Part One: The Flood
The assembly was impressive. First came a troop of dark suits and black robes. These were the representatives of the Third Estate, that body of people which made up ninety-eight percent of the population of France. They were lawyers, bankers, shippers, merchants, tradesmen, mechanics, bakers and farmers. They were twice as large as the other two estates due to an agreement with King Louis XIV that he should “double the Third” because they represented such a large portion of the country.
Behind the dour representatives of the Third Estate marched the Second Estate. These were nobles, aristocrats brightly clad in colorful suits and silk stockings. They were a happy lot, not merely because of their station in life but because they were the victorious estate which had forced the king to call this assembly, this constitutional convention known as the Estates-General. They were riding high and saw a bright future as they intended to reverse the past two hundred years of history which had consolidated power in the hands of the monarch. The king’s powers would be limited. France would soon be a thoroughly modern nation, guided by the enlightened hands of those most endowed by nature to lead it, the aristocrats.
The final group preceded the king himself. This was the First Estate, churchmen dressed in the red robes of bishops, the white habits and black habits of abbots. These too were aristocrats, for at this moment in time all the great shepherds of the Catholic Church in France had been drawn from noble families. Blood-lines were more important to the office than holiness or learning.
As King Louis XIV approached the head of the hall, he turned facing the representatives and sat. So did the First and Second Estate, each keeping on their hats or miters. By custom, the Third Estate would continue standing and sit only upon the king’s invitation, removing their hats as they sat. Instead, almost as one, the members of the Third Estate sat without invitation and did not remove their hats. It was a omen.
The reason the king called the Estates-General was that France was in a crisis, a financial crisis. His government had spent so much money over the past twelve years, mainly to assure a British defeat in North America by way of the War for American Independence, that it could not now pay its debts. Fifty percent of the annual budget went solely for debt service, just paying the interest on the debt. Despite the extravagant life style lived out at the Versailles palace complex, only six percent of the annual budget was dedicated to the maintenance of the royal establishment. And with so many potential sources of income frozen as tax exempt, new revenues could not be found.
French financial instability was sent reeling in 1788 by two cruel blows. First, the Church which made an annual free will gift to the government signaled its displeasure by granting only a portion of its usual gift, a mere 1,800,000 livre. Previous gifts usually ran around eighteen million livre. The king had counted on this money. But the bishops, all 135 of them nobles, joined in league with their brother aristocrats in pressing the king for concessions. These men were young, averaging thirty-five years old; they were organized and ambitious. They were determined to overthrow the absolutist regime in France which had been built by the likes of Cardinal Richelieu and Louis XIV.
Nobles had railed unsuccessfully against Louis XV, though he saw the handwriting on the wall. Before his death Louis XV commented prophetically, “after me comes the Flood.” His successor, Louis XIV did not have the stomach for a fight and so he called for the Estates-General when the second 1788 blow fell upon his administration. By September of that year banks throughout Europe refused to loan the French government any more funds. With the assembly of the three estates on May 4, 1789, the French Revolution had begun. Its first victim was absolutism.
But the aristocratic victory was short-lived. While the Third Estate had been given double representation, the members soon found out that their size gave them no greater influence. Each estate was to vote as a single block and at each turn they found themselves out-maneuvered by the First and Second Estate which joined their two block votes. In desperation, the Third Estate simply began to stall, to refuse to vote. Doing so, no further legislation could be considered. In a matter of days, the Third Estate caused the assembly to grind to a halt.
Events flowed rapidly. The king locked the Third Estate out of their meeting room and told them to go home. Instead they assembled in the only room large enough to accommodate them, the royal tennis courts. Under the charismatic leadership of Abbe Sieyes, members vowed not to leave until they were recognized by the king as a National Assembly, set to write a constitution for France. Word was sent to the other two estates to join in or go home. Many members of these two bodies saw the futility in resistance and, hoping for some role in the leadership, abandoned their own plans and joined the National Assembly. The king caved. The French Revolution entered its second phase. Absolutism had fallen victim earlier; now fell aristocracy and class distinction.
While the fate of the French government rested in the hands of businessmen at Versailles, the fate of France rested in the streets of Paris. Rumors of the activities at Versailles shot like lightening through the neighborhoods of the great city. Shortages of food had led to riots. These fed into the rumor mill with new concoctions. Some said the king was staging a comeback, that he would order the army to seize the National Assembly and arrest the leaders, that he would punish the rioters in Paris. Some said that armed brigands roamed the countryside freely, that all was chaos and that this was the reason food could not be brought into the city.
