William Morris and E. Belfort Bax

Socialism From The Root Up – Chapter 7 – The French Revolution: Constitutional Stage

The bankruptcy towards which France was staggering under the régime of an untaxed privileged noblesse drove the Court into the dangerous step of attempting to do something, and after desperate efforts to carry on the old corruption by means of mere financing operations, under Calonne and others, aided by an assembly of the 'Notables', or kind of irregular taxing council, the Court was at last, on the 4th May, 1789, compelled to summon the States-General, a body which was pretty much analogous to a Parliament of our mediæval kings, that is a kind of taxing machine, but which attempted to sell its granting of taxes to the king for redress of certain grievances. This States-General had not met since 1614. Bickering between the three houses, Clergy, Noblesse, and Commons, immediately began, but the latter, which was middle-class in spirit though including some of the lower nobility, gave tokens of its coming predominance from the first. On the 20th of June the Court attempted a coup d'état, and the Third Estate held its celebrated session in the Tennis Court, and so broke with the old feudal idea, and became a constitutional 'National Assembly', the Court making but a feeble resistance at the time.

It, nevertheless, was contemplating forcible measures against what had now become the National Assembly, when on the 14th July came the first stroke of the popular insurrection which the bourgeois began by accepting as an ally of its revolution, which so far had gone wholly on constitutional lines; this was the taking of the Bastille by the people, and the slaying of De Launay the Governor, and Flesselles the Provost of the merchants. The Court gave way at once; the king visited Paris as a sign of submission, and certain of the higher nobility fled from the coming ruin. Two typical feudal fleecers, Foulon and Berthier, were afterwards hung by the people.

The ground thus cleared for it, the Constitutional Revolution went on apace; feudal titles were abolished, the Church reduced to a salaried official department; the very geography of the country was changed, the old provinces with their historic names abolished, and France divided into eighty-three departments named after the rivers and other natural features; everything was to be reduced to a pattern [of] constitutional centralized bourgeois bureaucracy.

But the other element of revolution was also stirring. The alliance of the mere starvelings could not be done without by the bourgeoisie, and they had it whether they would or no. A Jacquerie had arisen in the country, and armed peasants everywhere burned the chateaux or country-houses of the gentlemen, and hunted away their occupants. The Revolution was necessarily accompanied by the dislocation of all industry, and the scarcity was bitterly felt everywhere.

In the midst of this the Court, recovering from the first blow of the taking of the Bastille, began to plot counter-revolution, and devised a scheme for getting the king away from Versailles to Rouen or elsewhere, and putting him at the head of a reactionary army and an opposition reactionary assembly. A banquet given by the Court to a regiment supposed to be loyal, practically exposed this plot, and amidst all the terror and irritation which it gave rise to, a popular rising headed by the famous march of the women on Versailles, came to the aid of the Assembly, and forced the king to go to Paris and take up his abode at the Tuilleries. In this affair the mere Sansculotte element became very obvious. It was stirred up by the artificial famine caused by the financial and stock-jobbing operations of the Court and of private persons; the popular middle-class Minister, Necker, having been the immediate cause of it by his issue of small paper money. And it was opposed by the Bourgeois soldiery, the National Guard, headed by Lafayette, who was the very embodiment of the Constitutional Revolution. This was followed by a further flight of the noblesse and higher bourgeoisie from France, which, as it were, gave a token of the complete victory of Constitutionalism over the Court party.

For some time the king carried on a struggle against the victorious bourgeoisie, apparently unconscious of its extreme hopelessness; while the bourgeois Government for its part was quite prepared to put down any popular movement, all the more as it now had a formidable army in the shape of the National Guard. But by this time there had arisen a kind of People's Parliament outside the Assembly, the famous Jacobins Club and the Cordelier Club to wit, and the sky was darkening over for triumphant Constitutionalism.

