Modern history

II THE INCONTINENCE OF POLEMICS

This is not to imply, however, that nothing of consequence changed as a direct result of the first phase of the French Revolution. The liberties enshrined in the Declaration of the Rights of Man for the protection of free speech, publication and assembly had brought forth a political culture in which the liberation of disrespect literally knew no bounds. It was, by far, the most dramatic creation of the Revolution. For although its vituperative style and reigning conceptions had also been coined under the old regime by writers and journalists like Linguet and Mercier, the removal of censorship and prosecution made it possible for political argument to reach an unprecedentedly broad audience.

The result was a polemical incontinence that washed over the whole country. With news from Paris able to reach the eastern and southern limits of the country in three to four days, the Revolution nationalized information to the extent that one had to run very far indeed to escape the ubiquitous touch of politics. From army garrisons where soldiers demanded the right to fraternize with civilians and even attend meetings of clubs, to country churches where the doors were used for bulletin boards and the pulpit became a battleground of rival orthodoxies, to the balconies of boulevard theaters where crowds of journeymen artisans roared cheerful abuse and patriotic songs back at the actors, nothing outreached the long arm and booming voice of political harangue.

This degree of mobilization did not respect polite boundaries of privacy. Indeed privacy was itself suspect, being too close to the strategies of concealment that were said to be at the heart of aristocratic culture. So the tests of patriotic virtue did not stop at the bedroom door. Newspapers like Fréron’s Orateur du Peuple enjoyed reporting (or inventing) storiesof revolutionary Lysistratas who interrupted coition at critical moments to reprove their husbands for taking oaths of loyalty to Lafayette. “Stop, stop, stop right there,” exclaimed one determined citizeness of the rue Saint-Martin in Paris; “nevermore shall you enjoy the tender caresses that I have so many times wasted on you until you abandon your infatuation with the Corrupter.” By contrast, patriotic marriages were hailed as the rock on which a truly virtuous patrie would be built. In December 1790 Brissot ironically congratulated Camille Desmoulins on his marriage while expressing the hope that “in becoming happy their friend would be no less persistent as the defender of the public interest.” One stage further on in the conjugal life cycle of patriots, prolific mothers were especially honored for their contribution to the patrie. One prodigy who claimed to have borne no less than twenty-five children was given the honor of carrying the national flag in a special ceremony in the Cathedral of Notre Dame at Rouen in May 1791.

Children were also conscripted into this world of relentless displays of public virtues. The Jacobins encouraged the formation of youth affiliates, the Young Friends of the Constitution, and occasionally allowed members to attend sessions of the “mother club” in Paris. Throughout France, “Battalions of Hope,” consisting of boys between the ages of seven and twelve, were uniformed and taught to drill, recite passages from the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen and parade before their doting citizen-parents in miniature versions of the uniform of the National Guard. In Lille, for example, a veteran soldier, the former Sieur de Boisragon, now just M. Chevallau, trained a group of eighty boys (as elsewhere, nicknamed, as a pun on the regiment of the Royal Bourbons, the “Royal Bon-Bons”). Together with his local curé, Chevallau organized a children’s “fédération” complete with the benediction of theflag and the swearing of oaths. “We will live for our patrie,” promised César Lachapelle, age eight, and Narcise Labussière, age nine, “and our last sighs will be for her.” To the august deputies of the National Assembly they protested, “When our parents and teachers boast endlessly of the wisdom of your decrees and when from all parts of France we hear applause for your immortal work, when all of France showers blessings upon your heads, how can our hearts remain insensible… No, Messieurs, recognition and respect know no age.”

Nor was this kind of inspirational utterance confined to speeches, ceremonies and texts. It spilled over into the world of artifacts, covering ceramic dishes, coffee cups, pewter mugs with patriotic devices like the half-demolished Bastille surmounted by the Gallic cock greeting the dawn of freedom; the banners of the National Guard and the consecrated trinity of “La Loi, le Roi et la Constitution.” Oberkampf’s printed cotton manufacture at Jouy, which had first produced furnishing fabric with designs celebrating the American war, now turned to scenes from the epic days of 1789, so that the onslaught of political propaganda was as much a matter of graphics as of texts. The engravers of the rue Saint-Jacques who had turned out popular prints of saints, folk heroes and soldiers before the Revolution were now occupied almost full-time producing immense quantities of prints with overtly political subjects. The collections of the Bibliothèque Nationale contain literally tens of thou-sands of examples of these prints that not only documented for the illiterate the events of the Revolution and communicated them to provincials far from Paris, but also established crucial stereotypes of heroes and villains. It is almost possible to calibrate the rise and fall of the prestige of figures like Necker, Lafayette and Mirabeau by the production rhythm and fluctuating tone of prints featuring those personalities.

