Modern history

III “PALTRY MERCHANDISE,” MARCH – JUNE

The second half of March brought a steady drumbeat of calamity to republican France. Within the same week, the Convention heard of the defeat at Neerwinden, a further military collapse near Louvain, Custine’s abrupt retreat in the Rhineland and the Vendéan uprising. Report after report described Republican armies dissolving on contact with the enemy (especially in the Vendée); volunteers demoralized and disorderly, deserting or taking to their heels; the tricolor trampled in the mud. When Delacroix returned from the Belgian front, he brought with him a gloom as deep and as dark as the weeks before Valmy. French troops had fallen back on Valenciennes, but if that fortress fell, he warned, there was nothing between the Allied armies and Paris. To many deputies, and not just those of the Mountain, there could be only one explanation for this sorry trail of disasters: conspiracy. The commissioners with General Marcé’s defeated army in the Vendée accused him of either “the most cowardly ineptness” or, worse, “the most cowardly treason.” His son; his second-in-command, Verteuil; and another Verteuil presumed to be his son (but in fact a distant relative) were all arrested for being “in treasonable contact with the enemy.” Barère, who saw the unmistakable signs of a vast counter-revolutionary plot, wanted Marcétried by court-martial at La Rochelle. Lanjuinais, like Rabaut Saint-Etienne a survivor of the Estates-General who had turned republican, insisted that the aristocrats and refractories who were contaminating the patrie be mercilessly ferreted out.

Faced with this military landslide, the Convention, with very few exceptions, acknowledged that it had to strengthen the powers of the state. Without an effective executive and a coherent chain of command, centrifugal forces would pull France apart. For the first time since the beginning of the Revolution, the legislature set about creating strong organs of central authority authorized to do the Republic’s work without endless reference to the “sovereign body.” On March 6 it dispatched eighty of its own members (known, from April on, as “representatives on mission”) to the departments to ensure compliance with the central government’s will. They were, in effect, a revolutionary version of the old royal intendants, traveling embodiments of sovereignty. Much of their work was meant to concern itself with judicial and punitive matters. On March 11 a special Revolutionary Tribunal was established in Paris to try suspects accused of counter-revolutionary activities. On March 20, with the rebellions in the Vendée and Brittany in mind, the Convention adopted Cambacérès’ proposal giving military courts jurisdiction over anyone who had been employed in public positions (including clergy and nobles) and who was found with the white royalist cockade or fomenting rebellion. If guilty, they were to be shot within twenty-four hours. A day later, every commune in the country was equipped with committees of surveillance and all citizens were encouraged to denounce anyone they suspected of uncertain loyalties. Predictably, the law rapidly became a charter for countless petty dramas of revenge.

Finally, on April 6, it was decided to replace the Committee of General Defense, set up in January as a body of twenty-five to coordinate the work of the several committees of the Convention. In its place was to be a much tighter committee of just nine members, to be known as the Committee of Public Safety. Though this was, of course, to be the key organ of the Terror, it was not a Jacobin but Isnard who proposed it, and many of the Girondins (though not Vergniaud, who compared it unfavorably with the Venetian Inquisition) accepted its indispensability. Initially, though, both the Committee and the Revolutionary Tribunal were suspected by Robespierre as bureaucratic tools in the hands of a Girondin offensive against the Mountain.

“Let us be terrible so that the people will not have to be,” Danton told the Convention, defending the establishment of the Revolutionary Tribunal. With the memory of the September massacres still fresh, the argument was powerful. The Republic was seeking to achieve something that had eluded all previous regimes since Brienne failed to enforce his reforms: the recapture of the state’s monopoly of authorized violence. To accomplish this it was necessary to do a number of things. First, as Danton recognized, it was essential that the state take into its own hands the kind of punitive powers needed to assuage the general thirst for symbols of conspiracy. It had to be prepared to use those powers, publicly and demonstratively, if the lynch mobs and the improvised murder gangs were to be denied their prey. Second, the endless factionalism which made it repeatedly possible for the government to be outflanked by a disaffected group appealing to the streets and the sections, had to be ended. On his return from the front in March, Danton was bold enough not only to defend Dumouriez from his growing number of detractors but to appeal to the Convention to avoid an internal war between Girondins and the Mountain that would inevitably result in its own loss of power.

