Modern history


All over France, during 1790, liberty trees sprouted on village greens or in public squares in front of town halls. Sometimes they were the real thing: mais sauvages, young trees or saplings, trimmed and transplanted. Too often, though, the leaves withered and boughs drooped, spoiling the intended effect of vernal rejuvenation. So they were replaced by stripped poles, more closely resembling the maypoles which were their immediate symbolic antecedent. Liberally festooned with tricolor ribbons, the poles became the focal center of a village’s allegiance to the Revolution, the symbolic declaration that a place was no longer seigneurial property and its people no longer dependents.

In special ceremonies the trees were dedicated to the cause of constitutional liberty: vows were sworn by the mayor and echoed by a local detachment of the National Guard; the trees were blessed by a local priest and regaled with music and poems by schoolchildren and the local bard, who was at least a corresponding member of the provincial academy of letters. Around the civic mast would circle dances en ronde: a joining of hands of different ranks and orders in the fraternal unity established by the new order.

The liberty trees celebrated the myth of harmony that revolutionary politicians in Paris had decreed in their more Masonic manner. Devotion to the patrie was supposed to be such that it collapsed all previous allegiances – to guild, province, social order or confession – within the new indefinitely extended political family. But this militant inclusiveness by definition required outsiders in order to define its limits and to give insiders a sense of their own bonds. So all the images of incorporation presupposed counter-images of denial: obstinate anticitizens who, refusing to sink their differences within the revolutionary community, had to be extruded from it. The painter Jacques-Louis David provided at least two such images: the deputy Martin d’Auch, who refused the Tennis Court Oath, sitting hunched up in dejection, his hands crossed miserably over his breast while every other was extended in the oath. More alarmingly there were the corpses of Brutus’s sons, seen feet-first, executed by the writ of their own father for having turned their backs on republican Rome.

Increasingly such outsiders were identified by the treasonable epithet “aristocrats,” even when their actual origin was from the commons or when their accuser was himself of noble birth. Conceivably, then, a ci-devant noble patriot could actually accuse a lowborn broker of being an “aristocrat” just because, say, he had once worked for the General Farm. Such social ironies produced bizarre confrontations. On April 27, 1790, the Courrier de Versailles reported a public brawl between two ci-devants, the notoriously militant Marquis de Saint-Huruge and the Chevalier de Ladavèse, near the rue Saint-Honoré. “A l’aristocrate,” Saint-Huruge had shouted, sighting his adversary. “Démagogue!” yelled the Chevalier in response. Saint-Huruge, uniformed as a captain of the National Guard, drew his saber, the Chevalier his sword stick, and a fracas would have ensued had they not been pulled apart by yet a third ci-devant, the Comte de Luc, the septuagenarian whose rheumatics had been banished by a dose of Equality. It was wholly typical of the spirit of 1790 that the Comte was able to exert his authority over the two combatants by virtue of two heroic insignia – his uniform as a citizen-soldier of the district of the Oratoire and the cross of Saint-Louis, which he still wore beneath the tricolor sash.

Such encounters, in which each hostile camp tried to claim itself as representative of true revolutionary patriotism and its opponents as “aristocrats,” reproduced themselves in all walks of life. Brothers – the Mirabeau brothers, for instance – accused each other either of fanaticism or treasonable irresolution. Personal scores became political causes. Jacques-Louis David, whose political zeal had been largely confined within the picture frame, now took the refusal of the Academy to grant his pupil Drouais posthumous honors not only as a personal affront but as a symptom of its aristocratic rottenness and obstinacy. Passing him over as director of the French School in Rome made things even worse. The Revolution gave David a vocabulary with which to articulate these grievances as public issues, so that henceforth his pictorial and verbal languages could complement each other. The artist, as well as the art, now became political.

