Source Problems on the French Revolution


PROBLEM III.—The Insurrection of October 5 and 6, 1789


BETWEEN the royal session of June 23d and the October insurrection events of far-reaching importance had taken place in France, events of which this insurrection was the natural consequence. Until July, 1789, the revolutionary movement centered in the activities of the assembly at Versailles; after July 11th it spread rapidly to the whole of France and entered upon a new and larger phase.

Louis XVI. had failed to carry through his program on June 23d, but he did not abandon it. The military force in and around Versailles was not sufficient to overcome the possible resistance of Versailles, and especially of Paris, and the temper of the people in both places was such that the government hesitated to resort to extreme measures with the commons without sufficient military support. In the last week in June, the government temporized while moving troops as rapidly as possible to the neighborhood of Paris and Versailles. The commons and the public did not, however, allow the government to carry out its program unhampered. On June 24th, although the hall was surrounded by troops and troops were even posted within the building to keep the orders in their separate halls, and although the public was excluded from the hall of the commons, the majority of the clergy joined the commons in the large hall on that day. June 25th the assembly was increased by the addition of the minority of the nobility. It is true that these additions might be interpreted in two ways; but the public, at least, assumed that they meant the existence of a single assembly, the vote by head and the reform of France. The large majority of the deputies now sat in one assembly; the public was impatient at the resistance of the minority and agitated by the rumors of an appeal to force and a dissolution of the assembly—perhaps accompanied by bankruptcy—now circulating both in Paris and Versailles. Rioting broke out in Versailles, and it was feazed the château might be attacked. The king decided to yield a step and gain time for the gathering of military force. In his declarations of June 23d he had not ordered the clergy and nobility to join the commons for the consideration of questions of common interests; he had pointed out the wisdom of such a course and expressed the hope that they might follow it. On June 27th he wrote to the two orders asking them to join the third estate for the purpose of considering his declarations. The nobility were inclined to resist, and it was only on the representation of the Comte d’Artois that the king’s life would be in danger, if they did not go to the common hall, that they finally yielded. Great was the rejoicing of the public, which naturally interpreted the union of the orders in a manner favorable to their own wishes. The assembly, it assumed, is now complete; let the work of making the constitution begin. And it did begin. Disregarding the protests of clergy and nobility, realizing that the fait accompli is the most irresistible of arguments, the majority appointed a committee to prepare a program for work. This was July 6th.

Meanwhile the army was gathering, and reports of counter-revolution circulated and were even printed in Paris and Versailles. It is not clear, even to-day, just what Louis XVI. had in mind, but it was probably his intention to force through his program of June 23d, dissolving the assembly if it resisted. The army was needed to hold Paris in check. And each day the fear of Paris increased, and it was felt by the supporters of the reactionary movement that if they were to succeed they must act at once. For the people of Paris were talking of arming themselves, of forming a citizen guard, and the French Guard—several thousand regular troops stationed in Paris—had already made clear that they would not fire on their fellow citizens. Some who had been arrested for insubordination and thrown into prison were released by the populace and guarded in the Palais Royal. This was on June 30th. Finally, the national assembly protested to the king against the presence of the troops in Versailles as an infringement upon the liberty of debate and asked him to send them away. Under the pretext that they were needed to keep order in Paris, the king declined to grant the request of the assembly.

Before the plans of the government had been perfected, while many of the troops were still on the march, the coup d’état was precipitated on July 11th by the dismissal of Necker. Not until the next day did the fact become known in Paris; and when, in the afternoon of Sunday, June 12th, the people of the Palais Royal protested against the action of the government and went in procession through the streets carrying busts of Necker and the popular hero, the Duc d’Orléans, the July revolution had begun. It needed only the clash between the troops and the demonstrators, followed by the shedding of the blood of citizens, to produce an outburst of anger which armed France and stripped the king of his authority. The reaction lacked efficient leadership, was handicapped by the vacillation of the king and by the unreliability of the troops, even of the foreign regiments. On July 13th the people took possession of the city government of Paris and began to organize a militia; on July 14th it invaded the Invalides and provided itself with arms, and on the same day, led by the French Guards, who had gone over to the people in a body—minus their officers—the Bastille was forced to surrender. The insurrection was master of Paris. On the fifteenth the king capitulated, recognized the national assembly, and asked its assistance in quieting Paris. On July 16th the emigration of the members of the reactionary party began, and on the seventeenth the king went to Paris and gave his approval to the revolution, putting in his hat the revolutionary red-and-blue cockade.

