In pre-revolutionary France, the monarchy was more than a core component of the French identity – indeed for many, it was the French identity. A king had always ruled, and the nation held a sense of pride and a vested interest in upholding a throne that had endured centuries of turbulence and had emerged relatively unscathed.
Even when rumblings and then roars of dissent with the rather incapable Louis XVI caused a revolution to take over the capital in the summer of 1789, it was only with the intention of sharing power with the reigning king, out of respect for his hereditary rights and no small amount of reverence for the institution of monarchy itself (I).
As the infantile National Assembly began instituting new legislation and reforms, the French people were pleased that they had a king who was so supportive of the revolution and so willing to change. Louis XVI concealed his disgust and terror of the revolution from his subjects, and instead set to quietly planning an escape from the country that he felt had betrayed him.
Before making the fateful journey described in Timothy Tackett’s When the King Took Flight, Louis left an open letter detailing his revulsion of the new system of government, and withdrawing all of his previous oaths to the Constitution (41). While his decision to flee was personally catastrophic, it was ultimately the letter he left behind that shattered the faith of the French people and caused the French monarchy as an institution to be dismantled.
As France progressed through the first stages of the revolution, the people showed every sign of not only wanting to retain the monarchy, but to make it a valuable and esteemed sector of government. Louis XVI’s inability to manage his estate and the magnitude of debt faced by the nation caused the French people to lose confidence in the feudal system and the unlimited powers of a divine-right monarch.
However, most citizens still maintained a high level of esteem for the throne in a symbolic sense, and a warm affection for the king himself: “Throughout the first months of the Revolution…the king remained remarkably popular with almost every element of the French population” (36). In the proposed form of government the king was granted a limited veto, and the National Assembly was careful to maintain that the king remained “chief executive” of the nation (183).
In return, Louis XVI gave every impression that he was content to function in his new capacity, even making an impassioned speech in front of an enthusiastic, pro-revolutionary crowd on the first anniversary of Bastille Day. “[members of the crowd]….had seen Louis raise his hand before the ‘Altar of the Fatherland’ and swear an oath to uphold the constitution” (101). It was the king’s brilliant portrayal of a consenting participant in the Revolution that made his subsequent betrayal so disastrous for his image.
The king’s escape attempt with the royal family and their ensuing capture in Varennes resulted in a time of national confusion as people attempted to understand where the king had been trying to go and why he was forcibly escorted back to Paris. Both the general population and the National Assembly truly wanted to believe that the king had good intentions and was merely removing his family from the hostile environment of Paris, as he repeatedly asserted after his detainment (8).
However, the content of the letter he left behind on his writing desk directly refuted this story, and made clear that he had been working against the Revolution and the National Assembly since the time of its inception. In the text of the letter, he described his anger at being reduced in station and abilities, his disgust with the National Assembly and his sadness with what he perceived as a belittlement of the monarchy (41).
If he had chosen to wait until actually arriving in Austria before making his impassioned statement against the new reforms, it is possible that his attempted flight could have been passed off as an innocuous ‘trip’. If it had been argued that he was attempting to escape, the king would likely have been able to claim that he was coerced into fleeing the country. However, by leaving his public statement behind, Louis destroyed any possibility of persuading the public of his innocence or naiveté, and made an irreversible declaration that put him directly at odds with the stated wishes of his subjects.
After its discovery in his private chambers, the letter quickly became part of the public sphere, widely read and the subject of voracious and impassioned debate. Copies circulated among the streets of Paris, garnering intense reactions as the news spread. “Here, in his own hand-written note, the monarch made it clear that the flight had been entirely his own idea and not the work of his advisors” (102).
It soon became clear that the king’s ideological betrayal of his people stung more than his attempt to physically flee; ““Nothing more angered the provincial patriots than the king’s famous ‘declaration’ announcing to all the world that the previous oath to the constitution had been insincere” (189).
It was still a novelty for citizens to feel an active part of the political process, so many were eager to read and voice their opinion on the controversial letter. It took longer for the text of the letter to reach rural France, but even there the reaction was virulent and impassioned; “Only now did they read of the king’s personal declaration in which he implicitly repudiated his earlier oath….When citizens of Bergerac first saw it, four days later, they publicly burned a copy in the town square” (186).
The text of Timothy Tackett’s book contains many accounts of the French invectives towards the king after his attempt to flee, but the most prevalent and bitter of these is that of “perjurer” (103). The French implicitly trusted the king to honor his word to his subjects – by reneging on his vows he lost the respect and admiration of the people. With a matter of a few words, Louis destroyed his relationship with his subjects – the king, so recently a beloved “Father of the Nation”, became an enemy of its people (101)
The extent of the French people’s disgust with their ruler became evident after the National Assembly’s rather tepid response to the affair of the king’s betrayal. The Assembly modified legislation to ensure that he would not be able to break his oaths again: “A monarch who ….retracted an oath to the constitution to which he had previously sworn would be considered, by these very acts, to have abdicated the throne” (141).
Very little else was done to address the issue of his previous renouncement of oaths – he was not indicted or charged with any crime and was soon allowed to take up his “chief executive” position once more. The French people were not satisfied to maintain the prior status quo, and their reaction against the moderation of the National Assembly was extreme. The lack of punishment for the king led to widespread protests among French citizens nation-wide, not only against the monarch but also against the National Assembly itself.
This conflict escalated into the massacre at the Champs de Mars, where people had gathered peacefully to argue for a republic. The series of events that occurred between the gathering at the Champs de Mars and the eventual execution of Louis were all products of the deep and irrevocable damage the king had inflicted on the French psyche by betraying their faith and breaking his oath.
The fact that Louis decided to leave the list of grievances on his desk to be discovered before his arrival in Austria shows either a remarkable lack of foresight or profound confidence in his escape plan. It was a risky maneuver to achieve a dramatic effect, and it was a gamble that led to the king’s destruction.
If he had chosen to simply flee with his family without making an impassioned declaration, it is very likely that he could have passed off his trip innocently, or at least claimed to be a passive victim in a larger conspiracy. By leaving his letter, he revealed the true nature of his ant-Revolution sentiments and his plans to reclaim his former powers, thereby putting himself irrevocably at odds with the will of his people.
The overwhelming anti-king reaction that followed not only occurred in the powder-keg environment of Paris, but reverberated through the entire nation. The initial shock of betrayal translated into an enduring resentment and disgust with the monarchy, and made the deposition of the king and the institution of a republic the only acceptable solution for the French citizens.
This seems to prove the old adage ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’ – the French throne had survived through years and centuries of war and conflict, but ultimately was put to rest with a few lines of the monarch’s handwriting.
Tackett, Timothy. When the King took Flight. (Harvard, U.P., Cambridge, 2003)