Vanity made the revolution; liberty was only a pretext.
France during the latter part of the eighteenth century was ripe for political change, it’s institutions mired in the feudal past at a time when radical new ideas about society and governance lay at the heart of a larger intellectual movement known as the Enlightenment. The idea that hereditary kings ruled by divine right and were subject to no earthly authority, a principle first espoused by King James I of England, had long been subject to broad revision in that country, a revision that extended to the beheading of James’ son, Charles I, in 1649. In France, meanwhile, the divine right theory attained its fullest flowering during the reign of Louis XIV, known as the Sun King, only to fade under the rule of his son, Louis XV, whose mistress, Madame Pompadour, is thought to have been responsible for the era’s most memorable utterance, “Après nous, le Déluge” (After us, destruction), a saying widely interpreted as a portent of the revolutionary violence to come. In any case, by the time Louis XVI ascended the throne in 1774 the Sun King’s legacy had become decidedly less sunny, the idea that kings enjoyed divinely sanctioned authority having succumbed to changing interpretations of the role, if not the relevance, of monarchs.
Compounding the problems associated with its outmoded system of government, France under Louis XVI had amassed enormous debts as a result of participation in the American Revolution, the burden of which inevitably fell on the middle and lower classes–known as the Third Estate, or Commoners–in the form of increased taxes and fees. Traditionally, the French clergy paid few taxes of any kind while the nobility enjoyed various exemptions based on rank. In the face of a mounting financial crisis both upper classes, or estates, clung to their privileges, while the overburdened Commoners made increasingly strident demands for reform. Such was the magnitude of the problem that in May 1789, amid growing popular unrest, the king was compelled to convene the Estates-General, a representative body that had not met in over 150 years. Even so, the royal concession was little more than an empty gesture, for although the Third Estate represented by far the largest segment of the population (as much as 96% by some estimates), various procedural rules worked to keep the Estates-General firmly under the control of the upper classes.
Yet neither the king nor the privileged few had anticipated the new strength and assertiveness of the French middle class. When faced with the prospect of being outvoted, the people’s representatives broke with tradition and declared a new “National Assembly” with broad powers. The king responded by denying the rebellious representatives access to their appointed meeting rooms, whereupon they moved to a nearby building in which a tennis court served them as an auditorium. Here, amid much excitement, they took an oath not to disband until they had formulated a new constitution. Known as the Tennis Court Oath, the agreement posed a serious challenge to the old order, and when substantial numbers of the two upper estates joined the renegade movement, the continuing authority of the French monarchy was suddenly called into question.
Confronted with a popular revolt, the king relented, eventually agreeing to the formation of a new legislative body, but by this time events were moving beyond his control. When rumors began circulating that he was secretly gathering troops with which to restore order, mob violence broke out on the streets of the capital. The crisis came to a head on 14 July 1789, when, following two days of rioting, a large mass of armed citizens surrounded the Bastille, a prison symbolic of royal authority, demanding that its stores of weapons and ammunition be turned over to the people. When these demands went unmet, two members of the mob managed to climb an exterior wall and lower a drawbridge, at which point the mob surged forward into an outer courtyard, where Royalist defenders of the fortress fired down on the insurgents from its walls, killing as many as a hundred. Next, two detachments of French Guards arrived in support of the people, positioning several cannons in front of the main gate. A lull in the firing ensued, and, seeking to prevent further bloodshed, the governor of the Bastille agreed to capitulate. A second drawbridge was lowered to allow the mob into an inner courtyard, and for a moment it seemed the incident was over, as the leaders of the mob embraced the soldiers of the garrison in a spirit of reconciliation. When isolated shots were fired from the parapet by those unaware of the surrender, however, the mob went on a murderous rampage, killing the entire garrison as well as many suspected royalists, and dragging their dismembered bodies through the streets.
