Modern history


The August decrees were the first serious test of Louis XVI’s credibility as a patriot-king. As usual he was of two minds. In a letter to the Archbishop of Arles he expressed satisfaction with “the noble and generous démarche of the first two orders of the state. They have made great sacrifices for the general reconciliation, for their patrie and for their king.” On the other hand, as he made abundantly clear, even if the “sacrifice was fine [beau], I cannot admire it; I will never consent to the despoliation of my clergy and my nobility… I will never give my sanction to the decrees that despoil them, for then the French people one day could accuse me of injustice or weakness.”

The letter has recently been charitably interpreted as indicating Louis’ willingness to go along with much of the demolition job of the fourth of August. His principal concern, it is said, was with adequate compensation for the loss of both inherited offices and seigneurial dues that could be construed as originating with property rights rather than personal subjection. That much may be true, but the King’s use, however inadvertent, of terms like “the first two orders” and the regal personal pronoun suggests the real difficulty he had in adjusting to the political world announced by the Declaration of the Rights of Man.

Though there were many differences of emphasis in the various drafts that came before the National Assembly, all were agreed on certain basic axioms around which the new constitution was to be constructed. The first was that sovereignty resided in the Nation, so that, in effect, the nation defined its monarch and not the other way about. Second, “all men are born free and equal.” Stated flatly as a matter of incontrovertible natural law, this principle evidently precluded any sort of institutionalized distinctions of the kind presupposed in a society of orders. Third, the purpose of government lay exclusively in the furtherance of the happiness of the governed. Its fundamental duty in this respect was to safeguard the liberties that were an inalienable quality of citizenship.

Beyond these very general principles, however, there was remarkably little agreement, even among the relatively small group of politicians who dominated the constitutional committees set up in July. And nowhere were the divisions of opinion more obviously acute than over the role of the monarchy in the new France.

The bickering over first principles came as a severe disappointment to Lafayette, who had been the first to propose a draft Declaration of Rights to the Assembly on July 11. It goes without saying that he had something like the American model in mind, and he had assumed that such a statement could be sufficiently ecumenical to soften, rather than accentuate, differences and give French men and women a vivid sense of the community to which they now belonged. His father-mentor Washington, as the new President, seemed unavailable for detailed comment, either through pressure of business or through political discretion. But no such qualms bothered the Ambassador, Thomas Jefferson, who read all of Lafayette’s several drafts through the summer and added some considerations of his own directly from American experience, especially a provision to have an amending constitutional convention at periodic intervals.

Lafayette’s initial timing could not have been more unfortunate, since his proposal was laid before the Assembly the day before news of Necker’s dismissal broke. And by the time that the Assembly returned to this matter, it was evident that the brief harmony that had prevailed in the aftermath of the reunion of the orders was a thing of the past. The division was fairly clear-cut. On one side stood a more pragmatic group, led by Mounier and including Lally-Tollendal, Clermont-Tonnerre, the Archbishop of Bordeaux Champion de Cicé and the ex-intendant of thenavy Malouet. They feared that any Declaration of Rights would lead to expectations beyond those a practical working constitution would deliver. “Nothing is more dangerous,” commented the Comte de La Blache, “than to give people ideas of an indeterminate liberty while leaving to one side an account of their obligations and duties.” They appreciated, as Lafayette did not, that with the question of the monarchy out of the way, it had been much easier for the Americans than it would be for France to move from general principles to working institutions. “We should not forget,” La Blache said on the ninth of July, somewhat tactlessly, “that the French are not a people who have just emerged from the depths of the woods to form an original association.” Instead of seeking “natural” principles it would be better to create a constitution and a state with the materials at hand, not all of which were utterly disreputable. This meant accepting that the monarchy would remain the indispensable executive power, free to appoint ministers, control foreign policy and if necessary dissolve the legislature. For the monarchy to be at all a truly independent branch of the constitutional government it was also necessary to give the King the power to veto legislation as he saw fit.

