Autobiography by Thomas Jefferson

The Baron de Breteuil, president of the council of finance; de la
Galaisiere, Comptroller general in the room of Mr. Neckar; the Marshal de
Broglio, minister of War, & Foulon under him in the room of Puy-Segur; the
Duke de la Vauguyon, minister of foreign affairs instead of the Ct. de
Montmorin; de La Porte, minister of Marine, in place of the Ct. de la
Luzerne; St. Priest was also removed from the council. Luzerne and
Puy-Segur had been strongly of the Aristocratic party in the Council, but
they were not considered as equal to the work now to be done. The King was
now compleatly in the hands of men, the principal among whom had been noted
thro’ their lives for the Turkish despotism of their characters, and who
were associated around the King as proper instruments for what was to be
executed. The news of this change began to be known at Paris about 1. or 2.
o’clock. In the afternoon a body of about 100 German cavalry were advanced
and drawn up in the Place Louis XV. and about 200. Swiss posted at a little
distance in their rear. This drew people to the spot, who thus accidentally
found themselves in front of the troops, merely at first as spectators; but
as their numbers increased, their indignation rose. They retired a few
steps, and posted themselves on and behind large piles of stones, large and
small, collected in that Place for a bridge which was to be built adjacent
to it. In this position, happening to be in my carriage on a visit, I
passed thro’ the lane they had formed, without interruption. But the moment
after I had passed, the people attacked the cavalry with stones. They
charged, but the advantageous position of the people, and the showers of
stones obliged the horse to retire, and quit the field altogether, leaving
one of their number on the ground, & the Swiss in their rear not moving to
their aid. This was the signal for universal insurrection, and this body of
cavalry, to avoid being massacred, retired towards Versailles. The people
now armed themselves with such weapons as they could find in armorer’s
shops and private houses, and with bludgeons, and were roaming all night
thro’ all parts of the city, without any decided object. The next day
(13th.) the assembly pressed on the king to send away the troops, to permit
the Bourgeoisie of Paris to arm for the preservation of order in the city,
and offer to send a deputation from their body to tranquillize them; but
their propositions were refused. A committee of magistrates and electors of
the city are appointed by those bodies to take upon them it’s government.
The people, now openly joined by the French guards, force the prison of St.
Lazare, release all the prisoners, and take a great store of corn, which
they carry to the Corn-market. Here they get some arms, and the French
guards begin to form & train them. The City-committee determined to raise
48.000. Bourgeoise, or rather to restrain their numbers to 48.000. On the
14th. they send one of their members (Mons. de Corny) to the Hotel des
Invalides, to ask arms for their Garde-Bourgeoise. He was followed by, and
he found there a great collection of people. The Governor of the Invalids
came out and represented the impossibility of his delivering arms without
the orders of those from whom he received them. De Corny advised the people
then to retire, and retired himself; but the people took possession of the
arms. It was remarkable that not only the Invalids themselves made no
opposition, but that a body of 5000. foreign troops, within 400. yards,
never stirred. M. de Corny and five others were then sent to ask arms of M.
