Empire of Liberty: Le Roi Est Mort

“Liberty, equality, fraternity, or death; – the last, much the easiest to bestow, O Guillotine!” 

-Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

Excerpt from Konijeti Beevti’s “Years of Revolution: Boston to Bhārata”, Vij Publishing House, 1962 (translation by Earl Henderson).

As the constitution neared completion, the Assembly made drastic changes to make the king a figurehead. A riot between radical protesters and Lafayette’s National Guard dealt yet a further blow to the nobility and, this time, to the public view of the Assembly itself. That summer the Assembly confirmed radical suspicions by forcibly closing patriotic clubs and radical newspapers. An ill-timed message in August from the king’s brother-in-law, Holy Roman Emperor Leopold II, King Fredrick William of Prussia and the king’s brother, Charles Phillipe, the Comte d’Artois, hinted at a foreign invasion of France to restore Louis XVI to his former absolutist throne. The fleeing nobles, the flight of the king and the threat of foreign invasion all consolidated public support against the nobility and, increasingly, against the Assembly.

In September 1791, the Assembly (finally) passed, and the king accepted, the long awaited constitution. The Assembly adjourned on September 30, 1791. The new legislative body, the Legislative Assembly, convened the next day. The king quickly began vetoing legislation that would have made noble flight a crime punishable by death and which would have instituted further civic oaths. The new Assembly also began splitting between hawks and doves on the issue of war. Robespierre and his Jacobins sought to prevent a war against Prussia or Austria while the “Girondins” sought, and believed France could win, a war against those powers. On April 20, 1792, the Girondins got their wish and France declared war on Austria. The first of the French Revolutionary Wars, the War of the First Coalition, had begun.

The War of the First Coalition greatly exacerbated an already tenuous situation. Without it, there is a good argument that France would have stabilized internally and prevented the radical path of the revolution. Instead, ultimatums were issues by the Assembly to the Hapsburg Dynasty (which controlled Austria and the Holy Roman Empire). Louis XVI, in a show of patriotism, found himself essentially forced to declare war on Austria and Prussia. Charles François Dumouriez, a general and the French Foreign Minister in 1792, worked closely with the Girondins to orchestrate the war so he could execute an invasion of the Austrian Netherlands. A true revolutionary if there was one, Dumouriez, hoped to spread the revolution into the lowlands and inspire a revolt among the Belgians. This was not just wishful thinking but Dumouriez viewed it as a tactical necessity and advantageous situation. The Belgians had revolted against their Austrian overlords in 1790 and France historically viewed these lands as a natural progression of a frontier denied to it only by the obstinacies of the Hapsburgs or the pigheadedness of William of Orange (the infamous King of England and Stadtholder of the Dutch Republic, so frequently the foil of Louis XIV). However, the army was a mess due to the sheer loss of officers, lack of pay, lack of equipment and numerous other logistical and personnel issues. Desertion was rampant and even mutiny was not uncommon. While the Assembly scrambled to address the false start, Prussia was leading an army under Charles William Ferdinand, the Duke of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel and massing on the Rhine.

The Duke, however, made a critical error and released a statement declaring the army’s intent to restore Louis XVI to absolute power and treat any opposition as rebels to be put to death. The Duke designed the statement to inspire remaining monarchists and put fear into the revolutionaries. The problem was there were few monarchists left in France by this point to inspire and the revolution was far more than a mere peasant revolt from the 16th century. Inadvertently, the Duke had declared the king an enemy of France. The population, already weary due to the flight to Varennes, stormed the Tuileries Palace on August 10 and arrested the king and his family. A rump session of the Assembly was convened with only a third of representatives present (almost all Jacobins) and “temporarily relieved the king of his duties”. The Assembly then called for a new constitution, one that would remove the monarchy entirely, and a new legislative body.

With one ill-advised declaration, the Duke of Brunswick had inadvertently ushered in the radical phase of the revolution. The moderates began to lose what remaining hope they had. Seeing no way to reverse this new course in the revolution, the Marquis de Lafayette departed from France.

He would be one of the lucky ones.

Nine days later, the Duke of Brunswick’s army invaded and pushed into the old province of Lorraine.

On August 26, the Assembly declared refractory priests enemies of France and began working to deport them to exile in French Guiana. This sparked a peasant revolt in the deeply religious Vendée. With enemy troops advancing, a civil war imminent in western France, and opinions on nobles and the monarchy at all-time lows, the Assembly found what was left of its power in radicals.

Several days later, the Duke of Brunswick captured the fortress of Verdun. This key loss (and the spreading rumor of the imminent capture of Paris) sparked three days of rioting across the capital city. Revolutionaries raided prisons and summarily massacred 1,000 to 1,500 prisoners ranging from nobles to priests to actual criminals. Jean Paul Marat, an ally to Robespierre, published an open letter to France urging them to join the Parisian revolutionaries in their gruesome indulgences. Many prisons were purged of their prisoners in outlying départments as a result of this unchecked orgy of chaos.

During this time, France held elections for the new National Convention that would write a republican constitution and take over from the ineffective Legislative Assembly. Due to the chaos, voter turnout was low with little conservative representation.

Amazingly, the invading force of the ragtag forces of France checked the Duke at the Battle of Valmy, on the road to Paris, on September 20. Generals Dumouriez and Francois Christophe Kellerman became heroes of the revolution overnight and Louis XVI realized his last real chance, not just at his former power but also at his survival, had passed. With winter coming, the Duke took his army out of France.

