Modern history


Five days after the declaration of war, the Strasbourg garrison was preparing for the “crusade for universal liberty” promised by Brissot. A public dinner was held in which officers – many of them, like de Broglie, d’Aiguillon and Kléber, from the liberal nobility – mingled with the local Patriot notables, none more important than the ci-devant Baron Dietrich, the mayor of the city. Toasts were drunk rehearsing the favorite themes of the war: death to despots; long live the patrie of Liberty. Someone asked the young army engineer Rouget de Lisle, who had made a minor reputation in Paris as a composer, if he could not produce a song that would send the armies off to the frontier with a patriotic march. The bouncing tempo of “Ça Ira,” after all, was hardly suitable for a military step.

Rouget de Lisle had some experience in this work. The son of a Franche-Comté family of minor gentry, he had won a scholarship to the military engineering academy at Mézières, where he had met both Lazare Carnot and Prieur de la Côte d’Or. Though able enough as a sapper, he had taken time off from constructing bridges and artillery carriages to compose airs in the jaunty style that sold well in Paris. After five years of part-time composing he decided to try his luck in the capital, where he made friends with Grétry. His style became more serious; a “Hymn to Liberty” was produced, though it was the version of Strasbourg’s local composer Ignaz Pleyel that was used in the grand fête for the acceptance of the constitution.

From this rather humdrum mix of talents, the musical engineer somehow came up with the “Chant de Guerre de l’Armée du Rhin” (Song of the Rhine Army). Energized by the sense of coming battle and fortified by champagne, Rouget de Lisle worked through the night of the fifteenth-sixteenth of April, flourishing the score before Dietrich in the morning. (The mayor somewhat boorishly performed it himself for the first time three days later.)

The song that, under the name “La Marseillaise,” was to survive when all the works of Pleyel, Gossec, Méhul and Grétry combined were forgotten was an astonishing invention, the nearest thing to a speech of Pierre Vergniaud’s set to rhyme and music, a tune and a rhythm to set the pulse racing and the blood coursing. When Dietrich’s wife and Gossec had scored in the harmonics for a military band, it opened into a great swelling anthem of patriotic communion. Nothing like the “Marseillaise” has ever been written that comes so near to expressing the comradeship of citizens in arms and nothing ever will.

All the great emotive themes of the Revolution – family, blood, soil – were given their voice. The first verse is the family drama. The patrie – the Fatherland – calls its children to arms to defend its loved ones (vos fils, vos compagnes) against hordes of approaching mercenaries, bent on slaughter. Brilliantly the melody drops to a sinister murmur as the terror approaches, before being repelled by the great clarion call of “Aux armes, citoyens,” repeated as the chorus through all five verses. Throughout the song, images of blood and carnage are used to frighten and inspire. The étendard sanglant (the bloody banner) has been raised against the enfants de la patrie; so the sang impur, the tainted blood of tyrants, should abreuve les sillons (irrigate the soil) of the nation. Macabre though the images were, they exactly echoed contemporary feeling. Not long before, a young student had written to his father, justifying his decision to volunteer by declaring that “our liberty can only be assured if it will have for its bed a mattress of cadavers… I consent to become one of those cadavers.”

The “Marseillaise” was not, then, a revolutionary song of the south. The patriotic anthem took its eventual name when a group of fédéré Guards from Montpellier brought it to Marseille en route to their encampment in Paris. Once in the capital local revolutionary militants who turned the five hundred-odd soldiers from Marseille into idealized heroes of the “second revolution” attached to them the new anthem. But in fact it was a true song of the eastern and northern frontier, something born not of Jacobin cocksureness, bragging threats to hang the aristocracy like those found in the “Ça Ira.” Instead, it sprang from the nervous defiance shown against “tyrants” as the Revolution prepared, for the first time, to confront the armies of absolutist monarchy.

We do not know if those first soldiers marched out of Lille toward the Belgian city of Tournai with Rouget de Lisle’s song on their lips. But if that was the case, then it certainly did them no good. For in embarrassing contrast not only to the invincible optimism of the anthem, but the equally expansive certainties of Brissotin rhetoric, the first campaign of the wars that would end twenty-three years and a million and a half dead Frenchmen later, began as a pathetic fiasco.

This was all the more shocking because the commanders appointed to the three major theaters of war were all famous veterans of France’s last indisputably successful campaign in America. Lafayette was given the center front on the Marne, General Luckner the Alsace frontier and Rochambeau, the hero of Yorktown and Saratoga, the most immediately critical zone of the Belgian frontier in the north. Though Narbonne’s touted tours of inspection had done their best to disguise the fact, Rochambeau was well aware that in respect both to the complement of troops and their battle-readiness and discipline, the French armies were far from prepared to face the Austrians. The breakdown of the regimental hierarchy that had been signaled by the Nancy mutiny in 1790 had not been arrested by the repression. Indeed, the increasing rate of emigration among officers after Varennes had if anything deepened suspicions among the rank and file that officers were not to be trusted and might be deliberately betraying the patrie in the guise of commanding it.

