Front Page Titles (by Subject) IX: The March to Versailles - Lectures on the French Revolution (LF ed.)
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IX: The March to Versailles - John Emerich Edward Dalberg, Lord Acton, Lectures on the French Revolution (LF ed.) 
Lectures on the French Revolution, ed. John Neville Figgis and Reginald Vere Laurence, with a foreword by Steven J. Tonsor (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000).
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The March to Versailles
The French Revolution was approved at first by the common judgment of mankind. Kaunitz, the most experienced statesman in Europe, declared that it would last for long, and perhaps for ever. Speaking less cautiously, Klopstock said: “I see generations crushed in the struggle; I see perhaps centuries of war and desolation; but at last, in the remote horizon, I see the victory of liberty.” Even at St. Petersburg the fall of the Bastille was hailed with frantic joy. Burke began by applauding. He would not listen to Tom Paine, who had been the inspirer of a revolution himself, and who assured him that the States-General would lead to another. He said, afterwards, that the Rights of Man had opened his eyes; but at Holland House they believed that the change came a few days earlier, when the Church was attacked. The Americans were not far from the opinion of Burke. By the middle of the summer Jefferson thought that all that was needful had been obtained. Franklin took alarm at the events of July. Washington and Hamilton became suspicious soon after.
For the September decrees were directed not only against the English model, but still more against the American. The Convention of 1787 had constructed a system of securities that were intended to save the Union from the power of unchecked democracy. The National Assembly resolutely swept every security away. Nothing but the Crown was left that could impede the direct operation of the popular will, or that could make the division of powers a reality. Therefore the Liberal party looked to the king as much as the Conservative, and wished as much as they, and even more than they, to strengthen his hands. Their theory demanded a divided legislature. Having lost that, they fell back on Montesquieu, and accepted the division of legislative, executive, and judicial powers. These theoretic subtleties were unintelligible to the people of France. Men who were as vehement for the king in October as they had been vehement against him in June appeared to them to be traitors. They could not conceive that the authority which had so long oppressed them, and which it had required such an effort to vanquish, ought now to be trusted and increased. They could not convince themselves that their true friends were those who had suddenly gone over to the ancient enemy and oppressor, whose own customary adherents seemed no longer to support him.
Public opinion was brought to bear on the Assembly, to keep up the repression of monarchy which began on June 23. As the Crown passed under the control of the Assembly, the Assembly became more dependent on the constituencies, especially on that constituency which had the making of French opinion, and in which the democratic spirit was concentrated. After the month of August the dominant fact is the growing pressure of Paris on Versailles. In October Paris laid its hand on its prey. For some weeks the idea of escaping had been entertained. Thirty-two of the principal royalists in the Assembly were consulted, and advised that the king should leave Versailles and take refuge in the provinces. The late minister, Breteuil, the Austrian ambassador, Mercy, were of the same opinion, and they carried the queen with them. But Necker was on the other side.
Instead of flight they resolved upon defence, and brought up the Flanders regiment, whose Colonel was a deputy of the Left. In the morning the Count d’Estaing, who held command at Versailles, learnt with alarm that it had been decided to omit the health of the nation. The Prussian envoy writes that the officers of the Guards, who had not yet adopted the Tricolor, displayed the utmost contempt for it. It required no exaggeration to represent the scene in a light odious to the public. When Madame Campan came home and described with admiration what she had just beheld, Beaumetz, a deputy, and friend of Talleyrand, became very grave, and took his leave, that he might make up his mind whether he should not emigrate at once. Hostile witnesses reported the particulars to the press next day, and it was stated, figuratively or literally, that the Royal Guards had trampled the national colours under foot. Marat came over to inquire, and Camille Desmoulins says that he hurried back to Paris making as much noise as all the trumpets of the Last Day.