That triumph was celebrated by the great feast of the Champ de Mars, July 13th, 1790, when the king in the presence of delegates from all France swore to the Constitution. But Royalist plots went on all the same, and settled down at last into a fixed conclusion of the flight of the king to the northern frontier, where were the remains of what regular army could be depended on, with the threatening Austrian troops at their back. As a trial the king attempted at Easter to get as far as St Cloud, announcing his determination as a matter of course; but he was stopped by a mixed crowd not wholly Sansculotte, though Lafayette did his best to help royalty turned respectable, in the pinch. At last on the 20th June, the king and the royal family made the great attempt, in which they would most probably have succeeded, if they had not hampered themselves with all kinds of absurd appliances of wealth and luxury, and if they had had any idea of the kind of stake they were playing for. As it was in spite of, or perhaps partly because of, their having arranged for various detachments of troops to meet them on the way as escorts, they were stopped at the little town of Varennes and brought back again to Paris. It was a token of the progress of ideas, that by this time the king's presence in Paris was looked at from a two-fold point of view. By the pure constitutionalists as the necessary coping-stone to the Constitution, without which it could not stand; but by the revolutionists as a hostage held by the French people in the face of hostile reactionary Europe. Also now the word Republic was first put forward, and at last it became clear that there were two parties amongst those who were making the Constitution, the Constitutional Royalists and the Republicans.

The latter were supported by the people, who flooded the Assembly with petitions for the deposition of the king; the Assembly decided against it on the ground of the legal fiction familiar to the anti-Royalist party in our Parliamentary wars, that the king had been carried off by evil and traitorous councillors. But the split between the parties was emphasized by bloodshed. A Jacobin petition lay for signature on the Altar of the Country in the Champ de Mars, and great crowds were about it signing and looking on. In the evening, Lafayette marched on the Champ de Mars with a body of National Guards, proclaimed martial law by the hoisting of the red flag, according to a recently made enactment, and finally fired on the people, killing many of them.

But in spite of this 'massacre of the Champ de Mars', as it was called, the Constitutionalists triumphed for the time. The National Assembly completed its work, and produced a Constitution wholly Bourgeois and even Monarchical, which was accepted by the King amidst one of those curious outbursts of sentiment of which the epoch was so fruitful, and which generalry as on this occasion included the exhibition of the little Dauphin in the arms of his mother to the crowd. The National Assembly dissolved itself after enacting that none of its members could be elected to the new legislative body or first Parliament of the Revolution. Of this Legislative the bourgeois Republicans, the aristocracy of talent, became apparently far the most powerful party; whatever there was of talent that had frankly accepted the alliance of the Sansculottes was outside the Legislative. But another element was now added to the contest, that of foreign war, Austria beginning the attack. The obvious and necessary sympathy of the king and Court with what had now become their only chance of salvation, was met by the equally necessary terror and indignation of the revolutionists of all shades, which of course strengthened the extreme party, who had everything to lose from the success of a foreign invasion. In spite of this, the king driven into a corner was in constant contention with the Legislative, and used his constitutional right of veto freely, yet was driven to accept a revolutionary Ministry with Roland at its head: but as the hope of deliverance from the invasion grew on him he dismissed it again, and the Court found itself ticketted (sic) with the name of the Austrian Committee. On the 20th June, the populace expressed themselves clearly enough by invading the Tuileries itself, and for a brief space it seemed as if the monarchy was doomed to end there and then; but as there was no resistance it ended with a mere demonstration.

Nevertheless, the end of the Constitutional Revolution was at hand. Lafayette, quite misunderstanding his strength, left the army, and tried to stir up the Constitutionalists to attack the Jacobins, but failed ignominiously, and presently fled the country. The King once more swearing to the Constitution at the Feast of the Federates, wore armour underneath his clothes, and insurrection was obviously brewing. On the 10th August it came. Whatever Royalist force was available was collected in the Palace of the Tuileries, including the Swiss Guard; and a desperate resistance was prepared for with the faint hope of the king being able to cut himself out and reach the frontier; but those Constitutionalists who had any intention of supporting the king found their hearts failing them, and even the 'constitutional' battalions of the National Guard were prepared to take the popular side. The king and royal family left the Tuileries for the Legislative, leaving no orders to the unlucky Swiss, who with mechanical military courage stood their ground. The insurrectionary sections attacked the Tuileries and carried it, though not without heavy loss – 1200 killed, the Swiss being all slain except a few who were carried off to prison. On the 13th August, the king and his family were bestowed as prisoners in the Temple, and the first act of the Revolution had come to an end.

Commonweal, Volume 2, Number 28, 4 July 1886, pp. 130-131