These suspicions were to have murderous consequences for Théobald Dillon, the local commander of the force dispatched against Tournai. A cousin of Lucy de La Tour du Pin, Dillon was a typical product of the liberal nobility, patriotic and capable and certainly hostile to the émigrés. But like many of the career officers, he was most sympathetic to Lafayette and mistrustful of the Brissotin government. More specifically he had been enlisted by Dumouriez to activate the Belgian theater, which, the Minister believed, was just awaiting a sign from the French to begin a great anti-Austrian insurrection. Dillon’s assignment was to carry out a modest expedition at Tournai, generally thought to be lightly defended. To do this he had a force of five thousand men, for the most part regular cavalry but complemented with a force of volunteer soldiers. Just because of this strength, success seemed guaranteed.

In the event, those expectations recoiled disastrously. At Baisieux the advance guard of the cavalry ran into artillery fire. Very quickly rumors of an Austrian advance spread through the French lines. A preplanned, tactical withdrawal speedily turned into an inglorious sauve-qui-peut, led not by the volunteers but by the regular horsemen. Caught up in the flight, Dillon took shelter in a peasant cottage and made the fatal mistake of taking off his uniform coat. Alerted by patriotic propaganda to the presence of spies and traitors, the farmer believed he had one in his house, sipping his broth, and alerted the garrison at Douai. The unfortunate general was taken under guard to Lille, where he was torn from his carriage by a crowd of townsmen, soldiers and National Guard, slashed in the face and finally bayoneted to death on the cobblestones. Dillon’s body was then hanged from a lanterne; its left leg was severed as a trophy and paraded around town before the rest of the corpse was thrown on a bonfire.

The dismal impression given by the disaster before Tournai was made even worse when Biron’s force failed to press an attack on Mons, though in this case the commander was preserved so that he might later perish on the guillotine. Since the Austrians failed to capitalize on the demoralization of the French troops, little was lost strategically. But the political consequences of the debacle were dramatically polarizing. On the right, many remaining senior officers of the line army now believed themselves to be risking Dillon’s fate at the least setback. Some resigned, beginning with Rochambeau himself at the very apex of the northern command; others emigrated. Those who remained in service, like Lafayette himself, were now convinced that the precondition of military survival was the reestablishment of order both within the army and in Paris. Indeed he was now prepared to use military force to preempt the threat of insurrection in the capital. Early in May he wrote to the Austrian Ambassador Mercy d’Argenteau, proposing a suspension of hostilities while he dealt with the Paris militants.

Lafayette’s enemies, however, were not obtuse. Even the lull in fighting in May confirmed their suspicions that the commanders in the field were more interested in taking them on than the Austrians. This impression was not dispelled by the defection en masseof virtually the entire regiment of the Royal-Allemands, the cavalry that had charged the popular demonstration in the place Vendôme and the Tuileries on July 12, 1789. “I do not trust the generals,” Robespierre said in the Jacobins; “most of them are nostalgic for the old order.” This sense of deliberate sabotage by men who had maneuvered themselves into command was extended to economic and social grievances. The depreciation of the assignats, which fueled food price inflation, was blamed on systematic and politically motivated currency speculation. The harvest of 1791 had been average to mediocre but in some areas of France, especially the south and southeast, shortages were acute. The deregulation of the internal grain market that had been the physiocrats’ legacy, the Revolution now used to pull supplies towards areas of shortage, but only after they had been kept back long enough to secure high prices. This is exactly what liberal economists had recommended as a way in which to ensure capital accumulation in agriculture. But fine theory invariably made for immediate misery, panic and riot. The tempo of attacks on wagons, barges and depots, which had been sluggish since 1789, now revived in earnest. With the additional gloss that the “famine plot” was part of a counter-revolutionary attempt to starve the people into capitulation, violent assaults on persons as well as property were more widespread and unrestrained. Finally, the black uprisings in the French West Indies had interrupted sugar supplies and had made other commodities to which the working population of the towns had become accustomed – coffee, for example – prohibitively expensive. The consequence was attacks on grocery stores in the spring of 1792.

