Modern history


Revolutionary France could not be, at the same time, a rejuvenated great European power and a confederation of forty thousand elected communes. At some point its leaders would have to decide whether it should approximate more the model of imperial Britain, where constitutional devolution was stringently restricted in the interests of the power of the central state, or republican America, where the national government was supposed, in theory, to be no more than the agent of consenting provincial electors. In 1790, however, it seemed for a while as though it might be possible to preserve the happy fiction of a concord in which local and national concerns were innocently melted. The demonstrations of fraternity which climaxed in the great Paris Festival of Federation on the first anniversary of the fall of the Bastille all featured a coming together of individual wills into a fresh sense of community. Right arms extended in the same direction to a single center; thousands of voices harmonized in swearing oaths to the constitution; confessional differences dissolved in revolutionary mutuality. Just as the Orator of the Lodge of Perfect Union had recommended, the Revolution would become “a vast lodge in which all good Frenchmen will truly be brothers.”

While the manifestations of the new revolutionary religion – the cult of Federation – were theatrical and necessarily ephemeral, they were no less important for being that. In the emotive climate of 1790 they arguably made more of an impact through arresting spectacle than any of the elaborate institutional alterations on which historians have, until quite recently, concentrated. And it would be quite mistaken to see them as so much orchestrated mummery, staged by defensive politicians to disguise the frailty of their legitimacy. Overwhelming evidence from many regions of France suggests not only that many of the “federations” of 1790 were spontaneous, but also that they engaged enormous numbers of people in their dramatizations of shared patriotic enthusiasm. Notwithstanding the fact that the organizing forces were always National Guardsmen who, at this time, were better-off “active citizens,” the numbers of those involved both as participants and spectators make a better case for regarding the revolution of 1790 as more of a “popular revolution” than the coercive Jacobinism of 1793 – 94 to which the term has been more frequently applied.

The federation movement arose from the revolutionary obsession with oath swearing. The moment at which Louis XVI appeared to have finally turned into a citizen-king was on February 4, when he appeared before the National Assembly in a simple black suit to swear that he would “defend and maintain constitutional liberty, whose principles the general will, in accord with my own, has sanctioned.” At the same time he promised to bring up the Dauphin as a “true constitutional monarch.” Bailly responded to this pledge by promising the King that now “you will be Louis the Just, Louis the Good, Louis the Wise, you will truly be Louis le Grand.” Following the event Lafayette, who had presided over similar ritualized ceremonies the previous autumn, proposed renewals of patriotic oaths with guardsmen to defend the Law, the Nation, the King and Liberty.

However repetitive and redundant these ceremonies may have been, conscientious citizens never seemed to tire of imitating David’s Horatii, their arms achingly outstretched, their individual identities fused into a single patriotic will. They took particular satisfaction from celebrating the union of allegiances which, it was said, the old regime had kept artificially divided. So on November 29, 1789, the first of the big ceremonies took place on the banks of the Rhone, with twelve thousand National Guardsmen from the Dauphiné and the Vivarais swearing “in the presence of Heaven, on their hearts and on their arms” that neither the river nor anything else would sunder them in their common aim to uphold constitutional freedom. Similar scenes of histrionic jollity took place the following spring in Marseille, Lyon, La Rochelle, and Troyes. On March 20, 1790, on the banks of the Loire, guardsmen from Anjou and Brittany embracing in “holy fraternity” vowed to abjure their old provincial rivalries, “being no longer Bretons or Angevins but French and citizens of the same empire.”

In Strasbourg the Federation of the Rhine assembled fifty thousand guardsmen from all over eastern France, from the Haute-Marne to the Jura. Thousands more civilians were used as ceremonial extras, all heavily clad in the wardrobe of revolutionary religiosity. Four hundred adolescent girls dressed in virginal white bobbed up and down on the river Ill in a flotilla of tricolor-painted boats before proceeding to a huge “patriotic altar” erected on the plaine des Bouchers. Two hundred small children were ritually adopted by National Guardsmen as the “future of the patrie”; fishermen dedicated the Rhine and its fish to the cause of freedom. Patriotic farmers were preceded in parade by plows pushed by intergenerational teams of children and old men all carrying sickles and scythes. Most important of all was the symbolism of confessional unity as two toddlers, one Protestant, one Catholic (in a city with a strong Reformation presence), were subjected to an ecumenical baptism with shared godparents of both faiths. Their new names were declared to be “Fédéré” and “Civique.”

