October 5, 1789 The Women’s March

Encouraged and egged on by revolutionary agitators, these market women and not a few men, plundered the city’s armories for weapons and marched on the the Hôtel de Ville (the City Hall of Paris) carrying kitchen blades, farm implements and anything else which would serve, as a weapon.  The mob swelled to as many as 10,000, before turning to the royal palace at Versailles, some thirteen miles away. 

We hear a lot this pre-election season, about “Left” and “Right”. “Liberal” and “Conservative”.

The terms have been with us a long time, originating in the early days of the French Revolution. In those days, National Assembly members supportive of the Monarchy sat on the President’s right. Those favoring the Revolution, on the left. The right side of the seating arrangement began to thin out and disappeared altogether during the “Reign of Terror”, but re-formed with the restoration of the Monarchy, in 1814-1815. By that time it wasn’t just the “Party of Order” on the right and the “Party of Movement” on the left. Now the terms began to describe nuances in political philosophy, as well.

Imagine you are there, from the beginning. The year is 1789. Your politics are middle of the road, maybe a little to the left. Now imagine that, in the space of two years, your nation’s politics have shifted so radically that you find yourself on the “reactionary right”, subject to execution by your government.

And your personal convictions have never changed.

800px-Troisordres
Cartoon of the period depicting the “3rd Estate” (Commoners) carrying the 1st (Clergy) and 2nd (Nobility) on his back

In medieval France, major constituent parts of French society broke into “Three Estates” being the Clergy (1st), the Nobility (2nd) and a 3rd Estate encompassing common women and men.

French society of the late 18th century found itself at a crossroads of tectonic events, any one of which carried with it the potential for societal upheaval.

Culturally, the “Age of Enlightenment” brought with it an elevation of “Reason” at the expense of tradition, and a diminution of the Monarchy and the Catholic Church.

Politically, the “Commons” had evolved into a caste of its own, with its own goals and a desire for parity, with the 1st and 2nd Estates.

Economically, the French state carried massive debt at this time, a condition made worse by French support of the American Revolution of a decade earlier.  The Nobility refused to accede to the tax demands of King Louis XVI.

The situation was precarious for the King that May, when Louis XVI summoned the Estates-General.   Having reached an impasse, the Commoners reconstituted themselves into a “National Assembly” that  June, demanding a personal audience with the King, for the purpose of drawing up a Constitution.

The National Assembly converged on the Estates General on June 20, only to find the door locked. What followed was hysterical, duplicitous or both, as the King and the Royal Family were in formal mourning at this time, following the death of the Dauphin; the heir apparent to the french throne.  Traditionally, political matters were held at such times, until the King came out of mourning.

It was yet another custom, about to be thrown out the window.

Finding the chamber locked and under guard, all 577 members of the National Assembly converged on an indoor tennis court. All but one put their names to a solemn oath, the “Tennis Court Oath”, swearing “not to separate, and to reassemble wherever circumstances require, until the constitution of the kingdom is established”.

image-placeholder-title.jpgThe oath itself was a revolutionary act.  Unlike the English Parliament, the Estates-General were little more than an advisory body, whose authority was not required for Royal taxation or legislative initiatives.  The oath taken that day asserted that political authority came from the people and their representatives, not from the monarchy. The National Assembly had declared itself supreme in the exercise of state power, making it increasingly difficult for the monarchy to operate based on “Divine Right of Kings”.

Riots followed as Leftist and reformist factions coalesced from anarchy to a coherent movement against the monarchy and the French Right.

Paris was “intoxicated with liberty and enthusiasm,” in July, when French revolutionaries converged on that age-old and hated symbol of the monarchy:  the Bastille. The fortress was guarded at this time by 82 “invalides”, veteran soldiers no longer fit for service in the field, and 32 Swiss grenadiers under the command of Governor Bernard-René de Launay, son of the previous governor.

The attackers – vainqueurs de la Bastille – numbered 954. Negotiations dragged on until the crowd lost patience, crowding into the outer courtyard and cutting the chain that held the drawbridge. Firing broke out as the bridge slammed down, crushing one unlucky vainqueur, while a nearby force of Royal Army troops did nothing to intervene. 98 attackers and one defender died in the fighting. The mob murdered another 7, after their surrender.