One neighborhood was particularly restless. It was the Faubourg St. Antoine. This Faubourg was populated by the working poor, “blue collar” in today’s expression, “sans-culottes,” according to that age. These were men who wore and worked in pants that came down to their ankles, distinguishing them from the gentlemen of the age who wore culottes and silk or linen stockings. They lived from hand to mouth. Their wives struggled to feed the family. The children were shoe-less, school-less and penny-less. And they rioted against their condition.
One fateful decision changed the course of history, caused the Revolution to become violent, and gave France an enduring symbol of the revolutionary cause. De Launey was the commander of the old Paris fortress, Bastille, facing the Faubourg St. Antoine. He had foolishly placed cannon in that direction, perhaps to quell the rioters. It had the opposite effect. Crowds ran down the banks of the Seine River to the military hospital, Les Invalides, broke into the armory in the basement and captured some 30,000 muskets and ammunition. With these they returned to the Bastille and demanded entrance.
The fort’s governor had only a small garrison. He ordered them behind the inner wall, some ninety feet high. There they would be safe. The mob stormed in and demanded the release of all the prisoners held at the Bastille. Indeed, at one time, the fortress was used as a prison for political prisoners. Now only five insane and two moral deviants were held. Instead shots were exchanged. Over a hundred civilians fell while only one soldier received a wound.
The stalemate ended when the rioters were joined by National Guardsmen who brought cannon. These blasted away at the entrance and De Launey offered to surrender himself, but as the drawbridge was lowered the crowd surged in, killing six soldiers and the governor. Later that day his head was removed and paraded around Paris on a pike. It was July 14, 1789, forever known as Bastille Day.
Now rumors flowed in the opposite direction. At Versailles, the events of the Paris riots and unrest were heard and embellished. On August 4th, many nobles and members of the upper bourgeoisie met in the Night of the Great Donations. They pledged their fortunes to pay off the debt of France and to set things right for the people. Instead, most left Versailles, returned to their villas and chateaux, gathered what they could and fled abroad. These would be the émigré who would fuel opposition to the Revolution, but at the safe distance of a foreign land.
On October 5th, a mob of 7,000 marched the twenty-plus miles from Paris to Versailles and demanded that the royal family and the National Assembly be brought to the capital where they could be watched closely. Louis XIV and his family was under virtual house arrest while the National Assembly was bullied by radicals from the Jacobin Club. On the surface they looked high-minded. The membership included the likes of the Marquis de Lafayette and Bishop Talleyrand. They called themselves The Society of Friends of the Constitution. But below this calm surface demagogues whipped mobs into a fury.
Two important documents came from this era. The first was The Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen. It was based on the contract theory so popular those days in which the relationship between the governed and the governors was seen as a contract. The governed relied on a government to provide the basic needs for security and stability in society. Certain rights of the individual were inalienable and as long as there were protected and society was secure, the contract held. When the government failed in these duties the contract ended and the people had the right to overthrow the government in favor of another. The American Declaration of Independence had expressed this theory and the course of constitutional history in Great Britain showed its evolution. Could this theory become a reality in France through decree? The Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen was not universally applauded. An element of the old aristocracy, known as the Black French, was determined to restore the good old days. The even hated the monarchists for joining with the National Assembly in establishing a constitutional monarchy. But they were a small minority.
The second important document split France in two. It was entitled The Civil Constitution of the Clergy. It confiscated all property owned by the Catholic Church. Clergy would be paid by the government, making them civil servants. Dioceses, some as old as the post-Apostolic era, were reorganized along the lines of the Departments and Prefectures of the new government. Priests were to be elected and bishops appointed by Department assemblies. The pope would be informed of the appointments. An oath of loyalty was demanded of the clergy.
Pope Pius VI objected to these measures. Only seven of the 135 bishops of France signed the loyalty oath. Around fifty percent of the priests refused. These refactory priests, also called non-juring clergy, were subject to arrest and execution. Many went underground, hiding in forests and mountain ranges, serving their people in secret Masses in barns and basements. Persecution of the Faith had come to the Elder Daughter of the Church. Such was the state of affairs in 1791.
