Modern history


In Grenoble the sight of blood was not imaginary. On a day of riot, June 7, the five-year-old Henri Beyle (later to be known as Stendhal) watched from his parents’ apartment as a wounded journeyman hatter, his arms about the shoulders of two mates, was dragged to safety. Stendhal claims to have always been fascinated by blood. His very first memory was of biting the cheek of a Mme Pison de Gallon, who had demanded to be kissed by the toothy infant in a field of marguerites. Two years later he pressed his face against the window to see blood issuing from a hole in the small of the hatter’s back where it had received a bayonet thrust from a royal trooper. He continued to observe as the man’s shirt and buff trousers stained more deeply crimson. Slowly and painfully, the hatter was taken into the house of a neighbor, a wealthy and liberal merchant named Périer. Suddenly realizing what their son was watching, his parents shook him away from the window and scolded him as though he were eavesdropping. Undeterred, Henri managed a little later to return to his observation post and saw the body dragged six flights up, framed in the broad rectangular windows of the house opposite. On the sixth landing, not surprisingly, the man expired. It was, wrote Stendhal in his autobiographical fragment The Life of Henri Brulard, “the first blood shed for the Revolution.” That evening, his father, Cherubin Beyle, recited the story of the death of Pyrrhus to his family.

On the face of it, Grenoble was an unlikely place to be the “cradle of the Revolution,” as it subsequently liked to call itself. Stendhal – who confused an intense hatred of his father with a hatred of his native town – did not remember it with any warmth. “Grenoble is for me,” he later wrote, “like the recollection of a frightful attack of indigestion, not dangerous but horribly nauseating.” This dyspepsia was brought on by what he characterized as the town’s stifling provincial small-mindedness. But while Grenoble was no Bordeaux with swarming docks and money that was quickly come by and even more quickly spent, neither was it quite the stagnant pond of Stendhal’s memory. The city had produced more than its share of Enlightenment philosophes, like the AbbéMably and Condillac. And its spectacular site on the river Isère at the foot of the Savoyard Alps had put it on the pilgrims’ route to Rousseau. Jean-Jacques had himself stayed there in 1768 while virtuously botanizing in the mountains. A year later Grenoble could boast its own Almanach des Muses modeled on the successful literary journal of the same name that first appeared in Paris in 1765. A little later Les Affiches de Grenoble appeared, a weekly newspaper selling for three sous and inviting “any citizen interested in taking part in observations on important matters” to submit articles for publication. In this same small but lively milieu, Stendhal’s maternal grandfather, Dr. Gagnon, had established both a flourishing public library and a new Central School for promising students. Gagnon’s published interests, which ranged from studies on urine retention to a history of volcanoes in the Auvergne, were typical of the encyclopedically minded and politically alert elite of the town. By the time that Antoine Barnave published his withering polemic against the Lamoignon reforms, L’Esprit des Edits, he could be assured of an attentive and indignant readership.

In many respects it was Grenoble’s ordinariness that made it ripe for the first great urban insurrection of the Revolution. As the seat of the Parlement of Dauphiné it had the usual concentration of literate, poorly paid and easily excitable lawyers, pamphleteers, teachers and hack writers. Any threat to the sovereign court was a direct challenge to both their livelihood and their sense of prestige. But Grenoble was also a center of regional industry with four and a half thousand skilled artisans producing fine gloves that were exported throughout the country and as far away as Philadelphia and Moscow. Together with the hemp combers, who made up another important group in the work force, the artisans had gradually been pushed from the old center of the town to the rue Saint-Laurent on the opposite bank of the Isère and to the faubourg Très Cloître to the southeast. While years of prosperity had increased employment opportunities, the sudden disruption of the upward trade cycle in 1788, combined with abruptly steeper bread prices, had made these workers both angry and hungry. They were competing for supplementary jobs with a sizable community of regional immigrants from the surrounding regions of the Gévaudan and the Savoy who had settled in Grenoble as market porters, domestic servants and coachmen.

