Source Problems on the French Revolution


PROBLEM IV.–The Flight of the King, June 20, 1791


IN the two years between the insurrection of October, 1789, and the flight of Louis XVI. in June, 1791, lies the period of the complete transformation of French society, of its economic, political, judicial, and ecclesiastical reorganization. Poor in dramatic episodes–the federation of July 14, 1790, alone comparing in significance with the events of June 20th and 23d, July 14th, August 4th, and October 5, 1789–it seems to lack unity, and does not appeal at once to the imagination. Although Paris holds the center of the stage through the whole period, the revolution has become a French affair, the theater embracing the entire territory of Prance, from the Atlantic to the Rhine, and from the North Sea to the Pyrenees. The revolution even promises to become a European affair, and we notice from time to time the European actors waiting at the wings ready to make their entrance. To give a vital unity to the period, to trace the chronological development of this unity is an extremely difficult task, but one of fundamental importance. For, after all, here is the real revolution; the realization of the desires of the French people expressed in their cahiers; the execution of the instructions given to the representatives sent to Versailles; the culmination of nearly a century of agitation and discussion.

What legislative body, working under like conditions, ever made a larger, more permanent, or more valuable contribution to the reconstruction of a society than the first national assembly of Prance? And it was not simply a paper constitution these men gave to their country. In fact the constitution as an organized whole did not exist until the summer of 1791, when the decrees of which it consisted were already in force, had already created working institutions. It was a new Prance across which Louis XVI. fled in the summer of 1791. The national assembly did not simply destroy the old institutions, the institutions of an outgrown social organization; it actually created new institutions in the last two years of its existence. To understand the period, then, is to know when and how the assembly modified or destroyed the old institutions, when and how it called new institutions into existence, what these new institutions were, and, finally, how these legislative creations became vital, active institutions on the soil of Prance. But to know all this even would not be to know the period fully. The destruction of the old institutions did not take place without the opposition of the classes that had profited by them. As the reconstruction went on, as it advanced from legislative acts to the application of legislative acts, as group after group suffered from the labors of readjustment, the opposition grew more marked, more serious, and the different groups were more inclined to make common cause, to form two great hostile groups, the friends and the foes of the revolution. France armed itself that the national assembly might live and do its work; it remained armed to defend the new Prance against the old. This struggle between the old and the new, gradually producing a situation which led first to civil and later to foreign war, must be given adequate treatment if the period as a whole is to be rendered intelligible.

The two most important economic events of the revolution were the destruction of feudal rights and the confiscation and sale of the property of the church. The abolition of feudal rights, the work of the armed peasants of France, legalized by the national assembly on the night of August 4, 1789, fell in the period before October, 1789, but the execution of the decree of the assembly, the determination of what feudal rights were property rights and must be purchased, what were personal and must be abolished without compensation, the problem of forcing the payment of feudal dues until a settlement had been made–all these matters fell within the two years we are dealing with. A committee on feudal rights attempted to bring order out of chaos, to separate things that were inseparable, and the assembly passed laws recommended by the committee, but nothing was settled. The feudal dues were not paid, even when they were property rights, and not a small part of the disturbances in different parts of Prance during these two years was due to the strife over feudal dues, the attempts of the owners of feudal rights either to collect them or to obtain compensation.

The seizure of the property of the church was the work of the assembly, and due to the financial distress of the government, the immediate cause for the convocation of the states general. The assembly had been called by the government in the hope that it would increase the governmental revenues by submitting all classes to taxation. The representatives, on the other hand, had instructions to grant no financial aid to the government until the constitution had been made. "The blessed deficit" was regarded as the most powerful ally of the revolution. To abide literally by these instructions in the summer of 1789 was not practicable, nor did it seem necessary after the revolution of July. The treasury was in distress, and the assembly permitted Necker to make two loans in August, neither of which was fully taken. As the distress increased and heroic measures became necessary, Necker was allowed to levy a tax of twenty-five per cent. upon net revenues. When this also was unsuccessful the assembly resorted to a measure that had been suggested several times already but had not been seriously considered; it was nothing less than the confiscation of the buildings and lands of the church and the sale of these to pay the debts of the state. The measure was proposed in October, 1789, and became a law November 2, 1789. It "placed the property of the church at the disposition of the state"; in other words, the state did not at once take possession of the property. Other decrees, the natural consequence of this one, were passed in the last month of 1789 and the first months of 1790. A paper money, drawing interest and secured by the property of the church, was created to the amount of four hundred million francs; property of the church to the same amount was placed in the hands of the municipal governments for sale, the national government agreeing to receive its own paper in payment for the property; decrees providing for the care of the debts of the clergy and freeing the lands from all feudal dues were passed, thus rendering the titles to the property unencumbered, and purchasers appeared in large numbers. The financial question was temporarily settled, and the revolution struck root in the soil of Prance, being assured of the support of the purchasers of the church lands. The clergy, deprived of the revenues from their great properties, as they had previously been stripped of their tithes, were made financially dependent upon the state, a body of public servants without political independence. Here is found, probably, the chief cause of the hostility of the upper orders in the church–the church aristocracy–to the revolution.