French-Revolution-Events-Featured.jpg

On this day in 1789, hundreds of French women ransacked the markets of Paris, angry over the scarcity and the high price, of bread.  Encouraged and egged on by revolutionary agitators, these market women and not a few men, plundered the city’s armories for weapons and marched on the Hôtel de Ville (the City Hall of Paris) carrying kitchen blades, farm implements and anything else which would serve as a weapon.  The mob swelled to as many as 10,000, before turning to the royal palace at Versailles, some thirteen miles distant.

800px-MarchWomenVersailles5-6october1789
The women’s march, hailed and encouraged by onlookers, making its way toward the Palace at Versailles

Arriving soaking wet from a driving rain, the angry mob converged on Versailles demanding political reforms and a constitutional monarchy.  The confrontation was ugly, violent.  Marie Antoinette herself narrowly escaped destruction, fleeing down a secret passage to the King’s chambers.

The King himself agreed to address the crowd,  from his balcony. “My friends,” he began, “I will go to Paris with my wife and my children.”  It was a fatal error.

The insurrection at Paris raced across all of France as the “Great Fear” spread across the countryside. The absolute monarchy which had ruled for centuries was over within three years.  Louis himself lost his head to the guillotine in January, 1793. 16,594 went to the guillotine under “the Reign of Terror”, led by the “Committee of Safety” under the direction of Parisian lawyer Maximilian Robespierre. Among them was Queen Marie Antoinette herself, who never did say “let them eat cake”.  The Queen’s last words on mounting the scaffold were pardon me, sir, I meant not to do it.   She had accidentally stepped on her executioner’s toes.

execution-Louis-XVI-1793.jpg
Execution of Louis XVI

As many as 40,000 were summarily executed or died in prison awaiting trial before the hysteria died down. Robespierre himself lost his head in 1794.

The Napoleonic Wars which followed resulted in a Corsican artillery corporal-turned Emperor, fighting (and winning), more battles than Hannibal, Caesar, Alexander the Great and Frederick the Great, combined.

The saddest part of the whole sad story, may be the son of Louis and Antoinette, Louis-Charles, Duke of Normandy.  The boy was King Louis XVII in name only, thrown into a stone prison cell at the age of 8.  He would die there, miserable, sick and alone, at the age of 10.   

The whole exercise, seems pointless. The Bourbon Dynasty was back in power, within twenty years.

Advertisements

March 27, 1794 Quasi War

On this day in 1794, the United States Government established a permanent navy and authorized the building of six frigates..  One of them, USS Constitution, saw its first combat in the Quasi-War and remains in service to this day, the oldest commissioned warship in the United States Navy.

Imagine you consider yourself to be somewhere in the political center.  Maybe a little to the left. Now imagine that, in the space of two years, national politics have shifted to the point you find yourself on the “reactionary right”, subject to execution as such by your government.

And your personal convictions have never so much as wavered.

America’s strongest Revolution-era ally lost its collective mind in 1792, when France descended into a revolution of its own.    17,000 Frenchmen were officially tried and executed during the 1793-’94 “Reign of Terror” alone, including King Louis XVI and Queen consort, Marie Antoinette.  Untold thousands died in prison or without benefit of trial.

OSS-FrenchRevolutionMythsThe monarchical powers of Europe were quick to intervene.  For the 32nd time since the Norman invasion of 1066, England and France once again found themselves in a state of war.

France was the American patriot’s strongest supporter during America’s revolution, yet the US remained neutral in the later conflict, straining relations between the former allies.  Making matters worse, America repudiated its war debt in 1794, arguing that it owed money to “l’ancien régime”, not to the French First Republic which had overthrown it and executed its King.

Both sides in the European conflict seized neutral ships in the act of trading with their adversary.  The “Treaty of Amity, Commerce, and Navigation” with Great Britain, better known as the “Jay Treaty”, all but destroyed relations with the French 1st Republic.  France retaliated by stepping up attacks on American merchant shipping, seizing 316 American civilian ships in one eleven-month period, alone.

In 1796, the French Republic formally broke diplomatic relations with the United States, rejecting the credentials of President Washington’s representative Ambassador Charles Cotesworth Pinckney.

