Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER XXI: Departure of the King on the 21st of June, 1791. - Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution (LF ed.)
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CHAPTER XXI: Departure of the King on the 21st of June, 1791. - 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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Departure of the King on the 21st of June, 1791.
Louis XVI would have cordially accepted the English constitution had it been presented to him with candor and with the respect due to the head of a government; but the Assembly wounded all his affections, particularly by three decrees, which were rather hurtful than useful to the cause of the nation. They abolished the power of granting pardons,1 that power which ought to exist in every civilized society, and which, in a monarchy, can belong only to the Crown: they required from the priests an oath of adherence to the civil constitution of the clergy, on pain of the loss of their appointments; and they wished to deprive the Queen of the power of being Regent.2
The greatest error, perhaps, of the Constituent Assembly, as we have already said, was to aim at creating a clerical body dependent on it, in the same way as has been done by a number of absolute sovereigns. It deviated, for this purpose, from that system of perfect equity in which it ought to have sought support. It stimulated to resistance the conscience and the honor of the clerical body. The friends of liberty wander from the true path whenever it is practicable to oppose to them generous sentiments; for true liberty can have opponents only among those who are ready to act a usurping or servile part; and the priest who refused a theological oath exacted by threats acted more the part of a free man than those who endeavored to make him give the lie to his opinion.
Lastly, the third decree, the one relative to the Regency, being intended to keep power out of the hands of the Queen, who was suspected by the popular party, could not fail to be personally offensive on several grounds to Louis XVI. That decree declared him the first public functionary,3 a title wholly unsuited to a king, since every functionary must be responsible; and it is indispensable to introduce into hereditary monarchy a sentiment of respect naturally connected with the inviolability of the sovereign. This respect does not exclude the mutual compact between the King and the nation, a compact existing at all times either in a tacit or in an avowed shape; but reason and delicacy may always be made compatible when people are sincerely disposed to it.
The second article of the regency decree was to be condemned on grounds similar to those that we have already mentioned; it declared the King deprived of the throne if he went out of France.4 This was pronouncing on what ought not to have been anticipated, the case in which a king was to be stripped of his dignity. Republican virtues and institutions elevate very greatly the people whose situation allows them to enjoy them; but in monarchical countries, the people become perverted if they are not accustomed to respect the authority which they have acknowledged. A penal code against a king is an idea without application, whether that king be strong or weak. In the latter case, the power that overturns him does not confine itself to law, in whatever manner that law may have been conceived.
It is therefore only under a prudential point of view that we are to form an opinion of the step taken by the King in escaping from the Tuileries on the 21st of June, 1791. He had certainly met by that time with as much bad treatment as gave him a right to quit France; and he perhaps rendered a great service even to the friends of liberty by putting an end to a hypocritical situation; for their cause was injured by the vain efforts that they made to persuade the nation that the political acts of the King, from the time of his arrival at Paris, were acts of free will, when it was perfectly evident that they were not.
Mr. Fox5 told me in England, in 1793, that at the time of the King’s departure to Varennes, he should have wished that he had been allowed to quit the kingdom in peace and that the Constituent Assembly had proclaimed a republic. France would at least not have sullied herself with the crimes afterward committed against the royal family; and whether a republican form can or cannot succeed in a great country, it is always best that the trial should be made by upright men. But that which was most to be dreaded took place—the arrest of the King and his family.
A journey requiring so much management and rapidity was prepared almost as in ordinary times: etiquette is of such moment at a court that it could not be dispensed with even on this most perilous occasion; the consequence was the failure of the attempt.6
When the Constituent Assembly learned of the King’s departure, its behavior was perfectly firm and becoming; what it had wanted till that day was a counterpoise to its unlimited power. Unfortunately, the French arrive at reason in political matters only by compulsion. A vague idea of danger hovered over the Assembly; it was possible that the King might go, as he intended, to Montmédy, and that he might receive aid from foreign troops; it was possible that a great party might declare for him in the interior. In short, disquietude put an end to extremes; and among the deputies of the popular party, those who had clamored on pretext of tyranny when the English constitution was proposed to them would now have willingly subscribed to it.
Never will it be possible to find grounds of consolation for the arrest of the King at Varennes: irreparable faults, crimes which must long be the cause of shame, have impaired the feeling of liberty in the minds best fitted to receive it. Had the King left the country, perhaps an equitable constitution might have arisen out of the struggle between the two parties.7 But civil war, it will be exclaimed, was to be avoided above all things. Not above all things! There are other calamities still more to be dreaded. Generous virtues are displayed by those who fight for their opinion; and it is more natural to shed one’s blood in defense of it than for one of the thousand political interests which form the habitual causes of war. Doubtless it is cruel to fight against one’s fellow-citizens, but it is still more horrible to be oppressed by them; and that which of all things ought to be avoided in France is the absolute triumph of a party. For a long habit of liberty is necessary to prevent the feeling of justice from being perverted by the pride of power.
