ominous prediction: 'Après moi le déluge After me the flood.'
The fat boy and the blonde girl ascended the throne as King Louis XVI and Queen Marie-Antoinette. Their lives were a truly Shakespearean tragedy. Louis indulged in gluttony, and spent most of his time as monarch in a private workshop behind his official reception room. His pet project was fixing clocks and locks. The mercurial Marie-Antoinette loved dancing and gambling. She referred to her husband as 'le pauvre garçon the poor boy', a comment on his poor performance or lack of it in the nuptial bed. Her life was that of a flirt, and her adventures included the tall and mysterious Count Fersen, a colonel in the Royal Swedish Regiment. Rumours spread of her revels on black satin sheets, turning her into a modern-day Messalina. Sleazy drawings of her were passed around in bars. Her reputation for frivolity, extravagance, and duplicity earned her the sobriquet l'Autrichienne (the Austrian) or l'autre chienne (the other bitch-dog), and she was so hated by 'her people' that she became a liability that was to lead her to the guillotine.
The king's first venture into war was against his country's perennial enemy, England, when he lent his support to the rebellious colonists of Virginia. In 1779, 7,500 French troops under the command of Rochambeau and the nineteen-year-old Marquis de Lafayette forced General Cornwallis to surrender at Yorktown. The War of American Independence was a costly affair to the tune of 2 billion livres. Jacques Necker, a pot-bellied Swiss banker, was appointed director of finances. In his Compte rendu au Roi (fiscal account), Necker humbly pointed out that France faced bankruptcy. The country entered a period of depression, but in no way did the court diminish its outrageous lifestyle. This situation prompted demands by the bourgeoisie for amendment of the existing tax laws. The court looked for a scapegoat. The capable Necker was fired and replaced by the incompetent Charles Calonne, whose policy, that 'a man who borrows must appear to be rich' pleased the king.
As if Louis' marital problems were not enough, the episode of the Diamond Necklace brought the country to boiling point. A jeweller had shown the queen a necklace of exquisite beauty, but it was too extravagant for her purse. The Countess de la Motte-Valois had slipped into the bed of the forty-four-year-old Cardinal Louis de Rohan, a foppish man whose the ambition was to be another Cardinal Richelieu. She persuaded Rohan to purchase the necklace and offer it to the queen, with whom she told the credulous Rohan, she had some influence. On a moonless night in the park of Versailles, a veiled prostitute with a striking resemblance to the queen met the cardinal and presented him with a rose. The cardinal was overjoyed at this apparent token of favour. He agreed to the payment terms for the jewels, took possession of them and handed them to the countess who would convey his humble offering to her 'intimate friend' the queen. In a burlesque scene of 'Now you see it, now you don't', the countess passed the diamonds to her husband, who left for London where he sold the stones. The jeweller waited for a week before demanding payment from none other than the queen. The king was outraged, Countess de la Motte-Valois was branded as a thief, and the Cardinal de Rohan was banned from Paris. Yet the damage was done and the odium stuck to Marie Antoinette who became known as 'la Reine Deficit', dipping her hands into state funds while the people of Paris starved. (Napoleon considered the affair of the Rohan necklace as key to the revolution.)
An event, overlooked since it took place across the border, provided another stepping stone towards the French Revolution. The despotism of the Stadholder of Holland, Prince William V, had so frustrated the merchants and burghers that they kicked him out. In 1786, he returned to power on the back of the English fleet. For once, the French managed to benefit from the tense political situation in Holland. The Marquis de Rayneval, dispatched to the Netherlands by Louis, was shocked by what he discovered. 'The fervour of the Patriot Party has made terrifying progress and if it is not stopped, it is to be feared that it may cause an explosion that will have incalculable consequences.' Lack of assistance from Paris brought a quick end to the Dutch Barbacan Uprising of 1787. As a result, the beaten Dutch revolutionaries fled to France and brought with them their revolutionary ideas and their radical ardour.