The following year, President John Adams dispatched a delegation of two.  They were the future Chief Justice of the Supreme Court John Marshall, and future Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry, he who lends his name to the term “Gerrymander”.  Their instructions were to join with Pinckney in negotiating a treaty with France, with terms similar to those of the Jay treaty with Great Britain.

quasi-war-1798-1801 (1)

The American commission arrived in Paris in October 1797, requesting a meeting with the French Foreign Minister, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand.  Talleyrand, unkindly disposed toward the Adams administration to begin with, demanded money before meeting with the American delegation.  The practice was not uncommon in European diplomacy of the time, but the Americans blanched.

Documents later released by the Adams administration describe Nicholas Hubbard, an English banker identified only as “W”.  W introduced “X” (Baron Jean-Conrad Hottinguer) as a “man of honor”, who wished an informal meeting with Pinckney.  Pinckney agreed and Hottinguer reiterated Talleyrand’s demands, specifying the payment of a large “loan” to the French government, and a £50,000 bribe to Talleyrand himself.  Met with flat refusal by the American commission, X then introduced Pierre Bellamy (“Y”) to the Americans, followed by Lucien Hauteval (“Z”), sent by Talleyrand to meet with Elbridge Gerry.  X, Y and Z, each in their turn, reiterated the Foreign Minister’s demand for a loan, and a bribe.

Believing that Adams sought war by exaggerating the French position, Jeffersonian members of Congress joined with the more warlike Federalists in demanding the release of the commissioner’s communications.  It was these dispatches, released in redacted form, which gave the name “X-Y-Z Affair” to the diplomatic and military crisis which followed.

American politics were sharply divided over the European war.  President Adams and his Federalists, always the believers in strong, central government, took the side of the Monarchists.  Thomas Jefferson and his “Democratic-Republicans” found more in common with the “liberté, égalité, fraternité” espoused by revolutionaries.

In the United Kingdom, the ruling class enjoyed the chaos.  One British political cartoon of the time depicted the United States, represented by a woman being groped by five Frenchmen while John Bull, the fictional personification of all England, looks on laughing from a nearby hilltop.

xyz (1)

Adams’ commission left without entering formal negotiations, the failure leading to a political firestorm in the United States.  Congress rescinded all existing treaties with France on July 7, 1798, the date beginning the undeclared “Quasi-War” with France.  Four days later, President John Adams signed “An Act for Establishing and Organizing a Marine Corps,” permanently establishing the United States Marine Corps as an independent service branch, in order to defend the American merchant fleet.

At this point, the United States had no other means of fighting back.  The government had disbanded the Navy along with its Marine contingent at the end of the Revolution, selling the last warship in 1785 and retaining only a handful of “revenue cutters” for purposes of customs enforcement.  On this day in 1794, the United States Government established a permanent navy and authorized the building of six frigates..  One of them, USS Constitution, saw its first combat in the Quasi-War and remains in service to this day, the oldest commissioned warship in the United States Navy.

6921747106_a537d83de4_k-e1508207760237

American military involvement proved decisive.  Before armed intervention, the conflict with France resulted in the loss of over 2,000 merchant ships captured, with 28 Americans killed and another 42 wounded.   Military escalation with the French First Republic cost the Americans 54 killed and 43 wounded, with only a single ship lost.  That one, was later recaptured.

By the turn of the century, the naval power of the English speaking nations brought about a more agreeable negotiating position with the government of First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte. The Convention of 1800 ended the Quasi-War, asserting American rights and ending the alliance with France.

The entangling French alliance of 1778, was dead.   The Napoleonic Wars would be fought entirely on European soil.

 

A Trivial Matter
Between 1803 and 1812, the Royal Navy’s manpower needs greatly exceeded voluntary enlistment.  5,000 to 9,000 American sailors were forcibly “impressed” (kidnapped) into service, becoming a major casus belli for the war of 1812.

January 21, 1793 Grande Princesse

Marie Antoinette is supposed to have said “Let them eat cake” (“Qu’ils mangent de la brioche”) in response to the bread riots, but there’s no evidence she ever said such a thing.

Alliances came and went throughout 18th century Europe, and treaties were often sealed by arranged marriages. One such alliance took place in 1770 when Francis I, Holy Roman Emperor and his wife Maria Theresa, the formidable Queen of Hungary and Bohemia, married their daughter Maria Antonia to Louis-Auguste, the son of Louis XV, King of France.

