Story of Modern France - Helene Guerber

The Flight to Varennes

The king's brothers and the principal Royalists strongly advised the king to leave Paris, the center of the storm, and join the émigrés and the armies they were raising, so as to return to his capital with their aid and dictate terms instead of having them forced upon him. The royal family accordingly decided to depart; but, knowing that any open attempt to leave the city would be hindered, and would tend to make their situation even more unbearable, Louis XVI. decided to escape in disguise (June, 1791).

Unfortunately, far too elaborate preparations were made for this venture, so that the start was not made until six weeks after the decision was reached. Then the royal family stole out of the palace in small detachments, to join the great traveling coach which had been built for a Russian lady (Marie Antoinette), traveling with her two daughters (Madam Royal and the little Dauphin, disguised as a girl), a lackey (the king), and a maid (Madam Elizabeth, the king's sister). As all the roads were bad, and all vehicles very clumsy in those days, the great traveling carriage lumbered slowly on; still, all went well until the king, who naturally felt anxious, stuck his head out of the window, and was recognized by the well-known features stamped on every coin in his realm.

The man who thus discovered the royal flight just as the horses were being changed at a relay station, had no chance to stop the fugitives there. So he sprang on a horse, and, by a short cut, reached Varennes and roused its citizens before the arrival of the coach. It was at Varennes, also, that the king expected to meet a military escort, which would have protected him the rest of the way; but this escort, by some misunderstanding, was waiting patiently at one end of the town, while the king was arrested in the other by citizens hastily armed with any weapon they could procure. In spite of all Louis's entreaties to be allowed to continue, these sullen people would not let him go, declaring they had sent a messenger to Paris, and that he must await the orders of the Assembly.

The result was that two members were dispatched from Paris to bring back their Majesties, and home they went, escorted by a rabble nearly as repellent as the one which had brought them from Versailles the year before. The slow return journey was accomplished under the most uncomfortable circumstances, for in the carriage—full at starting—now sat also the two members of the Assembly, who constantly talked politics to their weary captives.

The queen had to hold the Dauphin in her lap all the way, and there was only one seat for the king's sister and daughter, who therefore took turns sitting in each other's lap. Throughout those long hours of anxiety and martyrdom, Marie Antoinette never uttered one word of complaint, but kept the six-year-old prince quiet by gently whispered words, which he always heeded, for he was a good child and simply adored his beautiful mother.

The dusty procession reached Paris at last, where they were received with dead silence, for the Assembly had decreed, "Whoever applauds the king shall be flogged; whoever insults him shall be hanged." On reentering their palace, where they were now openly guarded like dangerous prisoners, the royal family could at last rest, and were soon relieved to learn by secret means that the king's brother (who had started at the same time as they) had managed to escape, and that the queen's hairdresser had safely crossed the frontier with her jewels.

While the royal family was thus held in durance vile, the people buried Rousseau and Voltaire in the Pantheon with great pomp, and the Assembly finished drawing up the new constitution, which gave the lawmaking power to an elective Legislative Assembly, and left the king only the power to veto (forbid) the execution of any new law for four years. Nevertheless, the long-suffering monarch accepted this code (Sept. 14, 1790), publicly swearing to obey it. Of course, the king and deputies knew what all the words in this constitution meant, but the common people, who had no education, were greatly mystified, especially by the word "veto." Still, there always are persons ready to explain even what they do not understand, and the following dialogue, overheard between two peasants, indicates the general belief among the mob:—

"Do you know what the veto is?"


"Ah, well! you have your porringer full of soup. The king says to you, 'Pour out that soup,' and you have to pour it out!"

"Ah! down with the veto then! down with the veto!"

As "veto" was thus taken to mean something hateful and objectionable, the people began to call Marie Antoinette "Madam Veto," in addition to the other horrid names they had already bestowed upon her.

You cannot wonder, therefore, that trembling constantly for the lives of her husband and children, the queen kept urging her brother to help them, and implored the French nobles to do their duty and come and defend their king. One of her messages was, "If you love your king, your religion, your government, and your country, return! return! return!"

When the framing of the constitution was finished, the National Assembly dissolved, to make room for the new Legislative Assembly, to which, by a strange provision, none of the members of the former body were eligible. Thus some very good men were excluded from government affairs, while some of the most rabid club men came to the front in their stead. This Legislative Assembly remained in power nearly twelve months. The various parties in it were called, from the seats they occupied, "the Right," "the Left," "the Mountain" (highest seats), and "the Center." As some of its members were in favor of a constitutional monarchy, others of a republic, and as some were even what we should now call Communists, you can readily imagine that lively times were in store.

The news of the captivity of the royal family, and especially of a constitution depriving the king of practically all rights,—as well as of the titles "Sire" and "Your Majesty,"—caused a great sensation abroad, and induced Prussia and Austria to sign a treaty, whereby they bound themselves to help Louis XVI. recover his power. But before these intentions could be carried out, the Austrian Emperor died, and was succeeded by his son, a nephew of Marie Antoinette. Meantime, the fact that any European nation dared purpose to step in and tell the French government what should be done, so enraged a hot-headed people that war was immediately declared, and troops hastily dispatched to the northeastern frontier, the most liable to attack. Some regiments were therefore stationed at Strassburg, where the mayor—giving a dinner to a few officers—happened to remark, that it was a great pity there were now no patriotic songs for the soldiers to sing, the old ones not being suited to the new constitution.

This remark was overheard by Rouget de l'Isle, one of the guests, who, unable to sleep that night, and haunted by the desire to supply the necessary song, sat up all night, composing the words and tune of what was to be a famous national song. He was not aware of the fact that it was wonderful in any way until he sang it the next day to the mayor,—one of whose daughters played the accompaniment for him,—and saw tears of emotion flow from the eyes of all present. The mayor immediately had some copies of this song printed and sent in various directions. One sheet reached Marseilles just as a regiment was leaving for Paris. It was sung to the men, who enthusiastically roared it on their march to Paris, thus popularizing the new tune, which every one then thought had originated in the great southern French port. Hence it was called "la Marseillaise".

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


Meantime, the king had further estranged the people by unwisely vetoing several laws passed by the Assembly. Besides, the mob—who were not fit to join the army, but were still out of work, and lacking everything except strong drink—were listening to every rumor, and distorting every fact they did not understand. They were ready to rush madly here or there at short notice, at the command of their leaders, many of whom were saloon-keepers, brigands, and criminals of the lowest class, men, in short, whom it would have been far wiser to clap in prison. These people wore rudely shaped trousers with blouses or carters' frocks coming down to their knees,—the latter garment being even the only one worn by some of the poorest,—besides the red liberty cap (the old Roman sign of an enfranchised slave), and clogs or wooden shoes. It was only the well-to-do in France who could afford the knee breeches so fashionable in those days, because such garments made necessary long stockings, which were very costly before machinery was invented to manufacture them in quantities. But as the aristocrats who had fled at the first sign of trouble were deeply scorned by the mob, the rabble now proudly termed themselves the "men without breeches," or sans-culottes, a name which they delighted to flaunt in the face of the foe.