Modern history


Acts of Faith

October 1789 – July 1790


On October 23, 1789, the National Assembly met the oldest man in the world. His name was Jean Jacob and he was ushered into their presence clutching his baptismal certificate signed in the year 1669. That made him 120 years old. Specialists in improbability claimed that there was an even more ancient survivor: a Scottish crofter named John Melville who had been a baby when Charles I’s head was struck off in 1649. But Jean Jacob’s fleecy white locks and pale eyes were good enough witness to his honesty for the Assembly to declare him, officially, “the doyen of the human race.” His face mapped by wrinkles, Jean Jacob seemed to belong to geological time. He had been born in the year the palace of Versailles was begun for the young Sun King and he had lived to see it become redundant, if not actually demolished. Isolated on a barren mountain in the Jura, his social existence had been preserved by the snowcaps, frozen in the norms of the old century’s feudalism, so that the deputies could greet him as a living fossil – “The serf of the Jura mountains.” Now, as he announced in a surprisingly audible grunt, he had come to Paris to offer thanks that he had lived to be a free man. Ancient as he was, like France itself, he had been given a second life by the Revolution. He had, in one of the key words of 1789, experienced the blessings of régénération. In return, the deputies each subscribed at least three livres in celebration of his continued vigor.

Other senior citizens, mere striplings beside Jean Jacob, also claimed to feel the Revolution as new blood coursing through old veins. The Comte de Luc, a real noble-enragé, swore that the Revolution had cured his rheumatism. The septuagenarian Chevalier de Callières had been so rejuvenated that he became a prolific composer of patriotic songs (including one which declared, unimpressively, that liberty was “a hundred times dearer to me than love”). De Callières’ zeal moved him to form a special National Guard Battalion of Veterans which admitted no one under sixty and in which the wearing of beards was obligatory. (Some false pieces were discovered in fruitless attempts to secure admission.) Special places were reserved for venerable patriots in revolutionary festivities and ceremonies, often alongside children, symbolic expressions of the “Gothic” past from which France had been released and the innocent future into which it had been reborn. So when an eleven-year-old boy showed up at the Assembly with his silver buckles and christening cup as a “patriotic gift” and asked to be allowed to attend its debates, his request was granted, and he was given the compliment that his generosity showed he had profited from the fine citizen’s education provided by his parents.

During its first year, the National Assembly entertained all kinds of demonstrations of patriotic devotion. For while it was, in the first instance, committed to the practical work of giving France new institutions of government and representation, it also acted as a political theater: the place where oratory and gesture, even on some occasions poetry and music, would dramatize the principles for which the Revolution was said to stand. And since the Assembly had repudiated historicity and precedent, those legitimating principles had, necessarily, to claim universal validity. Some of the appearances before the tribune of the Constituent (as the Assembly now called itself) duly reflected that universality. In early July 1790, for example, two convicts from the Swiss canton of Fribourg who had been condemned to the galleys made a formal appearance. France had used its galleys not just for its own criminals but, on lucrative contracts, for those of other European states needing somewhere to dump their undesirables. The Assembly had not yet taken the step of abolishing galley sentences for the native population (for one thing, there was a popular fear near the Mediterranean and Atlantic depots that galériens were about to be released). But it was eager to declare that it would no longer serve as the instrument of an ignoble “slavery” for European “despotisms.” Cheered by the deputies and embraced by the President, the Swiss convicts, one of whom by a sublime stroke of luck was named Huguenot, were paraded as heroes and their chains hung from the rafters of the Eglise des Prémontrés as inspiration and warning. In their honor a play entitled The Honest Criminal was performed that night at the Théâtre-Français.