Mounier, who developed his ideas more fully than the rest of his group, also insisted on a two-chamber legislature. At first he argued that an upper house should be appointed for life by the King but, in an attempt to secure some acceptance of the principle, was prepared to consider Lafayette’s American alternative of a senate that would be elected for a six-year term. To this end he took good care to modify the statement on natural equality in the Declaration of Rights by allowing for subsequent distinctions, provided they were based exclusively on utility.

The British inspiration for much of the constitutional thinking of the monarchiens was readily conceded. Just a few years before, this might have been a recommendation. But in the heated patriotic climate of 1789, it was more likely to set their cause back than advance it, even when Mounier claimed it would be a British constitution with the imperfections ironed out.

Against this more conservative group was arrayed a broader and more diverse party that included Sieyès, Talleyrand, the de Lameth brothers, Barnave, Adrien Duport and the Breton Le Chapelier. Initially the Breton Club at Versailles had been organized to concert action prior to formal sessions of the Estates-General. It had included not only the more advanced spokesmen but those of Mounier’s views as well. But by late July the differences had become too pronounced for the club to retain unity, and it became the principal center of organized opposition to the monarchists. Sieyès, in particular, turned Mounier’s concern for a viable state upside down. Where the monarchists were concerned with stabilizing the constitution by clearly separating its three branches, he stressed unity. Where the danger for Mounier was from a dictatorial legislature and a feeble government, Sieyès put things the other way about.

At stake were not just picayune matters of institutional detail but a fault line that ran very deep in late eighteenth-century culture. Mounier and the “English” party were heirs to Montesquieu and, behind that, an Aristotelian tradition of seeing in diversity, divisions and balances a satisfying equilibrium. Their opponents, whether arguing from neoclassical rigor or from Rousseau-like consistency, were holists. For them, the patrie was indivisible, and they responded to charges that they were creating a new despotism of the many by retorting that the new, single sovereignty was a morally reborn animal that could have nothing in common with the impurities of the old. For Sieyès, whose debt to Rousseau’s Social Contract was explicit, while the General Will was more than the sum of the wills that it comprised, it was, by definition, incapable of injuring the freedoms for which it was sovereign. Citizens were incapable, in this sense, of harming themselves.

For Mounier, such an assertion was either naive or disingenuous. The only sure protection against the tyranny of the many, and the only way to reconstruct an executive authority capable of governing France, was to give the King an “absolute” veto. To ignore the need for royal assent to reforms was, in his view, either to promulgate a Republic in all but name or else to invite civil war. But to give the King indefinite blocking power, many deputies pointed out, would be to jeopardize the constitution itself. Persuading Sieyès to abandon his opposition to any veto at all, they rallied around Necker’s compromise of a “suspensive” veto. This would have the power to delay legislation through two full votes but could be overriden by a third.

The debate between the monarchiens and their opponents did not take place in discreet isolation at Versailles. It was avidly reported by the political press, overwhelmingly hostile to Mounier’s position. Camille Desmoulins’ Révolutions de France et de Brabant, in particular, stereo-typed the supporters of the veto as “aristocrats” who were engaged in a rearguard action to preserve privilege and an overweening monarchy. The truth, of course, was that there were quite as many citizen-nobles among the Sieyès group as among Mounier’s, the de Lameth brothers being hardly less aristocratic than Clermont-Tonnerre or Lally-Tollendal. But lacking organs of public opinion in Paris the monarchiens let themselves be depicted as somehow antipatriotic and quasi-English: men who mistrusted the People and who were quicker to condemn the People’s occasional act of punishment than the guilty parties on whom it was visited.

All these issues boiled down to one great question: What is the relationship between violence and legitimacy? It was one that would dog the French Revolution through its entire history as successive regimes fell before their opponents’ willingness to sanction punitive violence in the interests of patriotic righteousness. Only when the state restored to itself a monopoly of force – as it was to do in 1794 – would the question go away. In this sense, at least, Robespierre would be the first successful counter-revolutionary. Mounier, who was most exercised by the threat of physical intimidation to the independence of the legislature, conveniently forgot that his own defiance of established authority in Grenoble two years earlier had been made possible by the Day of Tiles.

