The route to Regicide

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© Bob Denton 2014

The route to Regicide, 1792

Now very clearly imprisoned in the Tuileries, Louis XVI appeared to be resignedly supporting the Assembly’s finalisation of the 1791 Constitution. In reality he was still seeking any approach that might help him gain his liberty and freedom of action. 

The many changes espoused by the Assembly were not being realised out in the country, after four years of jaw-jaw, schisms were becoming evident. They were failing to create a Constitution that could define a constitutional monarchy under King Louis.

They did have some early success militarily and in 1792 its forces occupied parts of Savoy and the county of Nice, then a part of the Kingdom of Sardinia. The locals subsequently mustered a joint Aosta, Piedmont and Savoy army to try to drive them off in autumn 1793, but were beaten at the battle of Méribel.

However counter-revolutionaries were emerging in the provinces who sought to restore the absolute monarchy; they were encouraged by Popes – Leopold II, then his successor Francis II.

The King had first subborned Mirabeau to seek to ensure the Constitution was less revolutionary than it might otherwise have become. He then spotted an opportunity in an outspoken group of deputies representing the Gironde, who had become known as the Girondin. This group had expanded beyond the deputies from the Gironde and routinely met up at the salon of Madame and Jean-Marie Roland de la Platière.

Jacques-Pierre Brissot was from Chartres (not the Gironde) but he had emerged as the spokesperson for the group.  They espoused an aggressive foreign policy against other European states eventually seeking to establish an encircling of Republics around France by seizing control of the Rhineland, the Netherlands and Poland then supporting the expansion of Republicanism in to Britain, Italy and Spain.

Louis did all he could to encourage their thinking because he believed that a hoped-for military failure might improve his situation. The Girondists believed that proposing war with Austria would test the King and the Revolution’s resolve. It would also ensure that counter-revolutionaries had to declare themselves more overtly.

They pressed Louis to form a cabinet made up of Girondists then in April 1792 they pressed him into declaring war between France and the Habsburg monarchy of Austria; the Kingdom of Prussia joined up with the Austrians a few weeks later to form the First Coalition against France.

Within the Jacobin Club the Girondists and Montagnards stood in absolute opposition to each other, the Girondists believing they were theorists pursuing radical aims, Robespierre’s Montagnards were the do-ers, or perhaps more the fanatics.

The Catholic Holy Roman Emperor Leopold II and the Protestant King of Prussia Frederick William II came together in their opposition of the French revolutionaries and appointed the Duke of Brunswick to control their joint forces.

Their army would invade France from the Austrian Netherlands and across the Rhine, while Great Britain would support the revolts out in the provinces.

Charles William Ferdinand, the Duke of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel was a prince of the Holy Roman Empire. Located in Koblenz, where a large number of French émigrés had assembled led by the King’s oldest brother, the comte de Provence

Brunswick issued a proclamation that was in part written by Louis’ cousin, Louis Joseph de Bourbon, the Prince de Condé. Brunswick was apparently against its issue. It said their mission would: ‘put an end to the anarchy in the interior of France, to check the attacks upon the throne and the altar, to reestablish the legal power, to restore to the king the security and the liberty of which he is now deprived and to place him in a position to exercise once more the legitimate authority which belongs to him.’

This sabre-rattling was issued as the preparations faced several delays, which assisted the French in getting their army’s act together. The Girondin Minister of War, Joseph Servan, proposed bringing armed volunteers from the provinces to Paris for training so they could defend the capital.

The invitation coincided with the third annual celebration of the storming of the Bastille, the Fête de la Fédération. The notion was not well received, the King fearing this would be an unwelcome increase in the anti-monarchy forces in Paris, while Robespierre feared they would usurp his sans-culottes. Louis veto-ed the idea.

Despite the veto the monarchist National Guard was joined by volunteers who soon changed its nature in to a Republican army. These were called the fédérés (federates) – derived from the name for the attendees of the annual fête. Robespierre, always quick to support a winner, now hailed these volunteers as the ‘defenders of liberty’ and the ‘last hope of the country’. The King dismissed his Girondist cabinet.

La Marseillaise – In Marseille, the local population enthusiastically embraced the French Revolution.  In May 1792 Charles Jean Marie Barbaroux, a Girondin, requested that the city send 500 volunteers to Paris to aid in the defence of the revolutionary government – and the Girondins! Their rallying call to revolution, sung on their march from Marseille to Paris, was a song written that year by Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle. He called it the Chant de guerre pour l’Armée du Rhin, but it became known as La Marseillaise. It became formally the Republic’s anthem in 1795 – and is today’s national anthem of France.

Monarchists in France distributed the Duke of Brunswick’s proclamation but rather than cowing the French populous it instead galvanised them in to action. In June Robespierre proposed the end of the monarchy and further suggested that the Assembly had now to bow to the people’s will.

Even the Girondists took up the cry. Pierre Victurnien Vergniaud asked of the King, ‘Did the constitution leave you the choice of ministers for our happiness or our ruin? Did it place you at the head of our army for our glory or our shame? Did it give you the right of sanction, a civil list and so many prerogatives, constitutionally to lose the empire and the constitution?’

