Viability of Constitutional Monarchy in 1791
Question: Over thirty years ago, François Furet and Denis Richet maintained that in 1791 the French Revolution veered off course by failing to set up a constitutional monarchy and by becoming radicalized in an atmosphere of civil and foreign war. Was a constitutional monarchy viable in 1791?
Contrary to the idea of Furet and Richet, a constitutional monarchy was not viable in 1791 It was a decision neither the people nor the king wanted, and therefore could not possibly have been viable. The Flight to Varennes in the summer of 1791 before the Constitution was passed, leaving behind his open scorn for it, clearly demonstrates Louis XVI’s unwillingness to cooperate, and you cannot reasonably have a king who refuses to be the king, unless you wish him to subvert the state or flee again. You can force one to rule, but not to rule well. Furthermore, he was highly unpopular anyway. The petition of the Champs de Mars and the subsequent massacre followed by the public fall-out resulting from it attest to this.
On top of this, the king and queen were actively seeking the overthrow of the government and there was concrete proof. He wrote to his fellow kings in Spain, Austria, Prussia, etc., encouraging war against France so that he could regain absolute power. The massacre of the people was preferable to serving them. The king created the foreign war, which was one of the biggest problems France would have for the next twenty-three years. His hesitation to sign off on the Constitution (which he dishonestly did eventually) and his refusal to sign the Civil Constitution of the Clergy only worsened the internal problem. He can be personally blamed almost entirely for the foreign war, and at least partially for the civil war, so if the Revolution was radicalized, he was much to blame.
The Terror was not the result of there being a republic, but rather was a reaction to the situation created by the constitutional monarchy. The Terror was an attempt to inspire terror in the enemies of the Republic and inspire action against them, a reaction to the situation already in existence. Therefore it is faulty to assume that the removal of the constitutional monarchy led to the problems. The constitutional monarchy fell because it was to blame. Creating the Republic allowed for the defense of the nation, despite excesses. To have maintained the nonviable monarchy would be to put the reigns of government in a crisis in the hands of a traitor to steer the country into the ground. The Republic was the only viable option. It put government in the hands of people wanting to keep away enemies, not invite them to the slaughter. The only alternatives would be sheer madness: émigré ultras who were the brothers of Louis XVI, his youthful son who had zero qualifications, or the duc d’Orléans, who if a true republican would be an unwilling monarch and the country would just as well be a republic anyway.