French Revolutionary Forces (Part 1) – Ludwig Baer
Louis XVI followed his grandfather Louis XV as King of France and Navarre on May 10, 1774. When Louis ascended the throne, France was almost bankrupt due to financial obligations in North America. France, along with Spain and the Dutch Republic supported the thirteen colonies in the American War of Independence against the Kingdom of Great Britain.1
At the beginning of the war, the British forces were successful, but the war quickly became a standoff. The British Navy controlled the coasts and occupied American coastal towns, while the American “rebels” controlled the inner parts of the countryside. A British invasion from the North ended in defeat at the Battle of Saratoga in 1777, and the capture of the British army. The war ended in 1783 with the signing of the Treaty of Paris, giving the United States full sovereignty.
But this was not the only war in which the Kingdom of France was involved during the period. The Seven Years’ War spread out over Europe and concerned almost all the major European states. Great Britain and France were involved because of overlapping interest in their colonies. Austria, Sweden and Russia allied with France, while Prussia allied with Great Britain. These wars lasted from 1756 until 1763 and ended with another peace treaty in Paris.2
Another problem, much more severe, arose in 1783/84. Due to bad weather and volcanic activities, France suffered from several poor grain harvests, which had major impact on rising bread prices from 8 sous to 12 sous in 1789. Additionally, a bad transport system hindered the shipment of food from rural areas into the cities. This caused hunger and malnutrition in the common population, because they had no means to get extra food like the clergy and nobilities.
This coupled with France’s detrimental financial system made it almost impossible to increase taxes because only the lower classes had to pay. The Controller-General of Finance took notice that there was no possibility to increase the taxes without increasing those of the clergy and nobility. Therefore, he proposed a new tax code on land that would include the clergy and the nobility. An assembly of notables would or could not accept this proposal, so King Louis called the Estates-General to a session for May 1789. The last meeting had been in 1614.
The Estates-General was an assembly divided into three small estates: the clergy, the nobility and the rest of France. Each estate had one vote, and two of them could override the third. The people wanted regulations that called for a voice vote, one for each member. Several committees worked to resolve the issues and there were several propositions, but Louis left the final decision to the Estates-General. Elections for new members were held in the spring of 1789, and requirements for the Third Estate were rather rigid: an age of 25 years, French born or naturalized male, who paid taxes.
The session started in the Grands Salles des Menus-Plaisirs in Versailles on May 5, 1789. The main problem with the Third Estate was the verification of all their credentials. All negotiations were unsuccessful. Therefore the Third Estate met as the “Communes” on June 10, 1789, in an extra side session and completed the process on June 17th. As a follow-up they declared themselves to be the National Assembly of the people and invited the two other estates to follow them.
In order to keep control over the situation, Louis ordered the closure of the Salle des Etats where the Estates met, and the National Assembly moved to a nearby indoor tennis court where they swore the Tennis Court Oath on June 20th. The oath stated they would stay together until they had formed a constitution for France.
Meanwhile, several representatives of the clergy and nobility joined the Communes. It seems that on June 27th the royals conceded, although royal military forces arrived in Paris and Versailles. However, the Communes received support from Paris and other French cities. On July 9th the Communes declared themselves the National Constituent Assembly.
Storming of the Bastille
Necker, the former Controller-General of Finance published an inaccurate letter of the government’s debt and made it available to the people of Paris. Now the people feared that Louis would start actions against the National Constituent Assembly and started an open rebellion. Soon the city was ruled by riots, chaos and looting. They also had support of some members of the National Guard, who were well-trained and armed soldiers.
The National Guard was a type of militia established 1791 in Paris and other cities. When disorder and other mishaps occurred, the citizens of the cities concerned met and agreed to form a militia from members of the middle-class to maintain law and order and defend the new Constitution. Marquis de Lafayette was elected as its commander. Their duty was to keep law and order within the cities and countryside. For this they kept their uniform and weapons at home. The National Guard replaced the Guet royal, a form of police, which had been responsible for law and order in Paris since 1254.
Before continuing the story of the French Revolution, here are some important details of the structure of the military household of the King of France (maison militaire du roi de France):
• Gardes du Corps
• Cent-Suisses, sent home on March 16, 1792
• Gentilshommes à bec de corbin,
• Gardes Françaises
• Gardes suisses
• Grenadiers à cheval.