In Lyon the mise en scène for the federation was more elaborately neoclassical. On the left bank of the Rhone a temple of Concord was created with Doric columns eighty feet high. Above that a plaster mountain was piled another fifty feet into the air and the whole thing surmounted by a colossal statue of Liberty holding in one hand a pike and in the other the Phrygian bonnet presented to freed slaves in ancient Rome and faithfully copied from antique coins. The ceremony itself was held on May 30, but for two days the city filled up with fraternal delegations from other regions – Brittany, Lorraine, the Mâconnais and Provence – each wearing distinctive costumes but sporting their brotherhood with huge tricolor sashes. On the day itself, to the sound of cannon and music, fifty thousand people gathered on the riverbanks to watch more than four hundred flags of National Guard regiments saluting the Revolution and to join in mass chanting of the oath, which resounded through the streaming rain.

It is difficult, in the twentieth century, to sympathize with these mass demonstrations of fraternal togetherness. We have seen too much orchestrated banner waving – great fields of arms harvested in ecstatic solidarity – heard too much chanting in unison to avoid either cynicism or suspicion. But however jejune the experience, there is no question that it was intensely felt by participants as a way of turning inner fears into outward elation, of covering the dismaying sense of recklessness stirred by revolutionary newness with a great cloak of solidarity. How better to feel heartened than alongside thousands of strangers whom one could, at least for a wet morning, call brother?

It was a logical step to advance from the provincial days of federation to an even more ambitious Parisian event that would tie citizen-soldiers from all over France to the organizing powers of the Revolution. The suggestion for such a “general federation” seemed to come spontaneously from National Guard companies of the district of Saint-Eustache. Representatives of the Guards would swear an oath of allegiance in the presence of the legislators and the “best of kings.” Sylvain Bailly, who was very partial to these large gestures, made the decision official and on June 7, Talleyrand reported on the proposed arrangements to the Constituent. Though he had lost none of his personal skepticism about such occasions, he also had the astuteness to recognize their psychological power. The proceedings, he reported, ought to be solemn, glorious but not ruinously expensive. (In the end they cost some three hundred thousand livres.)

The Champ de Mars, a large open space used for drill and parades by the cadets of the Ecole Militaire (and, exactly a year before, the site of de Broglie’s encamped troops), was selected as the site for the ceremony. In keeping with the Roman fetishism of the Revolution, the space was to be made into a gigantic circus or amphitheater. It was to be tiered in thirty steps and at one end the entry point would be marked by a grandiose, triple-arched Arc de Triomphe. At the center would be the by now standard “Altar of the Fatherland” at which the sacred oath would be taken. Where to place the “best of kings” was harder to determine. He could not be positioned at the altar without seeming to give him too much importance, so a pavilion was decided on that would accommodate both the royal party (the executive) and deputies from the Assembly (the legislative) in symbolic association and interdependence.

These arrangements were not approved by the Constituent until June 21. Only three weeks were available, then, for the immense task of preparing the site. The vast space intended to accommodate no less than four hundred thousand people was full of rocks that needed to be removed before the heavy soil could be worked and made even. Most of the field was to be excavated to a depth of four feet so that the altar area at the center would be raised by that amount, but there were no drainage ditches, and heavy rains at the end of June had turned much of the amphitheater area, especially near the triumphal arches, into a quagmire. Huge amounts of sand and gravel were required to give the surface any firmness. There were other equally arduous preliminaries that had to be completed in great haste. The rue de Marigny and other streets had to be widened to a breadth of three carriages and the procession route for the fédérés liberally sanded.

It was a daunting assignment but one to which the febrile character of revolutionary enthusiasm could be usefully harnessed. In no time, the whole of central and western Paris was turned into a great pullulating ant heap of organized work. Contemporary accounts, both in text and image, all stressed the socially redemptive and egalitarian nature of the labor, with monks and women of quality, their hair tucked beneath large bonnets, working alongside artisans and soldiers. For Mercier, it was the tableau of a Paris altogether different from the muckheap of abominations he had so memorably anatomized. This was the pigsty become angelic, a great festival of mankind morally purified by their communal labor.

