Toward a New Government - National Assembly
Toward a New Government
On May 2, 1789, Louis XVI met the deputies of the Estates General. His refusal to listen to the Third Estate’s objection to the voting system created a stalemate at the outset. Over the next several weeks, members of the Third Estate urged the poorer deputies of the First Estate to join them in their fight for reform. Finally, on June 17, these deputies met on an unused tennis court near the palace (the king had ordered the doors of the usual meeting rooms locked). The deputies, calling themselves the National Assembly, together swore what became known as the Tennis Court Oath, vowing to remain united (thus preventing possible conspiracy, desertion in the ranks, and betrayal) until they had established a new government.
The National Assembly presented a list of demands to the king. On June 23, Louis XVI agreed to accept only those reforms that were most palatable to the Second Estate—individual liberty, freedom of the press, and a degree of tax reform. He did not accept such provisions as equal eligibility for office or a sweeping reform of the social hierarchy. When the National Assembly expressed the intention to carry out its reforms without his consent, the king gave in. Members of the First and Second Estates who had remained loyal to the old order joined the National Assembly.
Naturally, the people of Paris were gathering every day to hear and discuss the news from Versailles, only fourteen miles away from the capital. Although reform was on the way, it was not happening soon enough to satisfy them.
When the Parisians learned that the king had dismissed minister Jacques Necker, they had had enough of waiting. Because Necker was a liberal who had always favored reform, his dismissal sent a clear signal to the people that the king was not going to help them or take care of them. On the morning of July 13, the people of Paris rose up against all authority; they took to the streets in fury, breaking into shops and stealing the goods, especially guns and ammunition.
The main reason the people of Paris were so successful in their uprising was that the forces of law and order were on their side. Control of the army and the police is essential for success in taking power. The palace guards of the Louvre and all the soldiers quartered in Paris, who suffered as much as anyone else from the scarcity of food and the inflation, threw in their lot with the commoners.
On the fourteenth of July, the people marched on the Bastille. Built as a fortress in 1370, this massive structure had served as a state prison under Louis XIV. In 1789 it was nearly empty of prisoners, but it was not long since Voltaire, the symbolic figurehead of the Enlightenment and one who had always criticized the old regime, had been imprisoned there on two occasions. This made the Bastille a hated symbol of tyranny and injustice in the eyes of the students and intellectuals; commoners who had never heard of Voltaire still considered the prison a symbol of oppression. In addition to the symbolic value of destroying it, the Parisians wanted the weapons that were stored inside.
By early afternoon on what has since been known as Bastille Day, the prison had given way. The Parisians freed all remaining prisoners, commandeered the store of weapons and ammunition, and took brutal revenge on the chief magistrate and governor. They hustled them into the streets, turned the angry mob loose to almost literally tear them to pieces, then rammed their severed heads onto sharp pikes and paraded them through the streets in triumph.
News of the riots in Paris soon reached the nearby towns. Mob rule took over France as the common people forced mayors and other officials to abandon their offices. Throughout the countryside, peasants looted and set fire to the chateaux of their hated aristocratic landlords, often murdering them in the process.
Louis XVI summoned troops from Flanders to Versailles, hoping that this show of strength would make his subjects back down from their demands. The troops arrived at the end of September. On October 5, the women of Paris had had enough of seeing their children starve. They marched on Versailles, armed with a motley collection of sticks and kitchen knives. When they reached the palace, they shoved their way in past the guards and servants, demanding to be taken into the presence of the king.
Louis might have refused to give in to an angry mob of women, but there was a small army at their backs—thousands of members of the National Guard, fully armed, had followed the women from Paris. Louis and his Flemish troops were not proof against this small army. Louis agreed to provide bread for the people of Paris and to return to the capital as a prisoner of the National Guard. Waving the new French flag of red, white, and blue—the tricolor—the soldiers escorted the royal family to the long-abandoned palace of the Tuileries on October 6. The monarchy had been supplanted by the National Assembly.
The king and queen had no doubt about the future. They believed that the French people would no longer accept a monarchy, and therefore there would be no place for them in the new society. They worked out an escape plan. Dressed in old clothing, Louis walked out of the Tuileries one June night in 1791, boarded a waiting coach, and set out on the road to Austria, where he hoped his brother-in-law would provide shelter and perhaps troops willing to back his restoration to the throne. In a small town along the road where the coach stopped briefly, someone recognized the king in spite of his disguise. Louis was stopped in Varennes and taken back to Paris. Many members of the hereditary nobility left France around this time as well; the months of mob violence convinced them that they would soon have to pay with their lives for their ancestors’ centuries of privilege. Hundreds of them fled to England, while others crossed the border into Austria, where they plotted to return to France and restore the monarchy.
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