Because of the financial problems, the following three Guarduntis were canceled in 1787 and the Gendarmerie in 1788:
• Gendarmes de la garde
• Mousquetaires de la Garde
• Gendarmerie d’ordonnance
During July of 1789, the French units of the Royal Maison left their positions and joined the crowd attacking the Bastille. The Gardes du Corps was formally disbanded in 1791. The only corps left was the Swiss Guards, a short-lived Garde Constitutionelle du Roi that was raised on March 16, 1792.
On July 14th the rioters were looking for weapons and ammunition. They hoped to get these materials from the Bastille fortress, which was used as a prison and was considered a symbol of royal power. The storming began in the morning and by the afternoon it fell into the hands of the attackers. The governor was killed and his head was carried on a pike through the city. Thereafter, the mob accused the mayor of Paris of being a traitor and butchered him.
King Louis was so alarmed by the violence he began making concessions. He gave the command of the National Guard in Paris to Lafayette, who fought in America during the American War of Independence. The president of the Assembly became the new mayor of Paris, and on July 17th Louis visited Paris and accepted a tricolor cockade.
Meanwhile, the violence was growing, and many of the nobility feared for their personal safety and left France asking foreign states for military support of a counterrevolution. Some mustered local militias for their own safety and protection of their belongings. Nevertheless, it was a total collapse of law and order.
On August 4th the National Constituent Assembly canceled all former rights, and in a few hours all nobles, clergy, towns, cities and provinces lost all their old privileges. On August 26th the Assembly published the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen and replaced the old provinces with 83 departments, which remain today.
Sometime in autumn the king called a French regiment from Flanders for his personal protection, and on October 1st the people of Paris heard rumors the officers of this regiment desecrated the national cockade. On October 5th a crowd of women came together and complained to city officials about their economic situations. Due to the unsatisfactory answers, about 7,000 women began marching to Versailles equipped with guns and other weapons. The Swiss Guard and 20,000 men of the National Guard guarded the palace, but members of the crowd stormed the palace killing several guardsmen. The next day the King and the royal family moved to Paris to live in the Tuileries Palace protected by the National Guard under Lafayette and his own lifeguard.
In November the old currency, the livre, was replaced by the assignats. In 1790 the Assembly published the “Civil Constitution of the Clergy,” which stated that all members of the clergy were employees of the state and would receive their money directly from the state.
In June 1791 the King made arrangements with General Bouille and along with his family left the palace during the night of June 20th on their way to Montmedy. The next day, however, they were recognized by the postmaster of the town of Sainte-Menehould. The King and his family were arrested at Varennes-en-Argonne and later on were brought back to Paris on June 25th. In Paris they were put under house arrest.
The other European monarchs looked with concern upon the developments in Paris, but were not sure what to do. The one with the most concern was the Holy Roman Emperor, Leopold II, brother of the French Queen, Marie Antoinette. However, he wanted to avoid war and called for a meeting in Pillnitz. The Declaration of Pillnitz on August 27, 1791, was a statement issued at the Castle of Pillnitz in Saxony (near Dresden) by the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold II and Frederick William II King of Prussia. It called on European powers to intervene if Louis XVI King of France was threatened. This declaration was intended to serve as a warning to the French revolutionaries not to infringe further on the rights of Louis XVI and to allow his restoration to power.
The following statement helped to begin the French Revolutionary Wars:
“His Majesty the Emperor and his Majesty the King of Prussia, having given attention to the wishes and representations of Monsieur le Comte d’Artois,3 jointly declare that they regard the present situation of his Majesty the King of France as a matter of common interest to all the sovereigns of Europe. They trust that this interest will not fail to be recognized by the powers, whose aid is solicited; and that in consequence they will not refuse to employ, in conjunction with their said majesties, the most efficient means, in proportion to their resources, to place the King of France in a position to establish, with the most absolute freedom, the foundations of a monarchical form of government, which shall at once be in harmony with the rights of sovereigns and promote the welfare of the French nation. In that case their said majesties the Emperor and the King of Prussia are resolved to act promptly and in common accord with the forces necessary to obtain the desired common end.
In the meantime they will give such orders to their troops as are necessary in order that these may be ready to be called into active service.”
PILLNITZ, August 27, 1791