10053278The happy couple had yet to meet when the marriage was performed by proxy, the bride remaining in Vienna while the groom stayed in Paris. At 12 she was now the Dauphine, Marie Antoinette, wife of the 14-year-old Dauphin, future King of France.

There was a second, ceremonial wedding held in May, after which came the ritual bedding. This isn’t the couple quietly retiring to their own private space. This was the bizarre spectacle of a room full of courtiers, peering down at the proceedings to make sure the marriage was consummated.

It was not, and that failure did damage to both their reputations.

The people liked their new Dauphine at first, but the Royal Court was another story. Insiders had promoted several Saxon Princesses for the match, and called Marie Antoinette “The Austrian Woman”. She would come to be called far worse.

marie_antoinette_by_joseph_ducreuxThe stories you read about 18th century Court intrigue make you wonder how anyone lived like that. Antoinette was naive of the shark tank into which she’d been thrown. Relations were especially difficult with the King’s mistress, the Comtesse du Barry.  Antoinette was somehow expected to work them out.

The King’s daughters, on the other hand, didn’t care for du Barry’s unsavory relations with their father. Antoinette couldn’t win. The sisters complained of feeling “betrayed” one time, when Antoinette commented to the King’s mistress “There are a lot of people at Versailles today”.

Court intrigues were accompanied by reports to Antoinette’s mother in Vienna, the Empress responding with her own stream of criticism. The Dauphin was more interested in lock making and hunting, she wrote, because Antoinette had failed to “inspire passion” in her husband. The Empress even went so far as to tell her daughter that she was no longer pretty. She had lost her grace. Antoinette came to fear her own mother more than she loved her.

Louis-Auguste was crowned Louis XVI, King of France, on June 11, 1775. Antoinette remained by his side, though she was never crowned Queen, instead remaining Louis’ “Queen Consort”.

With her marriage as yet unconsummated, Antoinette’s position became precarious when her sister in law gave birth to a son and possible heir to the throne. Antoinette spent her time gambling and shopping, while wild rumors and printed pamphlets described her supposedly bizarre sexual romps.

marie-antoinette over the yearsFrance had serious debt problems in the 1770s, the result of endless foreign wars, but Antoinette received more than her share of the blame.

As first lady to the French court, Antoinette was expected to be a fashion trendsetter. Her shopping was in keeping with the role, but rumors wildly inflated her spending habits. Her lady-in-waiting protested that her habits were modest, visiting village workshops in a simple dress and straw hat. Nevertheless, Antoinette was rumored to have plastered the walls of Versailles with gold and diamonds.

The difficult winter of 1788-89 produced bread shortages and rising prices as the King withdrew from public life. The marriage had produced children by this time, but the legend of the licentious spendthrift and empty headed foreign queen took root in French mythology, as government debt overwhelmed the economy.

French politics boiled over in June 1789, leading to the storming of the Bastille on July 14. Much of the French nobility fled as the newly formed National Constituent Assembly conscripted men to serve in the Garde Nationale, while the French Constitution of 1791 weakened the King’s authority.

Food shortages magnified the unrest. In October, the King and Queen were placed under house arrest in the Tuileries Palace. In June they attempted to flee the escalating violence, but were caught and returned within days. Radical Jacobins exploited the escape attempt as a betrayal, and pushed to have the monarchy abolished altogether.

Unrest turned to barbarity in September 1792, with rumors of foreign and royalist armies, coming to oppose the revolution.  Between 1,370 to 1,460 prisoners were summarily “tried” and executed by the mob, in the first twenty hours.   Antoinette’s close friend and Lady in Waiting, the Princesse de Lamballe, was taken by the Paris Commune for interrogation. She was murdered at La Force prison, her head fixed on a pike and marched through the city.

death-of-the-princess-de-lamballe-by-leon-maxime-faivre
Léon-Maxime Faivre (1908) Death of the Princess de Lamballe

There would be 65 to 75 such incidents.

Louis XVI was charged with treason against the First Republic in December, found guilty and executed by guillotine on January 21, 1793.  He was 38.