It was there [in the Champ de Mars] that I saw one hundred and fifty thousand citizens of all classes, ages and sexes making the most superb picture of concord, labor, movement and joy that has ever been witnessed… What fine men and splendid citizens of Paris who could transform eight days of work into the most touching, unexpected and most novel festival that there has ever been. It is a type of spectacle so original that even the most blasé of men can hardly fail to be moved.

In this great army of patriotic workers, the mighty mingled with the modest. The Duchesse de Luynes allowed the special wheelbarrow she had had made in acajou to be wheeled by the flower girls who were her teammates. Amidst a group of toiling nuns and monks, Mercier saw the naval hero Kersaint “with the radiant physiognomy of liberty” pushing a wheelbarrow with the same gaiety that he showed on the Belle-Poule when he went to fight the enemies of the patrie. According to Mercier’s ecstatic account, far from tiring those who participated in the shifts, the labor was so much one of love that it invigorated them to the extent that water carriers, peddlers and market porters competed with each other to see who could continue longest, and veterans proved “that theirarms could be vigorous so long as their souls were courageous.” Various trades displayed identifying attributes as they worked, the printers wearing on their hats cockades which read “Printing, first flag of liberty”; the butchers, more threateningly, “Tremble, aristocrats, here are the butchers’ lads.”

The work site was also represented as a family idyll. In one such scene a happy division of labor was accomplished with the father wielding the pickax, the mother filling the barrow and the four-year-old held in the arms of his ninety-three-year-old grandpa singing the “ça Ira” to entertain the rest of the family. Social peace and exemplary altruism ruled to such an extent that amidst the enormous crowd, not one incident of violence or crime was reported. Mercier claims he saw one young man arrive for work, strip off his coat and throw his two watches on top. When someone reminded him he’d left them there, he responded with a piety straight out of Rousseau: “One does not mistrust one’s brothers.” When the portable cabarets came round with free wine or ale the casks bore the similarly optimistic slogan “Brothers, don’t drink unless you’re truly thirsty.”

Even the royal family was affected by this epidemic of goodwill. A week before the Federation, Louis opened the royal library and the botanical gardens to the arriving guardsmen; coming to inspect the site himself, he was received by a guard of honor forming an arch with their pickaxes. At a reception for provincial deputations the King said that he should have liked to have told all France that “the king is their father, their brother and their friend; that he can be made happy only by their welfare and sick by their ills.” And he asked the fédérés to communicate this sentiment to the humblest “cottages and hovels.”

The weather for the great day was not auspicious. Some citizens accused it of betraying aristocratic unhelpfulness. At dawn fifty thousand National Guards assembled on the boulevard du Temple together with the Paris electors of 1789, the present representatives of the Commune, a children’s battalion bearing a sign declaring it to be “The Hope of the Patrie,” the Chevalier de Callières’ bearded veterans, companies of regular soldiers and sailors and finally the delegates from the departments, including guards from Lyon who had brought with them a Roman standard. The honor of carrying the departmental banner was given to the oldest guard in each regiment. Rain was descending steadily, and by eight, when they set off eight abreast in procession, it had turned into a drenching downpour. Undaunted by saturated uniforms and squelching boots, they marched westward through Paris along the rue Saint-Denis and then the rue Saint-Honoré to the sound of artillery salvos and military bands. Despite the miserable weather the crowds were huge and dropped flowers on the soldiers as they passed. Women and children ran to them with sweetmeats and pies and serenaded them with yet more choruses of “Ça Ira.”

At the place Louis XV they were joined by deputies of the National Assembly, and the whole immensely long procession finally arrived at the Champ de Mars at around one. There the triple arch rose eighty feet above the amphitheater, surmounted by a viewing platform perilously crammed with spectators. The roars of four hundred thousand greeted their entry – a crescendo which can hardly have failed to send a thrill down the spine of country shopkeepers, attorneys or apothecaries soggily resplendent in their guardsmen’s uniform of blue and white. At the center of the field was the “Altar of the Fatherland,” finished in faux marbre and decorated with edifying symbols. On one side a woman represented the constitution; on the other warriors representing the patriewere shown with their arms outstretched in the approved revolutionary manner. A slogan announced that “all mortals are equal; it is not by birth but only virtue that they are distinguished/In every state the Law must be universal and mortals whosoever they be are equal before it.” On the opposite side the image of Fame proclaimed the decrees of the Assembly immortal and asked the people to think on the three “sacred words which guaranteed them”:

The Nation, the Law, the King

The Nation, that is you

The Law, that is also you

The King, he is the guardian of the Law

At three thirty, Talleyrand began his ceremony of Mass and benediction. His responsibility was to provide a formula that combined piety and patriotism, and although it varied necessarily from the standard liturgical formulae, it was orthodox enough to make him nervous. As Bishop of Autun he had been notorious for botching the ritual. So the evening before, he had conducted a rehearsal at his friend de Sousseval’s house, dressed in full episcopal fig, using the mantelpiece as an altar. With rather too much expert gusto for Talleyrand’s liking, Mirabeau sang the parts of the choir and interrupted his friend whenever he made a mistake. An apocryphal story repeated long after has Talleyrand at the Champ de Mars imploring Lafayette, who joined him at the altar, not to make him laugh. But in fact there is every sign that both men took the occasion quite seriously. The Civil Constitution of the Clergy had been enacted by the National Assembly just two days before, on July 12; and as its major partisan Talleyrand was well aware of the need to provide some kind of inspirational revolutionary religion that could draw on the same emotive and even mystical passions on which the Catholic Church relied, to bind the faithful to the Revolution. And while Talleyrand was being put through his paces by his eminence Mirabeau, an extraordinary cantata, half sacred, half profane, called The Taking of the Bastille was being performed at Notre Dame. It featured actors from the Montansier troupe, singers from the Opéra and the Italiens and even artistes from the boulevard theaters of Nicolet and the Ambigu-Comique conscripted to play the part of belligerent patriots. Together with a full religious choir it used military orchestra, cannon and passages from the Book of Judith shouted above the din. It was the sort of thing Talleyrand thought good for general morale.

In the soaking wet, however, he was having difficulty preserving the dignity of the occasion. The wind kept putting out the incense and his saturated robes weighed a ton. From beneath a miter that dripped rain onto his elegant nose, the pontiff of the Federation grimly surveyed the endless file of guards trooping into the arena. “Ces bougres-là ne vont-ils pas arriver?” (Those buggers, why don’t they get a move on?), he remarked to his assistant, the Abbé Louis, later the self-defrocked Minister of Finance under the Empire and Restoration. Finally all was ready and Talleyrand proceeded with the Mass and the benediction of the banners, raising his arms benignly over the streaming flags. “Sing and weep tears of joy,” he told his flock, “for on this day France has been made anew.”

The rest of the day belonged to Lafayette. It was he, after all, to whom the country turned as the embodiment of the citizen-soldier, not only its commandant but its heroic exemplar. And as the impresario of a kind of conspicuous consensus, Lafayette was only too well aware that the viability of the constitutional monarchy required theatrical demonstrations of the patriotic will. In late October 1789 he had insisted on the rule of martial law in Paris to prevent injustices like the summary lynching of a baker who had been wrongly accused of giving short weight. But he had turned the occasion into a special ceremony, getting the King to stand as godfather to the orphaned children – a literal demonstration of his paternal benevolence. In April Lafayette had brought the hero of Corsican independence (wiped out by France in 1769), General Paoli, to Paris to show him that his countrymen had nothing to fear from their “brothers” in the new France. Together they visited the site of the Bastille and reviewed a parade of National Guards in a show of fraternity.

Not everyone endorsed Lafayette as the hero of the hour. Both Des-moulins’ and Loustalot’s papers suggested that the Fête de la Fédérationhad been planned as an exercise in self-glorification. But there was little sign that these criticisms had done much to dim Lafayette’s great popularity with the provincial National Guard. At around five o’clock on July 14, 1790, he was the cynosure of all eyes. From the altar he mounted his white charger and rode through ranks of guardsmen that had parted to form an avenue toward the royal pavilion. There he dismounted and asked and received permission from the King to administer the oath to the assembled fédérés. Back at the altar, in his best Talma-esque manner, Lafayette stretched out both arms to heaven in a suitably priestly fashion, then touched his right hand carrying the sword to the altar in imitation of the ancient crusaders’ vow. Since his voice was obviously inaudible to all but those closest at hand, deutero-Lafayettes read the oath as he was uttering it to their companies, and it finished with a thunderous chorus of “Je le jure.” A volley of cannon sounded from one end of the field to the other. When it had died away, Louis used his new title for the first time, declaring that as “King of the French” he swore to “employ all the power delegated to me by the constitution to uphold the decrees of the National Assembly.” The Queen, the ostrich plumes of her hat drooping with rain, held up the Dauphin, uniformed as a National Guard, to the cheers of the crowd.