Given these tensions it was imprudent of the government to make its move on a market day: Saturday, June 7. The magistrates of the Parlement had taken to meeting at the house of their First President, Albert de Bérulle, and on May 20 had followed the lead of their colleagues in Paris and other provinces in declaring the enforcement of the May edicts illegal. Ten days later Brienne instructed the lieutenant-général of the Dauphiné, the Duc de Clermont-Tonnerre, to exile the magistrates from Grenoble and on the seventh the lettres de cachet were duly served. Two regiments of soldiers – the Marine-la-Royale and the Austrasie – were on hand to convince the Parlementaires to go quietly. And they might well have done so had it not been for the decisive intervention of the crowd. Typically, it was the basoche of the courts that began the day’s action by haranguing people in the markets and distributing pamphlets and posters violently attacking Brienne and Lamoignon. The protest moved from speeches, shouted insults and songs to a strike. At around ten in the morning the stalls and shops all shut, and glove makers and hemp combers walked out of their workshops and poured into the center of the town, heading for the Palais de Justice and de Bérulle’s house on the rue Voltaire. Their aim was to prevent the departure of the magistrates, by force if necessary, and they got as far as unbridling the coach horses that had been arranged for the President and taking them out of the courtyard. A second group shut the city gates to prevent reinforcements and a third organized itself to besiege the governor’s own house.

At this point, Clermont-Tonnerre, as commander of the garrison, was faced with an unenviable decision. It was one that every officer, placed in a similar predicament, throughout the French Revolution – and through countless revolutions to come – would confront. Should he turn his soldiers into the streets to contain, deter or subdue the crowd? If so, should they be fully armed? If so, under what conditions might they fire? Which of these scenarios, if not all of them, might not risk making the situation worse, rather than better? And like many such officers placed in this quandary, he made a half-hearted response, only to find the decision taken out of his hands by the spontaneous brutality of events.

Soldiers were sent to the scenes of the riots in relatively small detachments, armed but with orders not to open fire. Their presence was just enough to enrage the crowds further but not concentrated enough to cow them. Many of the Grenoblois took to the roofs of their houses and began pelting the unprotected soldiers with tiles until a rain of them was clattering onto the cobbles below. As the troops began to take serious hits, the two regiments reacted differently. The soldiers of the Austrasie obeyed Lieutenant-Colonel Boissieux, who forbade them to shoot, even when he himself was struck directly in the face by a tile. The Marine-la-Royale was less stoical. At the place Grenette, directly in front of Stendhal’s house, a small platoon from that regiment, goaded beyond endurance, opened fire and hit a twelve-year-old boy who later died of the blood lost from a shattered thigh. It was here too that the hatter was fatally struck. Blood-soaked clothes from the victims were paraded around the streets, and the tocsin bells were sounded from the cathedral, bringing in from the countryside more peasants, who had heard that their friends and family in Grenoble for the market were now under military attack.

By midafternoon, Clermont-Tonnerre and the intendant Caze de La Bove were desperately looking for some solution short of either bloody repression or capitulation. They made it known to the Parlementaires that they would withdraw troops from the streets in return for the magistrates’ immediate departure. By this time the magistrates were probably eager to comply, but the decision had been preempted by the fury of the crowds. With no stomach for a slaughter, Clermont-Tonnerre evacuated his hôtel and the jubilant crowds took over the city. The governor’s house was pillaged, beginning with his wine cellars and ending with his natural history cabinet, from which a stuffed eagle was extracted as a trophy of the victory. Furniture was thrown into the streets and burned and mirrors smashed. Albert de Bérulle and his colleague-presidents of the court were hoisted onto the shoulders of a cheering throng and garlanded with the flowers of June. Thirty-two years old, handsome and rather vain, de Bérulle had courted this celebrity but now that he had it, he was not sure that he cared for it. Made to don their red robes trimmed with ermine and marched, ostensibly in triumph, to the Palais de Justice, where the windows were illuminated and a special session demanded by the crowds, the magistrates must have been uncertain as to who were the leaders and who the led. It was a moment of uncomfortable truth that was to recur over and over again in the years that followed.

Eventually, the wine was emptied to the lees; the last of the fireworks on the place Saint-André had fallen back to earth and the shouting against the Devil’s twins, Brienne and Lamoignon, had died away. The senior Parlementaires, who had been more alarmed than elated by their victory, made haste to remove themselves from town before any further mayhem occurred. But the hardier and younger spirits among them – like the juge royal Jean-Joseph Mounier, and Antoine Barnave – saw the disorders and the naked helplessness of royal authority as an occasion to capitalize on its breakdown.

The Day of Tiles was, then, a threefold revolution. It signified the breakdown of royal authority and the helplessness of military force in the face of sustained urban disorder. It warned the elite beneficiaries of that disorder that there was an unpredictable price to be paid for their encouragement of riot and one that might very easily be turned against themselves. And most important of all, it delivered the initiative for further political action into the hands of a younger, more radical group who had no qualms at all about apostrophizing the People.