The accumulation of these grievances gave the leaders and tutors of popular politics the opportunity to emerge from the subdued silence to which they had been confined since the repression of the previous summer. With Lafayette occupied at the front and the complaisant Pétion rather than the fretful Bailly as mayor, the militant press and the popular clubs quickly revived their following in the spring of 1792. Marat’s LAmi du Peuple and the Cordeliers Club were very much back in business, launching furious attacks not just against the court and the “Austrian Committee” deliberately sabotaging the war, but more generally against the rich, now expressly characterized as the “bourgeoisie,” who had cut themselves off from the People and had forgotten how much they owed to them as the shock troops of Liberty. There were, moreover, some new and distinctively violent voices raised to weed out traitors and punish speculators. Jacques-René Hébert’s newspaper, the Père Duchesne, made free use of wineshop obscenities to rail against those in power. And Jacques Roux, the curé of Saint-Nicolas-des-Champs, in one of the very poorest quarters of Paris, filled with market porters and transient labor, also demanded summary punitive justice against those responsible for starving Patriots.

There was absolutely nothing new in these Christian-egalitarian polemics and it was precisely their familiarity which made them so popular. They harked back exactly to the anticapitalist, antimodernist rhetoric of Mercier, praising craft and detesting capital, which had been one of the most potent sources of revolutionary anger. The truly radical phase of the Revolution – its violent overthrow of the educated elite and notables who had dominated the Constituent and the reforming enterprises since the 1770s – was now at hand. And from the outset it was this aggressively illiberal, antipecuniary code of values that mobilized the population to take up arms. The designation sans-culottes (without breeches) was itself a kind of romanticization of the world of craft shops, since it insisted on the incompatibility of social virtue and silk hose and breeches (items that Robespierre himself invariably wore). In actual fact, the leaders of these breechless militants of 1792 and 1793 were often drawn not from the very poor but from the better-off strata of the artisanal trades and professions. Indeed some of their leaders, like the brewer Santerre, were not merely comfortable, but rich. Nonetheless they actively encouraged their constituents to demand things squarely at odds with economic individualism: the government regulation of grain and other food prices; enforced acceptance of the assignat at face value; and draconian punishments (including the death penalty) for anyone suspected of hoarding or speculation, a category notoriously hard to define in a liberalized economy. The republicanized paternalism of this program was summed up in a brochure produced in Lyon in June demanding the establishment of nationally established grain prices and titled, with disarming innocence, Moyens Simples et Faciles de Fixer lAbondance(Simple and Easy Means to Establish Abundance).

What gave the sans-culottes’ demands special force in 1792 was the added dimension of military patriotism. The enemies within were now not some abstractly defined class foe, but, as it were, Austrians in French dress. Indeed it was explicitly said that the sinister, ubiquitous “Austrian Committee” causing so much havoc and demoralization on the front was also deliberately fomenting calamity at home, causing food supplies to disappear. It was the perpetual craving to identify and punish the fifth-column patriot-hypocrites that fed the “unmasking” obsession (a good Rousseauean fixation) in the Jacobins and the Cordeliers. In the spring and summer of 1792 this need to distinguish between the true and the false patriot required the acceptance of visible badges of patriotic authenticity.

The most important was the red hat, the bonnet rouge. The French Revolution by no means invented liberty-hat symbolism. Drawn from Roman coins on which freed slaves were shown receiving the “Phrygian bonnet” at the moment of their emancipation, it had a history in graphic art, medals and inscriptions going back at least to the Dutch revolt of the sixteenth century. And it was in continuous use in both popular and polite culture for at least two centuries, usually in the form of a wide-brimmed round form with a flat crown. In a soft, bonnet variant it showed up frequently in such eighteenth-century English prints as Hogarth’s unflattering image of the radical John Wilkes; in engravings celebrating American liberty in the 1770s; in the Dutch Patriot movement of the 1780s; and finally in much of the Fédération imagery of 1790, especially at Lyon. What was remarkable about the development in 1792 was the literalization of the symbol; people were now not only expected to recognize the emblem but actually wear it. Even in 1791, when David drew his idealized man of the people in the tennis court, the hat that man was wearing was an emblem rather than a real item of headgear. A year later that was no longer true. Robespierre, of course, never deigned to don the bonnet over his powdered curls, but it began showing up in the Jacobins among both members and spectators, and in the more self-consciously popular societies and section assemblies it virtually became de rigueur. Even some army officers demanded the right to wear it instead of their military tricorn.

Not surprisingly, then, the ritual moment at which the man whom Père Duchesne now habitually called “Louis le Faux” – or sometimes just “le Faux-Pas,” for the flight to Varennes – was unmasked as a non-king was on June 20, when a red bonnet was unceremoniously stuck on his head. Reduced to the ranks, stripped of the last remaining attributes of majesty (the Legislative had long debated whether they could continue to call him “sire”), Louis Capet was forced to drink the health of the true Sovereign People.

