Louis XVI. American Revolution Turgot Necker States-General Summoned National Assembly Destruction of Bastille Revolution Lafayette Varennes The Temple Triumphant Jacobins Execution of the King Charlotte Corday Execution of Queen Fate of the Dauphin Girondists Philippe Egalite Revolution Ended


Louis XV. was dead, and two children, with the light-heartedness of youth and inexperience, stepped upon the throne which was to be a scaffold--Louis XVI., only twenty, and Marie Antoinette, his wife, nineteen. He, amiable, kind, full of generous intentions; she, beautiful, simple, child-like, and lovely. Instead of a debauched old king with depraved surroundings, here were a prince and princess out of a fairy tale. The air was filled with indefinite promise of a new era for mankind to be inaugurated by this amiable young king, whose kindness of heart shone forth in his first speech, "We will have no more loans, no credit, no fresh burdens on the people;" then, leaving his ministers to devise ways of paying the enormous salaries of officials out of an empty treasury, and to arrange the financial details of his benevolent scheme of government, he proceeded with his gay and brilliant young wife to Rheims, there to be crowned with a magnificence undreamed of by Louis XIV.

In the midst of these rejoicings over the new reign, and of speculative dreams of universal freedom, there was wafted across the Atlantic news of a handful of patriots arrayed against the tyranny of the British Crown. Here were the theories of the new philosophy translated into the reality of actual experience. "No taxation without representation," "No privileged class," "No government without the consent of the governed." Was this not an embodiment of their dreams? Nor did it detract from the interest in the conflict that England--England, the hated rival of France--was defied by an indignant people of her own race. There was not a young noble in the land who would not have rushed, if he could, to the defence of the outraged colonies.

The king, half doubting, and vaguely fearing, was swept into the current, and the armies and the courage of the Americans were splendidly reinforced by generous, enthusiastic France.

Why should the simple-hearted Louis see what no one else seemed to see: that victory or failure was alike full of peril for France? If the colonies were conquered, France would feel the hostility of England; if they were freed and self-governing, the principle of monarchy had a staggering blow.

In the mean time, as the American Revolution moved on toward success, there was talk in the cabin as well as the chateau of the "rights of man." In shops and barns, as well as in clubs and drawing-rooms, there was a glimmering of the coming day.

"What is true upon one continent is true upon another," say they. "If it is cowardly to submit to tyranny in America, what is it in France?" "If Englishmen may revolt against oppression, why may not Frenchmen?" "No government without the consent of the governed?--When has our consent been asked, the consent of twenty-five million people? Are we sheep, that we have let a few thousands govern us for a thousand years, without our consent?"

Poverty and hunger gave force and urgency to these questions. The people began to clamor more boldly for the good time which had been promised by the kind-hearted king. The murmur swelled to an ominous roar. Thousands were at his very palace gates, telling him in no unmistakable terms that they were tired of smooth words and fair promises. What they wanted was a new constitution and--bread.

Poor Louis! the one could be made with pen and paper; but by what miracle could he produce the other? How gladly would he have given them anything. But what could he do? There was not enough money to pay the salaries of his officials, nor for his gay young queen's fetes and balls! The old way would have been to impose new taxes. But how could he tax a people crying at his gates for bread? He made more promises which he could not keep; yielded, one after another, concessions of authority and dignity; then vacillated, and tried to return over the slippery path, only to be dragged on again by an irresistible fate.

Louis' Minister of Finance, Turgot, was a trained economist and a man of very great ability. When Louis assured the people, in the speech after his coronation, that there were to be "no more loans, no fresh burdens on the people," he did not know how Turgot was going to accomplish this miracle. He was unaware that it was to be done by cutting off the cherished privileges of the nobility, and that the proposed reforms were all aimed at the privileged classes. When this became apparent, indignation was great at Versailles. The court would not hear of economy. Turgot was dismissed, and Necker, a Swiss banker (father of Madame de Stael), called to fill his place.

Necker made another mistake. He took the people into his confidence, let them know the sources of revenue, the nature of expenditures, and measures of relief. This was very quieting to the public, but exasperating to the privileged classes, who had never taken the people into their confidence, and considered it an impertinence for them to inquire how the moneys were spent. And so Louis, again yielding to the pressure at Versailles, dismissed Necker; then, in the outburst of rage which followed, tried to retrace his steps and recall him.