These spectacles were more than acts in a revolutionary circus. They sustained the deputies’ self-belief and reassured them that their Nation did not, after all, stand alone in the world but was part of some bigger, indefinitely extended family of the “oppressed” – who might now look to France for deliverance. On June 19, 1790, a delegation of representatives from the “oppressed nations of the universe,” led by the self-designated “Orator of the Human Race,” Anacharsis Cloots, appeared in appropriate national costumes – German, Dutch, Swiss, even Indian, Turkish and Persian, all of them encircled with the tricolor sash. They congratulated the Assembly for having “restored primitive equality among men” and promised that, “encouraged by the glorious example of the French, all the peoples of the universe sighing equally for liberty would soon break the yoke of the tyrants who oppress them.” In response, the President, Menou, deftly told them to go away but in terms that would be taken as flattery rather than rejection. They should, he said, become the heralds of the new epoch. Returning to their native lands they should seek audiences with their respective rulers and instruct them to imitate the great and good example of the Restorer of Liberty, Louis XVI.

Skeptics found the whole thing risible. Ferrières wrote to his wife that the motley band of delegates had undoubtedly rented their costumes from the wardrobe of the Opéra. But as foolish as these occasions were, they corresponded to the equally sententious religion of universal brotherhood and amity being preached in speech and text, not least by Claude Fauchet. In his sermons, all printed in Nicolas de Bonneville’s Bouche de Fer, Fauchet, a priest from Caen, preached a kind of Rousseauean Christian universalism that was the constitutive principle of his “Social Circle” – not a club, as he emphasized, but an association of Citizens scattered over the surface of the globe. Before the Revolution, the world had been ruled by laws of descent which sought to divide men from one another. Now men could cleave to the most basic of all Christian precepts, that of universal love, and find true freedom in fraternity. As Fauchet explained, the emblem of the circle had itself been chosen for its unifying power. The means by which this great “family pact” would be brought about was the moral regeneration of Truth in alliance with Reason. Other fashionable orators and writers like the ecumenical vegetarian Robert Pigott (who extended the message of fraternity into the animal kingdom) and the Quaker David Williams, both English pilgrims at the holy place of Liberty, echoed Fauchet’s civic sentimentalism.

For the majority of deputies, though, Fauchet’s millennial realm of love and brotherhood was just a utopian balloon, moved by its rhetorical hot air to drift over the revolutionary landscape. Their own work, they reckoned, was strictly down-to-earth. Yet the men who made up the committees of the Constituent – the real powerhouse of institutional change – were themselves guided by principles in many respects not much less abstract and optimistic. If they could not manage to subscribe to a universal religion that presented all men as brothers awaiting the fraternal embrace, they did presuppose that Frenchmen, at least, could be treated uniformly because they were moved by identical wants of material or mental satisfaction. Condorcet, for example, echoed Rousseau’s basic axiom that all men were born equal and had only been separated from that natural equality by arbitrary socializing institutions that had been invested with illegitimate force. This late-Enlightenment view required them to strip away those “Gothic” accretions of history – arbitrary divisions of custom, habit and jurisdiction that were the products of ancient conquests. They would be replaced with rational, equalizing institutions that would put men into relations with one another as citizens, bound by the same laws and subject to the same sovereignty: their own.

The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen had already expressed the essence of this view, especially in Talleyrand’s sixth principle, setting out equality before the law and entitlement of all citizens to any office for which their talents qualified them. In practice it committed the Assembly to tear to shreds the crazy-quilt pattern of overlapping jurisdictions that characterized the old regime and cover France with a single mantle of uniform government. No one was more enthusiastic about this work than those two arch-rationalist men of the cloth, Sieyàs and Talleyrand. It was the latter who first proposed uniformity of weights and measures, and Sieyès who was behind the startling proposal to substitute for the provinces of France a grid of eighty identical squares to be known as “departments.”

Presented to the Assembly by the ex-Parlementaire from Rouen, Thouret, this uncompromising piece of political arithmetic had as its premise that the division of France into different, capriciously overlapping jurisdictions of taxation (the Fermes), church (dioceses), military command (the généralités) and justice (the bailliages) was incompatible with a “representative government.” Instead France was to be rationalized; the “hexagon” – France’s six-pointed shape – to be cubed. For the root 3 seems to have been an obsession of the revolutionary legislators, probably under the sway of Masonic axioms. In Thouret’s plan there were to be eighty-one departments, each measuring 324 square leagues, the addition to the grid being made for Paris. Each would then be conveniently divided into nine districts and then by a further nine into communes. Each unit would have a local representative assembly from which the bodies of local government would be elected.

