Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER XI: Events of the 5th and 6th of October, 1789. - Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution (LF ed.)
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CHAPTER XI: Events of the 5th and 6th of October, 1789. - Germaine de Staël, Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution (LF ed.) 
Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution, newly revised translation of the 1818 English edition, edited, with an introduction and notes by Aurelian Craiutu (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2008).
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Events of the 5th and 6th of October, 1789.
Before describing these too disastrous days, we should bring to our recollection that in France at the time of the Revolution, as well as in the rest of Europe, people had enjoyed for nearly a century a kind of tranquillity which conduced, it is true, to relaxation and corruption; but was, at the same time, the cause and effect of very mild manners. Nobody imagined, in 1789, that vehement passions lurked under this apparent tranquillity. The Constituent Assembly accordingly gave itself up without apprehension to the generous wish of ameliorating the lot of the people. They had seen it only in a state of servitude, and they did not suspect what has been since but too well proved—that the violence of revolt being always in proportion to the injustice of slavery, it was necessary to bring about changes in France with a prudence proportioned to the oppression of the old system.
The aristocrats will say that they foresaw all our misfortunes; but prophecies prompted by personal interest have weight with no one. Let us resume, then, the sketch of the situation of France before the occurrence of those early crimes from which all the others proceeded.
The general direction of business at court was the same as before the Revolution of the 14th of July; but the means at the disposal of the royal authority being considerably diminished, the danger of exciting a new insurrection was proportionably augmented. M. Necker was well aware that he did not possess the entire confidence of the King, and this diminished his authority in the eyes of the representatives of the people; but he did not hesitate to sacrifice by degrees all his popularity to the defense of the throne. There are not on earth greater trials for morality than political employments; for the arguments which, in such a situation, may be used to reconcile conscience with interest are innumerable. The principle, however, from which we ought rarely to deviate, is that of bringing assistance to the weaker party: we seldom err in guiding ourselves by such a landmark.1
M. Necker was of the opinion that the most perfect sincerity toward the representatives of the people was the soundest calculation for the King; he advised him to make use of his veto, to refuse whatever he deemed fit for rejection; to accept only what he approved; and to ground his resolutions on motives which might gradually influence public opinion. Already had this system produced a certain degree of good, and, had it been steadily followed, it would have still prevented many misfortunes. But it was so natural for the King to feel irritated at his situation that he lent too willing an ear to all the projects which accorded with his wishes, and which offered the pretended means of a counter-revolution. It is very difficult for a king, the inheritor of a power which, since Henri IV, had never been disputed, to believe himself without force in the midst of his kingdom; and the devoted attachment of those who surround him must easily excite his hopes and illusions. The Queen was still more alive to these confident conclusions, and the enthusiasm of her bodyguards, and other persons of her court, appeared to her sufficient to repel the popular wave, which pressed forward more and more in proportion to the weakness of the opposing dikes.
Marie Antoinette presented herself then, like Maria Theresa, to the bodyguards at Versailles, to recommend to them her august husband and her children. They replied by acclamations to an appeal which, in fact, should have moved them to the bottom of their souls; but this was quite enough to excite the suspicions of that crowd of men, whose minds were heated by the new prospects opened to them by the state of affairs. It was repeated at Paris, among all classes, that the King wished to leave the country; and that he wanted to make a second attempt to dissolve the Assembly. The Monarch thus found himself in the most dangerous situation: he had excited disquietudes as if he had been strong, while, in fact, he was deprived of all means of defending himself.2
The rumor spread that two hundred thousand men were preparing to march to Versailles, to bring the King and the National Assembly to Paris. “They are surrounded,” it was said, “by enemies to the public welfare; we must bring them amongst the true patriots.” No sooner is a tolerably plausible expression invented in a time of trouble, than party men, and particularly Frenchmen, find a singular pleasure in repeating it. The arguments that might be opposed to it have no power on their minds; for their great object is to think and speak like others, that they may make sure of their applause.