This redirection of revolutionary energies was all the more urgent because, in addition to military reverses, the Republic faced in the late winter and early spring of 1793 another disruptive threat in the shape of an acute fiscal and economic crisis. This time it had not been brought by the weather. Instead, the Republic was confronted with a disturbing truth. The Revolution had started with a crisis of fiscal incapacity, but the new regime was no nearer to solving its problems than the old; perhaps, if anything, it was further away because of the seduction of the palliatives it had resorted to. Sale of church properties had started to become subject to the law of diminishing returns, all the more so since the issue of paper money it had made possible had now become as much a curse as a blessing. The real crisis of 1793 was a phenomenon for which a descriptive term had yet to be invented: inflation. The replacement of the monarchy’s old direct taxes with a single tax on property, the impôt foncier, had resulted in massive losses to the Treasury. In addition, successive revolutionary governments had denied themselves the kind of dedicated pursuit of revenue that had made the Farmers-General so infamous. Nor did “patriotic contributions” ever seem likely to make good the shortfalls and arrears that were constantly being reported in public receipts.

The only way, then, in which it was possible to fund the war had been a dramatic expansion of the issues of assignats. Since military contractors and some regiments would only accept payment in metallic currency, the drain on hard reserves became acute, driving up the rate at which further paper was issued to cover the shortfall. That, in turn, had a seriously adverse effect on the domestic economy. For as the nominal value of the paper currency dropped, so suppliers of goods and services (such as farmers) were reluctant to part with their assets for depreciated money. Restricted supply then raised the price of goods further. By early 1793, soap bricks which had cost twelve sous in 1790 now sold for between twenty-three and twenty-eight sous. Not surprisingly, the Convention received a deputation of angry laundresses (a powerful constituency in Paris) on February 23, demanding that prices be officially pegged. Comestibles, candles and firewood were even more serious concerns. Unrefined sugar which had cost twelve sous a pound in 1790 now went for more than three times that figure; the price of coffee had risen from around thirty sous to forty. On February 25, there was a massive invasion of Paris grocery and chandlers’ shops by angry crowds, beginning in some of the poorestsections like Gravilliers and Lombards but rapidly spreading to almost every part of the capital. In accordance with the traditional practices of these taxations populaires, the crowds did not loot the shops but imposed what they deemed to be just prices on the retailers: usually about 40 percent of current market value. But since they had had to pay inflated prices from wholesalers and shippers, it was the shopkeepers who were faced with the loss, as they eloquently reported to the Convention.

The grocery riots were roundly denounced by all parties in the Convention. Marat thought their concentration on what he described as “luxury goods” – coffee and sugar – was evidence of an aristocratic plot. Robespierre berated the rioters for debasing the sacred value of insurrection by directing it at “paltry merchandise.” But even while some of its members, like Saint-Just, understood the inflationary causes of the disorders, the Convention seemed impotent to correct them. The Revolution changed much less in France than we often suppose, and one of the matters in which it did no better than the monarchy was the way in which short-term exigencies controlled longer-term fiscal rationality. The subsistence crisis obliged the government to fund all sorts of subsidies, from the price of bread in Paris (costing half a million francs a day by early 1793) to the public relief schemes inherited from the 1792 camp des fédérés. To cover these costs, the Caisse d’Escompte spuriously “lent” the government funds that were, in fact, the fruit of further issues of the paper currency, thereby contributing to the problem.

The sudden collapse of the war effort made all these problems even worse. In occupying Belgium and the Rhineland, the revolutionary government had at last stumbled onto the way to fund military policy: extortion. It was not terribly revolutionary and it conflicted somewhat with all the promises of abundant freedom and happiness brought to the slave nations by the People in Arms. On the other hand, it was argued, why should the liberated not pay for their own emancipation, achieved with French blood and arms? Massive “indemnities” were then levied on all conquered territories as the price of liberation, assented to by the “free” revolutionary governments installed after the occupation. By the beginning of 1793, this self-financing expansion – which was to be the rule over the next twenty years – seemed to offer a way out of the perennial constraints of French foreign policy. In fact it was the happy prospect of milking the notoriously superfatted Dutch economy that made Dumouriez’s expedition into the northern Netherlands seem such a good idea. Robespierre – who had been suspicious of the adventure – actually priced an impending Dutch revolution at the nice round figure of a hundred million livres.

All these cheerful expectations rebounded disastrously when the expansion of the front went into reverse. Instead of accumulating assets, the Republic was suddenly faced, within the confines of its own frontiers, with a military emergency that could only be funded from domestic resources. The immediate answer, of course, was yet another massive issue of paper. Eight hundred million assignats were authorized, in addition to the four hundred million already printed since October. The circulation ceiling was extended upwards to thirty-one hundred million. This, of course, had the predictable effect of accelerating depreciation, so that by the time of the February riots, the assignat had lost 50 percent of its face value. Suppliers were even more reluctant to part with goods, and the inflationary spiral threatened to spin out of control.

