Constitutional Monarchy



The Constitution of 1791

The Constitution of 1791, the first written constitution of France, turned the country into a constitutional monarchy following the collapse of the absolute monarchy of the Ancien Régime.

Learning Objectives

Deconstruct the government established by the Constitution of 1791

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • One of the stated goals of the National Assembly formed by the Third Estate on June 13, 1789, was to write a constitution. A twelve-member Constitutional Committee was convened on July 14, 1789, to draft most of the articles of the constitution. Many proposals for redefining the French state were floated.
  • The main early controversies surrounded the level of power to be granted to the king of France and the form the legislature would take. Another critical question was whether every subject of the French Crown would be given equal rights as the Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen theoretically promised.
  • A second body, the Committee of Revisions, was created in September 1790. Because the National Assembly was both a legislature and a constitutional convention, this committee was formed to sort out whether its decrees were constitutional articles or mere statutes. The committee became very important in the days after the Champs de Mars Massacre, when one of its members used his position to preserve a number of powers of the Crown.
  • A new constitution was reluctantly accepted by Louis XVI in September 1791. It abolished many institutions defined as “injurious to liberty and equality of rights.” The National Assembly was the legislative body, the king and royal ministers made up the executive branch, and the judiciary was independent of the other two branches. On a local level, previous feudal geographic divisions were formally abolished and the territory of the French state was divided into several administrative units with the principle of centralism. The king was allowed a suspensive veto to balance out the interests of the people.
  • The constitution was not egalitarian by today’s standards. It distinguished between the active citizens (male property owners of certain age) and the passive citizens. All women were deprived of rights and liberties, including the right to education and freedom to speak, write, print, and worship.
  • Following the onset of French Revolutionary Wars and the August 10 Insurrection, a National Convention declared France a republic on September 22, 1792, which meant that France needed a new constitution a year after agreeing on the 1791 Constitution.

Key Terms

  • Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen: A fundamental document of the French Revolution and in the history of human and civil rights passed by France’s National Constituent Assembly in August 1789. It was influenced by the doctrine of natural right, stating that the rights of man are held to be universal. It became the basis for a nation of free individuals protected equally by law.
  • March on Versaille: A march that started on the morning of October 5, 1789, among women in the marketplaces of Paris who were near rioting over the high price and scarcity of bread. Their demonstrations quickly became intertwined with the activities of revolutionaries, who were seeking liberal political reforms and a constitutional monarchy for France. The market women and their various allies grew into a crowd of thousands. Encouraged by revolutionary agitators, they ransacked the city armory for weapons and marched to the Palace of Versailles.
  • Feuillants: A political group that emerged during the French Revolution and consisted of monarchists and reactionaries who sat on the right of the Legislative Assembly of 1791. It came into existence when the left-wing Jacobins split between moderates who sought to preserve the position of the king and supported the proposed plan of the National Assembly for a constitutional monarchy and radicals (Jacobins) who wished to press for a continuation of direct democratic action to overthrow Louis XVI.
  • Paris Commune: During the French Revolution, the government of Paris from 1789 until 1795. Established in the Hôtel de Ville just after the storming of the Bastille, it consisted of 144 delegates elected by the 48 divisions of the city. It became insurrectionary in the summer of 1792, essentially refusing to take orders from the central French government. It took charge of routine civic functions but is best known for mobilizing extreme views. It lost much of its power in 1794 and was replaced in 1795.
  • Champs de Mars Massacre: A massacre that took place on July 17, 1791, in Paris in the midst of the French Revolution. Two days before, the National Constituent Assembly issued a decree that Louis XVI would remain king under a constitutional monarchy. This decision came after Louis XVI and his family unsuccessfully tried to flee France in the Flight to Varennes the month before. Later that day, leaders of the republicans in France rallied against this decision, eventually leading royalist Lafayette to order the massacre.
  • August 10 Insurrection: One of the defining events in the history of the French Revolution, the storming of the Tuileries Palace by the National Guard of the insurrectional Paris Commune and revolutionary fédérés from Marseilles and Brittany resulted in the fall of the French monarchy. King Louis XVI and the royal family took shelter with the Legislative Assembly, which was suspended. The formal end of the monarchy that occurred six weeks later was one of the first acts of the new National Convention.
  • French Revolutionary Wars: A series of sweeping military conflicts from 1792 until 1802, resulting from the French Revolution. They pitted the French First Republic against Britain, Austria and several other monarchies. They are divided into two periods: the War of the First Coalition (1792–1797) and the War of the Second Coalition (1798–1802). Initially confined to Europe, the fighting gradually assumed a global dimension as the political ambitions of the Revolution expanded.
  • National Assembly: A revolutionary assembly formed by the representatives of the Third Estate (the common people) of the Estates-General that existed from June 13 to July 9, 1789. After July 9, it was known as the National Constituent Assembly although popularly the shorter form persisted.