As radical as this measure was, it represented the culmination of many visionary plans drafted under the old regime. It had been d’Argenson, back in the reign of Louis XV, who had first coined the term départements, and the combination of strict uniformity together with governmental devolution had long been cherished by physiocrats like Du Pont de Nemours. Rationally treated, France would be governed at last by scientific practices instead of a nonsensical bundle of inherited “prejudices.”

This vision of a standardized France chopped up into identical units did not, however, please everyone. Mirabeau, whose instincts were as much Romantic as rational, accused the drafting committee of excessive “geometrism” and “a priorism” and argued instead that a more sensible unit of measurement would be population rather than simple geographical extent. In this way it would be possible as well to take into account local topography, the rivers and mountains, valleys and forests that gave a particular area its identity. It was quickly apparent that the majority of deputies much preferred this manner of proceeding even though it embroiled them in countless local arguments about departmental boundaries that would have been obviated by the grid treatment. Besançon was typical in its dissatisfaction at being demoted from the seat of the sovereign Parlement of the Franche-Comté to a mere chef-lieu of the Department of the Doubs. The city sent to the Constituent the Abbé Millot and the lawyer Bouvenot as special delegates of protest to complain that while neighboring departments like the Haute-Saône had been allotted fertile lowlands, the Doubs was dominated by mountains and rocky uplands. Was Besanç on now doomed to languish, as the equal of jumped-up burgs like Lons-le-Saunier, “its houses and buildings deserted and turning into miserable hovels; its streets and squares weedy with grass”?

These kinds of complaints were repeated all over France, but guided by the astronomer-cartographer the Comte de Cassini, and weathering many months of debate, each of France’s eighty-three departments (a number happily indivisible by three) took shape, blessed by a name drawn from its native geography. From Normandy, Provence and Brittany, then, were cut Manche, Calvados and Bouches-du-Seine; Gard, Var and Bouches-du-Rhône; Morbihan and Finistère. The nomenclature was, and remains, a kind of bureaucratic poetry: rationalism reformed by sensibility.

There were other important symbolic exercises to plane down the outward differences that separated citizens. In October 1789 the deputies formally abolished the ceremonial costumes of their respective orders. And on June 19, 1790, they took the more dramatic step of eradicating all titles of hereditary nobility. When many forms of seigneurial labor dues had been swept away the previous August, it had still been widely assumed that forms of nobility would remain as honorific status. But now the Constituent declared these incompatible with the legal equality of citizenship. Expressly banned were all the insignia of social superiority:

coats of arms on houses and carriages; livery for servants or jockeys (an important consideration for the late ancien régime elite); manorial pews and weathercocks. Henceforth no citizen was to bear a name that signified his domination or possession of a place. His sole inherited badge of identity was to be the family name of his father.

The most remarkable thing about these transformations was that they were, once again overwhelmingly, the work of aristocrats, ci-devant nobles. Though, numerically, aristocrats did not dominate the Assembly, the working committees that drafted the constitution and provided France with the shape of its new institutions were monopolized by a relatively small intellectual elite, many of whom had known each other before the Revolution and a striking number of whom had been officers of the old monarchy in either the army, judiciary, government or church. The one thing the Constituent Assembly was manifestly not was bourgeois.

Deputies of aristocratic origin could even be found among those who had been elected for the Third Estate – not just famous cases like Mira-beau, but Edmond Dubois-Crancé, the seigneur of Balans and army officer who sat for Vitry-le-François; Louis Laborde de Méréville, from a branch of the great financial dynasty, who had been elected for the Third of Etampes; Jean Mougins de Roquefort, elected for the Third of Draguignan in Provence; and Louis de Naurissart, the seigneur of Brignan who had been elected for the Third of Limoges. And there were no less than thirty-eight members of the Parlements among the deputies, including three presidents, all of whom were eager to give the deathblow to their former institutions. Army officers were also in the Assembly in striking numbers, many of course as deputies of the nobility. Overwhelmingly, the men who created the new France had been officials of the old regime.