In the high summer of 1789 it was the murderously festive action of crowd violence – the evident satisfaction the crowd took from stringing up arbitrarily identified malefactors from the réverbères (street lamps) and from parading heads on pikes – that most disturbed “moderates” like Mounier. Clermont-Tonnerre was nervous enough to repeat a proposal which, when attributed to the King, had prompted suspicions of a royal coup d’état: the removal of the National Assembly from the vicinity of Paris. It was not just the spontaneous nature of popular retribution that alarmed them, but the verbal and journalistic violence that seemed to egg such demonstrations on. And there is no doubt that some of the most pungent and widely read of the many newspapers that began publication at this time discovered the shock appeal of abuse. Marat’s LAmi du Peuple (The Friend of the People), for example, routinely criminalized politicians of whom it disapproved as not just mistaken but as inhumanly vampirical – “blood-sucking” was a favorite term – and requiring speedy excision from the body politic.

More insidious, perhaps, was the tone taken by the most successful of all the new papers, Elysée Loustalot’s Révolutions de Paris. Loustalot, who was to survive only into 1790, was a twenty-seven-year-old lawyer who had shown a natural genius for innovative journalism. He was able to cater to an entirely new readership with a brilliant blend of eyewitness reporting, vehement editorializing and, most important of all, for the first time, prints that illustrated current events and that were an intrinsic part of his newspaper. “The honorable calling of writing about the revolutions of the capital,” he wrote in his paper in early August, “is not just to give an arid account of some facts… it is much more our duty to go to the source of the facts and discover the causes of changes, and to grasp the different nuances that every day take hold of the public mood according to the issues that excite general interest.” It could have been the manifesto of modern popular journalism.

Loustalot understood what his readers wanted: less dreary recitation of institutional debates and more graphic reporting of events that would give readers in Paris and especially in the provinces a sense of immediate witness. So while he pretended to be shocked by much of the violence he described, his prose wallowed in it. The head of Foulon, hay stuffed in its mouth, stuck on a pike, its trunk dragged over the cobbles until it was shredded, “announced to tyrants the terrible vengeance of a justly angered people.” Foulon was not just a pathetic, almost casually chosen sacrificial victim, but a monster whose malignity thus balanced his death: a “cruel and ambitious man who only existed to deserve the hatred of men and to make the unfortunate suffer.”

Loustalot published, of course, in text and image, the moment on the twenty-second of July when Foulon’s son-in-law, Bertier de Sauvigny, already arrested by the crowd, was confronted with his father-in-law’s head before being strung up himself and mutilated. He had been led to the town hall, wrote Loustalot, in a procession with fifes and drums that proclaimed “the cruel joy of the people.” When the waving head was thrust in his face, “Bertier shuddered and for the first time, perhaps, his soul felt the twinges of remorse. Fear and terror seized him.”

Even more sensational writing followed as Loustalot switched to the present tense for more immediate effect, describing a scene inside the town hall, where the electors had been unable to prevent the crowd from seizing their prisoner:

Already, Bertier is no more; his head is nothing more than a mutilated stump separated from his body. A man, O gods, a man, a barbarian tears out his [Bertier’s] heart from his palpitating viscera. How can I say this? He is avenging himself on a monster, the monster who had killed his father. His hands dripping with blood, he goes to offer the heart, still steaming, under the eyes of the men of peace assembled in this august tribunal of humanity. What a horrible scene! Tyrants, cast your eyes on this terrible and revolting spectacle. Shudder and see how you and yours will be treated. This body, so delicate and so refined, bathed in perfumes, is horribly dragged in the mud and over the cobblestones. Despots and ministers, what terrible lessons! Would you have believed that the French could have such energy! No, no, your reign is over. Tremble, future ministers, if you are iniquitous…

Frenchmen you exterminate tyrants! Your hatred is revolting, frightful… but you will, at last, be free. I know, my dear co-citizens, how these revolting scenes afflict your souls… but think how ignominious it is to live as slaves. Think what punishments should be meted out for the crime of lèse-humanité. Think, finally, what good, what satisfaction, what happiness await you and your children… when the august and holy temple of liberty will have set up its temple for you.