Constitution of 1791: Drafting Process

One of the stated goals of the National Assembly formed by the Third Estate on June 13, 1789, was to write a constitution. A 12-member Constitutional Committee was convened on July 14, 1789 (coincidentally the day of the Storming of the Bastille) to draft most of the articles of the constitution. It originally included two members from the First Estate, two from the Second, and four from the Third. Many proposals for redefining the French state were floated, particularly in the days after the remarkable sessions of August 4 and 5 when feudalism was abolished. For instance, the Marquis de Lafayette proposed a combination of the American and British systems, a bicameral parliament with the king having the suspensive veto power over the legislature modeled on the authority then recently vested in the President of the United States.

The main early controversies surrounded the level of power that should be granted to the king of France and the form the legislature would take (i.e.: unicameral or bicameral). The Constitutional Committee proposed a bicameral legislature, but the motion was defeated in favor of one house. They also proposed an absolute veto, but were again defeated in favor of a suspensive veto, which could be overridden by three consecutive legislatures.

A second Constitutional Committee quickly replaced the first one. It included three members from the original group as well as five new members, all of the Third Estate. The greatest controversy faced by the new committee surrounded citizenship. The critical question was whether every subject of the French Crown would be given equal rights, or would there be some restrictions? The March on Versailles (October 5-6), led by women from marketplaces around Paris, rendered the question even more complicated. In the end, a distinction between active citizens who held political rights (males over the age of 25 who paid direct taxes equal to three days’ labor) and passive citizens, who had only civil rights, was drawn. Some radical deputies, such as Maximilien Robespierre, could not accept the distinction.

A second body, the Committee of Revisions, was created in September 1790. Because the National Assembly was both a legislature and a constitutional convention, the Committee of Revisions was required to sort out whether its decrees were constitutional articles or mere statutes. It was the task of the Committee of Revisions to sort it out. The committee became very important in the days after the Champs de Mars Massacre (July 17, 1791), when a wave of opposition against popular movements swept France and resulted in a renewed effort to preserve powers of the Crown. The result was the rise of the Feuillants, a new political faction led by Antoine Barnave, one of the Committee’s members who used his position to preserve a number of powers of the Crown, including the nomination of ambassadors, military leaders, and ministers.

Acceptance and Administration

After very long negotiations, a new constitution was reluctantly accepted by Louis XVI in September 1791. Redefining the organization of the French government, citizenship, and the limits to the powers of government, the National Assembly set out to represent the interests of the public. It abolished many institutions defined as “injurious to liberty and equality of rights.” The National Assembly asserted its legal presence as part of the French government by establishing its permanence in the Constitution and forming a system of recurring elections. The National Assembly was the legislative body, the king and royal ministers made up the executive branch, and the judiciary was independent of the other two branches. On a local level, previous feudal geographic divisions were formally abolished and the territory of the French state was divided into several administrative units (Départements), but with the principle of centralism.

As framers of the constitution, the Assembly was concerned that if only representatives governed France, they were likely to be motivated by their own self-interests. Therefore, the king was allowed a suspensive veto to balance out the interests of the people. By the same token, representative democracy weakened the king’s executive authority. However, the constitution was not egalitarian by today’s standards. It distinguished between the active citizens (male property owners of certain age) and the passive citizens. All women were deprived of rights and liberties, including the right to education, freedom to speak, write, print, and worship.

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The first page of the French Constitution of 1791, Archives Nationales.

The short-lived French Constitution of 1791 was the first written constitution in France, created after the collapse of the absolute monarchy of the Ancien Régime. One of the basic precepts of the revolution was adopting constitutionality and establishing popular sovereignty.

Effectiveness

With the onset of French Revolutionary Wars and the involvement of foreign powers in the conflict, radical Jacobin and ultimately republican conceptions grew enormously in popularity, increasing the influence of Robespierre, Danton, Marat and the Paris Commune. When the King used his veto powers to protect non-juring priests and refused to raise militias in defense of the revolutionary government, the constitutional monarchy proved unacceptable to radical revolutionaries and was effectively ended by the August 10 Insurrection. A National Convention was called, electing Robespierre as its first deputy. It was the first assembly in France elected by universal male suffrage. The convention declared France a republic on September 22, 1792, which meant that France needed a new constitution.

Politics within the Revolutionaries

Over the course of the Revolution, the original revolutionary movement known as the Jacobins split into more and less radical factions, the most important of which were the Feuillants (moderate; pro-royal), the Montagnards (radical) and the Girondins (moderate; pro-republic).

Learning Objectives

Distinguish between the different blocs within the new government

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Legislative Assembly consisted of 745 members, mostly from the middle class. The rightists within the assembly consisted of about 260 Feuillants, who were staunch constitutional monarchists firm in their defense of the King against the popular agitation. The leftists were about 136 Jacobins and Cordeliers. They favored the idea to spread the new ideals of liberty and equality and to put the king’s loyalty to the test. The remainder of the House, 345 deputies, belonged to no definite party. They were committed to the ideals of the Revolution and thus inclined to side with the left but would also occasionally back proposals from the right.
  • The Feuillants came into existence when the Jacobins split between moderates, who sought to preserve the position of the king and supported the proposed plan of the National Assembly for a constitutional monarchy, and radicals (Jacobins). Labelled by their opponents as royalists, they were targeted after the fall of the monarchy.
  • The National Convention was a single-chamber assembly in France from September 20, 1792, to October 26, 1795, that succeeded the Legislative Assembly. It fractured into even more extreme factions than its predecessor. A result of the increasing divide within the Jacobins was the split between the more radical Montagnards and the Girondins.
  • The Jacobin Club was distinguished by its left-wing revolutionary politics. They were thus closely allied to the sans-culottes, a popular force of working-class Parisians that played a pivotal role in the development of the revolution. The Jacobins were dubbed “the Mountain” (French: la montagne) for their seats in the uppermost part of the chamber and aimed for a more repressive form of government.
  • The two most significant factors in the consequential split between the Montagnards and the Girondins were the September Massacres and the trial of Louis XVI, both in 1792.
  • The terms “left” and “right” used to refer to political parties is one of the lasting legacies of the French Revolution. Members of the National Assembly divided into supporters of the king to the president’s right and supporters of the revolution to his left.