While the Bastille was of little strategic significance, the fall of the royal fortress and the unprecedented orgy of violence that attended it would prove powerfully symbolic, suddenly giving credence to long-suppressed dreams of democratic reforms. At the same time, the success of the mob inspired fears of reprisal and a heightened sense of urgency about the need to secure constitutional protections for the people. Thus the event created a dynamism of its own, eventually compelling the king–whose response to the ongoing crisis would alternate between indulgent leniency and reactionary repression–to make one concession after another in hopes of retaining some measure of control. But to no avail. Though the new national assembly would be comprised of members of all three estates, it was now the commoners who held sway through a faction known as the Girondin (so-called for their identification with the Gironde, a region in the southwest of the country). Employing a combination of high-flown oratory and gauzy idealism, the Girondin would initially favor the creation of a constitutional monarchy in which the king would continue to reign, albeit in a highly circumscribed capacity. This position would soon be challenged by the growing influence of more radical elements among the political societies of Paris, chief among them the Jacobin Club (named for its proximity to the Church of St. Jacques in the city’s Latin Quarter). Enjoying wide support among the lower classes in particular, the radical Jacobins would insist on the creation of a republic in which the king would play no part whatsoever. And with the Paris mob acting as its de facto army, the radicals would eventually triumph.
Indeed, by the spring of 1791, the pervasive threat of mob violence had rendered the king a virtual prisoner in the Tuileries Palace at the center of the city, where he remained in danger of his life. In June, belatedly taking matters into his own hands, he and the royal family attempted to escape the growing chaos, dressing as ordinary citizens and making a dash for German territory in an inconspicuous carriage. Recognized and arrested at the village of Varennes, some 50 miles short of freedom, they were brought back to Paris in disgrace, their prospects having grown bleaker than ever. Thus far the king, if only to appear solicitous of the well-being of his subjects, had been receptive to many of the liberal ideas of the Enlightenment, naively supposing that they could somehow be reconciled with the precepts of monarchism, but now his true attitude toward the revolution stood revealed, and news of his predicament would compel the monarchies of Europe to prepare for war against the nascent French republic. Thus, Louis became a pawn in a larger struggle to prevent the spread of revolution, inciting the radicals in Paris to accelerate their efforts to overthrow him and prevent the possibility of his ever being restored to power.
In April 1792, French forces invaded Belgium in an effort to preempt plans by the monarchies–chiefly Austria and Prussia, with funding from England–to come to the rescue of Louis. The French incursion was swiftly driven back, however, and in July the Duke of Brunswick, commanding a large Austro-Prussian army at Coblenz, issued a manifesto threatening invasion if the king were not reinstated, and death to anyone who harmed him. A month later Brunswick kept his word, crossing the border en route to the fateful stand-off at Valmy. Meanwhile, in Paris armed bands prowled the streets, shouting “Death to aristocrats!”, a threat routinely carried out with a vengeance. In August a mob accompanied by National Guardsmen made a full-scale attack on the Tuileries, killing over 500 members of the king’s Swiss Guards and breaking into the royal apartments. Finding them empty, the enraged rioters–including many women–went on a spree of looting and destruction. The royal family, meanwhile, had fled through a secret passageway, placing themselves under the protection of the National Assembly, a body whose ability to control events was doubtful at best. Indeed, certain members of the assembly–among them the fanatical populist, Jean-Paul Marat–would be actively involved in inciting and orchestrating such violence, including a savage outburst known as the September Massacres, in which hundreds of men, women, and children were systematically butchered on suspicion of membership in or sympathy with the aristocracy.
Napoleon, meanwhile, spent much of the early years of the revolution on three lengthy leaves of absence to Corsica, each time involving himself in the volatile politics of his homeland to a greater and more perilous extent. The first of these visits began in September 1789, a mere two months after the fall of the Bastille, at which point, with the capital still reeling from sporadic mob violence, he quickly threw his support behind an emerging Corsican independence movement, a move that seriously compromised his position as a French officer. Under any other circumstances, such conduct might have led to charges of treason, but in the confusion wrought by recent events in Paris, his actions went largely unnoticed by officialdom. His fellow Corsicans, however, were decidedly less forgiving. A clear majority wanted no part of his peremptory efforts to seize control of the island, and before long he was unable to walk the streets of Ajaccio without fear of attack from those opposed to his plans and outraged by his methods. After a year and a half of agitating for a cause few supported, he succeeded only in damaging his reputation among both his fellow islanders and his army superiors, whose good graces he further offended by overstaying the term of his leave by several weeks. Still, he was not prepared to give up the fight. Finally returning to Auxonne in February 1791, he was soon transferred with his regiment to Valence, where he set about lobbying for yet another leave with plans to return to his homeland.