What made this possible was the transfer of armed power away from those whom the Jacobins deemed the fifth column and into the hands of “dependable” Patriots. The mayor, Pétion, ignored the restrictions on clubs, petitions and the press introduced by Duport and Le Chapelier in the last days of the Constituent and even encouraged the distribution of arms among the section assemblies, believing they might be needed to defend his allies the Brissotins against any attempt at a military coup d’état. To begin with, there was yet another literalization of a traditional emblem of liberty, the pike, which had almost as antique a pedigree as the hat. A section of Paris renamed itself “Les Piques” and Hébert told his readers, “To your pikes, good sans-culottes, sharpen them up to exterminate aristocrats.” For all the hyperbole, the distribution of long, sharpened iron weapons was not an insignificant addition to the capacity for popular violence. By June, however, section assemblies were admitting “passive” citizens to their National Guard companies without seeking formal permission. And their equipment included altogether unsymbolic muskets, rifles and even, in some cases, cannon.

At the same time, formal demands were made to the King at the end of May to liquidate his own personal guard of six thousand, mostly stationed at the Tuileries. That corps had been part of Barnave’s strategy of reassuring the court that a constitutional monarchy would have means to defend its authority against repeated insurrection, though he had to tell the Queen that the sky-blue uniforms she favored in contrast to the legitimate dark blue of the National Guard would immediately stigmatize the force as foreign mercenaries. Typically trading his strong cards for weak ones, Louis accepted this official disarmament, principally because he wanted to veto the enforcement of a decree enabling refractory priests to be summarily deported at the behest of no more than twenty active citizens. Shortly after, he also vetoed a proposal from the Minister of War, Servan, to establish an armed camp of some twenty thousand fédérés from the provinces who would not only arrive for the festive purpose of celebrating the fourteenth of July, but who would also receive “training” (of indeterminate length) before being sent to the frontier.

Ironically, Robespierre also opposed the camp of the fédérés, seeing in it an attempt by the government to use provincial guards to cow their more politically radical Paris co-citizens. But in the Cordeliers, where once again the organization of insurrection was most intensively directed, the King’s last feeble attempt at constitutional self-assertion met with a great chorus of abuse. His opposition to the fédérés was represented in the press as self-evident proof that he was himself planning an act of force from his “citadel” in the Tuileries. Mme Roland, who dictated a letter to her husband so that it should bear the official imprimatur of the Minister of the Interior, gave Louis XVI a severe reprimand for his audacity, and warned that “This is not time to retreat or to temporize. The revolution has been made in people’s minds; it will be accomplished and cemented at the cost of bloodshed unless wisdom forestalls evils which it is still possible to avoid… I know that the austere language of truth is rarely welcomed near the throne but I also know that it is because it is so rarely heard that revolutions become necessary.”

Not only did Louis not heed these warnings and withdraw his vetoes, but the lecture from the Rolands may have triggered him into dismissing the whole Brissotin ministry two days later. This sudden volte-face had been Dumouriez’ idea, the better to establish his own domination of the government. Once that had been accomplished, he also asked the King to cancel his veto so as to minimize causes for popular disturbances in the sections. But this was exactly the kind of tactical deviation Louis was incapable of comprehending.

On June 20, a demonstration was mobilized in the sections by leaders of the popular societies, in particular Santerre; Danton’s friend the butcher Legendre; another longtime publicist and militant republican, Fournier “the American”; the crazed ci-devantMarquis de Saint-Huruge; and Jean Varlet, like Santerre a well-to-do bourgeois (in his case a postal clerk) who had embraced the social egalitarianism of Jacques Roux. All of these figures were prominent in the resurrected Cordeliers; many of them had affiliations in other clubs like the Fraternal Society for Patriots of Both Sexes. Some of the leaders of the women’s republican movement like Théroigne de Méricourt, the Dutch feminist (and spy) Etta Palm and the chocolatier’s daughter Pauline Léon were also involved in the mobilization of the crowd. They had already had some practice earlier in the spring when a festival involving mass participation had been organized by the Jacobins to celebrate the liberation of the soldiers who had been imprisoned in 1790 for their part in the mutiny of the Nancy garrison. (The right had promptly retaliated with a counter-festival honoring Simonneau, the mayor of Etampes killed by food rioters.)

But the festival of the Nancy prisoners was an orderly affair precisely because it had the blessing of the Jacobins and because the arrangements for the usual processions, music and speeches had to be so carefully programmed in advance. On June 20 things were quite different. The ostensible aim of the crowd coming from the artisan and poor sections (the two not being the same) was to plant a liberty tree in the grounds of the Tuileries. This would be both an act of protest against the removal of the Brissotins and a kind of ritualized flag of conquest in the last remaining royal redoubt. Since his colleagues had been summarily removed from government, Pétion was not particularly interested in restraining this protest, even though there was always a possibility it might imperil the safety of the royal family.

