Modern history


There had never been any doubt as to which attraction really pulled in the customers at M. Curtius’ wax museum. Le Grand Couvert showed the royal family together with the Queen’s brother, Joseph II, enjoying their dinner. It was the climax of a show which also featured celebrities and heroes like Voltaire and Vice Admiral d’Estaing. Each one was modeled and painted by Peter Creutz (for that was the German name he was born with), whose career was yet another of the showman-entrepreneur success stories of eighteenth-century France. Mayeur de Saint-Paul, whose book on the boulevard du Temple specialized in sneering at the low life and burlesque specialists to be discovered there, saw Curtius as a paragon of the self-made man: gifted, shrewd and, above all, industrious. Certainly he knew his market. At two sous a head Curtius was able to pack in nonstop lines of gaping visitors from every walk of life. When they had finished marveling at his skill and imagining themselves chuckling with Voltaire, sobbing with Rousseau or peeking at Marie-Antoinette preparing for bed, they could buy one of his little wax figures of “gallants” and “libertines” to provoke saucy giggles at home.

Emboldened by success and prosperity, Curtius did not hesitate when the Palais-Royal began to let commercial space in 1784. He took Salon Number 7 and filled it with the same successful mix of military and cultural heroes and court scenes that had served him so well on the boulevard and in the fairs of Saint-Germain and Saint-Laurent. To cater to a slightly grander clientele, he added a dividing balustrade that created a two-price admission: twelve sous for the front, two for the rear. There he had to compete with some powerful rival attractions like the four-hundred-pound Paul Butterbrodt and worse still the scoundrel who passed off a wax model as “the beautiful Zulima,” dead for two hundred years but miraculously preserved and available for complete inspection for a few sous. But Curtius knew how to keep abreast of the competition. He installed a ventriloquist who gave performances daily from noon till two and five till nine. And he became topical, adding heroes of the hour – Lafayette, Mirabeau, Target and, of course, the Duc d’Orléans and M. Necker.

So when he saw a crowd of a thousand making for Salon Number 7 in a state of patriotic uproar around four o’clock on Sunday the twelfth of June, he must have had a good idea who they were coming for. Surrendering the busts of Orléans and Necker, Curtius was able to deliver a little speech worthy of the best actors of the Théâtre-Français: “My friends,” he declaimed, “he [Necker] is ever in my heart but if he were indeed there I would cut open my breast to give him to you. I have only his likeness. It is yours.” A tremendous performance. The heads were marched off triumphantly by the cheering crowd.

All that day, the Palais-Royal had been a boiling pot of agitation. The King and his advisers had thought a Sunday the optimal time for news of Necker’s exile to become public (as they realized, for all their secrecy, it must), since it precluded an immediate response by the National Assembly. But for the unofficial center of opposition – the Palais-Royal – Sunday was the perfect day for organized histrionics. It was packed with sightseers, flâneurs, orators, peasants from the villages hors des murs, artisans from thefaubourgs. Around three o’clock a crowd of six thousand or so milled about a young man, pale-faced and dark-eyed, his hair spilling freely onto his shoulders, shouting excitedly from one of the tables in front of a café.

Camille Desmoulins was then twenty-six years old, the favored son of a large family from Guise in Picardy. His father, a lieutenant-colonel of the local bailliage, had scrimped and saved to send the precocious boy to Paris for his education. And his siblings contented themselves with careers as junior officers in the army, modest marriages and, in the case of one sister, the inevitable nunnery. Desmoulins had gone to the Lycée Louis-le-Grand, where he encountered Maximilien Robespierre from Arras and a great mix of boys – some aristocratic, many bourgeois, some even from artisan backgrounds – who made up the student population of that extraordinary institution. Like them he had drunk deep of Cicero, Tacitus and Livy, had felt Roman stirrings in his blood.

Though his father hoped he would be destined for the law, Desmoulins tried to survive from occasional writings, producing, for his effort, an “Ode to the Estates-General.” In June 1789 La France Libérée (France Liberated) was accepted by the publisher Momoro, who liked to style himself “The First Printer of Liberty.” Though it was not published until a few days after the fall of the Bastille, Desmoulins’ tract is a fine example of the breast-beating, sob-provoking declamation then in vogue at the Palais-Royal. From the first lines its manner assumes an audience rather than a readership:

Listen, listen to Paris and Lyon, Rouen and Bordeaux, Calais and Marseille. From one end of the country to the other the same, universal cry is heard… everyone wants to be free.

