Unsure of how to deal with the growing revolution and seeking protection, Louis XVI and the royal family escaped Paris in the Flight to Varennes. Upon a forced return, the National Assembly decided the king would remain involved with the government if he signed a constitution. On July 17, 1791 the Cordeliers (a radical, populist group) created a petition calling for the abdication of Louis XVI. Parisians supported this because they disagreed with the constitution allowing the king to remain in power, for they no longer trusted Louis XVI after his flight. An estimated 50,000 people appeared at the plain of Champ de Mars insisting the king give up his right to rule (Dwyer & McPhee, 57).
Lafayette, commander of the National Guard and supported by both the royal family and the people of Paris, noticed that the crowd was becoming violent and called in the National Guard. When the soldiers arrived they reported the crowd as “peaceful people on their Sunday promenades” (Shusterman, 98). The unarmed petitioners were shocked and unprepared when the soldiers began to fire at them. The origins of the order to fire remains unclear, however most suspicions lie with Lafayette (Dwyer & McPhee, 55).
The National Guard’s shooting resulted in around 50 casualties and several injuries (Shusterman, 98). The significance of this massacre does not lie within its victims, but in the ideas it solidified. A divide in the rich and poor, the shooters and the victims, suggested a foreboding civil war in France (Shusterman, 101). The Massacre on the Champ de Mars marked the first massacre on the Third Estate and only furthered Parisian motivations to revolt, and to do so violently (Dwyer & McPhee, 56).
Dwyer, Philip G, and Peter McPhee. The French Revolution and Napoleon: A Sourcebook. New York: Routledge, Inc., 2002.
Shusterman, Noah. The French Revolution: Faith, Desire, and Politics. New York: Routledge, Inc., 2014.