Depiction of the Battle of Valmy

That same day, roughly 100 miles away from the battlefield, the new National Convention convened for the first time.

On September 21, the National Convention formally voted to abolish the French monarchy.

On September 22, the news of Valmy arrived in Paris. It also marked the first day of the First French Republic. It would retroactively become day one, year one of the French Republican Calendar.

After the victory at Valmy, the French military situation began to turn around. Military victories in the southeast led to French occupation of Savoy and Nice, territories of the Kingdom of Sardinia [1]. The army occupied Basel in early October. Adam Philippe, Comte de Custine, invaded German territories and pushed French occupation to the Rhine, reaching all the way to Frankfurt. French forces lifted an Austrian siege of the border town of Lille and Dumouriez was finally able to invade the Austrian Netherlands. He defeated the Austrians at Jemappes to occupy the entire region, an accomplishment that numerous French kings, even the great Louis XIV, had been unable to achieve.

As the National Convention was able to move away from imminent foreign invasion, politics began to focus inward once more. Discussion did not center on fiscal policy or constitutional philosophy. Instead, discussion was all about the violence of the revolution, putting the king on trial and the domination of Paris over national affairs. Early attempts to reduce the influence of Paris, or even move the capital elsewhere, occurred but these efforts fell flat. Efforts to refocus national events fell flat as well because everything revolved around the issue of the king.

Robespierre’s ultra-radical Montagnard faction of the Convention (which opposed the Girondins) had inadvertently painted itself into a corner over the lingering question of Louis XVI. As Robespierre summarized:

“If the king is not guilty, then those who have dethroned him are”

The Montagnards, French for “The Mountain”, were the extremely radical members of the Assembly and originally came from those men who sat at the highest levels of the various radical Jacobin Clubs. They were largely responsible for the Storming of the Tuileries, subsequent suspension of royal power and call for a new Convention in mid-August. It became a necessity to put the king on trial and prove his treason against France less their actions be viewed as little more than the impulsive outbursts of a panicked mob. Many also knew the ramifications of a trial. If the king’s treason was proven then the spirit of equality and revolution demanded he be put to death, as anyone else who worked with foreign enemies to harm the republic would be.

On November 20, a hidden chest was discovered in the Tuileries containing considerable correspondence between the king and various ministers and bankers regarding the receipt of funds from France and Austria. The evidence was damning. On December 10, the trial of Louis XVI (or “Citoyen-Capet” as the radicals called him) began. Despite efforts from some of the Girondins and even General Dumouriez, the results of the trial were certain by the New Year. On January 18, 1793, balloting had concluded in the Convention. The jury convicted the king and sentenced him to death.

Excerpt from Charles Dicken’s “A Tale of Two Cities”, Chapman & Hall, 1859 [2]

“The new era began; the king was tried, doomed, and beheaded; the Republic of Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, or Death, declared for victory or death against the world in arms; the black flag waved night and day from the great towers of Notre Dame; three hundred thousand men, summoned to rise against the tyrants of the earth, rose from all the varying soils of France, as if the dragon’s teeth had been sown broadcast, and had yielded fruit equally on hill and plain, on rock, in gravel, and alluvial mud, under the bright sky of the South and under the clouds of the North, in fell and forest, in the vineyards and the olive-grounds and among the cropped grass and the stubble of the corn, along the fruitful banks of the broad rivers, and in the sand of the sea-shore. What private solicitude could rear itself against the deluge of the Year One of Liberty—the deluge rising from below, not falling from above, and with the windows of Heaven shut, not opened!

There was no pause, no pity, no peace, no interval of relenting rest, no measurement of time. Though days and nights circled as regularly as when time was young, and the evening and morning were the first day, other count of time there was none. Hold of it was lost in the raging fever of a nation, as it is in the fever of one patient. Now, breaking the unnatural silence of a whole city, the executioner showed the people the head of the king—and now, it seemed almost in the same breath, the head of his fair wife which had had eight weary months of imprisoned widowhood and misery, to turn it grey.

And yet, observing the strange law of contradiction which obtains in all such cases, the time was long, while it flamed by so fast. A revolutionary tribunal in the capital, and forty or fifty thousand revolutionary committees all over the land; a law of the Suspected, which struck away all security for liberty or life, and delivered over any good and innocent person to any bad and guilty one; prisons gorged with people who had committed no offence, and could obtain no hearing; these things became the established order and nature of appointed things, and seemed to be ancient usage before they were many weeks old. Above all, one hideous figure grew as familiar as if it had been before the general gaze from the foundations of the world—the figure of the sharp female called La Guillotine.”

—————— Author’s Notes ——————-

[1]: You often see several names for the Kingdom of Sardinia, namely Kingdom of the Piedmont or the Kingdom of Savoy-Sardinia. They are essentially interchangeable and indicate the totality of the territories under the rule of the House of Savoy. In our timeline the Duke of Savoy, from 1720, had control over the Duchy of Savoy, Duchy of Aosta, County of Nice, Principality of Piedmont and the Kingdom of Sardinia. The mainland territories were lost during the Napoleonic Wars but regained in the post-war Congress of Vienna (with some additions). From there, the House of Savoy took the leading role in Italian unification throughout the mid-1800’s and eventually the name “Kingdom of Sardinia” was changed to “Kingdom of Italy”.

[2]: This is a direct excerpt from Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities” which can be found in Book III, Chapter IV. All credit to Dickens and Chapman & Hall.

Next Chapter: The Reign of Terror

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