It was through the voice, rather than the eye, that the apostles of liberty would rally their troops. For while the eye seduced, the voice disciplined. As a young habitué of the Palais-Royal, Desmoulins was particularly preoccupied with sexual temptation as a potent weapon of royal and aristocratic corruption. Monarchy, he wrote, tries its best to deprave us in order to “enervate the national character and bastardize us by surrounding our youth with places of seduction and debauchery and besieging us with prostitutes.”

This Machiavellian design would be thwarted, for in the capital alone there were more than thirty thousand men ready to abandon their délices to unite themselves, “at the first signal, with the sacred cohorts of the patrie.” Already, they had taken command of the theater of eloquence. “Only Patriots now raise their voices. The enemies of the public good are silenced or, if they dare to speak… immediately mark themselves for the penalty of their felony and their treason.”

Drawing on his schoolboy exercises in the classics, Desmoulins used in his peroration the same tone of Virtue Militant, but for extra effect added the patriotic martyrdom exemplified in neoclassical history paintings in the Salon and on the stage. Blood was important in these likenesses. Desmoulins compared himself with the fallen warrior Otyrhades, who wrote “Sparta has triumphed” in his own blood on a captured standard. “I who have been timid now feel myself to be a new man [so that] I could die with joy for so glorious a cause, and, pierced with blows, I too would write in my own blood ‘France is free!’”

So Desmoulins had already scripted the performance he would give to such rousing effect before the crowd at the Café Foy on July 12. He wrote to his father that, on arriving at the Palais-Royal at about three, he joined with some fellows all urging citizens to take arms against the treachery that had removed Necker, “whom the Nation had asked to be preserved.” A creature of impulse (obedient thus to Nature, not Culture), he jumped onto a table, his head “suffocating under a multitude of ideas” which he vocalized without any respect for order. Of Necker, he said a monument should be erected, not an exile decreed. “To arms, to arms and [plucking leaves from a chestnut tree] let us all take a green cockade, the color of hope.” At that moment Desmoulins thought he saw police arrive – or so he claimed. The suspicion allowed him to pose as the imminent victim of tyranny. A new Saint Bartholomew’s Eve massacre impended, he warned: a reference point that was already becoming an important cliché of Patriot rhetoric and which would be reinforced by the most popular play of 1789: Marie-Joseph Chénier’s Charles IX. Pointing to his breast with one hand and waving a pistol in the other (another piece of stage business that would become standard in the Convention), Desmoulins defied the stooges of tyranny: “Yes, yes, it is I who call my brothers to freedom; I would die rather than submit to servitude.”

The audience response was gratifying. Desmoulins was an instantaneous hero, surrounded by arms clasping him, shouts of “bravo,” kisses, fiery oaths never to abandon his side. He was moved off amidst a great shouting and cheering throng that seized anything green that might be available – ribbon, leaves, whole branches: a small army in search of heroes and guns.

The heroes were missing in person: Necker at Brussels, Orléans playing in his own amateur theatricals at Saint-Leu. (Learning of the Paris revolt, one of his company, a painter named Giroux, rode posthaste still costumed as Polyphemus the Cyclops and was nearly roughed up by a crowd at the barrière who assumed his one eye to be the sinister mark of a police spy.) But Curtius could supply proxy personnages in wax. What they lacked in eloquence they more than made up for in portability and forbearance of conduct which their real personas might not have so wholeheartedly approved.

Theater had moved from its customary space onto the street. There, it was in deadly earnest and moved immediately to impose its serious drama on the world of mere divertissement (entertainment). Audiences were now required to give the Revolution their full attention. So a crowd of some three thousand invaded the Opéra, where Grétry’s Aspasie was about to get under way, declaring the day one of mourning for the loss of Necker. Other theaters, especially those in the Palais-Royal and the boulevard du Temple, closed themselves without further invitation. Agents of the Bourse nearby announced the Exchange would remain shut on Monday, the following day, thus lending a fresh element of financial alarm to the accumulating sense of crisis. Like Desmoulins, many of the actors in this drama suddenly felt themselves to be framed within a brilliantly lit Historical Moment. Everything they did or said took on weight as though it were being chronicled by a new Tacitus even as it was being enacted. This self-conscious gravity became even more pronounced as the procession, now some six thousand strong, raised black banners and donned black coats and hats to signify the funereal seriousness of the occasion.

