Monarchy Falls

Europe 1789

Map: Europe 1789

Although the monarchy had always struggled against elites over the definition of royal power, virtually no one could imagine France being governed without a king. At the outset of the Revolution, only a handful of citizens had even contemplated a republic. Yet only a few years later, in August 1792, Louis XVI was deposed, and the following year, revolutionaries executed him and Marie Antoinette. In this chapter, we explore how this transformation occurred in such a short time.

The conflicts of 1787 to 1789 over the monarchy's financial problems led to a major shift in the way France was governed. In part because of the long drawn-out wars of the eighteenth century, the French government had for some time been spending much more than its annual revenue. Usually this money was borrowed. However, for reasons that historians still argue about, this source of funds dried up in the 1780s. Mounting debt and a continuing high level of expenses then forced the monarchy to seek fundamental financial change to put the state on a secure fiscal foundation.

To address this budget crisis, in 1787 the royal government proposed a series of major reforms concerning taxation and reducing expenditures. These proposals met with furious resistance both from a special Assembly of Notables and from the King's own law courts, particularly the Parlement of Paris. In their objections, these bodies stressed the need to return to the tradition by which, in times past, the French people had consented to royal decrees through a representative body known as the Estates-General. Although this body had not been convoked since 1614, many considered it the only national body with the authority to enact fiscal reforms and, if necessary, new taxes. At first, the King resisted. However, imminent bankruptcy forced Louis XVI to call the Estates-General in the fall of 1788.

Although French people across a wide social spectrum were pleased to hear of the calling of the Estates-General, there was also wide disagreement about how it should be elected and should conduct its deliberations. Traditionally, the Estates-General consisted of three estates with equal numbers of deputies—the clergy, the nobility, and the commons—each of which had a single vote. Under this arrangement, the nobility always dominated, since the clerical deputies included a majority of nobles. While leading nobles wished to retain this tradition of "voting by order," which would have ensured their continued dominance, many commoners reacted angrily (which Chapters 1 and 4 take up in greater detail).

In May 1789 the Estates-General finally met, and social divisions deepened. Although many publicly pressed for unity among the three orders, the differences between noble and commoner deputies only grew more irreconcilable. Later there would be attempts at unity, but for now the problems accelerated. Within a month, leading deputies from the Third Estate had decided that to gain a share of power, they would have to seize it. Thus, on 17 June 1789, in a truly radical departure that eclipsed past old regime conflicts, the deputies of the Third Estate declared that they alone represented the "nation." Therefore, only they had the right to constitute the body holding genuine political sovereignty (the authority to consent to the government). Although, as the documents make clear, the Third Estate was motivated by a sense of how unproductive and unfair noble privileges were, by swearing this oath they directly attacked the political basis of the monarchy. Unsure of how to respond to this declaration of national sovereignty, the King refused to recognize the Third Estate deputies as the "National Assembly." At the same time, Louis agreed to become a constitutional monarch, ruling in consultation with, rather than over, his people. Over the following year, Louis would follow this ambivalent posture with regard to the Revolution. On the one hand, after the delegates of the Third Estate reaffirmed their stance in the famous "tennis court oath," the King locked them out of their meeting space; on the other, he participated enthusiastically in a celebration marking the anniversary of the taking of the Bastille.

Once the King gave in to revolutionary demands after 14 July, the National Assembly began drafting a constitution. This process took until the summer of 1791. Throughout this period, the King remained generally and genuinely popular. He was regarded by many as the best hope for solving France's problems. A seasoned participant of the American Revolution, Gouverneur Morris from New York, witnessed the acclaim enjoyed by Louis XVI at the Estates-General. Even radicals like the journalist Jean-Paul Marat continued to see the need for a strong monarchy, although Marat suspected the motives of this particular king. Still, the general problems that the King and Queen faced became most evident on the night of 5–6 October 1789. Amid the ongoing political struggles between the King and the National Assembly, bread prices in the capital remained at the highest levels of the century. A crowd of women gathered in the Parisian marketplace to protest. As they set off to Versailles to register their complaints, they were joined by some members of the National Guard. Upon arriving at the royal palace in the middle of the night, the crowd effectively captured the royal family and forced them to return to Paris to ensure that the King would do something about the bread prices and that the Revolution would continue. Although the King returned to Paris amid popular acclaim, clearly the mass action was a highly equivocal vote of confidence.

The King Returns to Paris

The King Returns to Paris

Arrival of the Royal Family in Paris on 6 October 1789

Arrival of the Royal Family in Paris on 6 October 1789

By the summer of 1791, as the National Assembly was completing its new constitution, which would markedly limit the power of the King, Louis and his supporters turned decisively against the Revolution. One issue that pushed the King against the new regime was the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, which reorganized the Catholic Church in France. This measure, passed by the National Assembly in July 1790, made the clergy elective; moreover, those elected were required to swear an oath of allegiance to the new, revolutionary government of which they became de facto salaried employees. This measure nullified royal and papal powers of clerical appointment and struck a blow at the religious hierarchy. Moreover, the roughly 15 percent of French land that the church owned became "national property," which the assembly began to sell off to pay its debts. To many Catholics, including the King, these changes embodied in the Civil Constitution unnecessarily politicized their religion and demonstrated that the Revolution's changes were not necessarily all going to be for the better.