de Launay, governor of the Bastile. They found a great collection of people
already before the place, and they immediately planted a flag of truce,
which was answered by a like flag hoisted on the Parapet. The deputation
prevailed on the people to fall back a little, advanced themselves to make
their demand of the Governor, and in that instant a discharge from the
Bastile killed four persons, of those nearest to the deputies. The deputies
retired. I happened to be at the house of M. de Corny when he returned to
it, and received from him a narrative of these transactions. On the
retirement of the deputies, the people rushed forward & almost in an
instant were in possession of a fortification defended by 100. men, of
infinite strength, which in other times had stood several regular sieges,
and had never been taken. How they forced their entrance has never been
explained. They took all the arms, discharged the prisoners, and such of
the garrison as were not killed in the first moment of fury, carried the
Governor and Lt. Governor to the Place de Greve (the place of public
execution) cut off their heads, and sent them thro’ the city in triumph to
the Palais royal. About the same instant a treacherous correspondence
having been discovered in M. de Flesselles, prevot des marchands, they
seized him in the Hotel de Ville where he was in the execution of his
office, and cut off his head. These events carried imperfectly to
Versailles were the subject of two successive deputations from the assembly
to the king, to both of which he gave dry and hard answers for nobody had
as yet been permitted to inform him truly and fully of what had passed at
Paris. But at night the Duke de Liancourt forced his way into the king’s
bed chamber, and obliged him to hear a full and animated detail of the
disasters of the day in Paris. He went to bed fearfully impressed. The
decapitation of de Launai worked powerfully thro’ the night on the whole
aristocratic party, insomuch that, in the morning, those of the greatest
influence on the Count d’Artois represented to him the absolute necessity
that the king should give up everything to the Assembly. This according
with the dispositions of the king, he went about 11. o’clock, accompanied
only by his brothers, to the Assembly, & there read to them a speech, in
which he asked their interposition to re-establish order. Altho’ couched in
terms of some caution, yet the manner in which it was delivered made it
evident that it was meant as a surrender at discretion. He returned to the
Chateau afoot, accompanied by the assembly. They sent off a deputation to
quiet Paris, at the head of which was the Marquis de la Fayette who had,
the same morning, been named Commandant en chef of the Milice Bourgeoise,
and Mons Bailly, former President of the States General, was called for as
Prevot des marchands. The demolition of the Bastile was now ordered and
begun. A body of the Swiss guards of the regiment of Ventimille, and the
city horse guards joined the people. The alarm at Versailles increased. The
foreign troops were ordered off instantly. Every minister resigned. The
king confirmed Bailly as Prevot des Marchands, wrote to Mr. Neckar to
recall him, sent his letter open to the assembly, to be forwarded by them,
and invited them to go with him to Paris the next day, to satisfy the city
of his dispositions; and that night, and the next morning the Count
D’Artois and M. de Montesson a deputy connected with him, Madame de
Polignac, Madame de Guiche, and the Count de Vaudreuil, favorites of the
queen, the Abbe de Vermont her confessor, the Prince of Conde and Duke of
Bourbon fled. The king came to Paris, leaving the queen in consternation
for his return. Omitting the less important figures of the procession, the
king’s carriage was in the center, on each side of it the assembly, in two
ranks afoot, at their head the M. de la Fayette, as Commander-in-chief, on
horseback, and Bourgeois guards before and behind. About 60.000 citizens of
all forms and conditions, armed with the muskets of the Bastile and
Invalids, as far as they would go, the rest with pistols, swords, pikes,
pruning hooks, scythes &c. lined all the streets thro’ which the procession
passed, and with the crowds of people in the streets, doors & windows,
saluted them everywhere with cries of “vive la nation,” but not a single
“vive le roy” was heard. The King landed at the Hotel de Ville. There M.
Bailly presented and put into his hat the popular cockade, and addressed
him. The King being unprepared, and unable to answer, Bailly went to him,
gathered from him some scraps of sentences, and made out an answer, which
he delivered to the audience as from the king. On their return the popular
cries were “vive le roy et la nation.” He was conducted by a garde
bourgeoise to his palace at Versailles, & thus concluded an amende
honorable as no sovereign ever made, and no people ever received.

And here again was lost another precious occasion of sparing to France the
crimes and cruelties thro’ which she has since passed, and to Europe, &
finally America the evils which flowed on them also from this mortal
source. The king was now become a passive machine in the hands of the
National assembly, and had he been left to himself, he would have willingly
acquiesced in whatever they should devise as best for the nation. A wise
constitution would have been formed, hereditary in his line, himself placed
at it’s head, with powers so large as to enable him to do all the good of
his station, and so limited as to restrain him from it’s abuse. This he
would have faithfully administered, and more than this I do not believe he
ever wished. But he had a Queen of absolute sway over his weak mind, and
timid virtue; and of a character the reverse of his in all points. This
angel, as gaudily painted in the rhapsodies of the Rhetor Burke, with some
smartness of fancy, but no sound sense was proud, disdainful of restraint,
indignant at all obstacles to her will, eager in the pursuit of pleasure,
and firm enough to hold to her desires, or perish in their wreck. Her
inordinate gambling and dissipations, with those of the Count d’Artois and
others of her clique, had been a sensible item in the exhaustion of the
treasury, which called into action the reforming hand of the nation; and
her opposition to it her inflexible perverseness, and dauntless spirit, led
herself to the Guillotine, & drew the king on with her, and plunged the
world into crimes & calamities which will forever stain the pages of modern
history. I have ever believed that had there been no queen, there would
have been no revolution. No force would have been provoked nor exercised.