Marie-Antoinette became prisoner #280, her health deteriorating in the following months. She suffered from tuberculosis by this time and was frequently bleeding, possibly from uterine cancer.

massacre_à_la_salpêtrière
Thirty five women were dragged from the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital, and murdered

Antoinette was taken from her cell on October 14 and subjected to a sham trial, the outcome of which was never in doubt. She was accused of molesting her own son, a charge so outrageous that even the market women who had stormed the palace demanding her entrails in 1789, spoke in her support. “If I have not replied”, she said, “it is because nature itself refuses to respond to such a charge laid against a mother.”

guillotineMarie-Antoinette’s hair was cut off on October 16, 1793. She was driven through Paris in an ox cart, taken to the Place de la Révolution, and executed by decapitation. She accidentally stepped on the executioner’s foot on mounting the scaffold. Her last words were “Pardon me sir, I meant not to do it”.

Marie Antoinette is supposed to have said “Let them eat cake” (“Qu’ils mangent de la brioche”) in response to the bread riots, but there’s no evidence she ever said such a thing.  It’s completely out of character and, despite her lavish lifestyle, she had always displayed sensitivity toward the poor people of France.

The phrase appears in the autobiography of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, “Les Confessions”, attributed to a “Grande Princesse” whom the book declines to name, but is probably Maria Theresa, of Spain. Considering the lifetime of cheap and mean-spirited gossip to which Marie Antoinette was subjected, it’s easy to believe that this was more of the same.

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

July 7, 1798  The X-Y-Z Affair

America’s “quasi-war” with France, begun this day in 1798, would see the first combat service of the heavy frigate USS Constitution, better known as “Old Ironsides” and today, the oldest commissioned warship in the world, still afloat. 

Imagine that you’ve always considered your own beliefs to be somewhere in the political center.  Maybe a little to the left. Now imagine that, in the space of two years, your country’s politics have shifted so radically that you find yourself on the “Reactionary Right”, on the way to execution by your government.

And your personal convictions have never changed.

America’s strongest Revolution-era ally lost its collective mind in 1792, when France descended into a revolution of its own.    17,000 Frenchmen were officially tried and executed during the 1793-94 “Reign of Terror” (la Terreur) alone, including King Louis XVI himself and his queen, Marie Antoinette.  Untold thousands died in prison or without benefit of trial.  The monarchical powers of Europe were quick to intervene.  For the 32nd time since the Norman invasion of 1066, England and France once again found themselves at war.

the-reign-of-terror-french-revolution-17931794-1-638

France had been the strongest ally the Americans had during the late revolution, yet the United States remained neutral in the later conflict, straining relations between the former allies.  Making matters worse, America repudiated its war debt in 1794, arguing that it owed the money to “l’ancien régime”, and not to the French First Republic which had overthrown it, and executed its King.

Lafayette_Prison_reunion
The Marquis de Lafayette was shocked on October 15, 1795, when his cell door opened and in walked his wife and three daughters. The four women would remain with him in his prison cell, for another two years

By this time, Revolution-era America’s most important French allies were off the stage, the Comte de Grasse dead, the Marquis de Lafayette and the Comte de Rochambeau languishing, in prison.

Both sides in the European conflict seized neutral ships which were trading with their adversary.  The “Treaty of Amity, Commerce, and Navigation” with Great Britain, ratified in 1795 and better known as the “Jay Treaty”, put an end for now to such conflict with Great Britain, but destroyed relations with the French Republic.

French privateers cruised the length of the Atlantic seaboard preying on American merchant shipping, seizing 316 civilian ships in one eleven-month period, alone.

At this point, the United States had virtually no means of fighting back.  The government had disbanded the Navy along with its Marine contingent at the end of the Revolution, selling the last warship in 1785 and retaining only a handful of “revenue cutters” for customs enforcement.  The Naval Act of 1794 had established a standing Navy for the first time in American history and begun construction on six heavy frigates, the first three of which would launch in 1797:  the USS United States, USS Constellation, and USS Constitution.

In 1796, France formally broke diplomatic relations with the United States by rejecting the credentials of President Washington’s representative, Ambassador Charles Cotesworth Pinckney.

The following year, President John Adams dispatched a delegation of two, with instructions to join with Pinckney in negotiating a treaty with France, on terms similar to those of the Jay treaty with Great Britain.

Pinckney
Charles Cotesworth Pinckney

These were the future Chief Justice of the Supreme Court John Marshall, and future Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry, a man who later became the 5th Vice President and lent his name to the term “Gerrymander”.

The American commission arrived in Paris in October 1797, requesting a meeting with French Foreign Minister Charles Maurice de Talleyrand.  Talleyrand, unkindly disposed toward the Adams administration to begin with, demanded bribes before meeting with the American delegation.  The practice was not uncommon in European diplomacy of the time, but the Americans refused.