The feast had been held on a Thursday. On the Sunday, October 4, Paris was in a ferment. The insult to the nation, the summoning of troops, the projected flight, as was now supposed, to the fortress of Metz, were taken to mean civil war, for the restoration of despotism. At the Palais Royal the agitators talked of going out to Versailles, to punish the insolent guards. On the evening of Sunday, one district of the city, the Cordeliers, who were governed by Danton, were ready to march. The men of other districts were not so ready for action, or so zealous to avenge the new cockade. To carry the entire population more was required than the vague rumour of Metz, or even than the symbolical outrage.
There was hunger among the 800,000 inhabitants of Paris, between last year’s corn that was exhausted, and the new harvest that was not yet ground. Nobody, says Dumont, could wonder if so much suffering led to tumult. The suffering was due to poverty more than to scarcity; but Lafayette asserted that above £2000 a week were paid to bakers, or to millers, to create discontent by shortening supplies. There were people who thought that money spent in this way would rouse indignation against the incompetent and inactive Assembly. Upon sixteen days in the course of September the bakers’ shops had to be guarded by troops. The reduced noble families were putting down their establishments; and 200,000 passports were issued to intending émigrés in the two months following the fall of the Bastille.
The primary offender, responsible for subsistence, was the municipality of the capital; and their seat of office was the first object of attack. Early on the Monday morning a multitude of excited women made their way into the Hôtel de Ville. They wanted to destroy the heaps of papers, as all that writing did them no good. They seized a priest, and set about hanging him. They rang the tocsin, bringing all the trained battalions and all the ragged bands of the city to the Place de Grève. They carried away several hundreds of muskets, and some useless cannon; and they fetched torches, that they might burn the building to the ground. It was the headquarters of the elected municipality; but the masses were becoming conscious that they were not the Third Estate, that there was a conflict of interest between property and labour, and they began to vent their yet inarticulate rage upon the middle class above them. It presently appeared that these revolutionary heroines, knitting companions of the future guillotine, were not all infuriated or implacable. Parcels of banknotes that they took away were brought back; the priest was left unhung; the torches that were to have lighted the conflagration were extinguished without difficulty. They were easily persuaded that their proper sphere of action was Versailles, with its Assembly, that was able to do everything, and did nothing for the poor. They played the genuine part of mothers whose children were starving in their squalid homes, and they thereby afforded to motives which they neither shared nor understood the aid of a diamond point that nothing could withstand. It was this first detachment of invading women that allowed Stanislas Maillard to lead them away.
Maillard was known to all the town as a conqueror of the Bastille. Later, he acquired a more sinister celebrity. But on that 5th of October, as the calculating controller of dishevelled tumult, he left on those who saw him an impression of unusual force. Whilst he mustered his army in the Champs Elysées, and recruiting parties were sent through the streets, an emissary from the Hôtel de Ville hastened to warn the Government at Versailles. He was able to announce that the National Guard were coming.
Lafayette appeared late upon the scene, and did nothing to hinder the expedition of Maillard. He thought the danger contemptible, and believed that there were resources at Versailles enough to stop it, although there were seven or eight thousand women and some hundreds of men among them. Both Necker and Mounier, the President of the Assembly, confirm the fact.
When the news of what they must be prepared for reached ministers, the king was out shooting, some miles away, and nothing could be done without him. The queen was found at the Trianon, which she never saw again. An officer who came on foot from Paris told the king of his danger. He refused his name, but stated that there was no man in the service who had greater reason to complain. A mounted messenger arrived from the Minister of the Interior, and Lewis took horse and galloped to Versailles. The streets were already crowded with disorderly people, and shots were fired as he rode by.
The roads from Paris to Versailles cross the Seine at three points, and the general officers who were in the ministry declared that they might be defended with the troops that were at hand. St. Priest, the Minister of the Interior, advised the king to meet the army of Paris at Sèvres, and order it to retire. If they refused, he thought that they could be beaten.
Necker was against giving battle, and two important colleagues were with him. He was ready to take the king to Paris, seeing the objections, as he always did to every proposal, but hoping that public opinion, stimulated by the presence of the Court, which had not been seen there for generations, would sustain the Crown against the Assembly. He had held that opinion from the first, and he refused to be answerable for civil war. Lewis, unable to decide, went to consult the queen. She would be sent away, with her children, if there was a fight. She declared that she would remain if the king remained, and would not allow him to incur dangers which she did not share. This resolution made it impossible for him to adopt a manly or spirited course. The Council broke up without deciding anything.