A week later, Mounier began to orchestrate opinion more systematically. His was the central organizing hand that turned the incoherent riot into a major political initiative. Not yet thirty, Mounier, the son of a draper, like so many others of the generation of 1789 was a product not of bourgeois frustration with the old regime, but of its effortless escalator to social promotion. He studied law at the local college, where his classmates nicknamed the somber, self-important young man Cato. Established as a barrister, in 1782 Mounier married the daughter of a well-placed procureur du roi. The following year, at twenty-five, Mounier became a noble, having bought the office of juge royal for twenty-three thousand livres. In other words, there was absolutely nothing in his social profile that would point him towards revolution except, that is, his own ardent belief in the rejuvenation of France as a nation of citizens loyal to a king who would honor their representation. And it may have been Stendhal’s grandfather, Dr. Gagnon, who set him on that course. For it was the ubiquitous small-town academician who lent the young Mounier the works of politics and philosophy in his library that began his intellectual formation. Twenty years later, in exile at Weimar, he would sorely try Goethe’s patience in dismissing the importance of Immanuel Kant.

His objectives in the summer of 1788 went well beyond the conventionally conservative goal of restoring the Parlements. On June 14, in defiance of a ban by Clermont-Tonnerre, he organized a meeting at the Hôtel de Ville with over a hundred representatives of all three orders: clergy, nobility and the Third Estate. The last group was the most numerous and included, besides the three aldermen-“consuls” of Grenoble, Dr. Gagnon, Mounier’s own father and a number of lawyers, notaries and physicians (as well as a few merchants): the typical personnel of the political Third Estate. The meeting addressed an appeal directly to the King to restore the Parlement and withdraw the new reforms. It also asked for the convening of the provincial Estates of Dauphiné and specified that there should be “free elections” to that body. In the Estates the numbers of the Third were to be equal to the other two combined, the first formal statement of the principle that was to become crucial to the Estates-General itself (for which the meeting also asked). While there was some hesitation before this principle, Mounier’s eloquence swayed the meeting and it was finally adopted in a burst of “fraternal concord.” It was this axiom which Barnave later identified as the foundation of a “democratic revolution.”

From the Grenoble meeting there were other significant anticipations of what would become standard revolutionary themes. First was the identification of opposing forces as traitors. Those who dared to accept places in the Lamoignon courts, it was declared, should be “held to be traitors to the patrie” and dealt with accordingly. Second was the concern that a new political order should pay attention to the material grievances of the people who had empowered it. Nothing terribly radical was being proposed here: a subscription fund to assist unemployed or distressed artisans. But the fact that the tribunes were already mingling social with political issues was in itself a fateful development. Finally the assembly issued a ringing appeal to the towns and villages of the whole region of the Dauphiné to meet at Grenoble to prepare for their new representation.

Between this meeting and the second assembly, which was held not in Grenoble but at the Château de Vizille, which also belonged to the merchant Claude Périer, Grenoble was seized with a great onrush of patriotic emotion. Deputations and petitions were received daily by the councillors at the Hôtel de Ville, some of them from constituents who were being actively politicized for the first time. Schoolboys from the Collège-Royal-Dauphin de Grenoble, for example, protested that though “we are still of tender years we will one day become citizens” and that required them to show expressions of virtuous solidarity with their elders. An even more extraordinary statement, a communication to the King signed by “the very humble but very intrepid subjects; all the women of your province of Dauphiné,” reminded him that throughout the centuries women had always influenced “national sentiment… [and] that there is not one of us that does not burn with a patriotic fire, ready for the greatest sacrifices and the greatest efforts…”

You have tried to make us afraid by the marks of your power; by force and the bayonets of soldiers, guns, cannons and shells, but we will not retreat one step. We shall oppose them with our front of courage armed only with the lightest of clothes and a helmet of gauze. But to our very last sigh, our wills and our hearts will demand the return of our magistrates, privileges and the reestablishment of the conditions which alone can make true laws…

A whole year before the Revolution is usually thought to have started, public utterances like this were already saturated with Rousseau’s rhetoric of virtue. Not only were there already citizens, but also citizenesses.