The Girondist leader, Jacques Pierre Brissot, was more brusque, ‘I tell you to strike at the Tuileries… you are told to prosecute all factious and intriguing conspirators; they will all disappear if you once knock loud enough at the door of the cabinet of the Tuileries, for that cabinet is the point to which all these threads tend, where every scheme is plotted, and whence every impulse proceeds. The nation is the plaything of this cabinet.’

The pressing threat of war prompted a second revolution and new idealists emerged. Georges Jacques Danton, a thirty-two year old barrister had not been involved in either of the Assemblies. But he was the leader of a popular movement in Paris, the Cordeliers (Society of the Friends of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen). He worked closely with Robespierre, Camille Desmoulins and Jean-Paul Marat.

As part of a Jacobin plan, on the 9th August a new revolutionary commune seized the Hôtel de Ville and dismissed the département and declared its insurrectionary commune. They raided the city’s arsenals and armed themselves for their next step – their demand for the King’s abdication.

On the 10th August two columns consisting of citizens and fédérés marched on the Tuileries, an artillery unit that had been placed by the département on the Pont Neuf to stop them uniting was withdrawn.  The unified force asked to talk to the Assembly and have them vote on the abdication. They were told it was not quorate and so could not help.

They stormed the Tuileries in what became known as the journée du 10 août. The royal family took sanctuary in the Assembly.

The King’s departure led to the gendarmerie standing down but the King’s Swiss Guards received no orders and unwisely fired on the fédérés. Being a professional force they inflicted heavy casualties on the insurgents. The King did issue an order for the Swiss Guards to stand down but this arrived too late. The insurgents had overwhelming force and massacred some 600 of the Guards, even the sixty that were arrested and sent to the Hôtel de Ville were later killed.

The victors entered the Assembly that was indeed depleted in numbers. The insurgents carried banners stating, patrie, liberté, egalité, and demanded the king abdicate and that a new National Convention should take over the Assembly’s role.

The crowd drunkenly celebrated their victory by singing La Carmagnole, a popular song and dance from the period, the lyrics were full of anti-Marie Antoinette tales. The King and his family were assigned to the Luxembourg Palace, but later moved to the Temple – for his own safety!

Following the storming of the Tuileries the revolutionaries discovered the armoire de fer, a secret iron chest. Found within it were more than 700 documents that provided clear evidence of the King’s liaison with Mirabeau, his Girondin plot and foreign correspondence seeking a resolution for his situation.

On the 2nd September the Duke of Brunswick’s forces finally moved and advanced in to France and took the fortress of Verdun and started to move towards Paris. It was clear that the current French forces were on the verge of defeat so an army of 60,000 was raised, assembling on the Champ de Mars.

An anarchic period of six weeks ensued with the Commune holding sway. It demanded the royal family be put in its custody and the Convention was formed.

Members were elected by universal suffrage to the Convention, though few exercised their right to vote and many elected proved to be those who had been deputies in the two previous assemblies. Robespierre was returned as the first deputy for Paris.

Their first meeting was on the 20th September and one of their first decisions was to abolish the monarchy. They also moved to sell the properties of émigrés who had gone in to exile, they granted universal suffrage and abolished all privileges of the nobility.

But this was against the backcloth of what became known as the September Massacres. Still fearing the Austro-Prussian threats the idea circulated that prisoners might be released and join the enemy. Danton and Robespierre were among the Septembriseurs who suggested the next brutal step. At their suggestion representatives of the Commune broke in to the prisons and killed around 1,400 prisoners; over 200 of these were priests who had refused to swear the oath of allegiance. The bodies were piled high in the Châtelet.

The Girondins were finding the Revolution they had helped to foster was going in directions they no longer much appreciated. Clashes between the Montagnards and Girondins in the Convention progressively went Robespierre’s way and in turn he prepared the way for more revolutionary activity to be pursued by the sans-culottes.

By December the King was on trial for treason and the Girondists were considered too royalist in their approach to the conduct of the trial. They were concerned by the dominance of Paris to all national affairs and proposed more provincial involvement which was interpreted as meaning they were federalist in their thinking. Marat was vociferous against the Girondists, many took up his call of Nous sommes trahis! (We are betrayed!).

Robespierre prompted that Louis had breached the Constitution, that he remained as a symbol, a rallying call, which could only threaten the Republic’s liberty and national security. He cajoled fellow deputies by saying they were not meant to be acting as fair judges but instead leaders enforcing the safety of the people.

Voting on whether he was guilty of conspiracy was unequivocal 691 of 749 deputies voted yes. His death penalty was more divisive 387 said yes, 334 wanted detention, 28 were absent or abstained. Louis was guillotined two days later in January 1793 at the age of thirty-eight.

The Comte de Provence living in exile declared his nephew as Louis XVII and elected himself as his Regent. Marie Antoinette’s health deteriorated reportedly suffering from both TB and uterine cancer she became prone to regular haemorrhaging.

Forward to Internal problems – Back to Royal flight
Back to 1789 and all that!
© Bob Denton 2014