The king would have gone hand in hand with the wisdom of his sounder
counsellors, who, guided by the increased lights of the age, wished only,
with the same pace, to advance the principles of their social institution.
The deed which closed the mortal course of these sovereigns, I shall
neither approve nor condemn. I am not prepared to say that the first
magistrate of a nation cannot commit treason against his country, or is
unamenable to it’s punishment: nor yet that where there is no written law,
no regulated tribunal, there is not a law in our hearts, and a power in our
hands, given for righteous employment in maintaining right, and redressing
wrong. Of those who judged the king, many thought him wilfully criminal,
many that his existence would keep the nation in perpetual conflict with
the horde of kings, who would war against a regeneration which might come
home to themselves, and that it were better that one should die than all. I
should not have voted with this portion of the legislature. I should have
shut up the Queen in a Convent, putting harm out of her power, and placed
the king in his station, investing him with limited powers, which I verily
believe he would have honestly exercised, according to the measure of his
understanding. In this way no void would have been created, courting the
usurpation of a military adventurer, nor occasion given for those
enormities which demoralized the nations of the world, and destroyed, and
is yet to destroy millions and millions of it’s inhabitants. There are
three epochs in history signalized by the total extinction of national
morality. The first was of the successors of Alexander, not omitting
himself. The next the successors of the first Caesar, the third our own
age. This was begun by the partition of Poland, followed by that of the
treaty of Pilnitz; next the conflagration of Copenhagen; then the
enormities of Bonaparte partitioning the earth at his will, and devastating
it with fire and sword; now the conspiracy of kings, the successors of
Bonaparte, blasphemously calling themselves the Holy Alliance, and treading
in the footsteps of their incarcerated leader, not yet indeed usurping the
government of other nations avowedly and in detail, but controuling by
their armies the forms in which they will permit them to be governed; and
reserving in petto the order and extent of the usurpations further
meditated. But I will return from a digression, anticipated too in time,
into which I have been led by reflection on the criminal passions which
refused to the world a favorable occasion of saving it from the afflictions
it has since suffered.

M. Necker had reached Basle before he was overtaken by the letter of the
king, inviting him back to resume the office he had recently left. He
returned immediately, and all the other ministers having resigned, a new
administration was named, to wit St. Priest & Montmorin were restored; the
Archbishop of Bordeaux was appointed Garde des sceaux; La Tour du Pin
Minister of War; La Luzerne Minister of Marine. This last was believed to
have been effected by the friendship of Montmorin; for altho’ differing in
politics, they continued firm in friendship, & Luzerne, altho’ not an able
man was thought an honest one. And the Prince of Bauvau was taken into the

Seven princes of the blood royal, six ex-ministers, and many of the high
Noblesse having fled, and the present ministers, except Luzerne, being all
of the popular party, all the functionaries of government moved for the
present in perfect harmony.

In the evening of Aug. 4. and on the motion of the Viscount de Noailles
brother in law of La Fayette, the assembly abolished all titles of rank,
all the abusive privileges of feudalism, the tythes and casuals of the
clergy, all provincial privileges, and, in fine, the Feudal regimen
generally. To the suppression of tythes the Abbe Sieyes was vehemently
opposed; but his learned and logical arguments were unheeded, and his
estimation lessened by a contrast of his egoism (for he was beneficed on
them) with the generous abandonment of rights by the other members of the
assembly. Many days were employed in putting into the form of laws the
numerous demolitions of ancient abuses; which done, they proceeded to the
preliminary work of a Declaration of rights. There being much concord of
sentiment on the elements of this instrument, it was liberally framed, and
passed with a very general approbation. They then appointed a Committee for
the reduction of a projet of a Constitution, at the head of which was the
Archbishop of Bordeaux. I received from him, as Chairman of the Committee a
letter of July 20. requesting me to attend and assist at their
deliberations; but I excused myself on the obvious considerations that my
mission was to the king as Chief Magistrate of the nation, that my duties
were limited to the concerns of my own country, and forbade me to
intermeddle with the internal transactions of that in which I had been
received under a specific character only. Their plan of a constitution was
discussed in sections, and so reported from time to time, as agreed to by
the Committee. The first respected the general frame of the government; and
that this should be formed into three departments, Executive, Legislative
and Judiciary was generally agreed. But when they proceeded to subordinate
developments, many and various shades of opinion came into conflict, and
schism, strongly marked, broke the Patriots into fragments of very
discordant principles. The first question Whether there should be a king,
met with no open opposition, and it was readily agreed that the government
of France should be monarchical & hereditary. Shall the king have a
negative on the laws? shall that negative be absolute, or suspensive only?
