Marie Antoinette’s View of the Revolution (8 September 1791)

Fears about Marie Antoinette’s intentions and actions were not baseless. Although inexperienced in the new style of politics, Marie Antoinette did see a need for help from abroad if the monarchy was to stop or reverse the course of the Revolution, which she thought to be getting out of control. She wrote this letter to her brother Leopold II, Emperor of the large Habsburg Empire in central Europe, describing the Revolution as she saw it and asking for his help to end it.


Only the Emperor can put an end to the troubles caused by the French Revolution.

There is no longer any possibility of reconciliation.

The armed forces have destroyed everything—only armed forces can repair the situation.

The King has done everything to avoid civil war, and he is still very much convinced that civil war cannot correct anything, and that it shall, in the end, destroy everything.

The leaders of the Revolution correctly feel that their constitution cannot last, that it is being sustained by the personal interests of all those who dominate the departments, municipalities, and clubs. A portion of the People have been deceived and follow the opinions of these leaders. However, all educated people, the peaceful bourgeois, and, in general, a majority of the citizens from all walks of life, are fearful and discontented.

If opposition to the [armies of the great] powers was to arise, if the language of the powers was reasonable, if their assembled forces were imposing, and if there was no civil war, it would be risky to assume that a general revolution would occur in the cities. There would be, rather, no difficulty in returning things to order.

But if there is a civil war, the forces of the powers will only prevail in the areas where their armies are located. The distant provinces will be divided—those that have been oppressed will want to avenge themselves, those that have dominated will certainly feel that they must risk everything. There will be massacres in the name of revenge. There will be massacres to gain twenty-four hours in order to have time to escape. Everyone is armed. Things will be in a deplorable state, and crime and murder will enter into people's houses and no citizen will be assured of surviving from one day to the next. . . .

The united powers must take into account the position of the King, his powers and his dignity, and the relationships that depend on them. He cannot be firmly reestablished if factions are allowed to dictate laws which, on the pretext of deciding how he can exercise his authority, deprive him of those powers he requires. The united powers must ensure, in accordance with the principles and fundamental laws of the French monarchy, that no law or constitution may be reestablished in France that does not call for the free, full and entire concurrence of the King, and that no possibility exists of stipulating a limit on the free declaration of his will.

The united powers cannot view without concern the spreading of the principles of anarchy and confusion within a large European state . . . principles destructive to all governments. More than any argument, excess, or danger, it is the deplorable state of France that clearly demonstrates what these principles give rise to. The powers must recognize that this is a question of vital interest not only for all sovereigns, but for all orders, states, and classes of citizens in all countries and in republics as well as monarchies. . . .

It seems impossible that the nation should be without misgivings, and ready to lose all its resources because an immoderate and improvident assembly has destroyed, at a stroke, both the King's authority and its own. The Assembly is not the nation. Different forms of government can be disturbed or suspended. The nation remains, and, being more aware of the dangers, it can see where its true interests lie. It was the time-honored method of the kings of France to appeal to the good cities. It is probable that the cities, in order to redeem themselves from the misfortunes of the war, will entreat the King to take back his power and play a mediating role. The desire for public safety can restore to him the love of the people. All the anxieties, all the fears will rally to his authority. Upon his head will rest all hopes. His sufferings will be recalled, and those of the Queen, and their courage in the terrible days of October 5th and 6th. All the crimes of the Revolution will be remembered. It is possible that there will arise a terrible cry against their authors, against all the violent men who have been placed in office. Those frightened men will try to save themselves by flight, and the communal assemblies will no longer be composed of the same members, dominated by the same force, and governed by the same sentiments.

The Revolution will be effected in the interior of each city; it will be effected by the approach of the war and not by the war itself. The King, his powers restored, will be entrusted with negotiations with the foreign powers, and the princes will return, in the general tranquillity, to reassume their ranks at his court and in the nation.

Source: Maxime de la Rocheterie and the Marquis de Beaucourt, Marie-Antoinette, Lettres; réceuil des lettres authentiques de la reine, vol. 2 (Paris: Société d'histoire contemporaine, 1896), 284–304.