Friday, February 27, 2015

Émigré Fortunes

Seven year old Louis in 1792, portrait by Alexander Kucharsky

The Legislative Assembly met in an atmosphere of international crisis. For the first time since 1787, the flight to Varennes had made French affairs a subject of concern rather than disdainful satisfaction to foreign powers. In May 1790 the Constituent Assembly had positively renounced war as an instrument of policy, except in self-defence. But after the ignominious recapture of a king who appeared bent on internationalizing his plight, other monarchs were alarmed. In the Declaration of Pillnitz (27 August 1791) the Emperor and the king of Prussia were induced by Louis XVI's two émigré brothers, Artois and Provence, to threaten military intervention. Thousands of army officers had joined the émigrés after Varennes, and were now massing across the frontier dreaming of a return with foreign armies. 

Louis's brother, the comte de Provence, who had escaped to Belgium, had early in July joined the comte d'Artois and Gustavus III of Sweden at Aix-la-Chapelle. Here the emigres made noisy and threatening preparations for an early restoration of the ancien regime in France by force of arms. With Provence claiming to be regent of France as of right, with Conde's forces at Worms swollen by mass desertions of officers from the frontier regiments, these threats no doubt seemed more serious to the French Assembly than they were in fact.

The king and queen shared these dreams; but the new deputies saw them as a provocation. Over the autumn and winter their language became hysterically belligerent towards the German princelings who harboured the émigrés and, behind them, the Habsburg Emperor. They also sought to provoke Louis XVI into compromising himself by passing decrees intensifying penalties against refractory priests and émigrés which they knew he would not sanction. General paranoia was intensified by news of a massive slave uprising in the Caribbean, and the coffee and sugar shortages that followed. Despite fears, evinced by Jacobins like Robespierre, that the debilitated army was in no state to defeat the disciplined forces of Austria and Prussia, most of the country was carried away by war fever. 

Though it was recognised that the emigres congregated at Worms and Coblenz offered only a potential military threat to the country's security, it was against these enemies rather than against emigres in general that action was directed. Other reasons, however, lay behind the decree. There was, for example, the practical problem of filling the twelve hundred commissions in the army vacated by the emigration of royalist officers. Nor could the Assembly ignore the need to check the flight of emigre revenues from France at a time when the assignats were beginning to depreciate. The decree of 9 November imposed on all emigres who had joined the armed concentrations outside French frontiers and who failed to repatriate themselves by 1 January 1792 the penalties of treason-confiscation of their property and capital punishment if caught.

The king (who shared Robespierre's analysis but saw it as a sign of hope for his own rescue) was therefore happy to declare war on the Emperor on 20 April 1792.


Serious talk was also heard in the spring of 1795 of restoring monarchy in the person of Louis XVI's surviving son, a sickly child who might be made acceptable by a carefully controlled, public-spirited education. These hopes, however, were destroyed in June 1795 when `Louis XVII' died; and from his exile in Verona the next month, his uncle the Count de Provence proclaimed his own succession as Louis XVIII in a chillingly uncompromising declaration which promised an almost total restoration of the old regime in the event of his return. That obviously meant giving back national lands to the Church and to émigrés who had incurred confiscation once war broke out. Some émigrés chose this moment to demonstrate their continued intransigence by attempting to invade Brittany with British support in the hope of marching on Paris at the head of a horde of Breton Royalists. They never got beyond the beaches at Quiberon and were shot in their hundreds by their republican captors.


Just as patriotism provided common ground between the emigres and their expropriators, so too did historical determinism. The exiles were haunted by the idea that the Revolution was a work of Providence, or of Fate-call it what you will so long as eternity is invoked to provide miscalculation with its alibi. They were not, however, the only ones who had miscalculated, nor was a mystical conservative fatalism the only kind of determinism. As the Revolution went on, it assumed unforeseen and terrifying forms, yet all the while continued to interweave itself with the belief in progress; it shed layer after layer of its supporters, while making its cause more and more inseparable from the whole national interest. It thus encouraged men to hypostasise events which they failed to understand or which they did not know how to resist, until confusion appeared an organic unity, an ineluctable process. Given certain data, said Toulongeon, revolutions, like physical changes in the material of the universe, are inevitable. Napoleon, with that unfailing realism by which he measured everything except his own ambitions, saw this tendency as the historical formula to reconcile all Frenchmen. In his now notorious historiographical instructions to the Abbe Halma (1808) he recommended an unemotional approach to the horrors of recent years-'the blame attaches neither to those who have perished nor to those who have survived. There was no individual force capable of changing the elements or of foreseeing the events which were born from circumstances and the very nature of things.' Had the emperor written revolutionary history instead of regarding it as a prelude to his legend, he would have spoken with the accents of Thiers and Mignet. These two historians were to be accused of 'fatalism'. It was not their invention. The victor was glad to have 'the very nature of things' legitimising his rule, as it had necessitated the Terror: the defeated were glad to have succumbed to no lesser foe than destiny.

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