Key Terms

  • Montagnards: A political group during the French Revolution who sat on the highest benches in the Assembly. They were the most radical group and opposed the Girondists. The term, first used during a session of the Legislative Assembly, came into general use in 1793. Led by Maximilien Robespierre, they unleashed the Reign of Terror in 1794.
  • sans-culottes: The common people of the lower classes in late 18th century France, a great many of whom became radical and militant partisans of the French Revolution in response to their poor quality of life under the Ancien Régime.
  • Girondins: A political group operating in France from 1791 to 1795 during the French Revolution, active within the Legislative Assembly and the National Convention. They emerged from the Jacobin movement and campaigned for the end of the monarchy, but resisted the spiraling momentum of the Revolution. They came into conflict with The Mountain (Montagnards), a radical faction within the Jacobin Club.
  • National Convention: A single-chamber assembly in France from September 20, 1792, to October 26, 1795, during the French Revolution. It succeeded the Legislative Assembly and founded the First Republic after the insurrection of August 10, 1792. It was the first French assembly elected by universal male suffrage, without distinctions of class.
  • Jacobins: Members of a revolutionary political movement that was the most famous political club during the French Revolution, distinguished by its left-wing, revolutionary politics. Unlike other sects like the Girondins, they were closely allied to the sans-culottes, a popular force of working-class Parisians that played a pivotal role in the development of the revolution. They had a significant presence in the National Convention and were dubbed “the Mountain” for their seats in the uppermost part of the chamber.
  • Feuillants: A political group that emerged during the French Revolution and consisted of monarchists and reactionaries who sat on the right of the Legislative Assembly of 1791. It came into existence when the left-wing Jacobins split between moderates, who sought to preserve the position of the king and supported the proposed plan of the National Assembly for a constitutional monarchy, and radicals (Jacobins), who wished to press for a continuation of direct democratic action to overthrow Louis XVI.
  • Legislative Assembly: The legislature of France from October 1, 1791, to September 20, 1792, during the years of the French Revolution. It provided the focus of political debate and revolutionary law-making between the periods of the National Constituent Assembly and National Convention.

Factions at the Legislative Assembly

The National Constituent Assembly dissolved itself on September 30, 1791. Upon Robespierre’s motion, it decreed that none of its members would be eligible to the next legislature. Its successor body, the Legislative Assembly operating under the Constitution of 1791, lasted until September 20, 1792.
The Legislative Assembly first met on October 1, 1791, and consisted of 745 members, mostly from the middle class. The members were generally young, and since none had sat in the previous Assembly, they largely lacked national political experience. They tended to be people with successful careers in local politics.

The rightists within the assembly consisted of about 260 Feuillants, whose chief leaders, Gilbert du Motier de La Fayette and Antoine Barnave, remained outside the House because of their ineligibility for re-election. They were staunch constitutional monarchists, firm in their defense of the King against the popular agitation. The leftists were of 136 Jacobins (still including the party later known as the Girondins or Girondists) and Cordeliers (a populist group, whose many members would later become the radical Montagnards).

The left drew its inspiration from the more radical tendency of the Enlightenment, regarded the émigré nobles as traitors, and espoused anticlericalism. They were suspicious of Louis XVI, some favoring a general European war, both to spread the new ideals of liberty and equality and to put the king’s loyalty to the test.

The remainder of the House, 345 deputies, belonged to no definite party. They were called “the Marsh” (Le Marais) or “the Plain” (La Plaine). They were committed to the ideals of the Revolution, generally inclined to side with the left but would also occasionally back proposals from the right. Some historians dispute these numbers and estimate that the Legislative Assembly consisted of about 165 Feuillants (the right), about 330 Jacobins (including Girondins; the left), and about 350 deputies, who did not belong to any definite party but voted most often with the left. The differences emerge from how historians approach data in primary sources, where numbers reported by the clubs do not overlap with analyses of club membership conducted independently by name.

The illustration depicts a session at the Jacobin Club. Alexandre de Lameth presides while Mirabeau gives a speech.

The Jacobins in 1791, author unknown: The Jacobins were known for creating a strong government that could deal with the needs of war, economic chaos, and internal rebellion. They supported the rights of property and favored free trade and a liberal economy much like the Girondins, but their relationship to the people made them more willing to adapt interventionist economic policies.