The same process by which personal and professional affairs were swallowed up by political rhetoric reproduced itself in the career of David’s friend the actor Talma. He had already shown himself to be an eager patriot in the springtime of the Estates-General by using the traditional compliment – a footlights speech delivered by one of the company of the Théâtre-Français at the beginning and end of their season – to preach the virtues of the Revolution in a fiery speech written by Marie-Joseph Chénier. “As my enemies,” Talma perorated, “I have all those who owe their lives to prejudice and who regret the passing of servitude… as my friends I must have those who love the patrie, all true Frenchmen… The remains of the feudal structure will soon collapse through the efforts of the august Assembly that represents you.”

For Talma it was not just the officially instituted theaters that were now ancien régime, but the entire manner of their art: stilted, artificial, academic, preposterously elitist, dedicated to frivolity and remote from the powerful universal truths that could, and ought to, be communicated by the theater. No wonder Jean-Jacques had thought the theater incompatible with a virtuous society; no wonder that actors were still disqualified from the vote!

So Talma brought David’s Roman history paintings onto the stage in a performance of Voltaire’s Brutus, in which he had just seventeen lines as the tribune Proculus. Drawing on the coin and antiquities collection of David, he draped himself in a floor-length toga, cut his hair short and combed it forward in the manner of the Capitoline Brutus reproduced in his friend’s painting. “Ugh, how ugly he is,” commented his unreformed colleague, Mlle Contat (Beaumarchais’ Suzanne), on seeing the Romanized Talma; “he looks like an antique statue.” Thus transformed, Talma took to the boards, deliberately embarrassing leading members of the company who continued to costume themselves in the style of the epoch of Racine and Corneille, bewigged and hosed in breeches. In startling contrast, Talma bound his feet in thongs and left his thighs naked.

His appearance caused exactly the sensation it was calculated to produce and exposed the senior members of the company as thespian aristocrats. In the autumn, the opportunity to perform Ché nier’s Charles IX deepened the rift in the company. In the climate of late 1789 no one in the troupe was eager to play the role of a murderous idiot-king. Offered the part when the first choice passed on it, Talma threw himself into the role in the high romantic manner of the British Shakespearean Kean, using makeup to alter completely his facial appearance. His Charles IX had thin pale lips and stretched, almost mongoloid, eyes. David was thrilled. He told Talma that he looked exactly like a Fouquet portrait in the Louvre. At the climax of the play, Talma made the King shrivel into himself with remorse like a dying insect:

I have betrayed the patrie and the honor of the laws

Heaven must make me an example to kings.

Though the bishops succeeded in suppressing the play after thirty-three packed performances, Charles IX made Talma a revolutionary celebrity in his own right. He now mingled among other leading lights of the political theater, in particular the consummate amateur actor Mirabeau. On the first anniversary of the fall of the Bastille he completed his political conversion by appearing in a play as the ghost of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, dressed precisely in the manner of memorial portraits. But it was a week later, on July 21, that theater and politics fused into one performance. That evening a claque of Provençaux organized by Mirabeau shouted for the forbidden Charles IX. The principal of the company, Naudet, came to the footlights and said that that was impossible since the leading lady was ill and other crucial players were similarly indisposed. This reasoning was greeted by a rain of booing and shouting. At that point Talma emerged from the wings to announce that Mme Vestris’ throat would allow her to act and that other parts could be read if necessary. The following night the play was duly performed to an audience of cheering National Guardsmen.

The drama was not yet over. In September 1790, despite his enormous popularity on and off the stage, Talma was suspended from the Théâtre de la Nation for indiscipline. But the deputy leader of the Patriot faction in the company, Dugazon, used the footlights once more to make a political speech defending Talma as an exemplary citizen-player. The audience cheered, sang revolutionary songs as it smashed seats, climbed over them onto the stage and to the high-priced boxes. Dugazon and his wife joined Talma in a brief, heroic exile from the theater until they were forcibly reinstated by Mayor Bailly. On September 28 Charles IX was performed once again.