Documents later released by the Adams administration describe Nicholas Hubbard, an English banker identified only as “W”.  W introduced “X” (Baron Jean-Conrad Hottinguer) as a “man of honor”, who wished an informal meeting with Pinckney.  Pinckney agreed and Hottinguer reiterated Talleyrand’s demands, specifying the payment of a $12 million “loan” to the French government, and a personal bribe of some $250,000 to Talleyrand himself.  Met with flat refusal by the American commission, X then introduced Pierre Bellamy (“Y”) to the American delegation, followed by Lucien Hauteval (“Z”), sent by Talleyrand to meet with Elbridge Gerry.  X, Y and Z, each in their turn, reiterated the Foreign Minister’s demand for a loan, and a personal bribe.

Believing that Adams sought war by exaggerating the French position, Jeffersonian members of Congress joined with the more warlike Federalists in demanding the release of the commissioner’s communications.  It was these dispatches, released in redacted form, which gave the name “X-Y-Z Affair” to the diplomatic and military crisis which followed.

American politics were sharply divided over the European war.  President Adams and his Federalists, always the believers in strong, central government, took the side of the Monarchists.  Thomas Jefferson and his “Democratic-Republicans” found more in common with the liberté, égalité and fraternité espoused by French revolutionaries.

In the United Kingdom, the ruling class appeared to enjoy the chaos.  A British political cartoon of the time depicted the United States, represented by a woman being groped by five Frenchmen while John Bull, the fictional personification of all England, looks on in amusement from a nearby hilltop.

XYZ cartoon

Adams’ commission left without entering formal negotiations, their failure leading to a political firestorm in the United States.  Congress rescinded all existing treaties with France on July 7, 1798, the date now regarded as the beginning of the undeclared “Quasi-War” with France.

Four days later, President John Adams signed “An Act for Establishing and Organizing a Marine Corps,” permanently establishing the United States Marine Corps as an independent service branch, in order to defend the American merchant fleet.

quasi-war-1798-1801

Talleyrand himself raised the stakes, saying that attacks on American shipping would cease if the United States paid him $250,000 and gave France 50,000 pounds sterling and a loan for $100 million. At a 1798 Philadelphia dinner in honor of John Marshall, South Carolina Congressman Robert Goodloe Harper’s toast, spoke for the American side: “Millions for defense but not one cent for tribute.”

America’s “quasi-war” with France, begun this day in 1798, would see the first combat service of the heavy frigate USS Constitution, better known as “Old Ironsides” and today, the oldest commissioned warship in the world, still afloat.  The undeclared war would be fought across the world’s oceans, from the Atlantic to the Caribbean, to the Indian Ocean, and the Mediterranean Sea.

United_States_Marine_escorting_French_prisoners
20th century illustration depicts American Marines escorting French prisoners

The Convention of 1800 ended the Quasi-War on September 30, nullifying the Franco-American alliance of 1778 and ensuring American neutrality in the Napoleonic wars. $20,000,000 in American “Spoliation Claims” would remain, unpaid.

For the United States, military escalation proved decisive.  Before naval intervention, the conflict with France resulted in the loss of over 2,000 merchant ships captured, with 28 Americans killed and another 42 wounded.   Military escalation with the French First Republic cost the Americans 54 killed and 43 wounded, and an unknown number of French.  Only a single ship was lost, the aptly named USS Retaliation, and that one was later recaptured.

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

July 14, 1789 Storming the Bastille

Paris was “intoxicated with liberty and enthusiasm,” when the crowd converged on the Bastille on the morning of July 14, 1789. It was guarded by 82 invalides (veteran soldiers no longer fit for service in the field) and 32 Swiss grenadiers.
The attackers – vainqueurs de la Bastille – numbered 954.

In most of medieval France, the major constituent parts of French society were the “Three Estates”:  the Clergy, the Nobility and the Commons.

France was in a state of economic crisis in the late 18th century. The Nobility refused to accede to the tax demands of King Louis XVI. The Commoners reconstituted themselves into a “National Assembly” in June 1789, demanding an audience with the King for the purpose of drawing up a Constitution.

