Modern history



August 1790 – July 1791


On the morning of September 30, 1790, a small, serious procession made its way to the Palais de Justice in Grenoble. At its head was the elected mayor of the city, M. Barral, who affixed to the great oak doors of the building iron padlocks from which hung officially pressed seals. A notice was then nailed to the door reproducing the decree of the Constituent abolishing the old sovereign courts of France and replacing them with elected judges and tribunals. The Parlement of Grenoble, which had been declared in indefinite recess, was now officially certified dead.

Surprisingly, the man who at least ceremonially delivered the coup de grâce had himself been a conseiller de Parlement. For plain citizen Barralwas better known to the Grenoblois as the Marquis de Barral de Montferrat. He had become mayor when another colleague of his, the Marquis de Franquières, had declined the election on grounds of ill health. Not infrequently local notables pleaded indisposition when they wanted to extract themselves from revolutionary popularity, but in de Franquières’ case the excuse was genuine, for he died a few months later. Barral then succeeded to the office and placed himself at the head of the local Patriots, who were determined to prevent Mounier, now returned to his native city, from establishing Grenoble as a center of opposition to the Constituent Assembly. Subsequently Barral was elected to both the administration of the department of the Isère and the presidency of the new district tribunal that took its seat in the same chambers where the Parlement had convened its senior court. On that tribunal with him, as judges, were four other ex-avocats of the Parlement: Duport aîné, Génissieu, Lemaître and Génevou. The president of the administration of the department of the Isère was Aubert-Dubayet, another ci-devant army officer.

A revolutionary break with the institutional past, then, did not neces-sarily entail a complete sweep of personnel. While their collective existence was terminated by the Revolution, many individuals who had held office under the monarchy had no trouble in exchanging their corporate identity for that of citizen-servants of the patrie. Indeed many of them were among the most ardent prosecutors of their old colleagues. In the summer of 1792, it was the former Marquise de Montferrat, now Citizeness Barral, who made a passionate speech before the municipal council of Grenoble for the summary incarceration of Marie-Antoinette and the appointment of a “patriotic tutor” for the Dauphin.

Given this mixture of continuity and discontinuity, as well as the prominent part played by the nobility of the Dauphinéin hastening theend of the old regime, it is not surprising that the epitaph for the Parlement of Grenoble published by the local Courrier Patriotique blended official disdain with grudging respect.

They are no more, those haughty bodies, those colossi whose incomprehensible existence served neither monarch nor subject and whose monstrous and bizarre organization could only have operated in a state where all principles [of government] were confused or misunderstood. I saw shut up the palace from where, like a fortress, they so many times braved the fury of kings; that palace where the liberty of Frenchmen… found an asylum.

The blending of old and new was repeated across France. On paper, the transformation could not have been more abrupt or more sweeping. As corporate bodies, the Parlements were simply replaced by the legislative fiat of the Constituent Assembly, and the old jurisdiction of the bailliages by those of elected juges de paix and the district and departmental tribunals. In the same way, the crazy-quilt nature of government, with overlapping and criss-crossing boundaries that differed from civil administration to military government to ecclesiastical diocese, was swallowed up in the catch-all unit of the department. Even more striking, the hierarchies of appointed royal officials – from municipal aldermen or “consuls” to intendants and maîtres de requêtes – were now moved asidefor elected officials. Indeed the conscientious citoyen actif in 1790 was snowed under with elections, being asked to vote successively for his local mayor and councillors, officials of the district and departmental councils, justices of the peace and judges of tribunals; and, finally, at the turn of the year, for a constitutional bishop and the local curate.

The appearance of “new men” – doctors, engineers, lawyers in great numbers, the occasional merchant and tradesman – in the first wave of institutions created by the Revolution was certainly in part a function of the massive expansion of elected offices. In at least this response to the cahiers’ appeals for more, rather than less, government, the revolutionary notables had more than amply fulfilled their duties. But, as in Grenoble, this sudden expansion of the demand for experienced officials meant that throughout the country many of those who came forward to fill positions had already been officials under the old regime. They did not often constitute a majority, but they were very frequently placed in the most influential offices, such as mayor or president of the departmental directory, and a striking number of them were in fact ci-devant nobles. The usual lists of occupations offered by historians in scanning the professions of the men of 1790 and 1791 often overlook this fact because “aristocrat” or “noble” had already become a synonym for “traitor” and many former conseillers of the Parlements now listed themselves simply as “lawyers,” which indeed they were. In many cases, following the law abolishing hereditary titles, they had of course dropped their aristocratic nomenclatures, so that d’Eprémesnil was now simply M. Duval, and his adversary to the left Huguet de Sémonville was now simply M. (under Napoleon, Baron) Sémonville.