Whilst this was going on, between three and four in the afternoon Maillard reached Versailles with his column of women. Their quality had deteriorated by the recruits made on the way, and there had been a large accession of ferocity. Besides the women who followed Maillard from the Hôtel de Ville, some of whom believed that hunger is caused by bad government, and can be appeased by good, others displayed the aprons in which they meant to carry the queen to Paris, bit by bit. And there was a group, more significant than either, who were well supplied with money, to be distributed among the soldiers of the Flemish regiment, and who effectually performed their office.
Maillard, who had prevented depredation by the way, made straight for the Assembly, and was admitted with a deputation of his followers. They arrived at a moment of excitement. The king had accepted the nineteen paragraphs of the Constitution, with the proviso that he retained the executive power undiminished. He had put off the Rights of Man until it should be seen how they were affected by the portions of the constitution yet to pass. The reply was not countersigned by a minister; and the deputies saw in it an attempt to claim the right of modifying the fundamental laws. They brought up the imprudences of the dinner of welcome, and argued that there must be a plot.
Mirabeau had never stood in a more difficult position. He clung to the monarchy, but not to the king. He was ready to serve the Count of Provence, or even the Duke of Orleans, but not a feeble executive; and he judged that, as things were going, there would soon be no king to serve. Through his friend La Marck he had attempted to terrify the Court, and to induce them to accept his services. La Marck had represented to the queen the immense value of the aid of such a man; and the queen had replied, decisively, that she hoped they would never fall so low as to need help from Mirabeau.
He defended the king’s answer on the ground he had held before, that the Declaration ought to follow the Constitution, and ought not to precede it. Speaking of the scene at the officers’ dinner, he said that the king was inviolable—the king, and no other person. The allusion was so clear that the royalists were reduced to silence. The Assembly resolved that the king should be requested to give his assent, unconditionally. Before the deputation had left, Maillard entered the Assembly.
Mirabeau had received early notice of the intended attack by a large body of Parisians, and had advised Mounier to adjourn in time. Mounier fancied that Mirabeau was afraid, and said that every man must die at his post. When Maillard appeared with a few women, he allowed him to speak. As the orator of the women whom he had brought from the Hôtel de Ville, Maillard asked for cheap bread, denounced the artificial famine and the Royal Guards. When rebuked by Mounier for using the term “citizens,” he made a very effective point by saying that any man who was not proud to be a citizen ought at once to be expelled. But he admitted that he did not believe all the imputations that were made by his followers; and he obtained a cheer for the Royal Guard by exhibiting a regimental cocked hat with the tricolor cockade.
The Assembly gave way, and sent Mounier at the head of a deputation to invite the king’s attention to the demands of his afflicted subjects. Whilst the deputies, with some of the women, stood in the rain, waiting for the gates to be opened, a voice in the crowd exclaimed that there was no want of bread in the days when they had a king, but now that they had twelve hundred they were starving. So that there were some whose animosity was not against the king, but against the elect of the people.
The king at once conceded all that Mounier asked for his strange companions, and they went away contented. Then their friends outside fell upon them, and accused them of having taken bribes; and again it became apparent that two currents had joined, and that some had honestly come for bread, and some had not. Those who had obtained the king’s order for provisioning Paris, and were satisfied, went back to bring it to the Hôtel de Ville. They were sent home in a royal carriage. Maillard went with them. It was fully understood that with all his violence and crudity he had played a difficult part well.
Mounier remained at the Palace. He was not eager to revisit the scene of his humiliation, where vociferous women had occupied the benches, asking for supper, and bent on kissing the President. He wished the king now to accept the Rights of Man, without waiting for the appointed deputation from the Assembly. Although they were in part his work, he was no longer wedded to them as they stood, and thought, like Mirabeau, that they were an impediment. But a crisis had arrived, and this point might be surrendered, to save the very existence of monarchy. He waited during many eventful hours, and returned after ten at night to find that the bishop of Langres, disgusted with the scene before him, had adjourned the Assembly. Mounier instantly convoked them, by beat of drum. He had other things to speak of besides the Rights of Man; for he knew that an invader more formidable than Maillard with his Amazonian escort was approaching.
