Modern history


At least one revolutionary print shows the birth of the first French Republic with alarming clarity. From the capacious skirts of a formidable sans-culotte woman drops an infant – the embodiment, so the legend tells us, of a citoyen né libre (a free-born citizen). He is oversized, and from the beginning unmistakably combative. But at the outset of its history there were also instances of the metaphor of infancy being used to more benign effect. The Department of the Orne, for example, marked its election of deputies to the Convention on September 11 by a baptismal ceremony (as did the Department of the Meurthe). The entire assembly of electors was deemed to be godparent to the baby girl, the daughter of a young volunteer, though it was the Girondin retired army officer Dufriche-Valazéwho did the honors at the baptism. Three hundred livres were collected and presented to the mother, Madeleine Chuquet, who in recognition of the honor named her child Aluise Hyacinthe Electeur.

The elections were supposed to represent a similar act of political innocence: the return to the People of their sovereignty so that they might reconstitute the forms in which it was vested. They were not a referendum on the suspension of the King (decreed on August 13), for although a few monarchists did in fact take part in the electoral assemblies, August 10 had wiped them out as a serious political force. Whatever reservations the Girondins had about the armed mobilization of the Parisian sans-culottes, they were not about to set themselves up as counter-revolutionaries by contesting the verdict of that insurrection. So it was a government dominated by Roland and his friends, cloaking itself in the legal forms of the Legislative, that sent out the elaborate instructions for the convening of primary and electoral assemblies based on manhood suffrage.

The results, however, were something less than democracy in action. While numbers are notoriously difficult to recover, it seems unlikely that more than 6 percent of the seven million entitled to vote actually did so. Once again, then, a more radical regime resulted from a diminished number of votes actually cast. There were, of course, good reasons for this electoral reluctance. In the north and east a military crisis was in full spate and two departmental assemblies actually had to hurriedly move their meeting places to avoid the theater of war. In major cities, the political atmosphere was so menacing that to participate was itself an act of considerable courage. In Paris, the electoral assembly convened at the Jacobins – not the most neutral site – on the second of September, the first day of the prison massacres. Voting in the capital, as in ten other departments, was, moreover, by public oral declaration, a method obviously open to intimidation. And even if, as has been argued, the proceedings there remained open enough for there to have been continuous uproar, it can hardly have been fortuitous that Paris returned a delegation of twenty-four of the most militant Jacobins on its slate, including Robespierre, Marat, Robert, Santerre, Danton, Fabre, Desmoulins and the actor Collot d’Herbois. Elsewhere in France attendance at the polls may have been kept down by the more banal pressures of the harvest calendar.

Whatever the reasons, it would be a mistake to assume that a low turnout meant a tacit rejection of August 10. The exhaustive study of the elections to the Convention produced by Alison Patrick showed that there was surprisingly little overt interference in the proceedings, either by noisy spectators or, still less, by armed crowds. Moreover, the elections were completed before much of the country had any knowledge of the Paris massacres or any real comprehension of their indiscriminate character. Essentially, the official version of August 10, in which an uprising of the people of Paris had thwarted a royalist military coup d’état, was generally accepted. It was only later in the year that the trial and execution of the King intensified the disaffection of whole regions of France to the point at which they moved close to outright revolt.

It might even be possible to interpret the elections as a vote for the continuity of the recent past, rather than a radical break. Of the seven hundred and forty-nine deputies to the Convention, no less than two hundred and five had been deputies to the Legislative Assembly, and a further eighty-three had sat in the Constituent. The reelection of the former in particular seems to indicate almost a predisposition to believe the version of legislators who had had immediate experience of the constitutional monarchy and who could thus vouch for its unviability in the hands of Louis XVI. The remainder were made up of men who had become conspicuous in local politics, usually in vocal opposition to incumbent administrations.