The Feuillants came into existence when the Jacobins split between moderates (Feuillants), who sought to preserve the position of the king and supported the proposed plan of the National Assembly for a constitutional monarchy, and radicals (Jacobins), who wished to press for a continuation of direct democratic action to overthrow Louis XVI. Labelled by their opponents as royalists, they were targeted after the fall of the monarchy. In August 1792, a list of 841 members was published and all were arrested and tried for treason. The name survived for a few months as an insulting label for moderates, royalists, and aristocrats.

Factions at the National Convention

The National Convention was a single-chamber assembly in France from September 20, 1792, to October 26, 1795, succeeding the Legislative Assembly. It was fractured into factions even more extreme than those of the Legislative Assembly. The Jacobin Club, gathering members with republican beliefs and aspiring to establish a French democratic republic, experienced political tensions beginning in 1791.There were conflicting viewpoints in response to several revolutionary events and how to best achieve a democratic republic. A result of the increasing divide within the Jacobins was the split between the more radical Montagnards and the Girondins.

The Jacobin Club was one of several organizations that grew out of the French Revolution, distinguished by its left-wing, revolutionary politics. Because of this, the Jacobins, unlike other sects like the Girondins, were closely allied to the sans-culottes, a popular force of working-class Parisians that played a pivotal role in the development of the revolution. The Jacobins had a significant presence in the National Convention and were dubbed “the Mountain” (French: la montagne) for their seats in the uppermost part of the chamber. In addition to siding with sans-culottes, the Montagnards aimed for a more repressive form of government that would institute a price maximum on essential consumer goods and punish all traitors and enemies of the Republic. The Montagnards also believed war and other political differences required emergency solutions. They had 302 members in 1793 and 1794, including committee members and deputies who voted with the faction. Most members of the club came from the middle class and tended to represent the Parisian population. Its leaders included Maximilien Robespierre, Jean-Paul Marat, and Georges Danton. This faction eventually gained overwhelming power in the Convention and governed France during the Reign of Terror.

Possibly the two most significant factors in the consequential split between the Montagnards and the Girondins were the September Massacres and the trial of Louis XVI, both in 1792. The official fall of the monarchy came on August 10, 1792, after Louis XVI refused to rescind his veto of the National Assembly’s constitution. The Montagnards argued for immediate execution of the king by military court-martial, insisting that he was undermining the Revolution. Because a trial would require the “presumption of innocence,” such a proceeding would contradict the mission of the National Convention. The Girondins, in contrast, agreed that the king was guilty of treason but argued for his clemency and favored the option of exile or popular referendum as his sentence. However, the trial progressed and Louis XVI was executed by guillotine in January 1793.

The second key factor in the split between the Montagnards and the Girondins was the September Massacres of 1792. Radical Parisians and members of the National Guard were angry with the poor progress in the war against Austria and Prussia and the forced enlistment of 30,000 volunteers. On August 10, radicals went on a killing spree, slaughtering roughly 1,300 inmates in various Paris prisons, many of whom were simply common criminals, not the treasonous counter-revolutionaries condemned by the Montagnards. The Girondins did not tolerate the massacres, but neither the Montagnards of the Legislative Assembly nor the Paris Commune took any action to stop or condemn the killings. Members of the Girondins later accused Marat, Robespierre, and Danton of inciting the massacres to further their dictatorial power. The conflict between the Montagnards and the Girondins eventually led to the fall of the Girondins and their mass execution.

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The Girondins in the La Force Prison after their arrest. Woodcut from 1845.

The Girondins campaigned for the end of the monarchy but then resisted the spiraling momentum of the Revolution. They came into conflict with The Mountain (Montagnards), a radical faction within the Jacobin Club. The Girondins comprised a group of loosely affiliated individuals rather than an organized political party.

Left v. Right

The terms “left” and “right” to refer to political parties is one of the lasting legacies of the French Revolution. Members of the National Assembly divided into supporters of the king to the president’s right and supporters of the revolution to his left. One deputy, the Baron de Gauville, explained, “We began to recognize each other: those who were loyal to religion and the king took up positions to the right of the chair so as to avoid the shouts, oaths, and indecencies that enjoyed free rein in the opposing camp.” However, the right opposed the seating arrangement because they believed that deputies should support private or general interests but not form factions or political parties. The contemporary press occasionally used the terms “left” and “right” to refer to the opposing sides.

When the National Assembly was replaced in 1791 by the Legislative Assembly comprising entirely new members, the divisions continued. “Innovators” sat on the left, “moderates” gathered in the center, and the “conscientious defenders of the constitution” found themselves sitting on the right, where the defenders of the Ancien Régime had previously gathered. When the succeeding National Convention met in 1792, the seating arrangement continued, but following the arrest of the Girondins, the right side of the assembly was deserted, and any remaining members who had sat there moved to the center.

Foreign Intervention

Several Europeans monarchies, notably Austria, Prussia, and Great Britain, engaged in military conflicts with revolutionary France to take advantage of the political chaos and stop the spread of the revolutionary, anti-royal spirit across the globe.