Two huge crowds formed, one at the place de la Bastille, the other at the Salpêtrière, and converged on the Tuileries; they were led by Santerre, already a kind of unofficial commander of the armed sans-culotte guardsmen. At around half past one in the afternoon they arrived at the Manège to ask admission to the Legislative to read their petition. The presentation of petitions backed by arms was precisely the kind of thing Le Chapelier’s law had been meant to prohibit, but faced with the direct threat of intimidation – and with Girondins like Vergniaud still angry about the dismissal of the government – the deputies were disinclined to offer much resistance. While they were debating, the crowd planted a tall tree of liberty – a poplar – in the garden of the Capuchins and were finally admitted, singing the “ça Ira,” to the assembly hall.

But it was what followed this rowdy and intimidating parade that signified the beginning of the end of the reign of Louis XVI. The crowd massed in enormous numbers around the perimeter of the palace grounds themselves, with its leaders actually reluctant to press forward. But when the cannoneers of the Val-de-Grâce regiment, who had marched with the demonstrators that morning, now brought up cannon, the gates were opened as much to avoid a disastrous crush of people as with anything more sinister in mind. A huge crowd poured into the undefended palace, finding the King himself, with just a few unarmed guards and attendants, in the Salon de l’Oeil de Boeuf.

It was his worst moment and his best. He backed his big form into a window embrasure and, sometimes leaning against the seat, sometimes standing, faced the leaders of the crowd directly and with extraordinary composure. Pistols and naked sabers were brandished in his face. Some accounts claim that the heart of a calf, stuck on the end of a pike, was waved about to represent “the heart of an aristocrat.” Louis had earlier used his own Rousseau-like heart language when, to show his grenadiers that he was not frightened of the crowd beating its way into the palace, he had taken one of their hands and placed it on his breast, remarking, “See, it does not palpitate.” There is no doubt, though, that the afternoon was an appalling ordeal. Shouts of “Down with the veto; to the devil with the veto” were thrown at Louis as though the act and the man were one and the same. The sans-culotte butcher Legendre is said to have told him forthrightly, “Monsieur, you must hear us; you are a villain. You have always deceived us; you deceive us still. Your measure is full. The people are tired of this play-acting.”

To each of these humiliations, Louis responded without seeming foolish. Presented with a red hat, he put it on his head and proposed the health of the people of Paris and the nation. Shocked royalists would recall the humiliation as Louis XVI’s crown of thorns. But through the melee he remained adamant in his refusal either to withdraw the veto or to recall the Brissotin ministers. This combination of graciousness and dignity somehow defused the worst of the fury and certainly prevented violence. A whole afternoon was too long to sustain even the most murderous barrage of insults. At six in the evening Pétion, who had kept very much out of sight the whole day, now pushed his way through to the King’s presence claiming, implausibly, to the King that he had just heard of the “situation you are in.” “That is astonishing,” replied Louis, “since this has been continuing for some hours.” After prolonged harangues, Pétion managed to persuade the crowd to leave. At eight, Louis and Marie-Antoinette were reunited in a room where she had also been subjected to torrential abuse. Their exhaustion at the trauma was balanced only by the immense relief that somehow they and their children had physically survived. But it was equally clear that with the humiliation of June 20 the last vestiges of the royal aura had been stripped away. Unless something drastic was done, it would no longer be a question of the survival of the monarchy’s authority, let alone its constitutional viability. All that would remain would be a brute trial of strength.

That this would in fact happen was not quite a foregone conclusion. The King and Queen still had their defenders. Once news of what had happened on the twentieth spread around France, loyal petitions from all over the country poured into the Assembly. Even some of the section assemblies repudiated the action. Pétion and Manuel the procureur were suspended from office by the departmental government for dereliction of duty. Some of Brissot’s colleagues who had been more dismayed than exhilarated by the invasion of the palace now actively began secret negotiations. At the height of a debate over the removal of the Dauphin from his family to ensure “a patriotic education,” Guadet came to see the Queen. She showed him the Prince asleep behind a curtain in the adjoining room, and Elie Guadet, who was very much of his generation in being affected by the innocence of childhood, bent his immaculately curled head over the boy, brushed hair away from his face and kissed his brow. “If he is to survive,” he warned the Queen, “you must bring him up to love liberty.”