The King, on setting out, left a manifesto containing the motives for his departure; he recapitulated the treatment which he had been obliged to undergo, and declared that his authority was reduced to such a degree that he had no longer the power of governing. Amidst complaints so well founded, it was improper to insert observations of too minute a cast on the bad condition of the palace of the Tuileries. It is very difficult for hereditary sovereigns to prevent themselves from being governed by habit in the smallest as in the greatest events of life; but it is perhaps on that very account that they are better adapted than elected chiefs to a government of law and peace. The manifesto of Louis XVI closed with the memorable assurance “that on recovering his independence, he was ready to devote it to erecting the liberty of the French people on an imperishable foundation.” Such was at that time the current of public feeling that no one, not even the King himself, considered practicable the re-establishment of an unlimited monarchy.8
The Assembly, as soon as it was informed of the arrest of the royal family at Varennes, sent thither commissaries, among whom were Péthion and Barnave: Péthion, a man without information or elevation of soul, saw the misfortune of the most affecting victims without being moved by it. Barnave felt a respectful pity, particularly for the Queen; and from that time forward, he, Duport, Lameth, Regnault de St. Jean d’Angely, Chapelier, Thouret, and others united all their influence to that of M. de la Fayette to the restoration of royalty.9
The King and his family, on returning from Varennes, made a mournful entry into Paris; the clothes of the King and Queen were covered with dust; the two children of the royal family looked with surprise on the mass of people who came forth with an air of command into the presence of its fallen masters. Madame Elizabeth10 appeared, in the midst of this illustrious family, like a being already sanctified and which has no longer anything in common with the world. Three of the bodyguards, placed on the outside seat of the carriage, were exposed every moment to the danger of being massacred, and deputies of the Constituent Assembly placed themselves repeatedly between them and the enraged part of the populace who wanted to kill them. It was thus that the King returned to the palace of his ancestors. Alas! what a sad presage! And how truly was it fulfilled!
[1. ] According to the Legal Code passed in October 1791.
[2. ] According to chapter II, section 2, of the Constitution of 1791, “Women are excluded from the regency” and the “custody of the minor King shall be entrusted to his mother” (Documentary Survey of the French Revolution, 242, 243).
[3. ] According to chapter IV of the Constitution of 1791, “the King is the supreme head of the general administration of the kingdom” (Documentary Survey of the French Revolution, 251). The Constitution also stipulated (chap. II, sec. 1) that “there is no authority in France superior to that of the law; the King reigns only thereby, and only in the name of the law may he exact obedience.” (Documentary Survey of the French Revolution, 241)
[4. ] According to the Constitution of 1791, chapter II, section 1, 7, “If the King, having left the kingdom, does not return after invitation has been made by the legislative body, and within the period established by proclamation, which may not be less than two months, he shall be deemed to have abdicated the throne.” (Documentary Survey of the French Revolution, 240)
[5. ] Charles James Fox (1749–1806), leader of the Whigs who favored the principles of the French Revolution and opposed the war with France.
[6. ] On the King’s flight to Varennes, see Mona Ozouf’s entry in A Critical Dictionary of the French Revolution, 155–64. The escape of the royal family failed because it was poorly planned. The schedule was not meticulously prepared, and the departure was imprudently delayed; as a result, the carriage left the Tuileries Palace at two in the morning rather than at midnight. Moreover, Choiseul, who was supposed to command the first support detachment en route, defected. The implications of the Varennes episode were very important for the course of the Revolution. As Ozouf pointed out, it led to the appearance of a major schism in the country, which ultimately strengthened the power of the Jacobins.
[7. ] Louis XVI intended to return to France supported by foreign troops.
[8. ] It has been argued that, by signing this manifesto, Louis XVI proclaimed his allegiance to the older principles of his declaration of June 23, 1789, principles which were not at all compatible with those of constitutional monarchy.
[9. ] Adrien Duport (1759–98) was a prominent French magistrate and a leading constitutional monarchist during the early stages of the French Revolution of 1789. Charles Malo François Lameth (1757–1832) was a prominent French politician and member of the Feuillants. He served in the American War of Independence and was a deputy to the Estates General in 1789. Regnault de Saint-Jean d’Angely (1761–1819) was the editor of L’ami de patriots, 1791–92. Thouret (1746–94) was one of the main authors of the Constitution of 1791, and Le Chapelier (1754–94) was the author of a famous law on associations (1791) that bore his name. The speeches of Duport, Thouret, and la Chapelier can be found in Furet and Halévi, Orateurs de la Révolution française, vol. 1.
[10. ] Louis XVI’s sister, who was executed in May 1794.