A painting of the climactic moment, preserved at the Musée Carnavalet, hardly does justice to its power. But at least it captures not only the principals – Talleyrand in his oversized miter; Lafayette uniformed as the Commander; the vainqueurs de la Bastille at lower left in their officially designated Roman helmets and costumes – but also the mood of the scene. In keeping with the Romantic axiom that the elements were themselves political accompanists, the painter has the dark rain clouds pierced by a shaft of providential sunlight at the exact moment when Lafayette’s sword touches the altar. It is the visual counterpart to a poissard song made popular following the Fête:

Ça m’coule au dos, coule au dos, coule au dos

En revenant du Champ de Mars…

Que’ qu ça m’fait à moi d’êt mouillé

Quand c’est pour la liberté

It runs down my back, runs down my back, runs down my back

Returning from the Champ de Mars…

What is it to me if I’m wet

For the cause of liberty

The festivities continued for a week, with companies of National Guards only gradually wearing out their cordial reception in Paris, drinking too much and expecting a few too many free meals. On the evening of the fourteenth, many of them went to the greatbal de Bastille, where Palloy had decked the site in lanterns and bunting and provided eighty-three trees, one for each department of France. Later that week they could hear more performances of Desaugiers’ cantata Prise de la Bastille or go to the special ceremony on the place Dauphine honoring, for the umpteenth time, the friendly ghost of Henri IV. Finally, on the eighteenth there was a splendid water festival on the Seine, complete with musical barges and jousting. Its program was identical to those that, traditionally, had greeted the entry of visiting princes. Only now those princes were the people themselves.

Foreigners who had made their way to Paris to drink at the fountain of freedom were particularly convinced that they were witnessing the advent of the fraternal millennium. They had heard deputies in the Assembly announce a “Declaration of Peace to the World” and promise that France would never again be a military aggressor. “How can I describe all those joyous faces lit up with pride?” wrote the pedagogue Joachim Heinrich Campe. “I wanted to fold in my arms the first persons I met… for we were no longer Brunswickers or Brandenburgers… all national differences had vanished, all prejudices disappeared.” William Wordsworth, who landed at Calais on the day of the Fête, felt much thesame way. Walking through triumphal arches bedecked with flowers, he sensed joy diffusing everywhere like the perfume of spring.

For the young Helen Maria Williams, looking down onto the wet streets as the guards marched through Paris, the fourteenth of July was the most “sublime spectacle” she ever hoped to behold. It was the true faith revealed at its most ecstatic. “Old men were seen kneeling in the streets blessing God that they had lived to witness that happy moment. People ran to the doors of their houses loaded with refreshments which they offered to the troops, crowds of women surrounded the soldiers and holding up their infants in their arms, promised to make their children imbibe from their earliest age, an inviolable attachment to the principles of the new constitution.”

If this was silliness it was pardonable silliness, and other cultures at other times have been swept away by tidal waves of togetherness no less sentimental than those of the Fête de la Fédération. But there were still hard heads about who understood the value of the occasion without ever being deceived by its power to create lasting unity from temporary warmth. Talleyrand, for example, who had contrived the business in the first place, was ever a man to hedge his bets. On the evening of the fourteenth he was finally able to peel off his sodden soutane. Dried out, he summoned a carriage to take him to the Vicomtesse de Laval’s, where card games for high stakes were well under way. He coughed politely, took his seat and started to win. He carried on winning all evening, breaking the bank and “carrying off more money than my pockets or purses could hold.” Perhaps it was a good omen: providence blessing the pope of the Federation with good fortune. But just in case all those blessings and oaths should turn out to be in vain, there was, at least, good solid gold to bite into. For Talleyrand never did put much faith in paper money.

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