The world seemed topsy-turvy. Strange ideas and theories were being written and talked about. Physical science had been revolutionized. People suddenly discovered that what they had held all their lives to be facts were entire misconceptions of the truth. And, if they had been so mistaken about the facts of physical science, might they not be equally mistaken about theology, about law, about politics? Everywhere was doubt and questioning. Revolution was in the air. It was the fashion, and the young French officers returned from the War of Independence in the American colonies found themselves alike the heroes of the common people and of the fashionable world.
True to its nature, the nobility played with revolution as it had played with everything from the beginning of time. It played with reform, with suggestions to abandon its privileges, its titles, with the freedom of the newly born press, with the prerogatives of the crown, with the tiers etat, with life, liberty, and happiness. It was a dangerous game, and in the danger lay its fascination. Society felt its foundations shake, and the more insecure it felt itself to be the more feverish seemed its desire to enjoy life to the dregs, to seize upon that fleet-footed Pleasure who ever kept ahead of her pursuers. There was a constant succession of balls, dramatic fetes, dinner-parties, of official entertainments by the members of the diplomatic corps in this volcanic year of 1789. The ministers of Louis’s court, being at their wits’ end to know what was to be done to allay the disturbances, were of the mind that they could and would, at least, enjoy themselves. The King having always been at his wits’ end was not conscious of being in any unusual or dangerous position. As short-sighted mentally as he was physically, he saw in the popular excitement of the times nothing to dread. Conscious of his own good intentions toward his people, he saw nothing in their ever-increasing demands but evidences of a spirit of progress which he was the first to applaud. Unmindful of the fact that “the most dangerous moment for a bad government is the moment when it meddles with reform,” he yielded everything. The nobles, noting with bitterness his concessions to the tiers etat, told themselves that the King had abandoned them; the common people, suspicious and bewildered, told themselves that their King was but deceiving them. The King, informed of the hostile attitude of the nobility and the ingratitude of the masses, vacillated between his own generous impulses and the despotic demands of the court party. By the King’s weakness, more than by all else, were loosened the foundations of that throne of France, already tottering under its long-accumulated weight of injustice, of mad extravagance, of dissoluteness, of bloody crime.
Nature herself seemed to be in league with the discontent of the times. A long drouth in the summer, which had made the poor harvests poorer still, was followed by that famous winter of 1789—that winter of merciless, of unexampled, cold for France. And in the heat of that long summer and in the cold of that still longer winter, the storm gathered fast which was to rise higher and higher until it should beat upon the very throne itself, and all that was left of honor and justice in France should perish therein.