Other forms of familiar illustrated literature were used in similar ways to inculcate the particular virtues advocated by competing revolutionary factions. Almanacs were a favorite medium. Sylvain Maréchal, forexample, who had been imprisoned before the Revolution for producing his Almanach des Honnêtes Gens, was now free to publish it, andhis Patriots Portfolio repeated his blend of practical information and utopian social egalitarianism. The playwright-actor Collot d’Herbois’ Almanach du Père Gérardwon a special prize from the Jacobins (awarded by a committee that included Condorcet and Grégoire) for being a work that combined the apostolic mission of political education with a deliberately simple manner meant to appeal to the peasants at whom it was ostensibly aimed. “Père Gérard” was a deputy to the Constituentfrom Rennes who had been celebrated for seating himself in the Estates-General in a plain brown fustian coat, apparently the very paragon of bucolic simplicity promoted in the Rousseauean code of social morality. And Collot had indeed managed a tone that dripped with rustic bonhomie, explaining the meaning of the term constitution by comparing it with the healthy body of a strapping peasant boy called Nicolas “whose healthy appetite, sane head and strong arms are the very picture of the Constitution.”

The popular theater of the vaudeville, mixing song, dance, clowning and broad humor, was turned into yet another arm of patriotic propaganda. Nicodemus in the Moon or the Pacific Revolution had a recordbreaking first run of ninety performances at the Théâtre-Français, where it played to a genuinely mixed audience. It used the whole box of tricks from the boulevard du Temple and the Palais-Royal, exploiting the ballooning craze by sending its hero, the peasant Nicodemus – a peculiarly Gallic combination of simplicity and cunning àla Bourvil – aloftto the moon. There he discovered an amiable but forlorn king hectored by a difficult and devious wife. Nicodemus then paints a picture of an earthly paradise back in France, where his own sovereign freely accepted a revolution that had made the whole nation happy.

Even hairstyles were invested with political eloquence. Brissot’s Patriote Français, for example, published a lengthy letter in October 1790 advocating short, straight, unpowdered hair as the appropriate patriotic coiffure. The reason given was that it had been the favored coiffure of the virtuous English Roundheads and, conversely, curled, lengthy tresses had been the outward sign of the vain, corrupt, aristocratic Cavaliers. As for the Romans, the writer assumed that decadent tyrants like Caesar and Antony fussed with their curling irons while Cassius and Marcus Brutus, “whose souls were proud and who struck terror into the heart of the dictator,” cropped their locks short and combed their hair forward in the manner to be seen in Talma’s stage roles. “This coiffure,” the writer insisted, “is the only one which is suited to republicans: being simple, economical and requiring little time, it is care-free and so assures the independence of a person; it bears witness to a mind given to reflection, courageous enough to defy fashion.”

Brissot’s paper was not the only one to try to reinforce the news with editorializing, political preaching and exemplary anecdotes designed to create not just a curious but a morally alert readership. Of all the media through which a new political constituency was shaped, the press may have been the most powerful. The magnitude of its expansion after 1789 was itself astonishing. Before the Revolution there had been perhaps sixty newspapers in all of France – though as Jeremy Popkin has pointed out, the Francophone foreign gazettes were an important complement. By August 1792 there were close to five hundred in Paris alone. Not all of these, of course, were of consequence or could boast either a sustained life or more than a modest circulation. But the great successes, like Carra’s Annales Patriotiques, certainly reached eight thousand, and the AbbéCérutti’s immensely popular Feuille Villageoise, meant to provide a political primer for the peasantry, reached far more. Jacques Godechot has even estimated that through extensive subscriptions taken by political clubs, Cérutti’s paper may actually have reached a reading public of twohundred thousand – though this figure belongs to the realm of editorial optimization.