The following year two more calamities befell the kingdom: a disastrous harvest and the coldest winter in living memory. With diminished food stocks and a reeling economy, France was headed for a time of deprivation and discontent. The critical question was whether the French would stoically endure the hardship, as they had so many times before, or would strike out in anger against the old political order. While the court was left to ponder this question but did nothing to relieve the suffering of the people, the population of Paris ate cats and rats. Thousands perished during the terrible winter of 1788. With famine crippling its cities, and its finances in a shambles, France drifted into 1789. The catastrophic situation forced the king into a desperate step. He called for a meeting of the États Généraux (the States General) for 4 May 1789. The assembly was made up of 270 nobles of the high aristocracy, or the First Estate, who by their birthright did not have to pay tax. Also present were 291 clergy, or the Second Estate, who benefited equally from a tax-exempt existence. The last group was the Tiers État, or Third Estate, whose 578 deputies were selected from the grand and petit bourgeoisie. This group had to carry the entire financial burden of France. The question of an 'abolition of privileges' was the crucial point on the agenda; a priest of the low clergy, the Abbé Sieyès, had posed the question: 'What is the Third Estate? Everything! What has it been up to now on the political level? Nothing! What does it ask for? To be something!' The benches of the great hall in Versailles were crowded: the nobility were decked out in silks, albeit rather worn at the cuffs; the clergy were dressed in black, with a sprinkling of crimson or purple; and the bourgeoisie wore rather plain if not drab attire. The nobility received a shock when the king's first cousin, the Duc d'Orléans, and the Count Gabriel Honoré de Mirabeau joined the bench of the Third Estate.
No man worked harder and more thanklessly to save the kingdom from itself than Mirabeau. His personality was impressive; he was the single most powerful force to dare to challenge the king. He initiated a series of events that were to lead to the French Revolution. The nobility loathed him because he had deserted his class; the bourgeoisie mistrusted him because he was of noble birth; and the king thought of Mirabeau as a chien enragé (mad dog). Everyone had him wrong. Mirabeau was deeply concerned to uphold order, but not to uphold l'ancien régime, the old order of privileges. He remained a royalist at heart, but could not tolerate the idea of saying yes to a hopelessly weak king. 'The monarchy is the only anchor of hope that can preserve this nation from foundering on the rocks,' he stressed over and over again. 'But, mark my words, the king and the queen will lose and the enraged populace will fight over their corpses.'
Mirabeau could feel the coming thunder. Power no longer lay with an impoverished aristocracy; the wealth of the country had changed hands and so had the balance of power. Gold was stuffed under the mattresses of the bourgeoisie and there were 26 million of them. The grand bourgeoisie controlled the nation's money through the banks. The petit bourgeoisie provided trade and the social infrastructure. Wig makers and brewers sent their sons to the schools of the Latin Quarter. They graduated as doctors, lawyers, and teachers. The children of the revolution were recruited from the basoche, the legal profession; these bourgeois delegates could read and write, but most important, they could talk.
One segment of society was absent, the 'little people'. It was this unrepresented class, once roused by unscrupulous agitators for their own purpose, who demonstrated an implacable hatred of church and nobility, which led to the infamous excesses of the revolution.
In May 1789, control was with the bourgeoisie. The aristocracy and the clergy did not see it that way; firmness had worked in their favour so far and they dug in their heels. If one thing is certain, firmness cannot work for ever. On 23 June 1789 the delicate balance was upset. Members of the Third Estate found the doors of their meeting hall barred to them. With Count Mirabeau in the lead, they marched as one body to the nearby Jeu de Paume (indoor tennis court) where they swore their famous Sermon de Jeu de Paume or Tennis Court Oath, 'not to leave the premises before having provided a constitution for France'. With this step they declared themselves as the only legal National Constituent Assembly, or Convention. When the king heard of it, he quickly dispatched his master of ceremony to order the unconstitutional assembly to dissolve. Count Mirabeau stared down the king's envoy and thundered his famous reply: 'Tell those who have sent you that we are here by the will of the people, and that we shall only depart at the point of bayonets!' The monarch had not studied how revolutions begin, nor how a chain of misunderstandings can throw out all counsel for moderation, leading to excesses that can make nations shudder. He only shrugged his shoulders: 'If they don't want to leave, let them be!'