But events were moving too swiftly for that now. In the existing temper of the people, small reforms and concessions were unavailing. They were demanding that the States General be called.

The critical moment had come. If Louis of his own initiative had summoned that body to confer over the situation, it would have been a very different thing; but a call of the States-General at the demand of the people was a virtual surrender of the very principle of absolutism. The work of Richelieu, Mazarin, and Louis XIV. would be undone; for it would involve an acknowledgment of the right of the people to dictate to the king, and to participate in the government of the nation. The whole revolutionary contention was vindicated in this act.

The call was issued; and when Louis, in 1789, convoked the States General, he made his last concession to the demands of his subjects.

That almost-forgotten body had not been seen since Richelieu effaced all the auxiliary functions of government. Nobles, ecclesiastics, and _Tiers Etat_ (or commons) found themselves face to face once more. The courtly contemptuous nobles, the princely ecclesiastics were unchanged, but there was a new expression in the pale faces of the commons. There was a look of calm defiance as they met the disdainful gaze of the aristocrats across the gulf of two centuries.

The two superior bodies absolutely refused to sit in the same room with the commons. They might under the same roof, but in the same room--never.

There was an historic precedent for this refusal. The three estates had always acted as three separate bodies. So the demand in itself was an encroachment upon the ancient dignity of the two superior bodies, which they resented. But they might better have yielded. The _Tiers Etat_ with dignity and firmness insisted that they should meet and vote together as one body, or they would constitute themselves a separate body, and act independently of the other two. This was the Rubicon. On one side compromise, and possible co-operation of the three legislative bodies; on the other, revolution, in charge of the people.

Aristocratic France was offered its last chance, and committed its last act of arrogance and folly. The ultimatum was refused by the nobles and clergy. And the _Tiers Etat_ declared itself the National Assembly, in which was vested all the legislative authority of the kingdom. The people had taken possession of the Government of France!

The predetermined destruction of the monarchy seems evident, when at the most critical point, and at the moment calling for the most careful retrenchment and reform, fate had placed Louis XV., acting like a madman in the excesses of his profligacy; and, at the next stage, while the last opportunity still existed by main force to drag the nation back, and hold it from going over the brink, there stood the most excellent, the kindest-hearted but weakest gentleman who ever wore the name of king! When the distracted Louis gave the impotent order for the National Assembly to disperse, and for the three bodies to assemble and vote separately, according to ancient custom; and then when he gave still further proof of childish incompetency by telling the _Tiers Etat_ they were "not to meddle with the privileges of the higher orders," kingship had become a mockery. It was a child telling the tornado not to come in that direction.

When the king's herald read to the National Assembly this foolish message, ending with the formula, "You hear, gentlemen, the orders of the king," Mirabeau sprang to his feet, saying, "Go, tell your master we are here by the will of the people, and will be only removed at the point of the bayonet," the pitiful king then yielding to this defiance, even begging the nobles and deputies of the clergy to join the National Assembly--a revolutionary assembly, which was holding its meetings in his own Palace of Versailles, and which was every day gravitating from its original lofty purpose; its rallying cry for justice and reform of abuses changing to "Down with the Aristocrats!" It was becoming alarming, so Louis ordered the body to disperse; and when soldiers stood at the door to prevent its assembling, it took possession of the queen's tennis court, and there each member took a solemn oath not to dissolve until the object they sought had been secured.

There were some among the clergy and the nobles who realized the necessity for reforms, and who would gladly have joined a movement inaugurated in a different spirit. Hence, partly from alarm, and partly impelled by other reasons and purposes, more or less pure, there was finally a secession from the two aristocratic bodies; the Duke of Orleans, cousin of the king, leading the movement in one, and three archbishops in the other. These, with their followers, appeared among the _Tiers Etat_ as converts to the popular cause, the Marquis de Lafayette, hero of the late American War, sitting next to Mirabeau, the powerful and eloquent leader of the whole movement in its first days.