It is evident, then, that the solidarity generated among these men by their dramatic experience at Versailles in the spring and summer of 1789 had superseded the importance of their social origins. They were now tied together by their shared recent history, but also perhaps by cultural habits. They had all read the same books even if they disagreed on the importance to be assigned to them. It was quite natural, for example, in debates over the powers to be given or denied to the monarchy, to cite Montesquieu, just as they had in the Parlement remonstrances. Their diverse manners of rhetoric – legal, theatrical, clerical and literary – all found receptive audiences. References to Plutarch or to Cicero were immediately understood. Their legislative interests read like the agenda of a provincial academy: the reform of justice; the selective dismantling of the corporate economy; sweeping schemes of education; a France governed by social utility rather than inherited prejudices. They were all devotees of Reason and votaries of Virtue. Above all, they all saw themselves as patriots. It might even be said that they constituted a new aristocracy, one whose sovereign credential was the possession of political language and whose most striking characteristic was a symbolic war on the very caste from which so many of them had come.

None of these affinities guaranteed political harmony. The second half of 1789 and 1790 in fact saw an increasingly sharp division between men of identical backgrounds and old friendships, now committed to opposing political positions. Adrien Duport, who had been a conseiller of the Parlement of Paris, and Michel Lepeletier (ci-devant “de Saint-Fargeau”), who had been one of its presidents, were both adamantly antimonarchical and described by Ferrières as “of the left” – the first use of the term in European history. They were joined by the impeccably aristocratic de Lameth brothers, who had served along with Lafayette in America but who had come to hold the deepest misgivings about his command of the citizen army.

That group, featuring Barnave as its most impressive and uncompromising orator, dominated the sessions of the Society of the Friends of the Constitution, which, following the removal of the Assembly to Paris, met in the old monastery of the Jacobins in the rue Saint-Honoré. But a number of their old colleagues from the Society of Thirty and its successor, the “Breton Club” at Versailles, separated themselves into a rival Club of 1789. Among them were Mirabeau, Sieyès and Talleyrand. While the Jacobins actively courted a public following and admitted nondeputies to their membership and tribune, the 1789-ers were by choice more exclusive, seeing their society as a continuation of the dinner debates and political breakfasts that, the previous winter, had created the sovereignty of the Third Estate. Now their concerns were more pragmatic, or rather more engaged in the problems of creating a viable state. While Barnave and the de Lameths saw the main danger to the Revolution coming from royalist conspiracy and the abridgment of democracy, Mirabeau and Talleyrand saw it as most seriously jeopardized by anarchy and bankruptcy. The Jacobin leadership suspected the 1789-ers of being elitist intriguers; their adversaries returned the compliment by portraying the de Lameths and Barnave as irresponsible, self-righteous windbags.

At stake was more than differences of political personalities, acutely important though these already were and would remain throughout the Revolution. (Overlooking these personality feuds as a serious issue in revolutionary politics has been one of the most glaring omissions of modern historiography.) What was at issue were the priorities of the Revolution, its reason for having happened. For the Jacobins of 1789 and 1790, everything turned on the securing of a free and accountable representation, the subordination of state to citizen. To their more moderate adversaries – many of whom, like Du Pont de Nemours and Talleyrand, had been engaged in the reforming ministries of the monarchy – the point of the Revolution was the creation of a more powerful, dynamic France. Citizens would be gratified to the degree that the state in which they were represented was itself strengthened. Nothing that happened in the revolutionary years that lay ahead did anything to make that fundamental debate go away.

It was aggravated by the increasingly anomalous character of the official government. For all the hopes placed in him Necker had conspicuously failed to deliver the kind of constitutional authority that would resolve France’s continuing financial crisis. The Declaration of the Rights of Man had not, by some political alchemy, made the threat of bankruptcy go away. In August, Necker had come to the Assembly needing a loan of eighty million to last the year and had secured the necessary authority. By late September, however, the situation remained perilous and he returned to the Constituent with a proposal to levy an exceptional tax amounting to one quarter of annual income. Citizens who earned less than four hundred livres a year were exempt; the tax was payable over four years and was to be regarded formally as a loan, repayable by the government as its fiscal circumstances gradually allowed.