For the later weeks of September Lafayette had cast his influence on the side of those who designed to strengthen the executive. He had restrained his men when they threatened to come to support the National Assembly. To yield to that movement was to acknowledge defeat, and loss of available popularity and power. When he came to the Hôtel de Ville and found that his army was resolved to go, he opposed the project, and for many hours held his ground. The men whom he commanded were not interested on their own account in the daily allowance of food. Their anger was with the Royal Guards, and their purpose was to take their place. Then there would be less danger of resistance to the decrees, or of flight to the provinces.
Lafayette could not appear before the king at their head without evident hostility and revolt; for their temper was threatening, and he was rapidly losing control. By delay and postponement he gained something. Instead of arriving as an assailant, he came as a deliverer. When he remonstrated, his soldiers said that they meant no injury to the king, but that he must obey or abdicate. They would make their general Regent; but if he refused to put himself at their head, they would take his life. They told him that he had commanded long enough, and now he must follow. He did not yield until the tumult had risen high, and the strain on his authority was breaking.
Early in the afternoon the watchers who followed the march of the women from the rare church towers reported that they had crossed the Seine without opposition. It was known, therefore, that the road was open, that the approach of the army would be under cover of the contingent that had preceded, that there was no danger of collision.
About four o’clock Lafayette sent word to the Hôtel de Ville—for his men would not allow him out of sight—that it was time to give him his orders, as he could not prevent the departure. They were brought to him where he sat in the saddle in the Place de Grève, and he read them with an expression of the utmost alarm. They contained all that ambition could desire, for the four points which he was directed to insist on made him Dictator of France. But it was added that the orders were given because he demanded them. Lafayette never produced that document; and he left it to the commissaries sent with him to urge the one demand in which he was interested, the establishment of the Court at Paris.
He started about five o’clock, with nearly 20,000 men. From the barrier by which he left Paris he sent a note in pencil to reassure the Government as to his intentions. It was a march of seven hours. At the passage of the Seine, he sent on an officer with further explanations; and he declared that he was coming under compulsion, and would have gone back if the bridge had been held in force. Before Versailles he halted his men, and made them take the oath of fidelity to the king and the Assembly.
The news of his coming had been received with terror. A man, dressed like a workman, who had been on the march with him, hurried forward to the Palace, and was at once admitted. It was the future Duke de Richelieu, twice, in after years, Prime Minister. What he told of the mood of the men added to the alarm. Another Council was held, at which the majority were in favour of flight. “Sir,” said St. Priest, “if you go to Paris, it may cost you your crown.” “That advice,” said Necker, “may cost you your head.” Nobody doubted that flight signified civil war. But St. Priest carried his point, and rode off to prepare Rambouillet for the royal family. As he knew that the decision was the gravest that could be taken, and that Necker’s words were probably true, he dropped into a walk, and was overtaken by his wife. From her he learnt that the hazardous decision had been reversed, and that the king would remain at Versailles. His interview with the deputation of women had had a momentary success, and provoked cries of “Vive le Roi!” Thereupon Necker recovered the lost ground, with the aid of Liancourt, who first brought the king to Paris in the summer. The carriages, which were ready, were countermanded. Later on, they were again sent for, but this time they were stopped by the people.
The confusion of counsel was such that one of the ministers afterwards declared that, if the Duke of Orleans had appeared and pressed his demands, he would have obtained everything. It is said that the managers of his party saw this, and showed him his opportunity, during the panic that preceded Lafayette. It is even stated that they brought him to the very door of the council chamber, and that he flinched, with the regency within reach of his hand. When the National Guard arrived, his chances vanished.