Concerning the genius of Mirabeau there is no difference of opinion. All are agreed that intellectually he towered far above every one about him. But whether he was the incarnation of good or of evil, the world is still in doubt;-and also whether he could have guided the forces he had invoked, if a premature death had not swept him off from the scene, leaving Robespierre, a man concerning whom there is no disagreement of opinion, to guide the storm.

Paris was becoming wild with excitement. Clubs and associations were in every quarter, and detachments of a Parisian mob marched and sang at night, firing the hearts of the rabble. But it was the Palais Royal, the home of the Duke of Orleans, that friend of the people, which was the heart of the whole movement. There, patriots and lovers of France, their hearts aflame with noble aspiration for their country, met with schemers without heart, more or less wicked, the Camille Desmoulins and the Marats all fused into one body under the leadership of the Duke of Orleans, cousin of the king, who, rising superior to aristocratic traditions, believed in Equality, and was the man of the people--_Philippe Egalite_! His young son Louis Philippe perhaps listened with wonder to the sounds of strange revelry and the wild shouts which greeted the eloquence of Camille Desmoulins and of Marat.

At last a rumor reached the Palais Royal, and from there ran through the streets like an electric current, that the king's soldiers were marching upon the Assembly to disperse it. Mad with wine and excitement, a common impulse seized the entire populace, to destroy the Bastille, that old stronghold of despotism, that symbol of royal tyranny. This prison-fortress, with its eight great round towers, and moat eighty-three feet wide, had stood since 1371, and represented more tragic human experiences than any structure in France. In an hour the doors were burst open, and before the sun went down the heads of the governor and his officials were being carried on pikes through the streets of Paris. The horrible drama had opened. The tiger in the slums had tasted blood, and would want it again.

Thus far it was only an insurgent mob, committing violence, and the National Assembly at once created a body of militia, under the direction of Lafayette, for the protection of Paris.

When the news of the fall of the Bastille reached Versailles, the king, still failing to realize the gravity of the situation, exclaimed, "Then it is a revolt!" "Sire," said the Duke de Liancourt, "it is a Revolution!"

The king found himself deserted. His terrified nobles almost in a body were fleeing from the kingdom. Bewildered, not knowing what to do, or what not to do, and desiring to assure the people that he was their friend, he appeared before the National Assembly and made the last sacrifice--accepted the Tricolor; adopted the livery of the revolutionary party! The act was received with immense enthusiasm, and the outlook became more reassuring.

Then the garrison at the palace was reenforced by a regiment from the country, and a dinner was given to welcome the new officers. The king and queen were urged to enter the room for a few moments, simply as an act of courtesy. Marie Antoinette most reluctantly consented to pass through the banqueting-hall. The officers, when they saw the beautiful daughter of Maria Theresa, sprang to their feet, and, flushed with wine, and in a transport of enthusiasm, committed a fatal act. Throwing their tricolors under the table, they drank to the toast, "The king forever!"

When this was reported in Paris the storm burst anew. A thousand terrible women, led by one still more terrible than the rest, started for Versailles. This crowd of base and degraded beings, re-enforced on the way by all that is worst, arrived at the palace, and the howling mob encamped outside in the rain all night. Entrance at last was found by someone, and they were inside and at the queen's door; she barely escaping by a hidden passageway leading to the king's room.

"The king to Paris!" was the cry; and in the morning the wretched Louis appeared upon the balcony and indicated his willingness to go to Paris as they desired. And then the queen, hoping to touch their hearts, also appeared upon the balcony, holding in her arms the dauphin, with the tricolor on his breast. And with this horrible escort they did go back to Paris, leaving Versailles forever, and were virtually prisoners at the Tuileries.

The position of Lafayette at this time is a singular one: an agent of the National Assembly, protecting the king from the Jacobins, and saying to Robespierre and Marat, "If you kill the king to-day, I will place the dauphin on the throne to-morrow."

But the currents of a cataract nearing the fall are difficult to guide. Three parties were forming in the National Assembly: the Girondists, the party of genius and eloquence and of moderation; the Jacobins, the party of the extremists and radicals; and a third party, undecided, waiting to see what was safest and best.