Part of Clermont-Tonnerre’s difficulty was that he thought of himself as one of these citizens and was impossibly torn between duty to the King and his tender conscience. He was duly replaced by a much more formidable figure, the octogenarian veteran Maréchal de Vaux. And it was under his baleful gaze that a procession of “deputies” from each of the orders and from towns around the Dauphiné(though still very much dominated by the Grenoblois) set off on foot for Périer’s château at Vizille on the twenty-first of July. Soldiers lined the route, but today, unlike the Day of Tiles, they seemed to some of the participants more friendly than ominous. The Maréchal de Vaux, who had seemed so threatening, had proved to be no firmer than his predecessors and faced with the inevitability of the assembly responded, “Eh bien, I will close my eyes.” Of the 491 representatives at Vizille, there were 50 members of the clergy, no less than 165 from the nobility – a crucial contingent – and 276 from the Third Estate (of whom 187 were Grenoblois). The Comte de Morgues was elected president, and Mounier to the all-important post of secretary.

As at the earlier meeting at the Hôtel de Ville, Mounier had gone to some lengths to prepare the agenda for discussion. Though just a year later he was to protest bitterly against what he thought was the National Assembly’s usurpation of royal power, in July 1788 Mounier himself undertook an exercise in political reconstitution. In doing this he was armed with absolutely no legal authority save what he declared to be some sort of mandate from “the laws and the people,” a formula sufficiently elastic to apply to any contingency. And even though he could not have conceived of the assembly at Vizille as a rehearsal for the National Assembly, the euphoria generated among the three orders by working harmoniously together and wrapping themselves in the mantle of patriotic rhetoric was indeed a direct foreshadowing of the scene at Versailles one year later.

At Vizille, Mounier reemphasized his departure from traditional Parlementaire rhetoric with its borrowings from Montesquieu and emphasis on historically preserved rights. A little later he would even commit the heresy of rejecting the concept of an “immemorial” or “fundamental” constitution for France that the government was said to have violated. But even at Vizille his objections to its conduct were grounded instead on natural rights and the axiom that governments were founded to protect individual liberties – a completely new and obviously “American” concept in France. “The rights of man,” he said, “derive from nature alone and are independent of [historical] conventions.” In the manifest absence of any constitution, he thought, one had to be created anew and by the Estates-General. At the assembly Mounier sounded the tocsin. “The welfare of the patrie is the concern of all when it is endangered… an assembly can never be considered illegal when it has no goal other than the safety of the State.” His stigmatization of anyone accepting office from Brienne as a “traitor” was reiterated and he defined as a duty for all three orders the united defense of anyone persecuted by the ministry. Moreover, only true representatives of the people – with the Third doubled to equal the other orders – could assent to any kind of taxation.

All of these principles were given formal weight at the assembly. Barnave, who was one of the most lucid observers of events, saw that the importance of the meeting was to shake loose opposition rhetoric from the grip of Parlementaire conservatism. The judicial nobility had created enough of a crisis to thwart government reform but it had lost control of its politics. In the Dauphiné, issues of representation had been pushed to the fore even before the Estates-General had been announced. And the rhetoric of thepatrie had swept the privileged along in supporting both the doubling of the Third Estate and common debates and votes – the great issues that would abruptly divide the political nation.

Despite the wholly unauthorized nature of the assembly, on the second of August Louis XVI agreed to convene the Estates of Dauphiné at Romans. By stages he was backing away from the firmness insisted on by his own government. Other spontaneously convened meetings, usually dominated by the nobility, had produced deputations sent to Versailles to ask either for the Estates of the province or the nation. One such delegation came from Brittany on July 12. The King refused to see it and as a result a meeting of all the great Breton nobles in Paris was held at the Hôtel d’Espagne. In response, twelve of its leaders were sent to the Bastille and others, including Lafayette (improbably identifying himself as a “Breton” through his mother’s side), were summarily stripped of court favors. A second delegation from Rennes was similarly sent to prison. But Louis was not prepared to see this through. Where Louis XV’s campaign against the Parlements had ended only with the King’s death, his grandson committed the monarchy to suicide. Even in June, his eminently sensible sister, Mme Elisabeth, had noticed that

The king is backing off… He is always afraid of making a mistake. Once the first impulse is passed, he is no longer tormented by anything but the fear of having done an injustice… it seems to me that in government as in education one should not say “I will it” until one is sure of being right. But once having said it, never slack off from what you have ordered.

In this mood of nervous vacillation – which would last until the very end of his reign – Louis reversed his decision and admitted another Breton delegation, promising them the convening of their Estates. A week later, on August 8, this political swerve became irreversible when he made the announcement the whole nation was awaiting: the Estates-General would be convened at Versailles on May 1, 1789. Until the meeting Lamoignon’s plenary court, which was to have been entrusted with the registration of new laws, would be in abeyance. In Grenoble, as throughout France, the proclamation was greeted with euphoria: more fireworks, illuminated windows, songs and torchlight parades expressing devotion to the King, though not to his ministers.