Lafayette never was able to prove the Duke’s complicity in the crime of that night. When the Duke asked him what evidence he had, he replied that if he had had evidence he would have sent him for trial; but that he had enough reason for suspicion to require that he should leave the country. Thrice the Duke, forcibly encouraged by Mirabeau, refused to go. Thrice the general insisted, and the Duke started for England. Mirabeau exclaimed that he would not have him for a lackey. A long inquiry was held, and ended in nothing. The man who knew those times best, Roederer afterwards assured Napoleon that, if there was an Orleanist conspiracy, Orleans himself was not in it.
The women who invaded Versailles were followed by groups of men of the same description as those who committed the atrocities which followed the fall of the Bastille. As night fell they became formidable, skirmished with the guard, and tried to make their way into the Palace. At first, when his captains asked for orders to disperse the crowd, Lewis, against the advice of his sister, replied that he did not make war on women. But the men were armed, and evidently dangerous. The command, at Versailles, was in the hands of d’Estaing, the admiral of the American war, who at this critical moment showed no capacity. He refused to let his men defend themselves, and ordered them to withdraw. St. Priest grew impatient. Much depended on their having repressed the riot without waiting to be rescued by the army of Paris. He summoned the admiral to repel force by force. D’Estaing replied that he waited the king’s orders. The king gave none. The minister then said: “When the king gives no orders, a general must judge and act for himself.” Again the king was silent. Later, the same day, he adopted the words of St. Priest, and made them his own. He said that the Count d’Estaing ought to have acted on his own responsibility. No orders are needed by a man of spirit, who understands his duty. It was the constant wish of Lewis XVI. to be in the hands of stronger men, who would know how to save him in spite of himself.
Mounier had obtained his unqualified assent to the Rights of Man, and urged him to seize the moment to take refuge in some faithful province. It was the dangerous, but the honourable course, and there was hope that the Assembly, standing by him, would prevent an outbreak of war. He conveyed the royal message to the Assembly, at a night sitting, much hindered by the continued presence of the visitors from Paris. Just then Lafayette arrived, with his overwhelming force. He assured Mounier and his friends that the men he commanded would now be easy to satisfy. But he said nothing of the real purpose of his presence there. From the Assembly he passed on to the king. Leaving his 20,000 men behind him in the darkness, he appeared at the Palace gate, accompanied only by the commissaries from the Hôtel de Ville.
The Swiss behind the bars warned him to reflect what he was about to do. For he was entering a place crowded with men passionately excited against the revolutionary general, who, whether he came to save or to destroy, was no longer a subject, but a master. The general told them to let him in. As he passed, a voice called out, “There goes Cromwell.” Lafayette stood still and answered, “Cromwell would not have come alone.” Madame de Staël watched him as he entered the royal presence. His countenance, she says, was calm. Nobody ever saw it otherwise. Lewis received him with a sensation of relief, for he felt that he was safe. At that moment the sovereign indeed had perished, but the man was safe. The language of Lafayette was respectful and satisfactory. He left to his companions the disagreeable duty of imposing terms, and they exposed to the king the object of this strange interposition of the middle class in arms. He replied that he had already sanctioned the Rights of Man, that the minister would arrange with the municipality for the provisioning of Paris, that he himself would trust his person to the custody of the National Guard. The fourth, and only essential matter, the transfer of the Court to Paris, was left unsettled. That was to be the work reserved for the morrow. Word was sent to the Hôtel de Ville that all was well.
Lafayette, holding the issue in his hands, betrayed no impatience, and abstained from needless urging. His men undertook the outer line of defence, but the Palace itself was left to the Royal Guards. The king did not at once realise the position, and attempted to combine the old order with the new. For the remainder of the night there was a divided command and an uncertain responsibility. Between Lafayette outside and D’Estaing within, there was an unguarded door.
