Story of Modern France - Helene Guerber

Death of Mirabeau

The king having left Versailles, the National Assembly immediately transferred its headquarters to Paris, where it continued the work of making new laws for France. As money was badly needed, it was decreed that all church property should belong to the state, that part of it should be sold, and that many monasteries and convents should be closed. The monks and nuns thus made homeless, although told they were no longer bound by their vows, refused in many cases to be released from them, living on charity, or earning their bread as best they could in a wicked world.

On the other hand, it was decreed that all priests were henceforth to be paid by the state; but a later law rearranged the bishoprics, provided that bishops and priests should be chosen by the voters, and required all priests to take a "civic oath," or promise of fidelity to this law. As some of the clauses of this law conflicted with their previous vows, only about a tenth of the clergy would consent. The remainder were not allowed to continue in office, or even to give their services to stanch Catholics, who considered that priests who had taken the civic oath had committed perjury. This belief—shared by the king and queen—was upheld by a decree from the Pope, forbidding all priests to obey this order. The French government took its revenge by seizing and annexing Avignon (1790), which had belonged to the Holy See some four hundred and eighty-two years, and which now went to form one of the new departments into which the Assembly divided France, after abolishing the former provinces.

By confiscating the property of the church, which had naturally been growing wealthier as time went on, the state was vastly enriched. Still, as this property was mainly land, and could not be sold immediately, a sufficient amount of paper money was issued, the stipulation being made that purchasers should pay for church lands in paper money, which the authorities would destroy as soon as paid in.

The National Assembly also decreed the abolition of the irksome salt tax, the suppression of royal warrants, and the institution of regular juries.

In spite of all these innovations, popular agitation was not subsiding, for many political clubs had been founded,—clubs which took their names as a rule from the halls where they met (Jacobins, Cordeliers, Feuillants, etc.). In each of these assemblies, ardent and eloquent speakers aired their views, for now that the press and public speech were no longer hampered, all that had hitherto been suppressed, or only spoken of in whispers, was proclaimed openly.

[Illustration] from The Story of Modern France by Helene Guerber


When one year had elapsed after the fall of the Bastille (whose key, by the way, had been sent by Lafayette to Washington and is still at Mount Vernon), the people wished to celebrate this anniversary in a fitting manner. The "Federation Festival" was therefore planned and held on the Field of Mars, in front of the Invalides  or Home for Veteran Soldiers. In the center of this immense parade ground was erected a mound of earth, on top of which was placed the "altar of the country." Around it were arranged tiers of grass seats, or terraces, from which spectators could view all that was going on. Talleyrand—a very clever but very unprincipled ex-priest—officiated at this altar, where Lafayette took the civic oath for the army, Bailly for the National Assembly, and the king publicly swore fidelity to the whole nation. The queen, who was present, then held up the little Dauphin, who swore, too, to the frantic delight of the people; and they, after having unanimously registered their own oaths, hurried off to dance on the site of the fallen Bastille! Thus, you see, all seemed satisfactory, for the king had apparently recovered the confidence and affection of his people, who even cheered his family; but this joyful demonstration was to be the last in favor of their Majesties, whose worst days were rapidly drawing near.

The coming of these evil times was hastened by the political clubs, which, while they undoubtedly did some good, also worked untold harm, for people who know naught of self-government cannot undertake it safely all at once. The fact was that, having been told that all men are equal, all wished to command, none were willing to serve or obey; even in the army, discipline became so lax that the troops at Nancy shot their own commander!

Necker, who had thrice been minister of finance in these troublous times, now withdrew in despair to his home in Switzerland, and his successor rashly proceeded to issue more paper money, this time without any proper guarantee. The money, however, was sorely needed to support the increased national forces, as well as to indemnify slave-owners in Haiti, where colored people were first enfranchised and granted political rights by the French government.

Early in the year 1791, the people made a grand demonstration in honor of the man whom they affectionately called "little Mother Mirabeau." Although still quite young, this man had led such a fast life that he had little strength left, and easily succumbed to disease. Because he made fine speeches almost to the very end, and because he said many noble things, such as "Right is sovereign of the world!" the people mourned his untimely death. They gave him a grand public funeral, burying him in the Church of the Pantheon, which, having been set aside as a resting place for national heroes, was then adorned with the inscription it still bears, "To great men, in the name of a grateful country." (Aux grands hommes, la patrie reconnaissante.)  A little later the words "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity "(Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité)  the usual formula of the French Republic—were added to the above dedication.

Mirabeau's death proved a great loss to the royal family, which ever since their arrival in Paris had been aware of the fact that they were being closely watched, and that spies lurked even among their body servants. They therefore had to exercise the utmost caution, often not daring to trust their letters to the public mails for fear they would be opened. For that reason, Marie Antoinette sent some of her ladies abroad with important papers, and especially with the keys for the ciphers she meant to use thereafter. These keys were for the king's brother and for her own brother, the Emperor of Austria, as well as for various trustworthy subjects and friends, who were to correspond with her in cipher.

In this manner, the king and queen secretly learned that the émigrés were furious at the tidings they received from France (the destruction of property, abolition of privileges, etc.), and that rulers of neighboring countries were becoming seriously uneasy lest the new French ideas should invade their realms also, and deprive them of power, like Louis XVI.