The judicial reforms, proposed in the fall of 1789, passed by the assembly and put into effect in the fall of 1790, swept away the old courts with their privileges and abuses and substituted for them a system of courts extending from the court of the justice of the peace to the supreme courts of the districts, presided over by judges elected by the people and administering justice gratuitously. The old parliaments were suspended in the fall of 1789 and abolished in the summer of 1790. Some of them protested against their suspension, but the summary treatment they received at the hands of the assembly, convincing them that a new day had dawned, put an end to their open opposition.

The political decrees passed by the assembly in November and December, 1789, and put in effect in 1790, were no less revolutionary than the economic measures just described. The foundations of the constitution–the limitation of the king’s power, the creation of a single representative assembly, meeting annually, and the establishment of ministerial responsibility–had been laid in September. In November the assembly passed a law excluding its members from the ministry, thus rendering impossible a ministry supported by the majority of the assembly and capable of forming and executing a governmental program. In December it passed laws creating municipalities, departments, and districts, administered by representatives elected by the people. All the administrative bodies of the ancien régime, composed of officials who had purchased their offices from the government or owed them to royal appointment, disappeared in the summer of 1790 when these new administrative bodies came into existence. In the fall of 1790 there were no more provinces, no more provincial assemblies, only eighty-three departments administering their own affairs.

The closing of the monasteries and the reorganization of the church were the natural consequences of the economic legislation already mentioned. A large part of the church property was in the hands of the monastic orders. The assembly passed decrees forbidding the taking of permanent monastic vows, closing up many of the houses, and providing the monks and nuns with a living pension if they wished to leave the monastery or convent. At a later period in the revolution all the orders were abolished. In the period of the constituent assembly a distinction was made between the orders engaged in teaching, nursing, and industrial pursuits, and those made up of members who passed their lives in retirement; the former, as engaged in social activities, were treated with consideration and allowed to continue their work. The abolition of church revenues and the formation of departments made it necessary for the assembly to adapt the organization of the church to the new social framework, to realize the reforms called for by the cahiers, and to provide for the support of the clergy. A committee had been chosen in the fall of 1789, and after a report made by this committee and discussed by the assembly, the "civil constitution of the clergy" became a law on July 12, 1790. The new dioceses were formed corresponding to the limits of the departments. At the head of each diocese was a bishop, and under him were curates. Both were elected; the bishops by the electors who chose the members of the departmental organizations, the curates by the electors for the district. There were ten metropolitan districts in France, presided over by metropolitan bishops. The salaries of the bishops in many cases were largely decreased, those of the curates increased. Provision was made for the reorganization of the parishes. All this was done without consultation with the pope, and no place was left for the interference of papal authority in what was clearly the constitution of a national church. It was provided that each bishop and curate should take an oath "in the presence of the municipal officers, the people, and the clergy to guard with care the faithful of his diocese who were confided to him, to be loyal to the nation, the law, and the king, and to support with all his power the constitution decreed by the national assembly and accepted by the king." If they failed to do this, the bishopric or curacy "would be looked upon as vacant." The king did not make public the civil constitution until August 26, 1790. When it became clear that a large majority of the higher clergy would not conform to the requirements of the new system unless it were approved by the pope, the assembly passed a decree ordering the clergy to take the prescribed oath. This decree was also sanctioned by the king, although very unwillingly, and in the spring of 1791 the clergy were forced to choose between taking the oath and resignation. When they refused to take the oath–almost all the archbishops and bishops refused, but the majority of the curates took it–the electors were called together and elected their successors. The recalcitrant bishops and curates refused to recognize their successors, and the church of France was torn by a schism which was to develop into civil war.