What was impressive about the explosion of the political press was not just its immensely expanded circulation but the huge range of styles, tones and formats adopted, embracing the tediously worthy reporting of the Constituent in Brissot’s Patriote Français as well as the juicily scurrilous in the case of the much more readable LOrateur du Peuple. Some papers, like Marat’s, held the attention through the sheer relentless ferocity of their ranting and the waves of indignation and panic they could stir by pointing to hidden nests of traitors and conspirators – rather like political dowsers armed with accusatory divining rods. Others, still more experimental, like Hébert’s Père Duchesne, and ephemeral publications like the apoplectic Tailleur Patriotique (Patriotic Tailor), contrived to reproduce the authentic voice of the bon bougre – the foulmouthed plain-talking man of the wineshops and the markets, his head enveloped by the fumes of alcohol and tobacco and his tongue hot with expletives directed at the Autri-Chienne (the Austrian bitch, a.k.a. the Queen). Their appeal was verbal violence, so that the Patriotic Tailor, for example, regularly described the clients who came to him to be measured for suits as aristocrates àpendre (aristocrats to hang).

The most successful of the papers were also meant as conversionary instruments, to stiffen the doubts of waverers, preach to the unenlightened and inform those who had difficulty understanding the decrees of the Assembly or the difference between “honest” and “feigned” patriots. Cérutti’s Feuille Villageoise provided a primer for the Patriotic Peasant, offering advice on how to combat the equally pernicious blights of tree rot in the orchard and nonjuring priests in the pulpit. His paper also reproduced, with an ardent endorsement for general use, the text of Lequinio’s Patriotic Prayer: “O God of Justice and Equality, since it has pleased you that our Good People has recovered all its rights, see that they are preserved despite the work of fools and fanatics and that brothers do not fight against brothers for fear they will all be vanquished by the Enemies of our Family.” Cérutti also published accounts from far-flungmissionaries of the revolutionary faith, hard at work spreading the gospel, often literally in their backyard. In one such letter, a schoolmaster reported that

every Sunday in our village we gather in a little garden adjoining my house and there, seated on a mound, I read to our peasants, in a circle around me, the Feuille Villageoise. They listen so well that they make me repeat any word they do not understand. I explain to them everything that I know but often I realize that there are things I know little of or misunderstand.

According to Michael Kennedy’s history of the Jacobins, La Feuille Villageoise was the subscription of choice in their clubs, especially in the provinces. And it was certainly in the popular societies that most Frenchmen – and some Frenchwomen – were initiated into the language of revolutionary politics. In its beginnings the Society of the Friends of the Constitution, which met at the convent of the Jacobins in the rue Saint-Honoré, was not so ambitious. It represented merely a continuationof the Breton Club of deputies at Versailles who had met to co-ordinate tactics that would ensure the victory of the Assembly against the machinations of the government. By expanding the society’s membership to the public and lowering its annual subscription to twenty-four livres, payable monthly or quarterly, the Jacobins in Paris offered a place where citizens and their “mandatories” could debate public issues in an atmosphere of mutual reassurance. So even though it was not yet the hearth of militant egalitarianism it was to become after 1792, the society naturally generated criticism of governmental pragmatism or “moderatism,” based on what it claimed to be the first principles of the Revolution.

In the spring of 1790, like-minded Patriots in provincial towns such as Dijon, Lille, Strasbourg, Grenoble and Marseille who wanted a rallying point from which they could denounce the intrigues of local recalcitrants (sometimes entrenched in local administrations) formed their own societies and wrote seeking affiliation with their “friends and brothers” in Paris. In turn, that “mother society” sent out activists to encourage the establishment of local cells in what one circular called “a holy coalition to maintain the Constitution,” especially in towns where the society judged the true cause to be beleaguered. Sometimes the effort could go amiss, as when the actor Bordier was hanged at Rouen for inciting a popular insurrection; but more often the work was done peacefully and found a quick response in informal gatherings of zealots, be they lawyers, savants, officials or the inevitable local revolutionary ci-devant and patriotic curate.

