by Tom Chaffin
The fifth and final excerpt from Revolutionary Brothers takes place in Paris in 1789, as Thomas Jefferson witnesses the civil unrest marking the beginning of the French Revolution.
On Sunday, July 12, 1789, as Gouverneur Morris and his carriage driver headed toward the Hôtel de Langeac, he looked forward to dinner and discussing with Jefferson the quickening events reshaping France’s politics. In the city’s northwest, close to chez Jefferson, however, as Morris’s carriage clanked toward the Place Louis XV—today’s Place de la Concorde—an unexpected sight snared his and his driver’s attention. Behind their carriage, soon overtaking it, came a rush of traffic—on foot, on horseback, and in carriages.
By rights, Paris’s attentions that Sunday should have belonged to the Declaration of the Rights of Man that Lafayette delivered to the National Assembly the day before. That morning, copies of it circulated through the city; its text had been read at the Hôtel de Ville, before Paris’s Assembly of Electors—the 180-man body originally elected to select the local delegation to the Estates-General but now struggling to organize a de facto government for their troubled city.
But eclipsing Lafayette’s declaration that morning was other news: The previous day, according to reputable sources, Louis had dismissed Finance Minister Jacques Necker and his moderate allies in the Versailles court, replacing them with conservative royalists. For reformers in Paris, Necker’s dismissal seemed a signal that Louis, weary of the city’s challenges to his authority, was preparing a military crackdown.
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Moments after the civilian traffic another surge of movement rumbled behind Morris’s carriage. Soon overtaking his conveyance came “a body of cavalry,” with “sabres drawn” in pursuit of the civilians. The pursuers belonged to the Royal-Allemand, a cavalry regiment commanded by the prince de Lambesc and recruited among German-speaking soldiers of northeastern France’s regions of Alsace and Lorraine.
Typifying the cat-and-mouse encounters between mobs and military units on Paris’s streets during those weeks, Lambesc’s dragoons, having just chased the mob out of the nearby Place Vendôme, were now attempting to disperse them from the Place Louis XV.
His curiosity piqued, Morris ordered the driver to proceed to the Place Louis XV. There, from a safe distance, Morris gazed upon the regiment that moments earlier had overtaken his carriage. By then, however, the regiment’s soldiers and their horses were in full retreat, and the civilian mob that had been the object of their pursuit was now hurling rocks at the Royal-Allemand cavalry.
Forced out of the Place Louis XV by the dragoons, the mob had filled the adjacent Tuileries Gardens. There, amid a pile of freshly hewed stones, building materials for a new bridge across the Seine (today’s Pont de la Concorde), the insurgents found both a redoubt and an arsenal. Shielded by the pile, as Morris watched, “perhaps an hundred” civilians were hurling stones at the regiment.
The Officer at the Head of the party is saluted by a stone, and immediately turns his horse in a menacing manner toward the assailant. But his adversaries are posted in ground where the cavalry cannot act. He pursues his route, and the pace is soon increased to a gallop, amid a shower of stones. One of the soldiers is either knocked from his horse or the horse falls under him. He is taken prisoner, and at first ill-treated. They fired several Pistols, but without effect; probably they were not even charged with ball.
At the Hôtel de Langeac, Morris learned that Jefferson had just returned in his own carriage from the Place Louis XV where he too had witnessed the skirmish. Indeed, throughout those weeks Jefferson remained insatiably curious about the turmoil roiling Paris. Recently and over the coming weeks, he and William Short roamed the city, observing the disturbances.
Perhaps steeled by his experiences as Virginia’s wartime governor, Jefferson seemed almost sanguine concerning the discord he witnessed. Typifying that attitude, he believed the confrontation at the Place Louis XV belonged to a gathering inevitability: “The progress of things here will be subject to checks from time to time of course,” he wrote to Thomas Paine of the melee. “Whether they will be great or small will depend on the army. But they will be only checks.”
In fact—unbeknownst to Jefferson and Morris as they met that night at the Hôtel de Langeac—earlier that evening, during the Place Louis XV confrontation, mutinous companies of the royal guards, arriving to assist the beleaguered Parisians, had chased the Royal-Allemand away from the area.
Although only one civilian died during the Place Louis XV skirmish, the fact that Parisians had battled German-speaking troops had the effect of lending credence to rumors, already circulating, concerning plans by Louis to order massacres of Parisians and to deploy foreign armies to enforce his will.
Want to read on? Check out another excerpt from Revolutionary Brothers!
TOM CHAFFIN is the author of, among other books, Giant’s Causeway: Frederick Douglass’s Irish Odyssey and the Making of an American Visionary; Sea of Gray: The Around-the-World Odyssey of the Confederate Raider Shenandoah; and Pathfinder: John Charles Frémont and the Course of American Empire. His writings have also appeared in the New York Times, the Oxford American, Time, Harper’s, and other publications. He lives in Atlanta.