All that was noble and true and fine in the French Revolution was in the party of the Girondists. Dreamers, idealists, their dream was of a republic like the one in America, and their ideal an impossible perfection of condition in which human reason was supreme. The excesses of the Revolution they did not approve, but were willing to sacrifice the king and even the royal family, if necessary. They did not realize the forces with which they were airily playing, nor that the time was at hand when the Girondists would vainly strive to restrain the horrible excesses; that, after they had sacrificed the royal family, the Jacobins would sacrifice them; the slayers would be slain!

Lafayette, neither a Girondist nor a Jacobin, was a loyal Frenchman and patriot, with the American ideal in his heart, vainly trying to mediate between a feeble king and a people who had lost their reason. The time was near when he would give up the hopeless task and flee to escape being himself engulfed.

A wretchedly planned attempt at the escape of the royal family aggravated the situation. They were recognized at Varennes, brought back with great indignity, and placed under closer surveillance than before. On the 10th of August, 1792, the mob attacked the Tuileries. The royal family fled to the National Assembly for protection, while their Swiss guards vainly defended the palace with their lives.

This was the end of the monarchy. Louis, the brave queen and her children, and Princess Elizabeth, sister of the king, were removed from the Assembly to the prison in "The Temple," and the National Convention formally declared France a republic.

The grim prison to which they were taken, with its central square tower flanked by four round towers, had stood since the time of Philip Augustus. It was built for the Knights Templar, and was chateau, fortress, prison, all in one, and was the home of the grand master and those others who were burned when Philip IV. ruthlessly destroyed the order. The central tower, one hundred and fifty feet high, had four stories. The king and the dauphin were imprisoned in the second story, and the queen, her young daughter, and the Princess Elizabeth in the story above.

The power swiftly passed from Girondists to Jacobins, and a Revolutionary Tribunal was created in charge of the terrible triumvirate--Robespierre, Marat, and Danton.

An awful travesty upon a court of justice was established in that historic hall in the Palais de Justice. Its walls, which had looked down upon generations of Merovingian, Carlovingian, and Capetian kings, now beheld the condemnation of the most innocent and well-intentioned of all the kings of France.

The king was arraigned at this court upon the charge of treason, convicted, and condemned to die on the 21st of January, 1793. He was allowed to embrace for the last time his adored wife and children. At the scaffold he tried to speak a last word to his people. The drums were ordered to drown his voice, and an attendant priest uttered the words, "_Fils de Saint Louis, montez au ciel_!"--Son of Saint Louis, ascend to heaven!--and all was over. The kindest-hearted, most inoffensive gentleman in Europe had expiated the crimes of his ancestors.

More and more furious swept the torrent, gathering to itself all that was vile and outcast. Where were the pale-faced, determined patriots who sat in the National Assembly? Some of them riding with dukes and marquises to the guillotine. Was this the equality they expected when they cried, "Down with the Aristocrats"?

Did they think they could guide the whirlwind after raising it? As well whisper to the cyclone to level only the tall trees, or to the conflagration to burn only the temples and palaces.

With restraining agencies removed, religion, government, king, all swept away, that hideous brood born of vice, poverty, hatred, and despair came out from dark hiding-places; and what had commenced as a patriotic revolt had become a wild orgy of bloodthirsty demons, led by three master-demons, Robespierre, Marat, and Danton, vying with each other in ferocity.

Then we see that simple girl thinking by one supreme act of heroism and sacrifice, like Joan of Arc, to save her country. Foolish child! Did she think to slay the monster devouring Paris by cutting off one of his heads? The death of Marat only added to the fury of the tempest, and the falling of Charlotte Corday's head was not more noticed than the falling of a leaf in the forest.

The slaughter of the people had been reduced to an admirable system. The public prosecutor, Fouquier-Tinville, went every day to the "Committee of Public Safety" to procure the list of the proscribed, who were immediately placed in the Conciergerie to await trial. This list was then submitted to Robespierre, who with his pencil marked the names of those who would be executed on the morrow.

The mockery of the trial of Charlotte Corday was not delayed. This girl belonged to a family of the smaller nobility. In her secluded life in the country, a mind of superior quality had fed upon the new philosophy of the period. An enthusiasm for liberty, and a horror of tyranny, had taken possession of her. In passionate sympathy with the early purposes of the Revolution, Marat seemed to her a monster, the incarnation of the spirit which would defeat the cause of Liberty. It was believed that his list of the proscribed was not confined to Paris, but that the names of thousands of victims all over France were already designated. In that extraordinary scene at her trial, when questioned, she impatiently said, "Yes, yes, I killed him. I killed one man to save a hundred thousand!"