To trace the course of the opposition to the revolution and that of the supporters of it during the two years from October, 1789, to June, 1791, is a much more difficult task than the description of the work of reorganization during this period. The most striking manifestation of the existence of a new France and of a determination to defend it against all comers is found in the series of federations beginning in the fall of 1789 and culminating on July 14, 1790, in the spectacular demonstration on the Champ de Mars. The significance of this event cannot be understood until it is viewed as the last of a series of federations, originating independently of Paris and the assembly, celebrated now in the east, now in the south, and now in the west of France, increasing in size and importance with each repetition, and finally sweeping in upon the capital in a great wave of national enthusiasm. The federations had two features in common: the members were delegates of the national guards from the region represented; they gathered around an altar and took an oath to defend the constitution and the work of the national assembly. The oath was taken on July 14th by a vast assemblage of several hundred thousand composed of the inhabitants of Paris and of armed delegates from all parts of France. "We swear," it ran, "to be forever faithful to the nation, to the law, and to the king; to maintain with all our might the constitution decreed by the national assembly and accepted by the king; to protect, in conformity with the laws, the security of persons and property, the free circulation of grain and food in the interior of the kingdom, and the collection of public contributions, under whatever form they may exist; to remain united to all Frenchmen by the indissoluble bonds of fraternity." At a signal given by a tricolored flame all, raising their hands, cried, "We swear it." As with faces turned toward the altar of the country, erected in the center of the great plain, and with hands raised to heaven the multitude took this solemn oath, it was not simply the new France crying defiance at the old, it was the outward expression of French unity, of the culmination of more than a thousand years of history. The significance of the act is heightened when it is remembered that at the same hour, through the length and breadth of the land, the same oath was being taken. "O age! O memory!" exclaimed an enthusiastic witness of the federation, "we have heard this sublime oath which will be soon, we hope, the oath of all the peoples of the earth. Twenty-five millions of peoples have repeated it at the same hour in all the parts of this empire. The echoes of the Alps, of the Pyrenees, of the vast caverns of the Rhine and the Meuse have repeated it afar; they will transmit it without doubt to the most remote limits of Europe and Asia."

Unfortunately for France, the oath found no friendly echoes in the hearts of those who had been stripped of honor, privilege, power, or wealth by the revolution. To them the revolution meant disaster and must be resisted by every means. In this resistance there was no common purpose and no unity of plan. The parliaments protested, and were severely reprimanded by the assembly; the minority of the clergy and the nobility in the assembly harassed and hampered its action, but only irritated the majority, and were responsible for more radical action than would otherwise have been taken; protests against the decrees of the assembly, printed and circulated about the country, simply helped to widen the breach between the parties, but did not check the revolution nor render it more conservative; the attempt of Mounier, after abandoning Paris in October, to raise the Dauphiné against the assembly was wrecked on a decree of the assembly; the émigrés on the frontiers were noisy but harmless; a threatened revolt of the east of Prance and an invasion from Piedmont came to naught; the armed camp of Jalès, that for a short time took on serious proportions and threatened to light up a religious war, vanished after a brief and ineffective existence. The most dangerous and the most effective opposition was to come from the members of the clergy, who remained in their dioceses and parishes, refused to take the oath, and stirred up their parishioners against the revolution, declaring it was a revolt against religion.

It was the clash between the revolution and the church which influenced Louis XVI. the most profoundly. Had it been possible to reconcile the church to the changes, the whole history of the revolution would have been different. That such a reconciliation did not take place was due to Plus VI. In the spring of 1790 he secretly denounced the acts of the assembly, but did not make his declaration public. He did not even pronounce publicly against the civil constitution, but threw the responsibility for action upon Louis XVI. and his advisers. It was not until Avignon had been lost to him, until nothing more could be gained from the assembly by withholding his condemnation of its work, that the pope finally declared himself publicly in a brief of March 10, 1791. He passed in review the civil, political, and religious work of the constituent assembly, condemning it in its entirety. "The end of the assembly," he affirmed, "was to destroy the Catholic religion, and with it the obedience due to kings. The proof of it was that all its decrees were inspired by that sacrilegious declaration of the rights of man which proclaimed these monstrosities: freedom of thought and of the press, the equality of all men. These pretended imprescriptible rights are so many revolts against the authority of the Creator, and the assembly in proclaiming them renewed the heresies of the Vaudois, the Bégards, of Wyclif and Luther. The so much vaunted liberty and equality are only a means of overthrowing Catholicism." It was a declaration of war upon the revolution.