Since 1789, some of the King's entourage had been urging him to flee the country so that he would not have to compromise his theoretically absolute power. In particular, certain aristocrats who had already departed urged Louis to join them in the Austrian Netherlands, in the clerically run city-states along the Rhine or in Savoy, where they were organizing a military invasion to destroy the revolutionary government and restore the old regime. For two years, the King resisted their entreaties, claiming he should remain with his people and that some of the changes were for the good. Now, in June 1791, rather than approve the new constitution, he agreed to a plan whereby he would flee secretly, precipitating a military invasion led by antirevolutionary nobles with the support of the Habsburg Emperor Leopold II (Marie Antoinette's brother). Late on the night of 20 June, the royal family, disguised as servants, set out for the border.

Although the family got away safely, discovery of their departure enraged many Parisians, who demanded their return.

These citizens were not disappointed; as the royal party neared the border, the King was recognized and arrested at the small town of Varennes. Brought back to Paris, Louis apologized, claiming he never intended to flee but only to demonstrate to counterrevolutionaries that he had not become a de facto prisoner of the National Assembly. To the outrage of radical deputies in the National Assembly, a majority accepted this weak excuse, because they feared that punishing the King would further destabilize the country. In return, and having little other choice, Louis accepted the new constitution. New elections were held in September for a Legislative Assembly.

Once in power, the leaders of the new assembly quickly saw their relations with the King deteriorate. Moreover, the near-universal support that the Revolution had enjoyed within France for two years as the old regime was dismantled now began to dissolve in response to the assembly's efforts to build a new basis for French society. In some areas, especially the western part of France, church reform proved very unpopular. But what really intensified the situation was the onset of war with other European powers. The emerging leaders of the new legislature, known as "Girondins" for the region in the southwest from which many had come, found it intolerable to have a threatening army of émigrés sitting just across the border, so they issued bellicose demands that Leopold cease to support the revanchist nobles. The expected popularity of such a war also motivated these leaders. Leopold resisted French provocation, but when he died unexpectedly in early March, his sixteen-year-old son Francis II did not prove as forbearing. However, the Girondins did not wait for the Austrians to act and declared war themselves in April. As news spread to Paris of the poor performance of the French army in their first encounters with the better-supplied invaders, the reputation of the Legislative Assembly and the King suffered a serious setback.

From Paris, in late summer 1792, it seemed that counterrevolution loomed while hostile powers threatened a weak and divided government. The Girondins, who had done so much to create this situation, escaped responsibility by focusing popular hostility on the monarch, who they claimed was subverting the Revolution from within. In the neighborhoods of Paris, political clubs, such as the Jacobins and the Cordeliers, flourished, often led by deputies. Participants called themselves sans-culottes ("without breeches") to illustrate that they were no fancy-pants lawyers (as in the assembly) but rather the salt of the French earth—their labor gave them greater moral authority to intervene in politics than any number of votes. From these Parisian clubs came the shock troops who unseated the monarchy in August 1792. Even though they had long been restive over rising bread prices and had mobilized to seize the Bastille and to carry out other, similar demonstrations (journées), the sans-culottes had not yet reached their present, more radical conclusion, namely that the monarchy could not be trusted. A series of mobilizations culminated in the invasion of the royal residence at the Tuileries Palace on 10 August 1792, where the sans-culottes arrested and effectively deposed the King. They declared that France should become a republic. Following these events, Louis and Marie Antoinette lost whatever respect they may have had and became engulfed in scorn, as is evident in the caricatures that depicted them as animals. 

The journée of 10 August set off another series of events that pushed the Revolution in an ever-more radical direction. With the King removed from the political scene, the recently adopted constitution became invalid, and the Legislative Assembly, elected less than a year earlier, was dissolved. A new constitutional convention had to be called. Seated in September 1792, this National Convention had three purposes: to draft a new constitution for France, which would henceforth be ruled as a republic; to provide rules that would keep the country going until that constitution could be put into effect; and, in the shortest term, to decide the fate of the King.

On this last matter, the leaders of the Convention seemed to oppose holding a trial, because it was unclear who would be tried: Louis personally? The monarchy as an institution? And for what? In early November, however, the discovery of a "locked chest" containing letters to the King from his ministers and former bodyguards in exile was taken as evidence that the King had been plotting against the Revolution, and the public outcry against the King was renewed. Thus, in early December, Louis was brought before the Convention and charged with a series of malfeasances and crimes, and the deputies began a trial that lasted over two months.