The assumption that there was a direct relationship between blood and freedom – indeed (as Loustalot implied elsewhere) between blood and bread – is usually thought of as the standard language of punitive Jacobinism, of the Terror. But it was the invention of 1789, not 1793. The Terror was merely 1789 with a higher body count. From the first year it was apparent that violence was not just an unfortunate side effect from which enlightened Patriots could selectively avert their eyes; it was the Revolution’s source of collective energy. It was what made the Revolution revolutionary.

No one grasped this dismaying fact more immediately than Lafayette. As the darling of the crowd, he had been the figure to whom the votive gift of Bertier’s disjecta membra had been offered. He had brushed it aside with the terse comment that he and the mayor were too busy to see any further “delegations.” But the fact that the commandant of the National Guard had been impotent to prevent Bertier’s summary execution was itself alarming evidence that something more than the lofty Declaration of the Rights of Man (on which Lafayette was still working with Jefferson) was needed if the Revolution in Paris was not to spiral rapidly downwards into bloody anarchy.

Sylvain Bailly must also have been affronted by the brutality he was forced to witness. It must have been jarring to his Enlightenment faith in the civility of man to be confronted by the results of man’s beastlier aspects swinging from the lanternes. More immediately, Bailly faced the need to bring some measure of calm to the government of the capital, the possibility of which was jeopardized by the truculence of the district electoral assemblies. Just as the assembly of electors meeting at the Hôtel de Ville had remained in being, so had their constituents in the sixty “miniature republics” set up in the spring. They had converted themselves into regularly convened debating societies, examining, often quite critically, measures passed by Bailly’s committee, especially concerning the two matters that would be at the center of Paris politics for the next five years: bread and police. The more articulate assemblies – none more so than the Cordeliers on the left bank – already saw themselves as reincarnations of Athenian democrats: the primary cells of freedom to which, ultimately, elected representatives had to defer. And it was precisely the freedom with which local journalists and café orators criticized decisions both in the Hôtel de Ville and at Versailles that made Sieyès want the National Assembly to repudiate the “imperative mandate.” If deputies were forced to heed their constituents on every issue, then the National Assembly would be nothing more than a collection of glorified couriers, perpetually running to and from the districts. Bailly tried to arrest the drift towards a kind of Rousseauean primitive democracy by having each of the sixty elect two representatives to a body at the Hôtel de Ville to be known as the Commune. But once the wineshops found their voices and the street-corner presses their readers, and as long as suspicions persisted that men in office were conspiring to push up bread prices, it was hard to manage Paris politics from the center. At the height of the debate on the royal veto, for example, Loustalot seriously proposed that the National Assembly adjourn its sessions while every electoral bailliage in the kingdom was consulted on its views.

There were some measures that could be taken to prevent the complete collapse of organized authority. But even in the ostensibly liberal period of the Revolution its politicians rapidly discovered they had little room to maneuver between anarchy and coercion. Veering away from the complete breakdown of order, they were unable to avoid re-creating institutions of state power that, with little alteration, would become the instruments of the Terror. In the National Assembly, Volney and Adrien Duport established at the end of July two executive committees designed to centralize political decisions in two crucial areas. The first, the Comité des Rapports, had the authority, outside of the royal council, to approve or invalidate local appointments. Thus, as Ferrières pointed out with some alarm, its members could arbitrarily designate which of the countless municipal revolutions were legitimate and which were not. It had, in other words, the power to provoke civil war.

The second, the Comité des Recherches, was, in effect, the first organ of a revolutionary police state. It arrogated to itself all the powers which had been deemed so obnoxious under the old regime: opening letters, creating networks of informers and spies, searching houses without warrants, providing machinery for denunciation and encouraging Patriots to bring any of their suspicions to the attention of the authorities. This committee of twelve members (the same size as the future Committee of Public Safety) was even empowered to imprison suspects without trial for as long as they were deemed a danger to the patrie. Theoretically it was preferable to the caprices of a crowd that, on the strength of an article in Marat’s newspaper, would identify individuals for proscription and summary justice. But it already had the potential to become what Ferrières called “the redoubtable tribunal before which everyone will tremble.”