On the morning of the 5th of October I learned that the populace were marching to Versailles; my father and mother had their residence there. I immediately set out to join them, but went by a less-traveled road, on which I met nobody. On drawing near to Versailles I saw the huntsmen who had accompanied the King to the chase, and, on arriving, I was told that an express had been dispatched to entreat him to come back. How strange is the power of habit in a court life! The King still did the same things, in the same manner, and at the same hours, as in the most tranquil times: the composure of mind which this implied procured him admiration at a time when circumstances allowed him no other virtues than those of a victim. M. Necker proceeded very quickly to the palace, to be present at the council; and my mother, more and more frightened by the threatening intelligence received from Paris, repaired to the hall which served as an antechamber to the council room, that she might share my father’s fate, whatever it might be. I followed her and found the hall filled with a great number of persons, brought thither by very different sentiments.
We saw Mounier pass through to require, in his capacity of president of the Constituent Assembly, but much against his will, the unqualified sanction of the King to the declaration of rights. The King had, so to speak, made a literal admission of its maxims; but he waited, he said, for their application, that he might affix his consent. The Assembly revolted against this slight obstacle to its will; for nothing is so violent in France as the anger which is felt toward those who presume to resist without being the strongest.
Everyone in the hall where we were assembled asked whether the King would set out or not. We were first told that he had ordered his carriages, and that the people of Versailles had unharnessed them; afterward that he had given orders to the regiment of Flanders, then in garrison at Versailles, to take arms, and that that regiment had refused. It has since been ascertained that the council took into deliberation whether the King should withdraw into the country; but as the royal treasury was empty, as the scarcity of corn was such that no assemblage of troops could be effected, and as no measures had been taken to make sure of the regiments on which reliance was still placed, the King apprehended the greatest eventual hazards from going to a distance; he was, moreover, persuaded that if he left the country, the Assembly would give the crown to the Duke of Orléans. But the Assembly had no such idea even at this time; and when the King consented, eighteen months after, to the journey which ended at Varennes,3 he had an opportunity of seeing that he had no ground for apprehension in that respect. M. Necker was not of the opinion that the court should set out without such aid as might ensure the success of that decisive step; but he offered to the King to follow him, if he determined on it; being ready to devote to him his fortune and his life, although perfectly aware of what his situation would be in adhering to his principles in the midst of courtiers who, in politics as in religion, know only one thing—intolerance.
The King having eventually fallen at Paris under the sword of the factious, it is natural for those who advised his departure on the 5th of October to make a boast of it: for we may always say what we think proper of the good effects of an advice that has not been followed. But, besides that it was perhaps already impracticable for the King to quit Versailles, we must not forget that M. Necker, in admitting the necessity of coming to Paris, proposed that the King should thenceforward go hand in hand with the constitution, and seek support in it only; without that determination he would be exposed, do what he might, to the greatest misfortunes.
The King, in deciding on remaining, might still have taken the decision of putting himself at the head of his bodyguards, and of repelling force by force. But Louis XVI felt a religious scruple at exposing the lives of Frenchmen for his personal defense; and that courage, which no person could doubt who witnessed his death, never prompted him to any spontaneous resolution. Besides, at this time, even success would not have accomplished his safety; the public mind was in the spirit of the Revolution, and it is by studying the course of things that we succeed in foreseeing (as much as foresight is granted to the human mind) the events which the vulgar represent as the result of chance, or of the inconsiderate actions of a few individuals.
The King then decided on awaiting the army, or rather multitude, which had already begun its march; and every eye was turned toward the road that fronts the windows of the palace at Versailles. We thought that the cannon might first be pointed against us, which occasioned us much fear; yet not one woman thought of withdrawing in this great emergency.