With extraordinary rapidity the revolt spread from Paris over France. Everywhere a militia was formed, and the city government passed into the hands of the middle class. From the cities, the movement swept on into the country. It was "the great fear," the fear of brigands and foreign troops, who never appeared, which put arms into the hands of the peasants and made them masters of their own fate. Up to this time the revolution had been largely concerned with political questions; nothing had been said—or very little—about feudal rights and the interests of the peasant farmers. To the peasants the question of the abolition of feudal rights was not one for debate, but for action. When should they have another such opportunity? The central authority had disappeared, the armed force was in their hands. Who could oppose them if they swept away forever the oppressive survivals of the feudal system? Peasant bands, accompanied by notaries, marched to the châteaux, opened the archives, and, carrying away the proofs of feudal rights, burned them in the courts of the châteaux or in the village squares. There was violence when the owner resisted, there were demands of entertainment, and many indications that not even the honorary distinctions of the noble would be tolerated; but the violence has been exaggerated, and the whole subject has been superficially treated. The peasants disposed in a summary way of abuses long since condemned and undeserving of perpetuation. It was not what they did so much as the way in which they did it that was to cause trouble.

The July insurrection, the peasant uprising, had put an end to arbitrary government, to the political independence of the privileged classes and the remnants of the feudal system. But all this must be legalized. From all over France reports came in to the assembly of the violent deeds of the peasants. The destruction of feudal titles had stripped many members of the assembly of a large part of their revenues. Something must be done. A committee was appointed, the last week in July, to receive these reports and recommend some action to the assembly. On August 3d the committee reported advising an address to the people, in which they were urged to obey the laws and pay their dues until the assembly should have made the constitution and reformed all these matters. The report was not accepted, but, with other propositions made in this session, was turned over to another committee for revision. On the night of August 4th the committee submitted a report, differing but little from the report of the previous day. It was hardly discussed. As the result of an agreement among the liberal members of the assembly, made the previous night, a proposition was submitted to abolish all feudal rights in consideration of a payment for those recognized as property rights. This marked the opening of one of the most extraordinary sessions in the history of the national assembly. Clergy, nobility, and third estate vied with each other in the sacrifice of feudal rights and privileges which had separated class from class, province from province, and city from city. When all the motions had been passed, a new France existed, but a France destined to be torn by discord in the attempt to formulate legally the new social status of its members. Nor was the night of August 4th simply the result of a "wild orgy." A careful reading of the contemporary accounts makes clear that the delegates had not entirely lost their heads. The nobles were not unwilling to exchange their feudal rights for cash; the destruction of the records made it necessary to compensate them for the loss of rights which could never be restored. Besides economic problems, the decree of August 4th dealt with political, judicial, and ecclesiastical matters. All of these changes, however, were to go into effect when the assembly had worked out the legal machinery. Meanwhile, the old laws and regulations would be for the most part valid.

The report of the committee on August 4th had interrupted the work of the assembly on the constitution. The first committee, already referred to, had reported, suggesting an outline of work and indicating a declaration of rights as the first question to be considered by the assembly. A new and smaller committee was then chosen. This committee made a report the latter part of July, and its report led to a debate upon the questions as to whether there should be a declaration of rights, and if so, whether it should precede the constitution, be issued before the constitution was finished, or should form the first chapter of the constitution and not appear until the constitution—showing the application of the declaration—was finished. On the morning of August 4th the assembly voted that there should be a declaration, and that it should be finished before the work on the constitution had begun. After the debates upon the feudal rights and their final formulation the assembly took up the declaration of rights and voted a series of articles, formulating the fundamental principles underlying every well-organized society. After voting seventeen articles the assembly decided to give no more time to the matter for the present, and turned to the consideration of the committee’s report dealing with the monarchy and the organization of the legislative power. Of the debates which followed during the first days of September the most important were those dealing with the right of royal veto and the organization of the legislative body. Shall the king have the right to veto, absolutely, the acts of the assembly? Shall there be an upper and a lower house, or shall there be but a single chamber? The question of the veto power of the king raised the question of his right to veto the constitution, hence to prevent the limitation of his power and the reorganization of France; the problem of an upper and lower house was complicated by the existence" of three orders and the fact that younger sons also possessed titles. Suppose an upper house were created to contain clergy and nobility; would not such a house be reactionary and render a reorganization of France impossible? These were all practical political problems, and were considered from the point of view of practical politics. The assembly gave the king a limited veto, established a single chamber, and declined to recognize the members of that chamber as the representatives of orders.