By mobilizing the audience as foot soldiers to help them fight their backstage battles, Talma and the Dugazons had broken the proscenium line that divided theater from politics. Just as David came to see his paintings as, in some sense, revolutionary participants, so Talma saw his rhetoric as an instrument to galvanize public virtues and dissolve the barriers separating leaders from the led. Henceforth, actors would be regular participants in revolutionary ceremonies and the streets would be the scene of political theater. When, for example, Dugazon wanted to demonstrate against the continuing privileges of the Comé die-Française, he dressed eight actors as Roman lictors, filled four great baskets with Talma’s props – helmets, togas, cuirasses – and led this Roman army in a slow antique march to the Palais-Royal, where he fulminated against the patricians.

In Paris, at least, the limits of political participation were expanding fast, so that they pressed against not just the conventions of the old regime but those the new regime of 1789 had set for its own safety. The rhetoric of revolutionary leadership had encouraged this process. It had spoken in indefinitely inclusive terms – of the Nation, of the patrie, of citizenship – as if every French man and woman had a direct stake in that enlarged political family. Newspapers now repeated these universal nostrums not just in the language of the educated, but often in the street talk of the markets and cabarets. Popular expectations, then, were of multiple utopias springing up in city and countryside: farms without rents; churches without bishops and monks; an army without recruiting officers; a state without taxes. And the curiously transitional state of the country, in process of being constituted by the Assembly, heightened these unrealistic expectations.

Before long, the contradictions that lodged deep within the personality of the French Revolution would turn into open hostilities. For, while the expectations of a citizens’ millennium proceeded from the antimodernist impulse that had mobilized crowds in the streets, those who had been the beneficiaries of their violence wanted something quite different for France. They wanted a modern, workable, powerful state: a constitutional monarchy with a Gallic accent, not a populist democracy.

To that end they introduced all kinds of limitations, distinctions and constraints on political participation that collided directly with the unifying myths they themselves had encouraged. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, for example, seemed to speak to all Frenchmen. And in 1791 the actress Olympe de Gouges would naturally extend that reasoning in a Declaration of the Rights of Women and Citizenesses, a document sneered at then and since, but which in fact makes a telling and moving case for the inclusion of women in the totalizing promises of the Revolution. Not only was the Constituent not, of course, prepared to contemplate women as part of the active political process, but it also rejected other supplicants for citizenship. Deputies from the French Antilles who freely invoked the principles of the Rights of Man to argue their liberation from colonial trade regulation fiercely denied the application of those same rights to black slaves. Albert de Beaumetz, who was one of the warmest supporters of full Protestant eligibility for office, made it clear on the twenty-fourth of December that the same rights could not possibly be extended to the Jews since they were “struck by a political and religious malediction.”

The most glaring departure from a promise of universal rights was contained in the limits the Constituent placed on political participation. Having created an all-embracing concept of citizenship in the Declaration of the Rights of Man, the deputies subsequently decided that some were more equal than others. Only French males over twenty-five who had had an established domicile for over a year, who were not domestic servants or dependents of any kind and who paid the equivalent of three days’ labor in taxes were entitled to vote in primary electoral assemblies. At higher levels of the electoral hierarchy these limits became even more restrictive. To be a member of an electoral assembly required a tax payment of the equivalent of ten days’ labor, and to be eligible as a deputy in the legislature itself required the substantial sum of a silver mark, which was equivalent to fifty days’ labor.

These limits disfranchised large sections of the population: all rural day laborers and hired hands, domestic servants, many journeymen artisans – all social constituencies which had been crucially engaged in the revolutionary agitations of 1788 – 89 and who had come to expect great things from their political deliverance. Even so, the electorate that was created numbered well over four million – much the broadest experiment with representative government attempted in European history. But to the advocates of a purer democracy – an eloquent minority in the Assembly – the restrictions were pusillanimous and hypocritical. They represented, said Maximilien Robespierre, a deputy from Artois, “the destruction of equality.” Desmoulins repeated the charge in his paper Les Révolutions de France et de Brabant: “Who are truly the activecitizens?” he asked rhetorically. “Those who have taken the Bastille, those who work the fields; while the fainéants of the court and the clergy, despite the immensity of their domains, are merely vegetables.”

