Stories of the French Revolution - Walter Montgomery

The Marseillese

After the king had attempted to escape on the longest day in the year 1791, many were the stormy debates in the French Parliament on the subject. The question uppermost for a time was, "What are we to do with the monarchy?" Some answered briefly and bluntly, "Do with it? Why, do away with it." "Do with it?" asked the Royalists. "Preserve it at any cost;" and, for the present, the advice of the Royalists was followed, and the "Men of the Mountain" were silenced. But yet from all parts of France there came petitions that the monarch should be deposed; and one very urgent body of patriots came all the way from Marseilles to beg that the king, who ran away like a naughty boy from school, should no longer sit on the throne. One of these fiery speakers said these remarkable words: "When our ancestors landed on the coast of France and founded our city long ago, they flung a bar of iron into the bay. Now, this bar shall float again on the waves of the Mediterranean Sea before we, the people of Marseilles, will consent to be slaves."

The National Assembly, however, having decided on the 15th of July—that is, about three weeks after the king's return—that the monarchy should not be abolished, the hot-tempered men of Marseilles went about their business; but it became clear from that time what side they would take, when the great question of king or no king came to be decided.

And, as we have seen, when the king in the next June refused to allow two decrees of Parliament,—one about the banishment of priests, and the other about the levying of twenty thousand patriots for the defense of Paris,—a certain member, named Barbaroux, remembering the fiery temper of the deputation from Marseilles, wrote to the mayor of that city, and begged him to send to Paris "six hundred men who knew how to die" (qui savent mourir).

The letter was carried in the leather post-bag by the slow-going diligence, and in due time reached Marseilles. The six hundred men who knew how to die came forth, and were duly enrolled and armed, and on the 5th of July they began their long march. The authorities of the town said to them, "March, and strike down the tyrant;" and with these orders they went their way, musket on shoulder and sword on thigh. They also dragged after them two pieces of cannon, not knowing what might happen. Many other men, bound on the same errand, were wending their way to Paris about this time, being invited by the National Assembly, who contemplated the holding of another such gathering as we saw before in the Champ de Mars, when there were such preparations and such rejoicing. But while those went by twos and threes or twenties or thirties, it was Marseilles alone which sent forth a little army of "six hundred men who knew how to die."

On this mass of Southern fire and valor the eyes of all men were soon fastened. It was for them that the wonderful tune called "The Marseillaise" was composed and set to suitable words. The happy composer of this most noble song was a certain colonel, named Rouget de Lisle, who long survived the stormy period of the Revolution, and who was alive as late as 1836. Those of our readers who have never heard this tune, or have heard it without knowing the story of its composition, should get some good pianoforte-player to play it, and then let them say whether it is not a tune to "make the blood tingle in their veins," as Carlyle says.

The "six hundred men who knew how to die" left Marseilles, as we have said, on the 5th of July. On the 14th was the feast on the Champ de Mars, but the Marseillese were not in time for that. It was a sad feast, unworthy of the name. The place was bright with sunshine, and the people were there in abundance, and the king went, and there were trees of liberty and bands of music; but as for Louis, no man said, "God bless him!" The popular man of the hour was Petion, the Mayor of Paris, who had been dismissed by the king's friends and restored again. Chalked on men's hats were the words "Vive Petion!" "Petion or Death!" Some were afraid that the king would be murdered; and he himself was not without fear of it, for he went to the Champ de Mars with bullet-proof armor under his waistcoat.

On the 22nd of July, being Sunday, the Assembly proclaimed the country to be in danger. The same sad story, "La patrie est en danger!" was emblazoned on a large banner, and it was cried aloud by heralds with sound of trumpet. And now, in spite of the royal "veto" upon enlistment of volunteers, and in answer to the mournful tidings "Our country is in danger!" hundreds of young men might be seen that Sunday afternoon enrolling their names in a book in every section of Paris. As each volunteer signed his name, there was a shout of "Vive la patrie!" and sounds of weeping from some who were rejected because they were too small. In a day or two ten thousand were on their way to Soissons, where a camp was formed.

On July 25 the Duke of Brunswick, with thirty thousand foot and ten thousand horse, struck his tents, and marched on Paris. He had many emigrants in his ranks. He said in his proclamation what he meant to do for France. He meant to restore the king, and to hang everybody who resisted him, and to reduce Paris, if she would not submit, to a heap of rubbish.

This proclamation inflamed the minds of the French people yet more, and made them resolve to do what they had to do with all their might.



It was now felt by all patriots that the time had come to pluck the king from his place, and put him under lock and key or in the silent tomb. He was, as they thought, the cause of this invasion of their country; and there is no doubt that an insurrection on a large scale was now being organized in Paris with as much secrecy as possible. It was, however, not to take place until after the arrival of the "six hundred who knew how to die." These men had been marching day by day upon the dusty roads of France ever since the 5th of July, and they were now drawing nigh the "tyrant" whom they had been sent to "strike down." As the crow flies, Paris may be distant from Marseilles about four hundred and eighty miles; by road it is more. On the 29th of July the six hundred were at Charenton, where several leading patriots met them, and where they were entertained with a dinner at the Blue Dial. On the 30th they made a grand public entry into Paris, and were met by the Jacobin Club in a body on the site of the fallen Bastille. Having with some difficulty forced their way through the crowded streets, they reached the Hotel de Ville, where Mayor Petion welcomed them and received their muskets. They then marched on to a tavern, where a plain repast was prepared for them.

This dinner was not fated to be eaten in peace, for the arrival of the six hundred was noised abroad, and, of course, much detested by the Royalists. A certain loyal body of National Guards, formed of rich and respectable men from a wealthy quarter of Paris, happened to be on guard at the Tuileries the same day; and these men, or part of them who were off duty for a while, chanced to be dining not far from the tavern where the six hundred were about to dine. These Nationals had dined, and were strolling about, when they were hooted by some of the mob who had followed the Marseillese. Words begat blows; and as some of the Nationals drew their swords, the mob cried out, "Help, men of Marseilles!" The six hundred had not yet sat down to their meal, and, hearing the cries, they opened the tavern windows, and leaped out, drawing their swords at the same time. The Nationals, not liking the looks of such fierce fellows, retired, at first face to face with the foe, but, finding this would not do, they wheeled round and fled. Quick over the Tuileries drawbridge or into the muddy ditch they sprang. One man, too stout to fly, got a blow from the flat of a sword; others were cut or pricked in the back; and another, who had twice fired a pistol at his pursuers and missed them all, was run through and died on the spot. Such sad events happened on the first day spent by the six hundred in Paris. They evidently knew how to kill as well as how to die.

The great crisis was clearly drawing nigh. More and more loudly came the clamor for deposing the king. The galleries of the Assembly were now crammed with excited women, or men waving swords, and interrupting the debate with shouts of "Depose the king!"

On the 3rd of August the Mayor Petion and all the Council came and openly petitioned for it; every patriot wished it, and the Assembly could do nothing until they had promised to consider the question on the 9th of the same month.

On Sunday, the 5th, the king held a levee at the Tuileries. It was his last! Never for a long time had one been so crowded. Outside the palace, within a few steps, the restless city was all astir, demanding in every street the deposition of the king. Inside, a last, but fruitless attempt was being made to carry the king away to Rouen; but the undecided monarch would not seize his last chance of escape.

"No," said he; "I believe the insurrection is not so near as you think."

But he was fatally mistaken, as we shall see.