In Paris, the crucial dilemma of how to remain the master, rather than the helpless servant, of revolutionary force turned, in the last resort, on the Marquis de Lafayette. He was so commanding a figure in the summer and early autumn of 1789 that it comes as a shock to realize that he was still only thirty-two years old and a complete political novice. Nothing in his American experience had prepared him for the trial by fire in the Paris districts and faubourgs, for he had imagined the advent of liberty as an uncomplicated crusade with obviously identifiable heroes and villains. Frustrated by the conservative nobility of the Auvergne and obliged to obey their mandate in the Estates-General, he had still assumed that, at critical moments, a shared concern for the common good would bury differences in an outburst of fraternal concord.

Nothing like this happy scenario was unfolding in the streets of Paris on his watch. Instead he was confronted daily by desperately hungry, irrationally suspicious crowds that could turn within hours from anger to murder. Lafayette had to develop, very rapidly, skills as labor negotiator, arbitrator, militia commander and political diplomat. The wonder is not that his powers were eventually to fail him but that he managed to exert control in the capital for as long as he did.

His first concern was to see that supplies of grain, flour and bread reached designated markets and that their prices were held at levels that would not trigger riot. By the end of the first week in August, the price of the four-pound loaf had been reduced from fourteen and a half sous at its height to twelve sous. The prospect of a much better harvest in 1789 helped relax the sense of panic, but the weather was still playing cruel tricks on the Parisians. A drought had made the water mills inoperable once more, so that flour was often unavailable for the city bakers. The consequence was that the late summer and early autumn were punctuated by frequent riots around bakers’ shops, robberies and seizures of loaves, many of the crowds led by women. Lafayette and Bailly had to do what they could to persuade the wage earners of the city that at least the municipal authorities were not actually conniving to raise prices and perpetuate the “famine plot.”

Economic distress, then, remained a serious threat to the restoration of order. A succession of artisan groups demonstrated for higher wages to meet the inflated price of bread, and it was only after two rowdy meetings on the place de Louvre that the journeymen tailors succeeded in having their average daily rate raised from thirty to forty sous. Wig-makers, too, were incensed, both at the Revolution, for having made their skills redundant (undressed hair being de rigueur for many Patriots, Robespierre excepted), and at the “aristocrats,” on whose fickle tastes they somehow blamed their plight. Most remarkable of all, there was a demonstration of four thousand Figaros and Suzannes – domestic servants – on the Champs Elysées demanding to have their disqualification (as dependents) from National Guard service rescinded.

Many of these demands were in fact typical of the angry parochialism of the revolutionary artisan. The domestic servants insisted that Savoyards be excluded from their profession and other artisan groups demanded the city close the public-relief works on the heights of Montmartre, on the strength of a pamphlet alleging that the indigents employed there were busy training guns on the city below. Lafayette thus had to face hostility from both sides – those who wanted these ateliers de charité shut and the indigent construction workers who were packed off to their native parishes outside the city as a result of the closure.

Further resentment arose from the need to see that sources of municipal revenues were protected without which the other ateliers that remained open would certainly have been discontinued. This involved the National Guard in patrolling some of the remaining customs posts where excises on items like tobacco were still being collected. But Lafayette managed, overall, to offset the obviously unpopular aspects of his police with occasions guaranteed to enhance his personal popularity, especially when given full coverage by his friend Brissot in his paper the Patriote Français. In one such affecting scene, the equivalent of what today would be described as a “photo opportunity,” Lafayette visited houses in the faubourg Saint-Antoine where vainqueurs de la Bastille, wounded on the fourteenth of July, were languishing without food or elementary medical attention. In all these activities – and without any deliberate design on dictatorship – he was obviously moving into the space vacated by royal authority. For at least a few months Lafayette was the pèrenourricier, the father-provider of the city; its judge-arbitrator, the source of police protection and military authority. While his management of all these concerns was far from perfect, it is to his and Bailly’s credit that they did succeed in establishing the credibility of revolutionary government.