Offers of help from other quarters were less cordially received. On the twenty-eighth Lafayette made his last bid to command the political fate of France. He appeared before the Legislative to demand the enforcement of the classic Feuillant measures of closing the clubs, curbing the press and banning petitions. His listeners were unsympathetic since they correctly suspected this to be the preliminary announcement of a coup d’état. But Lafayette was no Bonaparte. He had not massed sufficient force in advance to make sure his words would be heeded. Indeed, attempts by him to mobilize the National Guard were a dismal failure. Challenged in the Assembly with leaving his troops without permission, he had no adequate answer. More surprisingly, the royal family – perhaps overconfident about its new Girondin connections – would have none of him. The Queen in particular had long hated Lafayette and had actually supported Pétion in the Paris mayoral election just for the pleasure of seeing him defeated. On this occasion she went to the length of alerting Pétion in advance of the review at which the General would try to rally the Guard.

Spurned by those he wanted to help, the butt of ridicule and hatred in the press, Lafayette returned to his military post in Alsace. After the fall of the monarchy on August 10, he made one last effort at a stand, summoning the mayor of Sedan and his officers to the ceremony at which he was most rehearsed: the swearing of a constitutional oath. But somehow he could not bring himself to take the next step of beginning a civil war. (It began in any case without him.) When the new authorities in Paris suspended him from his commission, he crossed the lines to the Austrian camp and spent the next five years in their prison at Olmütz. It was a wretched dénouement for the boy who had wandered into the woods to commune with the Hyena of Liberty. But it was not to be the end of Lafayette’s career as the apostle of liberal revolution.

With the General out of the way, the last hope of arresting forces that were very rapidly becoming polarized lay in the Legislative Assembly itself. But the events of June 20, far from stiffening its resolve, had shaken it. Deputies nervous for their own safety began to drift away from the debates, so that at the height of the insurrection of August there were probably no more than one quarter of the eight hundred sitting. The Girondin leadership was divided over whether to throw their lot in with the section militants to avoid forfeiting all influence to the Robespierristes, or whether to defend the legal order by force. On July 5 a declaration that the “patrie est en danger” was proclaimed. But the emergency powers obtained by such a suspension of normal legal procedure were a dangerous means of legitimizing the government’s policy. While they could justify, as Robespierre still feared, an attack on the clubs and sections, they could equally be used by those same elements to overthrow the government and the Assembly.

Despairing of any kind of pragmatic reconciliation, the constitutional Bishop of Lyon, Lamourette, tried instead to appeal to the deputies’ sense of emotional theater. Appealing to all those who rejected, with equal vehemence, the demands of the right for a two-chamber parliament and those of the left for a republic, he asked for an “oath of eternal fraternity” and for it to be sealed by an embrace. For the last time, deputies stood, cheered, waved hats in the air, declared “The patrie is saved” and threw themselves into each other’s arms, kissing and hugging in a great transport of collective rapture. It may have been this emotional abandon that led the Assembly naturally on to the next topic, which concerned allowing children to marry without their parents’ consent. But it was brusquely interrupted by a furious delegation from the municipality who had learned that the authorities of the department had just suspended Pétion and Manuel for their responsibility in the events of the twentieth of June, and vowed to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with them.

Kissing gave way again to cursing. As the fédérés began to arrive in Paris, the section assemblies they attended began to demand the establishment of a republic. Marat’s LAmi du Peuple made explicit appeals to the poor, asking them why “the rich alone should harvest the fruits of the revolution while you have won from the revolution only the sad right to continue to pay heavy taxes and like Turks or Prussians be subject to conscription.” Many of the fédérés National Guards came from areas of France where revolutionary Patriots were most embattled – Brittany, the Midi and the East – and responded eagerly to this kind of inflammatory rhetoric. Indeed, since many of them were sleeping on the premises of the Cordeliers or lodged out from there to Patriots of the most militant opinions, they were captive to the most uncompromising republican polemics. Some of them even heard the demands made by Théroigne de Méricourt and Pauline Léon for a women’s regiment armed with pikes.

Steadily, ominously, Paris was turning into an armed camp. Every day companies of Guards paraded in public places, armed to the teeth and chanting the “ça Ira.” The climax, which had been carefully prepared by the radical Charles Barbaroux since the spring, was the arrival on July 30 of five hundred guards from Marseille singing Rouget de Lisle’s anthem, which from then on bore their name. At the Jacobins, Robespierre, who finally seems to have been converted to the timeliness of insurrection, had established a bureau to concert their forces. Another central committee of insurrection was established at the municipal government of the Commune, comprising delegates commissioned from the sections and including Fournier, Santerre and the radical journalist Carra. Coordinating many of these efforts to create a cohesive popular military force capable of administering the coup de grâce was Danton, now at last in the official position he had long craved. Specifically he was in a senior legal post as the deputy procureur of the Commune, and so was in a vital strategic position to give or withhold commands as the situation required. When the fédérés (in particular the Marseillais) brawled with units of the loyal National Guard, nothing much was done to pursue the guilty parties, and the climate of chronic lawlessness in the city steadily escalated through the end of July.