The National Assembly converged on the Estates General on June 20, only to find the door locked. What followed was either hysterical or duplicitous, because the King and his family were still mourning the death of the Dauphin; the heir apparent.  It was customary at that time to hold political matters, until the King came out of mourning.

Tennis Court Oath
Tennis Court Oath

Be that as it may, the entire National Assembly, all 577 members, converged on an indoor tennis court. All but one put their names to a solemn oath, the famous “The Tennis Court Oath”, swearing “not to separate, and to reassemble wherever circumstances require, until the constitution of the kingdom is established”.

The oath itself was a revolutionary act, asserting that political authority came from the people and their representatives, not from the monarchy. The National Assembly had declared themselves to be supreme in the exercise of state power, making it increasingly difficult for the monarchy to operate based on “Divine Right of Kings”.

Riots followed as the left and reformist factions moved from anarchy to a coherent movement against the monarchy and the French right.

Built in 1309, the fortress and medieval prison of the Bastille had long been a focal point of the insurrection, representing royal authority in the center of the city. Donatien Alphonse François, better known as the Marquis de Sade, was one of the few remaining prisoners in the Bastille by this time. He was transferred to an insane asylum after attempting to incite a crowd outside his window, yelling: “They are massacring the prisoners; you must come and free them.”

Prise_de_la_Bastille

Paris was “intoxicated with liberty and enthusiasm,” when French revolutionaries converged on the Bastille on the morning of July 14, 1789. The fortress was guarded by 82 “invalides”, veteran soldiers no longer fit for service in the field, and 32 Swiss grenadiers under the command of Governor Bernard-René de Launay, the son of the previous governor, actually born in the Bastille.

The attackers – vainqueurs de la Bastille – numbered 954. Negotiations dragged on until the crowd lost patience, crowding into the outer courtyard and cutting the chain that held the drawbridge. Firing broke out as the bridge slammed down, crushing one unlucky vainqueur, while a nearby force of Royal Army troops did nothing to intervene. 98 attackers and one defender died in the fighting.  The mob murdered another 7, after their surrender.

The successful insurrection at Paris raced across all of France, as the “Great Fear” spread across the countryside. The absolute monarchy which had ruled for centuries was over within three years, when Louis himself lost his head to the guillotine in 1793. 16,594 went to the guillotine under “the Reign of Terror”, led by the “Committee of Safety” under the direction of Parisian lawyer Maximilian Robespierre. Among them was Queen Marie Antoinette, who never did say “let them eat cake”.  Her last words were pardon me, sir, I meant not to do it, on stepping on her executioner’s toes.

Exécution_de_Marie_Antoinette_le_16_octobre_1793
Execution of Marie Antoinette

As many as 40,000 were summarily executed or died in prison awaiting trials before the hysteria died down.  Robespierre himself lost his head in 1794.

The Napoleonic Wars which followed resulted in a Corsican artillery corporal-turned Emperor, fighting (and winning), more battles than Hannibal, Caesar, Alexander the great, and Frederick the Great, combined.

The saddest part of the whole sad story, may be the son of Louis and Antoinette, Louis-Charles, Duke of Normandy. He was King Louis XVII in name only, thrown into a stone prison cell at the age of 8. He would die there, at the age of 10. Miserable, sick and alone.  It all seems pointless. The Bourbon Dynasty was back in power, within twenty years.

July 7, 1798 XYZ

In the UK, the ruling class appeared to enjoy the chaos.  A British political cartoon of the time depicted the United States, represented by a woman being groped by five Frenchmen while John Bull, the fictional personification of all England, laughs from a nearby hilltop.

Imagine that you’ve always considered yourself to be somewhere in the political center, maybe a little to the left.  Now imagine that, in the space of two years, your country’s politics have shifted so radically that you find yourself on the “reactionary right”. So much so, that you are subject to execution by your government.  And all that time, your politics haven’t changed.

Our strongest ally in the American Revolution lost its collective mind in 1792, when France descended into its own revolution.    17,000 Frenchmen were officially tried and executed during the 1793-94 “Reign of Terror”, including King Louis XVI himself and his queen, Marie Antoinette.  Untold thousands died in prison or without benefit of trial.  The monarchical powers of Europe were quick to intervene and for the 32nd time since the Norman invasion of 1066, England and France found themselves at war.