Learning Objectives

State the reasons why other European states got involved in France’s political turmoil

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • During the French Revolution, European monarchs watched the developments in France and considered whether they should intervene in support of Louis XVI or to take advantage of the chaos in France. The Holy Roman Emperor Leopold II, brother to the French Queen Marie Antoinette, initially looked on the Revolution calmly, but he and other European monarchs soon feared that the revolutionary spirit might expand across the continent and in colonies.
  • In August 1791, Leopold and King Frederick William II of Prussia, in consultation with emigrant French nobles, issued the Declaration of Pillnitz, which declared the interest of the monarchs of Europe in the well-being of Louis and his family and threatened vague but severe consequences if anything should befall them.
  • Many in France wanted to wage war, including the King, many of the Feuillants, and the Girondins, although for very different reasons. The forces opposing war were much weaker. The Austrian emperor Leopold II, brother of Marie Antoinette, wished to avoid war but died in March 1792. France preemptively declared war on Austria (April 20, 1792) and Prussia joined on the Austrian side a few weeks later.
  • What followed was a series of sweeping military conflicts lasting from 1792 until 1802 that would become known as the French Revolutionary Wars. They pitted the French First Republic against several monarchies, most notably Britain and Austria, and are divided in two periods: the War of the First Coalition (1792–1797) and the War of the Second Coalition (1798–1802).
  • In July 1792, Charles William Ferdinand, Duke of Brunswick, commander of the mostly Prussian army, issued a proclamation called the Brunswick Manifestol Written by the French king’s cousin, Louis Joseph de Bourbon, Prince de Condé, the leader of an émigré corps within the Allied army, it declared the Allies’ intent to restore the king to his full powers and to treat any person or town who opposed them as rebels to be condemned to death by martial law.
  • The Revolutionary Wars ended with great success for France and revealed the talent of a new military leader, Napoleon Bonaparte. After a decade of constant warfare and aggressive diplomacy, France had succeeded in seizing and conquering a wide array of territories, from the Italian Peninsula and the Low Countries in Europe to the Louisiana Territory in North America. French success in these conflicts ensured the spread of revolutionary principles over much of Europe.

Key Terms

  • War of the Second Coalition: A 1798–1802 conflict that was the second war on revolutionary France by the European monarchies, led by Britain, Austria, and Russia and including the Ottoman Empire, Portugal, and Naples. Their goal was to contain the spread of chaos from France, but they failed to overthrow the revolutionary regime and French territorial gains since 1793 were confirmed.
  • War of the First Coalition: A 1792–1797 military conflict that was the first attempt by the European monarchies to defeat the French First Republic. France declared war on the Habsburg Monarchy of Austria on April 20, 1792, and the Kingdom of Prussia joined the Austrian side a few weeks later. The two  monarchies were joined by Great Britain and several smaller European states.
  • French Revolutionary Wars: A series of sweeping military conflicts from 1792 until 1802, resulting from the French Revolution. They pitted the French First Republic against Britain, Austria, and several other monarchies. They are divided in two periods: the War of the First Coalition (1792–1797) and the War of the Second Coalition (1798–1802). Initially confined to Europe, the fighting gradually assumed a global dimension as the political ambitions of the Revolution expanded.
  • Jacobins: Members of a revolutionary political movement that was the most famous political club during the French Revolution, distinguished by its left wing, revolutionary politics. Unlike other sects like the Girondins, they were closely allied to the sans-culottes, a popular force of working-class Parisians that played a pivotal role in the development of the revolution. They had a significant presence in the National Convention and were dubbed ‘the Mountain’ for their seats in the uppermost part of the chamber.
  • Brunswick Manifesto: A proclamation issued by Charles William Ferdinand, Duke of Brunswick, commander of the Allied Army (principally Austrian and Prussian), on July 25, 1792, to the population of Paris, France during the War of the First Coalition. It threatened that if the French royal family were harmed, then French civilians would be harmed. It was a measure intended to intimidate Paris, but instead, it helped further spur the increasingly radical French Revolution.
  • Declaration of Pillnitz: A statement issued on August 27, 1791, at Pillnitz Castle near Dresden (Saxony) by Frederick William II of Prussia and the Habsburg Holy Roman Emperor Leopold II, Marie Antoinette’s brother. It declared the joint support of the Holy Roman Empire and of Prussia for King Louis XVI of France against the French Revolution.
  • Feuillants: A political group that emerged during the French Revolution and consisted of monarchists and reactionaries who sat on the right of the Legislative Assembly of 1791. It came into existence when the left-wing Jacobins split between moderates, who sought to preserve the position of the king and supported the proposed plan of the National Assembly for a constitutional monarchy, and radicals (Jacobins), who pressed for a continuation of direct democratic action to overthrow Louis XVI.
  • Girondins: A political group operating in France from 1791 to 1795 during the French Revolution, active within the Legislative Assembly and the National Convention. They emerged from the Jacobin movement and campaigned for the end of the monarchy, but then resisted the spiraling momentum of the Revolution. They came into conflict with The Mountain (Montagnards), a radical faction within the Jacobin Club.