On the last day of the month, the section Mauconseil published an address to the citizens of Paris declaring that “the most sacred duty and the most cherished law is to forget the law to save the patrie.” The enemy was approaching and very soon Louis XVI would deliver the nation’s cities to the bloody fire of the despots of Europe. “For too long a despicable tyrant has played with our destinies… Without amusing ourselves any longer by calculating his errors, his crimes and his perjuries, let us strike this colossus of despotism… let us all unite to declare the fall of this cruel king, let us say with one accord, Louis XVI is no longer king of the French.” The General Will of the section, they said, would no longer recognize him as their sovereign.

This declaration created a moral and political vacuum from which, the sections claimed, an entire new order could be created. Three days later, another proclamation from a quite different source abruptly deepened the sinkhole by which the legitimacy of the constitutional monarchy was being swallowed. Earlier in the summer the Prussians had entered the war as allies of the Emperor and during July had advanced with ominous steadiness. Their declaration of intent was issued in the name of their commander, the Duke of Brunswick, but had been written by the émigré the Marquis de Limon. It asked the French people to rise against the “odious schemes of their oppressors” and threatened with unspecified “rigors of war” any who had the temerity to resist. In the event of any further assault on the Tuileries, Paris would be singled out for an “exemplary and unforgettable act of vengeance.”

Needless to say, the proclamation resulted in precisely the consequence it was supposed to avert. It gave the organizers of the insurrection the opportunity they had been waiting for to raise the stakes of the political conflict into an all-out war. The Brunswick Manifesto in effect told the Parisians and their provincial supporters among the fédérés that they had already committed acts for which they would be unsparingly punished; they had nothing to lose by going the whole distance. All that counted was to keep those who threatened them at home from acts of betrayal. All calculations had come down to this final primitive determination: kill or be killed.

It was this perception of extremity that decisively altered the odds. Attempts had been made to mobilize the sections at the end of June, but they had all gone off at half cock. The Brunswick Manifesto speeded up a major alteration in the balance of military power in Paris. Local National Guards (who, in contrast to 1790, had not been especially happy to see their city overrun with the provincial fédérés) now began to desert their units. They were absorbed into a general command organized by the “Bureau of Correspondence” directed from the Jacobins and led by provincial officers, in particular the Alsatian François-Joseph Westermann.

Though Marat attempted to represent the rising of August 10 as a spontaneous outbreak of unstoppable popular anger, the truth was quite the opposite. Never had a revolution been more laboriously prepared or more hesitantly embarked on. The King’s ministry was a straw government, bereft of any authority or power. Its master, the Legislative Assembly, was at a fraction of its strength and without any power to enforce its decrees or protect the constitution it had sworn (many, many times) to uphold. The National Guard was confused, divided and uncertainly led, concerned more with protecting its neighborhood of Paris from violence against property and persons than with the outcome of a political struggle. What, then, stood in the way of the insurgents? There was the opinion of most French men and women, who had been told endlessly that the constitution was sacrosanct and probably believed it, but who were now represented by armed, militant minorities acting in their name in the capital. More seriously, two thousand regular troops, of whom half belonged to the King’s personal Swiss guard, were dug in at the Tuileries.

The outcome was never really in doubt. But as the tocsin rang through the night of the ninth-tenth of August, many of the men who made their way towards the Hôtel de Ville were apprehensive. After dinner Camille Desmoulins and his wife had gone to Danton’s apartment to try to stiffen their morale but had found Danton’s wife Gabrielle in floods of tears. Lucile, who remembered herself “laughing like a madwoman,” took Danton’s wife for some air in the street and found a great crowd in the apartment when they got back, everyone trying to outdo each other with grandiloquent utterances that seemed appropriate to their overwrought sense of historymaking. But beneath the oracular declarations, agitation and fear put everyone on edge. When Camille set off into the night, carrying a musket and promising his wife to stay with the reassuringly enormous figure of Danton, she too began to weep passionately.

At the Hôtel de Ville an “Insurrectionary Commune” had swept aside the authority of the sitting municipal council and was now giving orders to the National Guard. The Commune comprised three delegates, in principle sent via the “General Will” of each of the forty-eight sections. In fact, of course, it was a body made up exclusively from the militant sections of the east of the city and the central left-bank zone that had made up the old Cordeliers. It included Robespierre, the engraver Sergent, Billaud-Varenne and François Robert. Danton himself was obviously a crucial if not the commanding figure, though he actually returned home during the night while the first unsuccessful attempts were being made to mobilize the insurgent sections.

