This text comes from our book, Light to the Nations II: The Making of the Modern World.
By the beginning of 1792, it was clear to everyone that France was quite unprepared for war. But nearly every political faction in France wanted to go to war—even against countries with highly trained armies.
The Feuillants and their leader, Lafayette, thought a war would unite the French people like nothing else could. And Lafayette, that dashing hero of the American Revolution, hoped that war would bring him personal glory.
The Girondins hoped for war as an opportunity to spread the revolution to all the oppressed peoples of Europe.
The king and queen wanted war because they were certain the allied forces of the European monarchs could easily defeat the French armies. Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette looked forward to the day when the allies would march into Paris, suppress the Assembly, and restore the absolute monarchy. If the monarchs failed, Louis, who outwardly supported the war against the monarchs, thought he would receive the credit for the victory. His people would call him the defender of France, he thought.
But others in France opposed the war. Robespierre opposed it, as did Marat, who feared that a French victory in war would give a victorious general the opportunity to set up a dictatorship. “What afflicts the friends of liberty is that we have more to fear from success than from defeat,” he wrote in Friend of the People. “The danger is that one of our generals be crowned with victory . . . [and] lead his victorious army against the capital to secure the triumph of the despot.”
The European monarchs were pushing for war. Emperor Leopold II had died on March 1, 1792, and his son, Franz II, had been crowned king of Hungary and Bohemia. (He was not yet crowned emperor.) As an excuse for war, the young Franz (he was only 24 years old) accused France of acts of injustice against the pope and certain imperial princes. For their part, the Girondins in the National Assembly replied that Franz should remove the troops he had placed on the French border and expel the French émigrés from his territories. When the Austrian king ignored these demands, the Girondins pressed King Louis XVI to declare war on him.
Thus on April 20, 1792, King Louis XVI declared war on the “King of Hungary and Bohemia” and appointed Lafayette supreme commander of the French army. The French people were filled with enthusiasm for the war. Donning red liberty caps, they eagerly volunteered to fight the enemies of the revolution.
Yet, despite all this enthusiasm, France was ill prepared for war. Her armies were untrained, poorly disciplined, and lacked adequate arms. The first battles between the French and the allied armies of Austria and Prussia were thus humiliating defeats for the French. News of the defeats enraged the people of Paris. They began to suspect the king; Louis, they thought, must be leaking battle plans to the enemy. The king was indeed in secret contact with the enemy, and the queen was supplying them with battle plans; but, of course, Louis denied the accusations hurled against him. His denials were in vain. On June 20, a crowd of women and workingmen gathered outside the royal palace of the Tuileries, demanding the overthrow of the king. They surged against the palace, and they broke into it. But though they threatened the king and queen, they did them no harm.
At this crisis, the Duke of Brunswick, the general commanding the allied forces, issued a manifesto. Dated July 25, 1792, the manifesto declared that the allies’ goal was “to put an end to the anarchy in the interior of France, to check the attacks upon the throne and altar, to reestablish the legal power, to restore to the king the security and liberty of which he is now deprived, and to place him in a position to exercise once more the legitimate authority which belongs to him.” If the French people laid down their arms, declared the manifesto, they would be spared. But if they did not, then the allies would “inflict an ever memorable vengeance by delivering over the city of Paris to military execution and complete destruction, and the rebels guilty of such outrages to the punishment they merit.”
This was a strange declaration—after all, if Louis was leading his people against the allies, why would the allies be fighting for him, against his people? The declaration convinced the extremists in Paris that Louis had betrayed them and all France. Over the next month, the extremists organized themselves. On August 3, 1792, a petition from 47 out of the 48 sections of Paris demanded that the king be deposed. All was now prepared for the moment the extremists had planned for.
On August 9, 1792, a revolutionary commune, made up of extremist leaders including Danton, seized control of Paris’s city government. The following day, August 10, thousands of Parisians, armed by the Paris commune and urged on by extremist leaders, mobbed the Tuileries. About 6,000 troops, among them 1,200 Swiss Guards, tried to beat back the surging anger of the people but were overwhelmed. The king, queen, and the dauphin managed to escape and took refuge in the hall of the Legislative Assembly. There they were led to a small, dark room from which they could watch the proceedings of the deputies who were now to decide their fate.
The deputies in the Assembly chamber could hear the assault of the mob on the royal palace. They could hear the answering shots of the Swiss Guard, who fought bravely before they were overcome and massacred by the overwhelming force of the mob. The king too could hear all this; but more ominous for him were the debates of the deputies and their final resolve. Louis, the deputies at last declared, was deposed; he and his family were to be imprisoned. Not long after, the royal family was led away to a medieval fortress, the Tower of the Temple, on the northeast side of Paris.
The revolutionary French government had abolished the French monarchy. The line of kings that began in the distant 10th century with the coronation of Hugh Capet, the Count of Paris, was no more.
The fall of the king meant the Constitution of 1791 was no longer in effect. In its place, the Legislative Assembly now had to establish a new government. They therefore called for immediate elections for deputies to a National Convention that would write up a new constitution for France. In the meantime, the Legislative Assembly remained in session. In place of the king, it created an Executive Council of six ministers: three Girondins, two Jacobins, and, as minister of justice, Georges Danton, who had helped lead the attack on the Tuileries.
The revolution was now about to enter its final phase. It had established what the extremists had been demanding—a republic. And that republic, created by fierce men for the “salvation of the people,” was itself, by the hands of fierce men, soon to be baptized in blood.
Music of the Counter-Revolution
Franz Josef Haydn was a composer firmly ensconced in the Classical style in music, which was de rigueur for the courts and salons of the European aristocracy in the late 18th century. Hailing from Marie Antoinette’s homeland, Austria, Haydn was in 1792 visiting London in England—Both England and Austria were to become the chief foreign adversaries of the French Revolution. This recording is of Haydn’s Symphony 97 in C major, which premiered in London in May 1792.