Exécution_de_Marie_Antoinette_le_16_octobre_1793
Execution of Marie Antoinette

Both sides in the European conflict seized neutral ships which were trading with their adversary.  The “Treaty of Amity, Commerce, and Navigation” between Great Britain and its former colonies, better known as the “Jay Treaty”, all but destroyed relations with the French Republic.  France retaliated by stepping up attacks on American merchant shipping, seizing 316 vessels in one 11-month period, alone.

France had been the colonies’ strongest ally during the American Revolution, now the Jay treaty infuriated the French, who believed the agreement violated earlier arrangements between the two nations.  Making matters worse, America repudiated its war debt in 1794, arguing that it owed money to “L’ancien Régime”, not to the “First Republic” which had overthrown it and executed its King.

In 1796, France formally broke diplomatic relations with the United States, rejecting the credentials of President Washington’s Ambassador, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney.

The following year, President John Adams dispatched a delegation of two.  They were future Chief Justice of the Supreme Court John Marshall, and future Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry, the man who later became the 5th Vice President, lending his name to the term “Gerrymander”.  Their instructions were to join with Pinckney in negotiating a treaty with France, with terms similar to those of the Jay treaty with Great Britain.

The American commission arrived in Paris in October 1797, requesting a meeting with the French Foreign Minister, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand.  Talleyrand, unkindly disposed toward the Adams administration to begin with, demanded a bribe for himself and substantial ‘loan’ to the French Republic, before so much as meeting with the American delegation.  The practice was not uncommon in European diplomacy of the time.  The Americans were appalled.

Believing that the Adams administration sought war by exaggerating the French position, Jeffersonian allies in Congress joined with more warlike Federalists in demanding the release of the commissioner’s communications. It was these dispatches, released in redacted form, which gave the name “X-Y-Z Affair” to the diplomatic and military crisis to follow.

Nicholas Hubbard, an English banker, was identified in the transcripts, only as “W”.  W introduced “X” (Baron Jean-Conrad Hottinguer) as a “man of honor”, who wished an informal meeting with Pinckney.  Pinckney agreed and Hottinguer reiterated Talleyrand’s demands, specifying the payment of a large loan to the French government, and a £50,000 bribe to Talleyrand himself.  Met with flat refusal by the American commission, X then introduced Pierre Bellamy (“Y”) to the Americans.  Lucien Hauteval (“Z”), Talleyrand’s personal emissary, was then sent to negotiate with Elbridge Gerry.  X, Y and Z, each in their turn, reiterated the Foreign Minister’s demand for a loan, and a bribe.

American politics were sharply divided over the European war.  President Adams and his Federalists, always the believers in strong, central government, took the side of the Monarchists.  Thomas Jefferson and his “Democratic-Republicans” found more in common with the ‘liberté, égalité and fraternité’ espoused by French revolutionaries.

In the UK, the ruling class appeared to enjoy the chaos.  A British political cartoon of the time depicted the United States, represented by a woman being groped by five Frenchmen while John Bull, the fictional personification of all England, laughs from a nearby hilltop.

John Bull cartoon

At this point, the United States had little means of defending itself.  The government had disbanded the Navy along with the Marine Corps at the end of the Revolution, selling the last warship in 1785 and retaining only a handful of “revenue cutters” doing customs enforcement.  The Naval Act of 1794 established a standing Navy for the first time in US history.  In October 1797, Congress authorized the construction of six frigates.  One of them, USS Constitution, saw its first combat in the Quasi-War with France, and remains in service to this day, the oldest commissioned ship in the United States Navy.

Quasi War

Adams’ commission left without entering formal negotiations, their failure leading to a political firestorm in the United States.  Congress rescinded all existing treaties with France on July 7, 1798, authorizing American privateers to attack French shipping. The undeclared “Quasi-War” with France, had begun.

Four days later, President John Adams signed “An Act for Establishing and Organizing a Marine Corps,” permanently establishing the United States Marine Corps as an independent service branch, in order to defend the American merchant fleet.

For the United States, military involvement proved decisive.  Before military intervention, the conflict with France resulted in 28 Americans killed, 42 wounded, and over 2,000 merchant ships captured.  Following intervention, the US suffered 54 killed and 43 wounded, with only a single ship lost, and that one was later recaptured.

The undeclared naval war with our former ally was settled with the Treaty of Mortefontaine, also known as the Convention of 1800, and ratified the following year.