None of this could have been done without the National Guard. And Lafayette was required to exert enough control over the sixty companies attached to each district that they would not degenerate into the instruments of street-corner fiefdoms. This was brought home to him as early as July 16, when Georges Danton, the officer of the Cordeliers guards, frogmarched a miserable figure to the Hôtel de Ville. This was one Soulès, called “the second governor of the Bastille,” who had refused to allow access to the militia without a specific permit. Soulès was in fact the elector whom the Hôtel de Ville had entrusted with the fortress as a kind of concierge pending the arrangements for its demolition, but it was only Lafayette’s intervention that saved him from being badly dealt with.

The Guard had to wield a double-edged sword: against royalist conspiracy on one flank and against mob anarchy at the other. Lafayette saw to it – very much with Bailly and Necker’s approval – that the force was made up exclusively from elements he judged to be dependable in both these respects. At its core were the forty-eight hundred salaried guardsmen, made up principally of former gardes françaises, deserters from line companies of the royal army and odd paramilitary units like the armed law students and clerks of the basoche. By mid-September this force was well armed with six thousand flintlock muskets and was established as the “center” of the National Guard. Lafayette avoided elitism by distributing its manpower throughout the sixty districts, so that each had one company of paid men to four of unpaid volunteers. The result, on paper at least, was a more effective police for Paris, some thirty thousand strong, than any that had been available to the old regime.

The integration of the various types of guardsmen was not completely smooth. There were disputes over distinctions of military dress. Should the former gardes françaises be allowed to preserve some outward form of separate identity? Were the saber-toting barristers of the basoche really entitled to parade around in their excessively glamorous scarlet-and-silver coats; who could wear epaulets and in what designs?

Lafayette tried to overcome this sartorial petulance by giving the Guard a uniform dyed in the colors of the patrie: blue coats with white lapels, facings, vests and leggings, and red trim. The fact that they had to pay for this splendid apparel as well as for their arms and ammunition ensured that the Guards were drawn exclusively from the propertied classes of the city. (Even Captain Danton in 1789 was a fairly substantial owner of property, albeit on the strength of his wife’s credit.)

Lafayette also saw to it that, almost from the beginning, the Guard had a strong sense of its own esprit de corps. On Sunday the ninth of August, he had them appear for the first time wearing their new uniforms. Masses were sung in the company churches, the commander attending at Saint-Nicolas-des-Champs. In the streets outside, singers from the Opéra and marching military bands heralded the advent of a citizen corps. And in the afternoon, at the Palais-Royal, battalions from several districts paraded together “to the sound of drums and martial music.” Each of the new battalions was commissioned to design its own flag; the flags were ceremonially blessed in the churches from which the districts took their names. Lafayette tried to attend as many of these ceremonies as he could and when that was impossible sent Bailly or, in the case of the fête patriotique at Sceaux at the beginning of September, the Duc and Duchesse d’Orléans with their children. On the twenty-seventh there was a general benediction at Notre Dame, preceded by a great parade of all the battalions, marching from their district quarters to the center of the city. At the cathedral the radical Abbé Claude Fauchet, deputy from Caen and preacher of “social religion,” preached a sermon on the holiness of the armed freedom.