That prospect presented clear dangers to the stability of the new Republic. Already there was serious disorder in the countryside among the disaffected poor who had not been among the beneficiaries of revolutionary legislation. Grain barges and wagons were being stopped in the Beauce and in Burgundy. Consumers in the cities were seeing dramatic rises in the prices of basic foodstuffs. Against the threat of unrest on a scale not seen since 1789, the Convention at the end of 1792 had debated the possibility of a return to monarchy’s policies of short-term economic regulation. The doctrine of internal free trade in grain, some argued, might have to be modified to ensure reliable supply at prices that would not provoke riot. As minister of the interior, however, Roland was adamantly against any interference in the market, whatever the cost. He wanted instead to use the full repressive force of the government against anyone who dared to disrupt or control the markets by violence. In this he was supported not only by a succession of Girondin speakers but by Saint-Just, who on November 29 gave a speech of characteristic penetration on the relationship between the money supply and price rises. “Free trade,” he reiterated, was the “mother of abundance,” but he also warned that just as misèrehad given birth to the Revolution, misère could destroy it.

On this last point Saint-Just and Robespierre were in full accord, but they differed strikingly on what to do about the crisis. The young politician (whose utterances on the economy showed a much more impressive grasp of its mechanics than anything his mentor ever said) was concerned primarily with restraining the money supply. Robespierre, on the other hand, was more interested in committing the Republic to a form of social egalitarianism that would be the economic equivalent of the reign of virtue he wished to usher in, in politics. On December 2 he sketched the basis of a “right of subsistence” which would rapidly assume the status of a doctrine in Jacobin rhetoric. The rights of property were not, in this view, unlimited. In fact, only the surplus over and above the aggregate subsistence needed for the whole of society could be legitimately devoted to commerce. And those who abused this axiom by making money out of direct exploitation of subsistence were, in effect, committing a crime. “Why do the laws not arrest the homicidal hand of the monopolist as much as that of the ordinary assassin?” Robespierre asked rhetorically.

The Jacobins, however, were not yet prepared to make this punitive egalitarianism official doctrine. In this they were overbid for popular support in Paris by a loosely connected group of orators and politicians who became known as the enragés, a term that had originally simply connoted revolutionary zeal. Two figures in the group were of particular importance: Jacques Roux and Jean Varlet. Roux was vicar of the parish of Saint-Nicolas-des-Champs, one of the poorest in Paris, crowded with tenement lodging houses and garrets where, in the winter of 1793, poor market porters, water-carriers and unemployed building laborers attempted to survive in frozen hunger. In May 1792, Roux had published a sermon, “The Means to Save France and Liberty,” in which a strong dose of social egalitarianism and attacks on the selfish rich were blended with fierce demands to punish traitors. Perhaps it was his zeal in the latter cause that led him, as the Commune’s representative during Louis XVI’s last days, to the rather un-Christian act of denying the fallen King a dentist to deal with a toothache, and to refuse to pass on his will to the family.

Suspect, even among the most militant figures of the Commune, like Chaumette and Hébert, as an ecclesiastical ranter, Roux delivered a message that was simplicity itself. The Revolution had been exploited by profiteers for their own selfish ends until the people were once again as famished as they had ever been under the old regime. The time had come to declare war on these economic traitors. Monopolists, hoarders and speculators should be punished by death, and if the government refused to institute those penalties, then the people should themselves launch a new round of massacres against the “blood-suckers.” On the positive side the government should, as part of its routine activities, fulfill its obligation to provide both work and subsistence at prices the people could afford.

Much the same message was being articulated by Jean Varlet. As historians never tire of pointing out, this self-appointed friend of the poor was himself a well-off young man living largely on an inherited income. But political radicalism has seldom been determined by social origin. Most of the militants of the Paris sections in 1793 were not working artisans at all but professionals and, charitably stretching the term, intellectuals: lawyers, artists, printers, playwrights, actors and journalists. But the fact that they themselves were not needy in no way precludes (though it of course does not guarantee) the sincerity of their convictions. These were, especially for Varlet, wrathful. What they wanted was, essentially, blood and bread, the one supposed to guarantee the other, just as liberty in 1789 had been thought to improve the chances of not starving.