The last of September the foundations of the constitutions had been laid. What was the attitude of the king toward all this? What the attitude of the privileged classes? Open resistance, an appeal to arms after the July insurrection was out of the question. The revolution might, however, be blocked. The king and his ministers were in control of the machinery of government; the assembly wished to make him a part, but a harmless part, of the new government. Suppose that publicly he reiterated his sympathy for the new state of things and privately opposed the changes made by the assembly? Suppose he should not take the declaration of rights seriously, should not make public nor attempt to execute the August decrees, should withhold his approval from the first articles of the constitution? Suppose he even thought of retiring to a frontier city like Metz and from there attempting to carry out the counterrevolution which had failed in July? Suppose many of the nobility and clergy, and some of the members of the third estate—grown conservative through fear of the lower classes—stood ready to second such a movement; what could be done? And to add to the difficulties there was the constant danger of a famine in Paris and an uprising of the people demanding bread. Paris was not fully satisfied with the work of the assembly, and attempts had been made to go to Versailles to force more radical action. Lafayette and his guards had prevented this, but it was feared that he might not always be able to control the guards, especially the paid troops, consisting of the old French Guards. For these guards had formerly shared with the body guards the honor of guarding the king. They wished to bring the king to Paris and renew their old duties. The fear of a Parisian invasion had led the king, in the last days of September, with the approval of the city government of Versailles and the national assembly, to call to Versailles the regiment of Flanders. Its arrival created trouble in Versailles and called forth protests from the Paris commune. It was believed that the king’s party intended to use the regiment for illegitimate purposes, perhaps to cover a retreat to Metz. The situation was not improved when the body guards gave a banquet in the château to the officers of the regiment of Flanders. It was a royalist affair, the king and queen being present and enthusiastically toasted. It was represented as an anti-national affair; there were no toasts to the national assembly, and it was reported that the national cockade was trampled under foot. Add to all these things the intrigues—whatever they may have been—of the Duc d’Orléans and his creatures, and it is evident that inflammable material enough existed. Only the spark was needed to create a conflagration. This was furnished by the women of Paris who, on the morning of October 5th, invaded the city hall, moved by the fear of a bread famine. As the uprising developed, it drew in all the other groups, who took advantage of the opportunity to realize their desires.


1. Procès-verbal de l’assemblée nationale. See bibliography of Problem I.

2. Abrégé des circonstances du départ de Louis XVI. pour Paris, le 6 Octobre, 1789, par M. de Saint-Priest. This account of the October days was written by Saint-Priest and published in 1822 in the notes to the Mémoires de Madame Campan (Paris, 3 vols.), II, 292–310, the editor obtaining the manuscript from the son of M. de Saint-Priest. Saint-Priest was born in 1735 and died in 1821. He was a member of the body guard of Louis XV., a chevalier of the order of Malta, had served a short time as ambassador in Portugal, a long time as ambassador in Constantinople, and on the eve of the national assembly was an ambassador to Holland. In the fall of 1788 he was made a minister to the king’s council without a department, and after his return to the ministry, in August, 1789, he was made minister of the interior, holding that position until January, 1791. Saint-Priest supported Necker in his plan for a royal session, and went out of office in July, 1789, at the time of the attempted coup d’état. It will be noticed that in October he was opposed to him. The extract given here may have been a part of the incomplete Mémoires left by Saint-Priest, and referred to by his editor, M. de Barante, in the introduction to the volume of "Lettres et instructions de Louis XVIII. à M. de Saint-Priest" (Paris, 1845), p. ii. "In the last part of his life," wrote M. de Barante, "M. de Saint-Priest undertook to write his Mémoires. He was not able to finish them nor to revise what he had written. His family did not think they should be published, but we have them before us, and we cannot do better than draw upon them for this sketch" [of the life of Saint-Priest].

3. Necker, De la révolution française. See the bibliography of Problem II.

4. Lafayette, Marquis de, Mémoires, 6 vols., Paris, 1837. Lafayette was one of the popular heroes of the early revolution. He had been an officer in the French army which had helped the American colonists to establish their independence, was the friend of Washington, and had returned to France hoping to play a not unlike rô1e by leading his own countrymen in the struggle for constitutional liberty. He had been a member of the notables in 1787, and in 1789 was a member of the chamber of the nobility, favorable to union with the commons and to a liberal constitution. At the time of the July revolution he had been made general of the Paris militia, organized the national guard, and gave it the famous tri-colored cockade. At the time of the October insurrection he was still a member of the national assembly, but gave the most of his time to the affairs of the national guard of Paris. The six volumes of Mémoires do not constitute a continuous narrative. The full title of the work, Mémoires, correspondance, et manuscrits, indicates its contents correctly; it is the literary remains of Lafayette. The letters are the most valuable material for the historian. The narrative, written for the most part years after the events, has the least value. The material on October 5th and 6th is one of two accounts by Lafayette, written at different times. It was probably written after 1800. Lafayette was born in 1757 and died in 1834.