The Fear of Revolution Among European Monarchs

During the French Revolution, European monarchs watched the developments in France and considered whether they should intervene in support of Louis XVI or to take advantage of the chaos in France. The Holy Roman Emperor Leopold II, brother to the French Queen Marie Antoinette, initially looked on the Revolution calmly. He became disturbed as the Revolution became more radical, although he still hoped to avoid war. In August 1791, Leopold and King Frederick William II of Prussia, in consultation with emigrant French nobles, issued the Declaration of Pillnitz, which declared the interest of the monarchs of Europe in the well-being of Louis and his family and threatened vague but severe consequences if anything should befall them. Although Leopold saw the Pillnitz Declaration as a way of taking action that would enable him to avoid actually doing anything about France for the moment, Paris saw the Declaration as a serious threat and the revolutionary leaders denounced it.

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The meeting at Pillnitz Castle in 1791, oil painting by Johann Heinrich Schmidt.

The National Assembly of France interpreted the declaration to mean that Leopold was going to declare war. Radical Frenchmen who called for war used it as a pretext to gain influence and declare war on April 20, 1792, leading to the campaigns of 1792 in the French Revolutionary Wars.

The King, many of the Feuillants, and the Girondins wanted to wage war. Louis XVI and many Feuillants expected war would increase his personal popularity. He also foresaw an opportunity to exploit any defeat; either result would make him stronger. The Girondins, on the other hand, wanted to export the Revolution throughout Europe and, by extension defend the Revolution within France.

The forces opposing war were much weaker. Some Feuillants believed France had little chance to win and feared a loss might lead to greater radicalization of the revolution. On the other end of the political spectrum, Robespierre opposed a war on two grounds: he was concerned it would strengthen the monarchy and military at the expense of the revolution and that it would incur the anger of ordinary people in Austria and elsewhere. The Austrian emperor Leopold II, brother of Marie Antoinette, wished to avoid war but died in March 1792. In addition to the ideological differences between France and the monarchical powers of Europe, disputes continued over the status of imperial estates in Alsace and the French authorities became concerned about the agitation of emigré nobles abroad, especially in the Austrian Netherlands and the minor states of Germany. France preemptively declared war on Austria (April 20, 1792) and Prussia joined on the Austrian side a few weeks later.

French Revolutionary Wars

What followed was a series of sweeping military conflicts lasting from 1792 until 1802 that would become known as the French Revolutionary Wars. They pitted the French First Republic against several monarchies, most notably Britain and Austria, and are divided in two periods: the War of the First Coalition (1792–1797) and the War of the Second Coalition (1798–1802). Initially confined to Europe, the fighting gradually assumed a global dimension as the political ambitions of the Revolution expanded.

First Coalition

While the revolutionary government frantically raised fresh troops and reorganized its armies, a mostly Prussian Allied army under Charles William Ferdinand, Duke of Brunswick assembled at Koblenz on the Rhine. In July the invasion commenced, with Brunswick’s army easily taking the fortresses of Longwy and Verdun. The duke then issued a proclamation called the Brunswick Manifesto  (July 1792), written by the French king’s cousin, Louis Joseph de Bourbon, Prince de Condé, the leader of an émigré corps within the Allied army. This document declared the Allies’ intent to restore the king to his full powers and treat any person or town who opposed them as rebels to be condemned to death by martial law. This, however, strengthened the resolve of the revolutionary army and government to oppose them by any means necessary. On August 10, a crowd stormed the Tuileries Palace, seizing the king and his family.

The print shows four figures representing foreign nations responding unfavorably to the manifesto issued by the Duke of Brunswick and Lüneburg on July 25 1792. One figure smokes it, another uses it as toilet paper, etc. A fifth figure representing Fame (an angel with trumpet) flies overhead holding a sign labeled "République Française."

Anonymous caricature depicting the treatment given to the Brunswick Manifesto by the French population.

The Brunswick Manifesto, rather than intimidate the populace into submission, sent it into furious action and created fear and anger towards the Allies. It also spurred revolutionaries to take further action, organizing an uprising. On August 10, the Tuileries Palace was stormed in a bloody battle with Swiss Guards protecting it, the survivors of which were massacred by the mob.

The War of the First Coalition began with French victories, which rejuvenated the nation and emboldened the National Convention to abolish the monarchy. In 1793, the new French armies experienced numerous defeats, which allowed the Jacobins to rise to power and impose the Reign of Terror as a method of attempting to unify the nation. In 1794, the situation improved dramatically for the French. By 1795, they had captured the Austrian Netherlands and knocked Spain and Prussia out of the war with the Peace of Basel. A hitherto unknown general Napoleon Bonaparte began his first campaign in Italy in April 1796. In less than a year, French armies under Napoleon decimated the Habsburg forces and evicted them from the Italian peninsula, winning almost every battle and capturing 150,000 prisoners. With French forces marching towards Vienna, the Austrians sued for peace and agreed to the Treaty of Campo Formio, ending the First Coalition against the Republic.

Second Coalition

The War of the Second Coalition (1798–1802) included an alliance of Britain, Austria, Russia, the Ottoman Empire, Portugal, and Naples. Their goal was to contain the spread of chaos from France but they failed to overthrow the revolutionary regime, and French territorial gains since 1793 were confirmed. The Coalition did very well in 1799, but Russia pulled out. Napoleon took charge in France in late 1799 and he and his generals defeated the Coalition. In the Treaty of Lunéville in 1801, France held all of its previous gains and obtained new lands in Tuscany, Italy, while Austria was granted Venetia and the Dalmatian coast. Britain and France signed the Treaty of Amiens in March 1802, bringing an interval of peace in Europe that lasted for 14 months.