None of this might have mattered very much to the authorities had not the speeches, shouting and bells been accompanied by the demand for arms. It was apparent to the Baron de Besenval, who was now responsible for military command in Paris and the region, that the six thousand sundry units of police – the thousand guards; the Guêt constabulary; the crossbowmen and harquebusiers in their ceremonial pantaloons and the handful of maréchaussées (stationed outside the city limits) – could not possibly cope with the gathering tumult. Regular troops were stationed at Saint-Denis, Sèvres, Saint-Cloud and within the city at the Invalides, the Ecole Militaire, in the place Louis XV and on the Champs Elysées. On the Champ de Mars that same morning, before the news about Necker reached Paris, women had danced with Hungarian hussars of the Berzcheny regiment. Hours later the men were lined up in battle order. Four pieces of cannon had been moved to the Pont Louis XVI. But how and when to use this military force was as problematic in Paris in July 1789 as it had been in Grenoble a year before and in countless cities throughout France all through the spring.

At the place Vendôme, matters came to a head. The Prince de Lambesc, commanding a company of the Royal-Allemand stationed in the place Louis XV (shortly to be renamed the place de la Révolution and now the consensually bland space of the place de la Concorde), was ordered to clear the square. Standard procedure was for the cavalry to use the flat of their sabers, but the equally standard consequence was that the horses were surrounded to the point of immobility. Outnumbered, the dragoons retreated to the place Louis XV. From the place Vendôme the crowd ran into the Tuileries gardens. There they collided with troops, and the man who was carrying Curtius’s bust of the Duc d’Orléans was dragged behind a horse back to the place Louis XV. As further cavalrymen struggled to get into the gardens, the crowd, shouting “Au meurtre,” moved to the balustraded terrace, from where they heaved anything they could down onto the soldiers. Chairs, stones from a construction site, even parts of statues where they could be broken and moved rained down, panicking the horses and wounding the soldiers.

The skirmish went on long enough for word that “Germans and Swiss are massacring the people” to take wing around the city, and units of the gardes françaises arrived on the scene in battle order to confront Lambesc’s troopers. It was the first moment that an organized armed force had faced the King’s soldiers, determined to counter-attack. More astonishing still, the gardes were in sufficient force to push the cavalry troopers out of the Tuileries altogether. From that point, battle was joined for sovereignty over Paris.

For all the weeks of military planning and preparation, first by the Maréchal de Broglie, then by Besenval, it was not much of a battle. It was obvious that the beleaguered company on the place Louis XV needed help, but it was provided by the Swiss Salis-Samade regiment in the most laborious possible manner. As the sun was setting, troops were ferried across the Seine in just two boats, guns mounted in the bows to deter fire from the right bank, where the gardes françaises had strengthened their positions. After two hours of this miserable progress, they attempted to re-form in battle order under a night sky of inky darkness. Light came as they were fired on from gardes françaises positions on the boulevards. By one o’clock the commander of the Salis-Samade had decided that the position was untenable. When Besenval returned to the scene, he made the even more dramatic decision to evacuate the whole area, retreating westward to the Pont de Sèvres.

The retreat of royal troops from the center of the city delivered it over to haphazard violence. Gunsmiths and armorers were forced to hand over muskets, sabers, pistols and shoulder belts. One master gunsmith later reported to the National Assembly that his shop had been broken into thirty times and had lost 150 swords, 4 gross blades, 58 hunting knives, 10 brace of pistols and 8 muskets.

Armed with this assortment of weapons – as well as kitchen knives, daggers and clubs – crowds at the northern end of the city set about destroying the hated symbol of their confinement: the Farmers’-General wall and its fifty-four barriè res. The enceinte had been Lavoisier’s last technical masterpiece, ten feet high, eighteen miles in circumference, punctuated at intervals by Claude Ledoux’s extraordinary customs posts. The crowd was not interested in technology or in architecture. The wall meant high prices and brutal police: vexation and starvation. It was breached in several places, then haphazardly torn down, the stones serving as another kind of weapon to be used against troops. Forty of the customs posts were sacked, their doors and furniture burned together with papers and tax records. Among the attackers were fifteen who described themselves (in 1790) as smugglers who, in the euphoria of the moment, as Jacques Godechot has commented, failed to realize they were putting themselves out of business. The crowds were mostly from the northern faubourgs and included a number of masons, so that it is a reasonable bet that at least some of those who had helped construct the enceinte now joined in pulling it down.

The third target was, of course, bread or, at least, grain and flour. The monastery of Saint-Lazare (the scene of Beaumarchais’ humiliation) was not only a prison but a commercial depot. Inevitably it attracted to itself the reputation of being a house full of corpulent monks sitting on immense piles of grain. Crowds, consisting of some of the poorest and hungriest Parisians, put it to the sack and removed any kind of foodstuffs they could find. Large quantities of grain were taken, as were wine, vinegar, oil, twenty-five Gruyère cheeses and, more improbably, a dried ram’s head.