Long before the appearance of this brief Louis XVI. had decided not to accept the revolution, not to remain a constitutional king of Prance. It is true that in February, 1790, he had appeared before the assembly, had publicly sworn to "defend and maintain constitutional liberty," and "in concert with the queen . . . to prepare, at an early hour, the mind and heart of his son for the new order of things, which circumstances have brought about." On the Champ de Mars, before the assembled people, he had taken the oath of the federation. But the civil constitution, the decree of November 27, 1790, requiring the clergy to take the oath, the schism in the church, the secret condemnation of the pope–all this had affected him more than the encroachment upon his political rights. He was profoundly pious. He determined to escape from Paris, to take refuge in the midst of loyal troops on the eastern frontier and within reach of Austrian assistance, for Marie Antoinette had been promised aid by her brother when she had escaped to the frontier. The preparation of the plans began in the fall of 1790, and were completed in June, 1791. Bouillé was in charge of the troops, and Montmédy the objective point. Detachments of troops were to be placed along the route to be followed from Châlons to Montmédy. At Varennes, through which the fugitives were to pass, there was no post-house and horses must be sent in advance and left at the entrance to town, that the changes might be made before entering Varennes. A commodious and luxurious traveling carriage was built, passports were obtained, and after a final postponement the royal family actually set out on the night of June 20th, aided in their final arrangements by the young Swedish officer the Comte de Fersen, whom contemporary scandal described as a lover of the queen.

It is not without reason that the historian has always regarded the flight of the king as one of the critical events of the revolution. His escape would have meant civil and foreign war. He was brought back to Paris a discredited, a perjured monarch. Deprived of his power, placed under guard in the Tuileries, he was for nearly three months a silent spectator of the activities of the first French republic. It was but natural that the idea of substituting a republic for the monarchy should have been publicly advocated at this time. Could a constitutional monarchy with Louis XVI. on the throne ever be successful? Would he ever act in good faith? Could he again be trusted? These were the questions raised by his flight, and upon the answer to them rested the fate of the great work of the national assembly.


1. Procès-verbal de l’assemblée nationale. See critical bibliography for Problem I. The Procès-verbal for June 21, 1791, bears no number. It is inserted between Nos. 686 and 687, the latter number being the Procès-verbal for June 27th. The Procès-verbal for June 21st appeared in three parts of 21, 24, and 24 pages each. The first part had a title page with the title, "Procès-verbal de l’assemblée nationale, du mardi, 21 Juin 1791. A Paris, de l’imprimérie nationale, 1791," and in the center of the page the seal with the words, "Assemblée nationale. La loi et le roi, 1789." The second and third parts had no title page, simply a heading with the words, "Ire suite du procès-verbal de la séance permanente," "IIme suite," etc, The Procès-verbal for June 26th was the "IOme et dernière suite," etc.

2. Rapport du sieur Drouet in Relation du départ de Louis XVI., par le Duc de Choiseul, 139. Paris, 1822. This is a reprint of the statement made by Drouet on June 24th before the general council of the commune of Paris and dictated by him in the office of the Journal des Clubs, A somewhat different account is given in the Procès-verbal of the national assembly, before which Drouet made a statement on the same day.

3. Extraits du registre des déliberations de la commune de la ville de Varennes, June 23, 1791, in Bimbenet, Fuite de Louis XVI., 203. Deuxième édition. Paris (n.d.).

4. Examination of Maldent in the Abbey prison, July 7, 1791, in Bimbenet, La Fuite de Louis XVI., 92. On his return to Paris, after his arrest at Varennes, Maldent, one of the body guards, was thrown into prison and examined there on July 7th, in accordance with a decree of the national assembly dated June 26, 1791. Bimbenet reproduced the examination from the original record.

5. Lettre de la municipalité de Sainte-Menehould à M. le président de l’assemblée nationale, le 21 Juin, 1791, in Ancelon, La vérité sur la fuite at l’arrestation de Louis XVI. à Varennes, 188, Paris, 1866.

