Louis Accepts the Constitution (14–25 September 1791)


Louis Accepts the Constitution (14–25 September 1791)


Even after the debacle of the flight to Varennes, the King’s brothers—the Counts of Provence and of Artois—continued to plot from exile for a military strike that would dispel the National Assembly before it could adopt the new constitution. Louis, however, feared civil war more than he did the prospect of becoming a constitutional monarch. He thus accepted the new constitution, swearing an oath before the National Assembly. Ten days later, Louis wrote this letter to his brothers explaining his decision and asking them to cease their efforts to organize a coup against the Revolution.


Félix-Sébastien Feuillet de Conches, ed., Louis XVI, Marie-Antoinette et Madame Élisabeth, vol. 2 (Paris: Plon, 1864), 366–75.


September 14, 1791






You have no doubt been informed that I have accepted the Constitution and you are aware of the reasons that I gave to the Assembly. These reasons will not be sufficient for you, so I shall give you all of them.

The condition of France is such that it may end up in total disintegration, and this result will come even more quickly if violent solutions are applied to all the overwhelming ills. The cause of all our problems is the partisanship that divides and destroys governmental authority. There are, however, only two ways to accomplish this: force or reconciliation. . . .

Force can only be used by foreign armies and this means resorting to war. . . . I know we flatter ourselves into thinking we control immense forces, and that war will be prevented by the fact that resistance would be seen as futile. . . . But the leaders of the Revolution, they who are able to sway the people, believe they have too much at risk to ever show discretion. They could never be persuaded that they could be forgiven or pardoned for their crimes. . . . They will use the National Guards and other armed citizens . . . and they will begin by massacring aristocrats. . . . The émigrés want nothing but revenge, and if they cannot make use of foreign arms, they will enter France alone, and will exact that revenge, even if they are all sure to die. War will thus be inevitable, because it is in the interest of those in authority. It will be horrible because it will be motivated by violence and despair. Can a king contemplate all these misfortunes with equanimity and bring them down upon his people? . . .

I know that my émigré subjects pride themselves on the fact that there has been a great change in people's attitudes. I myself believed for a long time that this change was brewing, but now I see that it was not. . . .

One can never govern a people against its will. This maxim is as true in Constantinople as it is in a republic. Right now the will of this nation is for the Rights of Man, senseless though they be. . . .

I have carefully weighed the matter and concluded that war presents no other advantages but horrors and more discord. I also believe then that this idea should be put aside and that I should try once again by using the sole means remaining to me, that of joining my will to the principles of the Constitution. I realize how difficult it will be to govern a large nation this way, I will even say that I believe it to be impossible. But the obstacles that I would have put in the way [by refusing to accept the Constitution] would have brought about the war I sought to avoid, and would have prevented the people from properly assessing the Constitution because my constant opposition would have blinded them. By adopting the principles of the Constitution, and executing them in good faith, the People will come to learn the true cause of their misfortunes. Public opinion will change, since without it [my acceptance of the Constitution], only new convulsions could be expected . . . and I prefer to proceed towards a better order than that which would result from my refusal.



“Louis Accepts the Constitution (14–25 September 1791),” LIBERTY, EQUALITY, FRATERNITY: EXPLORING THE FRENCH REVOUTION, accessed May 26, 2024, https://revolution.chnm.org/d/315.