Nothing was lacking to make this, with one exception, the most dramatic incident of the Revolution. Her eloquent address, to the French people, found pinned to the waist of her dress after her execution, and her splendid courage to the end, rounds out the picturesque story of her useless martyrdom. A Girondist waiting in the Conciergerie, when he heard of her crime and end, exclaimed: "It will kill us! But she has taught us how to die!"

The end did not come so swiftly for the queen, who, after being removed from the Temple, spent seventy-two days and nights in the dark cell in that abode of horrors, the Conciergerie. Then came the trial, the inquisitorial trial, lasting all through the night in the gloom of that dimly lighted hall. And at half-past four in the morning she heard without a tremor the terrible words, "Marie Antoinette, widow of Louis Capet, the Tribunal condemns you to die." Not for a moment did this intrepid woman quail; and a small detail brings before us vividly her wonderful calmness. As she reached the stairs in her pitiful return to her cell, she said simply to the lieutenant of the gendarmes, who was at her side, "Monsieur, I can scarcely see (_Je vois a peine_); will you lead me?"

In another half hour the drums were beating in every quarter in preparation for the event; and at ten o'clock she started upon her last ride. And how bravely she met her awful fate! We forget her follies, her reckless extravagances, in admiration for her courage as she rides to her death, with hands tied behind her, sitting in that hideous tumbril, head erect, pale, proud, defiant, as if upon a throne (October 16, 1793).

The search-light of scrutiny has been turned upon this unfortunate woman for more than a century, and all that has been discovered is that she was pleasure-loving, indiscreet, and absolutely ignorant of the gravity of her responsibility in the position she occupied.

In the days of her power and splendor she lived as the average woman of her period would have done under the same circumstances--not better, and not worse. But when the time came to try her soul and test her mettle, she evinced a strength and dignity and composure surpassing belief.

If there had been any evidence of the truth of the story of the diamond necklace--a story which no doubt hastened the revolutionary crisis--it would certainly have been used at her trial; but it was not. It will be remembered that this necklace was one of the fatal legacies from the reign of Louis XV., who had ordered for du Barry this gift which was to cost a sum large enough for a king's ransom. The king died before it was completed, and the story became current that Marie Antoinette, the hated Austrian woman who was ruining France by her extravagance, was negotiating for the purchase of this necklace while the people were starving!

A network of villainy is woven about the whole incident, in which the names of a cardinal and ladies high in rank are involved. The mystery may never be uncovered, but every effort to connect the queen's name with this historic scandal has failed.

Probably of all the cruelties inflicted upon this unhappy woman, none caused her such anguish as the testimony of her son before the Revolutionary Tribunal, that he had heard his mother say she "hated the French people." Placed under the care of the brutal Simon after his father's removal from the Temple, the child had become a physical and mental wreck. The queen, in her last letter to her sister the Princess Elizabeth, makes pitiful allusion to the incident, begging her to remember what he must have suffered before he said this; also reminding her how children may be taught to utter words they do not comprehend. His lesson, no doubt, had been learned by cruel tortures; and, rendered half imbecile, it was recited when the time came. None but his keeper was ever permitted to see the boy. His condition, final illness, and death are shrouded in mystery. In June, 1794, eight months after his mother's execution, it was announced that he was dead. It would be difficult to prove this event before a court of justice. There were no witnesses whose testimony would have any weight. No one was permitted to see the child who was put into that obscure grave; and many circumstances give rise to a suspicion that the boy, who might have been a source of political embarrassment in the rehabilitation of France, was disposed of in another way--dropped into an obscurity which would serve as well as death.

There was a surfeit of killing, and a waning Revolution. We are far from saying that such a thing happened. But ambitious royalists might have thought their money well expended in removing the son of the murdered king from the scene. The claim of the American dauphin, Eleazer Williams, may have been fanciful, or even false; but what safer and more effectual plan could be devised than to drop the half-imbecile heir to a throne into the heart of a tribe of Indians in an American wilderness?

