Gateway to the Classics: Peeps at History: France by John Finnemore
Peeps at History: France by  John Finnemore

The French Revolution

The grandson of Louis XV. came to the throne in 1774 as Louis XVI. He was an honest, well-meaning young man, but far from being clever or strong, and by no means the kind of King required in the dreadful times which were near at hand. For at last there was growing up in the minds of the French people a resolve that they would endure their miseries in patience no longer. They had long groaned in secret; now their cries of complaint began to turn to angry mutterings, their sufferings made them desperate, and many of them began to say that if the King and his ministers could do nothing for them, it was time for them to do something for themselves.

One of the King's ministers did try to do something: he proposed that the nobles and gentry should take a share of the grievous load of taxation. A meeting of Notables, the chief men in the kingdom, was called to consider this proposal; it was put aside, and the upper classes refused to lighten in any degree the burden laid upon their poorer fellow-citizens. Louis himself was of no service in these difficulties. He spent his time in making locks, for that was his great hobby, and he seemed to have no idea of the way in which to govern a kingdom. His wife, Marie Antoinette, was a gay, lively woman, very fond of amusements, kind-hearted and good-natured, but occupied with her own concerns, and not thinking about the state of her people.

In 1789 a most important step was taken: a meeting was called of the States-General. Nearly two hundred years had passed since the assembly had gathered last, and in that long interval misgovernment, waste, and oppression had thrown the affairs of France into the utmost confusion and disorder. But from this moment things began to move rapidly towards the more terrible confusion of that frightful outbreak which was the French Revolution.

The deputies of the Third Estate came to Versailles, the meeting-place, full of the wrongs of those who had sent them there, the common people. They broke away from the First and Second Estates, the clergy and the nobles, and formed themselves into a National Assembly. They took a solemn oath that they would not separate until they had put right the evils which were crushing the people of France.

Next the people of Paris rose in fierce revolt and attacked the Bastille, a great fortress prison. It was hated because so many victims of State tyranny and unjust laws had been shut up there. The mob seized arms wherever they could find them, and put on ribbons of red, white, and blue, the tricolour of the Revolution and the Republic. They stormed the Bastille, set its prisoners free, and destroyed it: the Revolution had begun. When the news of this rising spread through the country there were wild doings in many places. The angry peasants flew upon the castles and manor-houses of their lords, plundered and burned them, and often slew without mercy every living creature they found there.

Great numbers of nobles fled from the country, and it would have been well for Louis XVI. if he had done the same. But he remained at his palace of Versailles until he was fetched by the people to Paris. Here the royal family were little better than prisoners in the palace of the Tuileries, and in 1791 they also made an attempt to escape and leave France. In the dead of night they stole away in a coach, and set off on the road to Germany. But the plan of escape was clumsy, and so slowly did the party travel, that when the postmaster of a village suspected them and stayed their flight, messengers from Paris were soon on the spot to take them back.

From this time Louis XVI. was a prisoner, and his reign was at an end. France now fell into the greatest disorder, for there were many parties among the revolutionists, and they could not agree and came to strife, when the most violent had their own way. In August, 1792, the revolutionists attacked the royal palace of the Tuileries, and slew the Swiss guards who remained faithful to the King. Next, Louis and his family were shut up in the Temple, a gloomy old fortress, and great numbers of his friends were thrown into the prisons of Paris. A foolish rumour arose that these prisoners were forming a plot against the people of Paris, and the jails were attacked by the mob. The prisoners were driven out among crowds of armed people, who hacked and tore them to pieces.

Later in the same year, France was proclaimed a republic, and Louis XVI. was put on his trial as an enemy of the people. He was Condemned to death, and in January, 1793, his head was struck off by the guillotine. He died calmly and bravely. He attempted to address the vast crowd which had gathered to watch his head fall. But his voice was drowned by the rolling of drums, and with the last words of an attendant priest in his ears: "Son of St. Louis, ascend to heaven!" he submitted himself to his fate.

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