While this mass was on its march toward us, we were informed of the arrival of M. de la Fayette, at the head of the National Guards, and this was, no doubt, a ground of tranquillity. But he had long resisted the wish of the National Guard, and it was only by an express order of the Commune of Paris that he had marched to prevent, by his presence, the misfortunes that were threatened. Night was coming on, and our dread was increased with the darkness, when we saw M. de Chinon, who, as Duke of Richelieu, has since so justly acquired a high reputation, enter the palace.4 He was pale, fatigued, and in his dress like a man of the lower orders: it was the first time that such apparel entered the royal abode, and that a nobleman of the rank of M. de Chinon found himself obliged to put it on. He had walked part of the way from Paris to Versailles, mixed with the crowd, that he might hear their conversation; and he had left them halfway, to arrive in time to give notice to the royal family of what was going on. What a story did he tell! Women and children, armed with pikes and scythes, hastened from all parts. The lowest of the populace were brutalized still more by intoxication than by rage. In the midst of this infernal band, there were men who boasted of having got the name of “heads-men” (coupe-têtes), and who promised to make good their title to it. The National Guard marched with order, was obedient to its commander, and expressed no wish but that of bringing the King and the Assembly to Paris. At last M. de la Fayette entered the palace and crossed the hall where we were, to go in to the King. Everyone surrounded him with ardor, as if he had been the master of events, while the popular party was already stronger than its leader; principles were now giving way to factions, or rather were used by them only as pretexts.
M. de la Fayette seemed perfectly calm; he has never been seen otherwise, but his delicacy suffered by the importance of the part he had to act; to ensure the safety of the palace he desired to occupy the posts of the interior: the exterior posts only were given to him. This refusal was natural, as the bodyguards ought not to be removed; but it had almost been the cause of the greatest misfortunes. M. de la Fayette left the palace, giving us the most tranquilizing assurances: we all went home after midnight, thinking that the crisis of the day was over and believing ourselves in perfect security, as is almost always the case after one has experienced a great fright which has not been realized. At five in the morning M. de la Fayette thought that all danger was over and relied on the bodyguards, who had answered for the interior of the palace. A passage which they had forgotten to shut enabled the assassins to get in. A similar accident proved favorable to two conspiracies in Russia,5 at times when vigilance was at its height and when outward circumstances were most tranquil. It is therefore absurd to censure M. de la Fayette for an event that was so unlikely to occur. No sooner was he informed of it than he rushed forward to the assistance of those who were threatened, with an ardor which was acknowledged at the moment, before calumny had prepared her poison.
On the 6th of October, at a very early hour, a lady far advanced in years, the mother of Comte de Choiseul-Gouffier, author of the delightful Travels in Greece,6 entered my room: she came in a panic to seek refuge among us, although we had never had the honor of seeing her. She informed me that assassins had made their way even to the Queen’s antechamber, that they had massacred several of her guards at the door, and that, awakened by their cries, the Queen had saved her life only by flying into the King’s room by a private passage. I was told at the same moment that my father had already set out for the palace, and that my mother was about to follow him; I made haste to accompany her.
A long passage led from the contrôle général, where we lived, to the palace: as we approached we heard musket shots in the courts, and as we crossed the gallery we saw recent marks of blood on the floor. In the next hall the bodyguards were embracing the National Guards, with that warmth which is always inspired by emotion in great emergencies; they were exchanging their distinctive marks, the National Guards putting on the belt of the bodyguards, and the bodyguards the tricolored cockade. All were then exclaiming with transport, Vive la Fayette, because he had saved the lives of the bodyguards when threatened by the populace. We passed amidst these brave men who had just seen their comrades perish, and were expecting the same fate. Their emotion restrained, though visible, drew tears from the spectators; but, further on, what a scene presented itself!
The people demanded with great clamor that the King and royal family should remove to Paris; an answer in assent had been given on their part, and the cries, and the firing which we heard, were signs of rejoicing from the Parisian troops. The Queen then appeared in the hall; her hair disheveled, her countenance pale, but dignified; everything in her person was striking to the imagination. The people required that she should appear on the balcony, and, as the whole court, which is called the marble court, was full of men with firearms in their hands, the Queen’s countenance discovered her apprehensions. Yet she advanced without hesitation along with her two children, who served as her safeguard.