When Louis XVIII. occupied his brother's throne, in 1814, and erected over the dishonored graves of his family that beautiful Chapelle Expiatoire, he also gave orders for masses to be said for the repose of the souls of his murdered kindred, whom he designated by name: Louis XVI., king; Marie Antoinette, queen, and the Princess Elizabeth, his sister. If it is true, as has been said, that the name of the dauphin was not included in this list, it is a most suggestive omission. Technically, this boy was king from the moment of his father's death until his own, and on the lists of sovereigns is called Louis XVII. Then why was there no mention of him as one of that martyred group?

Twenty-two of the Girondists who had helped to dethrone the king on that 10th of August, and later consented to his death, were now facing the same doom to which they had sent him only six months before, and by a strange fatality were under the same roof with the queen. Only a few feet, and two thin partitions, separated them; and in her cell she must have heard their impassioned voices during that dramatic banquet, the last night of their lives. And the next day this group of extraordinary men--men singularly gifted and fascinating--were all lying in one tomb, at the side of Louis XVI.

Philip Egalite, the Duke of Orleans, was to meet his Nemesis also. Brought a prisoner to that grim resting-place, he occupied the adjoining cell to that which had been the queen's, and, it is said, had assigned to him the wretched cot she no longer needed. His desperate game had failed. No elevation would come to him out of the chaos of crime, and the reward for scheming and voting for the death of his cousin, the king, would be a scaffold, not a throne. His name had been upon the list of the proscribed for some time; but the end was precipitated by an act of his young son, Louis Philippe, then Duke de Chartres, and aide-de-camp to Dumouriez, who was defending the frontier from an invasion of Austrian troops. After the execution of the queen, Dumouriez refused longer to defend France from an invasion the purpose of which was to make such horrors impossible. He laid down his command, and, with his aide, Louis Philippe, joined the colony of exiles in Belgium, while the Austrian troops were in full march upon Paris from Verdun.

This was treason--whether justifiable or not this is not the place to discuss.

Philip Egalite knew that he no longer had the confidence of the leaders, and that they also knew that he was an aristocrat in disguise. So when this defection of Dumouriez came, and was shared by his own son, he tried to get out of the country. He was arrested at Marseilles, brought to the Conciergerie, that half-way house to the scaffold, and was soon following in the footsteps of his king and queen, through the Rue St. Honore, passing his own Palais Royal on his way to the Place de la Revolution.

The Revolution, beginning with a patriotic assembly, in a measure sane, had made a rapid descent, first falling apart into Girondist and Jacobin, moderate and extremist, the Girondist with a shudder consenting to the execution of the king. Then, the power passing to a so-called "Committee of Public Safety" and a Triumvirate, in order to sweep away the obstructive Girondist; and then an untrammelled Terror, in the hands of three, and, finally, one. Such had been its mad course. But with the death of the king and queen, the madness had reached its height, and a revulsion of feeling set in. There was a surfeit of blood, and an awakening sense of horror, which turned upon the instigators. Danton fell, and finally, when amid cries of "Death to the tyrant!" Robespierre was dragged wounded and shivering to the fate he had brought upon so many thousands, the drama which had opened at the Bastille was fittingly closed.

The great battle for human liberty had been fought and won. Religious freedom and political freedom were identical in principle. The right of the human conscience, proclaimed by Luther in 1517, had in 1793 only expanded into the large conception of all the inherent rights of the individual.

It had taken centuries for English persistence to accomplish what France, with such appalling violence, had done in as many years. It had been a furious outburst of pent-up force; but the work had been thorough. Not a germ of tyranny remained. The incrustations of a thousand years were not alone broken, but pulverized; the privileged classes were swept away, and their vast estates, two-thirds of the territory of France, ready to be distributed among the rightful owners of the soil, those who by toil and industry could win them. France was as new as if she had no history. There was ample opportunity for her people now. What would they do with it?

What would they build upon the ruins of their ancient despotism? What would be the starting-point for such a task--every connecting link with an historic past broken, and the armies of an indignant Europe pressing in upon every side? Could they ever wipe out the stain which had made them odious in the sight of Christendom? Would they ever be forgiven for disgracing the name of Liberty?

It was the power and genius of a single man which was going to make the world forget her disgrace, and cover France with a mantle more glorious than she had ever worn.