Quarry the granite rock with razors, or moor the vessel with a thread of silk; then may you hope with such keen and delicate instruments as human knowledge and human reason to contend against those giants, the passion and the pride of man. — John Cardinal Newman

Stories of the French Revolution - Walter Montgomery




The National Oath

Happier days followed the king's removal to Paris than were expected. The onward progress of the Revolution seemed for a time arrested. The palace of the Tuileries was splendidly furnished for the royal family, and the blue uniforms of the National Guards were ever seen patrolling before it. The little prince had a garden of his own, and a little summer-house, and tools to work with, and he might be watched at his work by the people as they passed along the street. The National Assembly held its sittings in the Riding School close by, and were constantly engaged in the work of a new Constitution.

The king no doubt felt the restraint laid upon him. He was free to go where he liked in the vast pile of the Tuileries and its spacious grounds; he was also free to be driven anywhere about Paris, where he was well received; but he was not free to roam the woods on a hunting expedition. He once more took to his favourite pursuit of lock-making, and, as we shall see, fitted up a secret iron safe in one of the walls, in which afterward many important State papers were found, some of which did him great damage at his trial. For forty-one months did Louis inhabit the palace, while the Revolution went on, sometimes slowly, sometimes rapidly, to its end.

Many of the senators, Mirabeau among them, saw that the power of the king was likely to be made too small, and they therefore tried to retain for him a certain part of the rule his ancestors had. On this account these men fell in the esteem of the masses. There were many of a different mind in the Assembly,—men like Robespierre and his party, who were for putting away the king altogether.

Beside the senators, who actually made the laws, there were two things which wielded great power. One was the newspapers; the other was the clubs. There were some papers loud for the king, others as loud for the people and dead against king and Nobles. Of those which were published against the king and Nobles, none was more bitter and outspoken than that edited by Marat, and called the "People's Friend." Among the clubs there was one which has become more famous than any club which ever was or ever will be. It was called the Jacobin Club. It got that name from its meeting in what was once the Church of the Jacobins. This club, which began among the Bretons, was always noted for its extreme violence. The most advanced Republicans belonged to it. The old church was seated for twelve hundred, and there was a gallery as well for women. There the leading spirits of the Revolution used to speak their burning words. No one was admitted there except by a ticket. At first the Jacobin Club was not hot enough for some, while it was too violent for others; and so two branches broke from it. Danton, of whom we shall hear much, formed the Club of the Cordeliers, which for a time was even hotter than that of the Jacobins; but he and those who followed him after a time returned to the Jacobin Club, which was called the Mother Society.

It happened one day that Louis thought it might do some good if he paid a visit to the National Assembly in the Riding School; so he sent word over to say he was coming. Some preparations were made for his visit, such as a purple covering with gold fleur-de-lis on it spread over the president's chair, so as to make it an impromptu throne, and a carpet laid down for his Majesty's feet. When Louis entered they all rose; and when he said a few simple words in his own .simple way, they one and all gave him some hearty cheers. And when he was in his palace once more, some of the members were sent across to thank him for his kindness in visiting them; and one of the senators proposed that they should all renew the National Oath.

This idea was acted on at once. Every member stood up and swore afresh to be true to king, law, and country; and the oath was also renewed at the Town-hall, and in all the streets of Paris, where vast excited crowds swore under the canopy of heaven, while drums rolled and the city was illuminated. This was the fourth day of February, 1790.

And then the idea went forth from Paris into every corner of France. For three weeks the swearing of the oath went on, till it is supposed every French man and woman had taken it. One mother in Brittany gathered her ten children, and made them all take the oath in her presence; so that in many cases the children swore as well as the parents.

But this simple visit of the king to the Assembly, and the simple act of one member suggesting that all the rest should renew the National Oath, led to a surprising scene in the following July; for it occurred to someone that it would be a grand thing to assemble deputies from each department, or county or shire as we should say, in Paris, who there, as representing the whole of France, should swear the oath in the presence of the king, the army, the Assembly, and as many citizens as could be packed together.