The multitude seemed affected on seeing the Queen as a mother, and political rage became appeased at the sight: those who that very night had perhaps wished to assassinate her, extolled her name to the skies.
The populace, in a state of insurrection, are, in general, inaccessible to reasoning, and are to be acted on only by sensations rapid as electricity, and communicated in a similar manner. Mobs are, according to circumstances, better or worse than the individuals which compose them; but whatever be their temper, they are to be prompted to crime as to virtue, only by having recourse to a natural impulsion.
The Queen, on returning from the balcony, approached my mother, and said to her, with stifled sobs, “They are going to force the King and me to proceed to Paris, with the heads of our bodyguards carried before us on the point of their pikes.” Her prediction was accomplished, nearly as she had said: the King and Queen were taken to their capital. We went to Paris by a different road, which spared us that dreadful sight. It was through the Bois de Boulogne that we went, and the weather was uncommonly fine; the breeze scarcely agitated the trees, and the sun was sufficiently bright to leave nothing gloomy in the prospect: no outward object was in correspondence with our grief. How often does this contrast, between the beauty of nature and the sufferings inflicted by man, renew itself in the course of life!
The King repaired to the Hotel de Ville, and the Queen displayed there a remarkable presence of mind. The King said to the Mayor: “I come with pleasure to my good city of Paris”; the Queen added, “and with confidence.” The expression was happy, but the event, alas! did not justify it. Next day the Queen received the diplomatic body and the persons of her court: she could not give vent to one word without sobbing, and we, likewise, were unable to reply to her.
What a spectacle was this ancient palace of the Tuilleries, abandoned for more than a century by its august inhabitants!7 The antiquated appearance of the outward objects acted on the imagination and made it wander into past times. As the arrival of the royal family was in no degree expected, very few apartments were in a habitable state, and the Queen had been obliged to get tent beds put up for her children in the very room where she received us: she apologized for it, and added, “You know that I did not expect to come here.” Her physiognomy was beautiful, but irritated; it was not to be forgotten after having been seen.
Madame Elizabeth, the King’s sister, appeared at once calm as to her own fate and agitated for that of her brother and sister-in-law. She manifested her courage by her religious resignation; this virtue which suffices not always for a man, is heroism in a woman.8
[1. ] A classic example of trimming in politics. The notion of trimming was first conceptualized by the Marquis of Halifax in his essay “The Character of a Trimmer”; see Kenyon, ed., Halifax. Complete Works, 50.
[2. ] In fact, the King had again called the troops to Versailles. During a banquet given by the King’s officers in honor of the recently arrived Flanders Regiment, the officers toasted the royal family and destroyed the tricolore. The news of this event reached Paris the next day and triggered the fury of the masses. The latter distrusted the King, who had yet to sign the decrees of the Assembly of August 4 and 11 and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.
[3. ] On the night of June 20, 1791, the royal family slipped out of Paris and headed toward the eastern frontier. The King and the Queen were captured the next day at Varennes and brought back to Paris.
[4. ] The Count of Chinon, later Duke de Richelieu (1766–1822), went into exile in Russia and returned to France at the beginning of the Bourbon Restoration. He served as prime minister from 1815 to 1818.
[5. ] Reference to the conspiracies against Tsars Peter III (July 1762) and Paul I (March 1801).
[6. ] Choiseul-Gouffier (1752–1817), French diplomat who served as French ambassador to Constantinople from 1784 to 1792. He was the author of the multivolume Voyage pittoresque en Grèce.
[7. ] The Tuileries Palace, on the right bank of the Seine, was destroyed in 1871. The construction of the palace began under Catherine de Médicis in 1564, and the building was later enlarged so that its southeast corner adjoined the Louvre. Louis XIV resided at the Tuileries Palace while the palace at Versailles was under construction. After the completion of the latter in the 1660s, the royal family virtually abandoned the Tuileries Palace.
[8. ] For more information on the October Days and the march to Versailles, see Acton, Lectures on the French Revolution, 110–22; and Necker, De la révolution française, part II, 271–82.