One of the main source of conflict between the Crown and the Revolutionaries was the Revolution’s principles of popular sovereignty, though central to democratic principles of later eras, it marked a decisive break from the centuries-old principle of divine right that was at the heart of the French monarchy. As a result, the Revolution was opposed by many of the rural people of France and by all the governments of France’s neighbors.
Still, within the city of Paris and amongst the philosophers of the time, many of which were members of the National Assembly, the monarchy had next to no support. As the Revolution became more radical and the masses more uncontrollable, several of the Revolution’s leading figures began to doubt its benefits. Some, like Honoré Mirabeau, secretly plotted with the Crown to restore its power in a new constitutional form.
On June 20, 1789, the members of the French Third Estatetook the Tennis Court Oath, vowing “not to separate, and to reassemble wherever circumstances require, until the constitution of the kingdom is established”. It was a pivotal event in the French Revolution. The Oath signified for the first time that French citizens formally stood in opposition to Louis XVI and the National Assembly’s refusal to back down forced the king to make concessions.
Drawing by Jacques-Louis David of the Tennis Court Oath. David later became a deputy in the National Convention in 1793.
As most of the Assembly still favoured a constitutional monarchy rather than a republic, the various groups reached a compromise in designing a written Constitution which left Louis XVI as little more than a figurehead: he was forced to swear an oath to the constitution, and a decree declared that retracting the oath, heading an army for the purpose of making war upon the nation, or permitting anyone to do so in his name would amount to abdication.
Louis XVI was alienated from the new democratic government both by its negative reaction to the traditional role of the monarch and in its treatment of him and his family. He was particularly irked by being kept essentially as a prisoner in the Tuileries, and by the refusal of the new regime to allow him to have confessors and priests of his choice rather than ‘constitutional priests’ pledged to the state and not the Roman Catholic Church.
On June 21, 1791, Louis XVI attempted to flee secretly with his family from Paris to the royalist fortress town of Montmédy on the northeastern border of France, where he would join the émigrés and be protected by Austria. The voyage was planned by the Swedish nobleman, and often assumed secret lover of Queen Marie-Antoinette, Axel von Fersen. The King and Queen were recognized at Varennes and returned to Paris.
The Assembly provisionally suspended the King. He and Queen Marie Antoinette remained held under guard. The King’s flight had a profound impact on public opinion, turning popular sentiment further against the clergy and nobility, and built momentum for the institution of a constitutional monarchy.
In the summer of 1791, the National Constituent Assembly decided that the king needed to be restored to the throne if he accepted the constitution. The decision was made after the king’s flight to Varennes.
That decision enraged many Parisians into protesting, and one major protest devolved into the Champ de Mars Massacre, with 12 to 50 people killed by the National Guard.
After surviving the vicissitudes of a revolution for two years, the National Constituent Assembly dissolved itself on September 30, 1791. The following day, the Constitution went into effect, which granted power to the Legislative Assembly.
The Legislative Assembly was 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 of the National Convention.
Louis XVI formed a series of cabinets, veering at times as far-left as the Girondins. However, by the summer of 1792, amid war and insurrection, it had become clear that the monarchy and the now-dominant Jacobins could not reach any accommodation.
What happened next was a crucial moment in the downfall of the monarchy. On April 20, 1792, the Legislative Assembly, supported by Louis XVI, declared war on Austria (“the King of Bohemia and Hungary”) first, voting for war after a long list of grievances was presented to it by the foreign minister, Charles François Dumouriez. Dumouriez prepared an immediate invasion of the Austria.
While the revolutionary government frantically raised fresh troops and reorganised its armies, a Prussian-Austrian army under Charles William Ferdinand, Duke of Brunswick assembled at Coblenz on the Rhine. In July, the invasion began, with Brunswick’s army easily taking the fortresses of Longwy and Verdun. The duke then issued on July 25 a proclamation called the Brunswick Manifesto, written by Louis’s émigré cousin, the Prince de Condé, declaring the intent of the Austrians and Prussians 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.
Contrary to its intended purpose of strengthening Louis XVI’s position against the revolutionaries, the Brunswick Manifesto had the opposite effect of greatly undermining his already highly tenuous position. It was taken by many to be the final proof of collusion between the king and foreign powers in a conspiracy against his own country. On July 11, 1792, the Assembly formally declared the nation in danger because of the dire military situation.
The anger of the populace boiled over on August 10 when an armed mob – with the backing of a new municipal government of Paris that came to be known as the Insurrectional Paris Commune – marched upon and invaded the Tuileries Palace. The royal family took shelter with the Legislative Assembly.
Louis XVI was officially arrested on August 13, 1792 and sent to the Temple, an ancient fortress in Paris that was used as a prison.
From 1789 until August 10, 1792 during the French Revolution, France was first controlled by the two-year National Constituent Assembly and then by the one-year Legislative Assembly. After the great insurrection of August 10, 1792, The National Convention was created.
The Convention’s députés were instructed to put an end to the crisis that had broken out after the bloody capture of the Tuileries (August 10, 1792). The middle-class origin and political activity meant that most members of the Convention bore no sympathy for the monarchy, and the victory at the battle of Valmy on 20 September (the revolution’s first military success) occurred on the same day as their meeting, thus confirming their convictions.
Proposition for abolition
When the député for Paris, Jean-Marie Collot d’Herbois, proposed abolition he met with little resistance; at most, Claude Basire, friend of Georges Jacques Danton, tried to temper the enthusiasm, recommending a discussion before any decision. However, abbé Henri Grégoire, constitutional bishop of Blois, replied strongly to any suggestion of discussion.
What need do we have of discussion when everyone is in agreement? Kings are as much monsters in the moral order as in the physical order. The Courts are a workshop for crime, the foyer for corruption and the den of tyrants. The history of kings is the martyrology of nations!
Jean-François Ducos supported him in affirming that any discussion would be useless “after the lights spread by 10 August.”
The summary argument served as a debate and the decision taken was unanimous: On September 21, 1792 the National Assembly declared abolished the monarchy abolished and France as a Republic. Louis XVI was stripped of all of his titles and honours, and from this date was known as Citizen Louis Capet.
End of an era
In the wake of the proclamation, efforts grew to eliminate the vestiges of the ancien regime.
As the date of the Republic’s first anniversary approached, the Convention passed a set of laws replacing many familiar ancien systems of order and measurement, including the old Christian calendar. This dramatic change was powerful encouragement to the growing wave of anticlericalism which sought a dechristianisation of France.
The new French Republican Calendar discarded all Christian reference points and calculated time from the Republic’s first full day after the monarchy, September 22, 1792, the first day of Year One.