Closer inspection of the new regimes in many of France’s provincial towns, large and small, reveals just how strategically placed many of these holdovers from the old regime were. In Toulouse, for example, the notoriously inflexible reputation of the local aristocracy – the capitouls – did not preclude some of them from rallying to the new regime. The elected official representing the King locally, the procureur-généralsyndic, was Michel-Athanaze Malpel, who was not only an ex-capitoul but one of the richest, having acquired a fortune of over eighty thousand livres by his marriage. The new municipality which succeeded to the abolished capitoulat included another oligarch, Pierre Dupuy, and the president of the district tribunal was Etienne-François Arbanère, who had been a procureur du Parlement. At the other end of France, in the Channel port of Calais, Nicolas Blanquart des Salines and Pierre de Carpentier, two old hands as procureurs du roi, were elected, respectively, to the district tribunal and as mayor. When the latter was in his turn elected to the bench, he was succeeded in the mayor’s office by the formidable Jacques-Gaspard Leveux, the son of a receiver-general in the Admiralty, one of the most lucrative posts the old regime had to offer. Leveux not only was elected over and again as mayor, he managed through a dogged concern for local interests to survive the Terror, the Directory, the Consulate and the Empire, dying in office as a Legionnaire of Honor in the reign of Louis XVIII.

These were not exceptional cases. In Paris, no less than 20 percent of the three hundred elected representatives of the municipality were ex-Parlementaires. In the district of the Filles de Saint-Thomas alone, the editor of the Patriote Français, Brissot, shared the delegation with conseillers Lacretelle and Sémonville, the financial official Mollien and Trudaine des Ormes, a high official of the General Farm. In Lyon, one liberal ex-noble, Palerne de Savy, replaced another, Imbert-Colombes, at the head of the city administration. They were both attacked by a third group of democrat Patriots led by Roland de La Platière, who camefrom a family of noble magistrates with domains near Amiens and who kept both a country estate at Thizy in the Beaujolais and a town house on one of the quais by the Rhone.

Socially, there was little to distinguish these men, especially in a great commercial center like Lyon, where the lines between nobility and vulgar wealth had long been indistinct. More important, though, they all belonged to a common cultural milieu: the world of the Academies and the Masonic lodges. They all subscribed to the optimistic late-Enlightenment project that saw the sciences as necessarily leading to greater prosperity and more perfect government. And in this respect, too, they represent a continuation of the cultural climate of the ancien régime, rather than a break with it. Roland, after all, had been a professional booster of the blessings of technology in his capacity as royal inspector-general of manufactures. His dependable enthusiasm for inventive processes even led him to promote the idea of manufacturing soap from the fat retained in human cadavers, without a twinge of morbid embarrassment. His colleagues, rivals and enemies in public life in Lyon included the deputy Pressavin, whose fame lay in weighty volumes devoted to venereal diseases; friend Lanthénas, who in 1784 had published a typical Enlightenment work, “Education [meaning the want of it] As the Proximate Cause of All Diseases”; and yet another physician, Dr. Vitet, who directed the city’s midwifery school and who had helped promote Beaumarchais’ breast-feeding fund in Lyon. Like Roland, Vitet was a more ardent revolutionary than Palerne de Savy, whom he replaced as mayor, but Palerne was also president of the Academy of Lyon, and Imbert-Colombes before him was also known best as a botanical scientist and rector of the Hoĉpital-Général for the poor.

This cultural fellowship did not, of course, preclude bitter political hostility. Indeed it may have added to it the venom peculiar to wars of savants (and academics). But it should be clear – since Lyon was far from atypical – that the sociétés de pensée, academies and musées very oftenprovided the apprenticeship through which members of different social backgrounds could challenge each other and make claims to belong to the same empire of reason. Moreover, the conspicuousness of the savants and provincialphilosophes among the men of 1790 and 1791 testifies to their general conviction that the Revolution was in many respects continuing and consummating the modernizing enterprise that had been promoted – with uneven results – in the reign of Louis XVI. The representatives of the districts of Paris included among their number the architect and writer Quatremère de Quincy, and scientist-philosophers like Jussieu, Condorcet and the astronomer-cartographer who had been an important influence in determining the boundaries of the departments, the Comte de Cassini. And what more suitable deputy to the National Assembly from Calais than Pierre-Joseph des Androuins, the noble amateur of manned flight who had been the first to offer the hospitality of his château to the aeronauts Blanchard and Jeffries after their cross-Channelballoon flight?

I do not want to minimize the impact of the early Revolution on French life and institutions. There were important institutions – most notably the Church and the officer corps of the royal army – which were broken in two by its demands. But there is virtually no convincing evidence that the criteria by which officers, priests, former officials, or for that matter notaries and lawyers, made up their minds to support or oppose the Revolution, to become a Patriot or an émigré, were socially determined.

This is not least because the consequences of the Revolution from 1789 to the Terror were, for the most part, socially conservative. The effects of much of the legislation of this period played directly to the interests of groups who had done very well at the end of the old regime (though they may have been temporarily disadvantaged by the depression of 1787– 89) and were now given further opportunities to do even better. It was those who had already been able to define their economic interests in terms of property and capital, rather than privilege, and the many more who became converted to that view, who found ample opportunity to prosper in the Revolution. This is not the same thing as saying that the Revolution was necessary for their prosperity, much less for the advancement of capitalism. But in its first two years – perhaps only in its first two years – it did little to impede or reverse the developments of the past decades.