By August 1790 the Paris Jacobins had twelve hundred members and a hundred and fifty affiliates in the provinces. A year later that number had risen to over four hundred. Such a phenomenal success can only be explained, as Kennedy has indicated, by the eighteenth-century addiction to clubby sociability, which suggests that the Jacobins inherited an emphasis on brotherly solidarity and equality from the equally popular Masonic lodges that had mushroomed around France in the later part of the century. They also took from Masonry the pleasure of ritual and arcane symbolism, grafting the messages of revolutionary politics onto Masonic emblems like the eye of surveillance and the stonemason’s level (signifying equality) and the Masons’ obsession with triangles. The high-minded professions of faith in the universal fraternity of well-disposed men were also reiterations of a familiar Masonic refrain. What was most strikingly different, however, was the Jacobins’ abhorrence of secrecy and their proselytizing view of their clubs as schools of public morality.

Physically, too, the Jacobin clubs were a cross between a church and a school. Often they were located in disused (or, latterly, dispossessed) monasteries, sometimes in local government offices or even small theaters or taverns. Their layout almost invariably provided for a tribune for the speaker at the front of the room, raised on a low dais on which would also be chairs for the presiding officers of the society. Nonmembers might be admitted to meetings but were divided off from members by a low balustrade or cord strung across the width of the room. The Paris club, though, banked its seats along the wall-length of the old library, giving greater visibility to both speakers and audience. Decorating the walls were the obligatory signs of fraternity: plaster portrait busts of exemplary figures from antiquity like Junius Brutus and Cato, together with more contemporary heroes: Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Benjamin Franklin and (in those provincial clubs far from Paris, where he was more mistrusted than admired by the Jacobins) Mirabeau. Between these busts, framed copies of the Declaration of the Rights of Man often hung alongside engravings of the great revolutionary journées, usually taken from the series produced by the Tableaux de la Révolution Française.

But it was the sounds rather than the sights of the Jacobins that were their most compelling feature. The walls of their clubs echoed to endless speeches, arguments, critical readings of legislation – set-piece oratory in imitation of the virtuosi of the Paris club and the National Assembly. Every provincial club would have its local star emulating in expressions of patriotic indignation and Ciceronian rhetoric the alternative rhetorical styles of Mirabeau (hot), Barnave (crisp) and Robespierre (logicalsentimental). And it was in the large local clubs, at Bordeaux and Lyon, for example, that the next generation of revolutionary politicians who would go on to be the Ciceros and Catos of the Legislative Assembly – Lanthénas, Isnard, Vergniaud and Gensonné– had their apprenticeship.

Even during the early period, when their membership included many “moderates” (either declared or concealed monarchists), the Jacobins cast themselves in a role oppositional to the constituted authorities – local and national. They consciously set themselves up as the moral guardians of revolutionary principles who would unswervingly follow their patriotic duty even if it meant going against the majority of the Constituent or locally elected officials. Nonetheless their militancy was of a purely political rather than social kind. If they were democrats they were relatively well-heeled ones, comprising for the most part the same kind of people as those who were National Guard officers: professionals, writers and journalists, rather more tradesmen and merchants than would have been found in the local administrations and, perhaps 20 per cent of them, artisans, overwhelmingly independent master craftsmen.

That middling twenty-four-livre constituency left a space to the left of the Jacobins to be filled by political clubs catering specifically to the groups that had been excluded from the Revolution’s first definition of citizenship. The most obvious of these were women and wage earners (though no society to my knowledge was founded for that very large group of the excluded – domestic servants). This was the stated aim of the revived Cordeliers, who dropped their admission fee to just one livre, four sous. Their meetings, according to an English observer, consisted of rowdies whose “dress was so filthy and unkempt that one would have taken them for a gathering of beggars.” But dozens of smaller societies followed the example of the Cordeliers’ policy of inclusiveness. The most notable were the Minimes, the Society of Indigents and especially the Fraternal Society for Patriots of Both Sexes, founded by the schoolteacher Claude Dansard. All of these clubs admitted women, and the SociétéFraternelle in particular, women like Louise Robert (the daughter of the revolutionary Breton aristocrat Kéralio and the editor of the Mercure Nationale); Pauline Léon, the chocolate maker’s daughter; Théroigne deMéricourt; and the remarkable Etta Palm d’Aelders (who was, simultaneously, a spy for the Dutch Stadholder’s government and a committed feminist) – each of whom played a prominent part in the organization to which she belonged. It was from these clubs that proposals emanated to form companies of armed women – for example, to guard the royal family in the Tuileries in 1791 and as a frontier regiment in 1792 – as well as reiterations of the demands first articulated by Olympe de Gouges and Etta Palm for female suffrage. They took particular exception to the typical Jacobin relegation of women to the hearth and home and comments like that of the brewer Santerre that “the men of this district prefer on coming home from work to find their household in order rather than to see their wives returning from an assembly where they do not always acquire a spirit of gentleness.”