Lafayette had a genuine appreciation of the psychological power of emotive symbols. He knew that, at a time when the traditional bonds that had held men in deferential relations to one another had collapsed, it was vital to reincorporate them in a new patriotic community. For that to work, outward forms that could signify “friend,” “brother,” “citizen” were as crucial as – perhaps more crucial than – decrees coming from the National Assembly. So he invented the tricolor cockade as an obligatory badge of patriotic identity. Anxious to avoid any accusation that the Guard troops were the proprietary phalanx of the Duc d’Orléans, he added the Bourbon white to the red and blue that were coincidentally the colors of both Paris and the House of Orléans. It appeared every-where: not only on the tricorn hats of the Guards but breaking out spontaneously in sashes worn against the pure white shifts favored by citizenesses, replacing silver buckles, attached to canes and used as fobs for watches. Into the bargain it created a huge boom for the manufacturers of dimity cotton. In the provinces it became, immediately, the badge of solidarity with Paris and the Assembly. In Brest on July 26, an actress, swathed in its colors, sang that it indicated white for purity, red for the King’s love of his subjects and blue for the celestial happiness experienced by all Frenchmen in 1789. Mercier, who wrote an entire pamphlet titled The National Cockade, saw it as the emblem of the new breed of citizen-warriors. And Lafayette himself took up this theme of the empire of liberty when he prophesied that the cockade would “go around the world; an institution that is at one and the same time civil and military; which is bound to triumph over the old tactics of Europe and which will reduce arbitrary governments to the alternative of being conquered unless they imitate it.”

There is no doubt that Lafayette relished playing the role of the new Father of the Patrie, but he also saw its usefulness as a rallying point. And he knew full well the value of family rhetoric in revolutions. His wife Adrienne and his daughter Anastasie accompanied him to many of the flag-blessing ceremonies, where they took up collections for the poor. At a special dinner given for them on September 22 by the Guards of Saint-Etienne-du-Mont, they were celebrated in songs and poems in which it was declared that Mme Lafayette was now with her family, since the family of the Marquis was, in truth, all of humanity. That made Adrienne the “universal mother.” One day, it was predicted, her children would be honored throughout France as the offspring of the “father who had saved France.” In the same spirit, when the Guards of the district of the Sorbonne wanted to make his ten-year-old son George Washington Lafayette their second lieutenant, the Marquis protested that the promotion was somewhat premature but that the boy would be honored to serve as a simple fusilier. (There were in fact children’s companies of Guards that were a special feature of drill and parade days.) When the company persisted, the father yielded, assuming his most Roman manner: “Gentlemen, my son is no longer mine; he belongs to you and to the patrie.”

Through August and much of September, this combination of armed containment and patriotic charisma held the line in Paris against both counter-revolution and anarchy. On the thirtieth of August, for example, yet another radical aristocrat, the Marquis de Saint-Huruge (recently released from the insane asylum at Charenton, where he shared the exercise yard with the equally aristocratic de Sade), attempted to lead a popular demonstration from the Palais-Royal to Versailles. Saint-Huruge had drawn up a list of sixty partisans of the “absolute veto” whom he had proscribed in advance as “traitors” and whom he required to be expelled from the National Assembly. In addition he demanded the permanent return of the royal family to Paris. Lafayette was well prepared for the expedition, turning it back with strong detachments of the National Guard and arresting Saint-Huruge.

Although this threat was easily dealt with, Lafayette could not afford to be complacent. The mood near bakery shops frequently turned ugly, for despite efforts to control prices, supplies were short and lines long. Some bakers were threatened with the lanterne; guards appeared on the breadlines to keep order, and complaints were now becoming common-place that city officials were complicit in a plot to starve the people. On September 3 a journeyman roof maker was arrested for blaming Lafayette himself for shortages and threatening to hang him.

This incident suggested that the hero of the hour, garlanded with flowers and looking imperturbable on his white horse, could very easily turn into tomorrow’s villain or victim. Ultimately the ability of Lafayette and Bailly to keep the Paris crowd off the road to Versailles depended on the conduct of the National Assembly, of Necker’s ministry and not least of Louis XVI himself. While the King’s attitude to his impending transformation into a constitutional monarch remained unknown, Lafayette had the most earnest hopes of a happy outcome. Though the feeling was by no means reciprocated, his attitude towards the King and Queen was, if anything, sentimental. He hoped to make of Louis XVI in 1789 what he would make of Louis-Philippe in 1830: a citizen-king wrapped in the mantle of the tricolor.

There would shortly be another of those balcony appearances, featuring one of Lafayette’s vintage performances. But it would be less of a patriotic coronation and more of a rescue act in which terror was but a hair’s breadth away from applause.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!