Mirabeau alone realised that if France was to be saved, then it would only be by the formation of a constitutional monarchy. (Its collapse proved to be incomparably more dramatic.) His resolution laid the foundation for the event to come 'The National Convention declares that the person of any delegate is inviolable, and that all those who dare to persecute a delegate, no matter who shall give the order, is considered a traitor to the nation and guilty of a capital crime.'
Mirabeau, the greatest realist on the doctrines of the French Revolution, urged his king to lead the way for change, not combat it. 'Sire,' he argued, 'the very idea of monarchy is not incompatible with revolution. Sire, abolish the privileges, modernise the state, and Your Majesty will come out stronger than ever before.' How different history would have been had Louis listened to the wise prophet. Instead he foolishly ordered 30,000 troops to march on Paris. This shocked its citizens into action. Barricades went up and Camille Desmoulins, a firebrand law student, exhorted the citizens to take muskets and powder from the towers of the Bastille. After some shots were fired which hurt nobody, the thirty-two prison guards put down their arms. An enraged mob stormed the towers, decapitated the governor, and paraded his head on a pike. Violence stalked the streets that day, 14 July 1789. The rest is history. With the fall of the Bastille, symbol of the ancien régime, ended the old order of monarchical privilege. Paris was in the grip of anarchy: armed gangs marched on the residences of the wealthy and burned them down; churches were ransacked and heads of religious statues knocked off; serfs armed with pitchforks and sickles massacred the nobility and burned their châteaux. The Comte d'Artois (the future Charles X) fled France, followed by the Ducs de Berry, Angoulême, Condé, Enghien, and 20,000 aristocrats.
Six months later, 26 August 1789 brought the outstanding achievement of the revolution: the Declaration of the Rights of Man, based largely on the wording of the Bill of Rights of Virginia. When 5,000 women marched on Versailles two months later, demanding bread, Marie-Antoinette was misquoted as saying: 'Why don't they eat brioche (cake)?' To calm that mob, the king acceded to the women's demand that he accompany them back to Paris. For all practical purposes, the king had become the prisoner of the revolution. From now on, his power was whatever the people were willing to grant him.
At this crucial juncture a man appeared on the political scene who fanned the 'little people's' fury. Jean-Paul Marat was a Swiss doctor and a part-time journalist. 'A rabid cellar rat, who came into the daylight when the sewers failed and then devoured everything in his way, was the typical representative of the rabble from taverns and bordellos, and whose existence had always been underground, living by robbery and murder' was how a German revolutionary described l'ami du peuple the Friend of the People. In his first newspaper edition of the same name, Marat set the tone by launching into a scathing attack against Louis XVI: 'a weakling without soul, unworthy to sit on the throne, a weathervane deftly manipulated by his courtesans, a tyrant pushed to crime. One whose conduct had always been a web of inconsequence and horror, a despot who washes his hands in the blood of the people, a monster who conspires against public liberté and who must be considered a criminal in the eyes of justice.' Such phrases inflamed the 'little people', the manual labourers who toiled for their masters, and even lived alongside them. Cities were not divided into rich and poor quarters; people of all classes lived together in the same houses in the same narrow lanes. According to their arrondissement (district), they were grouped into sections, but they had nothing in common with the proletariat of the Industrial Age.
Mirabeau died on 2 April 1791: 'I leave you with a hopeless and cruel thought. Unless you stop the excesses, they will lead on to tragedy, from single murder to massacre, from the fall of a king to the fall of a country.' With Mirabeau's death, the king lost all hope of regaining his throne. He decided on escape. At midnight on 20 June 1791, a man dressed in a long cape led a woman holding the hand of a little girl and two other women to a carriage. A tall coachman stood by to help them into the cab. The man was Louis, the woman Marie-Antoinette, the 'girl' was the Dauphin Louis-Charles, and the coachman was Marie-Antoinette's lover, the Swedish Count Fersen. A travelling coach awaited them on the outskirts of Paris painted in bright yellow and bearing the royal crest! Only hours from the border, Fersen took a wrong turn and had to double back; they asked a local boy for directions, and the king slipped a coin into the boy's hand, a gold louis d'or! The boy ran to alert the local revolutionary committee.
On the bridge at Verennes the royal escape came to an end. 'Halt, who goes?'