1792 saw a hardening of positions. Non-juring bishops declared the sacraments of the Civil Constitution Church to be invalid. Many French Catholics refused to attend Mass when government priests presided. Many arrests were made. As armies from the Austrian Empire and the Kingdom of Prussia converged on France in an attempt to restore monarchial order, and as the Black French formed counter-revolutionary cells throughout rural France, a Parisian mob panicked and seized a jail. Twenty priests were held their awaiting deportation. These were slaughtered. The blood lust boiled over and jails throughout Paris were raided and more priests and Religious were killed. On September 3rd, 4th, and 5th 200 priests and three bishops were martyred. The rampage continued and an estimated one thousand died in the next few years.
Elements within the Revolution now turned on the church it had created. In 1792 and 1793 those priests and bishops who had abandoned the Faith of their ancestors, who had embraced the ideals of the Revolution and the acts of the revolutionaries, who had accepted a government salary and government direction now became the target of attack. Elements within the Revolution could stomach no religion at all, even one of their own making.
Joseph Fouché, the Superior of the Secret State Police, traveled to Nevers and called an assembly in the cathedral. Taking the cathedra, the chair of the bishop, he declared that all civil constitutional clergy must take wives. He removed the vestments from the cathedral and brought them to his home to be used for costume balls which he hosted. The propagandist Hebert wrote tracts and diatribes against the Church, including members of the government Church. The civil bishop of Nevers was so shaken that he resigned his episcopal office, as did the bishops of Rheims, Amiens, and Bourges. In Paris, Bishop Gobel was awaken from his sleep one night when a mob invaded his residence. He was roughed up and made to wear the red cap of the Revolution. He too abdicated.
On November 10, 1793 a grand service was held at the medieval cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris. An actress from a local theater was dressed up as “the Goddess of Reason.” The whole affair was an incredible display of impiety. Hebert crowed that the Church had betrayed “le bon sans-culotte, Jesus, modele des tous les Jacobins.” Jesus, the good sans-culotte, model of all Jacobin.
Thereafter, all churches in France were closed. Tower clocks were removed because they expressed a sense of church superiority over the people. A ten-day work week replaced the seven day week, such was the craze to apply the metric system to every aspect of life. The edict of marriage to all priests was enforced, though often reduced to the ridiculous as priests took their elderly housekeepers to the government offices for the perfunctory ceremony. Of the eighty-five civil bishops, twenty-four abdicated outright. Of the sixty-one who remained, most resisted the government efforts. Only twenty-three denounced their church and of these only nine actually married.
Reacting to the persecution of the Church, even the government’s church, King Louis attempted to take his family out of France. The allied attack to free him had failed on the fields of Valmy. His only hope was to escape to Luxembourg. They were captured near the border and now the situation was desperate.
Bread riots, draft riots, pro-Church riots, whole cities and regions in revolt, and now a treasonous king --- France was a mess. Leadership was found in a dandy-dresser named Maximilian Robespierre. He was not to trifled with. He was the Chairman of the Committee for Public Safety, not exactly a high profile position. Nonetheless, it carried with it important emergency powers which he used ruthlessly to crush opposition and bring to Paris the Reign of Terror.
Maximilian Robespierre acted with a religious fervor. He presided as High Priest at the Notre Dame cathedral, instituting a state religion, the Cult of the Supreme Being. Opponents, in his mind, were evil people bent on preventing the salvation of mankind on earth through enlightened principles, his principles.
Revolts in Lyons and Toulon were crushed mercilessly. Townspeople were massacred in their plazas. Peasants were loaded onto barges, chained in place so to drown when the barges were sunk in mid-stream. In a mere fifteen months, nearly three thousand people were killed. Ultimately, using a devise invented by Dr. Guillotine, over 20,000 were dispatched, including the king and his Austrian queen, Marie Antoinette. The slaughter would only abate after Robespierre was executed in July, 1795. Revolutions often eat their children.
One historian described the ferocity of the era like this: The French Revolution of 1789 was as convulsive as it was because in France, and only in France, an elemental explosion of the underprivileged mass groups of the society converged with a political revolution of the articulate underprivileged groups for an equalizing representative constitution. (Krieger) In essence, masses of poor people were spurred on by a well-versed minority who was also denied a chance to better their lot. This powerful combination, seen so often in history needs only the spark of a crisis. And France had all of that in 1789.