Denied both the Jacobins, where he was held in distaste, and the Convention as forums for his calls for insurrection against the rich, Varlet brought a portable tribune to the Terrasse des Feuillants, barely a stone’s throw from the Convention. As prices in the shops rose, his audiences grew bigger, since he specialized in invidious contrasts between the “rich egoists,” whose speculative profits allowed them to wallow in luxury, and the bon sans-culotte living by the sweat of his brow. In Jacques Roux’s social gospel the sans-culotte took on an almost apostolic saintliness in which humility and compassion were allied to public-spiritedness and fortitude. While the capitaliste and the gros négociant were, by definition, always on the verge of treason if not actually guilty of it, themodest artisan was the epitome of selfless patriotism. In at least one anonymous print sanctifying the sans-culotte (indeed drawing on the iconic tradition of St. Jerome), the worker shares his frugal meal with his pets while his pike remains ready for action on the wall behind him. Other prints glorified the devotion of the sans-culotte to his family, showing the household in the harmony of the table or reading together some item of political edification, preferably by Rousseau.

Historians have often been quick to write off the enragés as lightweight ranters whose ideas only took on substance when they were finally adopted by the Jacobins in the summer of 1793. But though Roux and Varlet, and the rest of the enragés, can hardly qualify as deep political thinkers, much less as successful revolutionary tacticians, their prejudices did correspond closely to many of the reasons the common people had embraced the Revolution in the first place. They wanted paternalism rather than economic liberalism, the regulation of prices rather than a free market, and above all they wanted the public punishment of exploiters. On the eleventh of February a deputation of popular societies demanded a sentence of six years in irons for the first offense of anyone trying to sell a 240-pound sack of wheat for more than twenty-five francs and the death penalty for a second offense. That kind of draconian punishment for exploitation appealed enormously to the sans-culottes.

Nor were they prepared to stop at generalized accusations. On the contrary, they sponsored in the section clubs and assemblies a movement to incriminate the Girondins as specifically responsible for all the evils afflicting the Republic. Girondins were behind the conspiracies that had led to military defeat; were the patrons of Dumouriez, who was busily selling out the patrie; had obdurately refused to contemplate any measures of intervention like a price maximum that might alleviate the suffering of the poor. They had attempted to protect the traitor Capet to cover the tracks of their own rotten plots with him prior to August 10. Foiled in their hypocritical “appeal to the people” on the sentence, they were still conspiring to hand the Republic over to a confederacy of aristo generals. The first condition, then, for a true reign of the just and the virtuous was the excision of the Girondists from the body politic. And Varlet had a list, taken up by some of the more militant Paris sections like Gravilliers (in Roux’s parish) and Mauconseil, of twenty-two members of the Convention whose arrest he declared to be a matter of the highest public emergency.

By themselves the enragés would have been impotent to do more than rail at their enemies. But by March 1793 they had succeeded in influencing the more militant sectionnaires who, independently, had been establishing a competing center of power with the Commune. The Revolution in Paris had shown a seemingly unstoppable capacity to generate these alternative centers of insurrectionary organization as soon as the previous one had been co-opted into the institutions of local government. So just as the Revolutionary Commune had been organized against the official authorities in the Hôtel de Ville in 1792, and had forcibly replaced it, so the popular societies and section leaders began meeting at the Archevêché – the former palace of the Archbishop of Paris, next to Notre Dame. From informal meetings these sessions turned into a regularized liaison of delegates from the most militant areas of Paris: Quinze-Vingts, Popincourt, Droits de l’Homme. As long as the economic crisis remained acute and the war went badly, the potential always remained for mobilizing enough armed men to dictate terms to the defenseless legislature.

It was first necessary, however, to persuade the shock troops that they needed another journée, that their vital interests were being threatened by conspirators. The reluctance of the Mountain to support any threat to the “national representation” had also to be overcome. Varlet and the committee at the Evêché were premature in believing both conditions to be realized by mid-March. On the ninth and tenth they attempted to stage an armed movement which fizzled out only after smashing the presses of the two most important Girondin newspapers: Brissot’s Patriote Français and Carra’s Annales Patriotiques (an alarming accomplishment in itself). It failed in two crucial goals: to impose a purge of the twenty-two appelants (those who had asked for the sentence on the King to be referred to a popular vote) and the liberation of prisoners who had been arrested for the February grocery riots. But it succeeded in at least one respect: polarizing the Convention so bitterly between the Girondins and the Mountain that Danton’s appeals for unity in the face of common danger to the patrie were bound to go unheeded.

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