The queen snapped: 'Madame Korff, on her way to Frankfurt.'
Monsieur Saussé deputy mayor of Varennes, replied: 'The difficulties of the road are enough to ask you to leave the coach. I offer you my house for the night.'
The leader of the armed group was the local postmaster, Drouet: 'How come a special detachment of dragoons awaits you on the other side of the river? You must come out immediately, or we will fire on you.'
The queen, followed by the king, stepped from the coach. 'You are the king!' Drouet yelled. 'I recognise you!'
'So if you recognise me, why don't you show the necessary respect to your sovereign?' Instead of being shown respect, the king was locked up in a room in a nearby house.
Saussé dispatched an urgent call to nearby villages: 'Come with your guns, we have caught the king.'
Marie-Antoinette pleaded with the wife of the mayor: 'Madame Saussé, think what I feel for the king and my children. A queen of France will owe you her eternal gratitude.'
'You think of the king and I think of Monsieur Saussé.'
The royal family was escorted back to Paris. On the way their coach was stoned, and on their inglorious return to Paris, Louis saw his effigy dangling from a lamp-post. This was enough for Marie-Antoinette to express her fears that someone was out to have them murdered. 'The escape was the road to shame or to the executioner. There is but one way to flee from the throne, and that is abdication,' wrote Lamartine, 'and Louis did not abdicate. From now on, he became nothing but a traitor to the revolution and a marionette in the hands of its leaders.'
On 17 July 1791, a group of radical republicans, led by Marat, gathered on the Champs de Mars. He declared the king to be redundant, but his timing was wrong; France was not yet ready to become a republic. General Lafayette ordered his National Guard to fire into the crowd. Fifty were killed. The Convention split into two camps: the Girondins represented the well-off bourgeoisie, and the extremist Jacobins the 'little people'. Both parties forced the king to underwrite the new constitution. Louis now became a simple representative, a fatal error that the bourgeoisie was to regret. The person of the king had been the only constitutional instrument that could stand up to the extremists and now the bourgeoisie opened the door to raging madmen willing to use mob brutality. A new set of characters entered the public stage.
The following year was a year of decision. On 20 April 1792, France declared war on the Hapsburg monarchy. In July, the Duke of Brunswick stormed into France at the head of a powerful army of 75,000 and stated his intention to reinstall the French monarch to his rightful position. This sealed the king's fate. Although it took another six months, the process was irreversible. A certain Georges-Jacques Danton, member of the Jacobin Club, meticulously planned the assault. Danton, without doubt the most brilliant of all revolutionary orators, came from a small French town. He studied law and was appointed a lawyer in the King's Council. He took no part in the events of July 1789, but became active in 1791 when he founded the Cordeliers Club, the forerunner to the Jacobins. Following the events of August 1792, he was appointed minister of justice, and as such, called into being the Revolutionary Tribunal, a bloodstained court that was to become the institutional arm of the Terror. With Danton's connivance, trouble began. For days now, hysterical rumours had been spreading that thousands of the king's loyal troops were marching on the city and that the section committees would provide every citoyen with a weapon to fight to the death. 'Liberté ou la mort! Liberty or death!' the tocsin kept insisting, joined by the bells of the sixty churches across the city. 'Aux armes, citoyens! Citizens, take up your arms!' From the street came the babble of voices, urging every able-bodied man and woman to join and resist the devilish plot hatched by a king, and his bitch of a queen. 'Formez les bataillons! Fall into your battalions!' The leaders of the revolution had vowed to fight from section to section, lane to lane, house to house. Aux barricades! To the barricades! The masses poured into the centre of the city. Someone in the crowd started the first note of a newly composed revolutionary song ... 'Allons, enfants de la patrie, le jour de gloire est arrivée ... come, children of the motherland, the day of glory is here ...'
Excerpted from BLOOD OF REVOLUTION by Erik Durschmied. Copyright © 2001 by Erik Durschmied. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Meet the Author
Erik Durschmied is a military historian and award-winning journalist who has been a correspondent for Newsweek as well as the BBC and CBS. He has personally covered wars and revolutions in Cuba, Vietnam, Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan. He lives in France.
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