On a June night in 1791, King Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette fled Paris in disguise, hoping to escape the mounting turmoil of the French Revolution. They were arrested by a small group of citizens a few miles from the Belgian border and forced to return to Paris. Two years later they would both die at the guillotine. It is this extraordinary story, and the events leading up to and away from it, that Tackett recounts in gripping novelistic style.
The king's flight opens a window to the whole of French society during the Revolution. Each dramatic chapter spotlights a different segment of the population, from the king and queen as they plotted and executed their flight, to the people of Varennes who apprehended the royal family, to the radicals of Paris who urged an end to monarchy, to the leaders of the National Assembly struggling to control a spiraling crisis, to the ordinary citizens stunned by their king's desertion. Tackett shows how Louis's flight reshaped popular attitudes toward kingship, intensified fears of invasion and conspiracy, and helped pave the way for the Reign of Terror.
Tackett brings to life an array of unique characters as they struggle to confront the monumental transformations set in motion in 1789. In so doing, he offers an important new interpretation of the Revolution. By emphasizing the unpredictable and contingent character of this story, he underscores the power of a single event to change irrevocably the course of the French Revolution, and consequently the history of the world.
Historian Tackett (UC-Irvine) skillfully shows how Louis XVI's infamous failed flight from his revolutionary captors in Paris in 1791 led to the eventual victory of radicalism and strengthened those calling for terror to "protect" the revolution from its enemies. Attempting to escape across the border to the Austrian Netherlands, the king planned to march a counterrevolutionary army back into France and reestablish Bourbon rule. As Tackett's dramatic account makes clear, Louis very nearly succeeded. He was famously halted in Varennes, a few miles from the border, and forcibly returned to Paris. Tackett describes the nation's reaction to the king's flight and return, not just in Paris but also in the provinces, where widespread fears of foreign invasion immediately followed news of Louis's escape. The whole nation felt betrayed by their "father," and Louis's public image was destroyed. The flight to Varennes, Tackett shows, strengthened republicanism and weakened those moderates favoring a constitutional monarchy. Louis's flight also created factionalism in the Assembly and was thus a harbinger of the Terror to come. Jacobins called for the king's immediate removal, but the moderates won the day in the short term, and Louis was reinstituted as a constitutional monarch. The Jacobins bided their time, and in September 1792, they voted to dethrone Louis and declare a republic; a few months later, they voted to execute the king. Tackett has penned a highly accessible popular history that should appeal to those wanting to learn more about one of the central events of the French Revolution. 24 illus., 3 maps.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Harvard University Press
March 13, 2003
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