During that single night of largely unobstructed riot and demolition, Paris was lost to the monarchy. Only if Besenval was prepared to use his troops the following day to occupy the city and deal brutally with disorder was there any hope of recapture. But the messy, chaotic nocturnal operation had, if anything, unsteadied his grip on command even further. Told by his own officers that their own soldiers, even the Swiss and Germans, could not be counted on, he was unwilling to take the offensive.

On Monday the thirteenth he was faced with a more serious threat than the kind of spontaneous havoc of the day before. At eleven the previous evening there had been a meeting of some of the electors at the Hôtel de Ville. They decided to summon emergency sessions at each of the sixty district headquarters at dawn the following day. The only way this could be announced was by the ringing of the recognized signal for times of peril – the tocsin – and reinforcing the message with cannon shots and the beating of drums. So it was with this thunderous cacophony – the clanging of church bells and the firing of guns – that citizens were summoned to their patriotic duty.

At the Hôtel de Ville the paramount concern was to take control of a situation that threatened to disintegrate into anarchy. The means, as in countless other cities in France, was to form a militia restricted to the electoral elements of the population: those, in other words, with something to lose. Units of eight hundred in each district were to be mobilized, making up in total a citizens’ army of forty-eight thousand. Even when allowance had been made for its inevitable inexperience and the need to be guided and trained by thegardes françaises, it was an imposing force – substantial enough to perform its twin duties of facing down any further attempt at military repression and containing and, if necessary, punishing unlawful violence. Crucial to the transfer of authority represented in this act was the provision of identifiable insignia. Since uniforms could hardly be provided at short notice, cockades were to be worn on coats and hats. Green was ruled out when it was discovered to be the color not only of hope but the livery of the Comte d’Artois. As an alternative that signified more emphatically the passage of legitimacy, the colors of Paris, red and blue, became the colors of its citizen-soldiers. The official nature of this choice, however, did not preclude more romantic interpretations. In his capacity as poet-Patriot, Desmoulins described the colors of the uniform as red, representing the blood to be shed for freedom, and blue, representing the celestial constitution that would be its eventual blessing. And one of the first to wear the tricolor was Citizen Curtius, who volunteered his services to the militia on the first day of its duty.

Their first munitions did not do much for the dignity of the new militia, though these did provide yet more theatrical color. Ransacking the royal garde-meuble near the Tuileries, they extracted antique halberds and pikes, a sword said to have belonged to their folk hero Henri IV and a cannon inlaid with silver that had been presented to Louis XIV by the King of Siam. More serious equipment was harder to lay hands on. Powder had been moved from the Arsenal to the Bastille on Besenval’s orders a few days earlier. When the royal prévôtdes marchands, de Flesselles, was told to hand over weapons from the Hôtel de Ville he could come up with only three muskets. Alternative suggestions proposed by him – the Carthusian monastery by the Luxembourg and the gun factory at Charleville – turned out to be wild-goose chases, so that by the end of the day de Flesselles’ own credibility was deeply compromised. He agreed to ask the commandant of the garrison at the Invalides, de Sombreuil, to hand over the thirty thousand muskets at his disposal, but he too procrastinated, replying that he had first to seek permission from Versailles.

Finally, thirty-five casks of powder were produced from a barge at the Port Saint-Nicolas and enough weapons and powder were distributed for patrols that night, the thirteenth. In contrast with the night before, bourgeois sympathizers with the Revolution felt safe enough to go on the streets as they saw the worker-sorties disarmed by the militia. There were even exemplary hangings of looters, and candles and oil lamps once again illuminated houses and streets.

It was early the next morning, with low clouds hanging over Paris, that the battle was won. Dissatisfied with the answer they had received the previous evening, an immense crowd, estimated by some to be eighty thousand strong, converged on the Invalides. Some days before, eighty of their comrades in the Invalides had already jumped the camp and the rest responded with a paralyzing slowdown action to de Sombreuil’s order to sabotage the thirty thousand muskets in his barracks. The twenty invalides veterans assigned to this job may not have been in their prime but they could probably have done better than unscrewing twenty muskets in six hours had not patriotic enthusiasm caught up with them too. After some fruitless negotiation, weight of numbers forced an entrance and de Sombreuil barely escaped with his life. The garrison helped rather than hindered the invasion and, more seriously, there was no attempt to mobilize the troops nearby on the Champ de Mars. More than thirty thousand muskets were distributed, somewhat at random, as well as cannon (which had also been inadequately spiked).

It was not quite a conclusive victory. For despite the evidence of defection among some troops and the inertia of their commanders, there were still rumors that, before long, regiments would be on the march and cannon would sound from Montmartre. What use were muskets and cannon without powder? By now it was widely known where the powder was to be had that would make the citizens’ army invincible in Paris: from the Bastille. It only remained to go and get it.

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