Over the last couple of months, we’ve spent some time discussing the Constitutional Convention. We’ll continue to do so, but let’s jump ahead a couple of years. The U.S. Constitution had been ratified and, one-by-one, the remaining state legislatures were voting to join the Union. In fact, of the original 13 Colonies, only New York, North Carolina, and Rhode Island remained independent of the newly-formed government.
And despite the fact that many people were greatly concerned about this new government (a representative republic was a pretty novel idea), a great many more countered that with their immense optimism. In fact, there was hope that this concept of “rule by the people” would spread beyond the borders, to places like…France.
It kind of made sense. Numerous French aristocrats had spent time in America in the years spanning the Revolution and had seen the push for liberty. And let’s face it, French assistance (particularly as the navy was concerned) had been critical, probably indispensable, to the American cause. Furthermore, French financial aid had allowed America (which really had no money to speak of) to continue in a war it couldn’t afford.
So it stood to reason (at least to many prominent Americans) that love of freedom would begin to affect change in a country where the monarchy had, for so long, ruled the day. Late in 1788, Thomas Jefferson, a great lover of France, believed it strongly, and told all his colleagues so. To George Washington he wrote “The nation has been awakened by our revolution, they feel their strength, they are enlightened, their lights are spreading, and they will not retrograde.” He wrote to James Monroe that, within a couple of years, France would have a tolerably free constitution and have shed no blood to attain it. To James Madison he would write (in March of 1789), “France will be quiet this year, because this year at least is necessary for settling her future constitution.”
And there were signs of change. The French legislature was renamed the National Assembly on July 9th, providing evidence of a potential shift of some power to the people. Louis XVI seemed to (grudgingly) accept the idea of a constitutional monarchy which, while still not a republic like the U.S., was a step.
But underneath it all, there were far more sobering rumblings. The French, unlike their American counterparts in the 1760’s and 1770’s, were not trying to throw off the shackles of a foreign government control. They were beginning to revolt against the control of their own government…against hundreds of years of monarchy. The animosity…no, that’s too soft a word, “years of pent-up rage” is likely more accurate – was reaching the boiling point. The problem here was victory didn’t involved expelling a foreign power back to its homeland. Those currently in power were part of France and, much like American Tories and Loyalists who sided with the British in the Revolution, would face recrimination should they lose. And (as we know from the historical record) it would be bloody.
I’m certainly no expert, but this might be an undercurrent that Jefferson, in his hope for France, overlooked. And on July 11, 1789, the future U.S. President might have been thinking of other things anyways. It was on this day that Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, famous in America and Revolutionary history as the Marquis de Lafayette, got up and presented to the recently-renamed National Assembly the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.” It was a great moment for Lafayette, who vowed with other members of the assembly to remain together until a Constitution was formed. It was a great moment for Jefferson as well, who had reviewed the document for the Marquis.
But events later in the day and in subsequent days would conspire to shatter any prospects for a peaceful French Revolution. The streets throughout France, and particularly those in Paris, would run red with French blood.