5. Procédure criminelle instruite au châtelet de Paris sur la dénonciation des faits arrivés à Versailles dans la journée du 6 Octobre, 1789. Imprimée par ordre de l’assemblée nationale. A Paris, Chez Baudoin, imprimeur de l’assemblée nationale. 1790. This work contains nearly four hundred depositions taken by the judges of the Châtelet, the criminal court of Paris, on the events of October 5th and 6th. The investigation was begun in December, 1789, on the instigation of the municipality of Paris. The last depositions were taken in July, 1790, and on August 7th the manuscript was laid before the national assembly. It was printed by Baudoin, the printing being completed September 19, 1790. There are three parts: the first part (première partie) contains 270 pages; the second part (suite) contains 221, and the third (also suite) contains 79. Some of these four hundred deponents had no firsthand knowledge, but the most of them had seen some of the incidents of the fifth and sixth, and drew upon their personal recollections. This great mass of testimony constitutes our chief source of information for the dramatic uprising of October, 1789.

6. Salmour, Comte de, Correspondance, in Flammermont, Jules, Les correspondances des agents diplomatiques étrangers en France avant la révolution, Paris, 1896. The letter is found on pages 260–274. The Comte de Salmour had been the minister of Saxony at the French court since November, 1786. He was "a grand seigneur of Italian origin, had been educated in Turin, where his family had established itself; he possessed property in Piedmont, among others the estate of Salmour, whose name he bore. For three years he had lived at Paris with the Comte de Vitry, ambassador of the king of Sardinia to the court of Versailles. He was chamberlain of the elector of Saxony." M. de Salmour was cordially received at Versailles by the queen, who had known and loved his mother, and was admitted into the inner court circle. The Baron de Besenval was his uncle. He thus had the best of opportunities to obtain reliable information, and his letters are among the fullest and most reliable of all the letters written by the ambassadors then accredited to the court of Versailles.

7. Bailli de Virieu, Correspondance. See Problem I.


1. What are the best sources in this collection from the point of view of (a) opportunities for gaining information and (b) time of writing?

2. Without comparing the texts, what sources might be dependent?

3. What sources are clearly independent?

4. Why are the depositions, although the accounts of eye and ear witnesses, not ideal evidence—that is to say, these particular depositions, not depositions in general?

5. What were the causes of the uprising of October 5th? Can you actually prove what you say by the agreement of independent witnesses, or are you dependent on affirmations of single witnesses?

6. What are the main incidents of the two days, and how many witnesses have you for each incident?

7. At what time in the morning of the fifth did trouble begin at the city hall?

8. What brought the people together at the city hall? What was their attitude toward the city government? Is there any connection between this and the sacking of the city hall?

9. Describe the action of the city government. What impression does it make on you?

10. Why did the women go to Versailles?

11. Describe the significant features of the march, that is (a) when they set out, (b) how many there were of them, (c) how they conducted themselves en route, (d) when they arrived in Versailles, (e) what they did after they got there. Divide each large incident into its details and gather up the evidence on each detail, keeping in mind the question of independence.

12. What action did the king take in dealing with the uprising?

13. Why did the national guards wish to go to Versailles?

14. Why did Lafayette oppose them? Some writers have said his opposition was perfunctory, that he did not really object to going. What does the evidence indicate?

15. How large a force did Lafayette have? Into what groups did the force fall, and what was the character of each group?

16. When did Lafayette leave Paris, and when did he reach Versailles?

17. What happened after he got there?

18. What had the women accomplished before Lafayette came?

19. What was the situation at two o’clock on the morning of the fifth?

20. Describe the incidents on the morning of the sixth: (a) the killing of the body guards, (b) the invasion of the château, (c) the rescue work of Lafayette and the guards, (d) the king and royal family before the crowd and the promise to go to Paris.

21. Describe (a) the march to Paris, (b) the reception at the city hall.

22. Make an outline of the facts of the insurrection and write a narrative, citing the evidence.


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Chicago: "Problem III. The Insurrection of October 5 and 6, 1789," Source Problems on the French Revolution in Source Problems on the French Revolution, ed. Fred Morrow Fling and Helene Dresser Fling (New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1913), 161–176. Original Sources, accessed April 13, 2024,

MLA: . "Problem III. The Insurrection of October 5 and 6, 1789." Source Problems on the French Revolution, in Source Problems on the French Revolution, edited by Fred Morrow Fling and Helene Dresser Fling, New York, Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1913, pp. 161–176. Original Sources. 13 Apr. 2024.

Harvard: , 'Problem III. The Insurrection of October 5 and 6, 1789' in Source Problems on the French Revolution. cited in 1913, Source Problems on the French Revolution, ed. , Harper & Brothers Publishers, New York, pp.161–176. Original Sources, retrieved 13 April 2024, from