Each town and city had its own swearing-day before the grand one at Paris. We read the account of a very fine one at Lyons, written by Madame Roland, the wife of the famous minister of state,—where there was a rock made of painted wood, fifty feet in height, with a huge figure of Liberty on the top and a sort of temple beneath. Fifty thousand men assembled on that occasion to swear, and there were four times that number of people looking on.

But as Paris was the greatest city of all, and the mother city, so her grand swearing-day was to surpass all others. It was decided that it should be on the same day as the fall of the Bastille and in the Champ de Mars, and nothing should be spared to make it the grandest thing of its kind. A huge sort of theatre was to be scooped out of the earth in the Champ de Mars by the spades of fifteen thousand workmen. But the work was not begun soon enough, and it seemed that the fifteen thousand were rather lazy, and refused to do more work when offered more wages; therefore, when they threw down their tools one July afternoon, a number of volunteers picked them up, and began to work with a will. The next day, instead of waiting till the spades and barrows were not in use, the excited citizens brought picks and shovels of their own, and came marching to the scene of action, headed by young women carrying green boughs, and shouting the famous Ca ira!—"It shall go on!"

The effect was wonderful; you might count, if you cared to take the trouble, volunteer workers to the number of a hundred and fifty thousand, men of every trade and profession,—printers in paper caps, water-carriers, charcoal-men, the rag-sorter, and the elegant dandy, the lawyer and the judge, the mayor himself, and General Lafayette. The king came to see the strange sight, and was very well received. A number of men surrounded him, spades on shoulders, as a sort of body-guard suited to the occasion. He used afterward to say, poor man! that those days were some of the happiest he ever spent.

Even ladies came to help, and some patriotic wine-merchant would now and then trundle into the diggings a barrel of wine. So earnest were the laborers that no one thought of drinking any of the wine, except such as were faint from their unusual exertions. And so by means of all this genuine labor, so heartily bestowed, the huge space of three hundred thousand square feet was excavated, and so arranged that there were rows of grassy seats one above another to the number of thirty, all well rammed down and covered with turf.

National Oath
THE NATIONAL OATH: THE EXCAVATIONS.


In the centre, so as to be seen by all, there was a pyramid, called the Altar of the Country. Here the oath was to be sworn,—by General Lafayette for the army, by the king, and by deputies who came from every department in France.

When the great day arrived, it was a cold morning for July, and it looked as if rain might fall; but the people streamed in, and took their places where they would. Each of the eighty-three departments had sent a splendid banner; and a fine show the men made as they filed in and took their appointed stations. Lafayette took the oath first. He ascended the pyramid, pressed his sword-point on the altar, and pronounced the oath in the name of the whole army. The National Assembly swore where they stood, under the canopy; then the king swore, and there arose a shout, and citizen shook hands with citizen; and there was a clashing of arms, and a booming of great guns, which were listened for, and responded to as soon as heard,—so that all over France that afternoon the tidings of the oath at Paris was carried by one volley after another.

Perhaps it was this firing of cannon which brought down the long impending shower. Anyhow the shower did come, and the seats were suddenly a canopy of umbrellas, and the flags drooped, and the ladies' dresses were spoiled. At three o'clock the sun shone out again, and the clouds went their way. A whole week was spent in brilliant feasts and merry-making. On the Sunday after the great oath-day a universal dance took place. The Elysian Fields were almost as bright as day with innumerable lamps, and filled with dancers all the livelong night; and where the grim old Bastille once reared its frowning walls one could read Ici l'on danse, beneath the tree of Liberty, sixty feet high, and topped with a cap of Liberty.

In fact, for a whole week or more Paris was almost wild with joy, and it was hoped, though the hope proved vain, that the Ship of State, after a few rough squalls, was now in calm waters, which were not again to be ruffled by serious storms.