The Convention was a relatively young body of men. Its biggest generational cohort, about one quarter, were in their late thirties, but the stereotype of hot-blooded young republicans is not far from the mark, since it was at the younger end of the age spectrum that political engagement was most marked. Even more than its predecessors, the Convention was a gathering of lawyers. Fully 47 percent belonged to the profession at one level or another and this becomes of crucial significance when one considers that the founding deed of the Convention was to be a trial. Other conspicuously represented groups were fifty-five patriot clergy (including nine Protestants, among them Rabaut Saint-Etienne, and no less than sixteen constitutional bishops, including Fauchet and Grégoire). There were fifty-one civil servants, including postmaster Drouet, who had stopped the King at Varennes, and forty-six physicians. It also included at opposite extremes at least one poor peasant, Jacques Chevalier, and one former prince and landlord of the Palais-Royal, Philippe d’Orléans, now known as Philippe-Egalité.

This bald tabulation of age ranges, occupations and political experience hardly tells the whole story. Of much more significance than their numbers suggest was the injection into the legislative body of a group of journalists, writers and pamphleteers who already exercised enormous influence through their publications. Carra, for example, the Girondin editor of the Annales Patriotiques, received votes sufficient to elect him in no less than eight distinct departments (while Robespierre was elected in only two). Together with Fréron, Marat, Desmoulins and Brissot (whose fame of course had extended far beyond the readers of the Patriote Français), these writers transferred into the debating chamber the kind of histrionic, accusatory style they had perfected in their journalism. When set against the more luxuriant oratorical manner favored by Girondins like Vergniaud, it produced scenes of unpredictable drama and even verbal violence, Marat and Guadet shaking their fists at each other and screaming to be heard from opposite ends of the hall.

It was possible, then, for hostilities between a minority of the deputies to the Convention to lend, from the beginning, a tone of bitter intensity to its proceedings. It was among the ex-deputies of the Legislative, and to a lesser extent the Constituent, that enemy camps most decisively formed. The fact that these groups in no way resembled modern parliamentary parties ought not to disguise the real venom of their enmity, especially at the core of zealots around whom allegiances polarized. As in the Legislative, they gave expression to their combative relationship by sitting conspicuously far apart. Robespierre’s allies took the benches high up against the wall, which, since the President’s seat had been moved across the hall, were now, confusingly, on his right, but which gave the faction the name the Mountain. Initially the old seats of the Feuillants were avoided as if merely sitting there would somehow brand a deputy as royalist. But before long it became the area of the Manège where the principal Girondins gathered their forces. Lower down towards the debating floor sat the majority of independent deputies, known collectively as the Plain. Instead of voting in any coherent pattern, they would shift their individual allegiances according to the persuasiveness of cases made on individual issues. They were not, though, a faceless or a feckless group, including as they did men as experienced and intelligent as Sieyès and as eloquent as the lawyer Bertrand Barère, whose intervention was to have a decisive effect on the fate of the King.

Though there was nothing in social origins, occupational background or even political experience to distinguish Jacobins and Girondins, this does not mean that they were undifferentiated groups of men circulating loosely around a few recognizable core members like Robespierre and Brissot. There were crucial points at which their disagreement on the character of the Revolution was profound. A striking number of the Girondins came from maritime and port cities – not only Bordeaux but Brest and Marseille – and they were, by and large, antagonistic to the claims of Paris to dictate the course of the Revolution. Robespierre, in contrast, went out of his way, both in the Jacobins and in the Convention, to praise the Parisians as the indestructible source of revolutionary dynamism. But although at the summit of its leadership the Mountain was aggressively metropolitan, on its slopes and foothills were many Jacobins who came from widely dispersed areas of France. Very often, the more remote their department, the more beleaguered they had felt inside their little Jacobin affiliate in upholding what they took to be the pure revolutionary faith. Once in Paris they clung to the group with especial zeal and solidarity. They were likely, then, to take exception to the Girondins’ attempt to represent themselves as the guardians of provincial liberties. This surfaced when the Girondins urged the formation of a special guard to protect the Convention against armed intimidation and when Barbaroux, the deputy from Marseille, tried to mobilize his co-citizens to the same end.

The Girondins also presented themselves, not altogether disingenuously, as the protectors of legality against the arbitrary brutalities of the mob. As the gruesome details of the massacres emerged, they used every possible opportunity to pin responsibility for them on the Commune and by extension on the Jacobins. Their domination of the presidency of the Convention and of its secretariat during its first three months allowed them to determine the order of speakers and even set the agenda for debates. But they manipulated this power so blatantly that instead of winning support from the unaligned Plain they began to alienate it. It was also apparent to many that while some of the Jacobin militants may indeed have played some part in the massacres, Girondins like Roland were not themselves blameless. Believing themselves to have barely escaped the assassin’s knife, deputies like Vergniaud and Gensonnésaw themselves as engaged in a life-and-death struggle with their enemies on the Mountain. But the vehemence with which they took the attack to the opposition often seemed to mark them out as obsessed with personal recrimination rather than the interests of the patrie.