In the face of mounting evidence that their policies were unenforceable, Brienne and Lamoignon attempted to stay in power. Even by July their position was not wholly untenable. Outside of the Parlementaire centers, the new grands bailliages regional courts were in fact being established – notably at Lyon and Valence. They may even have been attractive to some elements in the Third Estate who were already beginning to separate themselves from aristocratic domination. Nor did Brienne concede that the calling of the Estates-General was itself the end of his government. He was quite correct to argue that he had always been in favor of the Estates and had differed with his critics only on the (not unimportant) matter of timing. He took this process of “popularizing” the monarchy further by inviting the nation to make known its “views” on the form which the Estates-General should take. This was an astute attempt to exploit divisions that were already becoming apparent between the nobility and “Patriots” on the manner of representation and, by extension, just what sort of political nation should succeed the now moribund absolute monarchy.

But the monarchy’s appeal to the people, used as a stick with which to beat its opponents, was seen – as Calonne’s belated resort to public opinion had been seen and as similar appeals of the monarchy would be seen throughout the Revolution – as at best desperate and at worst disingenuous. It did not save Brienne. Indeed, as it became apparent that authority in France was speedily disintegrating, the removal of the Brienne administration began to seem a precondition for any kind of effective government. There was a short-term crisis of order, with the dispersion of available troops to different provincial centers as far away as Rennes and Aix opening up a dangerous vacuum at the center. But what really finished Brienne off was not so much his inability to enforce the May edicts as the sudden death of public credit.

In May, the Assembly of the Clergy, on which the government was depending for a substantial don gratuit – the traditional lump sum voted as its fiscal contribution – only came up with a derisory offering. Obviously its recalcitrance was a gesture of political solidarity with the Parlements. Much worse was to follow in August. At the beginning of the month Brienne was told by the chief of the Contrôle, Gojard, that there were just 400,000 livres remaining in the Treasury – or enough money for the government to function for an afternoon. After the initial shock his first reaction was (understandably) to wonder why Gojard had waited until the last extremity to let him know this not unimportant item of news. In retirement he came to what in all probability was the correct conclusion: In league with the growing number anxious to see Brienne off, Gojard had deliberately waited until the predicament was so appalling that the Minister could not possibly hope to extricate himself from the mess.

The ploy worked. Desperate measures were all that were left to Brienne if he was to protect military pay – without which what remained of internal order would have immediately collapsed. The immediate crisis was simple enough. The steep decline of government securities had made it virtually impossible for the Farmers-General, as well as the other financial syndicates on which the state relied to meet its medium-term obligations, to raise capital for their advance in the money market. In effect, the collateral against which that money could be lent had depreciated to the point at which it no longer represented a safe investment. Moreover, for the current deficit, the “anticipations” of future revenues had already been mortgaged too far ahead to alter that prudential calculation.

The bet was as much political as financial. Even in an apparently desperate situation, there was nothing about the intrinsic structure of the monarchy’s institutions that led prospective lenders to write it off altogether. Rather, they were reminded that in Maupeou’s day, repression went hand in hand with defaults (however finessed). The converse was that the Estates-General might prove a better guarantor of their investments than the crown.

It is not quite the whole truth, then, to describe the predicament of the French state in August 1788 as bankruptcy. It was Brienne’s government, not France, that was bankrupt, as the speed with which his successor, Necker, raised loans of all kinds amply bore out. (Necker’s personal ability to scrounge funds from colleagues on the Bourse and from the Corporations of Paris gave the government enough money to live on until the Valhalla of the Estates-General was finally realized.) But he was the beneficiary of a dramatic change of regime. In his last weeks Brienne had only a thinly disguised forced loan to fall back on for a modicum of fiscal relief. Issued on August 16 it took the form of Treasury bills bearing interest of 5 percent but with no fixed date of maturity. Payments of more than twelve hundred livres would be made, three fifths in cash and two fifths in these bills; those with lesser amounts would receive a slightly higher proportion of cash, and so on.

It was, in effect, an attempt to fob off bondholders with paper money, but it was seen as the financial equivalent of the Dutch crisis. In September 1787 France had abandoned a foreign policy until she could afford one. In August 1788 she was abandoning a financial policy until she could agree on one.

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