The French Revolution began in 1789 aiming to transform France into a more liberal, equal society ruled by a constitutional monarchy. Yet by 1793 it had generated something else entirely— a system of repression and violence referred to as the Terror. While some insist that the Revolution’s culmination at this point was inevitable, others assert that key events between 1789 and 1793 set the Revolution on this particular trajectory. Siding with the latter, I argue that King Louis XVI’s attempted flight in 1791 was an incredibly significant turning point in the Revolution, as its social and political consequences played a vital role in placing the Revolution on the path toward the Terror. While it is impossible to definitively say that another event may not have triggered the Terror before 1793, it is nevertheless entirely possible to imagine the Revolution having taken a different trajectory had Louis not attempted to flee. This will be proven through an examination of the flight’s most substantial consequences— namely, change in public opinion of the King, political division and newfound support for republicanism, conspiracy obsession among deputies, and responding measures prefiguring those of the Terror.
While France was undoubtedly facing difficult challenges in the summer of 1791, many people anticipated that the Revolution was finally nearing its end, and that some stability would return as France became a functional constitutional monarchy. The National Assembly was working to combat lingering problems and instability— most concerning religion, authority, and discontent— while promoting toleration and civil resolution. New administrative and judicial systems were generally operational, support for the new regime was high among most, and although unrest and defiance certainly still existed, they were declining. As such, while conditions were far from perfect, success of the constitutional monarchy seemed conceivable. Before the King’s flight, many individuals believed a stable future was near and possible.
On the night of June 20th/21st, 1791, however, after several months of planning, King Louis XVI and his family fled Paris toward Austria. As revealed in a declaration left behind, Louis was extremely troubled by the state of France for numerous reasons, including the National Assembly’s disrespectful religious reforms, the disorder, anarchy, and instability the Revolution had generated, and the removal of essentially all of his royal powers. Yet, the attempted flight was unsuccessful. The royal family was discovered in Varennes and sent back to Paris, and the consequences of the attempt began to reverberate throughout France.
One of the flight’s most critical consequences was the abrupt change in public opinion of King Louis XVI it spawned. Since the Revolution’s start, Louis had maintained a fairly positive reputation among French citizens. When he acquired a cold, for example, he was met with an outpouring of support, and even when he...