6. Procès-verbal of the general assembly of the commune of Varennes, June 27, 1791, in Bimbenet, La fuite de Louis XVI. à Varennes, 193.

7. Tourzel, Madame la duchesse de, Mémoires, 2 vols., Paris, 1883. Madame de Tourzel was the governess of the royal children, and accompanied the royal family on their flight. She was born in 1749, and died in 1832. Her Mémoires were written after 1797, as she refers (I, 302, note) to the Mémoires of the Marquis de Bouillé published in that year. They were probably written some time later.

8. Relation du voyage de Varennes, adressée par un prélat, membre de l’assemblée constituante, à un ministre en pays étranger, in Weber, Mémoires, 2 vols., Paris, 1822. The writer was probably the Archbishop of Toulouse, M. de Fontanges. The account was written after 1797, as the Mémoires of Bouillé, published on that date, are mentioned (I, 76). Concerning the sources of his information the writer says: "I have simply the intention of retracing for you faithfully and without partiality what has remained graven upon my memory of conversations I have had with the queen herself, later with M. de Bouillé, and with other persons who appeared to me very well informed concerning all the details of this event."


1. Which of these sources contain the testimony of eye-witnesses?

2. Is any account made up entirely of what the witness saw or heard?

3. What is the value of the account of M. de Fontanges?

4. How does it compare in value with the Mémoires of Madame de Tourzel?

5. In what respect are the examination of Maldent, the statement of Drouet, the extract from the Procès-verbal of the council of Sainte-Menehould, and the letter of the commune of Varennes more valuable than the Mémoires of Madame de Tourzel?

6. In what respect would the value of these sources be affected by their character–that is, by the fact that Maldent’s statement was forced from him in court, that Drouet was recounting his deeds before a public assembly, etc.?

7. Are any of these sources dependent?

8. Establish the facts relating to the escape from Paris: (1) When did it take place, day and hour? (2) Who were the members of the royal party? (3) Who assisted them in their escape from Paris? (4) How did the royal family escape unnoticed from the chateau? (5) Describe the incidents connected with the passage from the chateau to the fiacre. (6) What do you know of the passage from the Carrousel to the barrier? (7) what happened outside the barrier? (8) Give an account of the flight to the first relay station. (9) How much of what you have stated is certainty? (10) What would you like to know that cannot be answered by the evidence?

9. Give an account of the action of the assembly on June 21st and explain the significance of each decree.

10. what kind of a government existed in France on the evening of June 21st?

11. To obtain this form of government, how many changes did the assembly make?

12. Why did the French people wish to prevent the escape of the king?

13. Describe the flight up to Varennes: (1) Did the presence of troops help or hinder the flight? (2) Up to Sainte-Menehould had anything happened to make the outcome uncertain? (3) What happened of a critical nature at Sainte-Menehould? (4) Was success impossible after Sainte-Menehould?

14. Describe the events in Varennes: (1) Why was the passage through Varennes of so much importance? (2) Who was responsible for the failure of the flight? (3) Who stopped the king’s carriage at Varennes? (4) Did the town government of Sainte-Menehould send Drouet to Varennes? (5) At what time was the king arrested at Varennes? (6) Why was such a large body of militia summoned to Varennes? (7) At what time did the king leave Varermes for Paris? (8) Why did he not start earlier? (9) Why did the king leave Paris? (10) What did he intend to do?

15. Establish the facts, make an outline, and write a narrative dealing with "The Flight of the King, June 20, 1791."


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Chicago: "Problem IV. The Flight of the King, June 20, 1791," Source Problems on the French Revolution in Source Problems on the French Revolution, ed. Fred Morrow Fling and Helene Dresser Fling (New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1913), 249–266. Original Sources, accessed February 4, 2023,

MLA: . "Problem IV. The Flight of the King, June 20, 1791." Source Problems on the French Revolution, in Source Problems on the French Revolution, edited by Fred Morrow Fling and Helene Dresser Fling, New York, Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1913, pp. 249–266. Original Sources. 4 Feb. 2023.

Harvard: , 'Problem IV. The Flight of the King, June 20, 1791' in Source Problems on the French Revolution. cited in 1913, Source Problems on the French Revolution, ed. , Harper & Brothers Publishers, New York, pp.249–266. Original Sources, retrieved 4 February 2023, from