Shall there be two chambers of legislation? or one only? If two, shall one
of them be hereditary? or for life? or for a fixed term? and named by the
king? or elected by the people? These questions found strong differences of
opinion, and produced repulsive combinations among the Patriots. The
Aristocracy was cemented by a common principle of preserving the ancient
regime, or whatever should be nearest to it. Making this their Polar star,
they moved in phalanx, gave preponderance on every question to the
minorities of the Patriots, and always to those who advocated the least
change. The features of the new constitution were thus assuming a fearful
aspect, and great alarm was produced among the honest patriots by these
dissensions in their ranks. In this uneasy state of things, I received one
day a note from the Marquis de la Fayette, informing me that he should
bring a party of six or eight friends to ask a dinner of me the next day. I
assured him of their welcome. When they arrived, they were La Fayette
himself, Duport, Barnave, Alexander La Meth, Blacon, Mounier, Maubourg, and
Dagout. These were leading patriots, of honest but differing opinions
sensible of the necessity of effecting a coalition by mutual sacrifices,
knowing each other, and not afraid therefore to unbosom themselves
mutually. This last was a material principle in the selection. With this
view the Marquis had invited the conference and had fixed the time & place
inadvertently as to the embarrassment under which it might place me. The
cloth being removed and wine set on the table, after the American manner,
the Marquis introduced the objects of the conference by summarily reminding
them of the state of things in the Assembly, the course which the
principles of the constitution were taking, and the inevitable result,
unless checked by more concord among the Patriots themselves. He observed
that altho’ he also had his opinion, he was ready to sacrifice it to that
of his brethren of the same cause: but that a common opinion must now be
formed, or the Aristocracy would carry everything, and that whatever they
should now agree on, he, at the head of the National force, would maintain.
The discussions began at the hour of four, and were continued till ten
o’clock in the evening; during which time I was a silent witness to a
coolness and candor of argument unusual in the conflicts of political
opinion; to a logical reasoning, and chaste eloquence, disfigured by no
gaudy tinsel of rhetoric or declamation, and truly worthy of being placed
in parallel with the finest dialogues of antiquity, as handed to us by
Xenophon, by Plato and Cicero. The result was an agreement that the king
should have a suspensive veto on the laws, that the legislature should be
composed of a single body only, & that to be chosen by the people. This
Concordate decided the fate of the constitution. The Patriots all rallied
to the principles thus settled, carried every question agreeably to them,
and reduced the Aristocracy to insignificance and impotence. But duties of
exculpation were now incumbent on me. I waited on Count Montmorin the next
morning, and explained to him with truth and candor how it had happened
that my house had been made the scene of conferences of such a character.
He told me he already knew everything which had passed, that, so far from
taking umbrage at the use made of my house on that occasion, he earnestly
wished I would habitually assist at such conferences, being sure I should
be useful in moderating the warmer spirits, and promoting a wholesome and
practicable reformation only. I told him I knew too well the duties I owed
to the king, to the nation, and to my own country to take any part in
councils concerning their internal government, and that I should persevere
with care in the character of a neutral and passive spectator, with wishes
only and very sincere ones, that those measures might prevail which would
be for the greatest good of the nation. I have no doubt indeed that this
conference was previously known and approved by this honest minister, who
was in confidence and communication with the patriots, and wished for a
reasonable reform of the Constitution.

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