Thus it was exactly those of whom rural cahiers complained so bitterly – acquisitive well-off peasant coqs de village and other proprietors (some of them noble) – who gobbled up the properties of the Church when they came on the market. The Constituent had seen to it that lots simply went to the highest bidder, ensuring that only when peasants could come together in a buying syndicate (as they did in some parts of the north) was it feasible for them to acquire land. At Pulsieux-Pontoise in the Seine-et-Oise, for example, arable land was dominated by the estates of Rousseau’s friend the Marquis de Girardin and the Abbey of SaintMartin. When the latter came on the market it was Girardin’s most aggressive tenant farmer, Thomassin, who could afford to snap up fifty-five hectares of the best land for the substantial sum of 69, 500 livres. Other substantial lots were acquired by similarly well-endowed tenant farmers from neighboring villages and by a poultry merchant of Pulsieux. Girardin himself, who, predictably, had become an ardent supporter of the Revolution, and whose son, Stanislas, was head of the departmental administration, picked up a fifteen-hectare property in partnership with another well-off laboureur farmer.

Nor was the abolition of the seigneurial regime quite so straight forward as it had seemed on the dizzy night of the fourth of August 1789. Once cooler heads prevailed, late-Enlightenment experts on feudal law, of whom there were legions, were summoned, to make telling legal distinctions between those rights (like mainmorte) deemed “personal” and abolished outright and those (by far the majority) deemed “contractual.” Needless to say, the latter, being defined as a kind of legitimate property, could – if both parties agreed – be redeemed, often at twentyfive times their annual value, a rate which obviously precluded all but the most favorably endowed peasant cultivators from taking advantage of the law. All that had happened in these circumstances was that lords had completed their transformation into landlords, a process already well under way in the later part of the century.

Predictably too, the structure of power in the village changed very little. In the commune of Les Authieux-sur-le-Port-Saint-Ouen in Normandy, the local electoral meeting of forty villagers made their curé mayor, with a council shared between landedlaboureurfarmers and local tradesmen like the innkeeper and petty officials like the procureur.

The same pattern holds for the effects of the Revolution on urban France. Much of the legislation of the Constituent affecting urban France was designed to take up policies launched under Turgot and Calonne, pushing France further towards capitalist expansion. Turgot’s thwarted reform of the guilds was now enacted as an outright abolition, early in 1791. But when the obvious delight which journeymen artisans took in being liberated from corporate restrictions turned into a series of strikes – notably by carpenters, farriers and hatters – the Assembly responded with the Le Chapelier law prohibiting altogether any kind of workers’ coalition or assembly. As indicated by the relative absence of speeches and articles on the matter at the time, the Le Chapelier law was enacted less out of ideological fixation with free trade than out of a desire to protect citizens’ common interests – as embodied in national institutions – against the particularism that strikes were held to represent.

Likewise, many of the uncertainties and divisions of opinion about the shortest route to economic modernization articulated during the closing decades of the old regime were simply reproduced in the Revolution. In the Constituent there was probably a consensus for preserving internal freedom for the grain trade but an equally strong determination to prevent any export from France. Textile towns in Normandy, which had taken a beating at the hands of British competition since the commercial treaty of 1786, lobbied hard for its repeal (indeed for prohibitions on all imported goods) while commercial entrepoĉ ts like Bordeaux, whose winetrade with England was flourishing, worked equally strenuously to retain it. When it came to colonial commerce, however, the merchants of Bordeaux, like those of Nantes and Rouen, suddenly stopped being free traders and argued (against the planters of the Antilles) for the preservation of the laws which forced colonial goods to be shipped exclusively through France. Needless to say, all of these parties resorted to the language of politics to justify their contradictory positions. But arguments for “liberty” or “patriotism” were but thin veneers cladding the tenacious defense of local interests.

With the momentous exception of the expropriation of the Church, between 1789 and 1792 the Revolution produced no significant transfer of social power. It merely accelerated trends that had been taking place over a longer period of time. The substitution of elected for appointed offices expanded the inclusiveness of government by bringing into the professions men who had been knocking at the door. But even before the Revolution that door was seldom the barred and bolted obstruction which subsequent rhetoric made it seem. As for the elite – both noble and ecclesiastical – it divided along lines of political conviction and regional solidarity, rather than social tiers. Those who clung to an anachronistic status that could only be preserved within a corporate society of orders were correspondingly penalized – stigmatized as uncitizens, forced into emigration or armed rebellion. Those, on the other hand, who were able to recast themselves as citizen-tribunes, servants of the state, and who were able to see their fortunes in terms of property rather than privilege, were able to make the crucial metamorphosis from nobles to notables. As landowners, state functionaries, departmental administrators and professional judges and doctors, bankers and manufacturers, they constituted a knot of influence and power that would effectively dominate French society for the next century.

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