This was notoriously apparent in the disastrous attack on Robespierre launched by the editor of La Sentinelle, Louvet, on October 29. Borrowing the form of Cicero’s onslaught on the Catilines – a reference immediately understood by the hundreds of ex-schoolboy Latin debaters in the Convention – Louvet accused Robespierre of creating a personality cult, of placing himself above the people and aspiring to a dictatorship. On November 5 Robespierre counter-attacked with a speech which in many respects actually vindicated Louvet’s reproach of self-obsession, but which by appealing to abstract political and philosophical principles managed to turn the Revolutionary “I” from a base vice to an unimpeachable virtue. Only a contemptible opportunist, scrabbling in the gutter of polemics, Robespierre implied, could possibly have confused his vanity with personal ambition. On the contrary, it was born of the humility associated with feeling oneself to be a mere repository of Historical Truth. (That this view met with respect rather than ironical laughter suggests just how far he had already won the crucial battle of tone.) Having exonerated himself, he then went on to defend the Revolution from charges of excessive violence. Did those who brought that charge not realize that from its very outset in 1789 the Revolution was, by conventional standards, “illegal,” and that its survival depended critically on the force that the People would bring to its support? To attempt to judge it by anachronistic standards of morality was already gratuitously apologetic. Worse, it was to rob the uprising of the people of its natural legitimacy. “Do you want,” he asked the Convention rhetorically, “a Revolution without a revolution?”

The same contention surfaced again over the single issue that, following Valmy and Jemappes, exercised virtually the whole of the Convention’s energies: the trial of the King. Self-evidently the status quo, with the King and his family imprisoned in the Temple, could not be indefinitely perpetuated. As long as he went unindicted, the action of August 10, not to mention the declaration of the Republic on September 21, was itself under reproach, or at least without adequate public legitimation. Yet the Girondins, some of whom had made overtures to the court just prior to the uprising, must have been unsettled by the prospect of a trial and did their best to put procedural roadblocks in its path. For the ranks of lawyers sitting in the Convention, it was, however, imperative that their repudiation of monarchy be legally justified by proof that the King had committed crimes and treasons so frightful as to warrant his elimination, in office and perhaps also in person.

Two preliminary commissions were set up. The first, presided over by Dufriche-Valazé, was set to examine the mountain of chests, boxes and flour sacks full of loose papers taken from the Tuileries to see if there was sufficient evidence for an indictment. The second, more expeditious committee, chaired by the Toulouse lawyer Mailhe, was to report on the prior procedural issue of whether or not the King, whose inviolability had been guaranteed by the constitution of 1791, could indeed be tried, and if so what the appropriate court would be. The difficulty arose from the fact that the constitution had also explicitly laid down the specific crimes (fostering armed rebellion, leaving the country with no intent of returning, etc.) for which the King could be removed. But it had also prescribed abdication as the only penalty. Since Louis had already been subject to a forced abdication, a strict legal interpretation might well hold (as his defense lawyers pointed out) that he could only be tried in his capacity as citizen for crimes subsequentto the abdication. Within the walls of the Temple there could hardly be any such crimes.

When the Mailhe commission came to the Convention on November 6 to present its report, it sidestepped these thorny issues with an appeal to general principles rather than juridical rectitude. The inviolability claimed under the constitution had been a quality granted by the Sovereign Nation and it could just as easily be withdrawn by the same hand. The King, then, could be tried, both as public officer and as citizen. By the same token the National Convention, as the current repository of that sovereignty, not only could but must be the appropriate court, since neither a regular court nor any special tribunal appointed by it could possibly have the necessary plenary authority to deal with a case of this magnitude. The verdict, moreover, should be indicated by the vote of each and every deputy as part of their responsibility as members of a sovereign body.