Predictably, the proposal caused an uproar in the Assembly. Mirabeau, who continued to detest Necker, and, until the Constituent formally prohibited deputies from becoming ministers, hoped to replace him as the head of a Ministry of Talents, was happy to see the Genevan’s evident discomfiture. He wrote to his constituents in Aix that the bankruptcy was being used as a threat to intimidate the Assembly into accepting a tax that would weigh heavily on the common citizens. “Since a bankruptcy would only fall on the big capitalists of Paris and other towns who are ruining the state with the excessive rates of interest that they exact, I don’t see that it would be such a great evil.”

Barely a few weeks later he had evidently changed his mind. Though he was still skeptical of Necker’s plan, Mirabeau now represented bankruptcy as a frightful catastrophe that would fall alike on the defenseless widow and the honest tradesman. “What is bankruptcy if not the most cruel, the most iniquitous, the most unequal and the most disastrous of all taxes?” Arguing for means to avert it, and proposing an alternative scheme, namely a more selective forced loan on the greatest fortunes, Mirabeau brandished his most combative rhetoric to confront the Assembly with the shortcomings of its own collective naiveté. It was a phenomenal performance, boiling with vexation, rage and turbulent impatience. And though Mirabeau spoke of the sacrifice of money, not lives, his Roman manner of prosecution exactly anticipated a more sinister hyperbole to come. Robespierre was among those deputies who listened as the orator urged selective punishment and warned that those who flinched from it would themselves be held accountable:

Choose! For surely it is necessary that a small number perish so that the mass of the people may be saved?… Strike, destroy without pity these sorry victims, hurl them into the abyss… What, do you recoil with horror? Inconsequential men, pusillanimous men…

Stoic contemplators of the incalculable evils that this catastrophe will vomit up on France; impassive egoists who suppose that the convulsions of despair and misery will pass like so many others… are you so sure that so many men without bread will leave you in peace to savor the dishes of which you have reduced neither the number nor the delicacy? No, you will perish and in the universal conflagration that you have no fear to kindle, the loss of your “honor” will not save even one of your detestable pleasures.

If, he concluded, with their very first acts, the deputies “surpassed the turpitudes of the most corrupt governments,” they would have no further claim on the people’s trust, and all the promises of constitutional liberties would be shown to be built on sand.

The truth of much of Mirabeau’s argument was compelling. Unless the needs of the state were met courageously and expeditiously, the new regime would remain a paper revolution. But the deputies of the Assembly did not care to be denounced as cowards and “egoists,” a term of infamy drawn from the Rousseauean vocabulary that entered the currency of political prosecution and which would be used with deadly intent during the Terror. Besides, they suspected Mirabeau of pandering to public indignation to promote his personal popularity, while at the same time ingratiating himself with the court.

These suspicions were in fact well founded. As his opposition to a restricted veto and his support for royal control over decisions of war and peace attested, Mirabeau had remained a staunch monarchist. He saw no contradiction between this position and his embrace of the people’s concerns, since it was exactly a type of “populist monarchy” that he thought best suited to France. In practice, though, it moved him to conduct that after his death would be exposed as Machiavellian hypocrisy. Early in October, through an intermediary, he put himself forward as the King’s best hope of restoring royal authority. The means by which he would do this were shocking. Mirabeau recommended that the court abruptly take itself off to Rouen, where it would be beyond the reach of Parisian intimidation, and at the same time issue a general proclamation insisting that this was done not to sabotage but to reaffirm the Revolution.

It was a dangerous and chimerical fantasy. But it had been dreamt up not merely to promote Mirabeau’s own career (important though that undoubtedly was) but to invest the executive side of the Revolution with some meaningful power. Otherwise, the orator knew, the entire event would drift, blown by gales of empty rhetoric, between anarchy and despotism.

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