He would not have to wait long. A mere six months after the end of his previous sojourn he arrived back in Ajaccio in September 1791, in time to visit the Bonaparte’s chief benefactor, Archdeacon Lucien, shortly before the latter’s death. While Napoleon took some comfort in seeing the family provided for in the old man’s will, the new sense of security only spurred his ambition to command the island’s national guard, and soon he was back in the middle of the island’s fractious politics. By this time, in an effort to placate the warring factions, the revolutionary government in Paris had reached out to Pasquale Paoli, offering the former exile the position of president of the department of Corsica, a move that at once disenfranchised local firebrands (Napoleon among them) and incorporated Paoli’s potent legend within the larger framework of the revolution. This obliged Napoleon to apply to Paoli for the coveted post, a request was turned down flat. Aware of the young man’s recent agitation on behalf of independence and of his own tenuous position as a newly-instated French official, Paoli wanted nothing to do with him. Bitterly disappointed, Napoleon responded by arranging to get himself elected second-in-command of a volunteer militia unit in Ajaccio and mounting an attack on the local French garrison. Needless to say, this was hardly a wise career move, and to make matter worse he had once again overstayed his leave, this time by four months, long enough to compel his regiment to find a replacement. Facing the prospect of deep trouble with the authorities in Paris, he now raced to the capital to defend his actions.
Exactly what Napoleon said in his own defense on this occasion is a matter of considerable speculation; in any case, it worked, aided in large measure by the convulsive politics of the times. With the country continuing to come apart at its feudal seams, Napoleon’s gaffe in distant Corsica was of little importance and, far from being prosecuted, he was promoted to captain on condition that he remain in Paris. It was during this period that he witnessed the mob’s advance on the Tuileries (20 June), in which the king was compelled to wear a Jacobin bonnet and drink wine with a drunken rabble. Later, on 10 August, Napoleon was again present during the full-scale attack in which some 600 members of the king’s Swiss Guard were massacred in the palace courtyard. Though disgusted by these increasingly violent signs of incipient chaos, he was in no position to do anything to prevent them. Revolution was the “mistress of the hour,” as he characterized the situation to his former roommate, des Mazis, and a month later the cannonade at Valmy would give further impetus to its progress. At this point, the king had only five more months to live.
Even the intensity of life in the capital could not distract him from his fixation with Corsica, however, and a month later (October 1792)–under the pretext of escorting his sister, Elisa, home from school–he arranged to return once again to Ajaccio. That he was able to win approval on such grounds would lead some to suspect that he was sent by government officials for the purpose of spying on Pasquale Paoli, whose loyalty to the revolutionary regime was in question. In any case, upon his arrival, he met with Paoli to request command of national guard forces in a Paris-inspired plan to invade nearby Sardinia, then at war with France. Though Paoli did not favor the plan and continued to harbor the deepest reservations about Napoleon, he reluctantly agreed to a scheme in which Napoleon would join some 800 National Guardsmen on a mission to seize an island off the coast in preparation for a larger assault on Sardinia proper. The expedition no sooner made a successful landing, however, than the commander, citing a mutiny among the sailors, ordered an abrupt return to Corsica, nearly leaving Napoleon behind in his haste. Though furious at the mission’s failure, Napoleon would remain largely unsuspecting of any subterfuge despite later evidence suggesting that Paoli had orchestrated the entire incident in order to discredit him.
Having once again run afoul of the island’s complicated politics, Napoleon hatched yet another scheme to seize power by force. Removing his mother and siblings to a safe place elsewhere on the island, he mounted his own sea-borne attack on Ajaccio in hopes that a sizable pro-French faction would rally to his cause. The town held out against him, however, responding to his ill-conceived attempt at a take-over by officially condemning him and seizing his family home. Bitterly disillusioned, he had little choice but to arrange passage to the mainland for his family and flee to Toulon, his efforts to play a leadership role in his homeland at an end. Throughout a career of unprecedented success, Corsica would remain one of the few places Napoleon was unable to conquer.