This awkward compromise between abstract principles on the one hand and judicial correctness on the other was painfully exposed a week later when the Convention began to debate the Mailhe commission report, with the ex-conseiller du Parlement Hérault de Séchelles presiding. A small minority of deputies, of whom much the most articulate was Morisson, insisted on inviolability. (He also took exception, as he said, to those who “brand others not of the same opinion as traitors.”) A larger group, including some Girondins and many on the Plain, like Grégoire, believed, however, that “absolute inviolability would be a monstrosity, as it would provoke men to villainy knowing they had impunity for their crimes. To declare the king inviolable when he has violated everything,” Grégoire went on, “and to charge him with observing the laws when he has broken them… is not only to outrage nature but also the constitution.”

But the most devastating attack on the principle of a full trial came not from the right but the left, and was made in the most famous maiden speech of the French Revolution. The orator was Louis-Antoine Saint-Just, Robespierre’s adoring correspondent in 1789 and at twenty-five the youngest deputy in the Convention. Saint-Just had come to Paris as the author of an interminable poem, “Organt,” usually described (but only with the greatest generosity) as pornographic. Obviously influenced by Robespierre, he now carefully cultivated the manner of a young stoic whose concessions to dandyism only made the implacability of his intellect more disturbing. Tresses of black hair fell on his shoulders, a single golden earring hung from a lobe and Saint-Just’s habitual expression was carefully arranged into a manner of unapproachable aloofness.

His remarks took to a chilling conclusion Robespierre’s thesis about the objective morality of revolutionary conduct. To provide the King with a trial was to presuppose the possibility of his innocence. But in that case, the revolution of August 10 was itself open to question, something which the very existence of the Convention denied. What was at issue was not the guilt or innocence of a citizen, someone within the body politic, but the natural incompatibility of someone, by definition, outside of it. Just as Louis could not help but be a tyrant, since “one cannot reign innocently,” so the Republic whose very existence was predicated on the destruction of tyranny could not help but eliminate him. All that was needed was a summary proscription, the surgical removal of this excrescence from the body of the Nation. A king had to die so a republic could live. It was as simple as that.

Though its conclusions were ultimately unpalatable to a majority of the deputies, Saint-Just’s speech made a stunning impression both inside and outside the Convention. It undoubtedly put the Girondins on the defensive, since it made any further equivocation seem virtually a reproach against the Republic itself. They briefly toyed with just such a position, asking that the decree establishing the Republic be put to a popular referendum. But in the last weeks of November it became apparent that the only defensive position to which they could now possibly fall back was to accept a trial and try to affect its sentence, or mount a campaign to put both of those to a popular vote. That, at least, would avoid the Jacobin position, reiterated by Robespierre, that a judgment had already been rendered by the people on August 10. All that remained now was for the King to hear his indictment and be disposed of expeditiously. Anything else would, by definition, be a verdict against the Republic.

The uneasy backpedaling forced on the Girondins was accelerated by Roland’s dramatic appearance before the Convention on November 20. With an air of self-congratulation that many deputies found infuriating, he told them that information from a locksmith appointed by the King had led to the discovery of an iron safe with a mass of documents that had direct bearing on their proceedings. Preserving an air of mystery, Roland managed to imply that the documents would somehow compromise members of the Mountain; thus many of its deputies, together with many from the Plain, became immediately incensed that he had taken it on himself to open the armoire de fer without witnesses from the Convention. Accusations flew that he might have suppressed or doctored the evidence. As the principal details became available, however, it was apparent that there was indeed seriously incriminating evidence in letters written by the King to Breteuil referring to the constitution as “absurd and detestable.” They made plain that his ostensible acceptance of the document was no more than a disingenuous tactic extracted under duress. A popular print, however, showed that the real skeleton in the closet was that of Mirabeau, whose correspondence with Louis on how to restore his authority and the payments made for that counsel were now revealed. On December 5 Robespierre, whose natural talent for “unmasking” hypocrites rose to the occasion, demanded that Mirabeau’s remains be removed from the Panthéon and the celebratory busts be smashed.