It was in the popular societies – attracting in Paris altogether no more than two to three thousand adherents in this period – that the ideals of social egalitarianism and democratic autonomy were pushed to their most extreme point. It was also there that the rhetoric of conspiracy and denunciation against traitors within and without the country was most shrill. While Marat’s and Fréron’s papers were thought too coarse for the taste of Jacobins, they were read aloud to great approval in the Cordeliers. And just as the Jacobins’ debates created the next wave of revolutionary politicians who would dominate the years of war and Terror, the popular societies produced still more militant figures who would in turn taunt them for their elitism and pusillanimity – extraordinary figures like the legless cripple Pépin-Dégrouhette, failed playwright, practicing lawyer and the advocate of the market porters of Paris.

It was also in these clubs that the dichotomy in the character of the French Revolution was most starkly exposed. The rage which bounced off the crossed daggers and production-line busts of Brutus, the tablepounding choruses of “ça Ira” (“tous les aristocrates on les pendra” [“all the aristocrats will hang”]) corresponded exactly to the kind of anticapitalist, antimodernist fury embedded in the work of Linguet and Mercier that antedated the Revolution. The rhetoric was Rousseau with a hoarse voice and sharpened with bloody-minded impatience. The Revolution had led the members of the clubs to believe a world of economic and social justice was at hand, but as far as they could see they still had to pay taxes on their wine and tobacco, still had to implore bosses for work for which they were paid in paper money that depreciated through the depredations of speculators. The government and the Constituent were still filled with les Grands, “greedy financiers, gorged with the purest blood of the people, cynics, fools, men puffed up with pride” who had created barriers of eligibility that would have excluded even Jean-Jacques himself from sitting among them.

The antithesis of these “devourers of the substance of the people” was “Jacques Cordonnier” (Jack Shoemaker), a paragon invented by the Révolutions de Paris in December 1790, “a respectable artisan gatheringhis neighbors at his house and by the light of his lamp… reading the decrees of the national assembly, seasoning the reading with his own reflections and those of his attentive neighbors.” It was the simple ardor of such honnêtes hommes that could make true democracy viable, if onlythose in political authority would have the courage to trust the people with their laws as Rousseau had (they claimed) recommended. One of the most extraordinary proposals in this direction came from none other than the ci-devant Marquis de Girardin, who in June 1791 argued that all laws enacted by the national legislature should be submitted to popular universal referenda. These plebiscites evidently embodied the meeting of history with theory, for, in his view, they would be both the descendant of the ancient Frankish horseback assemblies and the repository of Rousseau’s omniscient General Will. Girardin’s optimism about this level of popular commitment to civic duty was such that he even assumed that Sundays – devoted to praying or drinking or both – might be set aside for weekly votes!

Girardin’s plebiscitary utopia and the Révolutions de Paris’ inventionof the ideal citizen-worker never stood any chance of being institutionalized in the French Revolution, not even at the height of popular influence on the National Convention. But their necessarily unsatisfied rhetoric and their chronic obsession with exploitation, conspiracy and public punishment were capable of mobilizing angry and powerful crowds that, at critical moments, decisively affected the course of events. Ultimately this perpetual oppositional pull was to make the Revolution completely unworkable, for it opposed impossible demands of political purity to the working needs of the French state. It opposed local, autonomous microdemocracies to the requirements of centralized power; the satisfaction of material needs through enforced intervention in the economy to the mobilization of capital for the state and the market; unlimited freedom of expression and assembly to the regularized transaction of public business; and summary, often spontaneous punishment to the orderly enforcement of the law.

The dilemma for successive generations of those politicians who graduated from oratory to administration was that they owed their own power to precisely the kind of rhetoric that made their subsequent governance impossible. The Revolution as insurrection would have been impossible without regular effusions of spleen and blood, but the Revolution as government was impossible unless they could be selectively managed.

It was the first time that a generation of revolutionary politicians had discovered the depressing dilemma that, in this sense, revolutionary liberty entailed revolutionary terror. But they would not be the last to fall apart over its consequences.

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