In the early morning of the tenth, the disposition made by the commander of the loyal National Guard, the Marquis de Mandat, to block the bridges across the Seine and prevent a juncture of armed sectionnaires from Saint-Marcel with those of the right bank, seemed to have worked. The King was confident enough to go down into the heavily fortified courtyard just after dawn and review his troops. The mixed reception he received – loyal applause from the Swiss guards, alarming shouts of “Vivela Nation” from the Paris National Guard – made him uneasy. Anticipating a headlong assault, the procureur-général of the department, Roederer, had been trying to persuade him to leave the château and place his own person in the trust of the Legislative Assembly. Though he had buckled on his sword, as Roederer informed him and the Queen that “all Paris” was on the march Louis’ determination evaporated. He and his family walked across the courtyard with as much dignity as they could, listening to increasingly angry shouts of “No more veto.” “The leaves are falling early this year,” the King remarked to Roederer, suggesting either fatalistic remoteness or an uncharacteristic penchant for metaphor.

Once in the Manège, where a handful of deputies remained simply to preempt accusations that the Sovereign Nation was no longer constituted, the King was left waiting while a place was found for him and his family compatible with the prohibition on his presence during debates. Together with his sister Elisabeth, Marie-Antoinette and their children, they were finally ushered into the little caged space of the Logographie, assigned to reporters recording the proceedings. Inside this stuffy little hole, their faces shadowed by the cell-like grille, what was left of the French monarchy waited, helplessly, on its fate.

About two hours later, fighting began in earnest. From the beginning of the day it was apparent that blood would flow more freely than at any time since the beginning of the Revolution. The Marquis de Mandat had already been summoned by the new Commune to the Hôtel de Ville, ostensibly to explain his refusal to withdraw the defensive positions of the Guard. When Danton had finished shouting at him he was dragged off to detention and murdered en route, probably by Antoine Rossignol, another member of the Commune. With authority caving in at the center, no attempt was made to resist the insurgent troops moving across the Seine. When the brewer Santerre, leading the left-bank soldiers, and those of the right bank with their commander, Alexandre, arrived at the Tuileries, they already outnumbered the defenders.

The slaughter that followed was largely produced by the impression, as on the fourteenth of July 1789, that a deliberate trap had been laid for the attackers. When the royal family left for the Assembly, word rapidly spread among the National Guard that there had been a capitulation. The Swiss were urged to fraternize, and some of them apparently discarded weapons. Encouraged by this the Guard went into the château, only to meet a raking volley of fire that pursued them in flight across the Cour Royale. When they regrouped, Westermann and Fournier led a furious counter-attack, with the Marseillais in the van shooting their way over the empty space towards the palace.

Eventually weight of numbers would have told. Perhaps Louis knew this and wanted to spare further loss of life by scribbling a note ordering the Swiss guards to lay down their arms. He might have remembered the fourteenth of July, when an aggrieved sense of betrayal assuaged itself in the murder of the single sacrificial victim of Governor de Launay.

Matters were resolved differently on the tenth of August. Obedient to the last hour of the monarchy, the Swiss were forming up to retreat to the palace when they were set on by the attackers and slaughtered brutally wherever they were found. Such was the hysteria of the moment that even the fédérés from Brest – among the most militant of the rebels – were killed because their red uniform fatally resembled that of the Swiss. Those soldiers who could see in time what was in store for them ran frantically, stripping off clothes, weapons, cartridge belts. Some threw themselves from high windows in the palace to the flagstones below to get a start on their pursuers.

But that noontime they were given neither shelter nor quarter. Hunted down, they were mercilessly butchered: stabbed, sabered, stoned and clubbed. Women stripped the bodies of clothes and whatever possessions they could find. Mutilators hacked off limbs and scissored out genitals and stuffed them in gaping mouths or fed them to the dogs. What was left was thrown on bonfires, one of which spread to the palace itself. Other bits and pieces of the six hundred soldiers who perished in the massacre were loaded haphazardly onto carts and taken to common lime pits. It was, thought Robespierre, “the most beautiful revolution that has ever honored humanity.”

But the carnage of the tenth of August was not an incidental moment in the history of the Revolution. It was, in fact, its logical consummation. From 1789, perhaps even before that, it had been the willingness of politicians to exploit either the threat or the fact of violence that had given them the power to challenge constituted authority. Bloodshed was not the unfortunate by-product of revolution, it was the source of its energy. The verses of the “Marseillaise” and the great speeches of the Girondins had spoken of thepatriein the absolute poetry of life and death. Perversely, only if it could be shown that blood did indeed flow in its defense could the virtues of the Revolution be shown to be worth dying for. Means had become ends.

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