With this fresh and damning evidence of royal duplicity, the demands for an expedited trial became virtually irresistible. In the Paris sections, the King was even blamed for the economic crisis that was rapidly inflating the price of foodstuffs. It was said that he had deliberately stocked warehouses at Verdun and Longwy with bullion and grain to be taken by the Prussian advance. Deputations from the Commune led by Anaxagoras Chaumette appeared before the Convention, claiming that the failure to punish Louis for his crimes was directly responsible for high prices and the depreciation of the assignat. “It is time,” said the enragé Jacques Roux in the poor section of Les Gravilliers, filled with market porters and street hawkers, “that the liberty of the people was consolidated by the shedding of impure blood.” Beside himself with rage at the revelations of the armoire de fer and the procrastination of the Girondins, Merlin de Thionville got up in the Convention on December 3 and said that he wished he had killed Louis himself on August 10, an outburst that provoked a censure attempt and general havoc in the hall. Two days later it was finally decided that a further committee would draw up an acte énonciatif – in effect, an indictment of accusation which would be communicated to the King – and at the same time determine the procedures for the trial.

The object of all this infuriated attention was, in the meantime, existing in a state of almost meditative calm. Immured in the medieval keep of the Temple (which had formerly belonged to his brother Artois), and deprived of newspapers, Louis was largely protected from the festering hatred of the city outside. The family was lodged on two floors together with a catering staff of thirteen and a valet whom the Legislative Assembly had generously authorized. Books were brought in on request for the King: Roman histories, devotional manuals, Buffon’s natural history, Tasso’s poetry and Bossuet’s sermons, and in addition Louis had access to the old library of the Order of the Knights of Malta kept in the tower.

These consolatory comforts were somewhat offset by the innumerable petty indignities which his guards were actually encouraged to inflict on Louis by way of reminding him that he was no longer anyone’s majesty. Hats were ostentatiously kept on heads and bottoms planted on seats in his presence. He was forbidden to wear his decorations on his afternoon walk. Verbal abuse was commonplace, which predictably upset the Queen and Mme Elisabeth (who had asked voluntarily to be allowed to share the prison) more than the King. On one occasion a guard, who according to Cléry was a teacher of English, followed Louis to his reading table, sat down on the window seat beside him and refused to go away. Marie-Antoinette’s sewing was confiscated on the grounds that she was embroidering some sort of secret code to smuggle out of prison. Anxious lest the King cheat the executioner, the Commune even took away his razor, insisting he be shaved only by their appointed man. To this act of petty spite Louis responded by cultivating a defiant growth of beard until he was permitted once more to shave himself, though only under watchful guard. Worse perhaps were the graffiti scrawled on the wall by the guards: grotesque images of a crowned stick figure hanging from a gibbet with the legend “Louis Taking a Bath in the Air” or a fat figure lying before a guillotine, crachant dans le sac – “spitting in the bag,” as one of the many macabre jokes about the machine had it.

All these little humiliations were of no significance compared with the unreal air of bourgeois serenity that settled over the family, touchingly recorded by Cléry. Every morning they gathered for breakfast, having exchanged kisses and embraces, almost in celebratory gratitude for having survived another night. After the meal the King and Queen spent much of the morning giving lessons to their son and daughter respectively. The Dauphin, now to be known as the “Prince Royal,” was given passages to read and recite from Racine and Corneille, but it was, of course, in geography lessons that father and son took the most enjoyment, coloring and tracing in (with striking political impartiality) the features of the eighty-three departments of the new France. Around midday they were allowed walks in the Temple garden, where Cléry bowled hoops and tossed balls with the children. At two they were served dinner while Santerre, the commander of the National Guard, came every day to search their rooms.

In the evenings, after games of battledore and shuttlecock and before bedtime, Louis would sometimes read to the family from one of the Roman histories he had requested, often dwelling on passages which had striking and painful relevance to their own predicament. On the walls of the principal room in which they gathered was posted the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. But the grim lessons of recent history and the news of the latest demand for his head, shouted by a vendor at the tower window at seven o’clock, were softened and dulled by the regular exercises of piety that marked their daily routine. There were prayers first thing in the morning and last thing at night; every religious holiday was carefully observed by the King, who took responsibility for the spiritual well-being of his family in the absence of a priest. In his inward self, he remained as ever the Rex Christianissimus of his coronation title. But he was also more conscious than ever of fulfilling his duties as père de famille. At the moment of their most complete ostracism from the body politic, the royal family had finally become plain citizens.

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