Desmoulins adopted the ingratiating Rousseauean manner of addressing his readers as though they were personal friends: “mes chers souscripteurs.” And in his pages he tried to give them a sense of what the perfect revolutionary urban village could be like: theincomparable district of the Cordeliers, where, he claimed, he knew every citizen, the terre de la liberté, sometimes characterized as a “little Sparta,” sometimes as a “little Rome,” populated by untiring Patriots ready to debate public issues long into the night and spring to the defense of their friends and brothers against the machinations of the tyrants of the Hôtel de Ville. “I can never walk through its territory,” he wrote in January 1790, “without a religious sentiment, thinking of the inviolability it has assured to honest men.” The “honest men” he had in mind were of course journalists and, besides Desmoulins, the tight-packed community included Marat, Loustalot, Fréron and Hébert as well as the powerful printer-publisher Momoro and the playwright Fabre d’Eglantine. Its dominant personality, however, was the lawyer Georges Danton, who in January 1790 proposed a committee of five “Conservators of Liberty” (including himself) without whose counter-signature no arrest would be valid.

It was Marat, the vituperative physician-inventor turned journalist, who in his paper L’Ami du Peuple provided the test of the limits of free speech by repeatedly denouncing as “public enemies” Necker, Lafayette and Bailly. On the twenty-second of January an attempt was made to arrest him, enforced by two companies of hussars and hundreds more National Guardsmen who sealed off the streets near the Théâtre-Français where Marat lived and worked. Danton mobilized the district assembly and spoke of “our own territory” being “invaded,” though he counseled nonviolent resistance. It was when he discovered that the warrant had been made out for the Châtelet, a jurisdiction in the process of being reformed out of existence, that he decided on an appeal to the National Assembly. By the time that appeal was heard and rejected, Marat had contrived to escape, though not before publishing an extraordinary pamphlet ridiculing the pains to which the city authorities had gone to catch him. Twenty thousand soldiers armed with eighty cannon and thirty mortars had come, it said, to seize the People’s friend, shell the district assembly and post sappers on their roofs to puncture any balloon by which Marat (an enthusiast of flight) might attempt to fly the coop.

Much to Desmoulins’ sorrow, the brief but spectacular career of the people’s republic of the Cordeliers was brought to an end by the administrative reorganization of Paris from sixty districts to forty-eight sections. “O my dear Cordeliers,” he mourned, “farewell to your bell; farewell to your speaker’s chair, to the tribune resounding with the speech of so many illustrious orators.” His grief, however, was premature, for while its “territory” was carved up among a number of sections, principally Théâtre-Français and Saint-André-des-Arts, the “Cordeliers” survived as the most important political club of the left bank. With a minimal subscription the Cordeliers went out of its way to recruit members from the working population who might give some credibility to its noisy claims to represent the People against the oppressors of the city government.

For all the talk of unity and indivisibility, the requirements of statehood – like the sale of church property – bore fruit in division and conflict. The elective principle that had been introduced into municipal and departmental government made this still worse, since it provided opportunities for successive generations of local politicians to accuse incumbents of surrendering local interests to the greedy domination of the center. As long as representative institutions survived, the problem would never go away. At its most acute it degenerated into outright civil war between Paris and the most defiant of the provinces. Signs of dreadful things to come could already be seen in violent clashes in the south, where Protestants who had flocked to the National Guard were attacked by Catholic crowds urged on by priests and recalcitrant local administrations. In the worst of those clashes, at Montauban, five guardsmen were killed and more than fifty badly wounded.

And it was against this truculent localism that the solid citizens of the National Guard determined to link arms across the country in a show of fraternal allegiance. Wrapping themselves in the tricolor and binding each other in solemn oaths, they would constitute the invincible phalanx of patriotism.

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