When the debate began, the Girondins again took the lead, seeking to follow a middle road on constitutional issues and on economic policy and to defer any punitive action against the King. However, the radical Parisian press expressed such hostility to the monarch that, to retain credibility, the Convention had to convene a trial of Louis, the terms of which were much debated. As the Girondins stalled for time, a more radical faction of Jacobin deputies, the Mountain, sought to accelerate the proceedings, arguing that as long as Louis lived, he called into question the legitimacy of the Revolution. The Girondins could only counter with frail arguments about proper procedure and careful investigation. They also feared that harming Louis would bring new combatants such as Great Britain, Spain, and Savoy into the war against France. The uncommitted, moderate delegates—referred to as "the Plain"—decided the issue by throwing their support to the Mountain; the Convention voted unanimously to convict Louis of treason. After a dramatic and tumultuous final debate, the Convention sentenced Louis XVI, or "Citizen Capet" as they called him, to death within twenty-four hours. Thus the thousand-year-old French monarchy came to an end in the name of "revolutionary justice."

Doubtless, the elimination of the King proved one of the most decisive single moments of the French Revolution. For its supporters it represented liberation; to its detractors, the cruelty and stupidity of the Revolution. The events of the execution intensified the situation. The condemned man took a painful leave from his family. At the Plaza of the Revolution, tens of thousands had gathered to watch the guillotine spill royal blood. According to most observers, Louis appeared calm and met his fate courageously. Although the guillotine had been invented as a means of execution that would cause less suffering, it appeared to many as excessively bloody and inhumane, especially for a man until recently taken to be God's representative in France. The mixed emotions generated by the execution are evident in the many contemporary engravings and prints depicting the event.

Ten months later, Marie Antoinette followed a longer route to the same fate. Under the old regime, while Louis had maintained his popularity, Marie Antoinette had been the subject of many scurrilous attacks. Long before the King lost his allure for the revolutionaries, much criticism had focused on the Queen, a trend that continued during the Revolution. Moreover, the revolutionaries' hostility toward her was not completely unwarranted. First of all, as mother of the heir to the throne, she became by tradition the most obvious choice for regent, to rule until the King reached the age of majority. Moreover, she had demonstrated herself to be allied with the émigré forces by soliciting support from her brother Leopold and from royalists in France and by strongly encouraging the flight to Varennes.

Of course, as the King's reputation and standing sank decisively in 1791–92, so did the Queen's. After his execution in January 1793, she was abandoned and virtually without defenders on either the right, which considered her an insufficiently active defender of the monarchy's interests, or the left, which disliked her involvement in public affairs and her ties to Austria. Cutting attacks in the press focused on her gender, arguing that by exercising unwarranted power she not only threatened the new constitutional order but also seemed to violate what they believed to be the natural differences between men and women on which they thought the new society ought to be based. As an example of her "unnaturalness," the first press accounts and later the public prosecutor accused her of debauching her son, the crown prince. Her critics claimed that such incest was representative of her degenerate influence on the French nation, at just the moment it was awakening from submission to kings and becoming a virile, self-governing republic. Such claims provided strong fodder for the prosecution during her trial in the fall. Without allies in Paris and with the émigrés abroad unwilling to intervene on her behalf, her situation proved hopeless. On 16 October 1793, she was sentenced to death. Like her husband, Marie Antoinette became a martyr for critics of the Revolution, who saw in her trial further proof of the inherent injustice and blood lust that motivated the leaders of the new regime. Her son's death in captivity in 1795 eliminated the most direct heir to the throne.

Execution of Marie Antoinette (16 October 1793) at the Place de la Révolution

Execution of Marie Antoinette

The Queen of Louis XVI King of France at the Guillotine, 16 October 1793

The Queen of Louis XVI King of France at the Guillotine

Marie Antoinette Josephe Jeanne de Lorraine

Marie Antoinette Josephe Jeanne de Lorraine

Marie Antoinette Memorialized

Marie Antoinette Memorialized

Yet within a decade, Napoleon would proclaim himself Emperor. Indubitably, his legitimacy rested on a revolutionary foundation, and his power and authority appeared quite different from that of the ancient royal houses such as the Bourbons, the Habsburgs, or the Romanovs. Bonaparte busily made his family monarchical by placing relatives on thrones throughout French-dominated Europe. Clearly, Napoleon thought the idea of a hereditary monarchy was alive, and the French seemed to concur by supporting, or at least acceding to, a succession of kings after Napoleon's ouster. A republican government finally arrived in the 1870s, not so much because a majority of the French had been persuaded that republicanism was preferable, but because no suitable candidate for the monarchy could be agreed upon. The issue of suitability shows that the French had distinct and important ideas about what a king should and should not be, not that they did not want one. This subsequent history and continued appreciation of the monarchy suggests that the downward spiral of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette had more to do with the crisis surrounding them and with them as individuals, rather than with the monarchy as an institution within French political culture. Or, perhaps, their deaths were required to reveal to the French how much they wished to center their political system on the existence of a hereditary monarch. Indeed, even now, after more than a century of republican rule, the idea of monarchy, or at least strong individual leadership, holds great appeal within the French political system.