The general believed that he had done enough, and would easily gather the ripe fruit in the morning. Having informed the President of the Assembly, still ostensibly sitting, that order was restored, he went home to bed. He had had a long and trying day. His rest was destined to be short. Before daybreak a small band of ruffians, of the kind which the Revolution furnished as a proper instrument for conspirators, made their way by the garden entrance into the Palace. Those who aimed at the life of the king came upon a guard-room full of sleeping soldiers, and retired. The real object of popular hatred was the queen, and those who came for her were not so easily turned from their design. Two men on guard who fired upon them were dragged into the street and butchered, and their heads were borne as trophies to the Palais Royal. Their comrades fled for safety to the interior of the Palace. But one, who was posted at the door of Marie Antoinette, stood his ground, and his name, Miomandre de Sainte Marie, lives as a household word. One of the queen’s ladies, whose sister has left a record of the scene, was awakened by the noise and opened the door. She saw the sentry, his face streaming with blood, holding a crowd at bay. He called to her to save the queen and fell, with the lock of a musket beaten into his brain. She instantly fastened the lock, roused the queen, and hurried her, without stopping to dress, to the king’s apartment.
The National Guard from Paris, who were outside, had not protected the two first victims; but then they interfered, and the Gardes Françaises, who had been the first mutineers, and had become the solid nucleus of the Parisian army, poured into the Palace. As they had made their expedition of the day before for no other purpose than to drive the royal troops away and to take their place, none could tell what the meeting of the two corps would be, and the king’s men barricaded themselves against the new comers. But an officer reminded the Gardes Françaises of the day when the two regiments had withstood the English, side by side, and theirs had been rescued by the Gardes du Corps. So they called out, “Remember Fontenoy”; and the others answered the challenge and unbarred the door.
By the time that Lafayette appeared, roused from untimely slumber, his men were masters of the Palace, and stood between the royal family and the raging mob of baffled murderers. He made the captured guardsmen safe; but although he was in supreme command, he did not restore order outside. The last of the four points he had been instructed to obtain, the removal of the Court to his custody at the Tuileries and his own permanent elevation to a position superior to the throne, was not yet conceded. Until that was settled, the loyalty of his forces was restrained. Nobody was arrested. Men whose hands were red with the blood of Varicourt and Miomandre were allowed to defy justice, and a furious crowd was left for hours without molestation under the windows of the king. The only cry left for them to raise was “Paris,” and it was sure in time to do its work. The king could not escape, for Lafayette held every gate. He could not resist, for Lafayette commanded every soldier. The general never pressed the point. He was too cautious to attend the council where the matter was considered, as if the freedom of choice was left. This time Necker had his way, and he came forward and announced to the assembled people that the Court was about to move to Paris. Lewis, who had wandered, helpless and silent, between his chair and the balcony, spoke at last, and confirmed it.
In that moment of triumph Lafayette showed himself a man of instinct and of action. The multitude had sufficiently served his purpose; but their own passions were not appeased, and the queen personified to them all the antagonistic and unpopular forces. The submission of the king was a foregone conclusion: not so the reconciliation of the queen. He said to her, “What are your Majesty’s intentions?” She answered, “I know my fate. I mean to die at the feet of the king.” Then Lafayette led her forward, in the face of the storm, and, as not a word could be heard, he respectfully kissed her hand. The populace saw and cheered. Under his protectorate, peace was made between the Court and the democracy.
In all these transactions, which determined the future of France, the Assembly had no share. They had had no initiative and no counsel. Their President had not known how to prevent the irruption of the women; he had supplied them with bread, and had been unable to turn them out until the National Guard arrived. After two in the morning, when he heard that all was quiet at the Palace, he adjourned the sitting. Next day he proposed that they should attend the king in a body; but Mirabeau would not allow it to be done. One hundred deputies gave a futile escort to the royal family, and the Assembly followed soon after. The power was passing from them to the disciplined people of Paris, and beyond them and their commander to the men who managed the masses. Their reign had lasted from July 16 to October 6.
It took seven hours to bring the royal family from Versailles to Paris, at a foot pace, surrounded by the victorious women, who cried: “We bring the baker, the baker’s wife, and the baker’s boy.” And they were right. Supplies became abundant; and the sudden change encouraged many to believe that the scarcity had not been due to economic causes.