When The King Took Flight
The French Revolution changed the way the French lived forever. One specific incident stands out from all the rest, the king’s flight to Varennes. In the book When the King Took Flight Timothy Tackett argues that the king’s flight to Varennes was a pivotal moment in the Revolution. It is clear when reading this text that it was the tipping point of the revolution, although if the flight were to never take place the French Revolution would still have taken place. The king’s flight to Varennes reassured the French people that a change needed to happen and it needed to happen now.
When King Louis XVI arrived in Varennes on his way to the Austrian frontier he thought they would be able to pass through with ease thanks to their disguises and their false paperwork. A few miles from their target, the royals were stopped and their papers inspected. After arousing the suspicion of some locals, the incognito king and queen were politely asked to wait until more checks could be made. The disguises no longer worked when Louis could not but accept the profession of loyalty from a local judge who recognized him and knelt, sighing, "Ah, Your Highness." "Yes, I am your king," Louis replied. "I have come to live among you, my faithful children, whom I will never abandon." (Tackett 8). The only problem with the king’s statement was that it was a lie. He was he was trying to abandon his people during this time of uncertainty in France. Once the people of Varennes undoubtedly knew that the imposters were the king and his family they understood, “for the sake of the nation and the revolution, he said, the king and his family must be stopped.” (Tackett 4).
This was one of the supreme symbolic moments of the revolution. From his own mouth King Louis had revealed the unreconstructed nature of his world-view. Whatever the proclamations of the revolution, it seems clear he never truly embraced the idea that his power was less than absolute. Here was the living incarnation of the Bourbon line in direct confrontation with humble citizens, who would shortly force his humiliating return to Paris. Yet to him they were children. He did not respect them or the oath he was breaking by trying to flee the country. (Tackett 156).
King Louis XVI was a distant king to put it simply. His advisors and the National Assembly easily persuaded King Louis in his decisions. During his time as king he spent many weeks hunting. Sometimes even canceling meetings with foreign ambassadors to slip away and hunt. While on his trips he took meticulous notes on every single animal he killed. Amounting to over 200,000 pieces in over fourteen years. (Tackett 28). A king that wants what is best for his country and his people would put his own pleasures aside and work for the greater good of the country. His mindset from the start of his reign was not for the people, it was for himself. As we see later when he tries to flee the city. Instead the kings should have stayed in Paris and tried to adapt to the ever-changing political ideals of his country.
The news of the kings failed attempt to leave France under disguise spread like wildfire throughout the country. Church bells in every city were alerting the people, as well as the messengers sent out by cities to tell the people what had happened. The rate at which the news spread was impressive for a day in age where there were no telephones Internet. This rapid speed of communication shows the importance of the event. (Tackett 16). These exchanges of information lead to many anti-royal backlashes and the covering up of royal symbols in public spaces all over France. Up to this point they had seen King Louis as a faithful ally in the fight for rights and freedom. However, upon his departure he left a note, criticizing the measures taken by the National Assembly, and claiming that he was forced into signing the documents that granted them power, while limiting his.
With the king no longer in charge of his country the Third Estate found its voice. The Jacobins, who were known as the watchdogs for the revolution, provided this outlet for the people. In many of the letters that different Jacobin groups sent to each other and the National Assembly they spoke of how, “this prince has entirely lost his reputation… In forsaking his vows, in violating his solemn oaths, Louis had deserted the just cause of a magnanimous and sensitive people who had always worshipped their kings as idols, loving them in spite of their vices.” (Tackett 191). The people of France were clear that they did not want the king back in power. In fact the only reason they still wanted him around was the fact that they had never been without a king. They simply did not know what to do without one.
Knowing that a change must take place ideas were started in the Third Estate as to what type of government should replace the old Monarchy. Different ideas flooded Paris from every city. Many citizens’ voices were heard through clubs such as the Jacobins or the Society of Friends. While the new government was attempting to be formed the Deputies in the National Assembly tried to unify and keep the country together as one. During this time a small amount of people were talking about the idea of a republic. When these voices started to be heard, many people disliked the idea of it due to the fact that there would be no more king. For hundreds of years kings had ruled the French land. People were afraid to no longer have this one person they had looked up to their entire life. In the end the republic is what was best for the Third Estate and the entire French nation. (Tackett 190). The revolution took many years to come full circle, but when it was done the people of France finally had a say in the government. No longer would they just be mere peasants tending to farms.
While this flight was a major turning point during the revolution it was not the single reason the revolution started. The revolution had already begun and was growing into a bigger movement at the time of the flight. The revolution was inevitable. The king and his family being forced to return after fleeing the country just increased the speed at which the revolution took place. With or without this incident the revolution would still have taken place. The king was not fit to run the country from the beginning. He lacked will and determination to work out the problems he had started. Also the way the Aristocracy treated the French people, mainly the Third Estate, had to be changed. The unwillingness to change, as time passed, ultimately would lead to him being dethroned one way or another.
The king’s flight to Varennes was a major event during the French Revolution. It intensified the citizen’s displeasure with the current king and the form of government. The backlash from the failed escape increased the speed at which things changed in France. The revolution was inevitable. The flight made it possible for a change in France immediately. King Louis XVI was the last king the French would ever know. A new republic had been created.
Tackett, Timothy. When The King Took Flight. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2003, Print