After a decade of constant warfare and aggressive diplomacy, France seized and conquered a wide array of territories, from the Italian Peninsula and the Low Countries in Europe to the Louisiana Territory in North America. French success in these conflicts ensured the spread of revolutionary principles over much of Europe.

Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette’s Attempts to Escape

The Flight to Varennes, or the royal family’s unsuccessful escape from Paris during the night of June 20-21, 1791, undermined the credibility of the king as a constitutional monarch and eventually led to the escalation of the crisis and the execution of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.

Learning Objectives

Analyze the consequences of the royal family’s attempted escapes

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Following the Women’s March on Versailles, the royal family was forced to return to Paris. They remained virtual prisoners in the Tuileries, the official residence of the king. Louis XVI became emotionally paralyzed, leaving most important decisions to the queen. At her insistence, Louis committed himself and his family to a disastrous attempt of escape from the capital to the eastern frontier on June 21, 1791.
  • Due to the cumulative effect of a host of errors that in and of themselves woul  not have condemned the mission to failure, the royal family was thwarted in its escape after Jean-Baptiste Drouet, the postmaster of Sainte-Menehould, recognized the king from his portrait. The king and his family were eventually arrested in the town of Varennes, 31 miles from their ultimate destination, the heavily fortified royalist citadel of Montmédy.
  • The intended goal of the unsuccessful flight was to provide the king with greater freedom of action and personal security than was possible in Paris. At Montmédy, General François Claude de Bouillé concentrated a force of 10,000 regulars of the old royal army who were still considered loyal to the monarchy. The long-term political objectives of the royal couple and their closest advisers remain unclear.
  • The credibility of the king as a constitutional monarch had been seriously undermined. However, on July 15, 1791 the National Constituent Assembly agreed that he could be restored to power if he agreed to the constitution, although some factions opposed the proposal. The decision led to the Champ de Mars Massacre two days later.
  • From the autumn of 1791 on, the king tied his hopes of political salvation to the dubious prospects of foreign intervention. Prompted by Marie Antoinette, Louis rejected the advice of the moderate constitutionalists, led by Antoine Barnave, to fully implement the Constitutio  of 1791 he had sworn to maintain.
  • The outbreak of the war with Austria in April 1792 and the publication of the Brunswick Manifesto led to the storming of the Tuileries by Parisian radicals on August 10, 1792. This attack led in turn to the suspension of the king’s powers by the Legislative Assembly and the proclamation of the First French Republic on September 21. Some republicans called for the king’s deposition, others for his trial for alleged treason and intended defection to the enemies of the French nation. Convicted, Louis was sent to the guillotine on January 21, 1793. Nine months later, Marie Antoinette was also convicted of treason and beheaded on October 16.

Key Terms

  • March on Versailles: A march on October 5, 1789, during the French Revolution among women in the marketplaces of Paris who were near rioting over the high price and scarcity of bread. Their demonstrations quickly became intertwined with the activities of revolutionaries, who were seeking liberal political reforms and a constitutional monarchy for France. The market women and their various allies grew into a crowd of thousands. Encouraged by revolutionary agitators, they ransacked the city armory for weapons and marched to the Palace of Versailles.
  • Champ de Mars Massacre: A massacre that took place on July 17, 1791, in Paris in the midst of the French Revolution. Two days earlier, the National Constituent Assembly issued a decree that Louis XVI would remain king under a constitutional monarchy. This decision came after King Louis XVI and his family unsuccessfully tried to flee France in the Flight to Varennes the month before. Later that day, leaders of the republicans in France rallied against this decision, eventually leading royalist Lafayette to order the massacre.
  • Brunswick Manifesto: A proclamation issued on July 25, 1792, by Charles William Ferdinand, Duke of Brunswick, commander of the Allied Army (principall  Austrian and Prussian) to the population of Paris during the War of the First Coalition. It threatened that if the French royal family were harmed, then French civilians would be harmed. It was a measure intended to intimidate Paris, but instead, it helped further spur the increasingly radical French Revolution.
  • Flight to Varennes: An unsuccessful attempt to escape Paris by King Louis XVI of France, his wife Marie Antoinette, and their immediate family during the night of June 20-21, 1791 to initiate a counter-revolution at the head of loyal troops under royalist officers concentrated at Montmédy near the frontier. They escaped only as far as the small town of Varennes, where they were arrested after having been recognized at their previous stop in Sainte-Menehould.

Flight to Varennes

Following the Women’s March on Versailles, the royal family was forced to return to Paris. Louis XVI attempted to work within the framework of his limited powers but won little support. He and the royal family remained virtual prisoners in the Tuileries, a royal and imperial palace in Paris that served as the residence of most French monarchs. For the next two years, the palace remained the official residence of the king.

Louis XVI became emotionally paralyzed, leaving most important decisions to the queen. Prodded by the queen, Louis committed the family to a disastrous escape attempt from the capital to the eastern frontier on June 21, 1791. With the dauphin ‘s governess the Marquise de Tourzel taking on the role of a Russian baroness, the queen pretending to be a governess, the king’s sister, Madame Élisabeth a nurse, the king a valet, and the royal children the alleged baroness’ daughters, the royal family made their escape leaving the Tuileries around midnight. The escape was largely planned by the queen’s favorite, the Swedish Count Axel von Fersenand the Baron de Breteuil, who had garnered support from Swedish King Gustavus III. Fersen had urged the use of two light carriages, which would have made the 200-mile journey to Montmédy relatively quickly. However this would have involved splitting up the royal family and Louis and Marie-Antoinette decided on the use of a heavy, conspicuous coach drawn by six horses.

Due to the cumulative effect of a host of errors, which in and of themselves would not have condemned the mission to failure, the royal family was thwarted in its escape after Jean-Baptiste Drouet, the postmaster of Sainte-Menehould, recognized the king from his portrait. The king and his family were eventually arrested in the town of Varennes, 31 miles from their ultimate destination, the heavily fortified royalist citadel of Montmédy.

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The arrest of Louis XVI and his family at the house of the registrar of passports, at Varennes in June 1791 by Thomas Falcon Marshall.

The king’s flight was traumatic for France. The realization that the king had effectually repudiated the revolutionary reforms made to that point came as a shock to people who until then had seen him as a fundamentally decent king who governed as a manifestation of God’s will. They felt betrayed. Republicanism burst out of the coffeehouses and became the dominant ideal of revolutionary leaders.

The Question of Goals

The intended goal of the unsuccessful flight was to provide the king with greater freedom of action and personal security than was possible in Paris. At Montmédy, General François Claude de Bouillé concentrated a force of 10,000 regulars of the old royal army who were still considered loyal to the monarchy. The long-term political objectives of the royal couple and their closest advisers remain unclear. A detailed document entitled Declaration to the French People prepared by Louis for presentation to the National Assembly and left behind in the Tuileries indicates that his personal goal was a return to the concessions and compromises contained in the declaration of the Third Estate in June 1789, immediately prior to the outbreak of violence in Paris and the storming of the Bastille. Private correspondence from Marie Antoinette takes a more reactionary line of restoration of the old monarchy without concessions, although referring to pardons for all but the revolutionary leadership and the city of Paris.

The Champ de Mars Massacre

When the royal family finally returned under guard to Paris, the revolutionary crowd met the royal carriage with uncharacteristic silence and the royal family was again confined to the Tuileries Palace. From this point forward, the abolition of the monarchy and the establishment of a republic became an ever-increasing possibility. The credibility of the king as a constitutional monarch had been seriously undermined. However, on July 15, 1791, the National Constituent Assembly agreed that the king could be restored to power if he agreed to the constitution, although some factions opposed the proposal.

Later that day, Jacques Pierre Brissot, editor and main writer of Le Patriote français and president of the Comité des Recherches of Paris, drew up a petition demanding the removal of the king. A crowd of 50,000 people gathered at the Champ de Mars on July 17 to sign the petition, and about 6,000 had already signed. But earlier that day, two suspicious people hidigg at the Champ de Mars were hanged by those who found them. Jean Sylvain Bailly, the mayor of Paris, used this incident to declare martial law. The Marquis de Lafayette and the National Guard, which was under his command, were temporarily able to disperse the crowd but even more people returned later that afternoon. Lafayette again tried to disperse the crowd, who in response threw stones at the National Guard. After firing unsuccessful warning shots, the National Guard opened fire directly on the crowd, an event known as the Champ de Mars Massacre. The exact numbers of dead and wounded are unknown; estimates range from 12 to 50 dead.

Execution of Louis and Marie Antoinette

From the autumn of 1791 on, the king tied his hopes of political salvation to the dubious prospects of foreign intervention. Prompted by Marie Antoinette, Louis rejected the advice of the moderate constitutionalists, led by Antoine Barnave, to fully implement the Constitution of 1791 he had sworn to maintain. He instead secretly committed himself to covert counter-revolution. At the same time, the king’s failed escape attempt alarmed many other European monarchs, who feared that the revolutionary fervor would spread to their countries and result in instability outside France. Relations between France and its neighbors, already strained because of the revolution, deteriorated even further, with some foreign ministries calling for war against the revolutionary government.

The outbreak of the war with Austria in April 1792 and the publication of the Brunswick Manifesto led to the storming of the Tuileries by Parisian radicals on August 10, 1792. This attack led in turn to the suspension of the king’s powers by the Legislative Assembly and the proclamation of the First French Republic on September 21. In November, proof of Louis XVI’s dealings with the deceased revolutionary politician Mirabeau and of his counterrevolutionary intrigues with foreigners was found in a secret iron chest in the Tuileries. It was now no longer possible to pretend that the reforms of the French Revolution had been made with the free consent of the king. Some republicans called for his deposition, others for his trial for alleged treason and intended defection to the enemies of the French nation. On December 3, it was decided that Louis XVI, who together with his family had been imprisoned since August, should be brought to trial for treason. He appeared twice before the National Convention. Convicted, Louis was sent to the guillotine on January 21, 1793. Nine months later, Marie Antoinette was also convicted of treason and beheaded on October 16.